Tales of Jellyfish by Janice Galloway; tales of motherhood and other nightmares


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The Independent Culture

In the epigraph to Jellyfish, Janice Galloway quotes David Lodge’s observation that: “Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children; life’s the other way around.” With this book, her first short story collection in five years, Galloway attempts to readdress the balance. Vignettes of parenthood in its myriad forms - a neurotic mother who abandons her child, an unwanted pregnancy, marriages breaking down - rub up against stories of lust and sex: teenage fumblings, “breeding rabbits”, a hook-up in an Edinburgh bar.

Foreboding floats through the fourteen tales and, even in the lighter moments, the reader becomes like the paranoid parent of the final story, just waiting for something to go wrong. From the outset of the collection, a child’s trip to the seaside has an air of innocence about to be lost, as the narrator realises that her son’s world “rested on a terrifying level of trust that shocked and moved her”.

In “turned”, motherhood has descended into nightmare - “a red blood harness on a baby chest...pencils carry imprints of milk-teeth” - so that, in a nod to Charlotte Perkins Gilman, even a Teddy Bear’s Picnic on the wallpaper has become menacing:  “groups of threes, etched on the memory from repeated watching, their picnic scattered on the painted grass, stalking each other across the facing wall in awful repetitions with the letter B”. This dream-like sequence is all the more disturbing when you read that Galloway was inspired by a newspaper story of a mother who killed her daughter and husband in their home.

As in her acclaimed first novel The Trick Is To Keep Breathing, which details an anorexic schoolteacher having a nervous breakdown, Galloway is most at home on the edge of madness. “And drugs and rock and roll”, a story set in a psychiatric ward, is reminiscent of Sylvia Plath in its black humour and visceral imagery. Galloway’s debut also drew comparisons with Plath, which perhaps were not appreciated - “the Boston harpie” is the first of a canon of writers thrown on a bonfire by a spurned lover in a later story (along with “Carol Anne Bloody Laureate Duffy”).

Bobbing up throughout are female characters who use music to transcend their grim circumstances, a trick reflected in Galloway’s memoirs This is Not About Me and All Made Up. In the story “opera” we meet Lola, a Botticelli in the bath tub, who by belting out Carmen, can forget the bills, the brown stains on the wall and the stench of cat piss and choose to be “Someone Fabulous”, and in “fine day”, the narrator Katrin takes solace in Madame Butterfly, as her own doomed romance moves ineluctably to its conclusion.

In her acknowledgements, Galloway writes that “publishers are shy of short stories in the here and now”, and it is in her wry descriptions of contemporary, urban life that she is operating at her full powers. Which is perhaps why “almost 1948”, featuring Eric Blair, aka George Orwell, suffering from TB on the Scottish island of Jura, falls a bit flat.

But, on the whole, these deft short stories show why publishers should have more faith in the form. Exquisite similes (deflating balloons nose the ceiling “like fish kissing the surface of a tank, needing to feed”) and witty metaphors (a couple having sex produces a “light sticking and unsticking sound, not unlike Sellotape but softer”) rise up and sting the senses like the eponymous jellyfish. With this electrifying volume Galloway proves herself a truly powerful writer who deserves to be much better known.