Phillip Clement reviews Devourings, James Vella’s ‘startlingly lucid’ debut collection of short stories.
There is something quite remarkable in the sixteen short stories that make up Devourings – James Vella’s startlingly lucid debut collection – that is brought about as a result of the potent and elegantly seductive tone that he so effortlessly wields. These fictions – each one inspired by Vella’s fascination with, and memories of, travel – seek to explore the realism in the dream-like wanderings that ‘real-life’ travel can conjure, and there’s a sense, when reading this collection, that one is being allowed into another’s private fantasies of the unknown abroad.
In amongst the varied destinations and narratives visited over the course of the reader’s voyage is U.S.S. Passumpsic, about a pacific liner caught adrift and smarting following her (less-than-romantic) rendezvous with a saboteur:
The ship began to wretch and gag, flooding the lower decks with catastrophic, flammable oils. She ached and spat, waking her crew and shuddering the admiral’s cabin. Her belly clattered and slurped as metal sinews snapped and vital constructs bled.
While, in Esthers, readers swoon at a glorious noir-esque murder plot set in Argentina – complete with drop-dead dames, illicit dog fights and shady P.Is., but told with Vella’s distinctive and alluringly lucid style of prose.
Esther San Bernada watched the hysteria roll around her with a dreamlike serenity. She sat on the grass in her husband’s arms as young men with “paramédico” printed on their armbands sprinted between stations of the lush jetty and the sparkling lake. Jorge Córboda was lifted heavily onto the grass. His silvering hair flattened against a flowing wound on his temple, his mouth was full of water. The soft spring afternoon lilted and lulled past Esther San Bernada. Peaking blossom trees waved in a breeze on the far side of the lake.
And elsewhere, in King Cheetah (a tale for our times), roles are reversed in a dramatic coup that sees a downtrodden populace united in animal rage and sensing blood, before rising up against a bloated and overstuffed fat cat, too long on the throne, as:
The sound of madness swallowed the courtyard, bellowing and pounding in carnivorous rhythm. The shared anger of an entire population narrowed and forced through the beleaguered gates of the presidential building in masks and painted skin. Its call was righteousness and parity, its demand was blood. The anger trapped President Mbulu inside his retreat.
Whether told in a blinding flash of paragraphs and short sentences over the course of a single page, or stretched out like a predatory house cat as it basks in the sun, Devourings manages to achieve, with assured brevity, the kind of permanence that can seem to evade even the most practised authors. In these tales of almost palpable discomfort (be it real or imagined) and desperation, characters strive for a kind of mythic conclusion that readers will recognise from the seminal texts of writers such as Angela Carter, Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino – each a clear source of inspiration for Vella.
In the herd was one particular zebra. A carnivorously bloodthirsty stallion the hyenas never approached. A stone-boned totem, its hide so tough, Nile crocodiles lost their teeth in it. It had murdered a whole mango tree of apes in its youth, it robbed the graves of buzzards and beaks were caught in its mane.
From Zebra Married the Mountain.
With the crisp delivery and vision of Devourings (not to mention the debut novel that will follow it), Vella, who has in the past received critical acclaim for his work as a lyricist and musician, marks himself as a writer to return to and look out for.
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Devourings is available from Wounded Wolf Press at £8.50.