Reviews of Travelling in the Dark
Winner of the Hall and Woodhouse DLF Writing Prize 2019
Long listed for Not the Booker Prize 2018
A Big Issue Summer Read 2018
Michelle Phillips, Literature Works, 10 August 2018.
…We have long been fans of Timpany’s work from her short story collection The Lost of Syros to her recent work as co-editor and contributor to Cornish Short Stories and Travelling in the Dark, part of the Fairlight Moderns series delivers once again. Continuing in the style which we have now come to recognise as uniquely Timpany, this novella presents wonderfully lyrical and utterly mesmeric prose.
In its 180 pages, Travelling in the Dark weaves an un-putdownable story which presents a complex and intriguing protagonist embarking on a journey. One of the highlights for us was the duality of the journey – it is both literal and metaphorical making it deeply impactful. As a regional agency, we love literature that celebrates place and this novella certainly does that. The landscapes and places of this story are rich, alive and turbulent: the perfect backdrop for the emotional turmoil and turbulence which the protagonist Sarah experiences. Symbolic imagery and masterful metaphors are employed with a subtlety that is characteristic of Timpany’s work and which makes the novella arresting and compelling.
There is much to provoke thought here, from an urge to write as Timpany does to deeper considerations of the novellas central concerns. Travelling in the Dark is an intense rumination on the nature of time and memory and how the ripples of these can be felt throughout decades. A stellar achievement, we thoroughly recommend this novella.
Felicity Notley, 5 April 2018
‘The best stories are about love, whether they end happily or not.’ This observation is made by one of the characters in Emma Timpany’s novella Travelling in the Dark. It raises the question, fleetingly, is this is a story about love? A novella can be read in a single setting and that is how I read it, on a journey across England by train, setting out in the dark and arriving in full afternoon sunshine. As the train rattled along, I was drawn into the rhythm and melody of the words.
The ‘travelling’ in the title is ostensibly the long, many-sectioned journey from the UK to New Zealand, and then within New Zealand, to the place where the main protagonist grew up. It is also a process of remembering – ‘This is the wind I remember, the wind that knows nothing of land’ and encountering the worst about the past.
The main protagonist is Sarah. Wistful, measured and then suddenly irresponsible, she celebrates the presence of her son on her journey and, although it’s never said, you sense that she knows she might not be the best company for him. He is exuberant, with a typically childlike sanity. When his Lego tower falls down as the result of a minor earth tremor and Sarah offers to help, he is pragmatic. ‘The child sighs as deeply as a disillusioned adult, but he shakes his head. “You wouldn’t do it right.” A pause. “No offence.”’
Tiny observations map the dynamics of their relationship. ‘The child zigzags and loops, running three times the distance as her; she wavers from a straight line only if absolutely necessary.’ But as they move along the same trajectory, each after their own fashion, their relationship displays a tenderness and depth which make us care. I felt I was there with them.
The anxiety is palpable as Sarah advances to the place of darkness she had fled many years before. Finally she observes, ‘I have travelled to a place that you cannot buy a ticket to; there is no train that goes there, no boat, no plane; there is no map that you can follow to find it; there is no road. It lies on the other side of that circle of light. It is always dark there, and always cold.’
Nothing can be said of the ending, but is this a story about love? In part it is: love and the absence of love. The love that should be there but isn’t, the love you go in quest of and the love that travels with you, half-unnoticed.
Reviews of Cornish Short Stories: A Collection of Contemporary Cornish Writing
Rachel Carney, Created to Read blog, 24 July 2018.
Short stories can be difficult to contend with – their brevity creates a sense of unease. They can never fully reveal the whole story. Instead, they provide something unique and captivating – a glimpse into a parallel universe where anything can happen, and the best short stories are those which pull you into their world for a few marvellous pages, seducing you into a false sense of security, then abruptly leaving you to your own wistful thoughts, as you mull over what you’ve just read, often wishing for more.
Cornish Short Stories presents a set of tales linked by place – the atmospheric wilds of Cornwall, past and present. The first story of the volume, ‘Roaring Girl’ by Alan Robinson, is an unnerving yet satisfying piece, playing with the expectations of its protagonist, a young man seeking critical feedback at a literature festival, and getting far more than he bargained for. It sets the scene for a raft of tales that twist and turn, sailing through Cornish towns and villages along the way.
‘Sonny’ by Rob Magnusson Smith is a beautiful story which captures the essence of connection between human and animal, as two men decide to rescue an injured seagull:
Reviews of The Lost of Syros
Accomplished and riveting short stories mostly centred on the experiences of girls and young women, always vividly located in a specific place. There’s a sense of loss and confusion, of things not always being what they seem, a kind of fugitive grief., even if as in one story, there’s a happy ending when the lost child is found. I loved this book.
Victoria Field/ Amazon/ 27 August 2017
…this intriguing collection is engaging from cover to cover. Before I had even opened the book, I found the cover art a transporting visual device which evoked thoughts of escaping the hum-drum British weather in favour of what I was soon to find out were the rich and raw locations which are the backdrop to Timpany’s works.
The stories contained within the collection are skilfully crafted delights which demonstrate a precision and decisiveness behind every word appearing on the page, a technical style which is reminiscent of modernist writers such as Katherine Mansfield. Interestingly,Mansfield’s presence is echoed in the simultaneous efficacy and richness of the writing and also in the use of her biography to provide subject matter for some of the stories such as ‘Painting Katherine’. For me, the result of Timpany’s decision to use Mansfield in this way added to the strength of the writing itself and lends a haunting quality to the work which stays with you and provokes thought, long after the final page of the last story is devoured.
What I enjoyed most about this book was the elegant simplicity to the narratives which pushed me to consider more than just the words on the page. From simple questions like what happened to the characters beyond the story… to those of a profoundly philosophical nature which had me re-evaluating everything from the way that I perceive images as they are presented to me to at times, belief systems and even modes of thinking, I found this collection to be insightful, not only in terms of the stories and characters Timpany has created, but also with regard to the writing process. What I learnt was that sometimes less is more and with this collection, you certainly get more than you anticipate! A thoroughly recommended read.
Michelle Phillips/Literature Works/30 March 2016
The Lost of Syros contains gracefully written and memorable work…[and] subtle structuring, with landscape and climate providing both solid grounding and psychic foreshadowing for what follows. While places are never named, there is a strong sense of geography, and stories are recognisably set in New Zealand, Australia and England. For me, a Dunedinite, the several stories set in Otago had an extra attraction; Timpany’s descriptions of these familiar home-scapes are eye-openingly refreshing. Visual artists have long been fascinated by the astonishing light-and-dark dramas which unfold over the Peninsula and harbour. The north-easterly storm which hits Dunedin harbour in “The Day of the Storm” is an example of such an event. Timpany layers her canvas with luminous words: “The sky was paved with thick slabs of cloud; shafts of gold light, squeezing between the cracks, fell like spotlights on the wild, khaki waves and then the clouds split open and great blobs of rain began to pelt down”.
Refreshing too, are Timpany’s evocations of late 20th century New Zealand, and especially the experience of being a child at this time. The stories possess authentic sensory details which surely must be derived from the author’s personal experience. “Don’t be a derr”, one girl tells another in “The Day of the Storm”. In “One of the Best”, the old wash house is now “warm and dry with three long shelves under the window where my father used to store the dahlia tubers he dug up from the garden each winter, and shallow trays filled with white Borax powder to preserve velvet-petalled, deep purple pansies forever”. There’s no pat retreat into nostalgia, however. Such details are given a fresh presence on the page; Timpany commits to making art from memory’s material.
Katherine Mansfield is a strong presence in this collection, with several stories re-imagining events from her biography, including time spent in Cornwall (where Timpany now lives). Mansfield’s ghost manifests in present-day Dunedin, as “best friends” Fiona and Laura cycle towards the Taiaroa Head albatross colony on the Peninsula. As an albatross hangs in the air “on wide white wings…eyeing them”, Laura marvels. Fiona squints at it, and remarks, “You know Katherine used to call Ida “albatross”. But Mansfield infuses all the stories, even those in which she is not explicitly named, as Timpany takes Mansfield’s themes of location and dislocation and reworks them with a contemporary eye. The Lost of Syros contains images and stories which remained with me days after finishing the book. It’s a fine collection, to which I’ll return, knowing that it will reveal layers I’ve yet to discover.
Critiquing the short stories in Emma Timpany’s debut collection is not the easiest of tasks, as suggested by a reference in the endorsement notes to the ‘indefinable quality’ of her writing. The author Rupert Wallis attempts it by describing her stories as ‘little windows into life, showing you things to think on long after you have finished reading them’, and it’s the latter part of this comment which is most telling. Timpany’s stories are generally light on narrative action, working instead through rich description and distinctive images, and it’s the images that stay with you. In that respect, her stories are much like poems and all the better for it.
Now living in the UK, Timpany was born and grew up in New Zealand. Many of the stories are set there, and a number of them revolve around fellow New Zealander and renowned exponent of the short story form, Katherine Mansfield. ‘Painting Katherine’, for example, is ostensibly the story of when the writer, recovering from a bout of pleurisy, was immortalised on canvas by the American artist Anne Estelle Rice. A clever piece, it’s a vivid minimalist portrait of Mansfield, capturing her essence as strikingly as the painting itself…
There are many highlights here.. not least the collection’s title piece. The last and longest story in the book, delivered with a cool detachment that belies a complex emotional undertow, it contains several of those aforementioned images which speak directly to the heart and linger there. Through these images – a sandstone memorial on a dusty verge, a simple leather bracelet worn away to nothing – Timpany shares with us a deep awareness of many kinds of loss, and she leaves us wanting to see more from this very fine writer.
The Short Story Review / Gregory Heath / 22nd September 2015