The Lost of Syros. A collection of sixteen short stories published by Cultured Llama Press, July 2015. ISBN 978-0-9932119-2-8 £12. Available to order here from Cultured Llama, Amazon or by order from all good bookshops. Longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize 2016.
…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