This was originally published on The Nanfang on October 10, 2016
In theory, the art of the short story is uniquely well-suited to the internet age. Like good web copy, a short story should grab the reader with the first line and keep them hooked. Like good web copy, a short story should be like perfect abs, everything in its right place and with no flab.
In fact, the opposite is the case. You can’t read a short story properly online. They demand something that today’s digital world forbids us from giving: our undivided attention.
“Blind Water Pass”, a collection of short stories by Anna Metcalfe, some of which are set in China, deals with issues that are often too discomforting to think about. These include the plight of immigrants who live in the grey areas of the legal system, the communities and traditions that are being destroyed by ruthless progress, and the suffering of people who make life in developed countries so comfortable.
The collection supports John Carey’s assertion in “What Good Are the Arts” that literature is a profoundly middle-class art form, historically hostile to pride, grandeur and self-esteem. Most of its central characters are caught up in social and geopolitical forces beyond their understanding.
One standout example is “Number Three”, which was shortlisted for the 2014 Sunday Times Short Story Award. It takes place in a city’s Number Three Middle School and focuses on Mr. James, a foreign English teacher, Miss Coral, who is appointed as his liaison, and Moon, a diligent student who takes tuition from Miss Coral.
The story captures the slowness of life in a Chinese public school and the smallness of the individual in its vast mechanism: “(Moon) neither seeks friendship nor refuses it, and wanders the extensive grounds of the school wearing a look of mild surprise, as though perpetually living her first day.” Like most of the stories, it is not particularly action-packed, but teases out the notion that when spending time in an alien culture, we may do much more damage than we intend by seeking to be understood before trying to understand.
Metcalfe seldom specifies where the stories are set, but those that explicitly take place in China capture the uniqueness of the Middle Kingdom and at the same time demystify it. The following description appears in “Number Three”: “A late afternoon sun casts a haze over the urban sprawl. Smog and fresh dust linger, hovering over warehouses, slums and disused factories as they leave the inner city and approach the airport.”
The collection’s title piece revolves around a girl who entertains tourists with made-up Confucian quotes. This serves as a metaphor of how China’s ancient history is ever-changing to fit the needs of the present.
The central conflict is between the teenaged Lily and her grandmother, who clings onto a folk spirituality that she cannot adapt to the new China. Lily speaks implausibly good English for a rural girl, able to discern the quality of translations and to edit them, but like all good fiction, these stories operate with their own internal logic.
The three major forces in the story are spirituality, technology and nature, but none appears to have the answers the characters seek: “Lily looks at the sky as though waiting for its wisdom to descend.” By avoiding didacticism or a clear environmental message, it lives longer in the memory than the vast majority of what appears on the internet.
Of the other stories set in China, “Everything Is Aftermath” also follows a young girl stuck between two seemingly irreconcilable worlds. Metcalfe’s minute attention to the details that her viewpoint characters observe recalls some of Katherine Mansfield’s best work: “His ears are stoppered with blue rubber headphones that produce a tinny, rattling sound. It reminds her of the metal gates at her school, the way they clatter in the breeze.”
Other standout pieces include “Old Ghost”, in which the narrator is an immigrant female taxi driver in Paris whose relationship with the mysterious title character was torn apart by unspecified political issues. The hypnotic “Mirrorball” follows a narrator who begins each section by saying her age, following her from nine all the way up to twenty-two as she gradually evolves to become like her abusive father’s attractive young girlfriend.
A graduate of the famous Creative Writing Master of Arts at University of East Anglia, Anna Metcalfe is a ferociously talented writer whose best work is well worth tearing oneself away from the smartphone for. It has something to say about cultural contrasts that is beyond the ordinarily expressible.