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A City Burning

Angela Graham
ISBN-13: 
9781781725917
Publication Date: 
Wednesday, October 28, 2020
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£9.99

Longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize 2021

A city burns in a crisis − because the status quo has collapsed and change must come. Every value, relationship and belief is shaken and the future is uncertain.

In the twenty-six stories in A City Burning, set in Wales, Northern Ireland and Italy, children and adults face, in the flames of personal tragedy, moments of potential transformation. On the threshold of their futures each must make a choice: how to live in this new ‘now’. Some of these moments occur in mundane circumstances, others amidst tragedy or drama. 

Waiting for the return of demoralized prisoners of war, an Italian is offered a shocking way to rebuild his world; on the Antrim coastline a man is pushed to the edge by the demons of his neurotic family; in the south Wales valleys during the pandemic a domiciliary carer flounders in the front line of the workers’ struggle. A teenager disheartened by a Covid future; a terrorist in love; a vindictive clergyman; an actor interrogating her role for light on her own hampered life. They are ordinary people caught at crisis point, each rendered with a fierce perception of injustice and brutality.

But there is lyricism too, wry humour and a sharp engagement with language – Italian, Ulster Scots, Welsh. As well as meeting protagonists in their own countries, we find the Irish in Italy, the Italians in Wales, the Welsh in Northern Ireland.

A cinematic sense of focus and place grounds the action: a dry-as-dust bookshop provides a sensual encounter stimulated by the dead; two young priests in a Vatican kitchen collide erotically; nemesis strikes − from the skies − in a hospital corridor.

With a virtuoso control of tone, by turns elegiac, comic, lyrical, philosophical, A City Burning examines power of all types, exploring conflicts between political allegiances; between autonomy and intimacy; emotional display and concealment; resistance versus acceptance. The result is a deeply human book full of hauntingly memorable characters and narratives.

 

“Good writing is compelling. Each of these twenty-six stories takes you out of your own skin and into the lived experience of another… The writing is sparse. Every word is telling… But there’s also lyricism, a feel for the rhythm of speech and an ability to capture natural beauty... These stories are not comfortable… but they are honest, searing, insightful and very, very good.” – Inez Lynn

“The Road is, appropriately, the opening story in this collection and by following that road we enter the world of Angela Graham. In that world we meet a large, interesting and varied cast of characters. We range across England, Wales, Ireland... and even venture as far afield as Italy. The characters are well drawn and their stories entice and intrigue. As a collection it... is to be highly recommended.” – Graham Reid

A City Burning is an impressive kaleidoscope of landscape and language. Angela Graham's short stories move rhythmically between Wales, Ireland and Italy, provoking conversation through their poetic score. ‘Acting Abby’, a play within a play, is a particular triumph and one sentence in this story serves as a metaphor for the book: 'an invisible finger glides across the curtain like a harpist's, releasing a ripple of movement.' The movement is a little thought, a shift in perception as each story draws to an end.” – Angeline King

“A debut collection of tales remarkable for its verve, depth and range, taking us from backstage at the theatre through priestly adventures in Rome to the dark tragedies of troubled Belfast streets.  Some of these elegantly arranged, pellucidly told and consistently perceptive stories are very carefully framed, as if the life within is viewed through a camera lens, while others are seemingly slowly refracted through the deep, clear waters of memory. Herein are arrayed snapshots, glimpses, things revealed or exposed – from the inner workings of hymns to the frailties of the human body – and all conjured up in bright words and sentences that consistently illuminate. Twenty six stories, one singular voice.” – Jon Gower

“In this powerful collection, Angela Graham shows herself master of the angle of vision: her tales capture the mercurial moment when a person’s world is changed forever, in a road or room, against a landscape, seascape or starscape, at the graveside or (as in the towering story, ‘Life-Task’) at a forsaken railway station in the aftermath of war.” – Stevie Davies

"Angela Graham is a brilliant new voice. This is literature that deserves to last." – Kate Hamer

 

 

REVIEWS

Review by J. L. Harland

Sunday, July 11, 2021

A book full of short stories is always welcome. A series of short trips as opposed to one long journey in a novel. This collection from Angela Graham offers a variety of those short trips. Stories from Wales, Northern Ireland, where Angela Graham hails from, and Italy. Twenty-six stories, each one different but with a thread of similarity in theme – characters at a crossroads in life.

Many of these tales have been published and several have won prizes. It’s not hard to see why. The prose is elegant with a clarity of voice and purpose. The tone matches the tales they tell providing the reader with a sense of both place and person. The use of Welsh and Ulster Scots in some of these stories brings a vivacity to the page.

These narratives are both contemporary and historic in nature, spanning a past endured or imagined and present experiences. The characters in their different ways each face a decision - how to continue with their lives after some event that has had an impact on their sense of who they are or what their beliefs tell them. Particular favourites are 'Life-Task' and 'All Through the Night'; poignant and haunting stories lingering in the mind long after the book is closed.

A City Burning presents the reader with memorable characters and thought-provoking stories, its lyrical writing and depth of perception providing insight into the human condition.

Review by Becky Long, The Irish Times

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Angela Graham’s debut collection of short stories has been longlisted for the 2021 Edge Hill Short Story prize, and it’s not hard to see why. The film-maker and screenwriter’s move into fiction brings with it an eye for perspective, for the power of the vignette to momentarily depict a whole life. There is a craft in the economy of Graham’s prose, as evocative as it is sparse, and the theme of change resonates throughout the collection, as well as the inherently human fear of it. We are not always prepared for the moment when our lives change for ever, and Graham seeks to capture that sense of knowing and not knowing here, inviting us into an intimacy with her characters that is never forced, and always elegiac.

Reviewed by Jane Fraser, Nation Cymru

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

The acclaimed Irish short story writer, Claire Keegan, has stated that, ‘the short story begins after what happens, happens.’ After the drama has passed is the territory the writer has to work within: a time, a place, and a context of emotional consequences where, after the water has been stirred up and settled, what was before, is not now.

The making of a short story into a beautiful art form is therefore a delicate and challenging craft.  And Belfast-born Angela Graham has risen to that challenge, exhibiting in her debut collection, A City Burning, twenty-six stories which allow the reader to feel the emotional intensity of a range of characters as they stand at pivotal moments in their lives in the aftermath of personal tragedy.

Territory and transition

So to unpack Graham’s territory. Although all stories are unified by the theme of transition as characters move towards a new ‘now’ (though perhaps not ‘new normal’) in their lives, the stories move over a wide time-span – from the end of World War 2 to the current COVID-19 era – within the geographical settings of Northern Ireland, Wales and Italy.

‘The Road,’ the opening story in the collection sets the tone for the reader’s journey ahead. The narrator (an adult filmmaker) looks back at herself as a child through the lens of a camera – a Catholic living in Protestant East Belfast in the summer of 1969 where ‘something huge was burning’. From the perspective of the new now, the narrator states that there was “another angle” that the lens did not capture: a moment of choice where she herself was witness to soldiers being murdered during the ‘Troubles’.

Angle of vision

Graham’s cinematic angle of vision winds through this collection as does the idea of bearing witness to, in the many first person narratives, told with an unflinching eye. In ‘Life-Task,’ a lone and lonely man waits in a large crowd at a station for the arrival of Italian prisoners-of-war to be unloaded off an approaching train. Even though he has ‘no one to imagine in particular’ he stands and observes. Graham brings everything into sharp focus as the train, approaching along the tracks, finally closes the “far distance over the surface of Europe, the distance between them and us” and the narrator sets himself to learn anew and rebuild his life on seeing something shockingly beautiful.

These are quiet stories. Tales of ordinary people getting on with their ordinary lives trying to cope as best they can and battling on. In ‘Acting Abby’ Graham cleverly creates a story within a story, in which Abby, an actress, dissects an author’s script. Her response encapsulates what all the stories are about and what makes them function so successfully as bursts of light in often dark places.

‘Most people’s lives are small-scale. That’s what so awful when the Bad Thing happens: the life just bursts apart ‘cos it wasn’t meant to contain this much pain.’

Deep water

These are stories that are often long in the making in characters’ lives. In story-telling language, the inciting event was the ‘once upon a time’ and the ‘unfolding’ of the tale only emerges in the present, prompted by a crisis, or sometimes a reconnection with a familiar place, or object, that evokes memory. As Myrtle, a woman in her sixties says in ‘Snapshot:’‘Some damage doesn’t show till later.’

Nowhere is this more evident than in ‘Coasteering’ (one of my favourites in the collection) in which a fifty-something mother literally jumps into the deep water (a metaphoric pre-requisite for the writer of a short story) in the sea off the Antrim coast during her first summer ‘without children or young grown-ups,’ longing to take a risk that she’d never taken before and realising that it was ‘a great way to let go of time.’

This story, where the sea is present (as it is in many others such as ‘The Sea Hospital’ and ‘Sugared Almonds’) reveals a writer with a love of water, who knows the places she writes about from the ground up and from the surface of the ocean down. These are first hand, lived-experiences made real again on the page in the sense of place she re-creates for the reader. You can see and taste what her character does as she swims in water ‘which was bizarrely like swimming in scentless Guinness.’

And this:

‘Unlike those massive blue stretches of the far south, our northern Irish sea has no steady colour. It takes its hue from the coming and going of the sun as it parts clouds – to raise – from the dun acres of water far below, shining fields of vivid jade wrapped in the darkest bottle green. Seen from cliff-tops, these colours display themselves as vast sheets of luminous intensity.’

Graham has a finely-tuned ear and mind as well as a finely-tuned eye. Her voice is therefore not singular, but plural: lyrical, colloquial, political and philosophical. She has an affinity to many languages as revealed in her Ulster Scots, Italian and Welsh characters and on occasion, there is wry and mordant humour. She also knows the power of the unsaid.

Loss and untidy endings

Graham, like Keegan, understands that the short story is ultimately about loss. For fiction is a temporal art and time is irreversibly passing. Things will never be what they once were. This collection reveals Graham’s understanding of the human condition in that at times of greatest loss, emotional stress, and self-realisation there are often no words. Or few, as illustrated by Juliet, a married woman in ‘Safety First,’ suddenly realising the enormity of her situation, poised between husband and lover:

‘She recognised that he and she would hold their pain in place till it evaporated. No explosion. A dismantling by silent, invisible stages. Many, many days.’

In conclusion, to return to Keegan, who has also stated that short stories are not just about what is on the page, but about what is left behind after the final page is turned.  A City Burning is a collection that will live long in the mind as it succeeds in doing what it should: convey our human struggle with all its untidy endings. For after all, the short story is a mirror of life where death is the only tied-up ending.

It is a collection that confirms Graham’s place as a serious and accomplished writer of this most beautiful, yet often under-valued, work of art.

Review by Gemma Pearson, Wales Arts Review

Sunday, December 27, 2020

“If you think too much about it – about how puny you are in a power-filled universe – you’d never do anything.”

It is relatively easy, in retrospect, to recognise a moment when everything changed. Sometimes a decision is the catalyst for a new life path: moving away, dealing with a breakup, or making a career change. But when the world is changing around us and we feel powerless in the current, moments of personal transformation can pass by unnoticed.

Angela Graham’s debut collection of short stories, A City Burning, elegantly captures this affronting situation. Whoever or wherever they are – for these stories move fluidly between Wales, Ireland and Italy – Graham’s characters repeatedly find themselves at the precipice of enormous personal or domestic change. In ‘Safety First’, for example, a day at the beach leads to an uncomfortable meditation on the insignificance of the individual. Similarly, in ‘Mercy’, four sons navigate their complex feelings surrounding the death of their father. In other stories, however, singular moments of introspection are framed by wider societal unrest. ‘The Road’, an intriguing story set against the Orange Order’s Twelfth of July celebration, examines the curious feeling of personal stasis amidst public tragedy: “I feel as though I am deep inside a passage tomb, in a chamber that waits and waits […] for the moment when the time comes right and the sun steps to its vantage point”. The collection also touches on urban violence, WWII, and even the COVID-19 pandemic as each character adjusts, adapts, and accepts their own microcosmic “new normal”.

Aside from the nod to our current crisis, the most striking element of Graham’s collection is the clarity of voice. Though each of the twenty-six stories employs a decidedly different perspective – a mourning wife, a gay priest, a frustrated horologist, a struggling actress – Graham’s authorial command remains honest, insightful and impressive. The quasi-cinematic focus given to each story, which ranges from deep, intimate vignettes to more abstract, “zoomed out” streams of consciousness, gives the collection intriguing multiplicity and serves as a testament to Graham’s talent for interpersonal perception. The focus on linguistic exchange in A City Burning is also notable; English, Welsh, Ulster Scots, and Italian all converge to create a narrative that is both highly contextual and elegantly told. 

A City Burning lays out an assortment of characters all bound by one searing similarity. Caught in crises, torn between ideologies, religions and moralities, and faced with the disarming prospect of transformation, Graham expertly captures the lives of ordinary people burdened by extraordinary circumstances. For many of us living through the second set of U.K. lockdowns, it feels as though we’ve barely caught a breath. For months now, we have been grasping for something solid, something steady, to quell the unsettling feeling that our lives will never be the same. Nevertheless, while we are all staying at home, perhaps feeling inert and limited, we are constantly evolving. Thus, while the titular city – perhaps a miniaturised metaphor for the world itself – is burning down, Graham’s collection reminds us that life, with all its beauty, does indeed go on.

 

Frank Ferguson, Northern Slant

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

A City Burning, by Angela Graham, published in October 2020, is a collection of 26 short stories set variously in Northern Ireland, Wales and Italy. Each richly focused, tales provide finely drawn moments of realisation of their protagonist’s joy or tragedy. 

Take for example the story of 'The Triumph', a witty account of a patient’s somewhat victory in receiving her preferred option of varicose vein treatment. In what at first might seem a modest plot, Graham’s astute handling of veins and vanities teaches us much about human frailty and dignity in the interplay between female patient, young male surgeon and blustering older male consultant.   

Troubled Histories

This is an assured debut from Graham. Originally from Belfast, she enjoyed a highly successful career as a television and film producer in Wales and on the continent before becoming a full-time writer. From the story of 'The Road' which captures a fractious 1969 Belfast from the point of view of a beleaguered Catholic in a majority-Protestant East Belfast, to “Amnesty” which explores the aftermath of a shocking public suicide, each narrative is vividly poised, compact and perfectly suited for the acts of confession and realisation that occur. Throughout, Graham shows a fascination with moments of calm within conflict, and conflict within calm.

Graham is often keen to focus on the experience of those not usually written into accounts of troubled histories, in particular Northern Ireland’s recent past. In 'Witness' we follow the horror experienced by the character Harman, who informed his pastor of a shooting at a County Fermanagh Gospel Hall. In another example, Graham represents the experiences of children and young people in turmoil, forced to take sides during the Troubles, or struggling against this process in 'Resistance'. One particularly powerful passage sticks with the reader: “That she would never let herself be washed away, never give up. I will cause ripples too. It was love or hate, resist or drown”. 

Spiritual and More Tensions

Another common theme running through Graham’s collection is her examination of religious spiritual and moral tensions. In 'Above it All', set perhaps as closely to the centre of Rome’s Catholic heartland as possible, we learn how Donal, a man adrift within his confessional order, seeks to comprehend the conflicting pathways towards love and beatification. His journey offers a powerful exploration of ambiguities present in being a representative of the Church under the scrutiny of an overweening hierarchy and traditions; the discovery of love and desire, and individuals’ perceptions of mutual attraction.

Looking Afresh at Shared Predicaments

A City Burning traverses time, place and memory with refreshing bite. It provides a means to return and reflect on painful moments in Northern Ireland’s recent past, but also to move out and trace other worlds and places across Europe whose histories and tragedies are equally compelling. Images of the sea and swimming recur throughout several stories. 'Coasteering' comes to mind, where Graham provides some fantastic poetic reflections on Irish seascapes. 

What fires the attention is Graham’s mastery of language and her ear for local speech of both the poetic and prosaic kind. Her experimentation with Ulster Scots in particular points to a new talent in Irish writing making us look afresh at our often shared predicaments and take consolation in the landscapes and people around us.

Review by Prof. Diana Wallace, University of South Wales

Monday, November 2, 2020

How can writers respond to sudden, even exponential, change? It can take a decade, as it did after the first world war or 9/11, for novels and memoirs to catch up as writers process traumatic events. And readers, time-pressed and battered by 24-hour news, may turn to genre fiction for the comfort of familiar plot lines and predictable endings.  The short story, on the other hand, can turn on a sixpence to give us a snapshot of our crises in real time. Compressed, intense, often challenging, some of the most powerful examples of the form have come from writers on the so-called margins: women, immigrants, people from ‘small nations’ such as Wales and Ireland.

Angela Graham’s assured and compelling debut collection, A City Burning, ranges across Wales, Northern Ireland and Italy. It offers 26 brief stories, most no more than a few pages (one a mere page and a quarter), which turn their forensic flashlight on a moment of change when a character has to make a choice. In the opening story, ‘The Road’, a filmmaker remembers a scene she has recreated from her childhood, watching though an open doorway as her mother talks to a neighbour. It is summer 1969 and East Belfast, ‘where ninety-six per cent of the inhabitants are Protestant and my family are not among that number’.  Their Protestant neighbour has never stopped to speak to them before but now, the city in flames and alive with sirens, she seeks some kind of contact, or reassurance. ‘A child can choose,’ the narrator tells us, and the burning city of this tale gives the collection its vivid title metaphor, an image of roads taken, or not taken, under the pressure of violent change.

Graham is a television producer/director and screenwriter, and her stories have a film-maker’s eye for a framing shot and, particularly, for light effects:  sunlight hitting a passageway, stars ‘like sugar split across a slate’. She is also a poet and her scriptwriter’s ear for dialogue, in English, Welsh, Scots Ulster and Italian, is combined with a redemptive lyricism. In ‘All Through the Night’, a middle-aged man on a cliff-top at the ‘very edge of Wales’ contemplates the end of his marriage and, mad with desperation,  sings into the darkness the words of  ‘Ar Hyd y Nos’ finding in their beauty something to hold onto. These are characters who face a moment on the edge and, like the woman finding herself unexpectedly in a familiar cove in ‘Coasteering’, are sometimes shown a way – ‘Breathe. Believe’  - to accept themselves.

The question of what it means to witness  – to see or be seen – runs through several of these stories. Often Graham’s characters must learn to see anew. A young priest, caught off balance by the realisation of a fellow-priest’s homo-eroticism in ‘Above It All’, is jolted into compassionate self-knowledge by learning to look at the beatification portrait of a man who loved men.  In the troubling ‘Life Task’ set in post-war Italy, the narrator watches a wife unhesitatingly claim her horribly mutilated soldier-husband and resolves: ‘I want to be seen like he was.’  And in ‘Snapshot’ a confrontation between two couples over a minor car incident in Antrim shows one woman how she appears from the outside: ‘Had she looked like that? Stolid and unmoved. Blank.’  Some damage, she realises ‘doesn’t show till later.’ These stories show us what the genre does best: the ‘snapshot’ of a moment which reveals a life or a culture in a moment of transition or realisation, what James Joyce called an ‘epiphany’.

”Most people’s lives are small-scale,”’ says the actor who narrates one story, ‘”That’s what’s so awful when the Bad Thing happens: the life just bursts apart ‘cos it wasn’t meant to contain this much pain.”’ Covid-19 has been a ‘Bad Thing’ which has burst lives apart at every level. Two stories here focus on the small scale to weigh the global damage in the balance. In ‘The Scale’ a care worker in the south Wales Valleys struggles, wearing inadequate PPE, to maintain her professional calm in the face of an old woman’s malicious goading. The old woman’s ‘strike’ against her care workers brings back memories of the 1984 Miners’ Strike and the recognition that, ‘The weak against the weak keeps the strong strong.’ And in ‘Sugared Almonds’ the widow of a bus driver remembers a life warmed by his loving equanimity and lashes out at the lack of protection which left him, along with security guards, shop assistants, construction workers and cabbies, ‘Four times -  FOUR times – more likely to die’. Powered by anger at what has been done to ordinary people, these stories are shaped by the recognition that, even at crisis point, we can choose how we respond. 

The short story has been having a moment for some time now with powerful but still relatively under-recognised work from writers like Helen Simpson, Carys Davies, Tessa Hadley, Claire Keegan, Chris Power, David Constantine and Mary-Ann Contantine.  This vivid, humane and beautifully-controlled collection suggests Angela Graham is another name to watch. 

 

User Reviews

Margaret Wilkerson's picture

Margaret Wilkerson

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No votes yet

Such real characters, and wonderful little twists in such short stories. I want to know more about them all. I'm trying to slow myself down, so that I read one at a time and revel in it, but it's hard to resist the next one. Once I've read all the stories, I think I'll get even more pleasure re-reading them at a more leisurely rate.

02/12/2020 - 11:39

Comments

Margaret Wilkerson's picture

Margaret Wilkerson

0
No votes yet

Such real characters, and wonderful little twists in such short stories. I want to know more about them all. I'm trying to slow myself down, so that I read one at a time and revel in it, but it's hard to resist the next one. Once I've read all the stories, I think I'll get even more pleasure re-reading them at a more leisurely rate.

02/12/2020 - 11:39
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