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Ritual, 1969

Jo Mazelis
ISBN-13: 
9781781723050
Publication Date: 
Thursday, April 7, 2016
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‘Jo Mazelis knows that a riddling strangeness can yield its secret life to a story. The tales in this strong, pleasing, third collection hold and are transformed by that power.’ – Planet

 

What are little girls made of? What will they become? Will they run away to the circus or become dressmakers, teachers or servants? From the playground to adulthood the path is beset with misunderstandings, missed dates and hidden traps for the unwary. 

This darkly gothic collection of stories explores the unsettling borderland between reality and the supernatural. Ranging from early twentieth-century France to 1960s South Wales and contemporary Europe, Jo Mazelis’ singular vision and poetic language creates characters caught up in events and feelings they do not fully understand or control, giving the book its uncanny focus. Not all is as it seems in a world where first impressions may only conceal disguises and false trails - and there's no going back.

A thrilling third collection from the author of Jerwood Award winning novel Significance.

 

‘With prose that is as beautiful and harsh as her stories, Jo Mazelis has produced a string of tales full of yearning and loss... But there’s nothing wistful about Ritual 1969: the writing is precision-modulated, witty, barbed. It’s as refreshing as a cold shower, and uplifting as a levitation.’
– Marina Benjamin, author of The Middlepause

‘Ritual, 1969 is an unapologetically feminist work that relays the pitfalls of a troubled journey from school to womanhood with considerable depth and artistry. Mazelis writes in the tradition of Woolf, Plath and Carter, and does not feel out of place in their company. Like those writers she takes apparently mundane, everyday dramas and reveals them to be extraordinary and defining moments in an individual's lifetime.’
– John Lavin, The Lonely Crowd, Wales Arts Review

‘In this fine collection, Jo Mazelis proves herself mistress of the short story form. A selection of unflinching stories move across time and landscape, linked by the revealing details of human behaviour, the voices of the unloved and an unsettling imagination. Haunting, beautifully crafted fictions.’
– Cathy Galvin, Director, www.thewordfactory.tv

 

REVIEWS

Review by Cath Barton, Sabotage Reviews

Sunday, March 5, 2017

A modern school built ‘in the brutalist style’ sits on the top of a hill. On one side is a housing estate, on the other waste land. When the wind blows from the east the children are assailed in their playground by sulphurous smells from heavy industry. Pipes disgorge ‘waste products of a disturbingly vivid range of rainbow hues’ into the river which flows at the bottom of the hill. The entrance foyer of the school has a high ceiling and ‘promise of echoes’. Thus is the scene set for story-telling.

In the title story of Ritual, 1969 Jo Mazelis paints vividly the contrast between the eager teacher, dressed in gaudy colours and the children who are ‘uniformly grey, like baby birds’. Under their uniforms the children, like birds, are feral. The teacher is stymied in her attempt to introduce her class to a poem called The Moon and the Yew Tree by the children’s ignorance about yew trees. But these children, on the cusp of puberty, know more arcane things. They play an ancient levitation game, even though they do not know about yew trees. In ‘Levitation, 1969’ an eleven-year-old girl is a victim of the unbearable cruelty which is perhaps all too commonplace amongst groups of adolescents.

Sewn through this anthology are five stories from the concrete and glass school, exploring the horrors faced by the some of the teachers as well as the children. In ‘Biology, 1969’ a women teacher endures a shocking assault. The way in which her male colleagues react is sparsely told and chilling.

Jo Mazelis draws on myth and fairy tale to explore the mysteries which populate our dreams and nightmares, waking as well as sleeping. In ‘Prayer, 1969’ another teacher from the school, tempted by an unexpected discovery, sees herself in that moment as a character in a story told many times in different ways:

She was Pandora. She was Gretel breaking off a piece of the witch’s gingerbread house, she was Persephone eating pomegranate seeds, she was Sleeping Beauty reaching with the tip of her finger to touch the needle that brings death, she was Alice falling endlessly.

The other stories in the anthology explore the mysterious in many guises – from the rapidly evaporating wet footprints in ‘Caretakers’, through the fleeting encounter between a girl who tries to be good with the eponymous character in ‘The Flower Maker’, to the elusive nature of memory and human connections in ‘Fallen Apples’.

Jo Mazelis employs a poet’s way with language in her stories. She combines a straightforward approach to story-telling with rich descriptions. In ‘Velvet’ she uses contrasting textures and their emotive qualities to convey the way in which a mother feels much more at ease in the company of horses and their foals than in that of the inexplicable ten-year-old children at her daughter’s birthday party. In ‘The Green Hour’ a palette of greens – focussing in on the pure colour of cat’s eyes – is the backdrop for the story of Gwen, employed by Rodin as a model. In the school of the 1969 stories there is a mingling of many strong and suggestive smells and, most powerfully, in ‘Word Made Flesh’ it is the smell of dying flowers which evokes a memory for the exiled Irish girl Molly Finnegan:

I tip them into the sink and as the rotting stems fall I remember the stench of the blighted potato fields back home, the black putrefying mess that stretched as far as the eye could see.

This last story is a re-interpretation of a classic Welsh story, Arthur Machen’s The Gift of Tongues. Others in the anthology read like retelling of old tales, in particular ‘The Twice-Pricked Heart’ with its trope of transformation. The imagery which Jo Mazelis employs contributes to the feel of fairy tale which pervades much of her writing. Apples, birds, the moon, conjoined twins and photographs recur, all potentially symbolic of deeper meanings.

Both ‘Mechanics’ and ‘The Moon and the Broomstick’ feature conjoined twins in the context of the circus, that place of enchantment which is there at night and gone in the morning. ‘Mechanics’ is also full of bird imagery and the cumulative effect becomes visceral when Gerald from the ‘flock’ of cyclists imagines the mechanics of sex with the twins upon whom they have stumbled:

Gerald couldn’t stop imagining those two strange sisters naked. Himself naked too, and those two female bodies closing in on him like wings, or like a hinged mirror, two identical faces swooping closer, and legs and arms entangling him, hands everywhere.

I love the way Jo Mazelis interweaves elements of her stories – this same Gerald also appears in ‘Mrs Dundridge’, an older women who had previously taught him about these mechanics. I love too the way she winds up tension and spools it out to the end of stories and beyond. I found this particularly so in ‘A Bird Becomes a Stone’ in which a girl is a pawn in other people’s stories and – my favourite – ‘Storm Dogs’, full of mythic elements but completely original.

Jo Mazelis writes with a sure touch about lost opportunities and the difficulties that people have in connecting with one another. Sometimes we try and fail, over and over. But always, as in the final story, ‘Undone, 1969’, there is the possibility of a new beginning.

Altogether a lovely, satisfying read.

Review by Steph Power, The Welsh Agenda

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

There is a haunting strangeness to Jo Mazelis’ third collection of short stories, Ritual, 1969; an unsettling mix of recognition and displacement within the sharp-angled, grainy photography of her prose. In nineteen tautly written tales, the award-winning novelist proves once again adept at opening doors onto closed worlds.
Mazelis shows no desire to co-opt our sympathy for her conflicted and downtrodden female protagonists. Nonetheless, she catches and holds us fast in scenarios which are at once liminal bordering on the supernatural, yet wholly real and anchored in the everyday. Indeed, liminality is an important key to this collection. In it Mazelis explores, without succumbing to grimness or inertia, a range of themes around adolescence, death, isolation, abuse and, above all, what it means to be a girl or a woman. Each story is either located in the past, or alludes to one through consequences or the tricks of memory.
‘Ritual, 1969’ is one of five tales which focus on an event in that particular year. However, there is no obvious reason for the date, nor are these happenings directly linked from story to story. Or are they? Is the unnamed ‘dead girl (who is not really dead’ in the opening of ‘Levitation, 1969’ the same girl who is ritualistically held aloft by five chanting others in a seeming addendum to the title story? This latter concerns a ‘teacher, a woman of around forty’ who could just as easily be a portrait of that same, troubled child now grown, disappointed, into a dyspeptic pre-middle age.
Between each of Mazelis’ characters and their tales lies a tapestry of possibility; of similarity and difference linking them and the reader. Time becomes dislocated or held in suspension – just as happens in ritual spaces, which the author evokes in a profusion of ways from the literal to the metaphorical; from faintly macabre children’s games and unhappy ghosts seeking closure to the unending rackets of adult life in which petty-minded gossip gets repeated chant-like unto ennui. Over all hang the cycles of abuse and its counter, survival, which get handed down the generations.
Fathers are everywhere: absent, neglectful, and often menacingly present. In ‘Prayer, 1969’, following his funeral, Mazelis writes of (another?) teacher, ‘As usual the memory of her father took on an almost tangible form.’ In ‘The Green Hour’, a girl meets the painter Rodin and will become his model and lover. Of her first impressions we are told, ‘he reminded her of her father. Except that her father’s gaze came with a disapproving silence.’
Mazelis is deft at suggestion; from phantasmagoric threat to wry social observation, saying much with a few well-chosen words. The eponymous Mrs Dunridge, for example, ‘was extravagant with boiling water. She bathed every day. Her neighbours often commented on it.’ Throughout, there is a catalogue of boredom and uncertainty threaded with despair and a mainly, but not entirely psychological violence. Yet Mazelis’ authorial voice is never bitter or morose, nor do her protagonists become mere passive victims. With an uncanny ability to look sideways at her subject, Mazelis ensures that we remain sceptical of quick judgements or moral assumptions. Her neglected children can be cruel, just as her tyrants can show sudden generosity.
This collection, as with Mazelis’ earlier work, succeeds not only through the succinct beauty of her writing, but because she never allows herself to wallow or preach. A strong sense of play and a stoic optimism underpin the grit á la film director Mike Leigh, blowing fresh air into each, powerfully ambivalent tale: ‘Fail at everything. But listen. Listen. Flowers, leaves, branches all reach for the sun.’

 

Review by Marly Youmans, Planet

Monday, November 7, 2016

Jo Mazelis’ well-crafted stories in Ritual, 1969 stand at a crossroads – a liminal place between worlds where criminals and suicides were buried – of the fantastic and the homely real. Choices of direction lie open: wrong choices and high costs are as possible as right. Cross-purposes complicate: the intended reversal of ‘A Bird Becomes A Stone’, where film footage leads ‘the audience to believe [Sarah] was being chased’, only to reveal that ’her character was the pursuer’, turns again until Sarah, her mind cauled in dreams and narratives, flies and falls. The film ends in the realm of the crossroads with a ‘beautiful haunting question mark’.
Hauntings persist as ghostly question-marks in Mazelis’ tales. Imagined history in the form of Mystery Plays and ‘dark times’ haunts ‘Biology, 1969’; an unsaintlike encounter reveals hellfire on skin and fresh dark times. Does the young woman of ‘Caretakers’ glimpse or imagine footprints in her house? And does that damp haunting kill her romance? Does the close of Levitation, 1969’ match the opening, where a girl is dead and alive in a game – does she fly yet remain standing in a turbulence of anger and weather? The game makes flesh feather-light, makes a pubescent girl subject to whirling, parent-poltergeist weather, makes her ‘disperse’ like winged seeds. In the title story, ‘Ritual, 1969’, girls chant and play the game in bitter winds, while a teacher bemoans dearth of knowledge and lack of feelings for poetry. Imagination has wings; it sends the heart beating like a trapped bird (‘Mechanics’). Whether a woman resists or yields to haunting, she risks flying, falling, or both, like Moth in ‘Whose Story is This Anyway’.
Even when Mazelis flies back centuries, she alights at a dramatic crossroads. In ‘The Twice Pricked Heart’, Margaret fears when ‘cream becomes butter and its elemental nature is entirely changed’. This fey, ballad-like tale of witchcraft binds to Mazelis’ contemporary stories through transformation, family alliances, coming-of-age, presence of the dead, and Margaret’s sense of ‘flying up’ through falling snow or flying down stairs.
‘Word Made Flesh’ is particularly rich with crossings – words of novels read in night’s ‘vast nothing’, lost words of Molly’s catholic childhood set against one scrap that returns, cold versus ‘precious human warmth’, Protestant and Catholic, and Molly’s ‘cast out’ earthly state and the dreaming Reverend, ‘cast out’ in Hell. Molly has forgotten what Gwen in ‘The Green Hour’ calls ‘the religion of ritual and confession’. Her fragment of liturgy crosses with the Reverend Beynon’s words that seem equally mysterious, ‘Don’t leave me’. Nightly adventures in which Molly runs like butter into Beynon’s heat are the only warm human contact in either life. What she knows is matched by what she does not; mysteries of words and the Word linger.
Jo Mazelis knows that a riddling strangeness can yield its secret life to a story. The tales in this strong, pleasing, third collection hold and are transformed by that power.

Review by Rupert Dastur, The Short Story

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

In an interview I conducted earlier this year, Jo Mazelis spoke interestingly about unifying themes that bind short story collections together, commenting that for her it is the author’s style and voice which unites the pieces, rather than a preconceived umbrella-like idea. While the short stories in this third collection by Mazelis certainly shows a developed hand penning prose that rolls like steady, distinct waves across the page, there are unmissable melodies that weave their way into the stories: womanhood, childhood, loneliness, exclusion, missed opportunities, and surface appearances, to name just a few.

More definitively, all nineteen stories are largely told from a female perspective and only a few diverge from third person narration. Whether planned or not, these recurring features combine with an often interior, literary style to give a distinct pitch to the collection – rarely tsunamic in fervour, they nevertheless fluctuate between the curious, the mystical, and the uncanny, leaving the reader bewitched with each unfolding tale.

One of my favourite short stories in this collection, which exemplifies many of the above characteristics, is ‘Velvet’. Skilfully oscillating between the perspective of a mother and various young girls at a birthday party, Mazelis illuminates the almost incomprehensible cruelty of children, their bizarre rituals that include and exclude both their contemporaries and adults alike, and the way seemingly innocuous actions can suddenly attain horrifying significance. There is one particularly brilliant scene in which a girl tries to place a shiny pebble within the cupped petals of a flower:

She picked it up and carefully, almost tenderly, dropped it into the tulip. The result was disappointing; she had wanted to see the stone nestled inside the flower, hunkering down among its complicated innards, its stamen, pistil and anther. No, the result was sudden and shocking. She let the pebble drop from her fingers and the tulip’s head abandoned its ardent and lovely uprightness, snapped at the neck and fell onto the unyielding earth below.

For the next four paragraphs we delve into the thoughts of the young girl, something which Mazelis captures with a poignancy and accuracy rarely encountered and is reminiscent of Virgina Woolf’s mining of the mind.

In the last paragraph of this episode, the girl flees the scene of the crime and this action, this escaping or drifting away is another feature which Mazelis lights upon with some frequency. It begins with the first short story ‘Levitation, 1969’ which ends with the protagonist ‘floating far overhead’ until she cannot be seen, a place where ‘she’s free’ . This continues in the short story ‘Whose Story is this Anyway’ which concludes with a central figure who ‘flew up in the air and only when she fell to earth did she finally know everything’.

There is, in many ways, a sense of transition in these short stories, of a movement from innocence to experience, a point made explicit by the epigraph which quotes the poem ‘The Sick Rose’ by William Blake. Although Mazelis complicates these tensions, the dynamics between men and women in this short story collection reflect the poem and can be traced in ‘Mechanics’, ‘A Murder Stone’, ‘Word Made Flesh’, ‘Whose Story is this Anyway’, ‘Storm Dogs’, ‘Fallen Apples’, and perhaps most disturbingly in ‘Biology, 1969’ which follows a brief, unexpected sexual assault and the depressingly cold aftermath that’s bound in the contexts of the time, but also laced with a psychology that is still, sadly, prevalent today.

Relevant to the theme of innocence and experience, ‘Biology, 1969’ is told from the perspective of a teacher, a trend which permeates the collection. ‘Levitation, 1969’, ‘Prayer, 1969’, ‘Ritual, 1969’ and ‘Undone, 1969’ are all connected by this suggestive environment, as well as their unifying titles.

My favourite among these is the first short story in the collection, ‘Levitation, 1969’ which I first read in the anthology New Welsh Short Stories (Seren, 2015). The opening line demonstrates Mazelis’s ability to hook the reader and then slowly reel them in: ‘Rising up in the air, the dead girl feels . . . dead.’ Tone, atmosphere, character are all meticulously displayed with just a few words.

Perhaps the best first line in the collection is in the mysterious short story ‘The Green Hour’ which reveals the deft touches of beauty Mazelis brings to her sentences: ‘She thought of the sea as her beating heart and so its violence on certain wild nights frightened her.’ This story is one among a small handful which reduce the cohesion of the volume, but are excellent inclusions, being among the most impressive in the collection as a whole. Indeed when a short story like ‘The Flower Maker’ finds its way into a collection and leaves you reading it three times over because it’s so good, the seeming disconnectedness of the piece becomes inconsequential and one is quickly reminded that the only really important factor in any collection is quality writing – something Mazelis provides in abundance. A third reading also has the benefit of revealing those connections that at first seemed obscure. In this case, matters of patriarchy, beauty, poverty, and the interactions of the old and young.

This relationship between generations is further seen in the way the past encroaches on the present, often with a distinctly haunting hue. ‘Caretakers’ is the most overtly ghostly, with little footprints from invisible feet that potter around a sinister Georgian house. It’s a well-placed story priming the reader for later narratives that have their own supernatural signatures.

As just the briefest of brushings with this short story collection reveal, Mazelis explores a dazzling range of ideas, geographies and times, often couched in the daily realities of women and children, the marginalised and the powerless, the scared, hopeless, and hapless. It is a powerful collection which demands attention, denies light relief, drives the reader along the lines with an urgency and perceptiveness that is often surprising. Yet, importantly, Mazelis does not lecture. The author does not stand at the pulpit and wave a knowing finger at the congregation. Instead, she opens doors and says go ahead, have a look, make your conclusions. Read into it what you will.

Ritual, 1969 reveals the absolute mastery Mazelis has over the short form and this third collection is a superb display of a writer keenly attentive to the human mind, its motives and its mysteries.

Review by Linda Hill, Linda’s Book Bag

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Goodness what a collection. I’m only just getting in to reading short stories, but had I discovered Jo Mazelis before I’d have been an avid fan. I thought Ritual, 1969 was outstanding and am only sorry it has been sitting on my TBR so long.

Ritual, 1969 is a sophisticated, intelligent and beautifully written collection of narratives with women at the centre. I found many of the stories quite disturbing in a way. Initially they may seem quite innocuous, but they twist and shift so that there is an underlying malevolence in many that gave me a shudder down my spine. There are references to nightmares and I found a nightmarish quality to much of the writing, especially in ‘A Bird Becomes A Stone’.

Several emotions are portrayed in writing that is almost suffocating at times. Fear, loneliness and longing are there, but so too are burgeoning sexuality and sensuality. There’s a real sense of exploring who we are, as opposed to who we want to be or how others perceive us. I thought long and hard about the title – and there are three stories overtly linked to 1969, and came to the conclusion that this is an era of change and development nationally and internationally and Jo Mazelis portrays that flux for the self so effectively. Similarly, many of the behaviours are ritualistic so that characters wish they could behave differently but are constrained by their circumstances and the actions of others. Some, however, manage to break free in an almost supernatural way adding even more interest to the read.

There’s a distinct Welshness to the writing and many of the settings that I recognised from my visits there. Alongside the incisive prose and frequently malign atmosphere there is also real beauty in the descriptions of nature and the appeal to the senses. I found the sense of smell in ‘Prayer, 1969’, for example, almost unbearable with its ‘unmistakable smells which came from the effluvia of young bodies’.

I also appreciated the way Ritual, 1969 embodied so much of our cultural history too and I feel I need to read these stories several times over to appreciate fully all the nuances. There’s reference both overtly and subtly to literature, music, film and theatre so that partly remembered experiences rippled and echoed in my mind like half glimpsed dreams. I loved that effect of the writing.

I’ve read all the collection in Ritual, 1969 once. It’s not enough fully to appreciate what a magnificent collection it is. I shall be returning to it for years to come. Wonderful.

Review by John Lavin, Wales Arts Review

Thursday, June 23, 2016

There is an airless, hermetically sealed atmosphere to Ritual, 1969, the third short story collection from Jo Mazelis that is reminiscent of disorientating late 60’s / early 70’s British film masterpieces such as if… or The Shout. Works that were concerned with the strangeness lying beneath the apparently cloudless, cricket-loving, ever-so-regimented surfaces of British life. It is a book that evokes the tribulations of adolescence and young adulthood with an unsettling intensity which admirers of Mazelis’ previous works will be keen to reacquaint themselves with.

The female protagonists that inhabit these acutely observed stories of angst, lust and small town ennui are all players in a mystery that they cannot quite grasp the solution to. That mystery may be said to be our perception of what constitutes reality, and as such it may be said that the fabric of reality is being constantly probed and tested throughout a collection which, nevertheless, is happy to be as playful as it is philosophical. Indeed, the most obvious comparison to another writer would be to that other lover of equal helpings of the playful and the profound, Angela Carter. Mazelis, like Carter, is evidently attracted to fairy tale and folklore (think not so much of the directly folkloric Carter of The Bloody Chamber but more the bewitched and bewitching explorer of the everyday that wrote The Magic Toyshop and Nights at the Circus). She is interested in imbuing the page not just with quotidian pain and grit (all though there is plenty of that in these stories too), but also with what she perceives as being the innate magic and mystery that exists within the fabric of our lives.

Take the opening ‘Levitation, 1969’, for example. Mazelis examines the realities of day-to-day life (from a disturbed father prone to violent outbursts to a schoolgirl game of levitation) and finds that such scrutiny lends apparently minor or sad events an air of almost beguiling otherworldliness. The schoolgirl protagonist of the story half thinks the broken items that appear in the house are the result of a poltergeist:

The poltergeist at home is getting worse. Last night after she had gone to bed he tore the television set from the stand and jumped on it. She doesn’t know if he was careful to switch it off and take out the plug first. Probably, as he’s always telling them all to do just that.

But in a sense, of course, the father in these rages, has almost become like a poltergeist to his frightened daughter and Mazelis beautifully pinpoints the contrast between the two modes of the man:

the destruction was the work of an angry spirit; the reconstruction was performed by her father, who is often to be found with a soldering iron in his hand.

The girl neglects her schoolwork and is sporadically bullied, however, she enjoys the old game of levitation, for the weightless, almost out of body experience it gives her, and the story ends beautifully – perhaps more the way a poem might – on a moment of metaphorical transcendence:

They are lifting her, higher and higher, to waist level, then shoulder level, then above their heads… Then finally, although the other girls shade their eyes and search the sky they can no longer see her. She’s free.

In ‘Caretakers’, Mazelis takes this otherworldliness a step further, by deliberately playing with the Gothic tradition of works such as The Turn of the Screw and the The Haunting of Hill House. But while the unexplained recurrence of:

wet footprints… running in a line from the bathroom to the fireplace in her bedroom …far smaller than her own. Child-sized naked heel and toe marks…

ultimately lead to the story’s tragic denouement, it is really Mazelis’ depiction of the burgeoning romance between two unlikely, sensitive souls, holed up in a odd old house together, that is the centre of the story.

Mazelis draws her wounded, self-esteem-battered characters with a great deal of sensitivity and perhaps her writing is at it’s most striking in a story like ‘Biology, 1969’, a particularly direct vignette concerning a young English teacher who is groped by a man on the deserted upper deck of a bus:

The places where he’d touched her were all burning somehow, her breast, her bottom, her private parts. She wanted to rub at them, to rub and rub until his touch was expunged. Yet she also couldn’t bear the thought of touching where he’d touched and contaminated her.

This brief story – which concludes, incidentally, with two of the teacher’s male colleagues being blithely sexist about her – highlights the impact acts such as the one described have on their victims. It is a mini-masterpiece that takes something rarely talked about (and certainly something that was almost completely disregarded in the year of the story’s setting), something that the protagonist feels ‘shame’ about, and turns it into a diamond sharp work of art.

Ritual, 1969 is a subtle collection of considerable breadth and ambition that sees Mazelis take us into a world which is both familiar and yet at the same time somehow uncanny. By taking the reader out of their comfort zone she makes them look again and again at the familiar, making them realise that it was never quite what it seemed in the first place.

Review by Sarla Langdon, The Bay

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Award winning Swansea writer Jo Mazelis, whose wonderful novel Significance (winner of the Jerwood prize) was reviewed in this column last year, returns with a collection of short stories titled Ritual, 1969.

A good short story reveals an entire life in a few pages and Mazelis is an expert in this genre, giving us glimpses of the supernatural and frissons of horror in her nineteen short stories.

Though each story is complete on its own, several themes emerge that run through them at random. For example spiteful little schoolgirls playing a sinister game called ‘Levitation’, conjoined twins coping with life (cue Irvine Welsh’s novel The Sex Life of Siamese Twins), ghosts wandering through the pages….

Mazelis’ stories start as portrayals of the mundane, the humdrum, the supernatural peeking through in a very disturbing counterpoint. It is conceivable that the understated economy of Mazelis’ unembellished prose is easily underestimated. Her style is carefully crafted, sharply honed with the artistic intention of harnessing a deceptive simplicity.

Mazelis has earned a stellar position in the contemporary literary world. Swansea is proud of our gifted local writer.

Review by Carla Manfredino, New Welsh Review

Friday, April 1, 2016

REVIEW by Carla Manfredino

NWR Issue 110

Ritual, 1969

by Jo Mazelis

What will a little girl be when she grows up? Will she learn to escape into a world with ‘no hands to catch her’, or has her education ended before it has even begun? These are some of the questions Jo Mazelis considers in her ebullient collection of short stories, Ritual, 1969. The period is impressively wide-ranging; one moment we are in sixteenth-century England in ‘The Twice Pricked Heart’, then time leaps forward to 1940 and we are peering out of a window in Paris with nine-year-old Amanda in ‘The Flower Maker’. The perspective is also varied, we glimpse the mind of an old woman picking apples and reminiscing about a past love as well a sleepless reverend who cannot express his desire for love.

The array of voices and settings push each story into unfamiliar territory. Even the four stories with ‘1969’ in their title explore a different stage of the female’s journey. The first story, ‘Levitation 1969’, follows a group of schoolgirls on the cusp of change. As the teenager Margaret fears in ‘The Twice Pricked Heart’, it is the moment ‘cream becomes butter and its elemental nature is entirely changed and can never be changed back.’ Margaret is faced with the realisation that she is no longer a child and must make her own way in the world, which could be a blessing or a curse.

And it is not only a girls’ transition that is explored in the book. In ‘Mrs Dundridge’ the adolescent Gerald is in a relationship with the eponymous older woman who feels she is losing him as he grows into a man. Gerald is critical of Mrs Dundridge’s ageing too, and irritated by her reticence. Neither tells the other how they feel, and like true lovers, they understand one another in spite, only adding to the heart break.

Silence is a recurring theme and it can both inhibit and permit an escape for the characters. In ‘Biology 1969’, the teacher Miss Monica McKay is on her way to school when she has a bad experience. Choosing to keep it to herself, her shaken state is explained as ‘women’s troubles’ by her male colleagues. In ‘The Green Hour’ Gwen uses her body to protest ‘against silence’ as a life model for an older man she is in love with. Georgina and Charlotte are quite literally joined at the hip in ‘Mechanics’, yet by remaining silent to the insensitive provocations of others, they enable a spectacular flight at the end. In ‘Storm Dogs’, Dorothy’s suddenly raised voice disorientates her domineering husband, but his descent is ‘nothing like flying’.

Mazelis is gifted at evoking an eerie atmosphere that lingers between the real and the supernatural. Many of the stories end on a quiet, unsettling note. The ghostly landscape in ‘Bird Becomes Stone’, a reference to Andrew Wyeth’s painting ‘Christina’s World’ (1948), is set in Wales under the formidable shadows of Plunlumon. Pathetic fallacy heightens the suspense of Sarah’s situation, ‘opalescent pale clouds hung over head holding the world in silence’ and ‘white puffs of cumulus cloud moved lazily across a yawning blue sky.’ In ‘Word Made Flesh’, sleepless Molly Finnegan sees ‘Only the moon winking through beech trees’ from her window. These poetic descriptions elevate the muted tone of the tales and lend them their enigmatic quality.

The stories are threaded with apt allusions to literature, feminism and mythology. In ‘Ritual 1969’ a teacher introduces Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’ to her class but they don’t know what a yew tree is. Like the tree in the poem, there seems to be only ‘blackness and silence’ for the disappointed teacher at the end. In the final story ‘Undone 1969’ the golden question is asked: ‘Who shall we be when we are grown?’: some will stay behind ‘like a trapped and dying bird’, while others fly away leaving only the sound of their beating wings.

Carla Manfredino is from Glan Conwy and is now studying an MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmith’s in London. She reviews for the Times Literary Supplement and is a reader for The White Review.

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