White Review Short Story Prize winner Julia Armfield explores women’s experiences in contemporary society, mapped through their bodies. As urban dwellers’ sleeps become disassociated from them, like Peter Pan’s shadow, a city turns insomniac. As a popular band gathers momentum, the fangirls following their tour turn into something monstrous. After their parents remarry, two step-sisters, one a girl and one a wolf, develop a dangerously close bond. And in an apocalyptic landscape, a pregnant woman begins to realize that the creature in her belly is not what she expected.
Armfield’s fictions are set on...thinner surfaces, unstable places where boundaries – between humans and animals, wakefulness and sleep, land and sea – are prone to weaken or disappear. Grounded in the everyday, the stories borrow from myth and Gothic literature, their familiarity upended by elements of the uncanny and macabre. Bodies are sites of transformation; they can metamorphose, turn to stone or rise from the dead with tendons exposed and skin coming away from the bone ... Armfield...pays as much attention to her sentences as she does to her plots, shifting or consolidating meaning with the use of a single word. Her writing is impeccably honed, full of juxtapositions and qualifications that help to create a creeping sense of unease ... Tapping into the darkness of the contemporary world, she brings to mind other young British writers like Sophie Mackintosh but her fantasies have a precision and surreality of their own ... Women have animal as well as human natures here; they can be difficult and vengeful and across the collection the male body count is high ... a bold and timely collection that skews unpalatable truths in order to see them afresh.
The first question you ask of all these stories is, what’s happening here? The answer is a kind of tender cruelty, and often a transformation, hardly noticeable to begin with, then helter-skelter. Clues are subtly underplayed, hidden off-topic, allowed to accumulate; by the time they seem less throwaway it’s too late to ignore them ... if one of the delights of Armfield’s method is the richness of her allusions, her gleeful repurposing of myth and folktale, another is the liveliness of the symbols themselves, which are always evolving with the narrative: they reverse, combine, dance about in the corner of the eye...Violence teases you from under the skin, then pours out into the story. Nothing remains as you first thought, and you’re never quite sure of your ground. Armfield, meanwhile, enjoys herself as the sly oracle, pretending to hide your fortune in a riddle but really telling it simply and outright. You’re nodding your head in agreement and not getting the joke ... What makes this collection so exciting? It’s the way the salty, unsentimental underpinning of mythology combines itself with clinical contemporary observation ... although Armfield is full of tenderness for her characters, she never apologises on their behalf; she’s fantastical, but never less than realistic. It’s the satisfying lean towards the macabre and the metamorphic, balanced by wickedly clever prose and a sense of humour that seems to loom up like a character in itself, having been lying in wait in a corner all along. It’s the way that every paragraph balances itself perfectly between the visceral and the cool.
In Salt Slow...English author Julia Armfield, fresh from winning the 2018 White Review short story competition, gives the clearest demonstration of how much more interesting a good book of stories can be compared to a novel ... Armfield’s debut introduces a significant new voice in contemporary writing; original and challenging, and concerned as much with the spare, poetic metres of her style as with her wider themes of femininity and the body. There’s a lightness of touch to these stories that demonstrates a confidence in and a clear understanding of her material. Even though they’re rooted in physicality and the material world, each story seems as strange and troubling as a dream; illogical and inevitable, and all the more powerful for that.