The Father of Octopus Wrestling and other small fictions, Frankie McMillan, Canterbury University Press
Canterbury University Press page
What a gorgeously produced book! A purple marbled cover with gold lettering and dark marbled section dividers inside. The book was designed and printed at Ilam Press, Ilam School and published by Canterbury University Press. I do hope more books emerge from this genius partnership.
Not far into reading I began to muse on the idea of original writing because the book is so invigoratingly original – I am fascinated by the origins of these short fictions that are shaped by an aeronautic imagination and (perhaps) specks of real experience. The realness is luminous – the sharp compounding detail does its work beautifully – yet each fiction offers tilts and kinks and little spikes of strangeness.
The opening piece, ‘Seven starts to the man who loved trees’, is like a test pot of beginnings that overlap with scene and foreboding to the point of fluidity and connection. The book’s dark swirly cover with its murky possibilities seems a perfect match because this fiction, like all the fictions we read here, arrives in tantalising pieces. We will never get the full story but we do get sensual and emotional impact. I love that.
The water-presence in the first section is a thematic link. There is a father who gets put in an aquarium, a sister who holds tight to her sinister secret by a river, there’s too much plastic in the ocean, an Amsterdam canal. There are multiple movements ( I am thinking of the movement of water that is both predictable and unpredictable). Movement is a way of going forwards; elsewhere someone is moving through Ireland’s eerie rock-clad Burren.
Frankie’s writing flows like honey and is so sweetly crafted with its shifting rhythms. In ‘The honking of ducks’ the first long sentence is like a breath held (a secret held) and we all come up gasping for air:
The thing to do with a secret is to swallow it, and just as you’re not bothered by thoughts of a plum’s progress through your intestinal tract, neither will you think of your sister running hand in hand with a strange man to the river bank and when your sister goes missing you will have to borrow words to explain why you never told and when the police say who put those words into your mouth you will think only of the loveliness of weeping willows, the sshhh sweep of fronds over the sandy bank, all the fun you will have when your sister sets up house under water and you have to swim through the clefts in rocks holding your breath against the squeeze.
The collection is a reading banquet: I am feasting on scenes, situations, relationships, human challenges, desires, loves, losses.
Situations – In ‘How we occupy ourselves’, after parental bickering, the family home gets physically split in half, and the father lives by the river and the mother lives on the flat, and the grandmother makes roly poly pudding and says ‘how lucky we are, all of us alive with roofs over our heads and telling each other stories’.
Situations – In ‘A good match’ a husband wants to know if his shirt looks good with his green jeans (third one tested). The wife looks at the clothes strewn on the bed after he has gone out and stares and muses: ‘Wonder again about what goes best, this or that, blue with green, him with me or her.’ I get a whole whoosh of feeling when I read the this final sentence.
Frankie’s short fictions (you could also say prose poems) have poetry’s ability to screen most of the detail but with a few deft strokes and admissions reach a poignant kernel of human experience.
Situations: In ‘Reading the signs’ a miniature but dynamic biography of a hospitalised father emerges. To his visiting offspring he admits regret over a chimp he had raised like a human child in a zoo. The visitor sees him at the window as they leave:
I waved, knowing that it was probably the last time I’d be seeing him but wanting the wave to convey all the love I had inside me, all the things I was wanting to do and all the things I was wanting to say but couldn’t.
Ah such a whoosh of feeling as I read these lines. The way a story, a situation, a scene twists your heart until it hurts.
Here I am breaking my rules and telling you the endings. The beginnings are equally good. Here is the the start to ‘Salt’, a piece that pivots on salt and a woman who is forbidden to eat it on the hospital ward:
Sometimes you can ask for something as small as salt only to be refused, the rules won’t allow it. Then salt becomes a big thing in your mind and all you can think of is salt; how it’s responsible for the salinity of the ocean, and then you imagine all the seas in the world, all the whales, then all the camel trains across deserts to bring salt to people like the big woman in the bed opposite. It puts it all into perspective when the nurse says, sorry no salt allowed on this ward.
You forgot to add salt is also good for mistakes.
And here is another favourite beginning (‘Jesus and the ostriches’): ‘Soon after Roland began sleeping in the caravan I saw Jesus.’
The Father of Octopus Wrestling offers many satisfactions. Yes it is a book in pieces but it is also a book of echoes, hinges, connections. Fathers are every which way you look, along with birds, Jesus, fish, mothers. The strangenesses will jolt you – like when you think you saw a wild cat but it’s the bending tree – and the human experience will make your skin prickle. Within the surprising anecdotes (think bizarre surreal unexpected) wisdom takes seed. This is a book that maps human existence, past present future, and I am all the better for having read it. I recommend you do too! I just love it to bits if you will forgive the pun.
The mothers of the mothers of the mothers
She tells the child that if all the great grandmothers were
to climb out of the ground to drift though the cemetery,
it wouldn’t be long before they came across each other,
laughing to see each other’s old faces and say they were to
hold hands, the long line of them would reach the other
island, but they couldn’t complain that their feet were in
the cold salty ocean, in fact the mothers of the mothers of
the mothers were used to much worse, some having only a
potato to eat at night or soldiers burning down their whares
and others having to wear corsets of whale bones that go all
the way to their knees but the child says that’s going too far
and she likes the part best where the mothers of the mothers
of the mothers wonder about the little girl who rides to
school in a car that does not eat hay but only drinks lakes
and lakes of petrol.