Tuesday 15 January 2019

Review by Jon Wilkins of "High Spirits: A Round of Drinking Stories," ed. Karen Stevens and Jonathan Taylor

I have seen High Spirits advertised on social media for months and had always thought its sub title was A Round of Drinking SongsA bit bold I thought, but I do enjoy a good song. So without reading the blurb, I assumed there would be plenty to choose from! Then when I received my copy, I realised it was Drinking StoriesSucking up the disappointment I began to read them.

So Drinking Stories: would this be an uplifting, joyous approach to the theme of having a carousing time and the benefits of being let loose through alcohol? No. What I did learn is that, on a very basic level, drinking is not that good for your body, your mind or your soul. Just some of the outcomes in the short stories here include death through drinking too much, suicide, and a woman scarred when she is burnt, who loses an eye after excess consumption. There is an emboldened paedophile. There are catastrophes that follow people's divorce and the estrangement from their children. Another character is lost in an underground labyrinth, and presumed dead. We also see intoxication resulting in cheating on a dead husband with his brother, then infidelity with new neighbours. 

Though sometimes depressing, the stories are all very well written and surprising in every sense. If you did want to be uplifted, this is not the right book; if you want to read clever description and subtle depictions of relationships under pressure then this is the right book for you. We go deep into characters who, though under the spell of alcohol or alcoholics, are able to show life in a clear, even visceral way.

There is such variety. No two stories have the same theme: drink may be the cause of problems and is never the solution, but we see this in every which way. We see how children are affected. In "The Ballad of Barefoot Bob" by David Swann, it is not enough for young Bobby to have an alcoholic father; he also has to suffer his own mental torments. In "May Day" by Alison Moore, we see Gareth trying to do right by his daughter now living with his estranged wife and her new partner, battling the bottle and also his jealousy of the new man. He sinks into his own metaphorical and literal maze and we are left asking: does he survive or not? For me, the most evocative tale, "Bones" by Hannah Stevens, concerns Henry, who sees his drunken partner Bethan topple from his bedroom window to her death. It underlines the futility of drinking to oblivion.

This collection is a vibrant, thought-provoking set of stories. A collection that makes us think, makes us confront a way of life that is so self-destructive, yet so attractive until events take over and control is lost. You may not be singing along at the end of reading this book, but the stories will remain with you and are accessible in a way that that begs us to challenge and to discuss the outcomes. The editors have done a fine job in bringing these carefully crafted stories to us.

About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is sixty-three. He has a gorgeous wife Annie and two beautiful sons, and loves to write. He is a retired teacher, lapsed Waterstone's bookseller and former Basketball Coach. He taught PE and English for twenty years and coached women’s basketball for over thirty years.  He has always loved books and reading.

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