The short story form has received a lot of renewed interest of late, with many attributing this to our shortening attention spans, the form’s capacity for allowing authors to take stylistic risks, or the fact we can more readily squeeze a short story in and around our increasingly hectic lives. Whatever the reason, it’s encouraging that publishers – including industry heavyweights and small independents alike - are investing in it like never before.
Kate North’s collection Punch is a tour de force that presents a range of voices that offer us fascinating glimpses into the modern human condition when faced with some sort of personal or existential crisis. At the centre of many of the pieces are couples or individuals who’ve reached a particular moment that will force them to make a life-changing decision, or act decisively, at least. In one of the collection’s highlights, ‘Lick,’ thirty-year old Paul discovers a small, fleshy protrusion growing from the palm of his hand: ‘It had started out like a blister, a ball of fluid skinned over. Then it firmed up, becoming the size of a small thimble.' Paul’s attempts to conceal this creature from a girl he has begun dating are comical, believable and fantastical, all at once. In this story and others, there are definite echoes of Kafka, particularly in North’s pursuit of exposing the ‘otherness’ inside all of us, as well as the ordinary human’s appetite and capacity for transformation.
Elsewhere, the author proves she has a keen ear for everyday dialogue, producing scenes that are often rooted in the vernacular, and are all the more authentic for their inclusion. The bullies in another standout story, ‘Punch,’ manage to evoke scenes from our own childhoods with their ceaseless attacks on the protagonist, calling her a ‘lezzer,’ ‘monger,’ ‘fat dyke sister,’ and her brother a ‘spaz.’
But for all of North’s playful command of language and stylistic flourishes, these are never made at the expense of character, and this leads each piece to a satisfying conclusion. There are two pieces that would have benefited from being explored a little more deeply, in my opinion: ‘Beaujolais Day’ and ‘Fifteen Arthur Crescent’ contain the type of brevity that left me wanting more as a reader. Or maybe that is the author’s point: the fact we drift in and out of each other’s lives for the briefest of moments, without the ability to truly get under the skin of others unknown to us or standing at the margins of our world.
About the reviewer
Paul Taylor-McCartney is currently studying for a PhD in Creative Writing with the University of Leicester, working on a dystopian novel entitled The Recollector. He recently moved to Cornwall to complete his research, continue with his work in teacher education and is planning to open a ‘retreat’ next year to support the work of fellow writers and artists.