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Julia Bell
Julia Bell

Julia Bell is a writer and Senior Lecturer at Birkbeck and Course Director of the Creative Writing MA. She is the author of three novels, most recently The Dark Light to be published in May 2015 by Macmillan, the co editor of the Creative Writing Coursebook, as well as three volumes of short stories most recently The Sea In Birmingham. She also takes photographs, writes poetry, short stories, occasional essays and journalism, and is the co-curator of spoken word night @InYerEarLondon. Twitter: @juliabell.

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Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

Many debut story collections seem to have a certain unspoken structure: do something in second person, try a different gender, a different timeframe, throw in a few unlikely settings – in essence, show that you can be flexible both with voice and point of view and are unafraid to take risks. This collection ticks all the boxes of an author moving through form – there’s a female point of view in ‘Wild America’, a second person in ‘Leopard’, and the dazzling title story set in the time of the Vikings which seems to owe something of a debt to George Saunders in its anarchic use of contemporary discourse to create Vikings who speak like us, man.

          But there is also a unique vision at work here too. A mercurial eye for startling imagery and the darkness of the male psyche. In ‘The Brown Coast’, the first story, Bob Munroe goes to a beach house somewhere in a Southern costal backwater to escape a failed marriage. The landscape is bleak: ‘the land here met the water in a steeply sloping apron of mud that sang with mosquitoes and smelled terribly of fart gas’. He becomes unwittingly embroiled with his alcoholic neighbours and ends up in a spiral of self loathing that the writing renders both funny and moving.

          There is an interesting relationship with landscape in this collection. Lives can come to no good in these kinds of places: in these stories life is somehow spoiled, gone rotten, a metaphor cleverly realised in ‘Retreat’. It’s something of a trope of North American short fiction to uncover these kinds of small lives – the failed American dreaming. So the subject matter may not be news, but the context and imagery has a rhythmic and contemporary freshness that defamilarizes and makes the subject new. In ‘Down Through the Valley’ the narrator is dealing with the fact that his wife has a new relationship with one Barry, who is the exponent of the kinds of retreats where people ‘interface with cedar trees and experience cosmic episodes’. This is America under Bush, haunted by self-doubt and failure, the language loose, rhythmic, almost casual.

          What I also admire about this collection is Towers’ uncanny ability to conjure a character in one or two lines of description: ‘his face was nearly all cheek with small, crooked features that looked like they’d been stuck on in a hurry’; ‘she had the kind of hungry, large-eyed prettiness around which Japanese cartoonists have established whole religions of lechery’ and so on.

          Ultimately the pleasure of this book lies in reading something so genuinely linguistically fresh. When Ezra Pound exhorted the writer to ‘make it new’ it seems to me that he might have been encouraging precisely this kind of writing.


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