Book Review: A Witness of Waxwings by Alison Lock



Alison Lock’s A Witness of Waxwings is a tantalising collection concerned with metamorphosis and reminiscence. Age, retrospection and transformation emerge time and again in these brief narratives which spool imaginatively across time and place, frequently shapeshifting in form. Selkies and ghosts spook the pages, there are fast-forwarding clocks and masked villagers, there are ancient children, houses choking on secrets. Whilst Lock keeps one foot firmly on the living room floor in terms of coastal landmarks readers can identify with, including deserted beachscapes and idle rivers, these are stories shot through with the unimaginable. Sharp-edged turning points knock the familiar right out and take the reader’s breath with it. At times it feels like Lock is blowing the torch out with a dark fluidity and speed that makes the skin damp.

‘Into the Blue’ features an elderly woman recalling her adolescence when she was raped by her sister’s fiancée. History’s threads are embroidered via objectification of a vintage blue dress worn on the evening of the attack: ‘The blue dress tears as it is pulled up’ and there is a girl’s naïve reassurance that: ‘They will see the blood on her shoes. They will believe her.’ This literary device is a potent one. The dress has all the prominence of a court exhibit, cloth being the only witness to the woman’s sexual predator after a lifetime and serves as a traumatic reminiscence tool.

Lock does not spoon feed her readers. Blurry shards emerge from ‘Into the Blue’ that require careful arrangement as one might piece together the glassy jags of a mosaic and this reconstruction brings with it some uncertainty, doubt perhaps, the same kind of uncertainty and doubt many rape survivors might be confronted with, and arguably, the same sort of uncertainty dementia brings in memory processing. Justice is not to be had and whilst the ensuing pregnancy bring no surprise, there is still a sense of evolution with it, a celestial inevitability if you like, that feels as freeing as it can be ominous: ‘The weight of her womb no longer drags…her belly rises like a half moon.’

The transitory nature of these stories appeal so much because the precise moment of change is played out for readers in all their strung out bleakness. The horror of being unable to go back. To yesterday’s self, to our younger child, to innocence before it turned. ’Riptide’ is one such story based on a beach where a woman’s daughter, Pippa, goes missing and returns significantly aged so that her childhood life has gone, receded with the tide. This story exploits the mundane and repetitive nature of mothering, its intolerable everydayness that can be hard to cherish when sibling rivalries and transitions with step-parents threaten to overwhelm. Readers learn that Pippa’s new step-father is ‘often buying new toys, paying for activities – he is very kind that way’ and one wonders if her transformation in to a lean teenage girl, so many years older in the second it takes to flip a light switch is because he has groomed her. A torturous question of abuse that would force a child in to adult territory. Again, unknowingness tugs at readers and forms a gulf that is emotionally hard to negotiate. Readers are left to interpretion whilst the ‘…gull is swooping over the cliffs, diving and cruising along the bay, dipping in and out of the spiralling thermals.’

Lock’s linguistic style is concision. Her language is the fullest it can be with well-placed economy. One of my favourite sentences has all the musical composition poet Glyn Maxwell speaks of with his word and four ways: ‘Solar, lunar, musical, visual.’  Earthed with movement and sound, Lock’s patterning of words give bright, assonant music its pulse: ‘The soup has the odour of salt and earth and blood. The wind flutes the loose pane of the window. The bee has gone, and the curtains are billowing.’ In the closing story, ‘Saving Grace’, a jewellery box ballerina gets snapped off her plinth and set free from the key that dictates how she must move her limbs. The language of movement works in antithesis. Deceleration permeates the text, words of silence and a lull one can stretch out in. The poise of the words are melodious to the ears: ‘there is no music to make her spin on her points or make her hair fly across her face. She will no longer be made to turn around and around.’

Few fiction writers draw on the tip of the compass of transformation with such consistency and this collection marks Lock out as a writer who is writing on that precise moment. Crucially, during any transformation, whether that be human or not – concerned with fantasy or fact – is that inevitability of loss, the infinite understanding that what went before is gone even if change is restorative, necessary. This acute wisdom is often wounding, the squeeze in the throat before the swallow, and it is this discomfort that propels Lock’s finely wrought narratives of reminiscence and metamorphosis.


Glynn Maxwell, On Poetry (Oberon Books London, 2012) p.33

#alisonlock, #awitnessofwaxwings, #culturedllama, #shortstories, #literaryshortstories, #collections, #transformation, #theuncanny





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