Artfully strange short stories from a mostly forgotten 20th-century British writer.
Anna Kavan first appeared as a character in Helen Ferguson’s coming-of-age novel, Let Me Alone, in 1930. Ten years later, Kavan would reappear as Ferguson’s nom de plume. In the foreword to this new collection of stories, editor Walker asserts that this pen name freed Ferguson—who was also a journalist—to try new forms and explore “darkness, fantasy, madness and dystopia.” Ice (1967), Kavan’s eerily prescient novel about climate catastrophe provoked by human action and the last book to be published before her death in 1968, is probably her most well-known work, but these stories—written over three decades—offer a fascinating study of a writer who was always evolving and are exceptional as literature qua literature. Many of these stories are set in hospitals—or places that might be hospitals or prisons or some combination of the two. Human existence in these spaces is depicted as a nightmare from which neither the protagonist nor the reader can awaken. First published in the New Yorker in 1945, “The Blackout” is the story of a soldier who knows that something terrible happened while he was on leave, but he can’t remember what, exactly, it was. As a doctor’s questions push him closer and closer to the truth, Kavan creates a sense of dread that she refuses to alleviate, leaving the reader in sickening uncertainty. Set in a psychiatric hospital, “Face of My People” is similarly horrific. “He glanced up at the waiting nurse and smiled at her. She was his best nurse; he had trained her himself in his own methods, and the result was entirely satisfactory.” This line occurs just a page and a half into the story, but Kavan has already created an atmosphere so obviously insalubrious that we shudder to think of what this doctor’s methods might be. Not every story succeeds. “The Gannets” is simply grotesque. “The Old Address” is both grotesque and maudlin.
A writer fans of experimental fiction should know.