Hitting Trees with Sticks by Jane Rogers

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By the winner of the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke Award, Hitting Trees with Sticks is a collection of short stories, both previously published and new, brought together here for the first time. In this, her first short story collection, Jane Rogers displays her alchemical abilities to transport and transform her ideas across continents, minds and hearts, and she is kind enough to take us with her.

In ‘Conception’, a mother re-writes the tale of how her daughter was conceived. Rogers takes us back to the night of conception and the empty old farmhouse with its lonely keeper; a man whose wife has left him.

In the Gothic tradition, this house is full of old toys that litter the floor, unused and unwanted. The couple cling to each other to blot out the sad environment.

Our protagonist mother re-masters the story of the empty and ramshackle old farmhouse where the couple stayed that night, into one full of life, allowing her daughter to believe her start was a happy one.

Rogers carefully guides us between the two stories, the past and present, and in doing so the reader is left on the precipice of judgement – is the woman here protecting her daughter’s happy identity or rewriting her own unhappy past?

Roger’s fierce eye for character and detail means phrase drips upon phrase, weighted with meaning, but still delicately crafted. Rogers performs this balancing act with apparent ease. Throughout each tale we are caught in between her characters’ perceived and actual moral paths. Her women are not cookie cutter stereotypes: they cannot be defined clearly – and herein lies the joy in reading about their lives.

Roger’s fierce eye for character and detail means phrase drips upon phrase, weighted with meaning – but still delicately crafted. We navigate through her characters’ dilemmas with them, and, as in any good short story, Rogers tosses us her clues with glee.

Cleverly she keeps us in the domes of her characters’ minds, caught up in the delusions that accompany them until, with a cursive glance here and an exhausted sigh there, she throws us a bone to level our perspective at the last minute.

In ‘The Disaster Equation’, a young girl on a boat to the West Indies with two men who size her up like prey proves her strength in facing down an attentive barracuda, but in her hardness, is she protecting herself from being loved?

Rogers takes us to Uganda in ‘Tale of a Naked Man’, where a husband is convincing his waiting wife that he was taken hostage, and not cheating: which version should she believe?

The power of these stories hangs in the gap between our characters’ desires and the world that answers them. Hitting Trees with Sticks is a fascinating collection of stories that spotlights the unsaid questions in women’s lives, as Rogers illuminates the uncertainties that can follow them.

Hitting Trees with Sticks is published in paperback by Comma Press and is available from Foyles, Amazon and your local independent bookshop, priced at £8.99.

Rating: 4/5

Recommended for: Fans of an intricately-crafted short story.

Other recommended reading: Try The Mortgaged Heart by Carson McCullers and Bliss, and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield.

Elizabeth Simner