Reviews||

Don’t Try This at Home by Angela Readman

23rd Apr 2015

★★★★
Don't Try This at Home by Angela Readman
With an eclectic cast of characters featuring Catwoman, Elvis, conceptual artists, saints and sentient toys (not to mention the dog-faced girl or the keeper of the jackalopes), Don't Try This at Home was always going to be fantastic - in all possible senses of the word.

The debut collection from author and poet Angela Readman, Don’t Try This at Home contains twelve short stories, including the beautifully weird and heartwarming tale of The Keeper of the Jackalopes, which won the 2013 Costa Short Story Prize.

As a poet, Angela Readman has won both accolades and awards for her vivid, innovative imagery and authentic perspective.

Her work has been described as “a carefully stitched embroidery of the familiar and the often overlooked,” and that’s certainly true of the stories collection in Don’t Try This at Home.

Angela Readman is a talented and original voice, bringing an unsettling and strange magic to her sharply observed stories of the everyday.

From the opening sentence (“I cut my boyfriend in half; it was what we both wanted”), we’re in odd and unchartered territory, made all the more poignant and powerful for the fact it feels so familiar.

From the boyfriend in the title story, cut in half with a spade because “he said he could be twice as productive” to the narrator of Everywhere You Don’t Want to Be, preoccupied with a complicated relationship until she encounters “the other me,” an almost-identical homeless woman, the characters in Readman’s stories have recognisable frustrations and fears.

This is a particular skill of Angela Readman; deftly drawing characters who are alienated, isolated and in pain, then introducing an entire other element of otherworldly oddity.

More than anything, Don’t Try This at Home is a collection of survival strategies; of humanity in a harsh world and characters finding brave but sometimes bizarre ways to cope with the odds stacked against them, their own unique heartbreaks and hurts.

In any collection like Don’t Try This at Home, they’ll always be some standouts. For me, those included Conceptual, which features a family of conceptual artists (“on special occasions, my family cut their clothes from paintings. Mum wore Botticelli. My sister wore Ophelia’s drowning dress, and Dad was the king some woman in a medieval painting swept around,” and When We Were Witches, where a young girl is sent to live in a forest with a woman rumoured to be able to turn things to stone.

The award-winning story The Keeper of The Jackalopes is an obvious highlight, featuring a defiant father and daughter fighting the system by putting antlers on stuffed rabbits.

In There’s a Woman Works Down the Chip Shop, a working-class mother turns into Elvis, while Dog Years is a brief but bittersweet look into life as a dog-faced girl, a character whose “birth certificate is a sideshow flyer,” although she says it’s not so bad because of her love for Archie, the lobster boy.

The rich atmosphere and curious characters are reminiscent of authors like Angela Carter and Katherine Dunn, while the knife-sharp observation and tight storytelling reminded me in places of Mary Gaitskill, with the melancholy mood of Banana Yoshimoto‘s work.

And although the short story form inevitably means that – on occasion – we don’t always get the in-depth character development we might want, the stories are all conceptually fearless and bold, by turns brutal and tender but always making an impact.

Published in May by And Other Stories, this is an evocative, memorable collection sure to stay with you long past the last page. Definitely do try at home.