In his second book of short fiction, Manners explores the uncomfortable spaces, the gaps in communication, which can exist between men and women. A sense of longing or desperation weaves its way through the pages, stringing the stories together like a necklace of bruised pearls, evoking that same feeling you get when the object of your desire remains achingly out of reach.
In many, although not all, of the stories, it is the male characters’ affections which go unrequited, as several of Manners’s heroes have a curious tendancy to fall for cuddle-wary, commitment-challenged women. The narrator in “Mirror” describes his lover’s skin as “dry and cool to the touch,” and when he attempts to generate a little heat by reaching out to offer her a massage, he’s given the cold shoulder – literally and figuratively. “That’s enough – you’re hurting me,” Mia snips in a less than lukewarm response.
Cold is a recurring theme, often accompanied by dreary dampness. The chill of Manners’s prose is the kind that gets deep into your bones on late autumn rainy afternoons when everything is dying and dull. In “On the Beach, a Sound Far Off,” a heavy rainstorm provides the backdrop for a travelling couple’s drowning relationship.
In the same story, we are reminded of Abby’s vulnerability when she is woken in the night by the rattling of a balcony door. In Manners’s harsh world, people feel unprotected against countless cruelties. “We’re not well defended,” says Abby’s lover Paul, referring to viruses and bacteria. “There are too many ways in.”
References to disease taint many of the book’s pages. In “Two Eyes are Regarding Thee,” Manners describes a scene in which a man is arrested by two cops outside a shelter for the homeless: “He spat at them, a loose drooling gob that the cops avoided like a bullet. They were afraid of infection, a virus getting in their mouths or eyes.”
In “Mouse,” fear of illness becomes a full-blown theme. Convinced that “there is a mouse in the house,” the narrator’s paranoia gets the better of him. “I have looked into the matter and I can tell you that there are over thirty diseases that you can catch from a rodent.” By delving into the absurd, “Mouse” offers a bit of comic relief in an otherwise heavy collection. Swept up by his imagination, the narrator begins to blame the mouse for myriad counts of mischief. Addressing an ex-lover, he condemns the mouse’s destructive, perhaps even slightly perverted, behaviour. “The worst damage was to a pair of your panties, Carolyn, black ones, the kind that ride high on the hip and flatter the buttocks. They made you look very sexy. You left them here by mistake and I’ve been meaning to wash them and return them. I can’t now, of course. Not after what the mouse did to them.”
A tone of violence prevails, with many stories reading like a finger on the trigger of a gun. In the title story, even the moon is described as a “hole blasted in the sky.” Exploring the relationship between a female cop and her lover, “Wound Ballistics” evokes the darker, potentially destructive side of “love,” the razor-thin line between pain and pleasure. “He loved her, he wanted to hurt her,” writes Manners in a disturbing sex scene which has the hero sticking a gun into his lover’s mouth.
There is a stark beauty to Manners’s voice that is hard to resist. Though disquieting, his prose is often poetic and strangely seductive, Manners invites us to linger on scenes we’d normally be tempted to fast-forward, scenes wrinkled with sadness and yearning, but which seem almost vuluptuous in their gloominess.
Perhaps Carl Jung was right. Maybe the shadow shouldn’t be repressed. mRb