Imagine the Shipping Forecast as a declaration of love

Eley William's new stories feature everything from walruses to the Shipping Forecast
Eley William's new stories feature everything from walruses to the Shipping Forecast - Alamy

For a reviewer, a title such as Moderate to Poor, Occasionally Good is something of a dare. This short-story collection – the third fiction work from Eley Williams, one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists – displays all the wit that such a dare implies. Sometimes, it feels more like a linguistic exercise than an escape into the imaginary; but it’s undeniably a skilful book.

The eponymous short story is one of the most elegant. An announcer of the Shipping Forecast, who knows “nothing about shipping or, really, the sea”, decides to barricade themselves in the recording booth and declare their love for a partner. It’s brief but delightful: an experiment in compulsion. In another tale, a teenage girl finds contentment in praying to St Wilgefortis, the bearded 14th-century female saint, as she herself becomes aware of a pubescent downiness. The story is initially sweet, yet Williams takes it further, our character considering her father’s razor for an unpleasantly long period, and removing objects slowly from his wash bag – to shave, or for something worse? It’s in the menace that Williams excels.

Each story, though, is propelled by the same circuitous voice. And in The Horticulturalist, the play of words becomes a deluge. An insomniac gardener trips through associations, with phrases such as “a corralling or carolling of corollaries of worms” rolling around the pages. This is to Williams’s satisfaction, I’m sure, but the jeux d’esprit become vexing. Periodically, too, they veer into the twee, as when a “montage of silly walrus faces” is displayed on a character’s phone.

“Too-quick chicanery of thought can cause a conversational form of the bends,” Williams writes in one story. I suspect she knows this sentence will apply to the whole; I suspect she would quite like us to succumb to the bends. Unrelenting, stotting from idea to idea, swinging back on itself, this is fiction as an exercise in etymology. The most successful pieces here are the ones laced with feeling as well: take the opener, Scrimshaw, in which the bus, the riding of which is “cheaper than renting an office”, offers “moquette seat-covers right there as free Rorschach tests”. The phrase is perfectly formed, but it’s the melancholy that lingers.


Moderate to Poor, Occasionally Good is published by Fourth Estate at £16.99. To order your copy, call 0808 196 6794 or visit Telegraph Books

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