Some reviews of my work

Here’s a URL to a review of my poetry collection, Miners At The Quarry Pool:

Here are some reviews of Funderland, my first story collection:

FUNDERLAND – by Nigel Jarrett

(Parthian, Oct. 2011)

Selection of reviews

Nigel Jarrett’s stories take seemingly ordinary or innocent situations and gently tease out their emotional complexity. Both “Funderland” and “A Point of Dishonour” confound expectations superbly.

In the former, a couple who are not a couple negotiate a weekend away and their suppressed feelings for one another, while in the latter, a woman challenges the notion that her great-grandfather, shot for desertion during the First World War, should be seen as a hero. Jarrett likes the hidden tensions in family situations: caused by the strange stepfather in “Watching the Birdie”, for example. He’s not afraid of unusual perspectives and his bravery is well rewarded in this unusual and sensitive collection.

                                                                     LESLEY MCDOWELL, The Independent, 27/11/11

Anyone nervous about the safety of fairground rides should steer clear of this collection’s title story, in which the survivor of a big dipper collapse recalls the experience in slow-motion detail: “The accompaniment of splintering wood – he would always remember that sound – watching the dripping water as it flies off in the breeze like a necklace ripped from someone’s throat.” Occasionally the language can seem a little over-refined: does it really help to visualise a cub scout by noting the “green tabs sticking out below his knees like gold leaf raised by static electricity”? But, as a music critic by profession, Jarrett has a marvellous ear. A shepherd’s whistle is analysed as “B flat, then a glissando to the double octave, capped by a staccato triplet on D sharp”. And the stand-out story, “Mrs Kuroda on Penyfan”, is an enigmatic study of a Japanese woman’s displacement in rural Wales. Her confusion is encapsulated by a performance of Madama Butterfly in Cardiff: “torturing herself with ridiculous, old-fashioned feelings while western music splashed everywhere like breakers on a strange but exciting shore”.

                                                                           ALFRED HICKLING, The Guardian, Nov 1 2011

These stories are unflinchingly honest forays into modern life – particularly family life – with its pretensions, its blurring of things unsaid, its forgotten tragedies and its short-lived irruptions. They are told with cool detachment… though their cumulative force reflects a sympathy that almost but not quite turns into barely-suppressed anger and resentment. That it doesn’t, of course, is the mark of a writer in full control of his material.

                                                                                                                  ANON, The Times online.

Although it took me a couple of attempts to really dive into Funderland, Nigel Jarrett’s alert collection of short stories proves an intricate and compelling read. Rewarded with vivid tales of intense human emotion, violence, remembrance and sense of place, Nigel Jarrett’s imagination is matched by his vivid descriptive talents. As a writer and journalist based in Chepstow, there’s also a strong Welsh resonance running through many of Funderland’s tales – particularly in ‘Mrs Kuroda On Penyfan’. A strong debut collection.

                                                                            GARETH LUDKIN, Buzz magazine, December 2011.

Mrs Kuroda is a Japanese housewife who has made the Welsh Valleys her home, now living in the shadow of Pantmoel instead of Mount Fuji. Peter is a letter-writing pathologist who is preparing to cut open the Prime Minister while reminiscing about former lovers. Dr Fritz, meanwhile, is a musicologist whose days of discovering tribes in the Congo have been replaced with days drinking badly stewed tea in rural Wales. Funderland, Nigel Jarrett’s début collection of short stories, introduces us to this unlikely trio and plenty more.

Jarrett, a journalist, critic and award-winning writer, has a real skill with the short story; it’s a form that he clearly understands intuitively. Characters like Mrs Kuroda and Dr Fritz are at the heart of each piece, with every character being far more clearly depicted than the length of prose should feasibly allow. Jarrett shows the ability to distil the emotions and scope of a novel into each story and his characterisation of this motley crew of people is central to this. Each has a very real back story and a set of emotions that mean the punch each story packs is great.

Good short stories, like those in Funderland, don’t let a limited word count limit anything else. The title story of the collection is a great example of this. It is a piece of prose in which next to nothing happens, but a history is painted and a future is implied; eleven pages have the impact of a work much grander and the longing, sadness and hope one feels are disproportionate to the time taken to read it.

There are times in the book, however, where this is arguably Jarrett’s weakness. The snapshots of a life we see in ‘Uncle Kaiser’ are glimpses of a story that would arguably work better as a longer piece. Similarly, ‘Nomad’ could be expanded and would make a fantastic novel. Yet it’s hardly fair to criticise a writer simply for leaving you wanting more, which is surely the hallmark of a master craftsman.

If you’re a fan of the short story, Funderland is a collection that really shows what the form is capable of. Jarrett’s collection is a fantastic mix of dry humour, emotion, tension and the faintly bizarre. I eagerly await more and, dare I say it, a novel.

                                                     LIAM NOLAN, (Welsh Books Council) February 2012

A few minutes into Nigel Jarrett’s début collection of short stories, Funderland I turn the page and gasp: ‘Oh no, it can’t end so soon.’ I’ve already reached the final double-page of the title-story and the outcome of Dale and Carol’s tentative relationship really matters. But Jarrett’s lucid, evocative style turns those final two pages into a moving resolution in which the cadences of feeling are subtly, powerfully captured. At the foot of the stairs in the cottage they’ve rented after a fairground tragedy, they recognise that they are not just survivors but significant presences in each other’s lives.

This is not to give the ending away. A single sentence early in the story – ‘As handfuls of soil thudded on the coffin lids and a breeze blew, he caught a whiff of her perfume’ – not only typifies the best of his ability to suggest sensory experiences with such ease, but also establishes the desire for a new beginning which the remainder of the story ‘Funderland’ sets out to fulfil. And it does so, deftly, as it charts the doubts, fears, uncertainties, needs and dreams of emerging new passion.

Funderland’ is a fine opening story which sets the central theme of this collection: family relationships put to the test by encounters with friends, acquaintances and strangers, often in new locations. From a range of viewpoints, we see families drifting apart, generations at odds with each other, new bonds being formed, the beginnings of estrangement, adults clinging to their memories and myths being challenged. While many of the characters try to suppress their feelings, wary of what lies ahead, Jarrett draws upon their memories, observations and reflections to reveal the tectonic plates of relationships, grinding against each other beneath the surface.

In ‘Cherry Hill’, the narrator is a recent widow taking refuge in a beautifully evoked Provence. Attempting to come to terms with her grief, she encounters an eccentric pair of ex-pats, Bee and Mavis, much given to Wilde-like maxims. ‘I find pilgrimages so arduous,’ says Bee. ‘Not the religious sort. I mean journeys to the countries of the heart.’ This is the territory that all Jarrett’s characters travel but the journey brings unexpected revelations. In the course of this meeting, the widow has to admit how much her husband irritated her: ‘It’s just that the differences between couples which early on are submerged by desire ultimately become the source of hostility.’ For the first time, she recognises the changes which had occurred without her ever realising it.

If the stories take us through states of transition, the characters are invariably placed in transit. In the disturbing ‘Watching the Birdie’, teenager Kate makes a genuine attempt to accept the revolting habits of her new stepbrother and the extrovert behaviour of her step-father, Mr Charlton, with his clichés and conjuring tricks. When the car-journey finally ends at their holiday-home in Barnstaple, Mr Charlton takes advantage of the bedroom-arrangements to try out more sinister tricks. The final image of Kate’s bewilderment and vulnerability is touchingly achieved as she watches her stepfather’s hands: ‘She didn’t know how to answer, what to answer.’ Her isolation in the face of uncertainty is a condition that many characters in this collection experience.

Cultural isolation and division is explored in several stories, most notably the Rhys Davies Award-winning ‘Mrs Kuroda on Penyfan’, a superbly crafted tale of the wife of a Japanese businessman walking through the Brecon Beacons as she reflects upon an affair she has embarked upon. She is out of place in every sense of the word yet the tranquillity of the hills allows her to feel at home. Characteristically, Jarrett introduces moments of ironic humour such as the time when her husband leads her across the bedroom to a distant view of snow-capped hills. ‘Mount Fuji!’ he cries, excited by the vision of a familiar image, totally oblivious to his wife’s affair.

While ‘Uncle Kaiser’ explores the racist legacy of British imperial power in India through a series of undated diary-type entries alternating between London and Bombay, it is one of the less convincing stories: its first person narrative does not achieve a convincing consistency and individuality of voice. Strangely, I found this to be the case with a number of the stories told in the first-person: ‘Nomad’, ‘A Point of Dishonour’ and the macabre, epistolary ‘The Lister Building’. The characters slip into abstract statements that betray their voice. ‘He was right about Nick, but in a way that must always make the recipients of that kind of observation feel ever so slightly inferior: out of the race, as it were, or even a non-runner.’ This kind of remark, from Morley in ‘The Lister Building’, could be attributed to several of the narrators, or indeed the author himself.

On the other hand, when Jarrett adopts third person narration, his stories become more convincingly modulated as the gears shift between past and present, inner and outer experience, one perspective and another. This is true of ‘Funderland’, ‘Mrs Kuroda’ and the restrained passion of ‘Grasmere’. The latter is a real treat of a story in which, again on holiday, Millie feels herself moving away from her husband, and closer to her daughter, while retaining childhood memories of her brother who might turn up at any moment. The sense of landscape and nature as stimuli to Wordsworthian remembrance of those ‘seeds in time’ is beautifully achieved, without artifice, leaving the reader with a sense of expectation and possibility.

This is, indeed, how I feel about Nigel Jarrett’s collection as a whole. Funderland is an excellent first offering, giving a thought provoking series of wry, often wistful fresh angles on the fragility of relationships. Readers will want more, anticipating the emergence of a strong, telling voice in fiction from Wales.

                                                                               ROBERT WALTON, New Welsh Review, May 2012

This is an attractive collection of short stories by a writer who is a master of the form. They are varied in setting but alike in their subtlety of expression and unpredictability of outcome. It is a book of intimations, suggestions rather than statements. It allows one to interpret as one wishes, and as such is a model of engagement brtween author and reader.

The characters are vividly drawn and their situations explored with ingenuity and a rare narrative gift, seen to perfection in the prize-winning story “Mrs Kuroda on Penyfan”. Mrs Kuroda, born to a survivor of the Nagasaki atomic bomb blast in 1945, comes to Wales with her husband, an executive with a Japanese firm in the Valleys. They live in a large country house provided by the firm, work hard at absorbing the local culture, but encounter unexpected problems – in her case, her feelings for one of her husband’s employees.

In contrast, “A Point of Dishonour”, a first-person narrative, tells how a supposed act of cowardice in the 1914-18 war induces a great-grand-daughter of the soldier concerned to confront an author with fresh facts on the case. The contrast between the author’s emotional indifference to the affair and the descendant’s engagement is imaginatively constructed.

Nigel Jarrett brings to these tales a verbal dexterity – housemartins ‘flicker below the eaves like the ignition of a tiny straw fire’ – that makes this a work of continual surprises. A book to savour and enjoy.

                                           HERBERT WILLIAMS, The Sons of Camus Writers International Journal

These sixteen short stories take your breath away. Sometimes from suspense, as the patchwork of characters watch and wait for events to unfold, problems to be resolved, friendships and relationships to flower or fall apart, as in the title story. It has an eggshell quality, this tale, two people moving towards each other tentatively, horror turning to hope.

Other times it is with shock – Mrs Kuroda, her tiny feet on the edge of Penyfan. My heart went out to her.

In ‘Watching the Birdie’ there’s a growing sense of anxiety, a holding of breath which, when exhaled, is not in relief. Lives are not neat in these stories, so neither are the endings. If in fact they are endings – some of the stories are like smippets from a cutting-room floor.

People are watching, as in ‘Nomad’, often through windows, the glass plain or stained. (The more frightening stories have no windows at all.) And people are being watched with a certain envy – the piano teacher, the Hungarian poet. The lives of those for whom they wait seem distanced or veiled, ‘as if intimacy would invite trouble’. And there are mysteries: Who is ‘R’? Why is the gender of ‘I’ unresolved until the end?

Some of these stories leave you wanting more, as if they were a first chapter, which is clever but annoying, as life is. The fluency and rhythm have choppiness, as life has. My instructions would be, ‘Read slowly. Don’t allow to boil. Keep stirring gently. Allow to stand’. I didn’t resent the re-reading I felt they needed, the prising apart of character and sense. It was so well worth it. It’s a wonderful collection

                                                                                              MARY UZZELL EDWARDS, Cambria

‘Funderland, Nigel Jarrett’s superb short story collection, demands the tribute of slow and careful reading […] Explaining what Jarrett does with language is a bit like trying to map gossamer with a chunky felt-tip, but these are mostly s…tories about families, about people’s relationships with and understanding of each other – classic short story territory. They are however so finely attuned to the shades and possibilities of meaning in the words people exchange as to make your own perceptions of human behaviour seem hopelessly superficial.[…] The revelation of these stories is the vast and subtle and inarticulate web that links and separates us all. Read them slowly, more than once, and learn. (and more…)

                                       MARY-ANNE CONSTANTINE, Planet magazine (issue 205), February 2012


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