My first venture in reading short story collections didn’t go as well as I had hoped. I mean, I’ve read short stories before, don’t get me wrong, but I had up until that point, never read an anthology of them. But then, about a year ago, I discovered an extremely talented lady indeed. Dianne Gray. Her thriller meets young adult meets contemporary novel, The Everything Theory, was so intelligently written, so absorbing and so, well, just brilliant, that when I discovered she had put together an anthology of her award winning short stories, well it was a no brainer really wasn’t it?
Manslaughter and Other Tears is a collection of twelve stories told mostly in the first-person by a scorned wife, a lonely teenager, a writer … even a ghost. But they are dark in nature, captivatingly addictive, with characters that have strong voices. It is the characterisation of each protagonist that pulls you further into the story, holding you tight, refusing to let you go until the last line hits you in the face – usually with a gob-smacking twist that will leave you astounded, smiling and re-reading the story, fervently searching for all of the little clues that hint at the story’s real purpose and meaning.
Take The Butcher of Meena Creek for instance. Seemingly about abused housewife, Maggie Smithers, who is cooking the dinner at the Mayor’s party. Lasagne. We learn however, that this is not the first time Maggie has cooked Lasagne at one of the Mayor’s parties. Her husband, the local town’s butcher, didn’t like this dish, and well Maggie later learned that perhaps she shouldn’t test her husband’s patience. But what looks like a story about a housewife bravely standing up for herself, making a stand against not only her controlling husband, but also the likes of people such as Loretta Larson – high class wannabes and pretentious prudes – later turns out to be much more sinister indeed! This is a shy, reserved woman who takes hold of her freedom in such a gritty way that almost becomes humorous.
And it is Dianne Gray’s writing that provides the laughs in such shocking stories; stories that shouldn’t be funny at all, but you just can’t help but applaud her look at life and the actions her characters take in such extreme situations. Whether it be the woman who finds her husband in bed with another man, and eventually goes on a rampage in Hot Dog Stand, or the devious way in which an elderly woman can use her frail age and forgetfulness to her own advantage in Grandmothers and Gypsies. I think the author has such a fantastic understanding of people, which not only gives her ample amount of predicaments for her characters, but also the responses in which they act – which are so lifelike, you could almost imagine your own next-door neighbours being like the nosey neighbours in Set-Up. There is a reason why the title, Manslaughter and Other Tears has the LAUGHTER accentuated in the Manslaughter.
But although some do make you laugh and gasp and snigger, other pull on your heartstrings and evoke sadness and sorrow. You can feel for some of the characters so much, they stay with you long after you closed the book, which is an incredible feat of storytelling; no wonder some of these stories of award winning. Take Dorothy Gale for instance in Unplugged. You follow her life story, with voices that fill her head, which taunt her and snide at her throughout, feeling sorry for the girl, who presumably has a mental illness. But it isn’t until you read the last few paragraphs that the real meaning of the story hits you, and you find yourself covered in goosebumps, shocked, amazed and so full of grief, you have to fight hard to hold back the tears. James is another lovingly told story that evokes the same sadness.
But at the end of the book, Dianne Gray gives an explanation, an insight into where the ideas for each of these stories came from, which actually suddenly makes you sit up and realise that yes, these are stories! You get so caught up and sucked into the drama of male-orientated workplaces, teenagers wanting to get back at their ungrateful parents, that you actually do forget that these stories aren’t real. And when you see how the stories sparked, it gives you a new sense of appreciation and admiration for just how talented this author is. Dianne Gray is such a clever writer, that she doesn’t need to hide behind elaborate description, or action packed scenes with explosions and fireworks. She simply only needs to write a sentence and she already has you in her hands.
I was a little apprehensive before reading Manslaughter and Other Tears, mostly because I had so much respect for Dianne Gray, I almost didn’t want to be disappointed. Thankfully, this collection of Award winning short stories epitomise exactly how short stories should be written for the adult market. The twists and turns hit you so hard, that you can only manage to read each story one at a time, and rightly so, because they are more effective that way. These stories need to be put on a pedestal and worshipped as some of the best out there – they really are that good. My personal favourites are Grandmothers and Gypsies and Unplugged. If you can handle laughs, tears, gasps, twist and turns, then unplug the telephone, turn off the TV, put the children to bed, and be prepared to be simply amazed.
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