The old advice to stick to what you know in writing is often ridiculed for its restrictive nature. I think, however, that Jo Cannon may well have written what she knows in her debut collection, Insignificant Gestures. Fortunately for the reader it appears that as a GP who works in Sheffield, who has worked in Africa, and who is a sensitive, intelligent woman, Jo Cannon “knows” rather a lot.
The collection opens with the title story “Insignificant Gestures” which begins:
“When I returned from Malawi I retrained as a psychiatrist. I never wanted to smell blood again, or the sweet nail varnish odour of starvation.”
I thought I knew where the story was heading as the fictional doctor remembers Celia, the girl who worked as his servant and “came with the house that came with my job.” I was wrong, there is so much more to this than I expected, layer upon layer creating a whole world of connections, regret, devastation, ruin and death in just over 7 pages.
It’s a powerful story to follow.
Human suffering hurts wherever it occurs, and that seems to be at the heart of this collection. Characters are displaced, or searching. Pain and grief are expressed without sentimentality.
That’s not to say there isn’t much needed light and levity.
Aunty Doris is a wonderful creation who looms large in Evo-Stik and the Bigamist.
“Subsisting on jam sandwiches and syrupy tea, she grew fat. Her legs like two elephant trunks, wrinkled and veiny, were permanently raised on a pouffe.”
And “New Look” features a protagonist whose sense of mischief helps highlight her own search for place.
In “The Alphabet Diet” Mick, the obese main character, loses weight in an extraordinary way. It’s a daft tale, probably necessary as contrast, but again is underpinned by a serious issue.
Some characters are created so deftly that the reader believes in them.
Rosa in “Staying Power” says:
“Wherever we go, we’re too many. In small spaces the children seem to expand, filling every corner.”
“No building contains us, we spill over. Other houses in the street hold three or four people, ours twenty or thirty.”
I saw Rosa, and her assortment of relatives. She is magnificent and I am glad that her story ends with hope.
Random observation - People run, a lot! I imagine that Jo Cannon must be a runner herself because it features so often.
Jo has won many competitions with her stories and it has just been announced that “Insignificant Gestures” is on the long-list for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize (alongside Polly Samson, Vanessa Gebbie, Nik Perring, Susannah Rickards and Helen Simpson amongst others. Full list here.)