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The Ephemera
Neil Williamson
Elastic paperback £5.99

review by David Hebblethwaite

The Elastic Press collections are a great way to discover new authors; but they also offer the chance to rediscover authors, to give shape to the styles and concerns of writers you've read maybe once or twice in a magazine, but whose voices have become lost in the din. My reason for wanting to read The Ephemera was Neil Williamson's superb contribution to The Elastic Book Of Numbers (which, I thought at the time, was the only story of his that I'd read; though, as it turned out, there had been another). I wanted to find out what the rest of his work was like; I discovered that he has an intriguing and distinctive style that permeates the entire collection without becoming stale or predictable. Like to know more? Step this way...

Williamson's writing can be somewhat oblique, which makes for the kind of stories you have to work at (nothing wrong with that, of course!). It also means that reactions to those stories can be particularly subjective. For example, Hard To Do is the tale of a woman tidying the house while she prepares to leave her partner; then again, something else may (also) be going on. I have to admit I didn't understand it fully - but I don't mind, because I found the story highly evocative, with all its small details; and there was just... something about it that made me wonder. Then we have a story like Shine, Alone After The Setting Of The Sun, in which Lorna, a musician, is unable to decipher the mosaic being constructed by her partner, Annie. As with Hard To Do, I finished this story feeling I'd missed something; but this time that annoyed me, for no reason I can satisfactorily explain. I don't think it's a bad story, by any means; but that was my gut reaction. The important point is that these tales inspire complex reactions rather than just being instantly forgettable.

Amber Rain takes one of the most well worn genre themes - alien invasion - and puts a striking twist on it. Rumours abound that extraterrestrials are in the UK, but press photographer Colin has something else on his mind - namely that his ex has turned up on his doorstep after five years. This story is a fascinating look at how relationships might be affected if the impossible suddenly seemed to be possible. And, as the personal comes to the fore, so the extraordinary fades into the background - until Williamson brings it back for a satisfying finale.

One of The Ephemera's highlights is Softly Under Glass, which tells of an artist named Alison Grace and her mysterious pictures. Gallery owner Hugo de Villiers is not sure whether they are paintings, or photomontages, or something else entirely; but, even though he finds Alison's pictures unsettling, he still intends to stage an exhibition of them. However, he might regret asking to sit for his own portrait... Williamson's descriptions are particularly vivid here, almost daring you to imagine one of Alison's pictures, reluctant as you may be. The way the artist produces her works is also as strange and wondrous as you'd expect, again demonstrating the author's knack form seamlessly incorporating the supernatural into the contemporary world.

Well Tempered is the short tale of reluctant piano tutee January, and Mr Linke, the latest teacher her parents have hired. Unlike the previous five tutors, he successfully instils discipline in the girl - though not in the most orthodox way, and not necessarily all to the good. This is one of the collection's less successful entries, and I use those words deliberately: Well Tempered isn't particularly bad, it's a decent enough 'be careful what you wish for' tale; but there are rather better stories on offer elsewhere in The Ephemera.

The title of The Codsman And His Willing Shag may suggest that it's going to be playful and lightweight, but it's actually nothing of the sort - quite appropriate for a story that looks at the deep realities that lie beyond the surface of life. Young Damien is a member of a folk group playing the pubs around Robin Hood's Bay, but he yearns for something more; he feels the little town has nothing to offer him, just as there's nothing more to the sea shanty that gives the tale its name than a bit of saucy fun. Old Peter knows better, though, and seeks to show Damien: there are more verses to the song, and more to Robin Hood's Bay than Damien realises. "[A] place like this, your home town, it's in your skin," says Peter. "A place like this has got things you'll not find anywhere else, no matter how far you go." The Codsman... is a wonderful exploration of the frustrations of small town life and the way old stories become twisted over time; and it's a neat work of fantasy to boot.

But my favourite piece in the book is The Euonymist. Earth has joined the Unification Bloc of worlds, and Calum is a euonymist, whose job is to name newly discovered planets and species, using the languages in the Bloc's Lexicon. In the story, he returns to Scotland from a naming mission on the planet Ghessareen, to find an alien plant growing in the garden of the family home. The plant resembles species found on Ghessareen that were given Pelonquin names, yet it was found on Earth; a diplomatic incident will ensue if Calum can't come up with a name for the new species that will satisfy all parties. The Euonymist is great because it works on several different levels: it's a fine character study concerned with the effects of long-distance travel; but it's also an effective satire on international relations - and it's very funny, too.

The pleasing thing about The Ephemera is that, even when the stories aren't quite as good, even if you don't fully understand what you've read, Williamson's work is always interesting. If that sounds like damning with faint praise, it is not intended to be; there's a great sense of difference about these stories, which is something to be treasured as it's all too uncommon. So, whether you have to discover or rediscover Neil Williamson, The Ephemera is the book you need. Enjoy.
The Ephemera

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