The Novel and Other Incidents

THE NOVEL AND OTHER INCIDENTS: Charlotte Harker’s collection of short stories is reviewed by Carla Scarano

The Novel and Other Incidents
Charlotte Harker
TSL Publications
ISBN 9781914245923

The surreal seeps into the ordinary in Charlotte Harker’s new collection of short prose pieces, which draw on the unsettling situations in which the different protagonists of the stories are trapped and from which they are trying to free themselves. Their dreams and desires are unbridled; they express the unconscious wish to break out of boring routines and turn ordinary events upside down, reversing and questioning everyday situations. The imagination flares, contradictions are temporarily effaced, and unexpected scenarios are described as normal. In these stories, drama and humour mingle, reflecting the absurdities and banalities of life:

 ‘Come on then, if you think you’re hard enough’. So I do, I step
outside and cross a threshold; I cross the line; I walk the line; I take in
a deep breath and inhale an air thick with fear and loathing, with
judgement and impatience, with self-interest and aggression. I fight
my way through and when I return home, some the wiser, I am
	I only went out to post a letter.
                                                          (‘Step Outside If You Think You’re Hard Enough’)

In our everyday life we make up ‘reality’, a construction that absorbs us even though our attempts to find a more authentic vision are denied each time. Miscommunications, misunderstandings and incomprehension damage relationships, solitude triggers addictions, and psychological suffering might hinder personal developments. In this perspective, there are no certainties, and the vulnerable side of humankind is openly exposed, although it is a condition that might be a strength that makes us human and flexible, adaptable to the different situations that we need to face. Survival seems to be the suggested final goal in a meandering path that has no conclusion. A different dimension is therefore envisaged in which toys come alive, poltergeists haunt the living, houses are redesigned by a dead architect according to the owner’s desires, and the protagonist of a novel about a writer writing a novel takes the place of the real writer, who suddenly dies.

But what is ‘reality’ after all? The different pieces in the collection explore exactly this issue in a pressing but understated questioning in which the absurd and the surreal creep in and become substitutes for what we think ‘reality’ is. ‘It is all temporary’ (‘The Kitchen Clock’); the passing of time kills the hope for definite progression or a final encouraging vision. We circle around, and old scars hurt again at the slightest moving of the heart. Eventually, indecision stops us from making up our mind and changing our life. Ordinary events therefore become symbolic of the human condition and are explored with an ironic lens that insightfully reflects on loss, missed opportunities and the power exercised by self-denial:

We had our chances. Of course we would not have known for certain
how our life together would have unfolded but we both would have
seized the opportunity to find out if we had been emotionally equipped
to do so.  We were in control of our fate but equally our own narratives,
our confused sense of self and our demons proved to be ruthless,
indifferent saboteurs.
                                                                                  (‘About Edward’)

The collection delves into our sense of existence and our position in this world. There are no definite answers and the search is still in progress and is continuous, engaging and entertaining the reader despite the pitfalls, flaws and absurdities of our situation. The black and white drawings that illustrate the book enhance these concepts via their apparent simplicity and in the keen attention to detail. They are figurative sketches that show and dissect the object in their precision and factualness, which might hide a different aspect behind the object’s ordinariness. The experiences are described in a touching and at times disturbing way with a witty sense of humour that encompasses joy and sadness, pain and rare moments of liberation. The topics are varied and unexpected and the narratives subvert the system that haunts the everyday, challenging who we think we are.