DEATH haunts this collection of 12 short stories by the Scottish poet, children’s author, and translator Kenneth Steven. It forms an appropriate thread through tales told at the darkest time of the year, infused also with the potential for redemption and resurrection.
Steven outlines the story behind his stories in a preface. For a “long time” they appeared to be literature that eluded his creativity. He read Hemingway, Katherine Mansfield, and “all the Russian greats”, but could not seem able to join them. It was translating Lars Sable from Norwegian, and the intense concentration on language inherent in such a process, that enabled his own short fictions to emerge.
Despite that international pedigree, Steven’s stories most succeed when they stay close to home, in intensely observed small Scottish communities, where slight gestures and healing acts of kindness become universal. As a poet in the Celtic Christian tradition, Steven is also adept at elevating the everyday, and weaving into the apparently ordinary the grace of the eternal.
The opening story, about a small boy and his grandfather making fish soup, though shadowed by bereavement, elevates the domestic into something sacramental and vocational. In contrast, a story set between continents, “Out”, appears to wander without apparent direction, though this could underline its potential as a dream.
For all the immediacy of their observations and identification, these stories never shy away from incorporating such great themes as warfare and survival; compassion (particularly towards children); and that sense of belonging which
we label “home”. Large issues occupy, but do not overwhelm, small canvases. In “Ice”, the motif of public-school bullying raises issues concerning the vulnerable.
Elemental images — an adult carrying a child, a warming fire — are awarded reverent significance. Images, and the metaphors that they contain, move between stories, and, in his dedication to language, Steven conscripts the poetic without self-indulgence. He writes, in “The Listener”, as if demanding of his own work: “You had to be exact with description; an approximation was not enough.”
Overall these are finely crafted stories, often with subtle Christian inflection, and quiet agendas. “All the Russian greats” would welcome Steven’s company.
Dr Halsall is a poet and journalist.
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