Dark Neighborhood begins with the mundane: “A bottle of water, three hundred and twenty pounds, a hundred packs of cigarettes …” For 11 lines, the list of objects continues, more and more bizarre: “a small box of ginger ale , a box of crispy fried onions, mismatched earrings, rings, bracelets, a love letter… ”Is someone preparing the end of the world? The hoarding of rations? Are you preparing for the perfect murder? It takes a moment to notice that you have slipped into the surreal.
This is the kind of clever maneuver that Vanessa Onwuemezi performs with ease. Reading the 33-year-old’s first daring and enriching collection of short stories, including one that won her the prestigious White Review Award in 2019, is to feel as dislocated as the wanderers and dreamers who inhabit fairy tales. They may arrive in an unfamiliar place, like the Motorcycle Chancellor in “Heartbreak at the Super 8”, or run away to a hostile place, like the boy who bleeds to the ground on a suburban lawn in “Green Afternoon “. Usually they mourn someone who has been taken from them, as does the grieving narrator of “Bright Places”, sorting through his deceased brother’s house where the sheets are “still warm”, or looking for someone lost. , like the corporate giant lying in a cocaine-induced haze on his office floor, mentally browsing the phone book of the women who left him. “So you fell from the sky?” asks a woman who finds the biker lying alone and unidentified on a dusty road. This is a question that could be asked of any character in the book. They are uprooted, lonely, and aware of their own insignificance: asteroids tumbling into a dark solar system.
Such experiences will be familiar to lovers of the form of the news. A novel’s consistency demands stories that swell and absorb, and characters whose lives intersect, while the irregular disruptions of its shorter cousin welcome and encourage writing about dislocation. Sometimes Onwuemezi’s style is reminiscent of the master of form, Raymond Carver. Like Carver, Onwuemezi conjures up nightmarish cityscapes that engulf their protagonists. Each story in the book is like a window in a building: solitary squares of light in the dark.
Which doesn’t mean they don’t connect to each other. They do it, but not in a conventional way. Some objects stick and come back: a bowl of oranges, shades of purple, the name Otessa. That’s fine, but it’s hard to find any meaning beyond the slightly smug pleasure of spotting patterns. This is true, to a lesser extent, for the collection in general: sometimes Onwuemezi sacrificed storytelling in favor of experimentalism. Short stories may not require a significant time commitment, but they still need to burst and sparkle with purpose. Some of them meander a bit too much. “I try to consciously recognize when I’m holding back and allow myself to experiment,” she said in a recent interview. “The worst that can happen is someone says they don’t understand [a story]. “Exactly: isn’t that really the worst thing that can happen?
The best moments are those that crackle with tension. Like the credits of “Cuba”, in which a policeman, “weapon swinging from his hip”, approaches a young woman in his car: “‘That to crack coconuts?’ she said to the gun. The uniqueness of where the two characters are placed in relation to each other feels cinematic: you can imagine her staring down at her, her fingers on the wheel and shivering. Or the eponymous story, in which a woman peddles junk across an apocalyptic landscape – somewhere between a refugee camp or purgatory; Is there really a difference? – while her lover is dying from a gunshot wound. The stakes are surreal but extremely high, which is all that really matters. When you fall from the heights of the sky, you will hit the ground with a thud.
Dark Neighborhood is published by Fitzcarraldo at £ 10.99. To order your copy for £ 9.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraphic bookstore