The first collection of stories by Janice Galloway comprises 25 stories, apparently self-contained but all interlinked by a manifest coherence of style and imagery and the anecdotal surface of their plots: The various episodes and situations are told through a visceral style, vivid imagery, and a surreal cinematic perspective that inevitably distorts everyday situations into exquisitely grotesque scenarios. The collection received significant critical attention and acclaim: Short-listed for the Guardian Fiction Prize, People’s Prize, and Saltire Award, the volume was also a New York Times Book of the Year.
Mundane rituals—such as the routine visit of an anonymous “Health Visitor” to an equally nameless “Old Woman” in “Scenes from the Life No. 26: The Community and the Senior Citizen” or the dentist’s appointment in “Blood”—are the raw material Galloway starts from to carve extraordinary stories that palpitate with the emotionally charged characters’ experiences. An apparently ordinary situation typically hides sinister elements of veiled danger, permanent damage, or worse, death. The victims are often harmless recipients of the inexplicable reactions of family members, partners, and close relations, as in “Scenes from the Life No. 23: Paternal Advice” and the last, and longest, story of the collection, “A Week with Uncle Felix.” In the first of the two stories, written in the concise style of a script, a father deliberately allows his baby to fall on the floor from a fireplace to teach his son a lesson: Trust no one. The paternal bond accentuated by the names given to the characters—Sammy and Wee Sammy—is violently distorted. More subtly, in the second story, a disturbing relationship develops between the apparently emotionless 11-year-old Senga and her paternal uncle Felix.
The uncanny episodes at the core of the stories from the collection all reveal Galloway’s intent to unmask the illusion of tranquillity given by familiar, homely, and domestic settings, in order to reveal the dark undercurrents running through characters’ everyday lives and their dysfunctional relationships. In “Love in a Changing Environment,” the negative evolution of the relationship between the two unnamed characters is cleverly observed through the near magical realist setting of the story. A surreal atmosphere created by the scented warmth of the bakery above which the couple live reflects the happy stage of their emotional and sexual liaison; both rapidly fade when a change of ownership transforms the bakery into a butcher’s shop: The acrid smell of organic decay accelerates the friction and, ultimately, the envisaged end of their relationship.
Human relationships are the object of Galloway’s acute investigation; taboos and prejudice are equally laid bare. Behind the typically unsatisfying bonds is the inability to communicate between man and woman, mother and daughter, teacher and pupil. “David,” a short story about a teacher’s quick one-night stand with a pupil, explores the uncontrollable power of boundless passions, challenging moral etiquette and gender stereotypes in an accurate portrait of female eroticism. Elsewhere, strong, traumatic emotions transpose ordinary experience into a horrifying nightmare. The imagery employed in the opening section of “Blood” escalates a tooth extraction to a much more traumatic violation of the woman’s body, a sinister motif reinforced by the recurring blood imagery and the gory ending.
Physical and emotional scars, complemented by traumatic visions and, at times, surreal hallucinations, all contribute to the unsettling mood shared by all the stories in the collection. Exploring life beyond the precarious facade of social conventions, moral codes, and, generally, clichés of a modern Scottish society, the stories often suggest unexpected nuances even in the fragmented sketches of “Scenes from Life No. 29: Dianne,” “It Was,” “The Meat,” and “Nightdriving.”
Galloway, Janice. Blood. London: Cape, 1991.