Review: Hold Your Fire by Chloe Wilson

I screamed, I cackled, I winced my way through these delicious short stories. Hold Your Fire begins with the short-short story The Leopard Next Door, in which the narrator’s neighbour buys a leopard with severe consequences. The following, longer story Tongue-tied introduces an ex-PE teacher and her partner Pete on the hunt for a house, their real estate agent the former student Cilla who the narrator used to deride. They’re like like the Twits but smarter, and so worse, but by the end Wilson gives them a little redemption. Not so for Marc in Powerful Owl, who takes in a young woman as a nanny in his idyllic but threatening mansion, like one of Robin Boyd’s beautiful-but-austere bush palaces.

And so on, touring through the banal evils of hetero, white, middle class life. By the title story you’re really egging her on and Wilson rewards you by pulling out all the stops, with a story so stupendously grotesque and silly — a 30-odd page poo joke that commentates on parenting, marriage and militarism — that it would be parody except for its lingering sting. Over 17 stories Wilson flaunts mastery of the form, whether two to forty pages. The plotting is thrilling, ending somewhere you didn’t plan to go and revealing something you didn’t intuit about where you started from.

The narrators are nearly all women: young professionals, sisters, daughters, mothers, but often simply women, no name, little background, like Rachel Cusk’s outlines. They are partners of obscene-but-pitiful men: doctors, teachers of law, diving coaches, businessmen (old and new school), actors, museum curators. Like Pete in Tongue-tied who “liked security, not because he felt threatened by imminent danger, but because he disliked the idea of someone getting the better of him”; or Ian in Monstera who complains his ex-wife was too “sluttish …in the original sense of the word, of course. A woman of untidy habits and appearance”; or Connor in the title story, whose wife observes “if [he] were any softer you’d be able to eat him with a spoon”; or Andrew in The Drydown, who “dressed like the kind of man who hangs around primary schools”. And above all Bruce, in The One You’ve Been Waiting For, who says things like “I’ve always found it strange, men eating birds … it’s a woman’s meat”. Ian, Bruce, Pete, Andrew, Tate (who almost too perfectly is a middling content maker and failing entrepreneur): it’s an impressive parade of masculine awfulness.

There’s something monstrous about gender in these stories. Male monsters are an easy target; where these stories really thrill is how they toy with female monstrosity, reminding me of Mariana Enriquez‘s queasy, gendered horrors. Sometimes they are in danger, but more often they are the dangerous ones. They are ravenous, like the woman in Frog’s Legs or the young diver in The Rip. They have a predator’s gaze that sees every foible, shame and weakness, like the narrator of Powerful Owl, imagining herself into the titular bird. Whatever their circumstances, whatever the men they are attached to, these women are as wild and ungovernable as the leopard brought into a city apartment on the first page, a theme that carries through to its apotheosis in the final lines of the last story.

The writing has an exquisite polish, with the same sparseness of Paul Dalla Rossa’s An Exciting And Vivid Inner Life (and more than a little of that collection’s ideas about the unknowable, deeply weird interiors of others), and its horror and humour gives the films of Yorgos Lanthimos a run for their money. There are bodily functions and secretions galore, often grotesque, but sometimes stranger and weirdly beautiful, like Ian’s kidney stone, “made up of layer upon layer of mineral deposits. They looked like geodes, or something chipped off a coral reef. They glittered when they caught the light.” I was struck by these moments of luxury among the gore, like the sunsets in Frog’s Legs, “gold and fuschia and tangerine” or the perfumes in The Drydown:

It as my mother who taught me about perfume, about the families into which fragrances arrange themselves: floral and chypre, woody and oriental; she taught me about vetiver and tuberose, oakmoss and tobacco, orange blossom, rose, violet, alehydes, musk.

This collection is full of such transcendent moments.

Gay rating: not gay.


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