Review by Sophie Develyn
Katie Oliver, I Wanted to Be Close to You, Fly On The Wall Press (Dec, 2022)
In her debut collection I Wanted to Be Close to You, Katie Oliver explores a sense of creeping horror from the known and the unknown, from the bottom of the garden and from just the other side of the bed. Through the transformations of love, grief, fear and joy, Oliver pushes her characters into the fantastical, sometimes right into the cold ground. Many of the stories in the collection share a familiar cast of characters, a woman, a partner, a child – in stories told with the same knowing, florid style. Oliver’s narrators are often facing a choice between the cold, clean world of technology and the murky darkness of nature, with neither option as the safe one, both posing a threat to the bodies of these women and their tenuous grip on sanity.
Told in one breath and one sentence, You Can’t Kill It Because It’s Already Dead, successfully mirrors a painful epiphany about the impending end of a relationship. Oliver takes us from the objectively pleasant appearance of an evening out – “This place is fancy…” – into the rot underneath, in the mind of our narrator – “…skin dripping over metal like candle wax…” – and the tumbling panic is palpable.
In Puff, a creepy little modern fairy-tale, Oliver sets up a drab reality which swoops out of our narrator’s control – an insomniac husband, an exhausted wife, a spooky sleep-aid robot that seems to fix everything magically. Lin and Chris get a taste of the life they could have had before it gets whipped away. There’s a real sense of resolve at the end of this story, a strong feeling of time having passed, their shared history and life together; exposition is weaved in early and adds weight to Chris as a character. Unlike in some of the stories, where the husbands seem somewhat vague, we are invested in his fragile recovery because we feel what he stands to gain.
With Lin as well, unknowingly inviting a technological villain into her home, we have a sense that she was pushed all the way to the edge and are relieved with her that she seems to have found a solution. The alternative was to go on living with an undiagnosable partner who couldn’t help her with their family, their intimacy breaking down and both their bodies at their physical limit – “Santa was now in the form of a blind silicone grub, and she was relying on him to save her marriage.”
In similar circumstances, anyone would turn to anything if it seemed to offer help. The “pale pink grubs, each about the size of a rabbit and emitting a cosy, red glow,” are obviously sinister as soon as we see them, but they are beguiling anyway, a little bit magical, a little bit fungal, a little bit like something you could buy, soft silicone and warm light.
Another standout story is Time Out, similar to Puff with its slow blinking sense of dread, catching the claustrophobia of a young family home. In Time Out, new mothers are offered an app-pairing with their baby that allows them to turn them ‘off’ when they want to, to help avoid sleep deprivation. Protagonist Jen develops her own boundaries around the app, leaving her baby ‘off’ beyond the recommended nap time. We are led to be suspicious of this, even though Jen loudly tells herself “Ten more minutes wouldn’t hurt”. Going to a mother and baby group for other mothers with the app, this reality gets upset by the other mothers’ judgement – “‘What, do you leave her off for longer than the app says to?’ Kelly tilted her head to one side.” The other mothers are right and it’s already too late – Jen is faced with the guilt of having neglected her baby for her own convenience and permanently stunted her early development. Oliver deftly holds a mirror up to the uncomfortable isolation of new parenthood: the internal realities you create in order to keep your life liveable, and the jolt of comparison with other people in the same situation and how they might be handling it differently or even worse, better than you. In Puff and in Time Out, reasonable women are tripped up by the all-too-easy promises of technology, the faceless unaccountability of capitalism, the murky reality of the science behind them.
In All the Dead Girls a couple go on a second holiday to try and catch the Northern Lights, with one of the most fully-realised relationships in the collection. I felt like I was listening in on their conversation as they sit and talk over dinner in naturalistic and keenly observed dialogue. The limpness of a disappointing holiday, the expensive food, the faintly disturbing physical detail, suddenly noticing each other – “The way he held his knife and fork drew attention to how large his knuckles were.”
I especially loved Nadine smearing herself with mud after an upsetting encounter with a man in the pool – “When she went to the changing rooms to shower she caught her reflection in the mirror, dried mud crisp and flaking around her startled eyes, hair hanging in crusty ropes.” She accentuates her nakedness, her vulnerability, to become monstrous. Oliver plays with this idea a lot in her stories – the bird woman in Becoming or Cecilia in All That Glitters – this iteration is my favourite because it’s so incidental. She looks at herself and moves on. The ending lost me but contained another of the best moments. When “She turned to find him and saw him standing apart from the rest of the group, tears glistening in his eyes,” I wish the striking image had been left on its own instead of being qualified with, “Jason didn’t cry, he just wasn’t that sort of person. He hadn’t even cried at his mother’s funeral.” It somewhat took the wind out of that wonderful moment where she finally reaches out for Jason and he’s unexpectedly on his own emotional journey, neatly outlining how little she knows about him. For me, Oliver’s writing could benefit from standing back apace, letting the strength of her imagery speak for itself instead of prompting the reader to understand it.
The collection, nevertheless, manages to be breathless and tense, often beautifully rendered and witty, expertly straddling the domestic and the fantastical. Through the eyes of her female narrators, Oliver explores the multitude reactions of the body to a world filled with both threat and promise.
Sophie Develyn is a short fiction writer from Bristol. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University and is currently cooking up a novella. Her work has appeared in Five South Literary Journal. Find her at @sophicathrinlou on Twitter.