Reviews of 'You Don't Have To Say'
My first review was from Jo Brandon in 'Beyond Magazine' on Sept 16th:
A gritty collection of short stories that creeps through blocks of flats, strides across motorways and lingers in alleys. Beard is able to change direction in a single sentence, leading the reader towards the unexpected. in 'One for the Album' a one night stand becomes a trek to Welsh caves and in 'The Heebie-Jeebies' two lovers rediscover one another through a haze of memory and drugs. The collection is brought together with themes of dissolving youth, escapism anddanger. It's a great read that explores all the easily miss-able details of being human.
The Times on Saturday Sept. 25th 2010, from Kate Saunders:
Beard's incisive, haunting stories have been compared to those of Raymond Carver, and he has a similar instinct for finding the universal truths inside apparently 'ordinary' lives. Nobody is ordinary here, though everyone is recognisable. Example: the few sparse pages of Little Chef that convey a whole world of love, guilt and betrayal. Two married lovers leave their spouses and drive away to a new life, but the frailty of their relationship is exposed when they stop at a Little Chef: "...he'd just decided, on the road taking other lovers away, he wouldn't, he couldn't leave his wife." This is a writer who does amazing things with the fewest possible words.
The Guardian, November 6th, 2010:
A collection that forces us to look at lives we'd rather turn away from impresses Francesca Segal
"The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation," wrote Thoreau, and his thesis is certainly well illustrated by the characters in Alan Beard's second collection of short stories, You Don't Have to Say. Quiet desperation abounds in inner-city Birmingham, and brief sparks of human connection shed only weak and intermittent light into the darkness. In the opening story, a teenage thug takes a break from muggings and debt-collecting to screw his married, middle-aged instructor from the job centre training programme; it amuses him, "watching her prissy-looking mouth, the pink gums and straight teeth, full of advice and education, knowing soon it would be full of me".
In the next tale, a hungover computer specialist stumbles through his working day while a suicidal man in Aston Villa socks remains on the office roof. An old boyfriend offers fleeting respite to a discontented wife, but with nowhere to deposit the baby, she brings her on assignations, hoping that when the child learns to speak she won't betray her. Bodies touch often but souls rarely do in these stories.
Thirteen years ago, Beard's debut collection was published by the enthusiastic amateur writers' circle, the Tindal Street Writers' Group in Birmingham, and subsequently picked up by Picador; the success of this gamble led some members to found the Tindal Street Press. Since then, this independent publisher of smart regional fiction has gone from strength to strength. Their writers – often new, mostly northern – have won high praise from critics and a clutch of prizes and nominations that would do the biggest house proud. Between Alan Beard's first and second collection, a star was born.
There are gems here, too. In "Little Chef", which is only three pages long, nothing happens, and everything. A couple sets off to start a new life together, she leaving a husband, he a wife and children. But over lunch in a Little Chef, he changes his mind and they go back again – a trip so brief that the almost-jilted partners never know it happened. Tearing up the note she left him, reflecting on "the secret anger and then the reconciliation with my husband who wasn't even aware of it", the woman's single lungful of almost-freedom is delicately drawn, and moving. The best stories in the collection are those in which the action is all interior; whole worlds change, while outside someone is simply having a chat or lighting a fag.
But when the drama moves into the exterior world, their power weakens. A man lies stabbed and contemplates his life; a girl returns from an unsuccessful shoplifting jaunt to discover her paranoid junkie boyfriend has murdered a salesman and needs help with the body. That these actors remain numb or apparently indifferent throughout is in keeping with their general disaffectation, but their actions aren't affecting for the reader either, and when murder – as either victim or perpetrator – isn't powerful, there's a problem. It's a risk for a writer to tackle shocking material, but when he does, it has to shock.
Since the 90s, there's been a resurgence in post-Carver dirty realism or, for want of better nomenclature, grit-lit – bored and marginalised characters fighting through each day in a world of drugs and drink and depression. These are society's voiceless, given voice by their authors, who challenge us to look where we might have turned away. But in several of the stories here, the voice is not quite fresh. The final page alone concludes with something slightly different: a glimmer of hope. By then we are ready for it.
Short cuts full of heart and beauty (The title of the Independent article). The link above will take you to the review that was published in the Independent, however I thought readers might like to see the original review which was intended for the TLS (for unknown reasons they couldn't publish it and it had to be cut a little to fit the space in the Indie):
The short story is the watercolour of the literary world, a form that demands huge skill yet is somehow subtly undervalued. Some excellent short stories are floating around the web but not quite making it into hard print, so thank God for small presses such as Salt and Tindal Street, who stick out their necks and publish excellent small collections from writers sidelined by the mainstream not for lack of talent but lack of perceived saleability. Alan Beard is one of the best, and it’s easy to see why he hasn’t yet been picked up by a major publisher. He is not prolific (this is only his second collection in about thirteen years) and neither does he fit neatly into one of the convenient boxes the media recognises. Miserabilism is the word sometimes pejoratively applied to this kind of writing, but that’s a patronising view too often lazily applied to anything that deals with a great swathe of society usually only portrayed as gross or comical, vile or stupid, or worse, plucky and endearing. Publishers prefer this milieu served up with the kind of violence and anarchic coolness of writers such as Welsh and Warner and Griffiths, but Alan Beard’s characters aren’t cool, nor is the violence which happens from time to time in their stories. Beard looks beyond media images and portrays real people, benefit scroungers, dopers, petty villains, teachers, builders, clerks, shop workers. Lives of quiet desperation maybe, but also filled with the eternal fundamentals of human drama.
There are 14 stories in this collection. A couple made no impression on me at all, a couple rambled, but a clear majority are excellent: simple, direct, unpretentious, sparsely written with bursts of rough poetry here and there. Beard never stereotypes. In Hot Little Danny, a teenage thug has an affair with his middle-aged General Studies teacher. Beard makes their relationship perfectly credible. She’s smoked a few spliffs in her time, and he likes the way she appreciates him: ‘She says I’m articulate and observant,’ he observes in his distant manner, a detachment that serves him well when burning a kid with a cigarette or mugging some random stranger unfortunate enough to cross his path at the wrong time. When retribution strikes in this highly moral tale, Danny observes his own downfall in the same way. ‘Wouldn’t she like me like this?’ he asks himself hazily, ‘couldn’t she tend to my wounds in her house above the city?’
A heart beats fearfully beneath the detachment, and from time to time there are moments of effortless lyricism - the ‘rain-windows of trains,’ a building ‘rain-stained and as cold as sky’ - and beauty to be found in unexpected places. The 15-year-old protagonist of The Lookout delights in the ‘acres of blue sky’ and the sunsets of his tower block home: ‘I spent my toddlerhood staring out at the sky, its huge rolling clouds or its far, far distances.’
In this world, tragedy, like evil, is banal. A man in ‘the kind of job where they meet to plan to have planning meetings’ struggles with computer problems in Backing Up. At the same time, a loser called Dave Dodd with spots and a beer belly is threatening to jump from the roof of the building, while an interested crowd gather below to watch as if it was a reality TV show. ‘I can’t put the telly on,’ says a girl who’s drifted way out of her depth, in Background Noise, ‘because the news seems to be my fault.’ It’s surprisingly rare to find characters like these realistically portrayed in a humane and intelligent way, and it’s not easy giving a voice to the inarticulate, but Alan Beard succeeds.
Carys Bray's blog April 2011:
In this collection Beard takes the mundane and makes it significant; his observational skills are excellent, his descriptions of Sue and two women in a bar in 'The Party' are fresh and sharp. Beard's stories are frequently dark, but they are also compassionate and tender. 'Hot Little Danny' the opening story of this collection sees teenage thug Danny embark on an affair with his middle-aged teacher Mel ('short for Melanie'), in an unlikely, but entirely believable scenario as Beard writes it.
My favourite story was 'Staff Development', a brutal, yet incredibly tender account in which a shed containing a handcrafted doll's house is the only place of safety for Jack, a character who is finding the real world increasingly incomprehensible.
Several of Beard's stories can be read online: 'Background Noise' can be read at East of the Web and 'Huddersfield versus Crewe' can be read at Laura Hird's showcase. 'Hot Little Danny' is linked above.
Mark Staniforth in Short Review, June 2011:
Alan Beard's You Don't Have To Say presents a throbbing, unforgiving soundtrack to broken Britain: a bleak, concrete world of tower blocks and Little Chefs; sexless sex and men with new tattoos "of flames and women and knives".
It is a world which offers little chance of escape, and almost every character who inhabits Beard's Birmingham sprawl is trapped: by love or fear or all all-pervading sense of hopelessness.
These are not stories for frolicsome summer days at the beach. In Background Noise, a girl is sent to the shops after helping her drug-dealer boyfriend stuff the body of a door-to-door salesman in a cupboard under the stairs.
"I should just walk the other way, down the side street to the junction where I can get a bus to the centre and catch a train, a train anywhere, not back home, and start again and be happy ever after without him. Get a cat or something, give up men altogether, sit at home and sing to myself."
She doesn't, of course. They don't. Even those characters in Beard's razor-sharp collection of 14 stories who do escape the sprawl do so only in search of the brief relief of illicit affairs.
Beard describes his characters in a manner which is compassionate but never judgemental. They do not inspire sympathy, but Beard's prose gives them a fair chance. Almost without exception, it is one they fail to take.
In The Party, a paint shop salesman watches a familiar flame clop by as drinking hour approaches: "her liquorice-dark eyes look as if the colour will leak. He watches her pass the specialist butcher's, game dangles above her."
It is just the kind of descriptive passage which has earned Beard comparisons with Raymond Carver - comparisons the author himself has apologised for, and yet which are entirely legitimate: the same eye for everyday mundanities; the flickers of body language which reveal so much in so few words.
Like Carver, Beard is a true master of the form. He is a brilliant story teller, capable of wrenching beauty from the unlikeliest of circumstances: in At The Back Of Everything, a stabbing victim lies dying on his doormat while his mind ebbs back to old liaisons and French bicycling holidays.
Failings are few: where Beard's stories are less successful, there is perhaps a sense that some of the less well-conceived characters are assuming roles designed to exhibit the art of the form itself over their own motivations.
There are occasional inner-city cliches. In the opener, Hot Little Danny revenge for a drug debt is perpetrated in that well-worn setting "on an arc of wasteland, rubble and brick and [the obligatory] waist-high nettles down the railway line".
But these criticisms are picky. This is an excellent collection; an observational masterpiece which, just like those tough tattoos, will survive as a testament to the farce of government dreams of the so-called "Big Society".
(There is also an interview with me).
Under the Radar, March 2012.
Taking a Short Cut Down Tindal Street: Matt Nunn reviews two short story collections. (YDHTS & Gaynor Arnold’s Lying Together). I include Gaynor’s part of the review because the review kind of intertwines the two books, and besides Gaynor’s a mate and part of my writer’s group – we’ve known each other 25 years(ish).
If you’ve ever had the good fortune to have heard about Alan Beard, then you will undoubtedly know that he is a writer who likes to take his time. Stories do not flow out of him in a daily swirl of intense genius and breakneck creativity. Indeed, the fact that he famously only writes one story a year follows him around and it seems to be his unofficial promotional tool.
So 13 years on from his much acclaimed debut Taking Doreen out of the Sky, Beard returns with his second collection of short stories YDHTS. No matter how long the wait was it was certainly worth it, as Beard picks up from the high point of his debut and pushes himself further up the admittedly not over-stocked tree of truly great English short-story writers.
As befits stories slaved over for so long, there is a sense of real craft throughout the book, with each word giving off the impression of it being hard-won and finely-tuned, which gives the collection as a whole a tautness which only someone right at the top of their game can produce.
These are undoubtedly stories ‘of’ Birmingham but not necessarily ‘about’ Birmingham as a solid geographical sprawl in the middle of the country. You sense these stories would have been written wherever the writer happened to be and are formed by the writer and his writing rather than the city itself.
If there is one slight quibble then it is for me the longer pieces work better than the shorter. I think Beard writes better over the longer span as all are character driven and the longer trot gives the characters a greater distance to evolve and carry the story.
The worst thing about this book is if Beard carries on with his current work-rate, it will be well into the 2020s until we hear from him in book-form again. We can only hope for a happy change of circumstance which allows this master-craftsman to speed up his productivity. Though I suspect the writer himself values his craft too much to sacrifice his short-storytelling skills just to speed up to get a book on the shelves.
Failing that, those who cannot wait that long for another instalment from Alan Beard will just have to hope there are advances in time-travel over the next few years so we can arrive quickly as possible at his next great collection.
Whereas Beard specialises in creating a taut and slightly strung-out modern day Birmingham, half moving in a fuzzy light, and in turn has created a world and a writing style that is his alone to claim to, Gaynor Arnold doesn’t hang about anywhere long enough to create a specific genre in her name. The subjects and stories range from lovesick yearning in a 2nd World War café, through teenage rebellion, a 70s hippy summer gone sour, to a romantic Parisian jaunt and much more in-between. Any jarring this provokes in a reader unused to such rapid shifts in tone, mood and geography in a collection is soothed by the cool and very vivid writing that permeates each of the 191 sumptuous pages. Where Beard touches his chosen canvas lightly, Arnold paints with big broad brush-strokes but, it has to be said, with no less subtlety.
The sudden shifts in mood, tone and texture from story to story takes some getting used to, though there’s no reason why a writer shouldn’t do this and shows maybe how conditioned we are to short-story collections moving as one mass rather than many splendid particles. Once I became accustomed to these gear shifts, I began to revel in the variety and the gentle brilliance of the writing; there is not a word out of place or a story that falls below anything less than first-rate within.
Lying Together is the first short-story collection from the author and is a follow-up to Booker prize long-listed debut novel Girl in a Blue Dress. And it definitely reads like a novelist’s collection of short-stories, for the stories do have the feel of novellas or shorter novels, expertly condensed into shorter form, and carried along by the vibrancy of the writing which creates a host of believable characters and dialogues to populate the stories, without any decline in quality.
Opening the Book website (found in Nov. 2012, not sure when it was written)
Funny, bleak, down-to-earth stories. There are some beautifully described moments in these tales which really make you see the ordinary everyday things almost for the first time. But don't try to read this book straight through - these are stories to be savoured one at a time.