Ailsa Cox The Real Louise and other stories (£9.99 Headland 2009, available from http://www.headlandpublications.co.uk)
We don’t see enough of Ailsa Cox in print and this 2009 collection of short stories is a real treat for readers. It pulls together seventeen of her stories; most of them are set in cities, a theme that runs in Cox’s stories as they often tap into undercurrents of the city, of the occupants of either Liverpool or Manchester. Cox is able to take the forgotten characters we see on the street in our cities and give them voices, these voices range from the infatuated in Sex Etc. to those that have been permanently lost in November. Cox is a refreshing short story writer who does not fall into the trap of twists or plot driven vignettes. Cox deals in character, Cox deals in voice and she handles these with the skill of someone who doesn’t just know the theory of short story writing but who loves the short story form. This is seen in Her Old Self Again, rather than a story with numerous plot twists driven by the writer, it is a story that deals with the coming of age, an acceptance of the changes going on around the protagonist and the family secrets that are revealed. There is a real darkness to this story which ranges around death and deceit. This darkness pervades many of Cox’s stories, an unquantifiable sinister feeling that stalks her writing. It is a real, tangible, everyday darkness that in its very ability to be real, to be part of the reader’s lives that snaps the reader to attention. It is as if Cox is reminding us that all fiction can be born of fact and all fact can be mirrored by fiction. This is seen in the title story, The Real Louise. Louise initially appears to echo the stock character of the carefree wandering woman:
She has never settled down, never had children, or kept the same job for more than a year. And those itchy feet are both the reason for her solitude and her escape. No sooner is she back from one trip than she’s planning another, searching for those destinations where myths begin and end, far shores and mountain summits that can only be attained through hardship and perseverance.
This is a Louise reminiscent of Liz from Waterhouse’s Billy Liar, but here the similarities end and any chance of Cox falling into the trap of the archetypal ‘free spirit’ is blown out of the water. It is hinted at in the above excerpt that though Louise is free, it comes at a price, ‘Sex for her is just an appetite; she’s not much interested in food, either’. Sex for her is currency and her narrator, a man, is married, loveless, a cheat and a liar. He is in a long line of men who have been used by Louise. This is echoed in the second half of the story in which a telephone changes the narrator for good and reveals the reason behind the title. It is this everyday fear, everyday confusion that many readers will have experienced that turns the story on its head. The reader questions the world in which the narrator and Louise inhabit; they question what is true and who is real.
This is a great collection from a gifted short story writer; it is just a shame that we don’t see more of her stories in print.
Available from http://www.headlandpublications.co.uk