14 September 2021

#Review - From the Neck Up by Aliya Whiteley

Design by Julia Lloyd

From the Neck Up and other stories
Aliya Whiteley
Titan Books, 14 September 2021
Available as: PB, 301pp, e
Source: Advance PB copy
ISBN(PB): 9781789094756

I'm grateful to Titan Books for a free advance copy of From the Neck Up to consider for review.

From the Neck Up collects 16 of Whiteley's stories, originally published between 2014 and 2020. The longest ("Brushwork") is an 80 page near-novella, most though are shorter, between 10 and 20 pages. The themes are riotously diverse, but often concern - or are set among - environmental and societal collapse whose consequences are being explored. In many of the stories we're located in a sanctuary - literal or emotional - which has escaped the worst consequences of the catastrophe. 

That reminded me at times of Joan Aiken's stories in that, as did the skilful and even joyful juxtaposition of the weird and the normal. One can't, I think, fully appreciate the weird if it's presented in isolation, we need it to be interweaved with everyday life.

That's certainly true of the first story, "Brushwork", where we meet elderly Mel (many of the stories features older characters) who's working on a farm, tending melons in a greenhouse. Only gradually does Whiteley reveal the complexities of the setup; the catastrophe that causes Mel and her colleagues to be near prisoners, her background and the wrenching choice she was forced to make as things got worse  - and the extent to which she has, since then, been sheltered (though it might not seem like it) from the harsh world outside. But she won't be able to escape reality forever.

In "Many-Eyed Monsters"  the narrator is living an ordinary life until she begins to worry about something truly strange in her body. Initially trying to hide the problem, she's forced to accept that she is creating - or becoming - something new. Moving from unease, and the desire to suppress what is happening, she finds a sense of acceptance and solidarity. This story catches well, I think, the drive to try and contain the strange.

"Three Love Letters from an Unrepeatable Garden" describes not only an "unrepeatable" garden - one that can't be duplicated or, once lost, restored; its creator is gone - but seemingly one of those precious islands of beauty and normality (well, for certain values of "normal") left in a hostile world. That's why it needs protecting and nurturing. But if it's doomed anyway, might it not be justified to just, well, enjoy it before the end? Posing questions about the fragility of beauty and our duty to protect it, this one left me thinking hard.

Corwick, in "Corwick Grows", is one of those elusive islands amidst a wider world, always teasingly distant; the narrator has hunted for it but can't find the place until one day when they stumble into a remote farmhouse. Nothing will ever be the same again for them, or for Corwick - a place that seems to thrive on the imagination of its residents. Combining a calm acceptance of what is happening with a somewhat body-horror aesthetic, "Corwick Grows" suggests that some, at least, of those elusive places may be better left unfound.

"Loves of the Long Dead" takes an imaginative journey from Ancient Egypt to the abyss of the ocean to a modern research lab. When a spirit from the past seeks revenge, she becomes frustrated that time hasn't stood still and that the villain whom she hates no longer exists to suffer. Perhaps a substitute can be found...

In "Reflection, Refraction, Dispersion" the optical terms hint at some sort of visual phenomenon - the Effect - that is ill understood, indeed, whose nature and effects are argued and disagreed over but which seem to be dire (cancer? Suicide?) It is something to which Eliza, the narrator, was subject but about which she seems ambivalent. She does, though, want to understand and perhaps even re-experience it which leads her on a strange quest.

"Farleyton" is another of those islands of wholeness and order amidst a chaotic and sickening world. Many wish to travel there, lured by the stories of its wonders. Told in the voices of various groups - the enclave's guards, a travel agent facilitating migrants, workers seeking good jobs in the place, a girl en route to it - we see jarring and contrasting pictures, hinting that perhaps Farleyton is a different place to each, that perhaps it may not be able to be the same Heaven on Earth for all, that it may have limits, small print and abrupt endings. Trying to assemble a picture from the pieces given here is frustrating, suggesting truths that Whiteley avoids spelling out directly. One of my favourites in this volume.

"Into Glass" is a deeply weird story which opens with the unnamed narrator about to cut her sleeping lover with a scalpel. Only a small cut, the tiniest nick, blood from which she hopes will reveal something wonderful. It is an act that to her is deeply ominous - not just an assault, a violation of consent but a recapitulation of a dark history involving her parents and grandparent. But at the same it's a family inheritance, a gift. What to do? And what will happen? The story ponders the value of love - is it finite, can it be bled away? - as well as secrets. An achingly beautiful and sad story.

"Compel" posits an alien invasion, swift and sudden and complete, but not the normal death-ray wielding tripods, rather a glitch, an anomaly that leaves most humans literally speechless and lost. In face of this, Whiteley's narrator feels some duty to resist, but can only record, gradually losing coherence and the ability to tell what's happening - even as they start to grasp more fully the causes of the catastrophe.

"Chantress" is a fun story revolving around three women, the Chantress of the title, the Enchantress and the Disenchantress. Somehow unmoored from modern society - the Chantress has a mobile phone but signal is poor on the mountain - they seem to be acting out roles in a near fairy-story for the local villagers, but why, and where will it lead? Again, the mundane, human and normal are seen alongside the frankly weird.

"Blessings Erupt" is about Hope, a woman who has some kind of healing gift against the contamination caused in the near future by plastics and toxins. But it's a gift that takes its toll. Hope has the gratitude of so may whom she has saved, but she has become cynical about the whole process; are we to believe that she's now seeing through things to the truth, or has she herself become corrupted? In this story about a life drawing to its close we are also shown Hope's beginnings and left to wonder what version of the future is the truth. A moving and powerful story about community and responsibility.

"Star in the Spire" sees Sammie, travelling alone in the blighted waste of the future, find an oasis, a little patch of life and growth. But it also seems to contain death - there are some gruesome sights described. Whether, though, they represent a catastrophe, or a transformation, is very ambiguous.

In the titular story, "From the Neck Up", Megan is obsessed with decapitation and reality seems to meet her interest, offering a head if not on a platter, then on a bed. But despite being severed it seems to be a head with business of its own and not to be finished, not at all, with life. Veering from comedy as Megan tries to control the situation to a strangely moving depiction of the head's ongoing life, "From the Neck Up" was another of my favourites here, whether it's to be taken literally or as expressing something of Megan's (rather desperate) life and the changes she needs to make in it.

"The Tears of a Building Surveyor, and Other Stories" could be seen as the Walter Mitty-like fantasies of aging Violet - in a chaotic narrative of running away with a "chaperone", joining a nunnery, escaping a massacre and then becoming a clown - if it was not so touchingly and tenderly wrapped around glimpses of Violet's reality, of her life with Tom. The two ways of describing Violet's world are so different, yet so closely linked, that the reader needs, I think, to see them both as true to to unpick what each needs from the other. A beautiful, sad, and funny story.

"To the Farm" explores the potential darker consequences of artificial intelligence and both the limits, and unexpected graces, of love. Another very sad story (or it could be) leading up (as did "Brushwork") to a moment of letting go, of allowing for growth and change.

In the final story, "The Spoils" we return to a community living after some apocalypse (never made clear). They're an underground people, with a ritualised way of dealing with their world illustrated when a great beast - an Olme - is killed and divided between the community. Like a baffled Victorian explorer learning the customs of an unknown people, a lot doesn't make sense, even as it does. Again the story dwells on the different roles and lives of those who receive the body parts of the unfortunate Olme, and we might wonder why there is such a complicated routine here as there is no suggestion for example that they will all eat it. Some explanation is given when a daring member of the group decides to take her share to the surface, but story - both obscure and slightly menacing - leaves a great deal to the reader. A haunting story.

Altogether, there is a lot to think about bin these excellent stories. If you have read her Skein Island or Skyward Inn, you'll recognise some of the atmosphere, and themes, but the exploration of them across different fragments of story adds new depth (and enjoyment).

For more information about the book, see the publisher's website here.

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