Where new writing finds its voice

Chattering: Stories

Anna Goodall

Louise Stern
Granta Books, 2010

The cover of Californian-born writer Louise Stern’s debut story collection shows a 14x16 block of fluorescent pink dots on a shiny black background. Except one dot sits alone at the bottom of the page, its absence leaving a negative space, like a black cross amid the others.

It’s an image that succinctly portrays the stories’ recurring theme of isolation: like Stern herself, many of the protagonists are deaf, but hearing impaired or not, all are marginalised and oppressed by silence.

Set all over the globe from London to LA, Brazil to the Caribbean, the twelve tales are told in a lucid, deceptively simple style that allows Stern to make unsettling and bizarre situations seem close to mundane – and vice versa.

Whether it’s three deaf girls on a night out in LA who want to be part of the “in” crowd, but end up locked in a luxury apartment full of coked-up middle-aged men watching porn (‘The Velvet Rope’); a man living in near-isolation on a tropical island who has carefully severed ties with his past but feels a deep, unsettling connection to the island’s half-savage ‘mad’ man (‘The Wild Man’); or ‘Rio’, the collection’s opening story and perhaps its strongest, where two deaf girls living rough in the Brazillian city draw the attentions of a strange ‘rodent man’ posing as a beach bum, the stories all ask questions about power and intent. But they also take care not to answer them, remaining ambiguous, playing with the reader’s expectations.

What is certain is that the burden of silence is a heavy one, and much can be lost in translation. In ‘Rio’ the deaf narrator has a brief communication at a bar with a hearing woman who clumsily signals to her that when she drinks she gets very emotional and cries, before turning away and sliding ‘effortlessly into animated conversation’. The girl is confused by the woman’s ability to shrug off emotion: ‘I wondered if it was because she could speak that she knew how to deposit the sorrow outside herself so efficiently. That was the part I envied.’

In ‘Roadrunner’ a young deaf girl’s thoughts whilst hitching a lift with two truck drivers allow Stern to explain further: ‘their words squirted and dashed away so quickly and pushed her further and further away from any sense of them. […] Sitting next to Roadrunner in the truck, she thought back to the time, growing up, when she realised she had no chance of communicating with anyone around her. Now she thought she might like it, just being on her own.’ Language is a source of increased isolation, not a way to connect.

So it is in ‘The Pirates’ in which a man and woman spend weeks alone on a boat, yet despite a strong attraction they barely communicate. The silence makes the atmosphere on board claustrophobic and strange, and the male narrator’s description recalls the deaf girl’s in ‘Roadrunner’: ‘The isolation was complete and the enclosing heat lazy and smooth. Every gesture and word was heightened, but slipped away too quickly.’

Silence is complex in Stern’s writing, and almost Hitchcockian at times in the tension it creates, where simple actions and words become laced with a menace that seems portentous and out of control. She is particularly good when writing about young deaf women, the palpable but unconfirmed menace of the men around them, and the recurring misogynist ideal of the silent woman. But does their deafness make them more vulnerable? Or does silence just make it more noticeable?

The stories’ Achilles heel is that they often end too abruptly, as if the author is stepping away from the narrative subtleties she herself has so skilfully created, and four or five of the stories clearly stand out, causing the rest to fade a little in their wake. But there is more than enough here to enjoy. Understated and quietly disturbing, Stern’s is a new literary voice we should be listening to.


ISBN: 1847081185