Northwords Now Issue 38

The FREE literary magazine of the North

Rattleskin

Martin Russell (Published by MR 2017)

A Review by Cynthia Rogerson

It’s not easy to tell the truth about life, especially those moments when people feel truly rattled inside their own skin.  And if you can tell it, it’s not easy to be convincing or humble, much less funny.  Russell manages all these things in his collection of stories. In addition, he does what few writers dare. In the introduction he lays his cards on the table and invites the reader to let him know what they think.  All writing is about connecting with readers, and almost all writers are thrilled when a reader contacts them – yet no books to my knowledge openly solicit correspondence.

This kind of courage and willingness to be vulnerable is reflected in the stories. Some are drawn from life, others are not, all focus on the way we negotiate tricky times in life.
Poignant and understated, these are sad stories, in a good way.  Overall, the thread running from the first page to the last, is one of dry humour and warmth.  There is a lot of mocking, but all of it affectionate.  So, black humour with heart, delivered in very short deadpan bursts. It’s a bit like eating a box of Cadbury Milktray, blindfolded.  You don’t know what will be inside each, but they all taste very good.

Russell is a fine satirist, but his best work is heartfelt and serious. Ann Marie’s Party follows a recently separated couple, who have not quite managed it.  The narrator and his wife go to a party together, and on the surface have a good time. It’s as if they are still together.  She wears a lovely dress, he notes.  They dance and drink and laugh.  When he takes her home, she is drunk and he puts her gently to bed. But what is this phase of a marriage?  Resembling a good patch, it is neither the beginning nor does it look like an ending. The tenderness seems to stem from awareness of transience. With uncanny authorial judgment, this is the single scene Russell chooses to tell the story of a whole marriage.  

In The Day the Rain Came Down, the narrator is a child living with his mother – his sole parent.  His mother looks after the nice old Mrs Garibaldi, and they all live together in what seems a life of security, if not material ease.  The story focuses on the physical details of a pivotal day in the narrator’s life.  His mother attempts suicide, but there is no drama in the telling of that – no exclamation marks or tears.  What remains – in the descriptions of the street, the house and the narrator’s impressions - is a very heightened sense of isolation and bewilderment.  It is a story worth several reads.  And then perhaps one more.

The fact Russell is not an established and acclaimed author seems proof that accolades are not always the inevitable result of talent.  These stories deserve a wider audience and serious attention, for they bring something important to the world. Compassion.