Broken Things by Padrika Tarrant – Stories that will never leave you.

Until today, I always pushed a pram, just in case I find a baby.  People lose them all the time, don’t they, so the chances are some day I’ll get lucky and pick one up. I’m kind and ever so patient. A baby wouldn’t be badly of with me, I don’t think.

I save stuff, keep safe what nobody else cares for, whatever Jesus sends my way.  My heart is full of darkness, otherwise I would be an angel, but still he does let me have little things, little things like chewed gum and broken bottles, and words.  I wrap them in tissue paper to keep them safe, except the words, which are fragile and have to be learned by heart.

So, it wasn’t a big shock when I found the dog; I was overjoyed, and sent little thankyous to heaven by the thousand, because a dog is very nearly a baby. He was black and white, and wet with blood, and when I found him he was so vulnerable and wounded that I simply cried. I called him Darling, because that is a good name for someone you love.

When I lifted my Darling from the roadside, the utter looseness of his body shocked me so much that I all but dropped him. His head lolled at a sick angle; he seemed boneless, just a floppy mass of joints. No wonder he needed me so badly. I lowered him into my pram, and as if at some secret sign from God, it began to rain.

I wheeled him right indoors; my bedsit’s on the ground floor, which is lucky. The landlady is godless and dyes her hair; she hates me because I pain her conscience. I save things from being ruined, and I keep them in my room; she’s envious of my vocation.

When I lit the gas fire and turned on the light, I looked down at my Darling. He was wrong, all flat across the ribs where the car’s wheel had squashed him, and sort of funny, as if his arms and legs had been attached backwards.

I hunted around the room for plastic bags, and with them I propped him into a better shape, around the sides and under his chin, until his muzzle was resting on his front paws. He had big ears shaped like triangles and a little short tail.

(Read the rest of the story here)

And so begins the remarkable book of short stories by Padrika Tarrant, published by Salt Publishing.

The all too short biographical note on Tarrant states the following:

Padrika Tarrant was born in 1974, and has lived in Norwich for 14 years. She studied sculpture at Norwich School of Art, where she developed an unhealthy fixation with scissors and the work of Jan Svankmajer. Broken Things is her first full-length work, reflecting both an interest in surrealism and her own experience of psychosis. She shares her home with a three-year old daughter, an ill-mannered cockatiel and far too many animal skulls.

Psychosis means abnormal condition of the mind, and is a generic psychiatric term for a mental state often described as involving a “loss of contact with reality”. People suffering from psychosis are described as psychotic. Psychosis is given to the more severe forms of psychiatric disorder, during which hallucinations and delusions and impaired insight may occur. The terms psychosis and psychotic are very broad and can mean anything from relatively normal aberrant experiences through to the florid and catatonic expressions of schizophrenia and bipolar type 1 disorder. Despite this, psychosis is a term generally given to noticeable deficits in normal behavior (known as deficit or negative signs) or more commonly to the florid experiences of hallucinations or delusional beliefs. People experiencing psychosis may exhibit personality changes and thought disorder. Depending on its severity, this may be accompanied by unusual or bizarre behavior, as well as difficulty with social interaction and impairment in carrying out daily life activities. (notes on Psychosis taken from Wikipedia)

In this remarkable collection of short stories Tarrant takes us on a unsettleing ride through the darker reserves of the psyche. Unsettling, however, only to the reader, for what is quite shocking about Tarrant’s protagonists is their complete oblivion to their own hallucinatory world. The stories (small vignettes really, slices of a psychotic life) are each from the protagonists perspective, so the reader is lulled into a certain kind of complacency each time, only to be jolted / awakened into an awareness by an event, or eventual realisation:

The Nightmare began in the cupboard under the sink, where it twitched in the dampness and blinked its embryonic eyes. By February the thick air had turned its gills to lungs, and it whined in the dark. When the summer warmed the kitchen, it quickened its stupid heart. 

One day it heard you singing as you sat at the table with your crayons, and fell ruinously in love. Thereafter, it listened for you, learned your voice with sightless devotion. It smelled the dinners cooking, and memorized your chatter. When you ran up the stairs, it counted out the footsteps. (from Nightmare)

All of the protagonists (dead or alive) struggle with the complexities of existing within an alternate reality and (interestingly) the delusions of grandeur and paranoia that go along with their special “gifts”. In my favorite story of the collection, “Sleeper” a woman sits almost completely still in her bed, watching things happen around her, always aware that she keeps the earth spinning on its axis and it is because of her everything that happens is allowed to happen. In Tarrant’s worlds, social workers or landlady’s may be the enemy, even when posing no real threat to the protagonist. the overwhelming refrain is “I am here to help” and the overwhelming response is, “no, you are here to hurt.”

Along with this deeply arresting subject matter, is a beautifully simple fluidity of style, borrowed directly from the world of surrealism. By coupling the language with the events, our immersion into the world of Tarrants heroes is complete and we are left (genuinely) wondering if the narrator isn’t accurate after all. There is a curious sense of the possibility of an alternate reality that Tarrant poses. The reader is always aware the narrator is in control, and this limits the possibilities of realism staking a claim. For me, this left me with an uneasy feeling that this must be what it is like to believe seagulls talk to you and knives follow you around to offer protection. Tarrant offers us this perspective without judgement – either for her heroes or for her readers. Middle class guilt is abandoned for a certain stylized awareness that simply states, this is how it is for some of us.

That for me is what makes this book so shocking. In reading around some reviews I noticed a common criticism was with repetition, as if the ‘gimmick’ gets dry and stale after the first couple of stories. My experience, however was different. I read the book over two days and a lot of that happened on the train moving to and from work. I felt immersed in this world for the forty-eight hours I read.  I think the thematic repetition lends itself to a deeper awareness that is more subtle than the overarching theme. This isn’t a gimmicky idea. It is an alternate reality we are offered that we can (must) dip into. We are being informed of a genuine other world here. It really exists, and there are people around us who live it.

Of course, this world might exist, and its owners might believe that it is true, but it exists next to ours and when the two worlds collide the result is rarely easy or pleasant. Just as we experience full immersion in our protagonists worlds, we have a creepy feeling that we are still present in our own. This person preparing to blow up the social worker might be your neighbor.

It’s a stroke of brilliance and (i am guessing) great courage to take one’s own experience of this sort and turn it into the little tales of surrealist horror that the life is. Padrika Tarrant does this with a skilful subtlety that respects the reader and offers them something completely different.

Grab a copy of this great collection here from Salt.