In 2018 I reviewed Amanda Huggin’s very enjoyable first collection of short stories, Separated from the Sea, and here I am again only two years later reviewing her second. And what a great collection it is, even better than the first. Beautifully nuanced writing that will surprise and move you and includes her award-winning story, Red, third in the Costa Short Story Award, 2018. No word is wasted and it’s clear from the quality of the writing that Amanda is a fine poet too.
Many of these stories have themes of escape – appropriate for our present situation of social-isolation and lock-down. In Where the Sky Starts, life is closing in for Rowe; he’s coming to terms with a bleak choice: a job on a fishing boat like his dead father, or going down the pit like his brother. Like Billy Casper in Kes he seeks refuge in the natural world. This is a subtle, beautifully-written story that I found very moving each time I read it.
Red, Amanda’s Costa award-winning story, continues this theme of escape and longing for a better life, this time in America. Mollie has moved with her single mum to an isolated farm and is a target of her mother’s violent and abusive boyfriend. She tries to control a life that is very much out of her control by making a tally of recurring incidents, both good and bad. Again, seen from a child’s point of view, we feel the intensity of her fears and really want her story to have a happy ending, whatever it takes.
In the story that gives the collection its title there is a different kind of escape – a young woman, Maya, is a refugee dealing with terrible personal loss and displacement. The usually pleasing scent of roses in her new country takes her back to the last, terrible time she saw her mother. Maya is hardening her heart to her missing husband; he abandoned her but she still loves him. It is this delicate description of mixed emotions that make this and so many of these stories assured and convincing.
Longer stories in this collection are interspersed by flash stories, almost like a palette cleanser. Some are serious but there are also playful, ironic or even funny stories. What I really enjoyed are the settings – from the Yorkshire coast to Japan or America – we find ourselves in completely different locations in each new story. At this time of Covid 19 when many of us have more time than we’re used to but are too stressed to concentrate for long this is a lovely collection to dip into and escape to different worlds.
Scratched Enamel Heart is published by Retreat West 27 May 2020.