Judy Darley’s third collection, The Stairs Are a Snowcapped Mountain’ was published by Reflex Press earlier this year and launched at Waterstones Bristol around the time of the spring equinox. Jude’s delighted to review this splendid selection of stories just before the winter solstice. Put it on your reading list for Christmas! It is available directly from Reflex Press.
Read more about Judy’s work on her website SkyLightRain, which includes links to her other collections, writing prompts, news of her teaching activities and her own excellent reviews of books and theatre productions. She has reviewed many of the books published by our small press, Ad Hoc Fiction and we are very grateful to her for careful and thoughtful reviews.
Review of The Stairs Are a Snowcapped Mountain
There’s an elemental feel to The Stairs are A Snowcapped Mountain. Both because the stories are often located outside in the ‘elements’ and also because many include elemental themes. Judy Darley is skilful in her use of metaphor. She recasts fairy stories and conjures new mythological worlds including creatures and humans, showing how closely connected we are to other living things both physically and psychologically. Oceans,seas,lakes and rivers are frequently present. People traverse them, are soaked in a deluge or are on holiday in frozen landscapes. We learn about lonely and captive sea creatures. ’Honey in Solitude’ is from the point of view of a Bottle Nosed dolphin in captivity in Japan. ‘Why Rivers Run to the Sea’ a story from the point of view of a river, ends tellingly, with the line,”There’s a storm brewing, we’re all invited.”
One story with a title that suggests much about the very young protagonist’s life is called ‘The Sea Lives in Her Mum’s Head’. The girl’s Nanna has explained why her mother cries and wails. “Storms rile up the waves inside her, and tears happen when the spray breaks free”… “Her moaning, Nanna says, is the sound of the wind whipping salty air over the sea.” It’s only occasionally that the mother is calm.
Both the pieces mentioned above are very short and the collection comprises a mixture of short ‘flash fiction’ pieces and longer short stories. There are several stories concerning disrupted relationships — between sisters, parents and children and lovers. The use of the elements often echo themes in these stories. A favourite story of mine, ‘Fermented Cherries’, tells of a grandchild visiting their estranged grandfather in a Fado club to tell the old man the mother, his daughter, is dead. Again this begins with a metaphor of the sea: “The Fado rolls out, washing over me. It’s a salt-weighted tide that ebbs and rises above the listeners’ heads.” As in all of the stories in the collection, much care has been taken with the composition of sentences,the sensory details and the overall structure.The language is beautiful, metaphor deepening the story and adding universal resonance.
Another favourite story, ‘Old Friends’, does not involve the sea, but instead other aspects of nature. This is a touching story about a relationship between a father and a daughter, where the daughter joins her father’s dawn chorus walk with his old male friends. Everyone on the walk must tell a story. Her joining this long-standing group is an important occasion for the father. It evokes another much earlier shared father/daughter experience which she refers to in her story, reconnecting them all over again.
As well as stories successfully employing elemental metaphors, there are others with plainer language and excellent dialogue. Judy writes convincingly in the voice of children or young people. ‘In Kitten Shoes’ is a story showing the longing of a tall girl who wants new white patent leather kitten-heeled shoes but who only gets to keep the coveted pair for one day before her mother says they must go back. Judy also brilliantly captures an outsider adolescent’s breakthrough into being part of something, in a story about clubbing, called ‘The Go-Get-Gone’.
There’s humour, too, in these stories.‘Stealing from Windowsills’ is a darkly wry story based on the fairy tale Rapunzel, where ‘Zel’ hoodwinks the prince into letting her wear his jodhpurs and doublet and leaves him captive while she escapes on his horse.
I have read this collection a few times now and different aspects of these brilliant and varied stories strike me anew each time. The collection is a full and satisfying read.
Jude Higgins, December 2022