English Magic by Uschi Gatward review – exquisitely eerie withholding

Uschi Gatward won the 2015 Wasafiri new writing prize for “My Brother Is Back”. It is an unsettling short story about a young man’s release from imprisonment into the captivity of state surveillance and his own paranoia, so cleanly told as to feel uncanny. Many of the people in her debut collection, English Magic, seem to be trapped. Some of the animals, pure.

In “The Bird”, a couple return from their honeymoon to “the sound of scuffling” inside their dirty Brighton flat. The husband notices it first. When he tries to wake his new wife, “she feels like digging her nails into his arm, giving him a Chinese burn”. Dopo, to her precise instructions, they unwrap wedding presents. She pays all the gifts of cash into her account. The tapping grows louder. “It sounds like a hammer.” When, eventually, he sets the bird free, he regrets not leaving it to die. He has begun to think of it as a sacrifice, “Our payment for having such a nice honeymoon.” You suspect the worst: if the bird doesn’t pay, who will? But Gatward doesn’t do conclusion. She hints, even teases. But she also withholds.

“The Clinic” opens with a baby being tested for some sort of abnormality. Early on, you sense the parents are hiding something, confirmed when the narrator puts the child to bed “to sleep off the cough syrup”. When she wonders how they might stop it from talking so fluently, you question what kind of creature it is – and why are they running away so secretly to live in the woods? References are made to “the next district” and “next month’s tokens”, and to a time “before the pollution got too bad” when you could still smoke. The narrator reads up on vital foraging knowledge and looks forward to the day she can pass it on to her child, “if we last that long”. As the predicament of the tight little family unfolds, this concise dystopia becomes gradually more terrifying. Gatward’s restrained depiction of a totalitarian state in a pre-apocalyptic world is utterly convincing – like a 10-page companion to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

She has referred to some of her work as “documentary fiction” and “protest fiction”. The US whistleblower Edward Snowden provides the seed for the fragmentary and entertaining “Oh Whistle And”. “Lammas”, which unfolds in fragments, sometimes just a lone sentence, traces radical protest in east London from the 1890s to the 1930s. Talha Ahsan, who was arrested at his home in Britain in 2006 and held without trial until he was extradited to the US, inspired “My Brother Is Back”. You will recognise the angle of her politics, but Gatward leads your mind in subtler directions with clear, understated sentences: “Now that the lamp is on, the darkness seems to fall faster around it, this pool of yellow light the only lit space in the world.”

Yet what is most striking about this collection is what is left unsaid. When a couple drive to the countryside and get sucked into a festival with a maypole and hobbyhorses, the woman panics at the sight of a dragonfly confused above a fire: “It will die here, she thinks. Like a trapped bird battering itself out in a room.” When two friends take a trip to Margate and can’t locate “the shell house”, one of them begins digging frantically into her memory. She’s in tears: “It’s all a blank.” Reading English Magic, you catch yourself searching for clues, but this exquisite debut invites us to trust our imaginations. Like the narrator of the final story, “Backgammon”, Gatward often seems to have decided to “let that hang in the air”.

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