Crista Ermiya’s debut short story collection presents neat and well-observed fictions that evoke more than a flicker of the uncanny, conjuring a world in which all stories are true, somewhere. Whether in the curious tale of a boy who falls in love when a mysterious teenage widow arrives pregnant on his 1970s London estate, or in that of the eerie café patrons in a post-apocalyptic Cumbrian land, upon which roams a group of hirsute men bestride roaring motorcycles. Crista Ermiya’s invigorating debut introduces readers to a selection of beguiling characters who, with their personal disappointments, ailments, and neuroses, arrive on her pages by way of Tom Waits and Angela Carter. Here, people from the margins take centre stage, and everyone is seeking something to love.
These fairy tales of disenfranchisement conjure witches, ghosts, beasts, and immigrants, bidding that they rise out of shadows of a naturalistic world. The Weather in Kansas is dripping with magical realism. Good, hearty, armchair-by-the-fire magical realism that is at its most potent when used by Ermiya to flesh out the worlds of her characters, each themselves a member of the out-crowd.
‘Marginalia’ sees a gloved girl in a high-buttoned blouse and veiled flat frequent a library in an attempt to unearth monsters and to obscure… something:
You can feel the heat rising through your body, underneath your hair and skin. You peer into the dim mirror in the bathroom, the only mirror in your flat, and hold your gloved hands up to the sides of your face beneath the netting of the ’forties-style hat. Only shadows can be seen beneath the veil, the fact that you have eyes and a mouth. You turn, first one way, then the other. Beneath the stylised clothing you look normal. This will be all he sees, you say to yourself. And then you call his name out loud into the flat: Michael. But the empty echo makes you shiver, despite the flush you can feel working its way up your spine. You covered over the mirror with a towel and undress with your eyes closed.
Elsewhere, Ermiya spins a well-measured tale of a young girl, left out in the cold for too long, who visits a freak show with her shallow, unrequited crush and learns the meaning of the word ‘revenge’, as her authentic Romany heritage is called into question by the women they find there:
[…] each claiming to be genuine Romany Gypsies with the gift of foresight. Some claim to have told the fortunes of Bet Lynch, Ken Barlow, Pauline Fowler. No one thinks to say, but those people are fictions, they don’t exist in real life.
Something about the tongue-in-cheek wink at the reader here (and elsewhere) dares the reader to believe in the characters whose lives are played out in these miniature fables.
In ‘Signs of the Last Days’, a gaggle of schoolgirls grow so close to each other as they court apocalypse that they risk sacrificing their individuality :
It started like the edge of rain when you don’t even recognise that it’s raining. But then the drops fall fatter, fall heavy, fall fast, until you realise you’re in a storm and it’s too late to find shelter. No one remembers who was first. […] Delight, malicious, malevolent, pure. We knew the expression our face wore, because we could see it reflected in each other, girl to girl to girl, like a living hall of mirrors. We had only one face.
Later, (and perhaps most enjoyably) in ‘On Skar and Matters Pertaining’, Ermiya conjures the bizarre yet compelling fictive natural history of the inhabitants of a Caledonian island. The story questions the necessity and wisdom of patriarchy on an island whose menfolk compete like lemmings for the attentions of their other halves: “during courtship … daredevil acts of leaping and scrambling on precipitous edges” as testament to “pervasive, virtually monolithic, culture of bravado” that results in an obvious shortfall on the male population.
Delightful in its range and inspiring in its sustained focus on her subjects, The Weather in Kansas marks Ermiya as a writer of great potential.
Phil Clement studied English and Creative Writing in Aberystwyth. Since he left there he has lived in a library, written short stories, and reviewed books. Currently he works as an assistant editor at Amberley Publishing. Follow Phil here.
The Weather in Kansas was published this year by Red Squirrel Press.