Once again I have been given an advanced reading copy of a book that’s due to be published to review. The book is, Sussex Tales by Staffordshire Moorlands based author, Jan Edwards.
Sussex Tales is a collection of stories set in Sussex, with the addition of some interesting recipes and folklore to boot. The narrator is the young Susan, who at times demonstrates that she’s a little bit wiser than her years.
This collection that easily could be a twee and saccharine toe-dip into a time gone by has a darker edge to it. Instead of, oh wasn’t it jolly when people still spent ha’pennies and made their own country wines, we have stories with truth at the heart.
The first chapter opens with a new born lamb being kept warm in the family kitchen and the story relishes the youthful exuberance that children have when in the company of young animals, however Susan makes no bones about being aware where animals bred for food end up. The honesty of life and death at lambing season is written well without any hint of mawkish window dressing.
The chapters not only give an insight into the area where the stories take place but they clearly investigate the human condition, in Cowslips and the Gorgon, we get to see extended family interaction and the influence of the matriarch. In Oak Leaves and Hand Grenades it’s the politics of being siblings that is handled with ease as an amusing story of discovery unravels.
My favourite chapter, Scallops and Raspberry Pie is a cleverly executed story. An innocent Sunday school trip to the seaside is laced with enough potential danger to tempt the reader into creating sub-plots as it unfolds. Do the young girls understand how their actions could be interpreted by the intriguing man in the shell shop? Superbly crafted, the author introduces an undercurrent of malevolence that the reader readily interprets into alleged domestic violence, however, at no point does Edwards confirm our suspicions. Mixed with the comedy that is woven into this tale of fish paste sandwiches, beach cricket and tucking of knickers into skirts is that post 1965 paranoia of children going missing at fairgrounds that many of us grew with.
Ms Edwards has the ability to write a simple line that promotes involuntary facial tics, how can you not read, ‘Linda slid on her most wheedling tone as easily as dragging on a well-worn shoe,’ and not raise an eyebrow in remembrance of someone similar and lines like, ‘He clutched an achingly new duffle bag to his chest with both arms and smile big enough to swallow melons,’ tease the corners of your mouth into a smile
Each of the chapters run sequentially over the course of one year from spring lambing through to Christmas giving the narrative flow a sense of purpose and fluidity, something many collections of short stories fail to achieve.
The stories are peppered with Sussex phrases and dialect, but not so liberally that you find yourself constantly flicking to the handy glossary at the back of the book, there’s enough to give a sense of setting without alienating the reader.
Whether you’re from Sussex or not this is an appealing and often amusing collection of tales from a bygone age, and with sentences like, ‘I scuttled after him, face stinging with the small, gritty snow that had begun to whistle on the tail of the bitter wind.’ I defy you not to like them.
Sussex Tales will be published by Penkhull Press and will be available towards the end of this year from all the usual outlets.