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Helen McClory – Mayhem & Death

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Superb storytelling held back by skittish structure

Image of Helen McClory – Mayhem & Death

Hailed by The Herald as “one of the best new writers to have emerged in Scotland in the last few years”, Helen McClory is back with the medium that won her initial plaudits. The Edges of Vision was published in 2015 to great critical acclaim (it scooped the Saltire First Book of the Year award) and with Mayhem & Death, she returns to her favoured short story form.

As the title suggests, the thematic content of this new compendium is decidedly dark, even for McClory. It’s also intensely chaotic and fragmented – of the 38 tales, only a mere handful are more than two pages in length. The resultant effect is the briefest of snapshots into disparate lives, which are often characterised by gloom, depression and weirdness. It’s jarring and difficult to digest, which is perhaps the intended effect.

Regardless of intent, the book does represent a challenge to really sink your teeth into. As soon as we meet a character and begin to get a feel for them, they’re discarded in search of something new. On rare occasions, this works well, such as the absurd humour in “Jeff Goldblum” or the visceral violence of “Nostalgia Tremens”. For the most part, however, we’re left unsatisfied, unnourished, grasping for more.

This is because McClory’s writing talents appear to be just as sharp as ever. When we finally do encounter a character or story upon which we can hang more than a minute’s contemplation (as in “Souterrain”, “A Voice Spoke to Me at Night” and stand-out finisher “Powdered Milk”), we devour her prose greedily. It’s small wonder she was highlighted by The Herald as one to watch – her turn of phrase, inherent poetry and penchant for the dark, the odd, the underside of things makes her uniquely compelling.

It’s just that in Mayhem & Death, all of these talents are sidelined by the skittishness of her storytelling. Harness those powers upon a central thread, and she has the potential to become an unsettling, insightful and above all irresistible powerhouse of Scottish fiction.

/ @jonnyleesweet


After four years in the wanderlust wilderness, Jonny Sweet is back to the homeland to gorge himself on musical and cinematic catnip and scribble furiously in dimly lit rooms.

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