Jo Lloyd — The Earth, Thy Great Exchequer, Ready Lies
Jo Lloyd’s debut collection brings together stories about adventurers of all kinds, people struggling to gain a foothold in their own lives in the face of the world’s indifference.
She traces this theme across a broad panorama of stories, sweeping the reader through the nineteenth century Balkans, Restoration-era Shropshire, the post-war Festival of Britain, eighteenth century Wales and twenty-first century London. Yet this breadth is also addressed with the precision of a jeweller’s loupe, her sentences and phrases often exhilarating and even formidable, a series of miniature masterclasses in use of rhythm, sound and range of register. They are so palpable you can feel them between your teeth.
The front cover of the book has an endorsement from Sara Taylor celebrating Lloyd’s use of sentences. And indeed, the opening of her first story, ‘My Bonny’, starts:
“Less than a year into their marriage, James — who had always, in his brief visits ashore, been tilted and clumsy, startling every four hours to interior bells, twitching to get back to the harbour…” But, when a writer affords her sentences such sovereignty, does it mean they have a diminished responsibility to tell a story well?
In his book on story, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, George Saunders writes that a good story is one that, having created a pattern of excesses, notices those excesses and converts them into virtues by its end.
I wonder if by this criterion, the aggregate of events in ‘My Bonny’ — the lives and deaths of a sea-faring community — can feel like as much a survey as a story. Which is most likely the effect Lloyd wanted, like Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, the point of her story is not in the denouement but in the aggregate of these excesses, less interested in curating them as much as showing how they proliferate.
Other short stories are set in contemporary times, young women trying to make a go of adulthood, faced with outrageous flatmates, bullying bosses or just their own inadvertent self-sabotage. In ‘The Ground the Deck’, Megan lives in London, working in data-entry and living with two entitled, wannabe-bohemians, which sounds less dramatic than generations of lives lost at sea, but becomes a more engaging story for the way she infuses it with the stuff of literature and life — a feeling of a great intimacy with the story, created by her rich use of the author’s craft to achieve a striking particularity. Which makes these characters fully rounded, evoking the mixture of affection and disappointment we feel for real people; so too, her use of irony, incident and the anticipation of events are all manipulated to conjure a compelling story.
‘Ade/Cindy/Kurt/Me’ is the story of a selfish person’s decreasingly convincing attempts to justify her bad behaviour. Written in the first person, it is a mad-cap work of ventriloquism, the narrator’s white-knuckled grip on the story bursting through her flimsy attempts to maintain order; you would almost expect the pages themselves to burn up with her own intensity. A more efficient story might have distilled the telling of the first third with greater economy, but, then again, maybe that was the point…
‘Your Magic Summer’ is another story that flutters around the reader without perching. It is mostly about Duncan, his thoughtless God complex and the damage he wreaks on the women he moves through.
Again, the tone is well-suited to the world — initially, events drift only in the same loose orbit as each other; instead of responding to its excesses neatly and gracefully, the story grows them in a bulbous and slightly lunatic style, choosing strangely-angled windows from which we view an off-kilter world.
Both ‘Butterflies of the Balkans’ and ‘The Earth, Thy Great Exchequer, Ready Lies’ are historical works. In the former, Prue and Dotty, two ageing British lepidopterologists, are escorted by armed guards down the Dalmatian coast, a last adventure before the constraints of old age claim them.
The title story is narrated by a version of Sir Humphrey Mackworth, the 17th Century Governor of the Company of Mine-Adventurers — the prototype for our modern day exploitation of the planet — pompous, self-aggrandising and dangerously unpopular with his workers.
But the best stories in the collection are ‘Deep Shelter’ and ‘The Invisible.’ ‘Deep Shelter’ is the story of a young man in 1951 who visits his domineering, emotionally distant father for the only time since he abandoned the family. Against the carnival atmosphere of the Festival of Britain, they fail to connect, fail to understand each other, veering between their old familiar relationship and the son’s uncomfortable attempts to try and understand his father’s betrayal. The great weight of things unsaid creates a deep and powerful emotional undertow.
If you have not already read ‘The Invisible’, this story is reason alone to buy this collection. In a poor Welsh community, Martha’s adventures are imaginative. Only she can see the wealthy, noble, invisible Ingram family, and as she describes them to her neighbours, their responses begin to change, from their initial incredulity at a posited family, to something more primal and much more real.
After it won the BBC Short story prize in 2019, Judge Cynan Jones called it a firework — ‘the way it stays in your eyes after it’s burned out’.
Jo Lloyd’s pieces ably resist the neatness and grace of generic narrative, each of them instead succeeding in their own intrinsic ways, wrought by the force of their own internal storms.
Reviewer: Tom Conaghan