Review – ‘Among These Animals’ by Gaynor Jones

I received a copy of this book from the author.

On a farm in North Wales, a family creates a simple but mostly satisfying life until an unspeakable tragedy strikes. Both crushed with grief and blame, farmer Derfel and his daughter Carys are unable to bridge the chasm that erupts between them; each acts out in their own way, looking to numb the pain. This is a carefully rendered tale of how loss and grief can both break us and bind us, told in a novella-in-flash.

Think ‘historical saga’ but distilled right down to its very essence. This is the gift of Gaynor Jones’s writing: an ability to get directly to the heart of the matter. Each of these powerful vignette-style pieces sit against the next in a way that makes the white space between them especially telling. The reader feels the passage of time almost tangibly as the next story takes up. Between parts two and three of the book Carys grows from a rebellious teen into an unhappily married woman; we hear nothing of this process, but its consequences are made clear. Each story peels away a new layer and the revelations reframe previous stories. Carys wrestles with the conflict of being both the firstborn and a girl, and the implications of one cancelling out the other. Derfel sees her potential but feels unable to act – and then it’s too late. Jones carefully interrogates the father-daughter dynamic, exploring the father as protector and supporter, and the consequences of imbalance. Feminism, freedom, family, and connection all resonate throughout.

Gaynor Jones is a master of the flash fiction form (see my review of her collection ‘Business As Usual’ here). Her writing is as much about what’s left unsaid as what appears on the page, both between and within her stories. She wastes no time on pleasantries in her openings but dives immediately into the action:
When he presses her up against the cool ceramic sink her arms plunge into the water.
Her early departures are also incredibly well timed, giving the reader just what they need to know what’s coming next (and in some masterful examples, these endings acquire an added layer of resonance in later stories).
Beyond the glorious racket, she hears a door slam, heavy footprints along the hall. She braces herself for what’s to come.
The details Jones picks out are stark and vivid at the same time. Each is chosen carefully, for maximum effect. Every word in these stories works hard, but this does not feel like spare prose. The reader’s imagination is easily sparked to fill in the blanks, and guided by Gaynor’s deliberate craft. On more than one occasion, the reader needs to pause and consider how one detail is the key to crucial aspects of the narrative. This makes for stimulating reading, both intellectually and emotionally engaging.

Gaynor Jones is a truly exceptional storyteller with perfect instincts in writing the short form. Among These Animals is a marvellous example of story-within-story, and a strong example of the novella-in-flash. Derfel and Carys will linger with you, long after you read the last page. A brilliant read for anyone who’s struggled with the complexity of family, constraint and freedom, and finding a way to live between all of them.

Among These Animals is available now from Ellipsis Zine.

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