Book Review

Gross In Feather, Loud In Voice by Judson Hamilton

Emotive, bizarre, inventive, stories.

Gross In Feather, Loud In Voice is a brand new short story collection by Judson Hamilton, a Wroclaw-based writer with three chapbooks and a novella already under his belt. Some of the stories in this collection have previously been published in impressive literary journals from across the world, which suits the huge range of geographic settings of the pieces. This is a global work, and Hamilton is clearly a global writer, his stories as comfortable set in the Southern USA, in Central Europe, in the Far East and many other places in between. The collection evokes very much a whole world, but perhaps not the world in which we live…

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A few days ago I saw – and laughed at – a right-wing review of a TV show that included this laughably small-minded comment in relation to magical realism:

if anything can happen, who bloody cares?

I was reminded of this comment when reading Hamilton’s book, because the writer here proves the ridiculousness of that statement. For in Hamilton’s stories we are as likely to witness the unbelievable as we are to see the mundane, and amongst stories of violence and loss and rejection and despair, we also get magic and transformation and the truly strange (I’m hesitant to use the word “surreal”). Always the reader cares, because although what happens is impossible to predict, all Hamilton’s human characters respond with understandable emotion.

Gross In Feather, Loud In Voice opens with a story where a character attends a party at his ex-con brother’s house, and finds the heart of a whale in the back garden served as a gastronomic treat. This is, in some ways, a fair introduction to the collection; we see very human stories with edges of the unbelievable. Sometimes we read of things that we ourselves could experience, but often the reader slips out of the understandable and into the bizarre.

As a collection it can – at times – be disorienting. The worlds established in these works are often very, very, different. In ‘Bones and such’, for example (the longest story in the collection), the reader witnesses a world panicking as the moon’s gravity begins sucking the bones of the dead into the sky, until this force constructs a giant human figure on the moon that points at a specific point, back on Earth, which holds clues that allow scientists to develop artificial life, a life that will eventually take over the planet. This takes only 20 pages, but is a hugely complex and evocative story: Hamilton is able to transport a reader – within a single narrative – rapidly from idea to idea, turning and twisting in unexpected but never unbelievable (within context) ways. However, as every story is utterly different, this collection does have the risk of overwhelming a reader if read too quickly – there is so much going on that these stories deserve attention as individual pieces, rather than as part of a larger whole.

Of particular note are:

  • ‘Skull’ – a man with a brain tumour goes on a last holiday with his wife and wanders deep into what may or may not be hallucinations;
  • ‘#9’ –  a single father struggling with his temper and his finances becomes a bare knuckle boxer then goes on a violent rampage;
  • ‘b.p.s.l.’ – a successful estate agent descends into drug addiction and his marriage breaks down. He holds onto a single picture that he and his ex-wife bought at a flea market when young and in love;
  • ‘The Menagerie’ – a newly single man begins making animal masks as part of his therapy (this one seems to have a [vaguely] happy ending);
  • ‘The send off’ – this – the final piece in the collection – is a rather beautiful piece about a man losing his father.

As you can see from this list, there are themes and personalities that reoccur – lots of these stories are about men experiencing – or about to be experiencing – loss. I think to criticise this, though, would miss the point of the collection: Gross In Feather, Loud In Voice shows a reader a huge variety of ways in which people (well, men) can experience pain and/or unhappiness, both within this reality and outside of it. The virtuosic leaps into imaginative, swiftly-created, worlds are grounded in human and relatable emotion. Thanataphobia, addiction, grief, loneliness, regret: this is an emotive text that regularly makes a reader uncomfortable and upset. Hamilton’s writing is not an easy read, and by that I don’t mean his prose is impenetrable, but that his texts discuss unhappiness in an often very bleak – though kinda distinctly male – way.

Unhappiness and loss, though, have long been considered central to literature, as Andrej Nikolaidis and Eley Williams discuss in a recent episode of Triumph of the Now TV:

Judson Hamilton’s short story collection throws a reader about, both in terms of place, in terms of reality and in terms of emotion. It’s a collection of ambitious works that regularly leave a reader deeply affected, and always explore a unique idea in an interesting way. Hamilton’s work is well worth a look, however it is very much an exploration of male emotion and male experience, so do bear that in mind.

Gross In Feather, Loud In Voice is a male text, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t engaging, emotive and full of unexpected imagery. Give it a go.

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PS: I found this while looking for the cover image of the book. It’s bizarre, I don’t understand what it’s for or what it means, but this is the “book trailer” for Gross In Feather, Loud In Voice:

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Gross In Feather, Loud In Voice is published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe and is available directly from the publisher by click-a-click-a-clicking on this link. (Actually, it’s not, if you follow that link through the publisher’s website it takes you to the book’s listing on Amazon, but maybe that will change but I doubt the book’s page will.)

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