To the Volcano, and other stories

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Longlisted   —Edge Hill Prize2020

Shortlisted   —Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize for ‘Supermarket Love’2019

Fellow   —Royal Society of Literature2019

‘These assured, accomplished stories are reports from a world in which unacknowledged dark energies undermine and render hollow our bright, rational self-understanding. With passion and intelligence, and rare moral insight, Elleke Boehmer traces the scars left on the psyche by the tortuous histories of the South.’—J.M. Coetzee

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This thrilling new collection of short stories by Elleke Boehmer tracks lives across continents from the perspective of the southern hemisphere—its light, its seas, its sensibilities.

These are stories of people caught up in a world that tilts seductively, sometimes dangerously, between south and north, between ambition and tradition, between light and dark. Her characters are poised to leave or on the point of return; often caught in limbo, haunted by their histories and veering between possibilities.

An African student in England longs for her desert home; a shy Argentinian travel agent agonises about joining her boyfriend in New York; a soldier is pursued by his past; a writer’s widow fends off the attentions of his predatory biographer.

From story to story we walk through radically different worlds and journeys packed with hopes and ideals. Sharp, tender, and always arresting, these exquisitely written pieces crackle with luminous insights as characters struggle to come to terms—with their pasts, with one another, and with themselves.

Anjali Joseph, Times Literary Supplement

10 April 2020

In “South, North”, the second story in Elleke Boehmer’s new collection, Lise, a young Australian woman, visits Paris after learning French. She has a backpack full of classic books, including Émile Zola’s L’Assommoir, and a map borrowed from her French teacher. She wakes early in her hostel, eats an apple and goes out looking for the Goutte d’Or, the setting for Zola’s novel. On the way she eats a madeleine from a packet bought in a métro kiosk. It “tastes of almost nothing”. The added dimension of reality that Lise is looking for – “See what you can see”, her French teacher has said – plays out in the refracted light between wherever she is and an imagined other place, in a manner reminiscent of Jean Rhys’s fiction. For Lise, instead of the Caribbean and Europe, the dislocation is between an unnamed rural Australia and contemporary Paris, as well as between contemporary Paris and an invented nineteenth- century version of the city. These are some of the different places she remains focused on, even as she must deal with the unwanted attentions of two men.

Lise at one point finds herself cornered in a telephone café, where she calls her mother. In the preceding story, “The Child in the Photograph”, the reverse-charge call back home (to a landlocked country in Africa, one with “loads of diamonds”) similarly becomes a trope, as do letters and notes between the different worlds of an Oxford college and a more oxygenated life in the town outside. In “Supermarket Love”, Farhana, the young Afghan girl stacking shelves in an Australian supermarket, thinks of writing a letter to the advice column of the magazines her mother reads to ask about the colleague she likes. The use of physical telephones, call boxes and letters, rather than mobile phones or emails, brings a mildly historical flavour to the collection.

“Blue Eyes”, one of the strongest stories, engages directly with a precise historical moment. John and Mick, ex-members of the Rhodesian Special Forces, enrol at university in Cape Town soon after Zimbabwean independence, but finding accommodation is difficult. “No Rhodie ex-combatants for tenants”, says the letting agent. The men are soon offered room in the house of Patty, a young South African music student with whom John begins a relationship, though his nightly bad dreams about the war make him soak the sheets, which Patty’s black maid, Iris, silently refuses to wash. Patty likes John’s eyes: “Bluer than my dad’s. It’s the kind of blue eyes that show up blank in the old black-and-white photos. You know, photos of the colonial days, lion hunts and that”. John, meanwhile, becomes involved with Iris, too, her “big glistening eyes” melting into those of an unnamed figure he remembers – remembers killing? – in the war.

Boehmer’s characters, like most of us, are continually elsewhere, dragged back into their pasts, but not with the convenient exposition common in fictional flashbacks. Rather, they are pricked by shards of uncomfortable memory at the most innocuous moments. In “Synthetic Orange” the plastic bracelet that the protagonist’s boyfriend gives her, made from the recycled lifejackets of migrants to Spain, occasions flashbacks to the uncomfortable first swim of their holiday in a nondescript resort, then to her own troubled memories linked to drowning.

Many of the dozen stories in To the Volcano feature characters confronting fractured worlds. They are also people who behave with a quiet wilfulness, repeating behaviours even as the situations around them change. Particularly striking is “The Mood That I’m In”, in which Paul and Anne meet in the Crosskeys retirement home. She is wearing a tight red dress, he goes over to ask her to dance; soon enough, to the muted horror of his children, he has proposed and given her his dead wife’s pearl earrings. “Your father was the love of my life”, Anne later tells Paul’s daughter Beri at his funeral. But when Beri calls Anne a couple of months later, there is a new love interest, Graham. This unexpected turn can’t quite be reduced to callousness, or insincerity; instead, Anne is just doing her thing – swooning and being caught by willing men. In their best, often their most surreal moments, Elleke Boehmer’s stories are memorably lifelike.

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Books and Cleverness, bookstagrammer

27 May 2020

To The Volcano and other stories - Elleke Boehmer
🌟🌟🌟⭐️⭐️ (3.5/5)

It’s been a long time since I’ve read an anthology of short stories so this definitely made a nice change of pace!

Every story in this anthology is different. Luanda struggles to find her place in Oxford University. Lise feels lost in Paris. Evelina ignores her family to follow her love to New York. Anne fills her heart with husband after husband. And, in the titular story, Bob loses himself in a South African volcano. Whether binged or spread out over many days, this anthology is worth the read.

This anthology is about a journey. A journey from Australia to France, from Sierra Leone to Oxford, from South America to New York. It’s about the journey of self-acceptance, of losing yourself, of finding a love. Every story is unique but they all share the same elements at their core. I have some standout favourite short stories: Paper Planes, about a woman with dementia; the story of Anne and her husbands; Evelina and her journey to New York stood out to me; as did Luanda’s stay in Oxford. Every story was easy to read and the characters were vivid enough to be memorable after only a few short pages. It’s not a book you’ll read again and again but it’s a book that teaches you and a book that you’ll enjoy.

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Silver Linings and Pages, Bookstagrammer 4/5 star review

18 April 2020

If you’ve followed me for a while, you’ll know that I’m relatively new to reading short stories, but To The Volcano by Elleke Boehmer is the best collection I’ve read yet!
Rating: 4/5🌟 .

These stories delve into characters in different continents from the perspective of the Southern Hemisphere. It’s tricky to review an entire collection here, but the author insightfully explores past traumas, disappointments, dreams, ambitions and self-knowledge. The language is richly evocative and loaded with sensory information, in particularly vivid, striking colours. Some of these stories were very cinematic and I’d love to have read on beyond their final pages- the sign of a good short story?!

The three which stood out for me were:
🌋The titular “To The Volcano”, in which a university group has a surreal and impactful experience whilst visiting a volcano crater
🌋 “The Mood that I’m In”, about a serial widow - is she a gold-digger?!🤑
🌋”South, North”, about a young woman excited to be backpacking in Paris, and she has some unnerving experiences. It reminded me of the vulnerability I sometimes felt whilst studying in Madrid, and went travelling or walking home at night alone; with my Celtic colouring I was a bit more conspicuous and was mildly but disconcertingly harassed on a few occasions. I know this could (and does) happen anywhere, but I was alone and far from home like the character in the story. (Most of my experiences were amazingly happy, I should add!)

Thank you very much to @myriad_editions for this giveaway prize. Myriad is a smaller publisher which supports new and emerging authors. They publish award-winning literary fiction, graphic novels and political nonfiction, and I already have a couple more of their books lined up to read!

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Nancy Richards, Country Life

10 April 2020

Arresting, intriguing, luminous and seductive are some of the adjectives used on the cover of Boehmer’s anthology of tales. All of which could equally describe what has become known as ‘the global south.’ Born in South Africa but based now in the UK, this professor of World Literature of English has, over and above an exquisite grip on how to succinctly, simply and sensitively put across a scene, a whole soul or the smallest of gestures, a connection to The South that defines her. And in the case of this book, guides her stories, all of which have links to countries below the equator – Argentina, Australia, South Africa etc. She talks of the distinctive ‘southern light’ that bathes the hemisphere and inspires its writers. But if this sounds fey, her stories describe people who are utterly real, raw and flawed. There’s a frisson between two supermarket shelf-packers, a boy making paper planes for his dementia-ridden gran, tour-guide Evelina with an airport fetish and the communications officer whose life is changed by a field trip To The Volcano, title story. Both every day and yet so very washed in undercurrent, these stories are haunting and compelling.

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Recommended Reading, Patricia's Wisdom

31 March 2020

TO THE VOLCANO And Other Stories ~Elleke Boehmer

TO THE VOLCANO is incredibly serious writing about the north and the south – hemispheres!
I had never heard of this author before this book was sent to me for review.  I feel cheated that I was not knowledgeable about this talented, moral writer earlier in my reading career and delighted for the introduction now.  Her word choices are sublime, exacting.

“Arresting, intriguing and brilliantly crafted, these stories explore the psychic wounds of our rapidly contracting contemporary world.  Each unfolds with impeccable pacing, and gradually unveils a deeply human sense of the world.” (Kwame Dawes)

I have now read this book three times, and I am putting it on my shelf of those books I draw out in the middle of the night when I cannot sleep and simply must read.  The stories are female centered, and they address themes of emigration, belonging, and diasporas.  They are often caught between leaving or on the way to return.  The context is full of the southern hemisphere and all those histories, traditions, and possibilities.

Born in South Africa, Elleke Boehmer lives in Oxford where she is Professor of World Literature in English at the University of Oxford.  She is the author of five novels including SCREENS AGAINST THE SKY (shortlisted for the David Higham Prize), BLOODLINES (short listed for the Sanlam Prize), NILE BABY, and THE SHOUTING IN THE DARK (longlisted for the London Sunday Times prize). Her edition of Baden-Powell’s SCOUTING FOR BOYS was a bestseller, and her acclaimed biography of Nelson Mandela has been translated into several languages.  She has published several other books including STORIES OF WOMEN, the anthology EMPIRE WRITING, Postcolonial Poetic and Indian Arrivals: Networks of British Empire which won the ESSE 2015-2016 Prize.  TO THE VOLCANO is her second collection of short stories.

The stories are tender and do make the reader stop and think about the ramifications; the expectations.  It is delightful to look at other cultures with desert heat or rainy climes hidden in the bones of each short respite into another’s life.

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A Life in Books

13 November 2019

I’d not heard of Elleke Boehmer before To the Volcano turned up, despite the five novels she has under her belt. She’s also the author of an acclaimed biography of Nelson Mandela not to mention editor of the bestselling 2004 edition of Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys. I knew about the latter from Waterstone’s Books Quarterly days but had failed to make the connection. Now an Oxford academic, Boehmer was born in South Africa which explains why so many of her stories emanate from the southern hemisphere.

The opening piece sets the tone for much of this collection with a tale of homesickness in which a young African student’s infectious laugh gradually fades away in an unwelcoming ancient British university town. Lise’s dream of visiting Paris, her backpack stuffed with French classics to guide her, is dulled by rain and unwanted attention which sends her thoughts heading for home in ‘South, North’ while ‘Evelina’, one of my favourites, sees a young Argentinian travel guide, due to join her fiancé in New York, lingering in the airport until the last minute, reluctant to board the plane. Closely linked to the yearning for home, ‘Supermarket Love’ is a tale of cultural confusion as a young Afghan Muslim shelf-stacker writes a letter in her head to an Australian agony aunt about her crush on a colleague, knowing she can never send it. ‘Synthetic Orange’ also calls to mind refugees when the gift of a bracelet made from the brightly coloured vests worn by migrants brings back memories of two shocking events for a woman on holiday in Spain.

Many of Boehmer’s stories are about people at a decisive point in their lives, a time to turn backwards or forwards, but several explore ageing a particularly poignant example of which is ‘Paper Planes’ in which an old woman sits in her nursing home bedroom playing with her grandson, or rather watching him play. ‘The Mood I’m In’ takes a rather different view of growing old as a widow, dry-eyed at her previous husbands’ funerals, finds herself in tears at the fourth.

These are insightful, intelligent stories full of characters pursuing their dreams but often meeting with disappointment, unable to make a decisive move, pulled back by a longing for home or an inability to escape their past and often left lonely as a result. An enjoyable collection, written with a quietly perceptive insight.

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