Professor Wu's Rulebook

Book review: ‘This Paradise’ by Ruby Cowling

Ruby Cowling's debut short story collection questions where we're going with the environment, technology, societal change, big companies and governments, all while featuring "lots of rain and sisters". Read our review below.

It is rare to stumble upon a book that is so relevant and appropriate to the context in which you read it that it both impresses and disturbs you with its prescience. Yet this is exactly the reaction that stirs within you as you read This Paradise – the debut collection of stories by Ruby Cowling.

Published by fabulous independent publishers, Boiler House Press, this is a book that catches your attention from the get go – and not least because of the striking (and brilliant) cover design (what was that about judging books by covers?) The first story, Edith Aleksander, b.1929, is a startlingly beautiful investigation into old age, youth, memory, and nostalgia that packs a punch far weightier than the 8 pages you’ll devour in no time at all.

This is a common feature of each of the stories in the collection – they all share an ability to leave you thinking about them for far longer than it takes you to read them. And, the chances are, they’ll come back to haunt you days and weeks later, perhaps while you take your daily government-sanctioned exercise or try to drown out the incessant onslaught of terrifying news currently enveloping our lives.

Yet while the stories share this common trait, each is completely different from the other. Experimentations in form, style, and perspective abound; with stories variously including simultaneous plot & monologue (‘The Two Body Problem’), futuristic epistolary framing devices (‘[Superfar]’), as well as text messages as a dialogue/narrative device, and ongoing ‘live’ news reportage that runs along the margins of ‘The Ground is Considerably Distorted’ – a story about an unfolding political scandal that does an impressive job of capturing not just the arc of a narrative that seems so familiar to us from our daily dose of media babble, but also in the way the scandal is covered by journalists and the media at large.

It’s also fascinating to study the different subjects of each of the stories. There is a clear familial theme that carries along throughout, more noticeable in some cases than others, and while some stories focus keenly on the intimate details of a person’s life and relationships – as with ‘Mating week’ – others take a step back to capture global-scale events, including the effects of catastrophic climate breakdown and aforementioned political scandals.

In an interview with Nothing in the Rulebook, Cowling says she is “compelled by questions of where we’re going with the environment, technology, and accelerated societal change…and big companies and governments and how we as individuals form and are formed by them.” She also says that there’s “loads of rain in the book” – all of which is true. It’s undeniably a book that captures the ferocity of the environmental damage being dealt to the Earth by humans, as well as the dangerous effects such damage is tolling out in return. Yet while there is certainly a lot of…weather…in This Paradise, it never feels as though the author is forcing this down our throats as some cli-fi books tend to do. And it is the subtlety with which Cowling invokes the dangers facing us that will leave readers reeling.

The variety of styles in the collection may mean that some readers favour certain stories over others (surely to be expected of any story collection); but every story is of such a high quality it is genuinely hard to pick a favourite. For this reviewer, few stories have ever managed to walk such a delicate tightrope between terror, science-fiction, kitchen-sink realism and also – perhaps counterintuitively – hope, than the near perfect ‘Flamingo Land’, which nestles in the middle of this excellent collection.

That the terror of this story is caused by a maths formula might admittedly be something many English literature graduates can sympathise with. But it is also wrapped up in a genuine real-life terror lived by so many people when encountering the horrors of the worse kinds of government bureaucracy – that which sets out to penalise people for being vulnerable and poor rather than controlling the out-of-control free market capitalism that indentures them. In ‘Flamingo Land’ we follow the trials of one family trying to exist within increasingly impossible parameters that have been set by a government so clearly oblivious to the real lives people live. The consequences of not following the rules are devastating – not least because the cruelty of the familial separation they involve doesn’t feel a million years away from our current world, in which the children of migrants crossing borders are taken from their parents and put in cages. It’s terrifying precisely because it doesn’t feel like dystopian science fiction; it feels like the actual world in which we live.

So far, so horrifying. Yet what ‘Flamingo Land’ – and Cowling – does so brilliantly is end this story not on one of the bleak notes it could; but rather one of beautiful defiance and protest. Without revealing spoilers, we’ll simply highlight the final sentence of the story as a shining call to arms for anyone who feels otherwise despondent when looking at the world around us:

“No one, not even the people with the power, can force things to be exactly the way they want them to be – not always, maybe not ever.”

The best stories – and the best writers – hold a mirror up to our own lives and world without us realising we are looking into a mirror at all. In This Paradise, the stories Cowling has written do just this. For that, it should be a collection all readers seek to pick up and read.

This Paradise, by Ruby Cowling, is published by Boiler House Press and available directly through the publisher’s website

Boiler House Press are one of the (excellent) independent book publishers continuing to send out books during the Coronavirus Lockdown. Discover and support independent presses and bookstores in our curated article here.

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