SEPTEMBER 28, 2021
THE ENTRANCING debut collection by Jo Lloyd, Something Wonderful, takes its title from a passage early in the book’s first story, “My Bonny.” A sailor, James, has drowned at sea, “witnessed only by spider crabs and hagfish and other untalkative actuaries of the deep.” In the 20 years between his first voyage, at age 12, and his death in 1829, the skyline of his Scottish port town, its churches and abbey and all the rest, had been overshadowed by “industry and innovation,” chimneys jutting from mills and factories, their windblown smoke pointing “like a hundred signposts” to something “just over there, out of sight […] something wonderful.”
This vague, ephemeral promise of progress motivates not only James’s widow, Agnes, but many of the characters in these nine rich and stylistically diverse stories. These characters are all strivers, toilers, and dreamers who never quite grasp the brass ring, never become successful or find the happiness they crave.
For Agnes, her life will be one of “relentless, erosive work, the cuckoo hunger gaping in her ribs.” At first, her infant son gives her direction, then the lives of her grandchildren and her great-granddaughter Clementina. She does what she can to support them all, receiving little in return, and one by one they either die or move away, leaving her ever more alone. The sea haunts her sleep yet offers strange comfort at the end, its noise “constant, a sigh that went on forever.”
The sea feels present in Lloyd’s prose as well, restless and rhythmic as she relates the lives of Agnes’s family, only to crash upon the shoals of another death, another loss. Lloyd tailors her style to the mood she’s crafting, as when Clementina considers rejoining her father in India and Agnes tries to convince her to go, although with the carefully couched caveats of one who selfishly hopes the girl doesn’t listen:
Agnes explained what an opportunity this was for a girl like her. Although yes, undeniably, in a frightening, alien land. How Clementina would have brothers and sisters for the first time. Albeit strangers. How well Thomas was doing — the manager of a jute mill — and how comfortable her new home would be. Even if it was in a town of foreigners. The family had, Agnes added in a hushed tone uncommitted to admiration or disdain, a servant. (Also foreign.)
Lloyd dexterously dictates the pace of her storytelling by varying her sentence lengths, deploying fragments, allowing run-ons, and even enforcing a kind of enjambment with her punctuation — as above, when those frequent periods force you to hear the hesitation. That wordy clause delays, by a moment or two, the reveal of what “the family had.” At other times, Lloyd unspools clause after clause, allowing her sentences to cascade down the page, pulling the reader along. And she has a knack for indelible phrasing, as when she describes Clementina as having “strong, prominent teeth, like a goat’s, and the hair of one accustomed to storms.”
Nowhere are her many literary talents better displayed than in “The Invisible,” a dazzling tour de force that won the BBC Short Story Award in 2019. Lloyd, who grew up in South Wales, where she lives now, told the BBC that the story was inspired by a woman in the 1700s named Martha, from Caernarfonshire in the northwest of Wales, who “claimed to be friends with an invisible family living in an invisible mansion.” In Lloyd’s version, the Invisible are the Ingrams, father and daughter, whose mansion, Martha reveals, is on the far side of the lake, an area where others see nothing remarkable: “Cold eels of water slide among rushes and sedges and tumps of starry moss. Cat-gorse and furze cling to rafts of drier ground. Spearwort and flag dip their toes and shiver.” An elemental connection to the land infuses Lloyd’s imagery here, with Martha revealing that the Ingrams’ speech is “like a noise of leaves or water” and that Miss Ingram’s frock is “lilac, lit from within like a spring sky.”
The locals are “happy, eager even,” to believe Martha, especially during the harsh winters, when they have ample time to fantasize about those who lead more comfortable lives. In Lloyd’s limpid prose, Martha’s descriptions become hypnotic, with anaphora deepening the spell. “Tell us about the meats, we say. Tell us about the cream. Tell us about the apricots and persimmons, the roast swans and haunches of venison. Tell us.” The story’s conclusion is as achingly wistful and tender an evocation of desire, aspiration, and despairing hope, as I have read in a long time.
“The Earth, Thy Great Exchequer, Ready Lies,” also set in the 1700s, is inspired by the life of Sir Humphrey Mackworth, an English member of Parliament, assayer and administrator of mines, and fraudster — the fraud a result of financial practices associated with said mines. Mackworth — whom Lloyd only identifies as HM, though she drops enough breadcrumbs that his identity can be readily established — offers a musing, first-person account of himself: possibly well intentioned, definitely entitled, avaricious, and a bit desperate. Terribly put upon, HM laments that “not Hercules, not even Job himself, has had to overcome more obstacles.” He and his trusted aide, Shiers, follow a mysterious figure called Tall John in search of the next lucrative lode. Tall John is possibly a rogue, and might even be the devil himself, though he also seems the most moral of the bunch, a fact that helps drive the story’s psychological depth. As the rain, “thickened to a dense curtain,” draws down across his path, HM may find what he is seeking, or he may be riding to his doom.
In “The Ground the Deck,” Megan is also seeking a better life, though she approaches it from a much humbler starting point than HM. Arriving in London “all fresh and green,” she is so poor that “she could have told the name and age of every coin in her purse.” Her new flatmates, Licia and Xander, both come from money, but Xander has “fallen out” with his family and is living on the dole. Megan toils away at a job she despises and, despite some bright moments with Licia, struggles to find what she sought in the city, namely a world of people who “discussed the important matters of the day, and, when the walls of inequality and injustice towered too high, got together to break them down.” Instead, she found Xander, who, during a party for Megan’s birthday featuring “all the people she’d said she didn’t want to see,” levels a withering epithet at a neighbor: “You are a peasant, said Xander in the sudden silence. You have a soul of mud. You should go back down the mine so we don’t have to see your peasant face.” Though Megan’s search for a brighter world clearly must continue, the reader feels that she will turn out fine.
As will Trish, the delightfully drawn narrator of “Ade/Cindy/Kurt/Me,” who epitomizes the sort of person you make eye contact with in a bar or on a bus and who immediately launches into their madcap life story. Trish’s breezy conversational narrative opens with an almost nonchalant 100-word sentence, followed quickly by a matter-of-fact disclosure: “I know that makes me sound shallow, but you might as well find out now that I am.”
Trish left home as a teenager, making her “spikey and outspoken,” but she knows herself and her faults very well. She tries to settle down with Ade, whom she likes and lives with rent-free, but she can’t quite do it, partly because being with a “nice man […] at first it will make you smile, Yes he is nice, aren’t I lucky? But then it begins to get annoying.” Once Cindy arrives at Ade’s birthday party with “this foxy guy, this pretty boy, Kurt he called himself, although I’m guessing he was born a Ron or a Jim,” it becomes tough for Trish to remember her “new improved character,” but it is immensely enjoyable watching her try.
Not all of these characters will flourish, however. The nameless female narrator of “Work” is an exploited restaurant employee who “thought that the part of [her] that was meant to look into the future and want things was dead and gone.” She momentarily finds a glimmer of hope but, when it’s extinguished, realizes that she will need every bit of energy to make it from day to day.
Sandwiched between the despair of “Work” and the self-aware bravado of “Ade/Cindy/Kurt/Me” is “Deep Shelter,” a story set in the somber world of postwar Britain as it begins to face how much was lost, and how much potential can never be reclaimed. The shift in tone among the three stories, and across the volume as a whole, is remarkably broad, revealing what may be Lloyd’s most valuable gift: an ability to travel seamlessly wherever she wishes, her agile eye confidently guiding her characters — and her readers — as they chase the almost tangible hope that something wonderful lies ahead.