Review: Exercises in Control by Annabel Banks (2020)

Exercises in Control by Annabel Banks

Blurb:

‘We do have a complaints procedure. You will find paper and a pen (chained) to the shelf by the bin. Write your concerns and then place them in the bin. PLEASE NOTE: We do not allow items to be placed in the bin. Please do not write on the paper.’

A lonely woman invites danger between tedious dates; a station guard plays a bloody game of heads-or-tails; an office cleaner sneaks into a forbidden room hiding grim secrets.

Compelling and provocative, Annabel Banks’s debut short fiction collection draws deeply upon the human need to be in control — no matter how devastating the cost.

Review:

Influx Press is rocketing up my list of favourite publishers. I recently read and adored Famished by Anna Vaught, and I have Between Beirut and the Moon and Boy Parts very high on my TBR pile. This short story collection was recommended to me by @brownflopsy, my sister-in-weird when it comes to reading tastes. I was promised a fierce, original collection and this book did not disappoint. I devoured it in one sitting, practically licking my lips with glee at the needle-sharp prose and deliciously off-kilter sense of humour.

These stories are best approached with as little prior knowledge as possible, I think, so that the sweet, sharp shock of them is not diluted. As such, I will keep this brief. There are twelve stories in this slim volume, each one bristling with a sense of compacted energy, an electrical crackle and spark that is exciting and unsettling in equal measures. At times I was reminded of Carmen Maria Machado’s brilliant collection, Her Body and Other Parties, and there is also a hint of the dystopian bleakness of Mary South’s You Will Never Be Forgotten, which I reviewed earlier this year. But Banks’ style is all her own, and her spittingly ferocious, utterly confident prose probes human behaviour in a wonderfully confronting way. I particularly liked how the theme of dating was woven into so many of the tales, yet approached so differently in each. There is nothing predictable about these stories.

The standout story for me was Rite of Passage, teetering as it does on absolute screwball comedy, yet maintaining an edge of poignancy. I guffawed in a very unattractive manner, but I was also strangely moved by it. A Theory Concerning Light and Colours explored one of my weird obsessions, the condition of synthasthesia, in which people experience the stimulation of multiple sensory pathways, so that colours are heard, for example. I find it fascinating, and Banks’ story is so skilfully done. I honestly don’t think I am ready to talk about the title story yet – it is so powerful that I need to have a pause and then revisit it. THE MOUSE!

In keeping with Annabel Banks’ taut, succinct delivery, and not wanting to give anything else away, I shall wrap this review up here. If you haven’t already read this collection, I urge you to do so, and when you have, please get in touch so we can TALK ABOUT THE MOUSE.

Exercises in Control by Annabel Banks is published by Influx Press and is available to purchase here.

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