Review: Human Terrain by Emily Bullock (2021)

Blurb

Human Terrain. The Army acknowledges, through the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq, that human geography is as important as any satellite map.

Human Terrain deals with female voices and working-class existences, ordinary lives transformed by loss and love. There’s the mother working as cutman for her daughter in the boxing ring; the family who find themselves abandoned at the seaside; the gardener digging for love among the grass cuttings and weeds. Characters standing in a classroom, drinking in a pub, working the fryer in a fish and chip shop, or finding love in an ice warehouse, they all inhabit the collection. Stories full of dark humour and deep tenderness that depict the characters’ struggles to understand their place in the world.

Review

I read and reviewed Emily Bullock’s second novel, Inside The Beautiful Inside last year, and it was one of my top reads of 2020, so I was thrilled when the lovely people of Reflex Press offered to send me a copy of her new short story collection in exchange for an honest review. I read this a while ago, and must apologise for the delay in getting my review up – appropriately enough for the theme of this collection, life has been exceptionally complicated recently!

I knew from reading Bullock’s novel that her prose is something special: powerful, muscular, packing a punch (a pun that reminds me I still have her debut novel, set in the world of boxing, on my TBR). While none of that is lost in her shorter fiction, the roaming focus diffuses the intensity and allows for a more widespread examination of what it means to be human in this complex world. There is a hard edge to these stories, an unflinching gaze at the reality of coming to terms with our modern age. At times, there is an almost journalistic sensibility, a feeling that this is a record, a testimony – the global spread of the stories adds to this.

But there are also plenty of more domestic moments, times when the taut, precise prose and quirky incidents described in minute detail reminded me of Raymond Carver: couples who realise in the quietest of ways that something is not right, characters whose tension is released with hints of violence and also humour. It is a cliche to say that a short story collection covers the whole spectrum of human experience, but Bullock certainly approaches this, offering up tightly constructed narratives that feel entirely real, and are varied enough to display her enormous talent with the written word.

Emily Bullock is a writer who has been added to my ‘must read everything they write’ list – I will be picking up her debut in the new year, and keeping a close eye out for what comes next. If you are a fan of sharp, insightful stories that hit hard but are also laced with tenderness, you’d do very well to get hold of this stunning collection.

Human Terrain by Emily Bullock is published by Reflex Press and is available to purchase here.

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