A BOX TO CLIMB OUT OF: Anneliese Mackintosh’s Any Other Mouth

Anneliese Mackintosh Any Other Mouth (Freight Books, 2014)

by Laura Waddell

In one of the short stories that make up this collection, “One Nothing Everything,” the narrator describes writing from her hospital bed one hundred and seven (and a bit) haiku.

unavoidable
a natural disaster
human tsunami

The stories in Any Other Mouth have a sort of innate, tidal, haiku-like quality themselves. There is a recurring formal pattern of a great emotional surge followed by a dignified lull as the tide goes out; as the seasons change from winter to spring. A kireji cut between a great storm and the reflection and regrowth afterwards; the melancholy calm that comes after sobbing: acceptance.

The reader is pulled along with Mackintosh’s tide, in awareness. When the narrator ends a relationship painfully, the story ends just a moment afterwards, when life, although sad, has indeed carried on. This is also a recognisable trait of some long-term mental health sufferers; there comes a point, after many years, of learning to keep going, knowing that there will be darkness and hardship, that things will be tough. But having carried on before, you will carry on again. There is a large dose of this in the narrator of Any Other Mouth. It is a book about the rhythm of mental health, but also about the acceptance and perseverance of someone who has been acquainted with such things for a very long time. Small moments are shaped by this hard-earned knowledge, one which can be both pessimistic and optimistic, expecting all seasons in their turn. It’s a fascinating perspective and it’s woven into the book in a subtle and authentic way.

Occasionally, though, the pattern feels a little too neat. A window blows shut like an exclamation mark at an opportune moment. A conversation is distilled into a representation of a larger point. The reader is aware of the artifice – and then becomes aware Mackintosh is too. It’s actually something of a theme. In one of the strongest stories of the collection, “Google Maps Saved My Life,” there is habitual daydreaming of a family situation that no longer exists (“homesickness”) with the aid of digital mapping not yet updated to reflect the change. “My whole family is inside this magical puzzle,” is offered in justification. In “Your Alter Ego Does Not Exist,” an alternative computerised self is created and played as a game. An early story, “Crave,” sees a troubled actress play a madwoman, as art and life merge. The anguished scream in the script is real on the stage. Other stories are subversions of how-to guides or recipes. This isn’t subtle – but then we realise Mackintosh is deliberately playing with what has come before her, and building her own box to climb out of. How to write a woman with mental health difficulties? She is swinging from the bars of Ophelia, from the framework of Bertha, and testing their strength with her own weight.

Any Other Mouth is a promising and original work. As a teller of stories, Mackintosh is a natural. Whilst it works here, mostly, her rawness, dynamism and unsalacious bawdiness could work better liberated from the familiar confines and rhythms she explores – albeit creatively – in this collection.

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