INTENSE MOMENTS WITH STRANGERS: ‘The Spit, the Sound and the Nest’ by Kathrine Sowerby
Kathrine Sowerby, The Spit, the Sound and the Nest (Vagabond Voices, 2017)
By Sarah Spence
When Felix in Kathrine Sowerby’s The Spit, the Sound and the Nest asks Rita if “it’s wrong to leave your problems,” her answer is sensitive and tentative: ”What’s wrong for me […] could be right for you.” This question is at the heart of Sowerby’s collection of three novellas — yet it cannot be resolved. The Spit, the Sound and the Nest is published by Glasgow’s own Vagabond Voices as part of its “Vagabond” series, a number of books which “involve journeys in search of small, subjective truths.
Sowerby’s characters face difficult decisions in unexpected circumstances, often revolving around questions of home and belonging. After running away from home, Felix and Luc in ‘The Spit’ spend the winter living with strangers, Rita and Joseph, who are dealing with their own troubled domestic past. In ‘The Sound’, Echo’s quiet life is disrupted when a women with a new-born baby arrives looking for shelter. With their parents absent, sisters Alice and Edna in ‘The Nest’ must live alone with servants in a mansion filled with resentment and racial tension. Intimate relationships become estranged and those with strangers become suddenly intimate, a process both painful and empowering. Having primarily published poetry, Sowerby shows a poet’s control of language and imagery in these tender, understated stories.
The novella form lies somewhere between the short story and the novel in terms of length but also style. As prose forms, both novels and short stories focus on character, plot and narrative. However, the brevity of the short story gives it a special intensity; it shares poetry’s metaphorical language, compression and suggestion. The novella form is similarly compressed and intense, allowing for more ambiguity and unresolved possibility than a novel might. This is certainly the case in Sowerby’s collection of three novellas and the novella form is well chosen for her purposes. The brevity of the novella suits the sense of transience that is central throughout, as characters choose or are forced to leave home. We glimpse these characters only in the process of crisis and change, in intense moments of questioning, and are denied the comfort of a full resolution.
Although the idea of home is central to this collection, it is not a place of safety, intimacy and belonging. Sowerby’s characters are compelled by difficult and unexpected circumstances to leave home, even if they struggle to settle elsewhere. The collection opens with two young men in ‘The Spit’, Felix and Luc, arriving in an unknown and nameless town after running away from Felix’s abusive father. They spend the winter with Rita and Joseph, an older couple whose own sense of home has been destroyed by their son’s suicide. Having found it impossible to live where their son died, they have relocated but never truly rebuilt their life. Sowerby highlights the emotional work needed to make a home by making this labour literal. Like the couple’s relationship, the house is in poor condition: uneven skirting boards, the very foundation of the house, leave the building vulnerable to draughts. As the young men begin renovating, Rita and Joseph must decide whether their relationship is worth repairing. Yet they disagree on what home means after loss. While Joseph believes that in moving they “started a new life,” Rita insists they simply “ran away.” This question of whether running away is the best option lingers in each story, with no simple answer.
Leaving home is explored from a different angle in ‘The Sound’. After a summer romance leads to pregnancy, Helle relocates to live with Glen in his guest house. The guest house embodies the tension between the domestic and the transient, raising uncomfortable questions about belonging. Even after seven years, Helle feels like a guest. Her status as Glen’s partner is threatened by his relationship with Marie, a long-term resident. Feeling pessimistic about her future with Glen and heavily pregnant with their second child, Helle spontaneously leaves. In a twist on usual gender roles, the men in ‘The Sound’ are associated with staying at home, while the women must leave to find themselves. Echo, the woman who gives Helle shelter, often undertakes her own impulsive, solitary journeys. These are cathartic: she must “keep moving” to “clear her mind.” Similarly, Helle hopes that if she “walk[s] far enough” then “maybe everything [will] become clear and she [can] go home”; the “best thing,” perhaps the only thing, is “to keep going.” Although leaving home is again a necessity in ‘The Sound’, the journey itself can be restorative, meaning that return is possible.
In the ‘The Nest’, however, home is not as safe and nurturing as the title suggests. The story is set in a mansion; the owners are white, the servants black. The upper class community tries hard to protect itself: the family owns a gun and a guard dog while the neighbours have “razor wire” and “shards of glass” around their high walls. Yet the greatest threats come from within, as inequality and betrayal undermine the integrity of the home. The father’s affair with Flora, the children’s nanny, leads to pregnancy; when she is forced to leave, her sister Magdalena takes her place. This goes beyond family drama. Race and class tensions are played out in this claustrophobic domestic space, as the precarious balance between white masters and black servants is disturbed. The contradictions of such a home are captured neatly through the image of the kingfisher. As Edna’s father explains to her, these birds “slam into the ground to make an opening” for their nests. This is ”how they make their home,” even though “[s]ometimes it kills them.” Creating a home here is inherently dangerous. The space is destructive, not protective. In contrast to the first two stories, the problem in ‘The Nest’ is in fact the children’s inability to leave.
This focus on home makes place particularly important in The Spit, the Sound and the Nest. These stories are rooted in natural environments — forests, lagoons, lakes, beaches. Sowerby’s direct, uncomplicated prose reflects this open sense of space. Yet her characters are themselves isolated, even within these sparse rural settings. They live in remote or inaccessible areas, such as Echo’s forest caravan in ‘The Sound’ or the exclusive country house in ‘The Nest’. The quiet landscape is often comforting in the confusion of human relationships. Sowerby doesn’t overlabour or simply explain the emotional aspects of these stories. Her understated writing invites us to reflect upon the silences, an approach which makes for rich rereadings of these stories. Interactions with water are particularly significant, resonating with emotional or symbolic meaning.
The icy landscape in ‘The Spit’ reflects Rita and Joseph’s emotional stasis after their son Otto’s suicide. Joseph, Felix and Luc go fishing on a frozen lake; Joseph teaches the young men how to drill a hole in the ice so they can reach the hidden life beneath. This sharing of knowledge, as if between father and son, is touching in the absence of Joseph’s own son. Yet the scene also signals an emotional turning point. This moment, just over half-way through the story, follows a scene in which Rita and Joseph finally confront their confusion, guilt and denial over their son’s death. The couple, unable to face these feelings, have remained frozen in their grief. Their encounter with the young men has broken this ice, bringing their long-suppressed feelings to the surface. Their winter living with Felix and Luc is both painful and curative. Water is again central to this recovery: Rita and Joseph fold the unread pages of Otto’s diary into small boats and throw them into the water beyond the ice. In a moment of catharsis, they watch the paper boats “breaking up and dissolving.” Water here is cleansing, washing away some of the burden of the past.
Sowerby’s use of water in ‘The Sound’ is also striking with the arrival of a “drenched woman,” Helle, into Echo’s quiet life. After giving birth alone in a forest, Helle walks through a river, carrying her baby above her head. The icy water is harsh yet healing: “the sting against her flesh dull[s] the throb in her groin.” Echo thinks this story unlikely, recognising that Helle is “lucky she hadn’t been swept out to sea.” Yet Helle’s drenched presence speaks to the truth of her experience and her survival. There is something miraculous in this impossible crossing. Having survived the potential dangers of the river, the water becomes almost baptismal, a rite of passage that empowers Helle at what could have been her most vulnerable point.
Water in ‘The Nest’ takes a darker meaning. Alice and Edna visit a beach on a rare trip with their mother. Although forbidden, Edna joins another group of children as they play with a boat in the ocean. The scene turns suddenly dangerous: as the waves become more turbulent, the children are thrown in the water. The ocean begins as a site for children’s games yet it’s a much bigger and more powerful force than they realise. Similarly, the safety of home is undermined by dangerous undercurrents — the inequalities and power dynamics of the adult world that the children fail to understand. Sowerby uses water in ‘The Nest’ to illustrate that familiar situations can unpredictably turn dangerous. In both the water and at home, Alice and Edna are vulnerable to unforeseen forces.
Indeed, place and atmosphere dominate these stories. They aren’t intended as strong character studies: difficult decision-making rather than strong personalities drive the plots. In fact, the characters remain strangers to each other. There is an unsettling blur between the unfamiliar and the intimate throughout. Close relationships lose their intimacy as bonds within families are undermined or broken by suicide, domestic violence and infidelity. Sowerby, however, is interested in the emotional fallout rather than melodrama itself. As partners, parents and children become estranged, relationships with strangers become suddenly intimate. While these encounters can be painful, they can also be a catalyst for recovery. Although Joseph in ‘The Spit’ thought he was “at peace” with his son’s suicide, the arrival of Felix and Luc has “stirred up years of buried words” that have now “burst against the walls of their neglected house.” Yet it is only with the young men’s help that this home can be rebuilt.
However, the characters remain unknowable not just to each other but also to the reader. For example, there are hints that Felix and Luc’s relationship in ‘The Spit’ may be romantic but these are too subtle to be definitive. Sowerby’s stories are not lively, idiosyncratic first person narratives. The precise, uncluttered writing style of the narrative voice suggests an objective, distanced observer. For all the sudden intimacy between strangers, there remains a similar emotional detachment between characters. Felix and Luc leave Rita and Joseph without saying goodbye in ‘The Spit’, just as Echo in ‘The Sound’ leaves unannounced after befriending Helle and reconnecting with her former partner, Peter. This is more disturbing in ‘The Nest,’ as Alice and Edna show little sense of loss after their parents’ supposed death: “put[ting] themselves to bed” doesn’t “feel so different” without their mother. This pattern of detachment can prohibit an emotional engagement at times for the reader, diminishing what seems to be at stake.
Just as the characters remain somewhat abstract, so too is time and place generally left unspecified. The presence of cars in each of the three stories suggests a fairly contemporary time frame, yet the absence of much other modern technology gives the stories a timelessness. The locations are also left conspicuously unnamed. In the collection’s first scene, Felix and Luc in ‘The Spit’ watch the bus they have arrived on turn around, “drive back the way it had come,” and vanish. Stranded in the cold and dark, they struggle to read a signpost using just a lighter. Immediately we know we are dealing with strangers in an unknown, even unknowable location. They have chosen this unfamiliar town randomly, having seen its name (never shared with the reader) written on the back of Polaroid found in a second hand book. These unnamed locations give the natural environment an open-ended, almost ethereal feel which complements the transience and contingency of the human relationships. Although ‘The Spit’ and ‘The Sound’ aren’t set in a specified location, their titles are suggestive. The terms ‘spit’ and ‘sound’ both describe the land’s relation to the sea: a spit is a narrow point of land extending into water; a sound is a narrow passage of water, such as between the mainland and an island. These indeterminate, transitional spaces, where land and sea meet and give way to each other, mirror the ambiguous encounters in the characters’ lives.
However, the uncertainty of setting in ‘The Nest’ is slightly more disorientating. The story is set in what could be a traditional English country house, the kind commonly seen in Georgian and Victorian novels, such as Jane Austen’s Emma or Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. Yet racial tensions emerge. This is hinted at fairly subtly: the mother, for example, prohibits the children from walking to the beach by claiming that “[w]hite girls don’t walk.” References to guavas and mangoes suggest a tropical and therefore possibly colonial context, yet the car indicates a relatively modern time period. A hint towards the location arrives late in the story with a postcard from the parents. The words “table” and “mountain” are printed on the postcard, words that Edna doesn’t recognise as a place name. This guarded reference to Table Mountain suggests a South African setting — but it’s a clue easily missed. This understated treatment of place allows Sowerby to focus on the intimacies of the domestic power dynamics instead of a specific political history. The social tensions, on both a family and a race/class level, are treated subtly and with sophistication. The story is focalised through the perspective of the children; the reader ponders the nuances of the adult world that the children miss. The suspense and atmosphere builds through the children’s vulnerability and the irony of their limited understanding. This distinctive voice, created through the focalisation, makes ‘The Nest’ the strongest story of the three.
By exploring common themes from multiple angles across these three novellas, Sowerby is able to thoroughly complicate ideas, such as home and family, which may seem comfortably familiar. The Spit, the Sound and the Nest is a challenging collection which offers no neat conclusions. Sowerby’s characters are similarly elusive: it’s as if we always catch them in our periphery or just as they are turning away. Indeed, like Sowerby’s characters, the reader too is thrown into intense moments with these strangers. This unknowability and uncertainty may be one of the collection’s biggest strengths but it is also at times its weakness. Yet the open-endedness of these stories is what makes them so intriguing — even if the answers always escape us.
 Viorica Patea, 2012, ‘The Short Story: An Overview of the History and Evolution of the Genre’, in Short Story Theories: A Twenty-First-Century Perspective, ed. by Viorica Patea (Amsterdam: Rodopi), pp. 1-24