Vanessa Gebbie: Storm Warning – Echoes of Conflict (2010) Literature and War Readalong February 2016

Storm Warning

Very often short story collections are just that – collections of stories that may or may not have a few themes in common. Most of the time, the themes are different, while the voice stays the same. Not so in Vanessa Gebbie’s stunning collection Storm Warning – Echoes of Conflict. The themes —war and conflict— are the same in every story, but the voices, points of view, the structure, the range of these stories is as diverse as can be. That’s why this collection is one of those rare books, in which the sum is greater than its parts. Each story on its own is a gem, but all the stories together, are like a chorus of voices lamenting, accusing, denouncing, and exploring conflict through the ages and the whole world. The result is as chilling as it is powerful and enlightening. I don’t think I’ve ever come across anything similar in book form and the only comparable movie, War Requiem, uses a similar technique only at the very end, during which we see  horrific original footage taken from many different wars, covering decades, and dozens of countries.

We’ve often discussed the question of how to write about war in the Literature and War Readalong and I’ve said it before – if I put away a book and am left with a feeling of  I-wish-I’d-been-there, then the book is a failure in terms of its anti-war message. I don’t think one should write about war and give readers a similar, pleasant frisson, they get when they read crime. I can assure you, you won’t have a reaction like this while reading Storm Warning. Without being too graphic, Vanessa Gebbie’s message is clear – there’s no beauty in war. There’s no end to war either. Even when a conflict is finished, it still rages on in the minds of those who suffered through it. Whether they were soldiers or civilians. War destroys bodies and souls. And—maybe one of the most important messages— war is universal. Including stories set in times as remote as the 16th century, choosing locations as diverse as South Africa, the UK, and Japan, conflicts like WWI, WWII, the Falklands war, Iraq, Vietnam, and many more, illustrates this message powerfully. Choosing from so many different conflicts also avoids falling into the trap of rating. I always find it appalling when people rate conflicts, saying this one was worse than that one. Maybe the methods are more savage in some conflicts, but they are all equally horrific.

What is really amazing in this collection is that so many of the stories get deeper meaning because they are juxtaposed with other stories. For example, there’s the story The Ale Heretics set in the 16th Century, in which a condemned heretic, awaits being burned. Burning people alive was such a savage and abominable thing to do, but just when we start to think “Thank God, that’s long gone” – we read a story about necklacing, a form of torture and execution, practiced in contemporary South Africa (possibly in other regions too), in which the victims are also burned alive. And, here too, it’s said to be in the name of the law. If I had only read the first story, it wouldn’t have been as powerful as in combination with the second.

Vanessa Gebbie’s writing is very precise, raw, expressive. As I said before, each story has a distinct voice. There are men and women talking to a dead relative, others seem to try to explain what happened to them, others accuse, many denounce. Yet, as precise as the writing is, often there’s an element of mystery as to what conflict we are reading about. While it’s mostly clear, what conflict is described, they are rarely named. Interestingly, this underlines the similarity and universality, but it also makes differences clear. When a girl talks to her dead sister Golda, mentions the Kristallnacht, we know, it’s a Holocaust story. When gas gangrene is mentioned, we know it is about WWI.

Many of you might wonder, whether the stories are not too graphic, whether the book is depressing. There’s a balance between very dark and dark stories. There’s a touch of humour here and there, even if it’s gallows’ humour, and there’s the one or the other story that’s almost uplifting like my own personal favourite Large Capacity, Severe Abuse. In this story, a Vietnam veteran lives in the basement of an apartment house for retired army officers. He’s in charge of washing their laundry which gives him an opportunity for revenge. This story illustrates also the invisibility of many veterans. They are decorated, they return, they suffer, but society doesn’t care. Some of the veterans in this collection, end up homeless. Too sum this up— the collection is not easy to read, as it’s quite explicit in showing that war mutilates bodies and souls.

Another favourite story was The Return of the Baker, Edwin Tregear. It’s a story that does not only illustrate the difficulties of the homecoming, but the absurdity of things that happened during the war. In this case WWI and its practice of firing soldiers for so-called cowardice.

Some of the stories describe a narrow escape like in The Salt Box, in which a dissident poet finds an unexpected ruse to destroy his poems when his house is searched.

The narrators and characters in these stories are of different gender and age. Stories that have child narrators are often particularly harrowing. There’s the one called The Wig Maker, in which a child witnesses the execution of the mother, and another one, The Strong Mind of Musa M’bele, in which the kid knows his father will be necklaced. Another kid, in Cello Strings and Screeching Metal, witnesses someone being shot while climbing the Berlin Wall.

Quite a few of the stories are more like snapshots; they are very brief, only a page or two, but there are some longer ones as well.

I must say, I’m impressed. The range of these stories is amazing. Getting voice right and distinct, is a difficult thing to do and to get it as right and as distinct in so many stories is absolutely stunning. This is certainly one of the most amazing and thought-provoking anti-war books I’ve ever read.

Should you be interested, one of the stories – The Wig Maker – is available online. Just a warning – it’s possibly the most explicit of the collection.

Vanessa Gebbie is joining our discussion, so, please, don’t hesitate to ask questions.

Other reviews

Danielle (A Work in Progress)




Storm Warning is the first book in the Literature and War Readalong 2016. The next book is the French WWI novel 1914  – 14 by Jean Echenoz. Discussion starts on Thursday 31 March, 2016. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2016, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Elizabeth Strout: My Name is Lucy Barton (2016)

My Name is Lucy Barton

What a beautiful novel. I can hardly believe I haven’t read anything by Elizabeth Strout before. If someone can write a book like this, then surely, her other books must be outstanding too.

Lucy Barton looks back on a time in her life when she spent nine weeks in hospital suffering from a strange illness. Back then, she was married, had two small kids, and was an aspiring author. Lucy comes from a dirt poor family. However, it’s not only poverty she suffered from but cultural deprivation. They had no books, no TV, no radio. Little Lucy was profoundly lonely and that was, she thinks, the reason why she was drawn to books and reading and later to writing. She left her hometown Amgash, Illinois and moved to New York. During her time at the hospital, she often lies away at night and looks at the illuminated Chrysler building. It’s like a beacon. Looking at it helps her ward off feelings of loneliness, gives her hope. One day, she wakes up and finds her mother whom she hasn’t seen in years, next to her bed. Her mother stays five days and watches over her. During these five days, Lucy discovers how profoundly she loves this distant woman and how much it comforts her to know she’s close. The narrative moves back and forth in time. From the hospital room to her childhood and from there to a future with a second husband and a stunning career as a writer.

At times, the novel reminded me of Jenny Offill’s book Dept. of Speculation, but My Name is Lucy Barton is so much warmer, so much more emotional. I absolutely loved it. It explores so many topics. Families, the relationship between mothers and daughters, poverty, loneliness, the artist’s life, New York,  . . .

The voice is very endearing. It’s hard to imagine, this is an accomplished writer talking, the narrator sounds much more like a naïve girl. A very loving one, a girl who tries to find beauty and goodness in everything. It’s endearing and a bit frightening. Another writer would have chosen to throw disaster at her, but not so Elizabeth Trout. She has her character navigate the choppy waters of chance encounters, friendships, marriage and family relationships, without ever being wrecked and going under. There’s heartache, sadness, and loneliness, but Lucy’s always able to see something good and move on. She’s a true survivor. Her childhood sounds horrific. Her parents were abusive, the poverty was brutal. But Lucy survived and everything she’s given, seems like a gift. She stayed true to herself and remained kind and caring and humble.

This may sound a bit mushy, but it’s actually not. The tentative way in which the narrator tries to describe her life, her feelings, gives it great authenticity. At times, it feels like listening to someone talking.

It’s a fantastic book. For readers and for writers. I loved the many complex characters. Some appear only very briefly, like the writer Sarah Payne, who is extremely important for Lucy. It’s Sarah who tells her, that author’s shouldn’t be too concerned with plot as every writer only has one story that he will tell again and again. In Lucy’s case, that story is about trauma. While I’ve seen many authors write about PTSD or childhood trauma, I’ve hardly ever seen anyone, touching this subject in such a delicate way. From war trauma to abuse to AIDS, and 9/11, there’s so much suffering, but it’s like it’s presented behind a thick layer of fabric. Here and there something flares up but it’s never allowed to occupy too much space. It’s pushed back by deep and authentic experience and emotions.

I’ll leave you with a longer quote to give you an impression of the writing. The narrator is talking about her sister, Vicky, and then, as she always does, moves on:

How Vicky managed to this day I don’t know. We were not as close as you might expect; we were equally friendless and equally scorned, and we eyed each other with the same suspicion with which we eyed the rest of the world. There are times now, and my life has changed so completely, that I think back on the early years and I find myself thinking: It was not that bad. Perhaps it was not. But there are times, too—unexpected—when walking down a sunny sidewalk, or watching the top of a tree bend in the wind, or seeing a November sky close down over the East River, I am suddenly filled with the knowledge of darkness so deep that a sound might escape from my mouth, and I will step into the nearest clothing store and talk with a stranger about the shape of sweaters newly arrived. This must be the way most of us maneuver through the world, half knowing, half not, visited by memories that can’t possibly be true. But when I see others walking with confidence down the sidewalk, as though they are free completely from terror, I realize I don’t know how others are. So much of life seems speculation.

I hope that I managed to capture the beauty of this book. It’s such a stunning novel. I can’t wait to read more by Elizabeth Strout.

Hermann Hesse Reading Week March 7 – 13 2016

hesse revised

I think it was in October when Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and I had the idea of a Hermann Hesse week. We both have come to him very early. She started reading him in her 20s, while I read my first Hesse as a teenager. I returned to him later, in my 20s, but since then, I don’t think I’ve read him again, with the exception of his poems and fairy tales.


Initially, I wanted to reread some of my favourites, but now I’ve decided, I’ll rather pick the one or the other I haven’t read yet. So, I’m planning on reading Rosshalde and Klingsor’s letzter Sommer. 

Luckily, I got this lovely collection of his novels and novellas. If I have enough time, I got a few other good choices. I also recently bought a small book that contains poems, letters, non fiction, and excerpts of some of his novels. From what I’ve seen so far, it’s great.

I hope you’ll join Karen and me. I know that Hesse is a favourite of many of the readers of my blog.

For those less familiar with him, Karen’s written a wonderful introduction. You can find it here.

Have you read Hesse? Will you join us?

Literature and War Readalong February 29 2016: Storm Warning by Vanessa Gebbie

Storm Warning

The first readalong of this year’s Literature and War Readalong 2016 is very special for several reasons. It’s the first time, I’ve included a short story collection. Then it’s the first book that deals with more than just one conflict. And— I’m particularly pleased about this— the author, Vanessa Gebbie, will join the discussion. Needless to say I’m really looking forward to the discussion and hope that many of you will join.

Since it’s a short story collection I’ve added the first sentences of the first three stories:

The Return of the Baker, Edwin Tregear

Unlike so many, I came home in July. Some of the lads got off the train at Exeter, some at Plymouth. I must have gone to sleep. I woke at Penzance, my stop, when someone shouted, “End of the line, mate.”

Storm Warning

I was on leave.

Telephone call from Istanbul, 3am, Wednesday. Woman’s voice. “StormWarning.”

Gas Gangrene

For the soldiers buried at Tyn Cot Cemetery, Flanders

It’s a sick joke, mate, looking back. You people think gas gangrene was some sort of bloating, a passing blackening of the lungs, a momentary seizing up, that it went as the clouds dispersed.


And some details and the blurb for those who want to join

Storm Warning: Echoes of Conflict by Vanessa Gebbie, 120 pages, UK, 2010, WWII

Here’s the blurb:

Storm Warning explores the echoes and aftershocks of human conflict in a series of powerful stories in which the characters are tested, sometimes to breaking point. Gebbie pulls no punches, exploring the after-effects of atrocity and sometimes, the seeds of atrocity itself.


The discussion starts on Monday, 29 February 2016.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2016, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.