Attrib. and other stories by Eley Williams review – life’s big microdrama moments

Domestic scenes misfire in these vividly imagined instants of mental disarray

What’s a sentence, really, if not time spent alone?” The kind of storyteller who says this won’t take an audience for granted; their phrase, in the pun on “sentence”, weaves expression and imprisonment into each other. The conflict between reaching out and curling up is what absorbs the characters of Attrib. and other stories, an elegant debut collection from the young writer Eley Williams and the independent Influx Press. Like Rivka Galchen or Camilla Grudova, Williams has crafted her fictions to be miniature and sparky, concentrating on the implacability of details, no matter how small or brief.

The 17 tales of Attrib. mostly have nameless narrators, who might be one person living through many days or many people on one. They’re staged at the fringe of emotional events, set before or after breakups, sleepovers, dates. Entire microdramas can happen in instants of mental disarray; while tube doors are open, as a bee buzzes in a glass, when someone hangs up the phone. We see time elapsing, but not quite lived. Throughout these misfiring domestic scenes, Williams charts how the length of any moment is something bound up with its private weight.

Her narrators are usually first-personal, affectionate and a little foolish, in love with their words as much as their human partners. By the time they figure out what to say, it’s too late, and meanwhile all their thoughts – longing and fearful and wary – have unspooled for us on the page. Take one of the standout tales, “Smote, or When I Find I Cannot Kiss You in Front of a Print by Bridget Riley”, where the speaker wonders about displaying her feelings in public. As she frets, she stumbles her way into a bravura six-page sentence: “ … as over your shoulder the ‘Movement in Squares’ (1961) by Bridget Riley becomes a vinyl record’s surface gleaming white as if the light was bouncing from it but in fact, now, I think it has become a broken disc or spiders’ legs across fresh bed-linen, a capital letter first person I becoming a forward slash, an exclamation mark becoming a backstroke because I find I cannot kiss you standing by this painting, I would start bleeding salt and pepper … ”

By the time the sentence is over, her partner has taken the initiative, and given her the simplest of kisses. “Smote” flares out with excitement and relief: “and all in all you spectrum me, unexpectedly”. As the imagination scrambles for its bearings, the rhythms of Williams’ prose retain the beauty that speech would have struggled to show.

She has a gift for handling the ends of thoughts, twisting them gently to slant the mood. There are instances of this throughout Attrib., as in “The Alphabet”, an account of living with aphasia, where a paragraph looks blushingly down at its feet: “Forgetting hairbrush became forgetting our address became forgetting dates became figmenting became fragmenting, became I remembered your beautiful, beautiful face but could not quite place it. My brain had unpinned you without me wanting it to and now you have gone. It is not your fault, or whatever the word is.”

The little coda – “or whatever the word is” – is wry and self-aware, but it sincerely trusts that gloom can be dispelled by language. It’s less a hope, for Williams, than a firm conviction; earlier in this story, a couple’s first date is spent discussing how the letters of the alphabet look. All the best moments in Attrib. exult in the richness of minutiae. Tourists are “clockwork-footed”; “huge raindrops make coronets in the dirt”; pigeons, radiators, trees all make sounds as if they were speaking in weird tongues.

Williams has lectured at Royal Holloway on children’s literature, and her words are tender in all the ways a child might be: they’re both quick to bruise and keen to show their affection. Emotions are delayed, figured in a hundred different ways, and their lateness turns them accidentally into secrets. But that’s what makes these stories shine: if there were more dialogue, the words would fumble, and lose the delicacy their shyness lends them. “I look up, I look further up, I feel like I am forever looking up at words, and references” – even as its prose cascades on, Attrib. is lingering on details out of time.

What interested the critic Edwin Denby, said his friend Frank O’Hara, was an incessant question: “What does each second mean, and how is the span of attention used to make it a longer or shorter experience?”

That question is shot through Williams’ stories as well. Fiddling with words, as if playing with them were all that mattered, her characters draw time to a standstill – then they stop, suddenly, blinking and thrilled. It’s beautiful, the way they get lost.

Attrib. and other stories is published by Influx. To order a copy for £8.49 (RRP £9.99) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Cal Revely-Calder

The GuardianTramp

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