Human Terrain

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Title:Human Terrain

Writer: Emily Bullock

Publishing House: Reflex Press

Date of Publication: August 31st 2021

Rating: 5 stars

“On the 18th of December 1989, when waves smashed Blackpool pier and leaves whipped against windows, she began to fight. In the upstairs bathroom, on a blue fish and smiling dolphin beach towel, the ambulance delayed under a falling oak, my girl was born. She came out screaming: fists balled, facered, breathing hard. No one but me to hear her.”

In Emily Bullock’s mystical collection, loss is evident. Life, thwarted dreams, family and its bonding and breaking, addictions, sins, despair.

Τhere are stories told through beautiful, emotional writing that veers between the mystical and the ordinary, the lyrical and the raw, the profane and the infinite. 

My Girl: In a powerful story, a mother watches her daughter fighting in the gym while her mind goes back to her ordeal in the hands of an abusive, monstrous husband. 

Tombstoning: A woman remembers her old classmate, a troubled soul and a harsh childhood. 

“You noticed that everything looked different at night, dipped in blue: the hawthorn bush next door like a giant bony hand, fingers spread open in defence; the RAF landing lights at the end of the field like red Chinese lanterns blown off course. The sheep were stone still, illuminated by moonlight; no streetlamps that far out of the village.”

Zoom:A dark, sinister story of violence and lost innocence. Very cryptic and extremely mysterious. 

Dinner Dance:A poignant remark of decadence and sexual objectification set in Whitechapel in just two pages. 

Freshwater: A family on holiday tries to continue after the mother has left them. The voice of children abandoned by their mother has an almost hypnotic quality. 

Human Terrain:War and its terrors. A narration that is extremely relevant to our troubled times.

Things We Did When We Were Children: A group of utter imbeciles leave their country to become brides of the ISIS. Their end is just what they deserve. 

They Were the Only Ones Dancing: A beautiful story about an evening in May, a rather “wild” pub, a man who can’t cope with his wife’s passing and a dancing couple. A tale about love, set during a heatwave in the city. 

“In the distance, firecrackers boomed and snapped; the children from the next farm starting the June celebrations early. Part of Ivy wished she was that age again, to not remember two world wars, to not know what people could do to each other. Another shower of cracks and bangs. Something hit the window. A greasy halo was imprinted on the glass. The children’s noise had scared a bird out of the sky.”

A Glimmer of Melting Ice: A woman remembers her life by the side of her late husband. While the farm comes alive with the coming of June, she thinks of snow and ice. 

Fences: An enigmatic neighbour is obsessed with mending his fence becomes a metaphor for the deteriorating marriage of a young couple. An atmospheric, haunting story of two presumptuous people who spy on others and are unable to distinguish between the “joke” and the mistake. 

“The concrete and brick around him throb with the unexpected heat of autumn; the sort of day that doesn’t know itself. Trees in Bethnal Green Gardens have been fooled into bringing out buds, daffodils peek from the mud, even though it’s much too late in the year. London’s sky is an apricot haze of tumbled clouds. “

Open House: An elderly man reminisces of the losses in his life during an “open house” auction. 

“Remember me when I am gone away. “

Shoots and Weeds: A beautiful story about the bond between a gardener and Nature. Lyrical writing, full of striking images and tender melancholy.

The Jam Trap: Another striking story of youth expectations and near tragedies, set during the last days of summer. 

Somebody Said :A dark, painful story about child abuse and the traumas that follow you all your life. 

A Match: The most beautiful one-page story I’ve ever read. 

“Above the rooftops of Whitechapel, the sky smoulders, clouds of purple smother the last of the bank holiday fun, balanced in this August night, 1888. A brackish redness, the

tincture of twilight, trickles like laudanum through the streets, empty but for remnants of feathers and beads from the fair; drifting but finding no rest.”

Beginnings and Endings: Catherine Eddowes, Elizabeth Stride, Annie Chapman, Mary Ann Nichols, Martha Tabram.

Such brutal and raw and beautiful writing in a story that takes us to Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper, as his victims acquire voice through the darkness of History. The style reminded me of Michel Faber and Sarah Perry and it was the perfect ending to a haunting collection. 

This is definitely one of the finest collections of the year and I can’t wait to explore Emily Bullock’s work. 

“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

It’s far too late for night-time prayers.”

Many thanks to Reflex Press for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.