Books From The Pantry: Human Terrain by Emily Bullock reviewed by Kev Milsom

Ink Pantry Editor: ‘Hey, I have a new book here that focuses upon female voices and…’

Me: ‘Hmmmm, I’m not sure that’s quite me. Who wrote it?’

Ed: Emily Bullock.

Me: ‘OMG, send it over, tout de suite!!!’

I’ve been so very fortunate to review Emily’s first two novels (The Longest Fight – 2015 – and Inside the Beautiful Inside – 2020 -) for Ink Pantry and both have astounded me with their elite levels of literary va-va voom. Yes, okay…I’m sure that Samuel Johnson or Noah Webster would find more suitable flowing vocabulary, but when it comes to the writing of Emily Bullock I’ll gladly stick with va-va voom. If you’ve not yet had the pleasure of encountering Emily’s novels then I would urge you to seek them out and you’ll understand.

So, what’s the new book about? Well, Human Terrain is a collection of short stories that focus upon the lives and energies of various female individuals, allowing us to observe a small part of their life story, especially when it pertains to emotional bonds of love and loss. In total, we have twenty mini biographies, some lasting less than a page or two, while others stretch deeper and cover a lot of ground. Within this book we meet women who demonstrate strength of character, such as someone known only as ‘Pig Lady’; a woman who delivers food to a chip shop. At other times, the stories are all shades of sad, illuminating, poignant and powerful, such as ‘Back Issues’, where the main character is male and his wife, Barbara, is mentioned only in name, yet the loss of her influence within his life becomes a dominant factor as he slips helplessly into dementia.

Every snapshot within this amazing book is written with a perfect balance of tone, colour and detail, as if Emily is slowly composing an oil painting in deep layers, based on scattered pencil drawing plans and sketches, before the paintbrush even dares to touch the canvas. The characters range in age, from teenagers playing hooky from a London school trip to buy weed in Hyde Park, to Ivy, an elderly widow reflecting back upon her life as it draws to a close. From the opening sentence of Ivy’s tale, we are immediately gripped by her dilemma and can begin to easily visualise the elderly lady and her surroundings.

‘Ivy, who was now two years a widow, lay alone in bed. She gripped the front of her nightshirt; her skin thin and creased as the cotton. Maybe this would be the day. She’d waited long enough’.

Covering such a wide range of human emotions across twenty snapshot glimpses into people’s lives comes with obvious risks. How easy it would be to fall heavily into emotional torment and harrowing tales. Alternatively, to build too many bricks of humour into a fragile, emotional wall of observation, as we look on from a distance. Thankfully, Emily’s writing skills are blissfully adept and it’s clear that her understanding of human behaviour is likely forged from countless hours of similar observations. Yes, some of the tales are sad/poignant, yet at no point do they ever fail to reflect the grey shades of real life. Sometimes, there is no Hollywood, Walt Disney ending, accompanied by Dick Van Dyke in a blazer and singing/dancing penguins. Sometimes, life just plays out its scenarios and we have little choice but to play along with it. How we react, or adapt, is the key. Sure, many of Emily’s carefully constructed characters have lives and issues that we would choose not to adopt. Not one of them ever comes remotely close to being two-dimensional or dull. Spread over twenty separate stories, that’s quite a literary feat in itself. 

From the book’s outset, we know we’re in for a journey, as we take a cursory peek into the life of two women; a daughter who boxes for a living, and her mother who is there for her in between rounds of fights, to patch up her daughter’s wounds.

‘My job is to stop the blood, cool her off, wash her down. Who knows her better than her mum? I rub the yellow carwash sponge across her head, smooth my fingers over the braids, sweeping away water with the back of my hand’.  

Powerful writing, yet beautifully balanced and honed, like a knight’s favourite longsword, this is an outstanding book and well worth reading from cover to cover. One is eagerly awaiting Emily’s fourth novel.

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