A nose through Sarah Salway’s bibliography reveals the recently appointed Canterbury Laureate’s penchant for concise form. She’s published two books of short stories, the second a joint effort with Lynne Rees featuring 300 pieces of precisely 300 words each; her publishing company Speechbubble Books, co-founded with friend and colleague Catherine Smith, is devoted to providing a platform for authors of short works; and she regularly contributes poems and short stories to an array of publications including Blip, PEN International and the Financial Times.
Something Beginning With, Salway’s first foray into full-length fiction, was originally published in 2004 and hailed by the likes of Neil Gaiman and William Gibson but then fell out of print. Last fall, it was wisely republished by an innovative imprint of HarperCollins, The Friday Project. Something Beginning With sees Salway stretch her talent for brevity into a novella that recounts the stirring annals of a lonely young media secretary through a series of short topical passages written in the first person. Arranged alphabetically, they read like entries in the encyclopedia of the life of protagonist Verity Bell, explicating the strange mix of naïveté, wistfulness, curiosity, and languidness that mark her personality.
While the story is fastened thematically by a plotline exploring the flailing state of Verity’s relationship with her childhood best friend Sally, the book’s index – a cleverly executed tool that connects passages of similar subject or sentiment – suggests that this thread exists mainly to steer an otherwise non-sequential narrative. Indeed, that many entries can be read independently and out of order intimates that the book’s actual substance is embedded in the emotive subtext of Verity’s musings rather than the superficial events occurring alongside them.
In keeping with her name, Verity quickly emerges as a character of inherent sincerity, an attribute that is reinforced by the book’s unconventional structure. Thanks largely to the intimate nature of its diary-like format, which fosters an undercurrent of confidentiality, her candor appears charming, imparting a confessional rather than outright declarative tone. Even a supposition about “the trouble” with ex-boyfriend Stewart—the thought that he “was boring when he wasn’t making a noise” —loses its bluntness and catty undertone and even invites empathy upon contextualization, when we recognise that the revelation was not made to another but to the protagonist herself. Verity’s innate credulity also translates into charisma in the face of confidentiality. She makes various idiosyncratic deductions about men, some of which she might revise if she were talking to someone instead of thinking to herself; a prime example is, “I suddenly found four men offering me [advice]… It struck me that I had stumbled on something important. Women spend all this time and money on finding Mr Right. What they don’t realise is that men are there all the time, lurking in the aisles of DIY shops. All you have to do is buy wire cutters.”
That the connotations of Verity’s disclosures appear to constitute the real meat of Something Beginning With by no means discounts Salway’s inclusion of the Verity/Sally storyline as futile. On the contrary, the thread crucially exposes Verity’s obdurate dependence on her friend, whom she criticises on a number of levels but nonetheless emulates in telling ways. Verity declares she is “not jealous of Sally…especially not jealous of Sally’s relationship with [married man] Colin,” yet half a page later embarks on an extra-marital affair of her own with her colleague John. Ironically, Verity encompasses all the accoutrements of happiness that evade Sally – her own flat, a well-padded bank account, attention from several viable men – but insists nonetheless on imitation in an attempt to establish a sense of identity as discernible as that of her affable, effervescent friend. In her own words, she’s desperate to be “the centre of attention” for once, “to feel like I [belong].” Her initial inability to recognize this psychological impetus is rather endearing and demonstrates Salway’s shrewd awareness of her intended audience, women in or approaching their twenties: a period in which adulthood beckons perceptibly but traces of adolescence – among them, uncertainty, awkwardness and self-consciousness –resolutely linger.
Overall, the novel is a Bridget Jones-esque offering for a slightly younger audience: its fluid pace and light-hearted plot balance out its regular forays into emotional profundity, and occasional disturbing revelations about Verity’s past preempt the book from automatic ascription to generic chick lit territory. Especially captivating is the earnestness that accompanies Verity’s inferences about her impending adulthood, which remain endearing if not original: “The trouble is I can’t go to bed with money. It can’t hug me and stroke me and tell me everything is going to be alright.” With her unorthodox structure, Salway offers fiction for the internet age, a time of diminished attention spans and an unrelenting demand for easy accessibility. A quickly moving novelette that holds readers’ attention by flitting between a number of briefly explored topics, Something Beginning With depicts if-you-can’t-be-‘em-join-‘em logic at its best. That we finish the book wishing it were longer is sweetly ironic, proof of Salway’s proficiency in the art of short fiction.