We Don’t Know What We’re Doing is the debut short story collection by Thomas Morris. First published in 2015, it was chosen by one of my favourite authors, Ali Smith, as one of her books of the year. She writes that this collection is ‘Heart-hurtingly acute, laugh-out-loud funny, and not just a book of the year for me but one of the most satisfying collections I’ve read for years.’ Colm Toibin deems it ‘really impressive and memorable’, and it has also been highly praised by a number of publications; the Observer, for instance, calls it ‘brilliantly judged… a quiet masterstroke.’ For me, the collection ticked so many boxes, and as I particularly enjoy discovering new-to-me short story authors, I snapped up a copy as soon as I saw one in a branch of Fopp.
Set in the ‘sleepy castle town’ of Caerphilly in southern Wales, this collection of ten stories ‘offers vivid and moving glimpses into the lives of some of its inhabitants – the lost, lonely and bemused.’ Each protagonist is troubled in some way. One of the protagonists in the opening story, Bolt, calls Caerphilly a paradox, in that “it only looks nice when you’re away from it.” I have read rather a lot of fiction set in Wales, but this collection felt a little different, in that it is based around a town, rather than taking place in a purely rural setting. I found it most interesting to read something more urban in character, the town used as it is as a focal point which connects its disparate inhabitants. Caerphilly is referenced many times throughout the stories; it is a presence always there, and always discernible.
Each of the stories in We Don’t Know What We’re Doing offer up tiny, realistic slices of life. There are characters here going through complicated breakups, suffering at work, trying to come to terms with grief, or in less than perfect relationships. Morris focuses upon the minutiae of life, and those things which have the power to change someone, sometimes irrevocably. His prose and plotlines are sometimes startling relatable. In Castle View, for instance, Morris describes the sleeplessness of his main character: “It’s been four months now since he started at the school, and he hasn’t been sleeping well. He dreams of losing teeth and being chased, and in the mornings he’s disappointed by the obviousness of these dreams. In the night, his wife talks in her sleep. There are times when he wakes to hear her speaking a kind of Russian-sounding language. For a while he tried to stay awake when it happened. He thought she might disclose something important. Another man’s name, perhaps. But no, just more gibberish. Where do they come from, he thinks, all these chains of nonsense?”
Much sadness and despair penetrates both the town and its inhabitants; even the characters of comparative privilege here are suffering in some way. Throughout, Morris is revealing of his intriguing cast of characters, and often of the way in which their surroundings impact upon them. Many of them have a lot going on in their lives, and act contrary to societal expectations. Some of Morris’ protagonists are likeable, others not so much, but each can be believed and understood.
Throughout, I really admired Morris’ writing, particular with regard to the way in which he uses similes. In Bolt, a group of young girls teeter past on “heels the size of Coke cans”, and in Fugue, “side-on, your father’s eyes seem like two swollen capital Ds – glassy and unreal.” He knows instinctively the number of details to reveal about a character or scene, and I was intrigued throughout by these tightly plotted tales. There are dark edges to every single one of the stories; these range from a secret and suppressed memories, to the dislocation one might feel when coming back to their childhood home after time away.
I admired the use of different narrative perspectives used throughout the collection, and found the variety here engaging. One of the stories, Fugue, is told using the second person perspective, and begins as follows: “On the way back from Cardiff, your father asks questions about Edinburgh and Tim. You answer vaguely, and look out the window as the landmarks of approaching home draw near. You haven’t been back in a year, and you’d forgotten that these places… even exist.”
We Don’t Know What We’re Doing is a transporting and assured debut collection. Morris already has a strong authorial voice, and it seems as though he effortlessly brings each one of his characters, many of which are unnamed, to life. We Don’t Know What We’re Doing is the first work by a promising voice in fiction; it is an impressive collection, which reads like the work of a seasoned author. The collection is a cohesive one, in which several characters cleverly slip in and out of other stories. I for one am very much looking forward to Morris’ future publications.
Kirsty Hewitt 4/4
We Don’t Know What We’re Doing by Thomas Morris
Faber & Faber 9780571317028 pbk May 2016