It’s often easy to get complacent about what should constitute good writing. As readers we can admire form, style, a well-turned sentence and a memorable bon mot, but if what is under discussion is insubstantial then, while the writing may be diverting, it lacks real purpose. Then you read something which reminds of what the best writing can achieve; something which has the ability to confound you and make you feel with a strength and depth you may have forgotten was possible.
One of the reasons it is important to seek out and listen to new voices is to continue to be challenged and surprised. Anneliese Mackintosh will not be unknown to those of you who are familiar with new Scottish writing as her work has appeared regularly in various literary magazines and periodicals in the last few years. If you have read her work before, then you may feel you’ll have an idea of what Any Other Mouth, her debut collections of stories, will be like, but even if you experienced it in part, it won’t have prepared you for the coherent whole
I say it’s a collection of stories, but at times it reads like a novel (The ‘central character’ of Gretchen is not the only one to appear more than once throughout the book), and at others like an autobiographical confessional in a similar vein as Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation or Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story. As with all fiction there has to be an element of truth or real life experience involved, (in this case “68% did happen, 32% didn’t”, according to the writers’ own stats) but what raises Any Other Mouth above most of the other books you’ll read this year is Mackintosh’s imagination and mastery of a style which manages to change tone from whimsy to heartbreak often mid-sentence, and still manages to carry one, distinctive and unmistakable voice throughout. Don’t think for a moment that this is misery lit; rather it is a book which showcases this writers ability to beguile and confound with a wit and self-awareness which will lull you into a false sense of security even as she is describing events and thoughts which you may hope are in the 32%, but are so visceral and vividly recounted you suspect they are not.
The stories are in part about the end of childhood and all the secrets and lies which accompany it. As I read I did wonder if Mackintosh’s brutal honesty, a phrase I don’t use lightly, is down to her being tired of being told, and telling, lies. The book examines, amongst other things, mental health, bereavement, love, loss, sex and death, but there appears to be a pathological need to tell the truth, or at least her truth, at the core of all of these tales. From the supposed white lies, such as Gretchen’s father’s secret cigar habit and hidden stash of porn, through the institutional lies which can change lives in the blink of an uncaring eye, to those we tell to each other and ourselves to justify actions and behaviour, or to try and pretend every thing’s OK, Mackintosh seems to be suggesting that once the lie is told, then the only thing to consider is the scale and the result.
Any Other Mouth is not a book that will let you take it for granted for a moment in terms of content and style, reminding me in that sense of Janice Galloway’s The Trick Is To Keep Breathing. Stories such as ‘How To Be An Alcoholic Writer’, ‘Doctors’ and ‘For Anyone Who Wants To Be Friends With Me’ may make you feel that you shouldn’t be reading such personal thoughts, as if you had picked up a loved one’s private diary by mistake, but Mackintosh welcomes you into her world, puts a conspiratorial arm around your shoulder, and makes the reader feel special, as if she is sharing her characters and their lives only with them. She has a way of making you feel things are alright, even when they’re really not, and it is rare for a writer to care in this manner for the reader. Any Other Mouth is one of the most intimate and insightful reads you are likely to experience, and is a reminder of how important the best writing should be.