Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Insignificant Gestures ~ Jo Cannon

The best thing about helping with the Edge Hill Prize was discovering brilliant writers, many of whom were published by small, independent publishers with little or no budget for publicity. One of my favourite longlisted collections was Jo Cannon's 'Insignificant Gestures.' I reviewed it in 2011 here, but I recently reread the collection and have written a longer review:

Jo Cannon is a GP in an inner city practice and her medical expertise is brought to bear in many of the stories in this entertaining and readable collection. Her writing is moving but decidedly unsentimental. The collection begins quietly with the title story 'Insignificant Gestures.' The doctor narrator has returned from Malawi and retrained as a psychiatrist so that he will never have to 'smell blood again, or the sweet nail varnish odour of starvation.' His experiences in Malawi have left him dependent on medication that makes his fingers tremble, but he confesses that he would 'take anything not to wake a three in the morning with my thoughts crawling round and round like caterpillars along the rim of a glass, endlessly circling the same regrets.' Some of those regrets are explored as the doctor remembers a fatal misdiagnosis which left him unable to sleep and feeling 'all edge and scalded surface.' In the closing scene the doctor's memories tumble out, 'like opening an overhead locker.' As he talks about Malawi to a nurse he watches her chewing on her thumb and notes, 'Beginnings start like this, with insignificant gestures.' It's a carefully observed, restrained story that explores degrees of helplessness and sets the tone for the rest of the collection: watch out for the details in these stories, observe the minutiae, the seemingly insignificant gestures, this opening story seems to say.

Medics appear in many of the stories. A doctor’s tact and kindness lead to a moment of acceptance in the sad and funny ‘New Look.’ In ‘Rictus’ a bereaved woman is assailed by memories of medical interactions after her dog dies, while a nurse’s recommendation of speed dating in ‘The Alphabet Diet’ allows Mick to finally acknowledge, ‘how hard it is to tell the truth, to open drawers and show the broken things inside.’

One measure of a successful collection is the memorability of the stories; how many of them stick with the reader and niggle long after the book's pages are closed? 'Insignificant Gestures' is packed with stories that resonate. ‘Fairy Story’ examines a mother’s feelings of culpability when her daughter is hospitalised for anorexia, but it’s not a story without hope. ‘There’s always a way back,’ she tells her daughter. ‘The good and courageous will prevail. And if you are lost, sooner or later someone you love will come and find you.’ 'Daddy's Girl', a story in which a young man boards the tube carrying a rucksack, is an intricate exploration of secret thoughts and isolation. Jo Cannon achieves a lot in very few words and the story ends with a revelation of what is to come: ‘A little girl won’t go to school. Police cars and TV crews will come in the night. Her friend’s fear will be the first crack. Aftershocks from the explosion will injure all the days of her life.’ In 'Mercy is Sick Today' a girl embraces her prodigal sister: 'Flicking at flies, shooing curious children, I guard her. At midday I light the fire for nsima. Not everyone in the village will eat today.' 

Other particularly memorable stories include the sinister 'Shutters' in which the narrator says to his wife, 'Now you're ill it's better. There's only me.' 'A Good Match' is an intricate examination of cultural differences in an arranged marriage, while Dr Campbell is visited by a ghost from her past in 'The Spaces Between' and in 'Staying Power' a woman takes a stand: 'I tear him out like wrapping paper: pinch the edges and pull. So easy I could have done it any time.'

Zoe King maintains that to read Jo Cannon is to 'enter the world of the displaced, the dispossessed, and to emerge with a new understanding,' and Vanessa Gebbie writes that 'Insignificant Gestures' is full of stories that 'sing long after the reader has put down the work.' I felt sad when I reached the end of this collection because I wanted to keep reading. If Jo Cannon produces another collection it will go straight on my wishlist.


  1. I totally agree. Insignificant Gestures is the best book of short stories I have read in many a long year. Touching, funny, poignant, philosophical...all that one wants from a good book

  2. I agree too, it's a wonderful wonderful book which deserves far wider exposure!