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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
AK Blakemore

The Coiled Serpent by Camilla Grudova review – stunning short stories

Camilla Grudova
‘Angela Carter’s natural inheritor’ … Camilla Grudova. Photograph: Chris Watt/Chris Watt Photography

It has been a banner year for Camilla Grudova. Her excellent debut novel Children of Paradise, about an eclectic group of rebellious cinema ushers, was longlisted for the Women’s prize for fiction. A few months later, she found a well-deserved spot among Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists class of 2023. The Coiled Serpent is an utterly triumphant way to see it out.

Through Ceiling and Walls, the first short story in the collection, opens – as many good tales do – with a strange visitor to a strange country. The visitor is an unnamed academic, and the country an island, “one of the largest and most isolated in the world”; drizzly, moribund and awash with the tatty paraphernalia of monarchism. Sound familiar, anyone? And the story closes – as far fewer good tales do – with a monstrous cyclopic effluvium rising from the plughole of a blocked sink.

This is not the only story in The Coiled Serpent that reads like an eerie burlesque on English exceptionalism. We are led through parochial museums, obsolescent leisure complexes and gentrified coastal towns: everywhere England, her supposedly dignified features recognisable, though warped in the funhouse mirror that is Grudova’s singular imagination. Superannuated boarding school “boys” dribble under their straw boaters, “dusty like velvet armchairs, or spindly and brown like side tables”. Queen Victoria is submerged in a swimming pool, like “a diving-bell spider, or an enormous dark floating turd”. Grudova is Canadian by birth – but I can’t remember the last time I read satire of the Great British institutions so crisply rendered, so exquisitely batty.

She also pulls off the impressive feat of establishing a continuity across the collection – an argument, almost – without the stories ever becoming repetitive or stultifying. Their settings range from the pseudo-Victorian to the non-specifically modern to the flat-out dystopian, but all share a preoccupation with the horror of the here and now. Throughout The Coiled Serpent, the exploitation inherent in socioeconomic relations under capitalism is pushed to surreal extremes. In The Surrogates, a young woman imagines the couple paying her to carry their unborn child “trying to stick their small weak heads” up her vagina to check on the progress of “their” foetus. She pictures a child belonging to herself and her own partner “growing around their big, pink, leech-like baby, thin and wrinkled and with no access to food”. This grounding in a political reality is part of what stops these stories ever tipping too far from the enjoyably weird to the self-consciously wacky – a balancing act faced by any fabulist of Grudova’s ambition.

Poverty wages, mould-ridden flats, starving artists and the drudgery of domestic labour are all recurring themes, and Grudova’s vivid similes often yoke the human body itself to the ephemeral logos of mass consumer culture – the surface of an exposed human brain is “like ramen packet noodles softened in a boiling pot of water”. It’s gross, yes. It’s also hilarious and pleasingly irreverent. In The Meat Eater, a marble bust of the Russian poet and playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky is used as a masturbatory aid, to the extent that it develops “an off-white, green-tinged skin”. In the titular story, a trio of wannabe technocrats attempt to build a supercomputer, commit to a programme of “sexual purification”, and get so jacked that they literally explode.

Many of Grudova’s characters also resist their exploitation – or avenge themselves on their exploiters – with clear-eyed, inventive malice. Avalon, in which a pair of accidental sex workers flood the basement sauna they work at, drowning their abusive employers and then breaking into their maggot-ridden home, is a particular standout.

Grudova has an instinct for queasily precise imagery that few can rival – skylights emerge from the “beefy red brick” of a building “like blisters on roasted flesh”, elephant foetuses in jars are “wrinkled old raincoats”. There’s a glorious excess and tactility to her writing, refreshing in a literary culture that often favours limpid understatement in its prose. In the stories of The Coiled Serpent, Grudova’s gothicism is offset by sheer camp. It’s the kitschy Technicolor trinket-box stuffness of an Arcimboldo painting or a John Waters movie (Grudova also shares a certain scatological preoccupation with Baltimore’s Pope of Filth). Everywhere in these stories, lists abound. Lists of seaside attractions, of poisonous flowering plants, of foodstuffs, of neuroses, of the different kinds of grot that accumulate in corners – both architecturally and psychologically speaking.

Nicola Barker has described Grudova as Angela Carter’s “natural inheritor”, and I think most writers would be pleased with such an endorsement. Certainly they both draw from the same palette, all blood reds and blue velvets. But Grudova is not an imitator. She’s a thoroughly sui generis visionary – and, after reading The Coiled Serpent, I’d say one of the most startlingly original writers we’ve got.

AK Blakemore’s The Glutton is published by Granta. The Coiled Serpent by Camilla Grudova is published by Atlantic (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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