Dylan Thomas Award Longlist Celebration – The Coiled Serpent by Camilla Grudova

Although it just missed out on my books of the year, Camilla Grudova’s first novel, Children of Paradise, set in a run-down indie cinema was one of my most memorable reads of 2022, so when the longlist for this year’s Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize was announced I was naturally attracted to her book of short stories, The Coiled Serpent.

To say that the stories in this book are arresting is one thing. They’re full of horror, they’re full of blood and shit too – literally, these stories are very scatalogical. They’re obsessed with food, especially raw meat (and cannibalism!); there are poisons and mould everywhere, physically and psychologically. There is nothing pretty or nice about any of them! It wasn’t pleasant to read these stories, but they are entirely original and compelling in their gruesomeness.

Grudova is Canadian but lives in Edinburgh, and I wondered whether she’d experienced Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things. Having just watched the excellent film, Grudova’s dead-pan style in many of these stories made me think of how Gray’s Bella Baxter would make sense of the scenario; there are many similarities and that child-like way of description at times. In one story, a young woman masturbates on the nose of a bust of Mayakovsky, which develops “an off-white, green-tinged skin” – I recalled Bella’s discovery of said act in the film! The title story though, made me think of the Python’s ‘Mr Creosote’ – ‘say no more’!

Let me pick out a few other illustrative quotes. In one story with a long title a woman has many children with different artists…

After the fourth child she had started to name her children after objects she wanted but could not afford: Piano, Stove, Grand Fern. The children grew to resemble the objects they stood in for. Piano was a girl with a wide mouth and large, orderly teeth. She ate with her mouth open, grinned and talked all the time. She liked sweets, which turned a tooth or two black. […] Most cruelly, Jenny named a little boy Dog after she was unable to decide what kind of dog she wished for. The boy mainly liked to eat meat, which they could not afford often.

In ‘The Poison Garden’ Lil runs a Tudor museum in Margate which has a poison garden. Tom is married to Esme, and steals from it with bad intent:

It was lucky that in the kind of food she liked – vegetable ‘bowls’, Asian soups, salads – the abortifacients he was secretly feeding her were easy to hide.

In ‘The Meat Eater’ the narrator starts by telling us about herself,

I was thirty-four years old, overweight, ugly and had a high IQ. I dropped out of my PhD on the feminist modernist poet H.D. and had stopped eating all food except for meat and fish. It has improved all my health problems, including acne, eczema, tremors and epilectic seizures that once left me bedridden for days. I have lost a lot of weight, but this has just made me a different sort of ugly. My nose looks bigger and my eyeballs stick out.

She also describes the last man she slept with, (he wore Star Wars pyjamas).

He didn’t like my looks and he wasn’t interested in my personality. I was just a hole.

These stories are dark, visceral, visually often horrific, there’s little convention to them, yet they have a beguiling simplicity, and the themes that run through them give a continuity as a collection. Reading them was certainly an experience! I now need to go back to Grudova’s first collection, The Doll’s Alphabet which preceded her novel, and I will definitely look forward to whatever she produces next.

Source: Review copy – thank you! Atlantic Books hardback, 198 pages.

BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)

9 thoughts on “Dylan Thomas Award Longlist Celebration – The Coiled Serpent by Camilla Grudova

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Urban folk horror and an anarchic setting covered in shit and mould! Not nice, but compelling to read though I grimaced at the disgusting bits!

  1. Elle says:

    [blinks repeatedly] This sounds *highly* memorable! I’m interested by the setup of The Poison Garden—like an inverted, twisted Rapunzel (which opens with a man stealing vegetables that his wife craves during pregnancy).

Leave a Reply