Monday, 27 February 2012


Second Story Sunlight - Edward Hopper

English writer Neil Campbell has many gifts, not least his amazing facility for language. His poetic skills are brought to bear on his latest short fiction collection Pictures from Hopper (Salt, 2011) where almost every sentence has some gem tucked into it – a beautiful word, a startling phrase, a gorgeous image. Campbell’s début collection of stories, Broken Doll, was also published by Salt, in 2007. Two chapbooks of poetry, Birds, (2009) and Bugsworth Diary, (2011) were published by Knives, Forks and Spoons.

Pictures from Hopper is, as you might guess, a collection inspired by Edward Hopper’s paintings. It is peopled with the marginalised and the broken and their lives are mapped out in stunning imagery. Some of these stories are like prose poems where the story lurks in the background. Some of them are a series of linked vignettes. ‘Texas Wildflowers’ describes a group of different women and what they meant to the narrator: Black Eyed Susan played fiddle with the Catoosa Brothers and ‘In the afternoons we’d make love to the sound of freight trains. Once we rolled in a field of bluebonnets.’ Silky Camellia was a ‘crazy fireball’ and ‘in Tijuana her red heels seemed to float over the dust and she was a black fire of oil in the neon heat haze.’ Huisache Daisy was ‘red ray petals on the bed sprawling over cream.’

There is a unity of voice in these stories; each one is different but there is a sort of weary Americana that hangs over everything, they have the stillness and eerie quality of the paintings they bring to life. But they are also packed with compelling and sordid adventures: murder, drinking on a grand scale, illicit love.

Not all of the stories are from Hopper paintings, though his influence may still be there. ‘Why I Don’t Have Love’ is set in Manchester and is mostly in the form of two badly written letters from the narrator’s former lover telling him she is pregnant. The first letter is angry and Campbell doesn’t slip in his portrayal of the voice of this hurt, rejected woman. ‘If YOU don’t like a baby please find someone to adopted have responsible Dave (I’am not joking and it not funny) Now I have an employment benefit and get monet for apartmet too...’. Things get worse for Dave, though, when it turns out the letter writer is also HIV positive.

If there is one fault to be found with Pictures from Hopper, it’s the lack of dialogue in the stories. When Campbell does dialogue he does it well and a bit more of it would be welcome in the dense slices of prose that make up many of these pieces. His first person narratives are often bold and sassy, as in ‘Office at Night’ where Mary Fires is a secretary who needs to keep her ‘blood up’ and this need is fulfilled by the outlaw Clyde, rather than by her boring boss.

Famous Hopper paintings are given the Campbell treatment: ‘Gas’, ‘Second Story Sunlight’, ‘Office at Night’, ‘The Lighthouse at Two Lights’, ‘Nighthawks’ – the results are original and not as you might expect. And herein lies his skill – it takes little to set his imaginative cogs in motion and the results are often beautiful. Raymond Carver said about writing short stories: ‘A little autobiography and a lot of imagination are best’. Add a little Hopper to that mix and you have a good Neil Campbell story.

I saw a Hopper painting on my recent trip to Nebraska: ‘Room in New York’ – it was melancholic and hypnotic and that is exactly the mood that Neil Campbell captures in these stories. As a reader, you revel in his language, the mood, and the deep atmosphere that he creates; like Hopper’s paintings, there is an intricacy and a richness to Campbell’s work that is second to none.

As an extra treat, when I was finished reading each story, I googled the Hopper painting it was inspired by, to soak it in. Then I read the story again and the two have now become intertwined in a pleasing way. I recommend this collection to those of you who like a slice of noir wrapped up in gorgeous prose.

I previously interviewed Neil Campbell about this collection here. You can buy Pictures from Hopper here.


chiccoreal said...

Nuala, wonderful review on Neil Campbell's "Pictures From Hopper". Makes me want to absorb these word pictures of excellent imagery. First I want to get my hands this masterful work. Where?


Hi Chico, there'; a link to the Salt website at the bottom of the post. You can buy it there, Cheers, N.

Ev said...

Great review - will deffo buy


Cool, Ev :)

shaunag said...

I have started this great collection, Nuala, and am enjoying it so far. Thanks for the review - I did notice the slim amount of dialogue but I liked that as a direct contrast to my own where I tend to use lots of dialogue :) Shauna.


Yes, it's balance, I guess with dialogue. I like a bit, not tons, of it.
Glad you like it too, Shauna.

BarbaraS said...

I was reading about this at the weekend, it sounds like it's right up my street. A really good review , enjoyed it and makes me really want to read it now.