Jonathan Cardew’s collection of twelve tales is both an honest and an ironic dive into our humanity. In the marvelous title story, this ambiguity is obvious from the first sentence: “Mum died so dad took us on a holiday to France.” The family’s grief doesn’t stop life. On the contrary, the grief demands that they keep moving and experiencing, even if it’s in a “nothing town called Lancieux, nestled into a crumbling cliff.” The unnamed narrator and their sister are kids who miss their mother yet have no words to express it; they count on their father to say something of substance. But what can he say that will reconnect his family to the world?
Endings and loss feature heavily in this compact collection, as if Cardew wants to ask the timely question, How do we live our day-to-day lives in a world where death awaits around every corner? “We were all searching for the meaning of life. My brothers and I,” he writes. “As the youngest, I was sent to the basement to find it.” What follows is a tale of exclusion and loneliness in which a young boy’s mind finds ways to cope. “The sun had set, spilling pink into the clouds. I always wondered how clouds returned to normal, how they became white again.”
In one of my favorite tales in this collection, a woman conjures her husband after his death with her warm breath on a frozen windowpane and finds him kind of alluring, different from the dreamy yet hard-working insurance salesperson to whom she had been married. “The hair brushed in afterwards—more stylish in her breath than ever in real life.”
Cardew is a master in giving voice to the young, telling stories from their perspective in a crisp, precise, yet playful style. His characters sound naturally immature and vulnerable, but also wise beyond their years, which creates a delicious tension. One child waits for the appearance of a likely aggressive father, whom the protagonist is curious to meet yet has been told to run away from. Another child describes unemotionally how debt collectors empty the family house like the Grinch. The adults in these stories sometimes stay falsely optimistic, trying to give a positive turn to heartbreaking events. When the debt collectors, for example, smash the windows, the mother exclaims that it’s so clean and airy.
There’s a mysterious undertone in Cardew’s stories, which we sense yet cannot quite grasp on first read. It takes our reflection to truly figure out what we’ve seen in the brief moment the author chose to illuminate his characters. This undertone makes these stories stand out and lends them a weight beyond the page, beyond the title’s cardboard.
A World Beyond Cardboard is a moving chapbook of a gifted author who demonstrates how we are all unique individuals and yet always connected to one another in our joy and pain by giving his carefully crafted characters center stage.
A World Beyond Cardboard, by Jonathan Cardew. ELJ Editions, 2022. 40 pages.
Claire Polders grew up in the Netherlands and now roams the world. Recurrent themes in her novels and short prose are identity, feminism, social justice, art, and death. She works on a memoir about elder abuse, a speculative novel, and a short story collection. Learn more about her creative process, travels, and the books she loves at clairepolders.com.
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