Caught by the River

The Earth, Thy Great Exchequer, Ready Lies

Jessica Andrews | 19th February 2021

In her debut short story collection, published earlier this month by Swift Press, Jo Lloyd’s characters ask how we should treat our world, our work, our selves, and each other. Jessica Andrews reviews.

Jo Lloyd’s stories span time and place, from the 18th century poem from which the title is taken, to a rural community in the Welsh mountains, ageing butterfly collectors catching colourful specimens in the Balkans before the First World War, Battersea Pleasure Gardens springing up in the wreckage of World War Two and washed-up dreamers drinking in the Blue Bar many years later, so steeped in their own dramas that they fail to notice their lives passing them by.

She is a master of perspective, shifting effortlessly between characters. Her stories are populated with alienated people craving connection yet isolated by their class, gender, desires or language. In ‘Your Magic Summer,’ she gives us pertinent insight into the minds of a mother and her absent son’s girlfriend, seamlessly highlighting their differences whilst showing us the bonds that inevitably draw them together. Each voice is distinct and recognisable, yet as a chorus they remind us that each individual voice is always connected to the voices of those around them and the political concerns that reverberate across time.

Lloyd deftly portrays the personal circumstances of each of her characters and shows us how the tremors that run through families and communities shape the future in ways we cannot always know. In ‘My Bonny,’ we see the ramifications of intergenerational trauma set against the omnipresent and yet shifting backdrop of the sea. Her characters grapple with the contradictions of their desires in a way that feel true to life, wielding power over each other and misunderstanding the needs and wants of those around them. Her prose is honest and biting; she does not endeavour to chart a narrative of lessons learned or fortunes changed for the better. Instead, she describes mothers and daughters dying in childbirth and men drowned at sea, not for any noble cause but simply as part of the violence of living.

Drawing on folklore and historical events, Lloyd’s stories are fluid and rippling with unstable centres, reflecting the nature of our shifting selves. Despite their differences in age and circumstance, her characters are comparable in that they are all pushed to the edges of places and communities. They are fishermen, widows, mine owners, missing fathers, young women moving to the city to make a go of their lives, old women reaching the end of their ambitions, villagers living in the shadow of something invisible which begins to tear them apart. ‘The Invisible,’ which won the BBC Short Story Prize in 2019, has an uncanny quality, simultaneously critiquing the class system and small-town suspicion of a long-ago village and the conflicted, Brexit-bordered island we live on today. Lloyd subtly shows us the weight of what it means to be working-class, the joy and the fear and the hopelessness, the empty jobs that ‘soften the edges, so you won’t wonder how to use your days, or notice that they’re passing.’ 

She asks us how we locate ourselves in the world whilst simultaneously recognising the impossibility of such a task. She favours truth over resolution; her characters are looking for the right way to be, yet she shows us that there are no answers, only a series of questions, ‘that never fell but only kept rising, cool as the moon and dark as the starless sky.’ The people in her stories yearn to live, or to stop hurting, or to make a mark on the world, or to disappear. Yet every time they approach a happy ending, like Trish in ‘Ade/Cindy/Kurt/Me,’ they begin to self-destruct and find themselves again years later, realising too late that their lives have passed them by. Trish’s words serve as a warning to all of us, to live our individual truth whilst recognising our place in a collective society. She tells us, ‘I found myself wanting to hit the back button. But the moment was gone, passed irretrievably into the past and I hadn’t even been paying proper attention while it was there.’ 


‘The Earth, Thy Great Exchequer, Ready Lies’ is out now and available here, priced £12.99.