REVIEW: on a distant ridgeline by Sam Reese

Reviewed by Zoë Collins & Shura Price from Todmorden Writers’ Collective  

Writer: Sam Reese

Publisher: Platypus Press

Release date: September 2021

Price: £8.70

In An Experience, the middle story in this excellent collection, a character talks about a thin barrier between this world and another. This works pretty well as a description of the stories themselves. By the end of each one, we might not know all the backstory, or exactly who the characters are to one another, but we get a sense of depth and completeness – it’s as if, beyond the thin barrier of the page, there’s a whole complex world we’ve only glimpsed.

Sam Reese likes to let a story emerge gradually; it sort of coalesces out of apparently unconnected details. In Lone Figure on a Distant Ridge, for instance, we swing from a dead dog, to adolescent sexual awareness, to a father’s dreadful driving; an intriguing back-and-forth flow, out of which the story takes shape. The initial blurriness of the details is occasionally frustrating; but mostly it’s as delicious as a game, like Reese is seeing how far he can push it. In Small Homes, it was a good four pages in before we really got how the characters were connected; in The Difference, there’s no interaction, just one character in an extended monologue delivered to a “you” that we never meet; and throughout, characters refer obliquely to incidents and people outside the confines of the story, leaving us feeling a bit like we’re at a party with people we don’t know. But it’s kinda exciting; and it kept reminding us that however hard we try, the world is not completely explicable. Most of the stories don’t end on any kind of “resolution”, either; but Reese nevertheless has a feel for ending them at exactly the right moment.

A handful of the stories are more conventional in structure – and although they’re enjoyable and assured, we didn’t find them as interesting as the more distinctive, formally inventive ones. It feels like this is a writer who is deliberately taking risks as they develop a style.

We noticed a couple of broad themes, giving a still, dreamlike cohesion across the whole book. Several characters are quietly dealing with the fallout of death and loss; several more are displaced and dislocated, in places where they don’t feel quite at home. The human relationship with water is prominent, too, with some of the most intense, disturbing events occurring around water. The sea, particularly, recurs: sometimes as a joyous and freeing environment, and sometimes as a locus of danger, both physical and interpersonal. Reese’s sense of place is sharp throughout; he doesn’t overstate, but picks just the right quiet details to make the locations vivid. 

If there’s an off point at all, it’s perhaps the dialogue. We disagreed here – one of us felt that when the characters talk, it was sometimes, unintentionally, unconvincing; the other felt this was Reese consciously exploring the limitations and awkwardnesses of speech. But Reese’s  ‘Author’s Note’ mentions how  ‘a gesture tells you more than words’, and he often brilliantly conveys the fragility of small, significant physical gestures: in Magpies, a child locked in an abusive relationship with her mother places her mother’s arm across herself in act of protection; in Words, a sister silently grips her sibling’s hand.

Overall, on a distant ridgeline is layered and rewarding – beautifully written stories that are more like a question than an answer.

You can order your copy of on a distant ridgeline here.

Hailing from Aotearoa, Sam Reese is an award-winning writer, critic, and teacher. Currently a lecturer in creative writing at York St John University, he is the author of the short story collection Come the Tide and non-fiction books on jazz, literature and loneliness, American short fiction, and Cold War politics.

Todmorden Writers’ Collective is a group led by writers, and based in Todmorden, West Yorkshire, UK. They organise public events to foreground under-represented writers worldwide. Find them on Twitter @ItsTheTWC