All of come to the realisation, at one point or another, that the business of living is not for the fainthearted.
What looks from the relatively uncluttered vantage point of childhood to be a straightforward undertaking, soon proves itself to be wildly unpredictable, immensely complicated and prone to as much as heartache as joy.
Hence it’s all too easy to get caught up in the mess and the anomalies. ensnared by bleak cynicism and forget that there is real promise and excitement, friendship and love there too, the yin and the yang of existence that most of people stumble into a dim appreciation of and somehow come to accommodation with.
It’s this great existential dichotomy in all its blissful grandeur and searing pain that Kirsty Logan, who previously gave the luminously beautiful The Gracekeepers, examines in exquisite poetic detail in a series of short story vignettes, linked by the characters of Ruth and Liska, a devoted lesbian couple in Scotland that are awaiting the birth of their child.
“When I was little, I thought that everyone’s past was a series of steps, like a board game. I know now that it’s not so simple. Real life is beautiful because it isn’t neat. Are you ready, Coorie? The sea is quiet. The birds float, wings tucked, bobbing on the waves. The sun has come out for you.” (P. 25)
As they grapple with becoming parents and the great responsibility of shepherding a young and innocent life through the good and the bad that surely awaits them, they decide they will only tell their child the truth, which they initially interpret as the eschewing of storytelling and fanciful tales not grounded in unvarnished reality.
Slowly though, quite independently of each other, they find themselves telling young Coorie, a series of stories gleaned from friends, family and their lives, all of which, in one way or another, convey some deep-seated truth they believe will make their child’s life profoundly easier to bear.
Careful not to tip the other off that they are breaking their shared agreement, Ruth, who is carrying the baby, only tells her stories when Liska is at work; similarly Liska waits until Ruth is asleep to spin her tales of instructional fancy.
What emerges from this rather benign duplicity, ironically, is truth telling in its purest form as each woman realises that the only way to really impart lessons of truth is to embed in stories, the metaphorical spoonful of sugar that helps the bitter (and not so bitter) medicine of life go down.
What we are granted in A Portable Shelter is a meditation not so much of what truth is – that is accepted as a given in a world untroubled by fake news and moral relativity – but rather how it is articulated and lived out, and whether it is possible to inoculate someone against the many pitfalls of life, by storytelling alone, before they have even left the womb.
It’s a quiet, hushed and beautifully thought-out musing on these great questions, infused with a rich, magically-real poetry that Logan brings to every single passage in the book; she draws you into an times fantastical realm of storytelling with ease and a joyous love of the English language and the sheer beauty it harbours, while always keeping an eye on the essential truths contained within each tale.
As you read, devour in fact, each perfectly-spun story, which in their short running item conveyed more emotion and impact than many novels manage, you encounter ideas, insights and life philosophies that flit around you, just out of reach at first, like fireflies at night; that is until they finally settle upon you as if they have been there all along, and you begin to appreciate how deeply knowing and truthful they are.
“We agreed that stories are not truth, and that we’d never lie to you. But I’ve thought and thought, but there’s no other way to give you truth except to hide it in a story and let you find your own way inside. All stories contain a truth if you look hard enough – but it might not be a good truth.” (P. 92)
What marks A Portable Shelter as particularly worth your time – at 164 pages, it won’t overly burden your allotted reading time, especially if, like me, you hungrily turn each page eager for more – is the way it acknowledges the joy and the trepidation that every parent feels as they are await the birth of their first child.
Too mindful of what awaits their offspring, have naturally already travelled down much of the road of life themselves, they simultaneously long to unveil life’s wonders and joys, while being all too aware that pain and disappointment linger like unwelcome companions next to their more life-affirming counterparts.
As you move through each story and the interlocking passages that connect them, you are connected to the hopes, fears and expectations of Ruth and Liska who come to realise that while they instruct and inform they can never fully prepare their child for what awaits.
In the end, life is a journey we must all undertake alone, but A Portable Shelter also reminds us that while the learning, growing, falling and rising is something only we can navigate, that we will always have those who love us close by to soothe, instruct, to rejoice and cry with, for as long as we may need them.
Part morality tale, part affirmation of the bonds that bind us close to each other, and part rumination on life in all its multifaceted glory, A Portable Shelter is a joy and delight to read, a celebration of life, belonging and the sheer joyful unpredictability of being alive, which is made all the richer by those who walk with us and help us along the way,