Ah, the polecat. The wild cousin of the domesticated ferret. These animals are considered so similar that it is difficult to distinguish either the domesticated or feral ferret from the polecat unless, of course, you can measure “the postorbital breadths of the cranial volumes of their skulls”.
Importantly, Ghillie’s mum is a polecat when we first see her relaxed. She has no work to do and no expectations put upon her. She’s not looking after a child, visiting a teacher on parents evening, being monitored by an employer or under psychiatric assessment. A small and compact animal, endemic to Europe, the polecat can secrete foul-smelling liquid to mark its territory. This is a very different creature from the grand, mythological dragon Ghillie’s mum becomes to impress her son and grandchildren, or the limby mother orangutang dextrously managing a young child.
This woman has mastered the art of transforming for the people she loves, and yet, when she’s let alone in her dotage, she is an obstinate little rodent ready to protect her place in the world, small enough to scurry away from trouble and, unlike the ferret, completely wild.
Many short stories are image-based (Calvino, Mansfield, Schultz, for starters). Lyrical short fiction can emulate out from a central image in the same way as a representational painting. If you look at the dramatic symmetry in Micheal Angelo’s Crucifixion of St Peter, explored by Leo Sternberg in his Line of Fate essay, you see the clear plotline between heaven and hell and in the centre, a complex and conflicted character. In the centre of Ghillie’s Mum is, as the title suggests, Ghillie’s mum. It’s her line of fate, her troughs and peaks, her fall and redemption.
The images used by the author are animal rather than human figures. So what do these images tell us about Ghillie’s mum’s character that a human likeness couldn’t?
“Imagery is not only visual, but is also related to the other senses.” writes Ailsa Cox, in Writing Short Stories, A Rutledge Writer’s Guide. As a reader, we allow the imagery of familiar animals to provide tactile, aural, olfactory and visual information into our consciousness. I’d argue that to a writer, animal imagery is particularly useful in providing our sixth sense — our somatic sense — with not only actions and movement, but with the particular quality with which they are made. Not just what they do but how they do it. In the parlance of ballet, for example, there are steps named after animals (pas de chat, pas de cheval) because this gives the dancer a particular quality to emulate in the step’s performance.
Writers are expected to steer clear of adverbs, but how else do you let a reader know about the quality of a gesture, posture, expression or behaviour? Step in imagery: quiet as a mouse, busy as a bee, eager as a beaver. But what does the quality of a movement tell us? Internal motives and intentions, that’s what. The panther barring its teeth, the rolled tight pangolin, the raging tiger are quick bursts of dramatic information about Ghillie’s mum’s inner thoughts and feelings that a purely descriptive sentence would flatten out through clunky explanation.
Non-threatening to readers
When Ghillie’s mum is a human being she is unwieldily, her posture timid, her animations minimal and dialogue sparse. But how are meant to interpret this when Ghillie himself is our narrator? In most of the story, he is working from memories, some of them from when he was very young. His hindsight laden, emotionally damaged and self-centric versions could obscure his mother’s real intentions at the time, from the reader. By simply describing the behaviour of the animals, we remove the suspicion we might hold of a first-person narrator.
Animals are universally recognised. There may be distinctions in how different creatures behave that are due to personality or rearing, but there are no cultural signifiers attached to them. We can’t fix notions of class, race, intelligence, gender, sexuality or interests the way we are inclined with humans. Animals are not subject to subtext or affectation.
Creating political and social satires.
The clue as to what’s really at stake here, though, is when Ghillie’s mum turns into a raccoon, “by way of apology”. The reader has to take a moment to shake out the brain here. So, Ghillie’s mum can communicate how she feels inside through transformation? The act itself? Not just how she behaves when she is an animal but which animal she becomes.
This provides the climactic paradox. Ghillie’s mum can choose what she becomes but is unable to stop becoming. Transforming is an expression of self. She has no choice but to live in the gauze of life because her talent, her transitions, tell her story.
Ghillie’s mum is a hopeful tale, though. Her redemption comes with her transition from The Facility to The Home — two opposite institutions; the first a condemnation, the second a conservation. Ghillie gives the tale it’s twist when he’s rescued, quite literally, by someone prepared to love and nurture him, despite his unusual traits. His life shows the paradigm shift from social repression to social inclusion.
And the swoop from rejection to acceptance in this tale is a social one. Ghillie’s mum is unable to live in a society that would suppress her primary mode of expression. The focus on her animal characteristics represents society’s febrile fears of the unfamiliar. She is considered dangerous and unfit to raise a child. This emphasis on the effect rather than the cause could echo true tales of real people demonised for gay sex, suicidal tendencies, or alcoholism (for example) when the root causes are compassion for and understanding of mental health, addiction or relationships.
A “Lyrical story is distinguished by its emphasis on a central recurring image or symbol, around which the narrative revolves, and from which it acquires an open and flexible meaning.” suggests the Comma Press website. And by using animals to denote otherness, but transitions to communicate subtle human exchanges, Lynda Clark allows all sorts of people to use Ghillie’s mum to represent their story of misunderstanding and unfair treatment.
At rest as a polecat, we can see Ghillie’s mum has learnt how to be resilient enough to protect herself, but wild enough to feel free. Instead of imbuing animals with human personas, Clark makes Ghillie’s mum seem more human as she takes on animal characteristics. But reverse anthropomorphism works in the same way as traditional anthropomorphism: the animals still provide visual clues, the interchangeable typology belie a non-threatening, universal character whose exaggerated ‘otherness’ allows us to transpose anyone who suffers social oppression into the protagonist’s place.
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