Muscle and Mouth by Louise Finnigan is an absolute gem of a story. In this small book put together for Fly on the Wall Press ‘shorts’ series, we are treated to the kind of tight, rich storytelling that made me fall in love with literature in the first place.
What does it mean to be who you are? What does it mean to attempt to leave your home and ‘escape’ difficult circumstances? How much of ourselves would we lose on that journey?
Jade’s story continues to ask me these questions. She’s already doing the heavy lifting, by doing the living. It’s up to me to answer them for myself.
Far From the Privileged Crowd
“There are a few lines about personal circumstances on my statement, but I can’t be too reliant on that. I must prove myself. I must write until my shoulder muscles ache with all-night essays.”
-Muscle and Mouth, Louise Finnigan
This is our first introduction to the main character, Jade, where immediately we understand the road for her is not going to be (has not been) easy. Every bit of energy she’s putting out is meant to show she is somehow worth the opportunity of continued education. She’s done all the right things, pulled all the right grades. But, even that may not be enough. And why isn’t it?
Unlike some of the other students she’ll potentially brush shoulders with, she hasn’t come from a place where the assumptions always turn to things working out. What I love about Finnigan’s characterisation of Jade is that even though it would be easy for this character to appear weak or fragile by her difficult path, she isn’t. There are no complaints or moaning about how hard her life is and the obstacles in her way. She’s just getting on with it, which makes me feel less like giving her a hug and a cuppa and more like cheering her on from the sidelines. She’s going to make it somehow, or Finnigan and I are going to have a problem.
I’ve made this emotional investment by the end of the first page. And to be fair, since it’s a short story, the author doesn’t have much time to grab me. Finnigan snares me before I even realise I’m in the trap. I’m turning pages and the book I meant to put down so I could have some lunch has now become my lunch. I’m devouring it.
The Rough Life
“The path to Durham is all hard edges and humourless demands.”
-Muscle and Mouth, Louise Finnigan
It’s not until about midway through the story, that I find myself scrambling back to the first page to find this quote. Finnigan so quietly set this seed in the ground that I didn’t even realise what I’d read until later.
This story centers on Jade’s assignment, something she needs to score well on to further her education and get herself out of her current circumstances. For the assignment she is to record people speaking and write an essay about it. The conversation she records is centred around three men in their 20’s living in a housing estate in one of Manchester’s most deprived areas.
It’s the hard edges from that first page that haunt me as I read the conversation. Written as a sort of script between the three men, it jumps off the page and propels the pacing of the story forward at a breakneck speed. The men are talking over each other, interrupting, posturing and in some cases competing for attention.
Their mouths become the muscles chiseled by years of verbal and physical jockeying just to survive. As I read it occurs to me that the hard edges of the road to someplace ostensibly better (Durham) are just a continuation of roughness for Jade, but one with a potentially better payoff in the end. It’s going to be difficult no matter what, she’s just trying to choose the consequences she’d rather deal with and I don’t blame her.
Who Are We?
“Mrs Muldowney will get her essay and I will get into Durham. But I will lose this place and its sounds too. They will become alien to me. The muscle and mouth of them.”
-Muscle and Mouth, Louise Finnigan
What makes us who we are? The more I come to understand myself, the more I understand that “I” is really just a concept. I am just a combination of causes and conditions that come together to make the ‘me’ that I see, which is even different from what you experience when encountering me.
Yet, there’s no denying that language and culture play a big role in that condition of self. When I go back to visit family, if I’m there for a while I start to pull in this sort of southern twang that seems to be embedded in me from the place I grew up. And that sound, the language we used sits on the edge of the vast landscape of my life. I can look back and see it, but it’s no longer really part of who I am now.
As the language changes, so do we. I think it’s impossible not to and the thing Finnigan really makes me ponder is, how much of our old selves do we lose as our circumstances and conditions change? This is just one of the reasons Jade’s story will stick with me.
The muscle of the mouth of this story is book ended by conversations between Jade and Mrs Muldowney that serve as a reminder of how much distance can lie between humans in the same room. I felt like I was watching a short film as the recorded conversation unfolds and the encounter at the peak of the story was as shocking as it is revealing about the characters and the life they must survive. I’ve chosen not to discuss that in detail here for one reason only:
YOU MUST READ THIS STORY!
I’m not from Manchester and I’m still learning about this country as an expat. However, writers like Louise Finnigan bring to light important issues and expose those things that most people would much rather smooth over. The thing is, there are so many places in the world similar to the world Finnigan describes. There are so many people desperately fighting to come to better circumstances and opportunities.
Why should it be a fight? Does it have to be?
As long as we care more about capitalism than compassion and use money and power to oppress and exploit the vulnerable, there will always be a fight to survive. This story should be required reading in our schools. But more than a story meant to be read, it feels like an invitation for change.
Muscle and Mouth, by Louise Finnigan is available to purchase now from Fly on the Wall Press.
About the Author
LOUISE FINNIGAN lives and write in Manchester. Her work has been longlisted for The Mairtin Crawford Award and shortlisted for The Cambridge Short Story Prize. Last year, she was a finalist in The Manchester Fiction Prize. Her work has appeared, and is due to appear, in various anthologies and she has been published online with Storgy. Louise is interested in writing from the perspectives of working-class teenagers who are negotiating their identity in a world which requires them to change themselves if they are to ‘escape’. Her stores are set on council estates, in high-rise flats and failing schools and aim to present the complexity of situations which might be easily dismissed as non-literary. All settings are Mancunian or linked to the city in some way, and all characters are drawn with love.
About the Press
FLY ON THE WALL PRESS is a social enterprise company and a not for profit publisher, based in Manchester. They publish high quality anthologies on pressing issues, chapbooks and poetry products, from exceptional poets around the globe, with socially conscious themes.