26th February 2021
Josie Cray, Cardiff University
Jen Calleja, I’m Afraid That’s All We’ve Got Time For (London: Prototype, 2020)
‘When the rain wept and wailed and hammered its wet fists against the fences and flung itself down on the grass over and over again for two weeks, everyone in the valley was dismissive of it’ (61). So begins ‘Divination’, the fifth short story in Jen Calleja’s newest collection I’m Afraid That’s All We’ve Got Time For (2020). Unlike the rain there is nothing to be dismissed about Calleja’s collection. From a pregnant food writer developing a craving for luxury living to an amateur actor not entirely sure why his performances are so funny, Calleja takes the familiar we find in the everyday and twists it through absurdity, dark humour and the surreal.
Calleja’s collection addresses the emotionally charged moments that punctuate life with wit and style. The thirteen stories explore the ‘what ifs’ of everyday living and no subject is left unturned: a man feeds himself to crabs after learning of his wife’s affair; teenage girls discover their burgeoning sexuality through discussions with dead animals; a narrator finds any distraction to miss a date. A wonderfully executed example of this asking ‘what if’ is in ‘Half-Learnt Lessons’ where a young child discovers her dead mother on the floor and proceeds to cut her hair and smooth shaving foam onto the body. Across the stories is a sense of deferral or missed opportunities; even the title suggests the possibility of something more. In ‘Apart From When’ a writer returning home is late for a reading as she searches for a story to tell. Similarly, in ‘The Debt Collector’ a woman leaves her marriage and comfortable life behind to live in an old breakroom above a shop. It takes her five years, living in the breakroom, to realise she was never over the relationship before her marriage. What heightens Calleja’s exploration of human experience and these moments of deferral is her control of language. As a literary translator (previously shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2019), Calleja’s precision with language adds textures to her storytelling.
In her interview with the Modernist Review, Calleja explains how ‘surrealism is one of the best ways of exploring reality, and also a great way to refer to the fact that writing about reality is and cannot be reality’. Calleja’s engagement with surrealism is reminiscent of Penelope Rosemont’s argument that ‘surrealism most emphatically does not signify unreality, or a denial of the real,’ rather ‘[i]t insists on more reality, a higher reality’. In Calleja’s stories reality becomes something more real. Surrealist concerns with sexuality, nature and the unnatural, and the figure of the femme enfant, surface in ‘Divination’. After being propositioned by her teacher, Monsieur Dubois, Ernestine is saved by the flood of water which washes its way down the valleys and through her school, lifting her out of the window and into a tree holding dead, bloated animals. Whilst in the tree, Ernestine is subject to a cacophony of voices from the grotesque dead animals who explain to her that Dubois only sees her as a ‘little girl. A pet. A challenge. A fix’ (75 – original italics). Dubois’s predatory nature can be found in his name, meaning ‘from the wood’ suggesting something menacing and voracious—an example of how Calleja adds layers to her writing. The teenage girls are like the sheep, pig and skinned rabbits tangled in the branches—they are prey, and Dubois uses his position as a teacher to target and feed upon them. The mangled corpses tell Ernestine of the future facing her should she accept Dubois’s proposition. Through this surreal discussion Ernestine is able to reflect on her own burgeoning adolescent sexuality, informed by watching ‘anything on TV that seems to have even the vaguest chance of having something erotic in it’ (64). The dead animals provide a divine intervention, one which explains how Ernestine’s desires are natural in comparison to her teacher’s. Following the flooding, Ernestine is determined to show Dubois she is not simply ‘a pet’ and that it is he who had ‘better watch out’ (79 – original italics).
Later in the collection, Calleja plays with ideas of seeing and what dark secrets might be hiding in plain sight. ‘Due Process’ tells the story of Hazel and Lillian Craiggowie—two sisters who had previously divorced their parents and subsequently have become a famous art duo. Hazel, the narrator, plans to separate from Lillian. However, by the end of the story we learn she is forever bound to her sister, becoming part of an art installation. Calleja deftly exposes our ability to look past what is right in front of us as we search for a deeper meaning. Hazel notices Lillian’s photographs of gardens for a new project, ‘something to do with corners, back corners of gardens, the shadowy parts of them, how they remain the same all year round’ (134). However, Hazel ‘hadn’t noticed’ (134) that the gardens all had patios and that the sister’s garden was not included in the photographs. We later learn that Hazel’s decapitated body has been hidden under the patio. Had police looked at what was right in front of them, Hazel suggests, they might have found ‘that underneath a terracotta plant pot in the corner of the garden was a perfect miniature recreation of [Lillian] stabbing and decapitating [Hazel]’ (135). Calleja pushes the dark humour further with the names of paints Lillian adds to the walls covered in blood spatter, ‘complimentary tones of guilt orange, squeal yellow, shame pink’ (136). The careful choice of language in ‘Due Process’ is a testament to Calleja’s wit and individual style which makes this collection so exciting to read.
The thirteen stories take reality and bend it, toying with expectations and language to leave you wanting more. Calleja’s title is apt: I’m Afraid That’s All We’ve Got Time For is a witty, sharp, and bold collection of stories that leave you wanting more, asking what if?
 Penelope Rosemont, Surrealist Women: An International Anthology (London: The Athlone Press, 1998), p. xxxiii.