‘The surest and quickest way for us to arouse the sense of wonder is to stare unafraid at a single object.’ Cesare Pavese wrote those words in Dialogues with Leucò, one of two quotations that preface Lara Pawson’s deceptively slim third book, Spent Light.
Pawson takes the Italian writer at his word, turning to a toaster for inspiration. The electrical appliance, which appears two pages in, is a gift from a neighbour, Reg, after his wife dies. Pawson uses it to launch a deeply empathetic piece of writing exploring the brutality of the world in which we live. ‘What would have had to happen to me to make me be so cruel?’ she asks, after recounting a gruesome tale about a bullfighter killing someone’s baby. The female first-person protagonist is unnamed, but is surely a proxy for Pawson. The book addresses a second person, her partner, which softens some of its harsher moments.
The toaster’s elements, from its buttons to the black skirt hiding its wires and feet, prompt stories that Pawson shares in pared-back prose that bounces along like the radio reports she used to record in her previous life as a BBC correspondent in several African countries. In the toaster’s dial she sees a dorsal fin that sparks a vision of a porpoise. It is both the most elegant aspect of the machine and the most sinister:
Not because the porpoise died with 23 plastic bags in its stomach and the string from a tampon of a girl who panicked and ran to the sea to secrete this foreign object the only way she knew how, but because the dial controls heat… Heat, like a sharp rise in the price of bread, can trigger strife. Indeed, in Egypt, bread is known as aysh, which is Arabic for life.
Pawson, who explored Angola’s forgotten massacre in her first book, In the Name of the People (2014), writes with a grotesque beauty.