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Where We Live by Tim Cooke review – the splendour of the natural world collides with urban decay

Where We Live, the debut collection from Tim Cooke, fits into an emergent tradition of writing that blends evocative depictions of landscape with a harder edge: harsh reminders of urban corrosion, intimations of horror.

Cooke’s stories are rooted in their setting of South Wales, but they’re just as likely to take place on a shabby industrial estate or a patch of waste ground as amid wide beaches and verdant valleys. Where We Live is explicitly positioned as “landscape punk”, promising a set of stories that examine “what drives us to seek out these outshift and edgeland environments”.

Where We Live by Tim Cooke book cover

Cooke’s South Wales is a place of stark beauty, but the splendour of the natural world is always colliding with urban decay. “Kestrels & Crows”, which acts as a sort of prologue, emphasises this immediately. The “industrial artery” of a motorway is juxtaposed with pockets of wilderness, but also, more importantly, the edges where both bleed into each other: the “hidden junctions and laybys” where one might find “the bones of dead crows and other birds”.

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In the first story proper, “The Drive Home”, the narrator, a 30-year-old father of two, looks back on a memory from his childhood. The family car is a “place of extraordinary warmth and comfort”, but the narrator fears some unseen creature lurking alongside it, moving impossibly fast through the hedgerows and “reaching, like a spectre, for the door handle”. It’s a startling image, one that works particularly well for two reasons: because it seems precisely the sort of fear that might privately terrify a child; and because it plays on the contrast between the safety of the car and the vast, wild, unknowable night.

This same narrator is our guide for the rest of the book, though we meet him at various different ages. The stories that reveal the most about him, and prove to be the most memorable, take place at a formative age: his teenage years, as he and a gang of misfit friends roam the margins of the neighbourhood, their “edgelands” social as well as geographical. In “The Box of Knowledge”, the group find an abandoned container and adopt it as a place to drink and do drugs. The narrator’s personality and motivations are quickly and deftly sketched out; the swift, brutal climax leaves the reader haunted.

It’s often the case that horror is most effective when it is sparingly deployed. That is certainly the case here, as the most horrific of the stories – the dark, dramatic “Nights at the Factory” – is the high point of the collection. We’re with the teen friends again, colluding with them as they spy on a run-down factory and its sinister caretaker. What lies within proves truly monstrous, the revelation given weight by the camaraderie between the young men as well as their palpable fear.

Cooke’s stories slot neatly beside those of Gary Budden, whose work weaves modern myths around the Kent coast and London; Lucy Wood, whose stories depict a side of Cornwall hidden from tourists; and Daisy Johnson, whose collection Fen explores the inherent liminality of the Fenlands. Where We Live does for South Wales what these writers do for their respective locales, and is a welcome addition to the canon of landscape-based weird fiction.

Where We Live by Tim Cooke is published by Demain Publishing.

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