Ireland is going through a golden age of writing: that has never been more apparent. I wanted to capture something of the energy of this explosion, in all its variousness… [Lucy Caldwell]
When picking up a collection of short stories, many will choose to do the same as I did and seek out their favourite writers. This is how I came to read Jan Carson’s Pillars first. Carson, a writer from Northern Ireland, has been fusing magical realism with day to day life to great success in her early works and is well known for her short stories. So, it was with anticipation that I started to read. Pillars focuses on 47 year old Louise. “On Monday she simply wakes to find the pillar floating at the end of her bed.” This is most unusual because she hasn’t ordered one. It will go on to stay with her day and night, changing colour and size as the situation demands. Carson uses this to take a piercing look a mental health, or more specifically the way in which we often try to ignore difficulties and do not know how to acknowledge them in others. It is a gentle and ultimately uplifting story that makes one question why we so often refuse to accept the obvious.
Being Various is the sixth volume in Faber’s long running series of new Irish short stories. It has been brought together under the editorship of accomplished short story writer Lucy Caldwell (although she does not offer up a story which is perhaps a shame). She commissioned new works from a variety of writers, ranging from the well-established to relative newcomers. The nature of what it means to be an Irish writer is tackled head on with the introduction stating that each writer is “Irish by birth, by parentage, or residence”. “Irish” referring to the island of Ireland. Further, each writer had their first work published after the Good Friday Agreement. This makes Being Various a particularly diverse and interesting volume but also helps to highlight some of the great talent that has been emerging from Northern Ireland in the past two decades.
Wings, by David Hayden, a story of a family ruled by the unpredictable violence of the father, is spare, darkly beautiful and devastating. It’s told from the perspective of a young boy, Martin, whose every footstep is tightly controlled and monitored. Every moment is full of fear; “there was no knowing. Everything was quiet” until the “thumping on the stairs”. Hayden avoids falling into the trap of making Wings sound too much like a misery memoir or list of abuses, with his delicate prose and way of zooming out at times of horror – as our protagonist does also – making the wrongness of the situation all the more apparent. As the story comes to a close Hayden subverts expectations with the last few paragraphs which are a strange mix of terrifying and beautiful. Wings echoes in the reader’s mind long after turning the page.
“I saw you. I saw you. I got you by the shirt. I stopped you walking into the road.” Eimear McBride best known for her award winning A Girl Is a Half Formed Thing, offers up The Adminicle Exists. This is a particularly interesting piece as it chronicles the journey of a woman taking her partner to hospital as he experiences a mental health crisis. Her role is fixed as his partner and protector, so much so that her real thoughts are trapped inside and no one notices her pain. The writing is broken across the page, in short sharp sentences and split in two halves, reflecting the way in which the protagonist’s life, and mind, has splintered. This somehow strengthens its impact and one finds oneself turning back to the start to begin again (as indeed does our protagonist as she knows this event will be repeated). An ‘adminicle’ is defined as ‘corroborative or explanatory proof’, and as the title tells us this proof exists. But the question becomes can others see it as she sometimes screams, sometimes whispers inside, “I wonder if you’ll kill me tonight?”.
Sally Rooney has shot to international acclaim with her first two novels, but before this she was making a name for herself as a short story writer, with Mr Salary (2016) being shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG short story award. Her offering here is called Colour and Light. Aidan is being picked up by his brother when he first meets Pauline. She is enigmatic, worldly and always slightly out of reach. In town for an arts festival she keeps running into Aidan and her brother; each time making him wonder more about who she is. Although little in the way of action happens as these two cross paths, Colour and Light shows how close we can be to someone – a brother or partner – and yet also not really know them at all. One also gets the impression of emotional sadness running through Pauline which is highlighted by Rooney’s pared back and emotionally acute writing style. Unsurprisingly as the story ended, I found myself wanting to know more about the characters and inventing further backstory for them in my head.
So how does Being Various fit together as a collection? Although impossible to sum up and evaluate each of the twenty four stories in a short review, it is pleasant to be able to dip in and out of a collection and find oneself confronted with skill and intrigue on each page. Although identity is a political hot topic, as touched upon in the introduction, remarkably few writers choose to directly investigate national identity here. Instead this is more done by the very inclusion of such a diverse group of writers. I hope the selection of stories mentioned above give a good idea of the power of each story and how enjoyable this collection is to read. If one wants to start at page one and read each story in order, the collection flows well and has been edited to fit together well. There is a good mix of light and darkness (thankfully, as Irish art has a well-deserved reputation for darkness, there are rays of light radiating through) and each story offers something new and exciting.
Lucy Caldwell (ed.), Being Various: New Irish Short Stories (Faber and Faber, 2019). 978-0571342501, 354pp., paperback.