Being Various: New Irish Short Stories, edited by Lucy Caldwell

First Written for Shiny New Books

 

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.

Listening In by Jenny Éclair

First Written for Shiny New Books

Listening In Jenny Eclair

 

Listening In is a collection of 24 short stories from comedian and writer Jenny Éclair. Her last literary outing was the well-received novel Moving, reviewed on Shiny New Books here. Running at around 10 pages per story it is perfect bed time reading. Black and white illustrations by the author are dotted throughout the collection which add a personal touch.

Each story is written from the first person, giving them an intimate feeling, plunging the reader straight into the mind of the protagonist. They really do feel as though you are ‘listening in’. The secret thoughts, conversations, hopes and disappointments that would normally remain lock up inside are explored.

Although each story is unique and stand-alone the theme of revenge does run across multiple stories. Those small moments of success and comeuppance, feature throughout. As in the case of the protagonist of Margot’s Cardigans or A Slight Alteration these moments have taken a long time to emerge and have only really occurred by accident. Those serendipitous moments in life where a long-suffering wife or loving mother has the chance to rebalance their surroundings. Many of the stories are deeply funny. None more so than those in which good intentions turn in on themselves and women who seem to be one thing turn around and surprise their families.

Combining both revenge and a comedic turn of events is Christine Paints. Here a couple have moved out to the countryside so that the husband can pursue his writing career in peace. At the same time, his wife has been finding ways of integrating into the local community, of making new friends. One way she has done this is through a local art class. This one morning a week event which will go on to change her life in ways she could never have predicted. The ending had me punching the air with joy as Christine was able to do what everyone who has ever been betrayed or mistreated has dreamt of.

“It’s never easy, the first day, it it? First day anywhere really, school, new job, holiday?”. In Fantastic News, a middle-aged couple go on holiday, leaving their adult children behind: 23 year old University student Scott, and the slightly more troublesome twenty nine year old ‘spoken word’ poet Tamsin. When Tamsin sends her mother a mysterious text, imaginations start to run and hopes climb. The relationship between the unnamed woman and her husband John is incredibly realistic and entertainingly told. One doesn’t have to have had the same experiences to be able to recognise the patterns they have fallen into. The ending, which I shall be careful not to spoil, was quietly beautiful.

Anthea’s Round Robin is laugh out loud funny from beginning to end. It starts out as one would expect but quickly descends into a catalogue of a failing marriage. It seems that Anthea has only ever dreamed of one thing: “I had plans drawn up for a new kitchen extension, because let’s face it, what woman in her right mind doesn’t dream of a laundry room-cum-larder-stroke-boot room and pickling kitchen?”. She sounds middle class and middle aged. A woman who has lived for her children for so long that she has largely ceased to live herself. Her husband is another matter altogether. Their picture-perfect life falls away with each sentence and the reader is given an hilarious insight into Anthea’s life so far.

In Carol Goes Swimming a woman has been pushed into going swimming by her nurse. It is time to focus on her health and weight (although this is something that the nurse seems to believe applies only to patients and not to medical professionals). The smell of chlorine never changes and it pricks her memory into action. She is taken back to school swimming lessons, teaching her children and to meeting her best friend Sandra. Now Carol has a new life to navigate but an encounter with the past will remind her that she is not alone. This story is a testament to the importance, romance and power of lifelong friendships.

The collection started life as a BBC Radio 4 series called Little Lifetimes, which are still available to listen to online. This very popular miniseries demonstrated Éclair’s way with words and ability to craft intriguing first person narratives about seemingly ordinary women with hidden depths. This wonderful volume is very high on my list of favourite short story collections and is not to be missed.

 

Jenny Éclair. Listening In (Little Brown Book Group, 2017) 9780751567731, 246pp., Hardback. .