During the Lockdown of 2020, Jan Carson was commissioned to write 10 short stories that would be broadcast by BBC Radio 4, one story per week for the first 10 weeks of 2021. I mention this to add context as, when reading this fabulous collection of interlinked short stories, they truly come to life if imagined being read aloud.
All are set in an aging caravan park on the North Antrim Coast during a wet February half-term. Tenants staying in each of the caravans offer their perspective on events as they happen. The narrators include: the elderly, the homeless, the park caretaker, a young family, an aspiring detective who has learned crime solving from reading Agatha Christie. This eclectic band of ‘holidaymakers’ must contend with: their varying forms of grief, a crime wave, the Northern Irish weather.
Carson’s writing stands out for her ability to conjure, with minimal description, fully formed characters who anyone familiar with the province will recognise. Although offering much that is humorous, she does so with a deep sympathy and regard for their foibles – even those one may wish could be changed.
The elderly lady whose married life has revolved around her husband’s staunch religious convictions struggles between her desire to spend time with their new grandson and their daughter’s choice to marry her girlfriend. A case worker for the council masquerades as a more financially successful businessman so as not to disappoint his father. An immigrant struggles with the knowledge that his life may after all have been better had he stayed with his stifling, insular family. The park caretaker has been made an offer by family he cannot refuse, just as he was on the cusp of escape.
“You’ll be surprised to hear I had no great ambition to run a failing caravan park. Six months ago, I was all for leaving. London. Berlin. Amsterdam. I won’t be telling Uncle Jim – he’s big up in the orange himself – but I got the Irish passport and everything. Sure, we’d no notion what Brexit was going to mean. There were mad rumours flying around. You’d need a visa to get down to Dublin. Derry was declaring independence. They were digging a moat around the border. I knew if I didn’t leave soonish, I’d end up staying. Here, you either go when you’re young, or you’re stuck for good.”
The collection opens with a tale about the installation of a memorial bench for the daughter of a long time tenant. She died at the park many years ago while holidaying there with her family (the line introducing her cause of death is a blinder). Pete, the caretaker, is expected to carry the heavy bench to the, perhaps unwise, chosen location as a cortege of the elderly follow to be a part of this event. Armed with flasks of tea, sandwiches and tray bakes, the relentless rain is no deterrent when condolences are to be offered and absence may be noted. Pete, meanwhile, regards moving the bench as a test of his abilities now that he is considering staying.
“There’ll be no leaving now. Seacliff’s got me. There’s something stuck about this place. All the caravans here are statics; nobody’s going anywhere fast. It already feels like the future is dragging me down. In fairness, it’s probably just the bench.”
After meeting the band of oldies, the reader is introduced to a young family who have also been coming to Seacliff for many years – to stay in Granny’s caravan. This time, however, is different. Lois’s husband has recently left them, lured away by a lucrative job in Norway. Their children are now of an age where decent Wi-Fi is more of a draw than tales of sea monsters and a cold, damp beach. When their phones and iPads go missing, Lois cannot help how she reacts to her furious offspring.
“I’m seeing what I want to see, when I should be giving the kids my full attention. The kids I have, not the kids I want them to be.”
The other key players in the unfolding drama are sixteen homeless men, mostly from abroad and unable to communicate fully with each other or those encountered when they sneak outside, against the orders of their benefactor. The men are kipping on the floor of a caravan that can somehow stretch to accommodate them. These touches of magical realism are signature in Carson’s writing and somehow fit perfectly.
With the characters in place, the plot moves forward with tales of further items that go missing. These include: an elderly dog, a valued tool belt, a wife suffering from dementia. The final story pulls everything together beautifully, adding depth to the study of how and why people value possessions, however much they put on the appearance of good citizens.
With the lightest of touches, the author draws the reader in to share the absurdity of day to day decisions made and ripples generated.
With a summer ahead that may preclude foreign travel, I was amused by her dedication in the acknowledgements:
“This one’s for anyone who’s ever spent a wet weekend up the north coast in a caravan.”
I’ve been there, done that, and if I’d had this book to read my stay would have been much improved.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday Ireland.