Carrying Fire and Water, by Deirdre Shanahan, is a collection of sixteen short stories that convey in rich and evocative prose how solitary life can be whatever one’s situation. Snapshots of the experiences of a variety of protagonists are portrayed as they live through a chasm of longing and inability to articulate. From the outside many may appear to be coping, even thriving. Seen through the lens of their thoughts and feelings – the guilt they carry or grief they bear – their edge is closer than others are capable of realising.
The titular story opens the collection with a couple staying in a hotel. They have suffered a disappointment that the woman is struggling to deal with. Her husband had suggested she choose a new car as a distraction. This led to further marital complications. As in several of the stories, day to day events and the overwhelming emotions these can engender will not be shared for fear of hurting those who care – leading to ongoing recriminations.
The fractures that form in relationships are a recurring theme whether it be between married couples or those conducting affairs. Mostly these are told from the female point of view – vivid and regretful. At times the men, the supporting cast, come across as two-dimensional.
There are stories featuring the elderly and their grown children. Undercurrents of guilt pervade along with the impossibility of opening up with honesty about raw experiences. There is love but also a need to remain unfettered.
Several of the tales feature adults who were abused in childhood and the difficulty of living with how this has affected them. There is a desire to tell aging parents – unaware perhaps but still blamed – or to confront the abuser. Secrets are shown to have weight; sharing, consequences.
Supposedly happily married women cannot put aside their attraction to others. Brief liaisons occur that must then for evermore be kept secret.
The suppression of emotion can grow overwhelming – defining the colour of subsequent days. Partners, not understanding, become frustrated at their loved one’s inability to be as they once were.
The Love Object tells of a child in care who develops a crush on a member of staff at the home where she lives. The depiction of the young people with their resentments and jealousies is skillfully rendered. They posture and act out, there is violence and law breaking, yet they still feel and care.
The author writes with piercing insight in language that may be savoured. Despite the sadness in each life depicted, this was a satisfying read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Splice.