Book Review: Patience

Patience, by Toby Litt, is told from the point of view of Elliott, a man recounting significant events from his childhood. At the age of six he was placed in an institution run by Catholic nuns in Manchester. His mother needed a break from caring for him. Elliott has two younger and four older siblings. He longs for his mother to return for him but now believes his family may have moved to Canada or America.

Elliott has severely limited movement and spends his days in a wheelchair. He must be fed smooth foods as he could easily choke when swallowing. He is doubly incontinent and suffers the discomfort and lack of dignity this brings. Alongside all of this he cannot speak and is regarded by the nuns as an imbecile. Each day he is parked, often facing a white wall as they believe this helps keep him calm and therefore easier to deal with. Unbeknown to the nuns, Elliott is aware of everything that happens around him – a small world in which he eagerly drinks in every detail.

It took time for him to cultivate a positive outlook but Elliott has come to terms with this way of living. During his years at the institution: he has been punched twenty-seven times by the violent Charlie and had his nose broken twice; he is a little in love with Lise who spends hours on the floor crying while her brother, Kurt, bangs his head against a metal filing cabinet; he has watched several of the children he shares a floor of the building with die, one as he watched, incapable of doing anything; he has stopped believing in the god the nuns venerate as none of his prayers have ever been answered.

And then, after nine Christmases, Elliott’s world shifts. A blind and mute boy, Jim, arrives and brings with him a quiet rebellion. The nuns act swiftly to quash any hint of rule breaking. Elliott sees a chance to make a friend who could prove useful. He has a dream, a daring ambition.

All of this is told through the minutae of day to day happenings on Elliott’s floor of the institution. The author has opted not to use commas so sentences must be read carefully. This slowing down requires patience – an attribute Elliott has in abundance.

Jim brings a timpanic excitement to Elliott’s ordered days. Slowly, they learn to communicate. Having been little more than an overlooked piece of furniture, Elliott begins to be noticed. His daring plan may even become a possibility.

The sheltered nature of Elliott’s upbringing has left him unaware of many aspects of life in the wider world. As this story is being told looking back, what he didn’t know then, can be explained. These asides add humour to what may otherwise be an unrelentingly poignant tale.

“I thought when I was little that the hanging skeleton was from a patient who had died and that in order to become a real doctor you had to have in your office the skeleton of someone you had killed to remind you to try not to kill anyone else”

Elliott has the same emotions as the more able bodied. He wants to: be listened to, perform heroic acts, be regarded as useful in the deeds he undertakes. He recognises that so much is impossible due to the body he has been given. He has the same sadness as many of the other children.

“every orphan is a single piece from a jigsaw puzzle the rest of which is somewhere else”

The small detail of Elliott’s day to day existence did at times cause my attention to slip. Nevertheless, this is as good an evocation of living with profound disability as I have read. The way the children are treated – kept mostly safe but within rigid parameters – is unsettling to read. It is a cry for greater humanity towards those who are different. A powerful and affecting tale.

Patience is published by Galley Beggar Press. 

Robyn Reviews: Mexican Gothic

“Open your eyes.”

Mexican Gothic is a beautifully crafted work of gothic horror. The writing is exquisite, the images created eerily beautiful, and reading it makes you feel uncomfortable yet unable to look away. It feels both original and a tribute to novels of the past – it could have come straight out of its 1950s setting. An absolute triumph of imagination and wordcraft.

The protagonist, Noemí , is a Mexican socialite, living a life of balls and luxury in Mexico City. Her father – the owner of a large dye company – would like her to marry, but Noemí  is too busy having fun to consider anything so serious. However, when her father receives a worrying letter from her newly-married cousin, Catalina, Noemí  finds herself sent to a crumbling mansion in rural Mexico where nothing is quite as it seems.

Noemí  makes an excellent protagonist – naturally inquisitive and with an impressive level of self-confidence and entitlement. She spends most of the book completely out of her depth but remains determined to find out what’s going on and ensure her cousin’s safety – an enviable level of loyalty. The supporting cast – Catalina, her husband Virgil, and her husband’s siblings Florence and Francis – are enigmatic and intriguing, but Noemí  remains the highlight.

It’s the imagery which makes this book. Moreno-Garcia weaves pictures which are simultaneously grotesque and stunning. She never quite confirms what is real, leaving it to the reader to make up their own mind. There’s a level of detachment from the characters, not allowing full understanding of what they’re thinking – but rather than making the characters seem underwritten, this maintains the air of mystery and illusion that makes the book so spectacular. It’s never clear what role any individual character plays or what their true motivations are, making it impossible to predict what’s going to happen next.

I loved the setting in rural 1950s Mexico. Mexico isn’t somewhere I’m familiar with, but it was interesting getting an insight into a place we rarely see portrayed in fiction. Noemí, used to a city with a stark class divide, is as new to rural Mexico as the reader, lending a fresh perspective.

The plot twists and turns. In many ways, Mexican Gothic is a classic haunted house story, but it avoids the pitfalls of predictability and horror for the sake of horror. Even at the end, some things are left unexplained – this is not the sort of book which needs to be tied up in a neat little bow.

If you like mystery, and horror, and books where nothing is as it seems, this is the perfect book for you – but maybe don’t read it after dark.

 

Published by Jo Fletcher Books
Hardback: 30th June 2020

 

Book Review: Lake of Urine

It is rare in the book world to find a story that is truly original while also being eminently engaging. I’ll resist describing Lake of Urine as experimental because the tale told may be tall but it is droll and never difficult. The author plays with many precepts and conceits, inverting accepted behaviours. Ideas and turns of phrase add richness to a landscape reeling in the bizarre yet woven to plausibility within the world created.

Divided into four parts, each focuses on a different key character. The first is Willem Seiler, a man besotted by Noranbole Wakeling. She is the the overlooked sister of the titular Urine. Their mother – the many times married Emma – favours Urine and treats Noranbole as their scullery maid. Unfortunately for Willem, Noranbole has no interest in him while Urine willingly complies with any and all of his requests.

Willem likes to measure things with string. For example, the depth of winter is determined by the distance that may be travelled safely from home before the cold or wolves become too much of a risk. The depth of a creek may be measured by tying a weight to one end of the string. There is a lake near to Tiny Village – where Seiler and the Wakelings live – and Willem feels compelled to measure its depth. Despite several attempts, which do not go as planned, he persists, leading to a tragedy.

Except within this story tragedies are largely accepted with equanimity. Reader be warned, scattered throughout are acts of violence and other abhorrent behaviour towards people and innocent creatures. Normally this would upset me. Here they are surreal, as are many other elements.

The second part of the book focuses on Noranbole, who has moved to Big City with her boyfriend, Bernard. This section takes a delicious dig at the corporate world and how celebrity, particularly in sport, is venerated. Noranbole is now head of Terra Forma, a company so powerful that it has the ear of the country’s president.

“She was settling into the routines of her new position, having risen to it from the post room in a mere eighteen months and a series of fortuitous events so highly improbable as to defy description here.”

Working alongside her to rewrite the company strategy manifesto is Vacuity Blanc, head of corporate branding. As the board of directors struggles to deal with – or at least discuss in unintelligible jargon – crisis upon crisis, Noranbole gives precedence to concerns of the manager at the Noodle & Burger Emporium where Bernard works, washing dishes. He is eager to move to noodle cooking, promotion the manager claims cannot be rushed.

Bernard’s voice is only understood by Noranbole. I have no idea if the dialogue included as his language, before she translates, has any meaning.

The third section takes the reader through Emma Wakeling’s life, framed by each of her marriages – in reverse order – and the rooms in her house. The setting is timeless – transport by horse and cart but mention of internet. As with the rest of the tale, these upendings of expectation are made to work well.

Emma’s father is a pastor with a particular interest in ‘fallen women’. He educates his daughter from: the bible, his many sermons, tales of those in their locale he ministers to. He is aided by the family’s stern housekeeper. Emma is the only girl attending her small school. All this may go some way towards explaining certain choices she makes in her behaviour.

The final section brings the protagonists back together and is titled Urine. The mayor of Big City visits Tiny Village to see for himself a situation that neighbouring communities have complained of. Rubbish has become a valued commodity. The smell is unpleasant. Prominent villagers proudly take the mayor to admire the art in a valued exhibition.

“”What do you mean, in what way? It’s rubbish. We are literally falling over this stuff in Big City. People complain about it.”
Chuckles from the next table. Bunbury smirks and shakes his head.
“So we understand, sire,” he says with an air of indulgence. “Sometimes folks just don’t know what they’ve got.””

Meanwhile, Seiler is still distracted by the lake. The Wakelings’ lives are about to be affected once again.

It took me a dozen or so pages to get into the story but after this the pace remained pleasingly expeditious. The short chapters and plays on language entertained with understated witticisms. It is certainly not a ‘nice’ love story – there is too much masturbation and violence for that. Nevertheless, it pokes fun at aspects of life taken much too seriously while presenting serious issues lightly but as worthy of consideration.

I thought the author brave to go with a title I found off-putting. Had he not sold me on the synopsis I would not have accepted the book for review. Having read it, I’m very glad I did. Satire can be difficult to maintain in storytelling without appearing pretentious. The author has achieved a fine balance between: dark, quirky, humorous, and engrossing. This is a singular and satisfying read.

Lake of Urine is published by Sagging Meniscus Press

Book Review: The Silent Treatment

The Silent Treatment, by Abbie Greaves, tells the story of Frank and Maggie, a married couple who have been together for forty years. Despite continuing to live in the same house – eating and sleeping together – Frank hasn’t spoken to Maggie for the past six months. He has a secret that he fears, if shared, would drive her away. Meanwhile, she has reached the end of her tether.

The prologue describes events that result in Maggie’s hospitalisation. While there in an induced coma, Frank is encouraged by medical staff to talk to her that his familiar voice may help draw her into recovery. Thus the reader learns how they met, married and the difficulties they faced through their many years together.

The book is divided into two main parts: the couple’s life story as told by Frank at Maggie’s bedside, then the same story written in a journal by Maggie in the week before her hospitalisation. As may be expected, the two points of view have differences in perspective.

There is an urgency to the first part that I found lacking in the second. Both, however, are leading to key revelations. By the time these were divulged I had grown bored by the buildup. The bar of expectation had been raised to such a height it felt overworked.

Both accounts present an almost too perfect marriage. Serious difficulties encountered over the decades are acknowledged but the memories recounted are mostly frolicsome and adoring. Frank and Maggie each blame themselves for any shadows cast. Frank’s silence may be recent but they had never spoken freely. The love they retained for each other could not make up for their inability to communicate.

There is a third key character – the couple’s daughter, Eleanor. She is adored by both her parents. I found it draining to read of their pain when she started to pull away. As a parent, the impotence and despair experienced when a child is hurting but will not accept help, resonated.

There were minor inconsistencies – niggles – in Maggie’s journal entries. She wrote that she never did feel at home in a particular role yet then described it as the happiest time of her life. Perhaps this is how personal memories are always massaged.

Although I liked what the author did in the final few paragraphs it did not assuage my impatience with the structure. Many readers have raved about this novel but to me it felt bloated – the reveal not meriting the buildup. A shame, but it was not for me.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Century (an imprint of Penguin Random House)

Book Review: The Glass Shore

The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Women Writers from the North of Ireland, edited by Sinéad Gleeson, brings together twenty-five female authors from the north of Ireland whose lives and works cover three centuries. It was commissioned following the success of The Long Gaze Back and is presented in a similar format – the stories included chronologically alongside a short introduction to each author.

The earlier tales in the collection demonstrate how writing style has changed over time. To this modern reader they lacked the succinct depth I admire in the short story form when done well. Plots were often predictable and slow to develop. There would then follow a rushed denouement that left a lingering dissatisfaction. The stories read as snapshots rather than complete works. Too many threads appeared unnecessary within a frame where brevity is strength. There are occasional nuggets and ideas to ponder but not enough to raise the bar.

Although I enjoyed occasional elements of the previous stories, Mary Beckett’s Flags and Emblems was the first to fully hold my attention. Like many of the tales here, it explores some of the problems caused by sectarianism, especially within families.

I was less impressed by the story that followed. Taft’s Wife by Caroline Blackwood felt bloated and paid scant attention to developing a central character. Framed by the idea of the lingering problems caused by a shameful pregnancy, it features a social worker whose cases include the resulting, unwanted children. Ireland’s attitude to the unmarried pregnant, and latterly to abortion, are recurring themes within this collection.

Several of the subsequent stories were pleasing enough. I will, however, skip past The Diary by Una Woods as I can’t pretend to know what the author was trying to convey.

Frances Molloy’s The Devil’s Gift offers a glimpse into a post-war convent and the effect religious vocation has on family and community. The personality of the protagonist remained largely two dimensional but her experiences provided interest. Nuns and priests are not portrayed with affection in any of these tales.

Disturbing Words by Evelyn Conlon looks at borders – their arbitrary assignment and the effect this can have on a local population. Set over the course of a lengthy wake, the writing flowed well and offered elements to ponder.

I was by now starting to enjoy the tales more. Characters became more rounded and nuanced; settings and plot progression more pleasingly woven together.

The stand out highlight of the twenty-five stories is Jan Carson’s Settling. The author’s use of language is pure joy to read. The plot is centred on a young couple moving from Belfast to London. They have been eagerly anticipating this new beginning. Baggage from the past is not, however, easily shed

After this there only remained Mayday by Lucy Caldwell and The Seventh Man by Róisín O’Donnell – both tightly constructed and well presented.

Clearly, I was more affected by the newer stories than the older ones. Indeed, I did not enjoy this collection as much as I did Being Various, the sixth volume of Faber’s long-running series of new Irish short stories.

The Ireland portrayed is recognisable along with its people and their prejudices. It is the contemporary writers who get under the skin and bring to life their fictions.

Being a fan of Irish writers this was a book I expected to enjoy much more than was the case. From a literary perspective it was interesting to consider how writing style has changed over time. As stories to entertain, only a handful impressed.

The Glass Shore is published by New Island Books.

Book Review: The Mating Habits of Stags

“I love it up here, she said. It’s so wild.
Wild?
A-huh.
There’s nowt wild about it. It’s all man-made.
But it’s nature, you know.
It’s a desert. These hills are nowt but a sheep ranch.”

“These hills should be covered in forest.
She scanned the landscape. I didn’t realise.
Pricks that own the land, swiddening the moor, burning heather off to create new shoots for grouse to feed on. Reason yon dale floods. Peat acts like a sponge but when they burn it, they knacker it. All that damage to folks’ homes and businesses just so some posh southern twats can come up here once a year and shoot some game.”

The Mating Habits of Stags, by Ray Robinson, is set in Yorkshire where the protagonist, septuagenarian Jake Eisner, is on the run from both the police and the son of Charles Monroe – an elderly man he has recently murdered. After a childhood marked by poverty, Jake spent most of his life as a farmhand. He knows the land and how to survive.

Jake is a widower, his beloved wife, Edith, having died a year ago. They raised a son, William, but he too is dead. Jake’s friend, Sheila, cannot understand why Jake would have killed a wealthy landowner who was already in poor health and living in a care home. She does not know their shared history. Jake has talked little about his past. What Sheila does know of him she has gleaned from having been born and raised in the same locality. She would have liked to get to know him better but he often rebuffed her attempts to spend more time together.

The timeline of the story jumps back and forth giving the reader glimpses of lives marked by actions and their consequences – the beauty and pain of living. It is a tale of: desire, grief, love, revenge.

Jake makes his way across woods and moorland, camping out or finding occasional shelter in farms he once worked at. He moves on regularly to evade capture. With winter closing in he turns to those he hopes might offer assistance. He learns that he has become prey.

“Fox hunters: terrier men on quads, pony clubbers in hacking jackets, car horns and bugle calls – those privileged hooligans.”

Sheila is perplexed by Jake’s actions but is distracted by her own worries about her daughter and grandson. Feeling used and taken for granted, she has recently moved away from her home town. When Jake turns up on her doorstep she must make a decision. It is one she will come to regret.

The narrative offers a no nonsense glimpse into the lives of working class families in an area where what wealth exists is in the hands of those who made it from others’ hard graft.

“He eyed the north face of the magnificent Monroe Hall. Such places sickened him with what they represented: generations of downtrodden poor in the factories and mill-towns. Claggy-arsed industry, scab of the North Country.”

Sheila decries her daughter’s work ethic and choice of partners but recognises that her own history is chequered. She has a difficult relationship with her mother. She still has feelings for her second ex-husband – and also for Jake.

The glorious use of language provides a vivid evocation of the landscape.

“A swap of wind scurries through the abandoned mill, a wind made of leaf mould and rusted rabbit wire.”

“The plop and patter of rainwater, a liquid metronome”

The dark beauty of the place and the people who live there are rendered in unsentimental yet emotive detail. As the reasons for Jake’s behaviour are teased out, along with their repercussions, his journey and its outcome inexorably alter Sheila’s future. And yet there is much, it seems, that cannot be changed.

The sparse yet salient prose drops a depth charge into the reader’s sensory responses, the story offering so much more than the actions portrayed. The characters’ flaws are the cracks that enable a flow of empathy and understanding. This is an uncompromising depiction of northern England that I unreservedly recommend.

The Mating Habits of Stags is published by Lightning Books. 

Book Review: Saving Lucia

“Don’t let me be remembered only as a madwoman, as a case.”

Saving Lucia, by Anna Vaught, is a fictionalised retelling of the lives of four women who, in their lifetimes, were regarded as mentally impaired. They were incarcerated and given treatments thought fitting at the time, often by renowned pioneers whose names readers may recognise. In looking at the women’s lives and the people they met and mixed with, the question is posited: how are they deemed mad and others sane?

The Lucia of the title is the daughter of James Joyce, the Irish writer best known for his wordy and challenging novels. Born in 1907, she was diagnosed as schizophrenic in the mid-1930s and institutionalized at the Burghölzli psychiatric clinic in Zurich. In 1951, she was transferred to St Andrew’s Hospital in Northampton. She died there in 1982.

“St Andrew’s is quite a select place if you have the money, because you get a well-appointed room of your own to be mad in.”

During Lucia’s first few years at St Andrew’s – according to this tale – she befriends another inmate, the Honourable Violet Gibson. In 1926, Violet shot Mussolini as he walked amongst a crowd in Rome. She wishes her story to be told and asks Lucia to be her scribe. As they share their stories, those of two other women also rise.

Marie ‘Blanche’ Wittman was a prominent patient of esteemed neurologist, Professor Jean-Martin Charcot. He would exhibit her in his clinical lessons at La Salpêtrière in Paris. Under hypnosis, this beautiful woman would be presented as a model example of hysteria. One such lesson was captured in a painting by André Brouillet. Charcot was a showman, Blanche his commodity. Under the guise of teaching he offered her up for men to ogle – a curiosity without agency.

“Neurology: such detail – and he swam in its glory and down its pathways; he thought hysteria had a logic of the body.
Hmmm.
I don’t recall that he studied it in men”

The fourth woman in this imagined friendship group (who lived in different times and places) is Anna O. She was a patient of Josef Breuer who published her case study in his book Studies on Hysteria, written in collaboration with Sigmund Freud. Her treatment is regarded as marking the beginning of psychoanalysis. Her real name was Bertha Pappenheim, an Austrian Jew and the founder of the League of Jewish Women.

What these four women have in common, as well as their purported mental conditions, is the power others had over them and how this was was misused.

“women of her time could find no outlet in ‘a cold and oppressive conventional atmosphere’ to satisfy their passion and intellect. They were not supposed to have ‘any occupation of sufficient importance not to be interrupted'”

The book’s brilliantly written opening chapter pulls the reader in. From there the narrator’s voice is established – a somewhat frantic and illusory remembrance of various events from each of the character’s histories. Gradually the reasons for their incarcerations are revealed along with the direction their lives subsequently took. In giving them a voice, the author also asks what they would have done instead if given the choice.

Lucia Joyce’s letters, papers and medical records were destroyed at the behest of her surviving family – an attempt to expunge her existence. Violet Gibson was moved to a shared ward when her family wished to save themselves money towards the end of her life. Marie Wittman was taken on by Marie Curie as an assistant to work in the Paris laboratory where, in 1898, radium was discovered – she suffered debilitating health issues as a result of this work. Bertha Pappenheim recovered over time and led a productive life – the West German government issued a postage stamp in honour of her contributions to the field of social work.

These stories of vital, intelligent women whose lasting history is remembered largely through what they were to famous men make for fascinating reading. Mental health is still widely regarded as an embarrassing condition best kept hidden away – the author has given voice to those who, for fear of consequences, were forced to submit silently and kept in captivity. Readers are reminded that captivity does not always require rooms and keys.

There is much to consider in this poignant and impressive story. Although certain threads are not always the easiest to follow due to the fragmented structure, it is worth pursuing for all that comes together at the end. This leaves a powerful and lasting impression as well as a new lens to look through at some of the supposed titans of science. A layered, affecting and recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Bluemoose Books.

Book Review: A Stone Statue In The Future – #SaveIndies

It is probably stretching the definition somewhat to describe A Stone Statue In The Future, by Benjamin Myers, as a book. It is a new short story that has been released to raise much needed funds for two excellent small, independent presses whose finances are suffering because of the current lockdown. Priced at only £3, the reader purchases a digital download. As I do not read ebooks and wished to savour the writing from an author whose work I have previously enjoyed immensely, I made my own hard copy (pictured above).

The story features a young man, sitting by a pond, fishing. I have never understood this activity – how so much time can be spent apparently inactive. Having read this work I feel I understand better the motivation. The young man is taking in his surroundings and allowing his mind to wander. This takes him to a potential future and is a delightful reposte to how we interpret the past from found objects.

A warden makes his way around the ponds where coarse fishermen tend their rods. He offers practical advice to the young man who is impressed and grateful. The denouement is crafted with skill leaving a memorable impression.

The author’s writing evokes a strong sense of place. The vivid, sensuous language whilst rich is never cloying. Rather, there is a playfulness in the observations and characters created. This short story was a delight to read.

A Stone Statue In The Future is published by Bluemoose Books and Little Toller Books.

Do please consider purchasing – click on the cover below for further details.

Book Review: Carrying Fire and Water

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.

Book Review: Jolts

“I don’t know what I was before; I only know that I became Argentinean abroad”

In 2002 Fernando Sdrigotti fled the economic turmoil of his home country, Argentina, and flew to Dublin where he knew a friend would put him up temporarily. The morning after his arrival in Ireland he started work washing dishes – a kitchen porter job in the canteen of an office building. He spent the next seventeen years moving countries and cities, acquiring the visas and paperwork that would enable him to apply for British citizenship.

Jolts is a collection of nine short stories that offer snapshots of the author’s experiences living in transient places. As with any memoir there are elements of fiction.

“I may be sitting in a café in London reading these words. And I may be trying to figure out what is actually real, and what made-up. Or I may be rejoicing in the uncertainty. Or aware of the fantasy, I might be rejoicing in the fabrication.”

What comes through is a picture of the life of a writer as he attempts to establish himself, and the adaptations he goes through to fit his changing circumstances. There is a great deal of alcohol and drug taking along with anger and cynicism. There is also humour, particularly in the representations of those he meets along the way. The narrator appears to possess a degree of self-assurance that I have observed in others – mainly males – and always perplexes me (that they can be so sure of themselves and their opinions). He is not, however, averse to turning criticisms on himself.

The collection opens with the titular story. This is structured as a series of brief vignettes set across several decades. They help explain why the narrator left Argentina and provide a basis for several episodes recounted in more detail in subsequent stories.

“the piece is called ‘Jolts’ and is precisely about jolts in time and space, about how some of us are more sensitive to fragments and how some of us are more fragmented than the rest, particularly on some days.”

Several of the stories are set in London where the author now lives. In Only Up Here the narrator has quit a bar job and is taking in his surroundings having spent days festering in bed. He shares a studio flat with another guy in similar circumstances. Both have experienced the high of potential change before crashing to inertia from which the narrator is now trying to extricate them.

Turkish Delight portrays a different type of acquaintance. The cash-strapped narrator accepts an invitation to Sunday lunch from a financially successful Englishman who has plans for an afternoon of mutual drinking and drug taking. High on whatever has been snorted, the narrator can suppress his concerns at feeling out of place amongst ‘beautiful people’.

Methylated Spirits is a story about shopping in Sainsburys in the week before Christmas. From the items purchased and the amount spent the reader may assume that the narrator is now doing better financially.

Barbecue and Exhumation in Victoria Park Village is a biting exposé of casual xenophobia that the characters portrayed would probably deny. One is a ‘published author’ with opinions about writers and their road to success. The guests at the barbecue talk condescendingly on many topics, trading insults as competition amongst them builds with alcohol consumption. The narrator observes this group of friends while trying to fit in.

As well as London there are stories set in Dublin, Rome, and a childhood holiday in coastal Argentina. In this latter tale, the narrator is spending a summer with a young friend’s family, to keep the boy company. The montage presented is piercing in its evocation of the ordinary experiences children must suffer at the hands of peers and those charged with their care.

The final story, Notes Towards A Return, is set in Buenos Aires towards the end of the period covered by this memoir.

“Unlike Dublin, Paris, and later London, Buenos Aires was too much for me – I couldn’t tame it, own it, call it my own. I used to spend many a weekend in Buenos Aires but I would spend this time couch surfing, mostly off my head after rock concerts, preparing a landing that never materialised. So I miss the possibility of Buenos Aires.”

The narrator does not return to his hometown, Rosario, on this visit. When friends there express disappointment he stops responding to their messages.

“Others stop replying to my fake apologies. The important part is that a heavy ballast is dropped: we should have stopped talking years ago – we have nothing in common anymore – we were victims of the Dictatorship of Nostalgia that comes with social media.”

Although each story in this collection contains an interesting plot and well developed trajectory, it is the keen observations and elucidation that provide their vigour and entertainment. The writing style and taut structure offer an acutely pertinent if wry portrayal of humanity and their treatment of incomers. Whatever truths are being conveyed about the author’s life, it is as short stories about people’s behaviour that they may be savoured. Whilst I couldn’t empathise with many of the choices made – situations beyond my experience – the first person narrative offers a window into the life of a traveller whose circumstances are more relevant than location.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Influx Press.