Book Review: The Last Resort

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.

Book Review: Postcard Stories 2

Postcard Stories 2, by Jan Carson (illustrated by Benjamin Phillips), is a collection of fifty-eight short stories that were originally written on postcards and mailed by the author to lucky recipients. I was one of them, although I was unaware that ‘my’ story was to be included until I started to read the book.

The tales told are poignant and funny and oh so redolent of the human condition. Carson cleverly and succinctly captures her characters’ thoughts and idiosyncrasies with signature wit and nuance.

A number of the stories standout for their first lines.

“There are tiny, mythical creatures living behind the muesli boxes in the cereal aisle of Connswater Tesco”

“The Mexican artist Frida Kahlo has come back from the dead to enjoy a midwinter break in the English seaside resort of Brighton.”

“Last Friday I decided to visit the Library of Mistakes in Edinburgh, Scotland.”

Having drawn the reader in with the promise of a deliciously imaginative tale these do not disappoint.

Other stories leave the reader delighted with a last line that so perfectly concludes an apparently simple tale, adding resonance.

“The thought of one space inhabited by another made sense to me then, like matryoshka dolls, or the way I’d been brought up to believe there was a home inside my heart and that if Jesus wasn’t living there someone else would move in.”

I preferred the stories set in Northern Ireland to those from America as I more readily recognised the concerns and foibles of those being observed. Carson rarely mocks, preferring an understated sympathy towards those who act as they do because this is as it has always been where they are, even if rarely acknowledged. She is particularly good at observing the elderly as fully rounded individuals with long lives featuring both joy and regret – with perhaps an added dose of irritation towards situations they encounter.

I do, of course, have favourites from the collection.

Anaghmakerrig features writers on a retreat, some of whom decide to swim in a cold and muddy lake one afternoon.

“Secretly, the non-swimming writers felt pissed with themselves because once again they had not fully embraced the moment. They wondered, as they often wondered, if this inbuilt reticence was to blame for their writing, which rarely seemed to fulfil its own potential.”

Edinburgh is set at another gathering of artists and explores the difficulty they find socialising at events.

“Patrick cradles a plateful of cheese and hummus, wondering when it will be acceptable to dispense with the niceties and begin sketching each of the attendees in nervous biro.”

Belmont Road, East Belfast lists certain true expressions of love.

  • That one time you stood up to your mother for me” 

There are many others. Some focus on the quiet wish to be a part of something while recognising personal unsuitability. Others look at those who are already part of a group and wonder why they are there amongst people they do not particularly like or feel in any way akin to.

Kells tells the story of a grandmother, a weaver of linen, who was regarded as unremarkable yet could have told of a rich history had interest been shown.

It is this ability to excavate the rich seam running through ordinary lives that adds flavour and depth to the author’s writing. In these short snapshots, her ability to play with an original idea, exploring the effects of the day to day on people who often go unnoticed, that come to the fore.

I must also mention the illustrations scattered throughout the text.


The poet who has forgotten his spectacles and misses out on an interesting visitation.


The children asked to dress up as a character from the bible for a church party.

A collection to dip into and reread for the pleasure of the prose. It is also a reminder that people are far more interesting than the stereotype they may at first appear to conform to.

Postcard Stories 2 is published by The Emma Press.

 

Book Review: The Fire Starters

“This is a power worth believing in. I’m not at all sad for Ella Penney. I’m sad for her parents who do not understand what they’ve been given. Who may well miss the most glorious part of her.”

The Fire Starters, by Jan Carson, is a tale of two fathers struggling to gain control of events surrounding their offspring. Set in contemporary East Belfast during an unusually long, hot summer it perfectly captures the voice, quirks and insular concerns of the local community. There is a dash of magical realism that may be read as possibility or metaphor. It all adds depth to a tale of parental concerns for children, who insist on developing as individuals despite best efforts to mould them as approved.

Dr Jonathan Murray is a single parent caring for his newborn daughter, Sophie. Having been raised in the knowledge that his own parents had never planned to have a child, and then been left behind as a teenager when they emigrated to New Zealand, he has few pointers to good parenting other than practical knowledge gained from his profession.

Jonathan has little positive experience of any close relationship. The few friendships he formed whilst at university bore little resemblance to those depicted on American television. The time spent with Sophie’s mother has left him afraid of the power their child may unleash as she develops.

Forced to return to work in order to pay the bills, Jonathan hires a nanny. He takes what precautions he can to protect his child from outside influences but believes that, longer term, more drastic measures will be necessary to keep the rest of the world safe from Sophie.

Sammy Agnew has a violent and bloody past that he put behind him when he and his wife had their children. Two have now flown the nest but the eldest, Mark, still lives a nocturnal existence in the attic upstairs. When local politicians decide to limit the height of the loyalist community’s July bonfires – citing health and safety – there are calls for protest in the form of widespread arson attacks. Sammy fears that Mark may have inherited the anger he himself, at times, can barely suppress and become involved in events that could lead to tragedy.

Growing ever more despairing, Sammy seeks help from his doctor and thereby meets Jonathan. Dr Murray has also recently been consulted by the mother of a child born with wings but who cannot fly. Even in this small corner of the city he discovers there are numerous parents struggling to deal with children whose particular gifts, characteristics and behaviours cause them issues. They do not fit within what society is willing to accept. Despite this, Jonathan still regards Sophie as a special case. He advises Sammy to act for the wider good. The tension ratchets up as the reader realises how Jonathan plans to follow similar advice in dealing with Sophie.

The author has a knack for capturing the nuances of everyday conversation and activity. Jonathan’s interactions with the lady receptionists at his GP practice are a delight. His discomfort in any company is astutely portrayed. Sammy and his wife offer a picture of a long married couple who quietly coexist whilst longing for their past selves. Every character, major and minor, adds to the humour and pathos redolent of this still troubled city.

There have been a number of novels published recently offering windows into life in Belfast – the experience and legacy of The Troubles. Those that I have read focused on areas to the west of the city. The Fire Starters captures the idiosyncrasies of people living to the East – from the narrow inner city terraces to the more affluent Castlereagh Hills. The resentments and aspirations emanating from these streets are evoked with unstinting authenticity.

A delicious and layered tale written with a refreshing lightness that complements its originality and wit. Playful yet piercing, this was a joy to read.

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

Book Review: Postcard Stories

Postcard Stories, by Jan Carson (with illustrations by Benjamin Phillips), is a collection of fifty-two short stories, one for each week of a year. They were originally written on the back of postcards and then mailed individually to the author’s friends. Set in or around contemporary Belfast they capture the attitudes and vernacular of their subjects with wit and precision. As with Carson’s previous work, there is at times an injection of magical realism which beautifully offsets the dry humour of her candid observations.

To tell a story as short as these the prose must throughout remain pithy. The author presents the quirks and poignancy of little moments in everyday life with warmth and affection. These small snapshots of the ordinary become extraordinary when painted with her words.

The stories in which elderly people feature offer a wry yet sympathetic account of life from their perspectives. All the characters are recognisable, their foibles presented with gentle perceptiveness.

From Ulster Hall Belfast (Week 34), where the narrator is mourning her increasing forgetfulness:

“There was not even a way to say that I had forgotten these things; only a jumble of words too long or too short for the job and a clenching of fists when the words would not come.”

From Armagh (Week 8)

“A provincial Northern Irish library, early evening, and the usual suspects have gathered for a creative writing workshop: two amateur poets, a sci-fi guy in a black t-shirt, a lady who writes letters to her sister in Australia, and that one elderly gentleman who’s working on a biography of someone you’ve never heard of.”

Writers feature as many of the stories appear personal.

From Whiteabbey (Week 9), which tells of a gathering of friends:

“Three writers and a much more useful person gathered for a dinner party. They ate aubergines and couscous impregnated with tequila. Like Jesus, they kept the good wine for pudding. Later, they ended their evening with Bob Dylan and cheese so ripe it might have been shoes.”

From Linenhall Street, Belfast (Week 29), where the author talks of making a robot of herself:

“The robot of me will not be funny or write stories or be good at conversation with wine. I will be particularly careful to ensure the robot is a dull dinner party guest for fear that my friends might begin to prefer its company over mine.”

One of my favourite tales in the collection was Albertbridge Road, Belfast (Week 27). It starts:

“The Tall Ships arrived in Belfast yesterday. They were not as tall as we’d been led to believe. We thought you might be able to see them from space or, at the very least, Cave Hill.”

Another I particularly enjoyed was Linenhall Street, Belfast (Week 50) where the narrator ponders bible stories and the characters who do not feature:

“which made me think of the shepherd who went off for a quick wee at exactly the wrong angelic moment, and all the people who, upon hearing there was only one portion of loaves and fish to split between so many, went home to fix their own sandwiches”

Both of these feature a last line so perfect I had to stop to savour the effect before rereading from the beginning. The length of each story allows for this. In many ways they are akin to poetry.

There are tales that play with word meanings: a consideration of happiness prompted by a sign in a coffee shop; a museum as a place to take the old things that remind the narrator of events they would prefer to forget. There are stories which deal with meetings and misunderstandings, arrivals and departures, loneliness and the throwaway comments that lodge in memory, endlessly chewed over yet remaining difficult to swallow.

The collection is ideal for dipping into. It is an attractively presented, slim volume with illustrative sketches for a number of the tales. Perfect for slipping into a bag or a pocket, this is a sagacious and entertaining read.

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

Book Review: Malcolm Orange Disappears

malcolmorangedisappears

Malcolm Orange Disappears, by Jan Carson, is a gloriously quirky story about an eleven year old boy, his flighty family, and the residents of the Baptist Retirement Village where he finds the best friends he has ever had in his short but eventful life.

Prior to moving to the Portland village, Malcolm had travelled across nineteen American states, his family dealing with every ontoward predicament by absconding. Crushed into the backseat of his father’s ancient but reliable Volvo, along with a slowly diminishing collection of grandparents and assorted possessions, Malcolm develops neuroses linked to a plethora of potential hazards, from diarrohea to roundabouts to dreams. When he notices small perforations appearing all over his body he fears that he is in danger of entirely disappearing.

From his father, Malcolm has learned to lie imaginatively and proficiently. Malcolm’s view of life has been forged from beauty parlour magazines, inappropriate films and snippets of overheard adult conversation. He hates his father so when the man abandons his family, including his recently born and very forgettable second son, Malcolm is delighted. His mother is not and descends into a gloomy stupor leaving Malcolm to fend largely for himself.

The retirement village is a welcome, permanent home after so many years of living out of a car and cheap motels. Malcolm observes each of the elderly residents in turn, learning of their habits, foibles and ailments. These men and women have lived their varied lives, dealt with hardships and the expectations of others. They have become what they are due to choices made, sometimes regretted, and circumstances accepted alongside those beyond their control. They may now be feeble in body and mind but each retains a healthy dislike of the pernicious Director in charge of the facility in which they have been placed.

Malcolm’s arrival is followed by that of the Director’s teenage daughter, a wilful child whose resentments against her divorced parents cause her to create mayhem whenever she spies an opportunity. Malcolm is in thrall to her, unused as he is to interacting with anyone close to his own age. He confides his discovery of his perforations and the fears he harbours of his imminent disappearance, but is met with derision. It is his elderly friends who recognise his distress and take up his cause.

I have long been a fan of the author’s writing and this, her debut novel, is no exception. It is fluid, original and very funny. Her eye for detail as she recounts the quirks of each character is fabulous. She offers up the foolish and absurd with a sympathetic wit; her perceptions and understated wisdom are a joy to read.

It is not a straightforward tale. There is the disappearing boy, a talking cat, and a profusion of people so preoccupied with their personal concerns that they cannot see beyond their own desires. At face value there are elements of the surreal, but the message at its heart is universal.

An entertaining, life affirming, unorthodox story that I enjoyed immensely. This book deserves to be widely read.

Book Review: Children’s Children

Children's Children Front for Web

Children’s Children, by Jan Carson, is a collection of fifteen short stories exploring the concept of legacy and the influence of one generation upon the next. Many are set in and around particular streets in Belfast. They capture the cut and concerns of the people of this city to perfection.

The author writes with a distinct and original voice. Her prose is rich and satisfying offering up the humour and poignancy of the folk she creates with heart-rending perceptiveness. She inhabits their troubles allowing the reader to get to know their true selves better than they would ever be comfortable with. Their cultural reticence and need to be seen in a certain way is as darkly comic as it is tragic, yet they are presented in a way that cannot help but create sympathy for the situations they must survive.

Each of the stories offer insight into typical family dilemmas: ageing, bereavement, guilt, resentment, the misunderstandings that exist between the sexes and the generations. Some of the tales are told in a straightforward style whilst others stray into allegory and surrealism. Always the prose is beautifully structured, the words invade the senses. These are snapshots of ordinary lives being lived in all their glorious, wretched humanity.

It was pure pleasure to read these tales. The author has an eye and a zest for what is behind the facades people present to others, and can capture these observations with turns of phrase that delight. I could quote again and again but out of context the acuity may be lost. Buy this book and enjoy for yourselves.

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