Book Review: Intimacies

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This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Intimacies is a collection of eleven short stories that delve, with exquisite and piercing insight, into the lives of young Irish women at home and away. Many of the protagonists in these tales have chosen to leave the isle but retain the shadows of their upbringing. Motherhood features strongly – the impact of having, wanting or not wanting children.

The opening story, ‘Like This’, is a stomach twisting freefall evocation of the fear a mother feels when she realises her child may have been abducted by a stranger. The everyday problems encountered when taking both a toddler and baby out, in an attempt to entertain them, are laid bare. The taut prose is all the more powerful for how viscerally the unfolding situation is conveyed. It is a masterwork in the art of succinct storytelling.

After such a strong beginning the reader may wonder how momentum may be maintained. Have no concerns. Each of the following stories offers depth and erudition, weaving important topics that colour women’s lives and relationships into their everyday experiences. Alongside the mothers exhausted by the demands of beloved children are women suffering miscarriage, and those seeking abortion in a country where this is still illegal. The author ably demonstrates that shock tactics are unnecessary when traumas in regular life have been normalised, admitting to them made shameful.

‘People Tell You Everything’ is set in a contemporary Shoreditch workplace. It explores misunderstandings – the humiliation that can be experienced when love is unrequited. The characters view each other through a lens in which their personal desires are reflected. When reality bites the hurt can become hard to live with.

Marriage is portrayed with poignancy but also humour.

“It was Friday night so we were having a glass of wine while we looked at our phones.”

Men may be secondary characters but they are permitted to be good people.

‘Words for Things’ is quite brilliant. Two young mothers – long time friends – are discussing Monica Lewinsky, how as teenagers they judged this twenty-two year old employee caught in the web of a lecherous American president. The story offers a perspective on how people change as their understanding deepens.

“Tonya Harding, Amy Winehouse, Shannon Doherty, Britney Spears. Because the thing was, it wasn’t just Monica Lewinsky. It was all the other women too, who used to be sort-of laughing stocks, and who – you suddenly realised – turned out to be something else entirely.”

Religion, of course, warrants a mention. ‘Jars of Clay’ is set around the Irish vote to legalise abortion under certain circumstances. An earnest if blinkered church group from America have travelled to Dublin to try to persuade people to vote against this proposed change. Their arguments are well rehearsed but even the eager young believer in their midst cannot entirely tamp down her doubts about their mission when confronted by the reality of lived experience.

The Children’ is a powerful tale of the bond between mothers and their children told with reference to Caroline Norton – a 19th century activist – whose callous husband used his legal powers of ownership to ensure severance when she left him after a series of life affecting beatings.

“Cut off from her children after an acrimonious split, she went about changing the law for wives and mothers.”

In the contemporary timeline the narrator is concerned for the viability of her own pregnancy. Each of these stories offers up multiple, entwined issues for consideration.

‘All the People were Mean and Bad’ is set during a flight from Toronto to London. A young mother struggling with her baby is assisted by an older man sitting next to her. There are many layers to peel back in what is a story of marriage and parenthood.

The collection ends with ‘Devotions’ – a reminder of the intensity of love for a child at each stage of their growth, and how quickly the emotional detail of moments that felt so precious fade as lives move inexorably forward.

Several of the characters in these stories muse that their young children will not even remember the events that cost their mothers so much effort and anguish, that what children do remember is often that which caused them pain rather than pleasure.

The writing is seriously impressive – incisive, heartfelt, and always engaging. At times while reading it had me in pieces as I recalled my own experiences as a young woman and mother, but it provides so much more than relatability.

Any Cop?: A mighty collection in which each and every story deserves to be savoured. If you have not yet discovered Lucy Caldwell’s fiction, start here.

Jackie Law

Book Review: All the Beggars Riding

“Even our own stories, we’re unequipped and essentially unable to tell”

All the Beggars Riding, by Lucy Caldwell, is a tale told by thirty-eight year old Lara Moorhouse, an agency carer who has lived in London all her life. She is writing down her memories as a way to come to terms with how she was raised, and the effect this has had on her life since. What prompted the project was a television documentary Lara watched, on Chernobyl, made a decade after the disaster and focusing on survivors. Lara has been taking one of her patients to a weekly creative writing class where she listens in to the advice given. She finds that she learns a great deal about herself and her wider family by recreating their past selves.

The book is divided into sections that focus on: the inspiration for the story; Lara as a child; her mother, Jane; what happened next. As Jane died a year previously much of the narrative is an imagined account of events. Lara comes to realise is that all memoir is essentially fiction.

“it’s going to be impossible to get inside the past, to really be true to it. We can only see it from the outside, squinting back at it, and it changes utterly depending on the mood and circumstances and point from which we happen to be regarding it.”

Although trying her best to tell her story in a manner that makes sense to the reader, Lara struggles to write a linear narrative. There are too many interdependencies and unknowns. Children rarely understand their parents as people rather than in relation to themselves – and vice versa.

“lives aren’t orderly, and nor is memory; the mind doesn’t work like that. We make it so, when we narrate things – setting them in straight lines and in context – whereas in reality things are all mixed up, and you feel several things, even things that contradict each other, or that happened at separate times, or that aren’t on the surface even related, all at once.”

Lara and her little brother, Alfie, lived in a flat in Earls Court until Lara was twelve. Their mother was mostly their sole carer as their father, a surgeon, worked in Belfast more often than at the private clinic in Harley Street that employed him. It drew in wealthy patients wanting ‘an Irish surgeon’ for the skills learned in Belfast due to the Troubles.

The summer Lara turned twelve her family went on their only ever holiday – to Fuengirola. It was not a success. The fallout from this was that Lara learned the truth of her parents’ relationship. Her father, Patrick, had another family in Belfast. When, four months later, he was killed in an accident, the Earls Court flat was sold by his wife and the Moorhouses were cast adrift.

Lara’s anger at her parents for raising their children in this way colours her subsequent development. In confronting her memories and trying to piece together why Jane and Patrick acted as they did she seeks closure but also understanding. All her mother ever told her was that she loved their father. Lara needs to unravel how and why their family set-up lasted as long as it did without change.

The writing is fluid and piercing, getting to the heart of easily fractured relationships between parents and their children. All are individuals yet rarely treated in this way within a family unit. Alfie has reacted to the same circumstances very differently to his sister. Jane and her mother also had a troubled relationship that proved difficult to bridge. Across the generations, concern and expectation hammer in wedges. When Lara tried to talk to her mother, just before she died, she was met with resentment.

“You’re trying to trap me, aren’t you? Trap me with my own words.”

Parents cannot fully know at the time the lasting impact their actions will have on their children. Children cannot fully know the personal factors at play that drove decisions made.

I thoroughly enjoyed this story, both its voice and structure. A gratifying and resonant read that makes me want to seek out more of the author’s work.

All the Beggars Riding is published by Faber and Faber.

Book Review: Being Various, New Irish Short Stories

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Being Various is the sixth volume of Faber’s long-running series of new Irish short stories. In her introduction to the anthology, guest editor Lucy Caldwell ponders what makes a writer Irish. Must they be born on the island? Live there? Have parents who raise them to identify with their Irish heritage? She writes:

“I wanted to look, too, at where the new ways of Irish writing might take us. The fresh narratives, perspectives and multiplicities that are coming from immigration to a place so long and persistently defined by emigration.”

Each fiercely intelligent tale from the impressive who’s who of contributors offers a window into the differing impacts Ireland has on those steeped in its culture and prejudices. All the stories were commissioned especially, from writers whose work was first published after the Good Friday Agreement. It is a showcase of contemporary Irish literature.

There are tales that draw the reader in then leave them with ambiguous endings. ‘Stretch Marks’ by Elske Rahill tells of a difficult pregnancy that causes the suffering mother of four to feel she is a failure. ‘BrownLady12345’ by Melatu Uche Okorie looks at modern dating from the perspective of an immigrant who is lonely but unsure what they are looking for or how to achieve the desired connection. ‘The Swimmers’ by Paul McVeigh contains a disturbing undercurrent as a son tries to please his father. The reader is left to interpret each thread of suggestion for themselves.

Clarity is captured through Magic Realism. ‘Pillars’ by Jan Carson explores mental health following marital breakdown, when acquaintances are uncomfortable acknowledging such issues, even when they are made glaringly obvious. ‘The Lexicon of Babies’ by Sinéad Gleeson offers a picture of segregated privilege through state accepted competitive parenting – this odd little tale is beautifully fable-like. ‘Echo’ by Stuart Neville is poignant yet fierce – the story of a family unravelled by grief and the subsequent conspiracy of silence, violently enforced by a mother whose culpability remains veiled. ‘The Eclipse’ by Darren Anderson employs powerful imagery to portray the last days of an elderly woman whose mind has inexorably deteriorated. The love and care provided by her relatives is rare amidst so many depictions in this collection of the damage caused by family. ‘The Adminicle Exists’ by Eimear McBride is an emotive cry for help from a woman whose partner needs care yet poses a threat to her safety. ‘Wings’ by David Hayden is a painfully sad tale of the conspiracies and denials surrounding childhood abuse. ‘Lambeth’ by Jill Crawford offers an excellent depiction of the complexity inherent in an area’s gentrification. There are levels of wealth and poverty, threat and safety. Change may be resisted but is, and always has been, inevitable. ‘Alienation’ by Arja Kajermo is an unusually honest portrayal of Ireland from the point of view of a foreigner. Visitors may be welcomed but those who choose to stay face: prejudice, passive aggression, rejection for looking or acting different. ‘Colour and Light’ by Sally Rooney is fabulous story telling. Set in a seaside town it tells of two brothers, close in some ways yet rarely sharing anything of themselves, and a woman who briefly passes through their lives.

There are tales within this anthology that particularly resonated and others enjoyed but with less impact. Only one struck me off key – ‘The Downtown Queen’ by Peter Murphy. Its subject was memories – of a time when the narrator was part of an in-crowd enjoying sex, drugs, rock and roll. He interacted with famous musicians and their coteries in the early, raw days preceding meteoric careers. The tale felt to me to be trying too hard to be knowledgeable and artful – something that may appeal more to those with an interest in the 70s music scene. My negative reaction may be a dislike of the protagonist as much as the writing. I am rarely impressed by those who name drop for anticipated audience effect.

Any Cop?: For a collection of twenty-four stories, to enjoy all but one is pleasing. The quality of the writing is high, the subject matter piercing. There is humour amidst the darkness and a clear reflection of the Irish spirit in all its shades. This is as good a collection of short stories as I have read this year.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Multitudes

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Multitudes, by Lucy Caldwell, is a collection of eleven short stories set in Belfast. As a native of the city and a fan of the short story form I approached this book with high expectations. I was not disappointed.

Several of the stories are told from the point of view of a child and the author has captured both the voice and the conflict of feelings at each age perfectly. It is easy to forget how torrid growing up can be: the desperate loneliness, being unable to articulate feelings, the fear of rejection by peers, of disappointing parents. These stories encompass the pain and pleasure of childhood social success and the damage this can cause.

My favourite story in the collection was ‘Through the Wardrobe’, a moving account of a young child uncomfortable in their own skin:

“You are sad. You’re only six years old but you feel sad a lot of the time, a tightness in your chest that you don’t have words for. Your mum says you’re a sensitive child […] she’ll stay till you fall asleep, you’re safe and nothing can hurt you. But it’s not outside you’re scared of. It’s something inside, and you can’t explain it”

Relationships are explored throughout: the pain of parenthood, the pain of being thirteen and friendless is a world that demands all fit in, the conflict when desire clashes with parental expectations.

In ‘Poison’ a pupil is attracted to her teacher with all the intensity that being fifteen entails. In ‘Here We Are’ two pupils find a love that will not be tolerated in a church lead community.

The writing is breathtaking, taut and rich in imagery. Each character demands empathy, even those imprisoned by their upbringing and beliefs.

I urge you to seek out this book. It is a fabulous work, fulfilling and rewarding to read.

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