Book Review: This Is the Afterlife

thie is the afterlife

“I always tell myself the past only seems simpler because I’ve had time to process it. The only thing I can do right now is react”

This Is the Afterlife, by Jeff Chon, is a collection of fourteen short stories with thematic links around the effects of living in America, especially as someone who looks Asian. It provides an excellent evocation of place and of those who inhabit each space portrayed. Certain characters appear in several of the tales although this is understated, only noticeable to those paying attention. There are undercurrents of sadness such as the inevitability of once close childhood friendships fizzling away into distant acquaintance. The lasting effects of school bullying are explored through aging and reunion.

Racism and bigotry raise their ugly heads as does the manner in which these are typically dealt with – few wishing to make a fuss within a neighbourhood they must continue to live within. The American fetish with those who have fought for their country – ‘thank you for your service’ – appears in a number of entries, along with the reality of how war can ruin participants psychologically.

Many of the young people who feature grow into an adulthood they feel diminishes former expectations. There is a great deal of drug taking, perhaps as an escape or to fit in with peers.

Other recurring themes include difficulties in understanding across generations. They Belong Here Now is a particularly shattering tale of adopted children who wish to reconnect with their place of birth. Two Korean born young adults who have experienced racism growing up in America try to make new lives for themselves back in their home country. They take on names they feel better fit what they were born to be. Their loving parents naturally feel rejected, but as much because they truly believe they were offering something better, unable to see their white saviour actions as anything negative.

The opening story, P.A.L.A.D.I.N., mocks a small town religious community as they try to save their young people from the evils of popular music. Subsequent stories explore what becomes of such young people as they escape to college or the world of work. These are typically quite bleak depictions. Life continues to throw curve balls as they age. Parents are perplexed and disappointed by how their grown children behave despite advice and best efforts.

The dead feature but perhaps the book title is more a reference to how life must continue beyond milestones that were supposed to lead to more ease or fulfilment. There is no happy ever after. People are let down, although mostly by themselves.

The stories may be bleak but they are interesting to read, offering food for thought on attitudes and prejudices. The writing flows and the characters are well formed and developed. A serious take down of the supposed land of the free but one that provides sufficient entertainment to keep the casual reader engaged.

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


Book Review: Night-time Stories

Night time stories

Night-time Stories is The Emma Press’ first short story anthology. The ten stories included were chosen by the editor, Yen-Yen Lu, from submissions exploring the theme of Night. The tales are eclectic in style and scope but all are worth reading. As always I have my favourites but this should not detract from the quality of the writing throughout.

Following an introduction from the editor, the anthology draws the reader in with The Girls are Pretty Crocodiles Now by Angela Readman. A young boy, Jonah, tells his peers he has caught the tooth fairy.

“Jonah was the sort of kid whose face looked so gleeful breaking bad news, no one could care about him for long.”

What happens next is chilling yet told with understated simplicity – a masterful flight of the author’s imagination.

Sleeping in Shifts by Winifred Monk tells of a couple, both filmmakers, who work from their home on the same projects, one by day and the other through the night.

“This is the life of those who work at home, or live at work.”

They each regard the world differently, although most of what they see is the narrative taking shape on their screen.

Whose Lounge by Leanne Radojkovich is a gloriously rational response to a young child’s question asked of their tired, single mother.

“What happens when no-one is in the lounge?”

It turns out that most humans rarely consider life that does not involve them.

Obon by Miyuki Tatsuma explores how dancing can offer an escape from the mundane, even for those who may only enjoy the pursuit when no one is watching. There is much to unpack in the truth behind what may be regarded on the surface as a happy and supportive family.

Dream Boats by Jane Roberts is less than a page in length yet paints a vivid picture of a cityscape at night, a scene that is rarely static.

(hippocampus paradoxus) by Valentine Carter is a tale I would not have expected to enjoy, anchored as it is to a sexual act. What lifts it is its current relevance, offering many layers to peel back around gender and consent. Although it is clear what is happening, the author avoids any hint of voyeurism. A surprisingly thought provoking story.

Daylight Saving Time by Rebecca Rouillard explores time travel. I enjoyed the depictions of how the mind works at night when a suggestion of possibility has been planted beforehand.

Kikimora by Sofija Ana Zovko is a story that bends reality. In this tale the narrator is dealing with grief. It may not have resonated so much with me but was still well told.

dream lovers by John Kitchen is a short, quirky love story, in which a couple get together when they realise they each dream about the same thing each night. I particularly enjoyed how it ended.

Even This Helps by Zoë Wells completes the anthology with a story of a late night shopping trip. The night sky is beautifully evoked, as is our place beneath it.

I could have flown through these stories had I not deliberately slowed down to consider how each affected me. With the variety of approaches to the subject of Night on offer there was more to chew over than may be expected in such a compact work.

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

Book Review: Lunate vol. 1

Lunate vol 1

Lunate Vol. 1 is an astonishingly impressive short story collection published by the Lunate Journal. It is their first print edition – the second is due for imminent release and will be launched on November 3rd at Blackwell’s Bookshop in Manchester.

Vol. 1 contains nine short stories and there isn’t a weak one amongst them. The editors – Hannah Clark and Gary Kaill – are to be commended in selecting work by authors capable of writing so powerfully in this format.

The collection opens with What becomes of the night when there is nothing left to see? by Rosie Garland. On the surface this is a story of a solitary man who works nights for a Ministry, plotting the night sky. He enjoys the rhythms of his work but grows concerned when changes are noticed. It is more upsetting still when he cannot find anyone to discuss this with. There is much to unpack – fear of loss or change, of not being listened to, joy in a task drained when seen from a different perspective. What is happening within the context presented could be a metaphor for the modern world in which we are expected to follow instruction without question even as we see potential damage.

Rewild by Claire Carroll was one of my favourite stories. A young woman is working what is supposed to be her final day on a project dealing with animals that in a previous era were farmed. She became involved alongside her boyfriend, required to follow company rules and also support his endeavours. It becomes apparent that there are cracks in the relationship and also in her employers understanding of the creatures supposedly being cared for. So much is conveyed beneath what is clearly stated – on privacy, control and agency. Good deeds are not always done with good intentions. The denouement was pitch perfect.

Hidden Knowledge by Linda Mannheim explores place and belonging. A young woman returns from Managua to Washington Heights, where she grew up, as her mother is dying. She observes the burned buildings in the Bronx, comparing them to war scarred cities in Nicaragua. She has lived through danger in both areas, as did her mother when she fled to America. A friend questions her suggestion that the Bronx is a comparable war zone. Again, much is going on beneath the everyday of the story. People coming and going, losing touch by choice, leaving only memories.

“That’s one of the things I understand now about disappearance – if someone’s nowhere, they can be anywhere.”

Daisies by Dave Wakely looks at another immigrant experience, this time through the eyes of two Romanians who fled the Ceaușescu regime. They were welcomed as a novelty in Britain at a time when asylum seekers were an occasional splash rather than a tidal wave due to war and human rights issues. The elder man, a fêted if not well paid professor, questions how his adopted country has changed over the years – and if his homeland may now be a better prospect.

“Here, it seems culture is a luxury. For all your smiling patrons’ airy chatter about diversity and inclusion, the ticket prices never fall.”

The once coveted British passport may now be less respectable abroad than its Romanian equivalent. The story offers much to chew over around middle class British attitudes and conceits.

Artistic hubris is brilliantly dissected in my other favourite story in the collection, The Prepared Piano by Jonathan Gibbs. Structured as a celebrity interview, a brilliant pianist is about to perform in a much lauded venue. Having made her name in the usual way, through virtuoso performance, the pianist has now moved in an innovative direction. She pays a young man to change her instrument without him telling her what has been done, and then plays to the audience through whatever performance difficulties this may create. It is so true that self-appointed artistic connoisseurs will accept such ridiculous concepts as wondrous, with those who don’t show appreciation regarded as inferior arbiters of quality. Artists may well grow bored over time with sameness but change is not necessarily evolutionary. The denouement is almost painfully hilarious.

The remaining four stories in the collection examine aspects of the human condition while evoking each setting skilfully. As characters are introduced and developed the reader feels the possible disturbance beneath what may on the surface appear banal.

In bella ciao by Daniel Payne the protagonist seeks help for a problem he must deal with.

“my father is back at the hotel in the bath and dead”

The Clearance by John Saul takes the reader inside the head of an estate agent, offering up the professional he strives to be alongside the reality.

Ceramics for Beginners by Claire Thomson tells of a young woman in a loving but unequal relationship who seeks a new skill that will garner admiration. She has dreams for her future but recognises potential issues these could introduce to a life she was generally content with.

The collection closes with Exit Interview for a Valued Colleague by Ben Pester, in which a manager grasps this opportunity to talk frankly of himself to his captive audience. What develops grows ever more disturbing.

Although both clever and entertaining, the insights offered are more often witty than caustic. Human faults are portrayed without the need for explicit exposition. A fabulous collection that will engage and reward any reader – highly recommended.

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

Book Review: The Bygones

the bygones

The Bygones, by Jim Gibson, is a collection of twenty-one ‘small stories’ all of which are impressively succinct and memorable. Bookended by two seemingly questionable tales, the opener tells of a young boy’s encounters with the Devil, episodes that mesh with his first kiss – the flow and then ebb of friendships and a youthful relationship. The final tale details an encounter with God in which a young man learns not to rely on what he has been told about deities. As with all the stories, the focus remains on the characters, ordinary people dealing with day to day experiences, the detail of which may at times appear strange.

Although there are certain surreal elements, all the tales remain grounded. In many ways I was reminded of Jan Carson’s writing, and that is high praise indeed. Gibson writes with a darker turn than Carson, there is less playfulness but still humour and piercing insight. The characters in this collection are mostly working class – the contemporary version in which jobs, housing and benefits are far from ideal. Many of those featured are lonely, stuck in ruts not always of their own making.

Jungle Banshee focuses on an unemployed young man living in a grime filled flat where he plays his X-box, ‘screen eyes’ enabling him ignore the grot that surrounds him. He finds welcome connection in an online chat room, a catalyst for change. All is not, however, as it first appears. The poignancy of this story offers an alternative take on stereotypes too often condemned.

You explores ever shifting memories and the scars an elderly person has had to live with. Shocking events are recounted in just a few carefully crafted sentences. What comes across is the isolation felt when no longer part of a community, although family life when remembered was very far from ideal.

Miss Fitzgerald employs a vernacular that works well to get across the thoughts and feelings of a young man who would like to find a partner willing to commit to a relationship and family. Using the frame of a party, the complexities of the man’s ethics are both poignant and amusing.

“You know what it’s like when you see all them lot from school that you never liked anyway, and they’re all talking about their nice lives in their new build houses and all that and I thought of the one bed flat with empty pizza boxes and its mysterious smell and how I came from there this evening and would go back alone.”

Many of the lives depicted come across as barren and gritty, the characters flawed and catching few breaks. Despite this there remains the chance of possibilities. There may be few happy endings but neither is there hopelessness.

The writing is seriously impressive. The author’s imagination and willingness to test boundaries makes for vivid and engaging reading. There are thought-provoking metaphors in many of the stranger narratives, but also a sense that accepted reality should not be hemmed in by staid convention.

A varied and satisfying collection from a fine storyteller. A depiction of ordinary lives that mines their layers with aplomb.

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

Book Review: Eastmouth and Other Stories


Eastmouth and Other Stories, by Alison Moore, is one of a new series of books being released by Salt Publishing – Salt Modern Stories. This particular collection of short stories is written by one of my go to authors although, until now, I had yet to read her in shorter form. Each entry in the collection reflects Moore’s trademark style – understated and quietly disturbing. Lurking riptides beneath the smoothly flowing surface will pull readers inside her carefully crafted worlds. Perfect for spooky season, these are tales of ghosts – real and imagined? – alongside manifestations of fears that can be hard to supress when inhabiting dark and lonely places. There are malevolent spirits aplenty, particularly in houses and other supposedly safe spaces. These have been patiently awaiting their chance for mischief or revenge.

Twenty-one stories are included, opening with the titular Eastmouth. Like several others in the collection it is set in a tired, English seaside town. It tells of Sonia, a young woman visiting her boyfriend’s parents. Their welcome is unfettered, unlike their willingness to grant Sonia personal agency. Her boyfriend reveals concern when she will not comply as expected.

Many of the stories exude this need to gain control of another’s personal decision making. Partners attempt to undermine confidence. Help is offered that proves anything but beneficial. Other recurring themes include the presence of water in less than benign circumstances. Unsettling scenes include clever use of a variety of ordinary yet increasingly claustrophobic settings.

Characters are mostly British and exhibit the tics that, being so recognisable, can be amusing. When this develops into something more sinister it is done without fuss, as fits the psyche. Small town life and attitudes are captured skilfully, the apparent stoicism spilling over into an eventual need to deal with an irritant who won’t listen or learn. Readers will almost here them quietly state, ‘but you made me do it’.

A Month of Sundays is a curiously uplifting tale of an elderly gentleman attending a funeral. His last friend has died, going the way of the rest of their circle. The gentleman wondered how many would attend the service so is surprised to find the crematorium chapel more or less full. In chatting to others afterwards he finds himself accepted for unanticipated reasons.

The unexpected turn taken in Common Ground makes it both poignant and exasperatingly relatable. A new neighbour tries to ingratiate himself on the woman next door. When she remains unwilling to go on a date, to do as he wishes and thinks she should, he starts to complain about a tree in her garden. It becomes a metaphor for the way she has acted in the past although cannot admit to regretting.

“She can imagine how he is feeling now: righteous and miserable.”

The collection finishes with Ooderwald, a tale of the myriad ways one can say, ‘I lost’. The story being told is wound around the protagonist’s study of the English language, the many complex tenses few can define clearly yet with subtle differences in meaning. The losses suffered may differ in perceived scope but all cause degrees of suffering.

An eminently satisfying read from a master storyteller with a deliciously chilling imagination. Perfect for curling up with as the nights draw in – if you dare.

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

Book Review: Spooky Ambiguous

spooky ambiguous

“Nothing is ever as it seems”

With spooky season approaching it is time to select this year’s Halloween reads. First up for me was Spooky Ambiguous, straplined Ghost stories and poetry, fangs and fairy tales. This latest offering from the tiny but fierce Crumps Barn Studio includes: short stories, poetry, and artwork that perfectly complements the varied gothic tales. Its shades and shadows offer images that, while recognisable, remain somewhat opaque. Draw up a seat by the fire and listen carefully. Those strange creaks and muffled voices you tell yourself is likely the wind may truly be something to be feared.

As with any collection, there are favourites.

Mirror Mirror, by Michael Bartlett, was such a sad story, featuring a lonely philatelist who wishes he could tell a colleague how he feels for her.

Naming, by Harriet Hitchen, gets across wonderfully the conceit of humans in believing they can control that which they do not understand.

Who’s Haunting Who? by Daphne Denley proves that a fine story may be told in an impressively succinct poem.

Relocation, by Angela Reddaway, is an imaginative take on how it can matter where you are buried – and that may not be next to the old man you were required to marry as a teenager.

Within these stories and poems, witches are both feared and befriended. The latter is not always welcomed spellcaster given how some will try to use other’s gifts for their own advantage.

Message Delivery, by Angela Reddaway, employs a clever use of repetition.

The Flooding, by Amaris Chase, contains a clever twist I didn’t see coming.

Some of the stories are notably weird. Several are a tad raw. There are ghostly beings that are seriously disturbing, creatures buried alive that should probably remain so. What comes across is the potential loneliness in an afterlife, and how this can affect those who died leaving unfinished business. There is both good and evil, just as in the before.

Diabetes X, by J.J. Drover, ended ambiguously – or maybe I just wanted laid out what I had guessed would happen.

Penance, by Joe Robson, completed the collection with a quiet menace, eerily understated.

Whatever my reaction to each individual entry, the authors may take credit for eliciting a reaction. This collection serves as a delicious reminder that, however determinedly pragmatic and logical one may be, inexplicable malignancy can still exist in the shadows.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Crumps Barn Studio.

Book Review: Punishment


This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Punishment is a collection of a dozen short stories drawn from the author’s long career as a criminal defence lawyer. Unlike many true crime writers – if that is where this book could fit – his prose is written in a factual style that avoids foreshadowing as a device to build tension. The narrative is kept crisp and cool, providing necessary detail but avoiding salacity.

Tales are told from a variety of perspectives including: victim, perpetrator, legal representative. Sometimes the boundaries blur. The justice system is not always just – evidence must be sufficiently strong and procedures adhered to. Punishments for crimes committed are not always meted out by the courts. A ruling that frees a person to commit further harm can come to haunt those working for the judiciary.

Background to characters is provided adding nuance and depth to their subsequent emotional reactions. For many of the protagonists these are coloured by traumas in childhood. Although appearing to move beyond these and make a good life for themselves, they unravel under pressure of the events being recounted.

The collection opens with a case involving a lay judge who is required to preside over an allegation of domestic violence. The evidence she hears affects her badly, putting at risk the required impartiality of the court.

The second story focuses on a successful lawyer whose career is derailed following the acquittal of a father accused of abusing his children. The lawyer falls into addiction before trying to pull himself together to help a client accused of killing her husband. He receives help in this endeavour from a shadowy source.

Many of the cases are both sad and disturbing. All are fascinating under the author’s skilfully rendered discourse. The length of each story varies but all are told succinctly with impressive clarity.

One of the more unusual tales is ‘Lydia, in which a lonely, middle aged man finds comfort in a way many may mock or condemn. The ruling of the court in this case demonstrates an empathy that is rare alongside insight into needs within relationships.

“Falling in love is a very complex process. Initially, we’re not in love with the partner themselves, but with the image we create of them. The critical phase of every relationship begins when reality catches up…”

The Small Man is quite a roller coaster of a story. Its whiplash ending offers a glimpse of the author’s dry wit.

What is clear from these cases is how strangely perturbing some people’s thought processes and behaviour can be beneath a conventional veneer. A previously caring and successful man develops dangerous proclivities after watching his wife give birth to their child. A retiree takes revenge on neighbours when they come to represent change to a place he has worked all his life in order to hold static. There are tales of revenge within unequal marriages. There are children who escape rigid familial environs only to find freedom is not what they dreamed of.

The crimes committed are serious but it is the circumstances that surround them that provide most interest. Facts are presented rather than judgements.

The collection closes with ‘The Friend’, a story written in a much more personal style than previous entries. Narrated in the first person, it is a poignant and powerful appraisal of what little of substance remains after all the effort poured into achieving what may be outwardly regarded as success.

“I thought a new life would be easier, but it never did get easier. It’s just the same, whether we’re pharmacists or carpenters or writers.”

As so many of these stories demonstrate, personal effort can be derailed by unfulfilled desire, and by the actions of others – rarely predictable, and giving rise to emotions it can be a challenge to control.

Any Cop?: Although offering a somewhat negative view of humanity, the stories remain reflective and engaging. A book I devoured eagerly. An impressive page-turner with substance and bite.

Jackie Law

Book Review: A Little Unsteadily Into Light

A Little Unsteadily

A Little Unsteadily Into Light is a collection of fourteen new short stories that were specially commissioned for this anthology. Each explores the experience of living with dementia but from a variety of perspectives. It grew from a project being run by a small team of academics at my alma mater, Queen’s University, Belfast. The team also included a practising writer, Jan Carson, whose role was to ensure the research had a meaningful impact on the wider community. She read widely to familiarise herself with fictionalised accounts of dementia already published. As she writes in her introduction:

“I soon realised there was a distinct lack of diversity in the dementia novels and short stories which have so far emerged. This anthology … is a small attempt to redress the existing balance of dementia fiction.”

While this academic background is of interest, not least because it provides the promise of authenticity in character portrayals and development, the collection offers stories from both emerging and established writers that are, quite simply, a pleasure to read. So many people, including myself, have been touched by this distressing illness and, within these pages, will find resonance. As well as carers, friends and family members, voice is given to the patients. Not all of them were nice people even before diagnosis, although some hid this well. It is also made clear that dementia does not just affect the elderly, or the white middle-classes.

The first story, This Small Giddy Life by Nuala O’Connor, focuses on two sisters, Sharon and Imy, whose mother has recently died with dementia. Their upbringing was peripatetic leading to feelings of resentment towards their single parent. Imy now lives in Spain and left Sharon to provide whatever care their ill mother needed. Feelings of duty, if not love, are not always shared by siblings.

Downbeat by Chris Wright also features two sisters who do not always agree on the care they should provide for their ill father. The man can be difficult to deal with as he attempts to assert agency. Caring for him is stressful, affecting the sisters’ home life – including a husband trying to be supportive but also requiring attention for himself.

Some stories are set in care homes where staff must deal with those in the later stages of dementia.

Our Dear Ladies Have Outnumbered Us adds a touch of humour when a well ordered facility faces disruption in the form of a spirited new resident.

Fingerpost by Mary Morrissy explores how the illness can affect lifelong friendships when normal social filters break down.

“Was this the illness talking? Or was this what Delma had felt all along?”

Immurement by Sinéad Gleeson features an attentive daughter – turning to sex and alcohol as coping props – whose mother now talks critically of her as if she is not there.

“A good girl. Had loads of potential but messed it all up. And she’s putting on weight now too”

Some of the authors adopt slightly surreal approaches. A New Day, Tomorrow by Henrietta McKervey explores memory and loss. The Portal by Caleb Klaces uses a story within the story to show a young man how an older one views his world.

Children looking after ill parents reflect on their relationship over time, how damage caused by words or attitudes has cast shade over decades. Coming and Going by Paul McVeigh was particularly poignant, especially around the time the protagonist came out to his parents.

“My sister told me that I had no right to tell him and Mum. That it would be selfish of me … It was exhausting pretending to be someone I wasn’t.”

Caring for a relative with dementia requires that lies are gone along with to avoid upsetting the patient – pretending to share what is their current reality.

Of course, not all the families featured are fractured. The final story, My Way Home by Caleb Azumah Nelson, has two siblings willingly caring for their father in shifts, with occasional crossover.

In the Afterword, Jane Lugea writes of the research project and how information was gathered.

“The most significant thing I learnt is that creative writing offers ways of understanding dementia that medical factsheets, media representations or casual conversations cannot.”

In offering the reader such a wide variety of fictionalised experiences, this anthology provides an understanding of behaviours – which some actively embrace while others find they need to walk away from. Just as the ill are individuals with personalities and differences, so too are those whose lives they have affected, before and after diagnosis of dementia.

A fine collection of short stories that happen to have a theme of living with dementia. It will foster empathy in the reader, and that is vital if society is to help the growing numbers who will come to need it.

“These characters might have dementia, but dementia’s only a small part of who they are.”

A Little Unsteadily Into Light is published by New Island Books. My copy was provided gratis.

Book Review: Here Be Icebergs


“we often fail to recognise the brutality of families when observing them from the outside – or even at times from the inside”

Here Be Icebergs, by Katya Adaui (translated by Rosalind Harvey), is a collection of twelve short stories that lay bare many of the often unacknowledged issues that erupt within a diversity of family units. There is little talk of love in these tales although it clearly exists. What is being explored are the resentments that fester alongside feelings of duty and expectation. The scars that form in childhood continue to affect.

Many of the stories adopt a non-linear, episodic structure. The reader is trusted to fill in the gaps in both timeline and reasoning. There is brutal honesty in the recognition of lasting damage inflicted by words thrown in moments of difficulty. The collection should not be rushed as it delves into challenging themes.

“Adaui examines the way we ceaselessly attempt contact despite all the evidence that each of us is an unknowable island”

A favourite story was We, the Shipwrecked in which the narrator is trying to cope with the death of her father. His demise was expected due to diagnosed illness but still she did not feel ready. The remaining family members provide little comfort, making decisions that grate.

Also particularly enjoyed was The Hamberes Twins with its subject of assisted dying. Structured as an interview with the doctor who agreed to help, this short tale offers much to consider.

The complexity of individual reactions to the same experiences alongside the unreliability of shared memories provide grist for the mill in the everyday subjects mined so skilfully. Families need not be dysfunctional to suffer disagreements. It was satisfying to read of subtle shades of acrimony, unadorned with the more usual personal justifications.

Although set in Latin America, the families featured are more everyman than is often acknowledged in fiction set in a place foreign to the reader. Parents and children, partners and siblings, all harbour feelings at odds with how their relations behave.

A taut and engaging collection that presents a wide variety of concerns faced and regretted across generations. Another excellent release from this high quality small press.

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

Book Review: Dubliners


In his upcoming essay collection, Multiple Joyce, David Collard describes Dubliners as ‘surely the greatest of all short story collections’. It is the only book by James Joyce that I have read. This was many years ago and I seemed to remember I was not impressed, finding too many of the characters irritatingly vulgar and vexing. However, with such a recommendation from a writer whose opinion I rate, I decided to give the book a reread. Perhaps, I hoped, with my added life experience and wider literary knowledge I could be more appreciative.

The collection contains fifteen short stories of varying length. Each has a plot of sorts but this is secondary to the portrayal of characters and the lives they lead in their particular time and place. There are boys and men seeking an escape from the repetitive boredom of their everyday existences. Where women feature, many are depicted as downtrodden, having used their wiles to ensnare and now having to deal with the aftermath. Marriages are rarely happy affairs. Drunkenness is common. Resentments fester.

Even the better behaved men are portrayed as selfish, often foolishly jealous. They come across as stunted emotionally, lacking empathy due to ego. Their struggle to control desires and concerns is well developed but did not prompt sympathy.

I was disturbed by the violence against children, although understand this was commonly accepted at the time in which the stories are set. Those suffering poverty, who spend what money they have drinking with friends while their families go hungry, may be realistic but such behaviour is still frustrating. Descriptions were unpleasant – not so much the grime and odours but the images offered of moist mouths and propensity for spitting.

Of course, I can recognise the quality of the writing, although the shorter stories worked better for me, some of the longer ones dragging on with their repetition. I do not question that the characters could be representative of Dublin residents when Joyce lived there – although this does offer some explanation as to why ‘the Irish’ were so widely disdained elsewhere.

My reaction to this work had me questioning what makes literature impressive. Readers’ opinions will always be subjective but I remain perplexed by the esteem in which Joyce is held. However clever a piece of writing, there must be more to engage the reader. Sadly, once again, the stories in Dubliners did not impress me.

I will be reviewing David Collard’s essay collection in which he shares his views on Joyce’s writing and legacy. While this amused and often resonated, making me rethink my views on Joyce and his enthusiasts, it appears I remain a ‘philistine’ when it comes to the supposedly great man’s work.

My copy of this book was published in 1973 by Penguin Modern Classics.