Book Review: Intimacies


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: 3″x 1″


3″x1″, by Bill Drummond, is the second title published by the recently formed Ration Books (I review the first here). These are pocket sized quick reads intended to be: disposed of, passed on, left for other readers to find. Ration 2 is a collection of three short stories reflecting on changes that occur between boyhood and encroaching old age. They are described on the back cover as a three track sampler. The first story in particular is asking to be continued.

The Skull tells the tale of a trio of young Scottish lads, pre-teens enjoying the outdoors in the days before parents demanded to know their offspring’s every move and whereabouts. The boys are wandering by a burn when they come across a human skull. Delighted, they bestow exciting origins on their find and the narrator takes it home with some ceremony.

The author captures the moment, the way youngsters think and act. When he moves the characters forward in time it is clear how the magic of childhood becomes jaded yet is looked back on with nostalgia.

“I thought that the march with the skull on top of a broken branch from a hazel tree […] was maybe the best thing I had ever done”

The narrator ponders the veracity of his memories and considers the possibility of reconnecting with those who were there at the time and, like him, have moved on with their lives. He recognises that the episode has so much potential history, backstory. As boys they simply enjoyed the moment. I wondered if his vague plans to dig deeper could cast a shadow on what made it special.

The Worm also starts with the narrator as a boy, this time four years old. Intrigued by a worm he finds in his back yard he experiments in ways many would perceive as cruel but to the boy was curiosity – a desire to see what would happen. He recalls how later his father took him fishing with worms for bait, and he continued this practice with friends. It was done with little thought for the creatures who died at his hands. These days he shows more compassion, pondering if his concern for the creatures is a reaction to his earlier treatment of them.

The author captures the lack of ethical questioning in youngsters actions, how this changes with age.

“There is me with all my ‘issues and insecurities and rampant ego’ and there is the passing worm just getting on with his day and trying to survive”

The final story in this short collection, The Sparling, considers how much of our lives is spent waiting. As a nine year old the narrator has an annual ritual, much anticipated, in which he has an opportunity to catch fish in a local river with his bare hands. He looks back and recognises the deaths necessary for him to enjoy the feast that follows. His life remains one of waiting.

“I need the waiting.
The waiting proper begins when I see the first snowdrops in late January.
And it builds, when it’s the purple and saffron of the crocus in February.
I try to pretend the waiting is not there because it becomes too intense at times.”

Man’s yearly calendar moves forward relentlessly. He ages, commemorating past actions on significant days. Meanwhile nature continues its regeneration, welcoming back creatures from afar. Whatever the dissociation in attitude or action, there remains a deeply felt connection if surrounds are granted head space.

These evocative stories skilfully capture a time and place but, more than that, they provide a window into the world of childhood and how much it differs from what a person becomes later.

A touching reminder to look outwards and appreciate. An impressively thought-provoking and satisfying read.

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: Like Fado

Like Fado and other stories, by Graham Mort, is a collection of thirteen short stories, the final one of which would pass as a novella in structure and length. Each tale rides on an undercurrent of melancholy. The lives explored are tinged not so much with regret as with an understanding of their transience. Histories are revealed through day to day activity, decisions made coloured by reaction and memory more than ambition. What is conveyed is told as much through the silences as conversation.

“So little time between now and then. Between one moment and the next. Between this moment and the future.”

The collection opens with Emporium, a understated yet powerful evocation of grief and its inevitability due to aging. An elderly widower walks through the small town he and his wife retired to, uncomfortable in an expensive coat that is a tad too small for his girth. The place is as much a character as those he encounters. The life he is living resonates with poignancy.

Each of the stories focuses on people and place more than plot. What is happening is used to deepen understanding of those involved. This is strong and emotive writing, presented in an engaging if often wistful tone.

Tempestade de Fogo hit hard given our current enforced inertia. It explores the pointlessness of existence when days are filled with little of note. A widow living alone in Portugal reflects on how her life as a professional musician could not continue, and the changes this brought. She is accepting of her fate, recognising the hand she had in where she is now.

Via Urbano features a younger cast of characters, yet is another story that portrays how the continuance of life cannot be taken for granted. It is also one of several tales that explores the chasms that exist between friends, however close.

There are stories exploring prejudices in many forms, including racism in Africa and homophobia in Cumbria. These are never polemic. Much else goes on alongside these attitudes. Settings are important and impressively redolent.

The final story, Whitehorn, has a distressing opening that effectively sets the scene but did not appear entirely necessary to what follows. This is a story of a son returning to confront his past following the death of his father. There is more tension in this tale, its length enabling a drawing out before the denouement.

Life and how it changes, including dealing with deaths, are recurrent themes. Each are presented as inevitable rather than something to be fought. Choices made when young have repercussions. Situations drifted into cannot be undone.

The writing is fluid and impressive, conveying thoughts with honesty, although not always the physical pain of certain moments. At times there was an almost nihilistic feel to characters’ reactions. Beauty is found in place and music with people flawed and accepting of this – any worth they may have ephemeral.

While I could appreciate the literary quality, this was a collection that left me dispirited. Perhaps it was just not the right read for a time of lockdown when it can be hard to find a point to the existence we are being forced to endure.

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

Book Review: Nordic Fauna

In his notes on the text, the translator of this collection of six short stories describes the tales as

“depictions of human struggles with identity, regret, vulnerability, truth and our place among our fellow creatures.”

The creatures featured are both human and various. There is a touch of magical realism, although this is grounded in characters’ perceptions. It is kept in check by underlying questions around what they are experiencing and their own doubts about what they see and feel. Characters try to rationalise fears – to talk themselves down from emotional precipices.

Within the stories, ordinary events are transformed into sinister happenings, with a question hovering over what is real or imagined. This adds tension to interactions with vistas and people – that possible movement glimpsed in the periphery growing eerie and unsettling. Narrators struggle with darkness of thought that erodes the anchors of their existence.

The collection opens with The Bird That Cries in the Night. This is narrated by a young man who regularly visits his estranged parents one after the other. He is concerned about his father, moreso when the older man admits to not sleeping well. He keeps hearing a bird he cannot place that others insist on naming for him. The mother urges her son to concentrate on taking better care of himself. Memories from childhood haunt the man’s attempts to move towards a relationship – he dreams of a future but is distracted by his past, unacknowledged fears. As the story progresses, what unfolds is a spiral.

The Cat was my favourite story. In it, a mother removes herself from her family, leaving the daughter unsure of her standing. Father and son bond, then attempt to force a break in the family impasse. Control they take as their right, they do not possess as expected. Much is left to the reader’s imagination. There is power in the spaces between what is shared.

The Father Hole is another story where what is happening in the shadows is not always clear within the text. A young girl is sent to spend time with her father – a virtual stranger she is afraid of despite how often he lavishes her with gifts. His love is transactional – her physical reaction treated as an ailment. The climax and then her return to him left me with rather too many questions – the weirdness of certain key scenes harder to follow and explain.

The Girlfriend has a slower pace than the other tales. This was fully compensated by the excellent ending – clever and unexpected.

The unpredictability of direction within each of these stories is managed to fine effect, never overdone but keeping the reader on edge and engaged. There is a poignancy within the darkness. Liminal spaces are conjured from what may be passed as mundane. It is easy to empathise with characters whose hidden concerns harbour threats they struggle to articulate. The Swedish setting provides an evocative backdrop to an arresting and enjoyable read.

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

Book Review: Signal

Nightjar Press is an independent publisher specialising in limited edition single short-story chapbooks by individual authors. Having checked their website, these books sell out quickly.

I am familiar with the author of Signal from his recent novel, The Complex, published by Salt in 2019. Like his longer work, Signal has a dark underbelly. Framed by a contemporary town on the eve of Christmas Eve, the glittering façade of partying nightlife contrasts with the loneliness behind the invisible masks people don on such occasions.

The story opens with a young woman, Kate, walking home after work. As she passes an apartment block on her familiar route she is looking for recognisable faces at lit windows – a kind of distant companionship. A glitch in her personal electronic device distracts her, after which she notices a naked man looking out from one of the top floor residences. He is not the only disturbance in her periphery. The narrative pulls cankers from a variety of encounters – perturbing imagery abounds.

We learn that Kate is estranged from her parents and that her sister died while at university. The grief from this latter event is still raw, invading Kate’s dreams. Unable to face her housemate’s plans for the evening, Kate embarks on a moonlit walk. The sense of foreboding is masterfully deployed.

“Town had a circus vibe.”

Throughout the unfolding tale the reader is kept guessing as to what is illusory and what real. Kate takes what some may consider to be risks, seeking closure on a period of her life denuded of prospects. It is not the darkness or shadows she fears but rather the relentless reality of her day to day existence. Her sense of loss pervades.

The reader is drawn into the tale, its unsettling developments rising like smoke to mingle with the vestiges of sense Kate tries to cling to. The writing is liminal, so much on the edges distracting from actions and reasoning. The denouement leaves much to ponder – vestiges of a storm in which Kate’s evening was the eye.

A study of grief and loneliness set around the season of glitter and hollow cheer. A broodingly atmospheric and memorable read.

My copy of this story was provided gratis by the publisher, Nightjar Press.

Book Review: London Gothic

Nicholas Royle has been described by a Sunday Times reviewer as a ‘craftsman of disquiet’. London Gothic, his latest short story collection, provides a fine example of why he deserves such praise. Across fifteen deliciously disturbing tales, written between 2000 and the present day, he offers glimpses of contemporary London as seen through the lenses of artists – and other residents the aspiring and successful brush up against. Settings include: flats carved from once spacious houses, hipster style art galleries, and a ‘country house’ hotel. Alongside an undercurrent of the macabre there is much humour. Royle is not afraid to poke fun at his peers and those they may venerate.

The collection opens with Welcome, an apparently jolly letter to new home owners that quickly sets the scene for the author’s ability to summon unease.

There follow a number of stories that explore how little can be known of other’s reasoning – the perturbing methods they employ to solve troubling issues.

The Neighbours tells of a burgeoning relationship that stalls when the man feels shadowed by another couple paying too close attention. Much is inferred but the reader is trusted to reach their own conclusion.

This lack of spoon-feeding is a strength in these tales. Undertows pervade with questions hanging over what is real and what a product of a character’s history, personality and concerns.

The Old Bakery is something rather different, and a strong addition. In it, a sub-editor is working on a piece commissioned for a Sunday Supplement in which a wealthy couple are showing the space they have created from the titular building. The tone of the interview is faux-humble, exacerbated by the writer’s collusion and sycophancy. It is a wonderful take-down of smug artistes, nepotism, and the jealousy of those not included within inner circles.

Another story that strays from the themes of hauntings, doppelgängers and murder is Constraints. It harnesses a form that is somewhat experimental yet has been made to work.

Lesser known histories of the city add to the colour and flavour of many of the tales. Buildings referenced may or may not exist in real life but are still familiar. Changes have been made over time to structure and interior but they retain glimpses of what they once were. Incomers will try to cash in on the nostalgia this generates.

The author frequently plays with his reader, most obviously in the story, London. This includes a description that appeared to meander into rather boring detail, followed by a rejoinder for the inevitable lapse in attention.

“Go ahead. Skim. I’m just telling you what I saw. It might be important. It might not.”

Suitably chastised, I reread the paragraph. I will not spoil by saying if this were necessary.

Several stories contain elements that could be regarded as self-referential, challenging the reader to admit to a conceit that they believe they might know something of the author. I enjoyed the playfulness with which these were introduced.

London plays with many aspects of mise en abyme. The tale told is not always straightforward but provides much to reflect on.

The collection concludes with The Vote. Set in a hotel it is an allegory for Brexit but avoiding the usual bile and blame. Characters were pigeon-holed by newspapers. The Times man may have been ‘a former Guardian reader’ who ‘tired of that paper’s obsession with certain issues’. He can socialise with the Telegraph man, if only for their brief stay in this shifting space.

“The Times man was still in the game, still a player, a stakeholder. But he knew that he and the Telegraph man were basically from the same stock. They could get on. Their wives could get on. This was how the country worked.”

Mostly though the stories in this collection avoid any hint of politics, reflecting more on class and culture – and the chasms these create. They offer up a dark underbelly lurking within everyday situations. Fabulous, at times chilling, storytelling to curl up with as the evenings draw in.

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

Book Review: London Incognita

London Incognita, by Gary Budden, is a collection of interlinked short stories that explore the revenants and mythical beings that lurk in the shadows of our capital city. The people populating each tale conjure up nightmares of strange beasts that appear in a reality only they may be able to experience. Although rarely talked of, these creatures – in a variety of forms – have long existed.

When woven together, the collection is also a story of friends who frequented the underground music scene – rebelling against a culture of money making and populism, yet revelling in their inverted elitist clique. The stories explore the inevitable descent (or should that be ascent?) from youthful conviction, and the fiction of memory.

“Alex wondered when he and Sally’s experiences became memories, when those memories became myths, and when those myths would be forgotten.”

The book opens with a short tale that introduces the reader to the author’s tenebrous writing style. This is followed by Judderman – previously released as a novella published by The Eden Book Society and reviewed here. Set in the 1970s, the protagonists, Gary and Danny Eider, are relatives of Melissa – an artist and author who features in several of the following stories, many with contemporary settings. She, her musician brother, and the group of friends they have hung out with, from two decades previously, form the core of the collection. Not all survive.

Each of these characters has an interest in what they refer to as London Incognita, ‘a place half-seen, misunderstood but very real’. In describing the creatures they encounter – always unsettling experiences – there are references to fictional authors and their legendary works. This blending of what exists and what is from Budden’s imagination adds depth to the foundations on which these stories are built. The reader is encouraged to accept a shaded world beneath the widely accepted reality in which we, the faceless masses, are assumed to exist.

In their youth, the friends came together in support of the underground music scene, believing themselves arbiters of taste beyond popular appeal.

“music that endured the decades, music that was too weird or too aggressive for the current fashions that found their inspiration in arch irony and depressed hedonism.”

Decades later, after battling addictions and hollowly surviving, one of the men in the group is trying to recapture the time when his interest in this music felt authentic.

“PK needed to redocument himself, pin down what he loved and why”

The London portrayed is home to the homeless – druggies and ghosts. Graffiti and rubbish abut closed off building sites, keeping the discarded from areas now shiny and gentrified. Beneath are the sewers, where giant rats gorge on fatburgs, and a mythical queen lures urban explorers.

My Queen is a brilliantly grotesque account of a man seeking the fantasy of the old city – the dark energy being drained by ‘the vampires of capitalism’. He desires a connection with history, albeit one played out for clicks on social media.

“At times, he feels he’s nothing better than a high risk Instagrammer; what’s the difference between his photos of a sluice gate beneath the streets of Bruce Grove and some idiot’s selfie in front of a popular London tourist attraction? Nothing. All there is is the burning and futile desire to prove we exist.”

Melissa created a zine when she was nineteen, initially chronicling the music scene her brother was a part of, then going on to include works of fiction. The zine grew in popularity, becoming a classic, with early copies now sought by collectors. The final story, You’re Already Dead, is a multi faceted tale, set as she prepares an artistic retrospective focusing on the zine’s history – and, deliciously, promoting a book she has written. It neatly pulls the threads of each tale in the collection together.

“two decades documenting the world I inhabit, or perhaps the fish tank I swim in”

“These days there are zines about pretty much anything, most of them twee and pretty dreadful in my opinion […] but, like with anything, the good stuff survives and persists while the chaff falls away. This is what distorts our view of the past, I realise.”

There is a poignancy to the contemporary characters as they look back on their younger selves, when they were so contemptuous of the type of people they have inevitably become.

“I burned with nostalgia for times that never really happened. This older London we fetishised.”

What Never Was is a beautifully rendered tale of futures that might have been, and pasts forgotten – moulding photographs consigned to a skip.

Sky City pulls together characters who pass by briefly. It is not just imagined creatures lurking in shadows that affect lives.

Bookended by Judderman and You’re Already Dead, the collection also contains Staples Corner, and How We Can Know It, which was published as part of An Unreliable Guide to London – reviewed here. This is written from the point of view of the author, thereby adding himself to the cast of characters. These meta aspects, scattered throughout, work well.

There is a great deal of drug taking. Younger characters regard themselves as outside accepted society, better than the office workers who appraise them with equal disdain. Two decades later they can acknowledge what was conformity to a type – punk as a fashion statement.

“the pretentiousness and certainty and self-centred seriousness of young adults who think they have found an answer to the world. It’s painful when you realise the solution is not a solution at all.”

All of this is told in tales redolent with a darkness that can stalk anyone – predators threatening mostly through imagined dangers. When the Judderman and the Commare are unmasked towards the end, after what I feared would be some, perhaps ironically, twee development, it felt like a punch in the gut – all credit to the author for pulling that off.

I have read several, excellent non fiction books about urban explorers and psychogeographers seeking out the mostly unregarded aspects of well traversed spaces. This short story collection does this masterfully, with the addition of melancholy wraiths and the Londoners whose lives they change. It is a dark love story to the city – chilling tales to curl up with as the nights draw in. It is also an acceptance that time cannot be halted, even by death. People and places change.

“London is never finished”

“Build and destroy and repeat”

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

Book Review: Foxfire, Wolfskin

“In the old versions of these tales, no harm comes to the husband”
“But I’ve always preferred stories which come with consequences.”

Foxfire, Wolfskin and other stories of Shapeshifting Women, by Sharon Blackie, is a collection of thirteen short stories. Each is a reimagining of a myth or fairy tale, mostly of Celtic origin although similar tales exist elsewhere. The writing is vivid and atmospheric, conjuring up worlds where beings exist who understand the land as it has always been, before man forgot the need for stewardship. Although appearing at times to be fantastical, the characters are warp to mankind’s weft. They cannot make good damage caused but can offer a reckoning that seeks to protect all species’ life support system. As such, it is a hopeful if at times brutal read.

The language is rich and evocative. Animals morph into people and vice versa. Good things come to those who stay true. When selfish actions wreak damage and pain, perpetrators discover that even awesome powers are diminished. Revenge can be shocking but is rendered with satisfying heft.

It is made clear in these tales how far humanity has removed itself from the need to care for the world of which he is still a part. What also comes to the fore is how men treat women. Religions perpetuate the damaging imbalance between genders and their expected behaviours. The Bogman’s Wife refuses to conform.

“On a sunny Sunday in the middle of June, he coaxed me along to his church. Heaviness and sin, damnation and misery – that was what they worshipped in that cold stone house. Prissy old preachers with biblical beards, crow-like in black woollen suits.”

“I saw the chains with which they’d willingly shackled their hearts; I perceived the prisons they’d voluntarily made of their souls.”

As in several of the stories, when the love the woman offers her husband is not, over time, enough for him, a price must be paid.

Foxfire also offers an account of a wife seeking revenge for her husband’s unfaithfulness and being shown that first impressions must sometimes be rethought.

“she smiled again, revealing the sharp white teeth which protruded from her blood-red gums. ‘You shouldn’t believe all the fairy tales you’re told,’ she said. ‘And not all of us are what we seem. Perhaps not even you.'”

Snow Queen takes a longer term view – a story of hope despite the scourge of mankind.

The various tales look at how we treat the world and each other, positing the question,

“Is to be different always to be a monster?”

The monsters are portrayed in tingling prose as they shift from attempts at assimilation to revenge at their treatment.

The Madness of Mis takes a piercing swipe at the futility of war.

“There is no glory in war; there is no honour in battle. There is only the riven, blood-soaked land, churned and poisoned by so much hate. There are only the trenches and the killing fields. Rivers choked with the stinking remains of man’s unique insanity.”

The allegedly misbehaving Mis considers the lies told by men through the ages that serve to frighten women and children, enabling their continued subjugation. She has had enough of their so called civilisation.

“Beautiful was the heart of your valley, and cosy your cave at the foot of the singing mountain. Watercress grew thickly in clear-running springs; the woods were lush and deep. No humans tore down trees. No foxes trapped here, no wise old salmon punctured for sport. No trace of war, no whiff of men, no stain of civilisation.”

Tales offer up a wondrous, mystical, spiritual evocation of the world in its entirety, its interdependent ecology, including but not defined by humanity.

Lest readers fear too much seriousness, there is also humour in the telling. Meeting Baba Yaga travels to a remote Russian wood where our ‘heroine’, Cheryl from Totnes, goes on a retreat.

“I’d dabbled in Buddhism and Wicca; done a course on past life regression – the lot. But somehow it just wasn’t happening for me. The Secret didn’t give up its secret. The universe just wasn’t aligning, you know?
So: a week in the taiga it was. It’s probably be a bit fresh there in early October, but it’d make a nice change from my usual yearly yoga retreats on Skyros.”

Cheryl wishes to connect with her power animal. The experience proves not to be what she expected.

The book concludes with a story that ratchets up the tension while providing a view of the world we live in now. In many ways this is a bleak depiction, but while there is life there may also be hope.

As is the nature of collections, certain tales resonated more than others. The mythical beings have many aspects in common but all provide food for thought. The stories are not just told – the reader is put inside each character’s world. The author provides a window into what could improve reality, if only man had the appetite to alter perspective and change how they behave.

Between each story are illustrations and a title page. At the end is a summary of the original inspiration for each tale, and why the author chose to interpret or change as they did. Along with the beautiful cover these add to a book that may be enjoyed for presentation as well as content. Read cover to cover or dip into at will, this is a richly satisfying and entertaining read.

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

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.