Book Review: Wilder Winds

wilder winds

“Life had taught her that stability wasn’t to be found outside on the streets. That as soon as you get used to how others live, everything changes.”

Wilder Winds, by Bel Olid (translated by Laura McGloughlin), is a collection of sixteen short stories exploring the myriad conditions under which families and individuals must live. These are stories of the young and the old, of the contented and the displaced. One theme running though is how little control any person has over changing circumstances, and how they must adapt if they are to survive.

Some of the most powerful stories are those that bring to the fore comparisons in how people of similar age end up existing, often due to the accident of birth. In the opening story two young girls meet when one is thrust unexpectedly into the other’s home. The reader is shown how shadowed a life can become when surrounded by illness.

“she was such a spirited contrast to my dry, sick, elderly mother, but I was struck by the image of the splendid woman before the mirror”

The lasting impact on children of chance encounters occurs again in Red. A young girl walks in, unseen, to observe a birth, that leads to a death.

Other stories portray the lives of refugees who must live for years in basic camps while being processed. As well as the effect this has on inmates, there is the difficulty faced by staff and volunteers when they start to care about individuals. A humane response brings with it its own pain.

This type of pain is evoked brilliantly in Three. A mother of triplets works with the children of convicted criminals. To survive her job she must retain emotional distance. In working long hours she worries about the breach this creates within her own family.

Invisible tells of an undocumented worker living a hand to mouth existence. In detailing her day the reader is shown a life revolving around survival, amongst those who choose to look away.

There are stories about the impact of conflict. At times an uprising can be euphoric. There are also tragedies.

Linda tells of the everyday conflicts women face by simply existing in public spaces. When one young women responds with unexpected violence, the media reaction is one of surprise.

“‘We still don’t know why the young woman reacted this way,’ say the police officers in charge of the investigation. Yes, that’s the problem right there, thinks Lola; they really don’t understand.”

As well as writing of the complexities of relationships – of shifting dynamics over time – the stories tell of love, duty and occasional irritation. The voices are often visceral yet beautifully rendered. I was particularly touched by Anna, Anne, Anna, in which a young girl finds a book that changes her.

In Plus Ultra, the author makes a brief foray into the supernatural.

In Cabaret the body of an obese woman who enjoyed her size is inhabited. In losing weight, she feels she has lost some essential part of herself.

“me singing and dancing and laughing. Round, full of curves and complexities me, splendid and happy me, imposing my body wherever I went. Me taking up all the space needed and more.”

Although important issues are explored, the stories are about the people living with the effects of what is happening around them more than the whys and wherefores. The writing style is taut but also tender, characters are nuanced and portrayed with sympathy.

This is, quite simply, a stunning collection that I am now eager to recommend. Another fine read from the Fum d’Estampa Press.

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

Book Review: No One Has Any Intention of Building a Wall

building a wall

No One Has Any Intention of Building a Wall, by Ruth Brandt, is a collection of eighteen short stories that explore, in eminently readable and engaging prose, a myriad of challenging lived experiences. Whilst there is an undercurrent of melancholy, this is infused with the beauty to be found when one pays attention. Love, with its many shades, is valued yet cut through with the cruelties inflicted by individuals who, inevitably, look out for themselves. There is also humour alongside an appreciation of transitory moments that prove pivotal. It becomes clear that the now can only be experienced through a lens coloured by what has gone before.

The collection opens with Happy Ever After, in which a mother waits desperately for news of her grown son, who is missing. The structure is clever and effective in offering the reader events from a variety of perspectives. The ending elicits sympathy despite its shocking nature.

Several stories explore child and parent relationships – the love and the disconnects alongside the damage inflicted by parents’ chosen actions, however well intentioned.

Strands features a young boy as he is moved between foster homes, a process that colours his development into adulthood, his ability to trust others and himself. He is regarded as trouble and continues to believe this.

There are a number of stories that follow the difficulties encountered due to sexual attraction. Petrification, set in Iceland, follows a hoped for holiday romance. Lifetime looks at the worries caused by age difference, but in a wonderfully off-centred way.

I enjoyed Superstitions in particular with its supposedly practical and fact valuing protagonist. She is taking part in an experiment involving a ladder and a cat but with questionable measures and aims. The humour provided in the ending was neatly executed.

Many of the stories have a pleasing ‘life is for living’ element, one that feels particularly valuable given our current situation. In Heading West an elderly man sets out to visit the seaside. His pursuit may seem foolish yet comes across as hopeful. His attempts to gender a young driver who helps him adds nuance to a poignant yet uplifting tale.

Snow Blindness is set during a ski holiday. A woman is spending her time focused on living longer by not taking risks.

“obsessing over whether the next check-up will be clear, retreating from the world to live in total safety all those extra minutes, months or years gifted her by expert doctors.”

Meanwhile, her partner determines to enjoy the moment, however foolhardy this may appear to a woman who believes he should deny himself pleasures she does not approve.

“Today he is going to squander his life, spend every last moment of it. Christ, today he feels alive.”

Stories include: spies and refugees, the bullied and depressed, young carers and children caught up in parental conflict.

Stop all the clocks imagines a seventeen year old Turing, dealing with school in the aftermath of his best friend’s death. Knowing how this affected him in real life adds to its power – how authority at the time tried to quash and ignore what was a desperate cry for understanding.

The writing is skilfully rendered, offering stories that are affecting and humane. There is much to consider in how we choose to live, the effect choices and personally proclaimed edicts have on others in the longer term, the walls being built between loved ones when they will not act in an approved way.

This is an engaging, timely and worthwhile read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fly on the Wall Press.

Book Review: Colchester WriteNight

colchester writenight

Colchester WriteNight is a monthly community event that offers members the opportunity to learn from guest speakers, write together, and share their work. The group has been running for ten years and decided to commemorate this anniversary by publishing a short prose collection, in collaboration with Patrician Press. The contributors are a mix of published and as yet unpublished authors (until now…) – members who accepted the invitation to contribute a piece that would fit the theme Open/Open Book. The editors’ choices provide an eclectic mix of short stories from writers honing their craft.

I found this book a tonic to read. On a personal note, when I first started writing I enjoyed creating short works of fiction inspired by weekly prompts put out by the editors at Yeah Write. After a year or so of taking part, and carefully considering the feedback given, it became clear to me that I did not have the requisite skills to write the novel I had dreamed of. What I had learned was that writing is fun and therapeutic but writing longform quality fiction requires a high level of imagination, research and dedication. It takes time, and at the end there may be no publisher willing to take it on. It was this that made me decide to attempt to raise the profile of others’ books rather than create my own. It is good to know that community writing groups exist elsewhere – in person when allowed – and offer encouragement to writers wishing to test their mettle, either for fun or as a stepping stone to potential publication.

What we have here then is sixteen tales, some raw, a few finishing somewhat abruptly, but all highlighting the eagerness of the storyteller to entertain readers. There are impressively imaginative ideas at play in places – Jesus On A Park Bench by Jonathan King was a particular favourite. Life sparks from the pages in many forms.

Recurring themes are explored. Isolation, especially within families where role can subsume innate character leading to often unacknowledged despondency, struck a chord – especially given the ongoing effects of lockdown. Couples struggle with emotional bullying. On Reflection by Helen Chambers takes a possible alternative life to a new level.

There are also more hopeful stories. Lives open up new vistas following the death of a partner. Humour is employed to effect. Open by Wendy James was fun to read despite being about a relationship breakdown.

I enjoyed the idea behind Ms Wiffle’s Open Book by Katy Wimhurst, in which a young woman finds herself capable of offering fellow village residents very specific warnings of future events. I also appreciated the meta aspects of Open Book: 1995, 2009, 2021 by Alice Violett.

The book is described as a ‘celebration of community creativity’. It is a delight to see these writers being given the opportunity to reach a wider audience. It is also good to know that groups like WriteNight exist to offer them friendship and support.

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

Book Review: Dead Relatives

dead relatives

Dead Relatives, by Lucie McKnight Hardy, is the book for the spooky season. It is a collection of thirteen short stories – eight of which have previously appeared in other publications, the remainder original to this collection. The author is expert at writing the macabre into the ordinary. The shadowed and shifting undercurrents permeate characters’ everyday interactions and behaviour.

The titular opening story is also the longest, building tension from the first page. It is told from the point of view of thirteen year old Iris, who lives with her Mammy and their two loyal servants in the crumbling family mansion. Iris has never been beyond the grounds, which she remembers were once well maintained. Set in the 1960s, the family own neither television nor radio. She learns of the outside world only from the array of ladies who periodically come to stay. Iris’s best friend is her doll, but even this must be kept hidden.

“‘Cold hands, cold heart,’ I say, which is what Mammy always says, and I smile my special smile, just for her. I want to show her Dolly. I think Nancy would like Dolly, because Dolly is a lot like me and it seems that Nancy likes me. But I remember what Mammy has said, and so I keep quiet about Dolly. Instead, I put my hand out and rest it on Nancy’s belly.”

The second story, Jutland, tells of a young family moving to the Danish island where the artist husband hopes to concentrate on his painting. The wife, Ana, is a writer, struggling to revive the novel she was forced to set aside following the birth of her second child. The couple’s firstborn has yet to speak, communicating with gestures. Ana is not happy, resentful of her husband’s demands now her role is defined as mother and milking machine.

“He paints shit. He paints like shit. He is shit. But me? I’m a writer. Would you like to hear about that? About the awards I have won and the reviews in the broadsheets?”

There are subtle links between individual stories, small mentions of features previously employed in the varied narratives. What runs through each tale is the unhappiness inherent in families. Some revolve around tragedies, others ingrained character traits. All are nuanced, the reader trusted to make connections.

The Pickling Jar is as shocking as it is darkly humorous, telling of a village community with competitive traditions that are seriously questionable.

Cavities is one of the shorter stories but packs a powerful punch. The lingering sadness makes it hard to blame the protagonist for her actions.

Likewise, Resting Bitch Face, provides a warning of the potential repercussions when women are badly treated. Many of these stories are not for the faint hearted.

Some of the later tales move in the direction of the supernatural rather than the macabre. Mostly these uncanny elements invade insidiously. Children in particular struggle through lack of what they long for, even those being raised by parents who care for them. Those whose lives are followed into adulthood carry with them the damage inflicted.

Wretched is set in a near future Britain and provides a timely warning about acceptance of government propaganda. Citizens are given a Value Index that determines what goods they have access to, including food. The Initiative clears the streets of undesirables, processing them to provide a compliant labour force. Even those who perceive what is being done often choose to look away for fear of social censure and personally damaging repercussions. There is a chilling recognition of the direction England could currently be heading.

The final story, The Birds of Nagasaki, details a key event in the lives of a young brother and sister. The cruelty featured is deeply upsetting despite centring on an item of clothing. The skill with which the author makes readers care is impressive.

In fact this entire collection is impressive. The writing is taut and fluid, disturbing yet compelling. The horror is subtle yet penetrating. A darkly fabulous, recommended read.

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

Book Review: The Song of Youth

song of youth

The Song of Youth, by Montserrat Roig (translated by Tiago Miller), is a collection of eight short stories that explore universal themes – love, loss, grief, aging, memory, sex – but touched on from angles that tell the reader much about themselves. Although set in a Catalonia shadowed by the Franco regime, the tales explore human experiences and attitudes that will resonate widely. The writing is taut yet expressive, conveying the conflicting emotions of situations without including unnecessary detail. Characters are not always likable but will draw reader empathy.

The collection opens with the titular story in which an elderly woman is lying on a hospital bed, in a ward reserved for those expected to die soon. She is regarded as difficult by the busy nursing staff. She is not yet ready to expire despite being barely able to move. As the woman observes comings and goings around her she relives a key event in her life, prompted by a doctor who reminds her of a former lover. She ponders the changes to her body caused by aging.

“She raised a hand and held it against the ray of sunlight coming in through the window. It was a transparent hand with protruding bones, riddled with swollen blue rivers cut through by clods of earth coloured stains.” 

When youthful and regarded as pretty the woman chose to indulge in an act of rebellion against the path her parents expected her to take. Now approaching her end, she continues to push back in small ways available.

My favourite story in the collection was Love and Ashes, in which a middle-aged woman, Maria, travels abroad for the first and last time with her husband. They must borrow money to make the trip but it is an experience he wishes to indulge in before he dies. There is much humour in this tale, from the frenemy who has travelled frequently and insists on sharing every detail, to the ridiculous husband whose behaviour ends up freeing Maria to enjoy what time remains. 

Mar is another strong inclusion, exploring the impact of a friendship on family and community when a woman will not conform in her behaviour. Both Mar and the narrator are married with children, the latter being an intellectual with socialist ideals that she comes to recognise ‘only existed in our heads’. Early in the story we learn that Mar is now in hospital, kept alive by machines. The narrator is pondering the year they spent together, one that led to the breakup of both their marriages.

“Perhaps I was attracted by what I perceived in her as innocence but which was, in fact, a merry immorality. She unearthed feelings I didn’t care to define but which had long been lurking deep inside of me, as dark as the thoughts I didn’t dare express”

It is posited that those who condemned Mar did so due to their own unhappiness. It is a story of ideals and the lies we tell ourselves about what we believe in, how we wish to be perceived.  

I found the final story, Before I Deserve Oblivion, disturbing. It offers a depiction of a man with sexual proclivities few would admit to. As a boy he masturbated while secretly watching his parents have sex. As an adult he is caught spying on schoolgirls he is teaching as they undress in a changing room. The man also worked as a censor of literature, ensuring the public could not read the erotica he had access to in order to remove it from texts. He is trying to explain his unsavoury behaviour. Whilst acknowledging he will be condemned by others, it is unclear what he believes to be acceptable in thought and deed.

Although covering numerous challenging topics, the stories are relatable in the characters that populate each page. The writing flows easily, maintaining an engaging pace. There is depth as well as humour, a poignancy in the unflinching portrayal of how people judge both others and themselves. A deftly written collection of short form fiction that I am glad to have read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fum d’Estampa Press. 

Author Interview: Sam Reese

Sam Reese Author Photo

Sam Reese is an award-winning critic, short story writer, and teacher. His first collection of stories, Come the Tide, was published by Platypus Press in 2019. His latest book, On A Distant Ridgeline, was published this week – you may read my review here. I was delighted to be invited to interview him and hope my readers enjoy the answers he gave to my questions as much as I did.

Can you tell my readers a little about yourself and your background?

I’m originally from Aotearoa New Zealand, and I lived and worked in Australia and Europe before settling in York, where I teach at York St John University. I have been writing for as long as I remember, and my first published works were poems while I was at high school. Then, I discovered the short story—and fell in love. I completed a PhD on midcentury American short stories, and have published two critical books (on short fiction, and on jazz and literature) alongside my two collections of short fiction.

Can you tell us about your latest book, On a Distant Ridgeline?

On a Distant Ridgeline is a thematically linked collection of short stories, centred on desire, relationships, and connection to place. The stories span remote parts of Aoteaora, rural Spain, downtown Sydney, the highlands of Peru, and a village in Japan, but share a focus on how we navigate the things, people, and places we yearn for.

You describe yourself as an insatiable traveller. The short stories in your collection are set around the world, exploring themes of displacement and belonging, emotional as well as physical. Where do you feel that you belong?

That is a complicated question! Like most New Zealanders I know, I am deeply attached to the landscapes and rhythms of the country where I grew up. But as a pākehā—someone who is not indigenous to the country—I am also aware of my status as a visitor. Like some of the characters in my collection, my family moved to Aotearoa from France and Norway, along with Scotland and Wales, over the 19th century—and that family mythology has shaped my sense of who I am. There is part of me that has always felt a pull away. I haven’t lived in Aotearoa for more than ten years now either. Still, it is my point of reference when I think of feelings of home.

Although locals feature in the stories, main characters are often incomers. Were they developed from your personal experience or did you conduct research at settings?

My characters draw on my own experiences and research in equal measure. One of the things that I think is most powerful about fiction is the way that it can take an experience we think that we might understand, and reimagine it, opening up new ways of looking at ourselves—as a reader, as much as a writer. Many of the stories started with a memory or feeling I have had. But I use research, including conversations with people who have had quite different lives to mine, to help me reframe those experiences, shape them into something new.

I liked the idea of people being inherently different in how they understand – read – other people. Taking your descriptors, would you consider yourself an archivist (gathering knowledge) or an architect (able to see underlying
patterns)?

Yes, I find that there is often a wide gulf between the way that I understand other people and the way a friend might read them. I think that I’m more of an archivist, observing, noting down, and storing—though I aspire to an architect’s vision in my writing!

There are several mentions in your stories of: free diving, pottery, etymology and Greek myths. Are these personal interests?

They are! My undergraduate degree was in classics and English, and Greek myths have helped me make sense of my world since I was small—they also link On a Distant Ridgeline with my first collection, Come the Tide. My interest in etymology, too.

The motif of pottery—especially of shaping clay—is part of my larger interest in things made by hand. There are carvers and carpenters in these stories, too, reflecting my fascination with craftsmanship, and my curiosity in offering different ways of understanding the process of writing. I believe that writing is a craft, after all.

Free diving, and descriptions of lakes, rivers, the ocean (not to mention drowning) all reflect a similar double concern. I love the ocean, and feel a deep connection to the water. But swimming, diving, and submerging all offer powerful metaphors for understanding our fears and desires, and can shift quickly from comforting to terrifying.

Have you dived at the Whenuakura (Donut Island) lagoon?

I have visited Whenuakura, but I haven’t dived there—yet!

What is your favourite part of being a writer?

I love the feeling of immersion in the shaping of a story. When I write, I have the same feeling of the world disappearing that I get from swimming. It is a sense of flow. I also love the satisfaction of finding that what I have written has answered the challenge or problem that I set myself—of seeing something that I have shaped and
honed to the very best of my abilities.

And your least favourite?

I hate the process of submitting stories to magazines or competitions. And the feelings of jealousy or competition that the literary marketplace creates (and thrives on).

As a published author, what is the best advice you have been given?

Well, I think the best advice I’ve read was in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel prize address: that three dimensional characters are less important than three dimensional relationships. But the best advice anyone has given me in person was to focus on writing in a style that feels true to yourself—rather than trying to write for what you think the market wants.

You are yourself a literary critic. Do you seek out reviews of your books?

I do—I can’t help it. I know some writers avoid reviews of their work, or find that reading negative reviews really affects their confidence. I find that the insights I get from reviews are always useful in some way, though. My critical brain helps here—a lot of my work focuses on the reception of short fiction, so I have a broader perspective that helps to contextualise what reviewers say. I often think that I would love to read a very critical review of my work—but that might just be inviting trouble!

What small thing do you do when you wish to treat yourself?

I buy myself a book! The more I read, the more I want to read

What books have you read and enjoyed recently?

When I was a teenager, and theoretically poised for ‘coming of age’ stories, I absolutely hated them. But lately, I’ve been reading and loving some eccentric bildungsroman: Natsume Sōseki’s Sanshirō, Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture
Show, and Walter Tevis’ The Queen’s Gambit.

Who would you like to sit down to dinner with, real or from fiction, and why?

My dream dinner would be with my favourite mid-century writers—Mary McCarthy, Ralph Ellison, Paul and Jane Bowles, James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams, and Eudora Welty. Not because I’d want to talk to them about their writing per se (I prefer to let writers’ books do that), but because I’d want to talk to them about everything else. It might be unfair on my peers, but I find that those writers had so much sharper (and usually more interesting) insights on the world.

What question has no interviewer asked that you wish they would?

“Why do you write?”

distant ridgeline

On A Distant Ridgeline is published by Platypus Press

Book Review: On a Distant Ridgeline

distant ridgeline

“Although truth is something that we can experience, it is never possible to express it properly in language because there is always some part that will resist the expression – that will stay unsaid.”

On a Distant Ridgeline, by Sam Reese, is a collection of twelve short stories set around the world. The scope and breadth of the settings are matched by the subjects explored within these pages. That said there are recurring themes: man’s affinity with water; the beauty to be found in creativity; etymology and Greek myths. The tales are tinged with a melancholy born of thoughts of what might have been had other choices been made. Characters are searching for home, to be found in people rather than place.

The author employs each of the senses to create evocative imagery. Food has colour, texture and aroma as well as taste. Music draws out aspects of characters, previously unseen. The way individuals view greens and blues highlight the variations in how surrounds are experienced and remembered, even by those there together. Memory is fragmented, offering comfort as well as regret.

In a note at the end of the book Reese writes of the short story form:

“because they are so short, they must work by implication, giving us the precise words that will make us see a room, a dawn, the start of love, a death. A short story takes a person’s life, perhaps a single day, and shows us the world.”

In leaving much to implication, the reader is trusted to understand both the dissonance and connections in each relationship, how it is only possible to know a fraction about how another person parses their world.

I am unfamiliar with the many locations in which these stories are set but most of the characters are recognisable travellers across time as well as space. Placing characters away from where they grew up enables their sense of belonging and displacement to be explored. Decisions taken haunt with what might have been.

“Did you know that’s what I have admired about you from the start – not your hand per se, but the way you stretch it out and grasp. You want to know more, to begin to glimpse the way that things relate to one another, brush aside the veil, see the place where they connect. It is different to me, the way that you find connections. You are not an archivist, shoring bits of knowledge up against a future loss; you’re an architect, someone who can see the underlying pattern”

A life is described as ‘a whittling, a loss’, in the way fragments of wood get discarded to enable a craftsman to create a desired shape. Others live through gathering, collecting what may appear disparate clutter but has potential to come together as a thing of beauty.

The stories are of: family and friendships, finding love and suffering loss, regret and redemption. Characters include fathers, brothers, lovers, colleagues, young and old friends. Such universal motifs are wrapped within prose that absorbs and transports the reader. There is darkness and yearning but also radiance.

A finely varied collection that is rich and rewarding to read. These are stories to be savoured.

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

Book Review: Stories We Tell Our Children

stories tell children

“There is much conjecture as to how much degeneration occurred from the oral tradition, once it was set down on the page and ramrodded into the literary canon. But nothing compared to the twenty and twenty-first century mutation of the morals such tales were supposed to inculcate. Besides, contemporary children’s imaginations are scarce populated with denizens from the faerie realm. Magic and transformation these days takes place courtesy of fibre optics, usually through a gunsight and lots of pixelated cruor.”

Stories We Tell Our Children, by Marc Nash, is a collection of short stories that explore how children are shaped by the words they hear spoken by the adults charged with raising them. Although dark in places the writing style is playful. It brings to the fore how some of the best intentioned actions and interventions, when observed objectively, make little sense. It is not just parents who are put under the microscope of the author’s perceptive and piercing gaze. Many of the stories included follow the children as they grow and develop. The impact of their upbringing is often not what the parents intended or could have foreseen.

The collection opens with a mother teaching colours to her young offspring. It highlights how parents simplify facts and work to keep children engaged in such supposedly fine educational forays, while drifting off at tangents themselves. This is followed by a tale of a boy caught in the crossfire of warring parents, fearing that their battles will escalate, resulting in a murder. Children do not, after all, see the world through adult eyes. The third story looks at the tooth fairy myth, begging the question why such lies are propagated when children are routinely castigated for fibbing. The children in many of these stories are the ones offering the voice of reason.

Several of the tales are imbued by classic stories, pointing out that many of these have recently been sanitised with dubious rationale. Others deal with the lasting damage that closely involved parenting can wreak. It was interesting to consider that a degree of parental neglect can encourage a burgeoning imagination – required to overcome boredom. Many of the parents trying to raise future successes are shown to be attempting to fulfil their own dreams vicariously.

Rescinderella is a clever inversion of the Cinderella story – one I particularly enjoyed, if that is a suitable word for what is a tragedy. Certain of these tales include disturbing incidents – this is not a collection demanding a happy ever after. And it is not just the troubled who have issues. The gifted and talented also end up with crosses to bear.

The impact of books and reading are recurring themes. The author explores the fictions characters devour alongside those they create to make their lives appear more acceptable and interesting, especially to themselves. When stripped back to what is basic existence, where time passes however filled, there is a shadow of nihilism.

Yet this is an entertaining, not depressing, collection. While some of the stories resonated more than others, there is much to glean from each entry. As well as parenting habits, the author pokes fun at the conceits of creatives – with wit rather than callousness. If readers find mirrors within these words it is with a droll recognition.

The writing style employs much play on available language. The author does not employ simple language when more interesting forms of expression may be utilised. That said, there is nothing difficult in the reading.

The overarching theme may be the stories we tell our children and how these impact their development, but the tales also bring to light the stories we tell ourselves.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Book Review: Intimacies

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-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.