Book Review: Sweet Home

From the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses 2019 longlist – Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine.

Sweet Home is a collection of ten short stories that prove what powerful tales can be told in this condensed format. All are set in and around contemporary East Belfast. They feature ordinary people as their quiet disappointments and resentments bubble to the surface of their everyday lives. The author captures the quotidian with insight and poignancy along with each character’s yearning for what they perceive to be passing them by. There is a depth of understanding, a recognition that most hurts go unnoticed as individuals deal with their own demons and desires.

The collection opens with To All Their Dues which is told from three points of view. A young woman is trying to establish her new small business; a thug is demanding protection money but fears for the future of his nefarious income; his wife is trying to find a way to cope with her familial past. The way these three flawed lives are presented, with understanding but also clear sighted portrayal of limitations and worst behaviours, demonstrates the wit and skill with which the author writes.

Inakeen is an searingly honest depiction of a mother and son whose lives and aspirations are of little real interest to the other. The son visits his mother out of duty, not understanding how dull she finds his conversation. He does not notice her growing interest in her new neighbours, and how she feels let down by his inability to maintain relationships. While he is bitterly resentful that his former partner left him, his mother misses the younger woman’s company and that of her grandchild. She imagines the enjoyment her new neighbours – three women, one dressed in a burqa – have living together. Without knowing them, she longs to join in.

Observation looks at two families whose teenage daughters are best friends. Lauren is drawn to her mother’s new boyfriend. Cath is intrigued by a family setup so different from her own. Cath’s parents talk of Lauren’s mother in less than flattering terms. There is an undercurrent of denial in how much each character knows about what is going on, and in what is being said.

Locksmiths introduces a young woman raised by her grandmother after her mother was sent to prison. The grandmother is now dead and the mother due for release. The reader is offered views of each of these women through the others’ eyes. Little is flattering.

The titular story is a tale of two couples: a man who returns to Belfast with his English wife, both having established successful careers; the other couple younger and more ordinary, who are employed as gardener and cleaner. The latter pair have a child who becomes the focus of the returned man’s interest. None of these adults are content with their current situation and, to a degree, blame their partners.

Last Supper is set in a coffee shop run on a charitable basis. This skews the terms under which staff and customers operate. Daily tasks are carried out but the success of the enterprise is compromised by limitations imposed by the benefactors. The manager does his best to deal fairly with unrealistic expectations built on crumbling foundations.

Arab States: Mind and Narrative features a middle aged woman who allows her lingering regret at a choice made while at university to distort her current reasoning. She imagines that an old acquaintance, who has written a book, will still be interested in her. She wishes to bask in his reflected success. She tries to remake herself as the intelligent conversationalist she thinks he regarded her as back in the day. She is blind to her current self, which is all others see.

Lady and Dog tells the story of a teacher whose life changed when, as a teenager, her lover was killed. As she approaches retirement she becomes obsessed by a young man who teaches sport to her pupils. The denouement is horrific in ways that made me question why certain deaths shock more than others.

77 Pop Facts You Didn’t Know About Gil Courtney is a list, as described in the title, telling the life story of an almost famous musician. The structure is fun, clever but with a depth of sadness. Growing up on the Cregagh estate, Gil’s father would have preferred his son to take the expected factory job at Mackies. Gil’s exceptional musical abilities as a child were nurtured but these did not lead to long term happiness. The rock and roll lifestyle requires financial resources, the accumulation of which requires business acumen. It is interesting to reflect on the cost of fame and benefits of accepting a more ordinary life.

The Soul has no skin is a shattering tale of a young boy whose life is irreparably denuded by an act of kindness. Barry lives an austere and often lonely life, choosing to eschew ambition and exist below society’s radar. He has experience of being noticed and the scars this created run deep.

No mere summary of these plots can do justice to what is special about the writing. The author gets under the skin of what it means to live in a world striving to offer something better than that which an individual already has. This desire for better, rather than taking pleasure in the here and now, leads to restlessness and a blaming of others. Yet the tales are poignant rather than depressing, understanding more than recriminating. The use of language and fragile intensity make them alluring and satisfying to read.

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

Book Review: Levitation

Levitation, by Sean O’Reilly, is a collection of eleven short stories narrated in a distinctly Irish voice. They are raw and often unpleasant in their imagery. The characters lack empathy and emotional intelligence. They are self-absorbed and eager to indulge in whatever provides personal gratification. In the minds of the men, sex conveys a type of ownership and is given priority over what would generally be regarded as common decency. The author describes in detail acts I would have preferred not to have pictured in my head.

The collection opens with Hallion, a story that later continues with Hallion #2. Although not drawn to the tale initially, these turned out to be amongst the more palatable offerings in the book. The writing style took some getting used to as slashes replace more regular punctuation. Hallion tells of a man desperately trying to find someone, anyone, to care for his baby son that he may keep an appointment for a kneecapping. Hallion #2 deals with the aftermath. As stories these work. They draw the reader in to the accepted violence of the lives being lived.

Free Verse introduces a poetry writing barber named Clyde who has done time in prison. On release from this incarceration he published a book of verse on the advise of his therapist. The woman who inspired him, and to whom he dedicated the book, is not impressed. She wished to forget he existed and resents the reminder, given to her by a journalist. She confronts Clyde with an ultimatum that he struggles to accept.

The barber shop, in Capel Street, Dublin, along with its staff and clientele link each story in the collection. With a sizable cast of characters it was, at times, a challenge to keep track of their various relationships.

Rescue tells of a marriage under stress. Portia and Tiernan, a couple who seem ill suited except, perhaps, in bed are separated when one of their dogs attacks a child at a social gathering. Portia flees with the creature, angering her husband as his carnal needs are not now being met. He turns to drugs, a habit she had previously demanded he breaks. Eventually he follows her to the countryside. Tiernan is angered that his wife will not put his needs first.

The Cavalcade offers further degeneration. Two young people and an older man act out some sort of dominant/submissive sex game. Each are emotionally damaged. Graphic details of their encounters are provided. I found this sickening to read, pornographic in nature.

Downstream is also crude. Sex games are played, actions described, little understanding displayed between the players. Again, it was unpleasant to read.

The Three Twists offers more of a story, although with violent undercurrents. It provides little relief.

Love Bites/Dark Horses has a younger cast but the plot is somewhat opaque. Older family members have been caught misbehaving. There may be an abortion being dealt with. A young girl turns to the church but fears voicing her secrets.

Despite the sex, drugs and violence, many of the characters do still attend the Catholic church. Such hypocrisy added to the distastefulness rather than providing anything of depth.

Ceremony is set around a naming ceremony for a baby. It portrays men who feel hard done by, damaged to an extreme, if the women they want to have sex with do not act as they wish. For no reason I could fathom details of flatulence and the need to defecate are included. The characters are unlikable enough without the need for such typically schoolboy particulars.

Critical Mass II is described as an abandoned work and is written in this style. Again, unpleasant details detract from the story arc. A sister smears spit across her brother’s mouth, her bad breath repeatedly mentioned. The boy appears to be a sacrifice or seer. It is, as titled, unfinished.

Levitation is set in the barbers shop and includes many of the characters from the previous tales. It has a story arc but not one made entirely clear. As the final offering in a collection I was not enjoying reading, I had hoped for something stronger in this, the longest tale. It was not to be.

As mentioned, these stories include copious drug taking and sex. I became bored by the repetition, searching behind these porn inspired, teenage tropes for whatever meaning the author intended to convey. In the end it all became too murky. If there is brilliance it has been shadowed by the discomfort of the prose’s leering gaze.

Levitation is published by The Stinging Fly Press.