The Bygones, by Jim Gibson, is a collection of twenty-one ‘small stories’ all of which are impressively succinct and memorable. Bookended by two seemingly questionable tales, the opener tells of a young boy’s encounters with the Devil, episodes that mesh with his first kiss – the flow and then ebb of friendships and a youthful relationship. The final tale details an encounter with God in which a young man learns not to rely on what he has been told about deities. As with all the stories, the focus remains on the characters, ordinary people dealing with day to day experiences, the detail of which may at times appear strange.
Although there are certain surreal elements, all the tales remain grounded. In many ways I was reminded of Jan Carson’s writing, and that is high praise indeed. Gibson writes with a darker turn than Carson, there is less playfulness but still humour and piercing insight. The characters in this collection are mostly working class – the contemporary version in which jobs, housing and benefits are far from ideal. Many of those featured are lonely, stuck in ruts not always of their own making.
Jungle Banshee focuses on an unemployed young man living in a grime filled flat where he plays his X-box, ‘screen eyes’ enabling him ignore the grot that surrounds him. He finds welcome connection in an online chat room, a catalyst for change. All is not, however, as it first appears. The poignancy of this story offers an alternative take on stereotypes too often condemned.
You explores ever shifting memories and the scars an elderly person has had to live with. Shocking events are recounted in just a few carefully crafted sentences. What comes across is the isolation felt when no longer part of a community, although family life when remembered was very far from ideal.
Miss Fitzgerald employs a vernacular that works well to get across the thoughts and feelings of a young man who would like to find a partner willing to commit to a relationship and family. Using the frame of a party, the complexities of the man’s ethics are both poignant and amusing.
“You know what it’s like when you see all them lot from school that you never liked anyway, and they’re all talking about their nice lives in their new build houses and all that and I thought of the one bed flat with empty pizza boxes and its mysterious smell and how I came from there this evening and would go back alone.”
Many of the lives depicted come across as barren and gritty, the characters flawed and catching few breaks. Despite this there remains the chance of possibilities. There may be few happy endings but neither is there hopelessness.
The writing is seriously impressive. The author’s imagination and willingness to test boundaries makes for vivid and engaging reading. There are thought-provoking metaphors in many of the stranger narratives, but also a sense that accepted reality should not be hemmed in by staid convention.
A varied and satisfying collection from a fine storyteller. A depiction of ordinary lives that mines their layers with aplomb.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tangerine Press.