Postcard Stories 2, by Jan Carson (illustrated by Benjamin Phillips), is a collection of fifty-eight short stories that were originally written on postcards and mailed by the author to lucky recipients. I was one of them, although I was unaware that ‘my’ story was to be included until I started to read the book.
The tales told are poignant and funny and oh so redolent of the human condition. Carson cleverly and succinctly captures her characters’ thoughts and idiosyncrasies with signature wit and nuance.
A number of the stories standout for their first lines.
“There are tiny, mythical creatures living behind the muesli boxes in the cereal aisle of Connswater Tesco”
“The Mexican artist Frida Kahlo has come back from the dead to enjoy a midwinter break in the English seaside resort of Brighton.”
“Last Friday I decided to visit the Library of Mistakes in Edinburgh, Scotland.”
Having drawn the reader in with the promise of a deliciously imaginative tale these do not disappoint.
Other stories leave the reader delighted with a last line that so perfectly concludes an apparently simple tale, adding resonance.
“The thought of one space inhabited by another made sense to me then, like matryoshka dolls, or the way I’d been brought up to believe there was a home inside my heart and that if Jesus wasn’t living there someone else would move in.”
I preferred the stories set in Northern Ireland to those from America as I more readily recognised the concerns and foibles of those being observed. Carson rarely mocks, preferring an understated sympathy towards those who act as they do because this is as it has always been where they are, even if rarely acknowledged. She is particularly good at observing the elderly as fully rounded individuals with long lives featuring both joy and regret – with perhaps an added dose of irritation towards situations they encounter.
I do, of course, have favourites from the collection.
Anaghmakerrig features writers on a retreat, some of whom decide to swim in a cold and muddy lake one afternoon.
“Secretly, the non-swimming writers felt pissed with themselves because once again they had not fully embraced the moment. They wondered, as they often wondered, if this inbuilt reticence was to blame for their writing, which rarely seemed to fulfil its own potential.”
Edinburgh is set at another gathering of artists and explores the difficulty they find socialising at events.
“Patrick cradles a plateful of cheese and hummus, wondering when it will be acceptable to dispense with the niceties and begin sketching each of the attendees in nervous biro.”
Belmont Road, East Belfast lists certain true expressions of love.
- That one time you stood up to your mother for me”
There are many others. Some focus on the quiet wish to be a part of something while recognising personal unsuitability. Others look at those who are already part of a group and wonder why they are there amongst people they do not particularly like or feel in any way akin to.
Kells tells the story of a grandmother, a weaver of linen, who was regarded as unremarkable yet could have told of a rich history had interest been shown.
It is this ability to excavate the rich seam running through ordinary lives that adds flavour and depth to the author’s writing. In these short snapshots, her ability to play with an original idea, exploring the effects of the day to day on people who often go unnoticed, that come to the fore.
I must also mention the illustrations scattered throughout the text.
A collection to dip into and reread for the pleasure of the prose. It is also a reminder that people are far more interesting than the stereotype they may at first appear to conform to.
Postcard Stories 2 is published by The Emma Press.