Book Review: Postcard Stories 2

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.


The poet who has forgotten his spectacles and misses out on an interesting visitation.


The children asked to dress up as a character from the bible for a church party.

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.

 

Book Review: Postcard Stories

Postcard Stories, by Jan Carson (with illustrations by Benjamin Phillips), is a collection of fifty-two short stories, one for each week of a year. They were originally written on the back of postcards and then mailed individually to the author’s friends. Set in or around contemporary Belfast they capture the attitudes and vernacular of their subjects with wit and precision. As with Carson’s previous work, there is at times an injection of magical realism which beautifully offsets the dry humour of her candid observations.

To tell a story as short as these the prose must throughout remain pithy. The author presents the quirks and poignancy of little moments in everyday life with warmth and affection. These small snapshots of the ordinary become extraordinary when painted with her words.

The stories in which elderly people feature offer a wry yet sympathetic account of life from their perspectives. All the characters are recognisable, their foibles presented with gentle perceptiveness.

From Ulster Hall Belfast (Week 34), where the narrator is mourning her increasing forgetfulness:

“There was not even a way to say that I had forgotten these things; only a jumble of words too long or too short for the job and a clenching of fists when the words would not come.”

From Armagh (Week 8)

“A provincial Northern Irish library, early evening, and the usual suspects have gathered for a creative writing workshop: two amateur poets, a sci-fi guy in a black t-shirt, a lady who writes letters to her sister in Australia, and that one elderly gentleman who’s working on a biography of someone you’ve never heard of.”

Writers feature as many of the stories appear personal.

From Whiteabbey (Week 9), which tells of a gathering of friends:

“Three writers and a much more useful person gathered for a dinner party. They ate aubergines and couscous impregnated with tequila. Like Jesus, they kept the good wine for pudding. Later, they ended their evening with Bob Dylan and cheese so ripe it might have been shoes.”

From Linenhall Street, Belfast (Week 29), where the author talks of making a robot of herself:

“The robot of me will not be funny or write stories or be good at conversation with wine. I will be particularly careful to ensure the robot is a dull dinner party guest for fear that my friends might begin to prefer its company over mine.”

One of my favourite tales in the collection was Albertbridge Road, Belfast (Week 27). It starts:

“The Tall Ships arrived in Belfast yesterday. They were not as tall as we’d been led to believe. We thought you might be able to see them from space or, at the very least, Cave Hill.”

Another I particularly enjoyed was Linenhall Street, Belfast (Week 50) where the narrator ponders bible stories and the characters who do not feature:

“which made me think of the shepherd who went off for a quick wee at exactly the wrong angelic moment, and all the people who, upon hearing there was only one portion of loaves and fish to split between so many, went home to fix their own sandwiches”

Both of these feature a last line so perfect I had to stop to savour the effect before rereading from the beginning. The length of each story allows for this. In many ways they are akin to poetry.

There are tales that play with word meanings: a consideration of happiness prompted by a sign in a coffee shop; a museum as a place to take the old things that remind the narrator of events they would prefer to forget. There are stories which deal with meetings and misunderstandings, arrivals and departures, loneliness and the throwaway comments that lodge in memory, endlessly chewed over yet remaining difficult to swallow.

The collection is ideal for dipping into. It is an attractively presented, slim volume with illustrative sketches for a number of the tales. Perfect for slipping into a bag or a pocket, this is a sagacious and entertaining read.

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