A Kind of Compass: Stories on Distance edited by Belinda McKeon

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Tramp Press a new independent publishing house based in Dublin was founded by Sarah Davis-Goff and Lisa Coen to encourage, support and maintain Ireland’s literary talent. Their aim to publish books for readers and to bring great writing in from the cold seems to be paying off as Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither was recently nominated for the Guardian First Book Award 2015.

A Kind of Compass is the latest release from Tramp Press and is a selection of short stories on the theme of distance, edited by Irish writer Belinda McKeon (author of novels Solace and Tender). With stories from some of the best writers across the globe writing today, A Kind of Compass takes the reader to places unexpected and often unnerving – from outer space to the inner mind. The writers, who include Sam Lipsyte, Yoko Ogawa, Kevin Barry, Sara Baume, Niven Govinden and Éilís Ní Dhuibhne all explore the notion of distance in a unique way, from the literal to the metaphorical, the distance of space and the distance of the mind.

A Kind of Compass editor Belinda McKeon
A Kind of Compass editor Belinda McKeon

In her enthralling introduction to this collection, Belinda McKeon confesses her obsession with the notion of distance,

With the spaces – the acres – between people, between places, between parts and versions of the self

Distance here is not just a physical thing and the contributors have taken the notion of distance to fascinating places. Given the international range and background of writers in the anthology, the stories are set all over the world from the Indian Ocean to Ireland and from the present day to the future. The collection opens and closes with two stories dealing with travel to outer space– the ultimate distance – both the dream of it and the reality of it. In Elske Rahill and Maria Takolander’s stories, the female protagonists are using this ultimate distance to try and make sense of their respective childhoods and their relationships with their fathers.

Other fictional travellers in the collection come to realise that bridging the physical distance between places does not necessarily bridge the emotional distance; that the journey of the body is not always enough. Stella, in Francesca Marciano’s Big Island Small Island flies to an island in the Indian Ocean to visit an ex- lover only to find her expectations thwarted and her old friend a stranger. She thinks

I need to say something that will shorten the distance, make us close again

This is true of several of the stories, including Sam Lipsyte’s witty yet moving The Naturals, where Caperton, a ‘free-range cultural consultant’ is travelling home to visit his dying father and says what he has always wanted to say only for his father to respond with a recommendation for a TV show. Other travellers include Yoko Ogawa’s Kotoko, whose dream trip to Vienna is derailed by a visit to a nursing home, where she ends up learning more than any museum trip or guided tours could teach.

Spill Simmer Falter Wither author Sara Baume
Spill Simmer Falter Wither author Sara Baume

In Finishing Lines Sara Baume explores the journey of the racing pigeon and how

It was the only race in the world….with a single starting gate but a thousand different finishing lines

Like a thousand finishing lines, the needle of the compass pulls us as humans in many ways. We can end up literally lost, like Kevin Barry’s protagonist in the moving Extremadura or just lost in the place we thought we wanted to be. Several of these stories examine the distance between our hopes and our realities. In City Inside, a Kafka-esque tale from Porochista Khakpour, Henry who is nervous after a move to a ‘famous city’ tries to avoid contact with other people, only to find that contact literally comes in his window. In the futuristic Distant Song, Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s young people cling to hope in a world where it has become currency, even though they know that hope is gone. The distance travelled is often irrelevant, understanding can come within the shortest space of time. Niven Govinden’s Animal Heart is a mere two pages long, but packs an emotional punch that many novels would envy.

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In his book The Lonely Voice, short story master Frank O’Connor explains that

there is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not find in the novel – an intense awareness of human loneliness

Many, if not all of the characters in these stories are lonely. At a distance not just from other people but from themselves, trying to come to terms with the space between thought and action, hope and reality. In New Zealand Flax, the stand out story in this collection, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne shows us Frida, a woman who is well aware of the devastating distance that has opened up in her life, but will not accept it and instead turns it in to something she can bear. It is a beautiful ode to the power of the imagination and the resilience of love.

While reading this exciting and thought-provoking collection of stories, I was reminded of the phrase ‘wherever you go, there you are’. At turns funny, unnerving and insightful, the collection reminds us that a compass can help us find the way, but we still have to make the journey ourselves and the destination my not be what we imagined.

 

With thanks to Tramp Press who provided me with a review copy. A Kind of Compass was published on 17 September 2015.

You can find out more about the great work they are publishing here and you can also read Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s story from the collection which was published on the Irish Times website here. I urge you to read it!

Belinda McKeon is the author of Solace (2011), which won the Geoffrey Faber Prize and was also voted Irish Book of the Year 2011, and Tender (2015). McKeon’s essays and non-fiction have been published in the New York Times, the Guardian, the Paris Review and the Irish Times. Born in Longford, she now lives in Brooklyn and is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Rutgers University.

 

 

Irish Literature

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Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

13 Comments Leave a comment

  1. It sounds like an interesting collection, Cathy. I like the idea of exploring different aspects of distance – physical, emotional and metaphorical. Your review reminded me of a collection of Valeria Luiselli’s writing, Sidewalks, which looks at different spaces and locations. I think you might like it (not that you need any more books!).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I read Tender this spring and adored it–McKeon is a beautiful writer. She’s also very nice in person, which was no bad thing as I accidentally referred to her as British (not Irish) on Twitter and got quite the telling-off from her more experienced fans! I’d love to read this; her eye for a good story from someone else is probably at least as good as her eye for her own characters’ emotions.

    Like

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