I’m kicking off Week 3 of Reading Ireland Month with a look at two authors who have just released their second volumes of short stories, following auspicious debuts that were both published by The Stinging Fly .
DANCE MOVE BY WENDY ERSKINE
Wendy Erskine’s stories of loneliness, quiet desperation, and small moments of connection set in her native East Belfast have garnered high praise since publication in her debut collection Sweet Home in 2018. Erskine has returned with Dance Move, a new collection of acutely observed short stories in which the everyday and the extraordinary meet, exploring the unexpected moments of connection that can change a life forever.
In the opening story ‘Mathematics’, a contract cleaner finds a young girl in a house she is working in and looks after her as best she can, while Max, the visiting Professor of Film in ‘Gloria and Max’ is thrown together with a middle-aged care worker when they witness the aftermath of a motorcycle accident. In ‘Bildungsroman’, a young man stays in the house of a woman his mother knows while completing his work experience in the city, only to be tied to her for years when he discovers she is hiding a gun in her attic for a local gangster.
Erskine has a keen sensitivity to characters who are haunted by the idea of lives that have passed them by. In ‘Mrs Dallesandro’, the wealthy wife of a prominent lawyer remembers a teenage love affair, a time when her life had so much potential. The narrator of ‘Momento Mori’ rages against a shrine to a murdered girl which pops up outside her house, while her partner is inside dying of cancer. The outstanding ‘Nostalgie’, features Drew, who had a brief pop career in the ‘80s but now works in IT and thinks about what might have been. An invitation to play a gig back home in Belfast, proves the old adage that you should be careful what you wish for.
‘Cell’ the story of a woman who has lost twenty-five years of her live to a socialist collective is an incredible achievement. Perfectly paced and structured, the story utterly wrong-foots the reader, unveiling its true tragedy with skill and grace.
These stories have real emotional depth and act as reminders that no one has an ordinary life; that the extraordinary is living within everyone. Wendy Erskine is clear-eyed when exploring the dark complexities of human behaviour, but the humour and sensitivity displayed within her affecting prose allow this collection to soar.
HOMESICKNESS BY COLIN BARRETT
Colin Barrett’s debut short story collection, Young Skins, was published almost ten years ago to great acclaim, Introducing readers to an exciting new literary voice chronicling small-town Ireland with wit and compassion. Since that auspicious debut, Colin Barrett’s stories have appeared in The New Statesman, Harper’s, The Stinging Fly and The New Yorker where some of the stories in his new collection – Homesickness – were first published.
Once again, these powerful stories are mostly set in County Mayo and feature instantly recognisable characters trying to make sense of their lives and in a recent review in the Guardian, Anne Enright has called Barrett ‘one of the leading writers of the short story anywhere.’
That’s the thing about Mayo. I find it very presentable from a distance. It’s only up close it lets you down.
Homesickness brings together eight short stories, all of which, apart from one, are set in Mayo and feature characters dealing with loss, disappointment and unfulfilled potential. There is a threat of danger in all of these stories but most are notable for their eschewal of dramatic set-pieces and their ability to wrong-foot the reader with their ambiguity and mystery.
In the affecting ‘The Ways’, three teenage siblings are trying to muddle through following the deaths of their parents in quick succession, while in ‘Whoever is there, come on through’ a woman in her mid-twenties is trying to look after her best friend following his fourth stay in hospital for depression. However, while she is focused on his recovery, someone else’s struggles go unnoticed.
Sharp humour again features strongly in this collection, from the laidback would-be poet Bobby Tallis in ‘Anhedonia Here I Come’, whose as yet unpublished debut poetry collection is all about suicidal ideation, even though Bobby is pretty happy being alive. Stand-out story ‘The Alps’ is a slice of small town Irish pub life which fizzes with sparkling dialogue and characterisation. When an unhinged man walks into a Mayo pub carrying a sword, it’s up to the Alps brothers to diffuse the situation. ‘The Alps’ is the perfect showcase for Barrett’s enticing mix of humour, colloquial dialogue and emotional depth.
The Alps were not men comfortably acquainted with the carnal, but they could become as fissured and rent with yearning as anyone.
Colin Barrett has more than cemented the promise shown in his debut collection with Homesickness, all of which bodes well for his novel which is due to be published next year.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!