Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine

-Reviewed by Sam Edwards-

With Sweet Home (Stinging Fly), longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize 2019, Wendy Erskine has cultivated an achingly desperate collection of tales set in Belfast. Situated against a backdrop of urban decay, Erskine has assembled a ragtag cast of broken people, caught in the most pivotal moments of the everyday. From Paula’s newfound obsession with the Middle East, to the workers of a run-down Church café called Jesters, in Sweet Home something is always closing down – but there’s a quiet brilliance in the way that Erskine illuminates the rusty shutters.

One of the pinnacles of Erskine’s collection is her opening story ‘To All Their Dues’, a Pulp Fiction-esque story split between three perspectives: a beauty salon owner called Mo, racketeer and overall piece of work, Kyle Starrs, and finally, Starrs’s girlfriend and ex Parish-girl, Grace. I think this story is the most literal embodiment of the sombre themes Erskine explores throughout her collection. “What do people think about?” Grace wonders, as Mo gives her the works at the Salon.

Together with the interconnected nature of these perspectives, Grace’s question becomes almost meta, as it comments on the impossible distance between our consciousness, and consequently, our limited capacity for empathy.

In ‘Locksmiths’, Erskine continues to explore the limitations of human connection, this time taking a step further in her exposition by focusing her lens on a fractured family:

“If, when I was younger, anyone asked about my mother, the non-specific, ‘she’s away’ seemed to suffice on most occasions. It was rare however that anyone would ask. But had anyone enquired, would there have been a big stigma attached to having a mother in jail? Probably not.”

Locksmiths’s unnamed protagonist is driving to prison to pick up her mother – who has just finished a sentence for murder. This is a bittersweet story about the conflict found in choosing between two different types of love: love for yourself, and love for your family.

Last Supper’ is a poignant tale about the ‘ends of things’:

“The six-inch gash in the sofa’s vinyl has been done with a blade, and whoever was responsible has dug a hand into the foam to pull out a sizeable hunk as a souvenir […] The Church is not sure whether to retain the coffee shop.”

Everything at the Church’s coffee shop is falling apart, and fate has dealt the café workers a bad hand – so much so that its name, ‘Jesters’, becomes cruel and ironic. Andy, the café manager, desperately wants to make things work, but things have already moved beyond his control. Despite an impending sense of doom, ‘Last Supper’ has a clear stoicism about it, a paradigm found throughout Sweet Home.

Erskine explores her character’s tragic efforts to make the most of the hand they’re dealt, and illuminates their honest attempts to reshuffle, and start again.

In ‘Arab States : Mind and Narrative’, Paula becomes obsessed with an old admirer of hers after she spots him on the television talking about the Middle East. Eventually, after acquiring several books on the subject, she decides she will travel to Newcastle to watch one of his lectures.

“She tries to remember the points about Arab States that she could make, points on different things, subpoints, sub-subpoints, but nothing is staying in her head as things fly away around the carriage, up, down and out that one open window.”

Sometimes, a single action can offer a stranger a glimpse of your entire life, and Paula’s life swells through the pages as her search for Ryan Kedrov-Hughes becomes more frenzied. What happened to make her this way? By forgoing any explanation, Erskine makes Paula’s plight palpable and universally recognisable.

Sweet Home is as much about the darkness in the tunnel as it is about the light found at the end. To quote from ‘Last Supper’, “the fragility of it all was overwhelming and the beauty too”. An excellent collection, gripping, and easy to get stuck into. I am excited to read more of Erskine’s work in the future, and expect to be impressed once again by her dark wit and honesty.

*

Sabotage Reviews is taking a look at a number of the indie-published titles on the longlist, including Leila Aboulela’s Elsewhere, Home (Telegram/SAQI), Michael Conley’s Flare and Falter (Splice), Clare Fisher’s How the Light Gets In (Influx Press), Rosemary Jenkinson’s Catholic Boy, and Vicky Grut’s Live Show, Drink Included (Holland Park Press).

The winner of the Edge Hill Short Story Prize for best single author collection will be announced on 25 October 2019.

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