A Kind of Compass: Stories on Distance ed. Belinda McKeon

-Reviewed by Rebecca Burns

The first thing to say is that A Kind of Compass: Stories on Distance is a beautifully produced book. Larger than most paperbacks, with a soft, pliable feel, this anthology of short stories feels flexible and portable; just the kind of book, say, to stuff in a back pack or curl around on a train several hours into its journey. Indeed, travel features prominently in this text, interested as it is in taking paths that ‘veer[s] off course’. The book is edited by Belinda McKeon, is around 250 pages long, and comprises seventeen short stories by a selection of authors. The theme, obviously, is distance, and in all guises. In McKeon’s lyrical preface, she states that ‘a good story takes its readers to places to which they didn’t particularly want to go’, and the characters in the pages that follow are all either led or set out to find what it is they feared, lost, yearned for, or avoided.

a kind of compass

Distance, in these stories, takes both physical and emotional forms. In the opening story, ‘Terraforming’ by Elske Rahill, Caitriona secretly attends a seminar for those applying to go on a mission to Mars. Her husband doesn’t know about her ambitions – she tells him she is visiting her sister and worries about the credit card statement. Such mundane actions, typical of someone conducting a clandestine affair, is incongruous with the scope and ambition of her hopes. What particularly stands out in this story is the effect her potential leave-taking will have on her son. Should Caitriona get to Mars, she will never see him again. She accepts this emotional rendering with an ease that is sorrowful to the reader:

[S]he will grow away from him over the ten years it will take to train for Mars, and that is right of course. A curling beat inside her and then a cord. Then a breast and then a head in her neck. Then a hand in hers and then no hand because that’s how it is with time and space.

While Caitriona is preparing to leave her son, other stories in A Kind of Compass explore what it means to return to a relative or a lover after a period of detachment or loss of contact. In ‘The Naturals’ by Sam Lipsyte, Caperton returns home to his dying father after being summoned by his stepmother. The pair share a cordial but not loving relationship, the barriers between them humorously evinced through his stepmother’s pathological refusal to allow Caperton to inspect the contents of her fridge. The search for meaning is important in this story, as it is for the collection as a whole. Caperton is unable to find words of love and healing for his father until almost the end but, throughout the tale, he seeks to find narrative and order to his life. Various characters personify this search – The Beast, a wrestler putting on an illusion for the audience, and a friend of his father who tells stories at the local library. In Yoko Ogawa’s ‘Six Days in Glorious Vienna’, Kotoko also seeks a tentative kind of meaning by visiting a dying lover; it has been decades since she last saw him, but she finds a cautious, weary comfort in spending time at his deathbed:

She would stroke his hair or straighten the collar of his pyjamas or moisten his lips with a piece of damp gauze. But she did all this with the greatest reticence, as though to announce by her manner that she had no right to do so and would instantly retire when some more appropriate person appeared to care for him.

The return to an old lover is also the theme of Francesca Marciano’s ‘Big Island, Small Island’. Andrea had disappeared some fifteen years before. He lives on an isolated island, and is totally changed from the person his ex-girlfriend – Stella – remembers. Paradoxically, he has removed himself physically from most of society, but has become more at ease emotionally: ‘[H]e’s a different person in this new incarnation – that cool aloofness, that lightness of touch he had when I knew him, seems gone’. It is not long, however, before Stella recognises the peace brought by distance: ‘maybe he was relieved when he found a place where he could shrink and settle into a smaller life, away from the eyes of others’.

Kevin Barry contributes a story, ‘Extremadura (Until Night Falls)’; a mystical, strange tale about a man passing through a town conversing with a dog. Barry’s recognisable humour is apparent, and is typically jarring in its delivery: ‘all across the silver hills in the east the cold spring night lovelessly descends. February is an awful fucking month just about everywhere’. Despite the humour, we learn the painful reason behind the man’s wandering and his disconnection from society.

A Kind of Compass explores what it means to lose a loved one, and also the longing to break away and find freedom. A father is lost at sea in ‘Holy Island’; a ghostly husband visits a grieving wife in ‘New Zealand Flax’. A young Nigerian man leaves home and tries to make a new life for himself in London in ‘The Place for Me’. Each story in this collection explores what it means to be distant, and the anthology is thoughtful and cleverly put together, with each tale adding another layer of meaning to the overall theme.

Pond by Claire-Louise Bennet

-Reviewed by Rebecca Burns

Pond is Claire-Louise Bennet’s first collection of stories. It is about 150 pages long and focuses on the experience of a woman living alone. Although the reader never gets to know the woman’s name, she is a fully-felt, fleshy character; her inner-most thoughts – banal, touching, occasionally hilarious – seep over the pages. The woman is complex, quirky, and full of intriguing hang-ups and views of the world. But beneath those are deeply felt emotions: this is a collection about hidden, terrible undercurrents, about the awful beneath the respectable, the shocking beneath the ordinary, tragedy beneath the comedy.

pond Claire-Louise Bennet

The collection comprises twenty pieces, some only a few lines long, others many pages. The first long story, ‘Morning, Noon and Night’, conveys the overall theme of the book in its subject matter. Ostensibly the story is about eating pleasures – ‘Sometimes a banana with coffee is nice […] Oatcakes along with it can be nice.’ The repetition of the word ‘nice’, when set against the mellifluous descriptions of an ‘irrepressible gathering of illustrious vegetables’, is deliberate and comic. But, of course, the story is about much more than a choice of food stuffs and Bennet’s accomplished descriptions of them. It is a story that speaks of darkness and sets out the real mental expanse of the nameless woman narrator. Porridge, if eaten too late, becomes a ‘gloomy repast from the underworld.’ Flaked almonds ‘resemble fingernails that have come away from a hand which has just seen the light of day.’ Witty, dark lady.

The narrator’s regret for past, lost loves is also hinted at in this first story, where the narrator mourns the act of writing love letters since the failure of her relationship. Bennet underpins the narrator’s sadness with mordant comedy; ‘it was nice […] [to] take a break from cobbling together yet another over-wrought academic abstract […] to set down, so precisely, how and where I’d like my brains to be fucked right out.’ In a later story, ‘The Deepest Sea’, the narrator finds a letter from her lover – although presented lightly and comically in the opening story, the poignancy of the moment is clear in ‘The Deepest Sea’ and the few paragraphs that describe the narrator’s reaction are beautiful to read:

[reading the letter I] directly came into contact with his mind in motion as it railed, proclaimed, recalled, confessed, imagined, and eventually wrung itself out. […] [w]hat I held in my hands felt so alive it seemed unthinkable that it did not prosper. Why does he not come through the trees right now?

The woman strikes the reader as alone but not necessarily lonely, socially awkward and unable to smoothly navigate her way around relationships. Even something as straight-forward as throwing a party is portrayed as a minefield. In ‘Finishing Touch’ the narrator articulates her over-thought ideas about parties; from suggestions as to what guests should bring (after all, ‘who wants to sit in the back of a cab with a bowl covered with tin foil in their lap wondering if what it contains is going to be met with melodious condescension [?]’), to a torturous scrutiny about who should sit on an ottoman.

Such exhausting self-assessment and hyper-awareness occurs over a plethora of subjects – relationships, cookers, vegetables, letters, and we learn in one story, ‘A Little Before Seven’, that the narrator has taken steps in the past to make it stop. For example, she drinks in order to feel at ease around men, consuming alcohol so that she is prevented from ‘scrutinising and dissecting everything that is said’, the like of which we see in earlier stories. And yet the thoughts reoccur, the scrutiny continues. A line about a storm in the short fragment ‘To A God Unknown’ captures perfectly the effect of such though-processes: the storm is ‘[g]oing around and around, trying to get somewhere, going nowhere.’

Pond has been well-received by critics and is prefaced with supportive quotes from writers such as Eimear McBride and Kevin Barry. This book is stunning in places, laugh-out-loud funny in others, and fully immersive. In fact, the reader is carried so far into the mind of the narrator that it is sometimes necessary to resurface and take pause (for this reader, at least). And yet I found myself willing the nameless woman on, wanting her to unravel her thoughts until she found peace and happiness. To hook the reader in to such an extent is an achievement.

Greetings, Hero by Aiden O’Reilly

-Reviewed by Rebecca Burns-

Greetings, Hero is a collection of fifteen short stories by Aiden O’Reilly, about 300 pages in length. For a short story collection, this is a long book – the title story is 80 pages. Locations vary; stories are set in Dublin, Poland and Eastern Europe, and all share a commonality – of dissonance and unease, where characters attempting to determine their identity, the reader experiencing a sudden immersion in fully-fledged worlds.

Greetings Hero

Many stories explore the worlds of isolated men, lonely for different reasons. In the opening story, ‘Human Behaviour’, Kevin, the central character, is in Germany, feeling out of place at a party and in his interactions with others. O’Reilly uses the metaphor of a t-shirt to indicate Kevin’s uneasy attempt to assimilate himself; Kevin’s own t-shirt becomes wet and he is lent one by Sylvia, another party-goer:

“Here,” said Sylvia, handing him a brushed-cotton T-shirt.[…]
“You have nice perfume.”
“I’m not wearing any,” she laughed, “that’s my skin.” […]
He stepped back, turned to one side. Whipped off the damp T-shirt, aware of his pale freckled Celtic skin, soft round arms that belied their strength, spidery chest hairs, each one curling away independently. His soft skin took on imprints easily: the band of a pair of trousers, strap of a shoulder bag, little twigs and grit if he lay down on the grass.

This is a clever representation of the process of immersion; characters in other stories also attempt to fit in, while remaining aware of the deliberate falseness of their actions. In ‘A Fine Noble Corpse’, Stefan meets his girlfriend’s family, returning to eastern Europe after living away. While talking with Anna’s uncle, he smokes, even though he ‘had given up smoking years before for the good of his health. But such concerns were remote here.’ In ‘Concrete Triumphant’, a boy works with his gruff, abrupt father on repairing a roof, the harshness of the work overwhelms him – ‘he wished he was back at school, though there was nothing he had hated more than school’ – but the boy wants to be trusted by his father. He adopts a mature role, but is out of his depth, leading to a tragic outcome.

The stories in this collection portray the struggle to adopt new – or old – ways and behaviours, with the sci-fi story, ‘The Re-education Camp’ offering an interesting take on what could happen should a character refuse to fit in. The narrator’s parents in this story are sent to a camp for holding views contrary to the rest of the ‘new regime’. Although not stated explicitly, their comments that ‘[t]hey are telling us that now one man will be able to marry another,’ and ‘[i]t’s wrong now to save money, so they tell us’ indicates that the new regime is overtly liberal, and yet those who do not share their views are sent for re-education. Leaving the political interpretations aside, this is a story that emphasises the collection’s preoccupation with the reasoning behind behaviours, and the whys and wherefores of actions.

The story directly following ‘The Re-education Camp’ also explores the mechanics of adopting the behaviours of those around the central character. ‘Self Assembly’ sees Eugene build himself a robotic, ‘self-assembly woman’, constructing her from separate parts, teaching her how to dress and interact with his friends. He instructs her on social mores and Genevieve, as he calls her, begins to demonstrate a ‘quick wit and forwardness [that] amazed him.’ She fits in amazingly well and begins to assert herself in a way that Eugene finds discomforting: ‘[a] few moths previously he had held her in the first evenings, fearful she might come apart into separate pieces. […] She could be dismantled again into a nothing person and no-one would know.’ The story is an imaginative interrogation of identity, considering both the social construct and the notion of the individual.

O’Reilly is able to explore the theme of fitting in and what that means for the self through his ability to create realistic, believable worlds. In Greetings, Hero, the reader is dropped into scenarios thick with nuances, and layered with undertones that are not always apparent. In the eponymous, long novella piece, Geoff and his friend, Stan, go on the trail of an old acquaintance – the intriguingly and aptly named ‘Silent Michal’. Their paths cross several times, in several countries, with Silent Michal becoming a kind of talisman for the changes and setbacks each character faces. Yet Silent Michal is introduced almost incidentally – Geoff and Stan bump into him in a Dublin cinema – and his importance is not made clear until further into the tale.

As with other stories in this collection, this off-kilter approach has the effect of unsettling the reader; one struggles initially to make connections between seemingly incidental pieces of information or dialogue asides. Some of the stories, I feel, could have been made shorter and had more punch. Others work well. Greetings, Hero, is well-written and weighty.

Second-Hand Rain by Georgia Carys Williams

-Reviewed by Rebecca Burns-

Second-hand Rain is a collection of short stories by Georgia Carys Williams, short-listed for the Saboteur Award 2015 for Best Short Story Collection. Williams is a Welsh writer who has been shortlisted for a variety of other writing awards, including the Terry Hetherington Award and The South Wales Short Story Competition. Second-hand Rain comprises sixteen stories of roughly equal length (though the final story, ‘Belongings’, may be considered flash fiction). Williams’ debut collection is a short read, but, like all good short stories, the brevity of the work does not diminish its strength.

What is immediately apparent about the book is Williams’ easy confidence in telling a story from a radical, unfamiliar point of view. For example, in the collection’s opening story, ‘Beautifully Greek’ (and, for me, the strongest story in the collection), the voice the reader hears is that of an imagined child: the mother in the tale experienced a phantom pregnancy many years before, and the tale is narrated by the child who ‘tumbled around as much as I could under Mummy’s tummy’ and who is eventually ‘born’ – as described by his concerned and disbelieving father – with ‘no weight’. The title of the story refers to pseudocyesis, a psychological condition which leads some women to believe they are pregnant. Williams touchingly evokes the heartache of such a situation, by naming the child after the diagnosis:

On paper, I was Pseu-do-cy-e-sis, which is difficult to pronounce, so Mummy always called me Baby, and if anyone used my official name, she’d cover my ears, then whisper straight afterwards how ‘beautifully Greek’ it was.

As a reader, I was moved by the plight of the mother experiencing such a real bond with an invisible child; later in the story, as the mother recovered, I felt sympathy for the lost baby, now only seen ‘in glimpses’ and a child ‘watching life and not playing a part’.

Other stories in the collection are told from unusual points of view. ‘Lyrebird Lament’ is the story of a lyrebird whom, in mimicking the call of others, ‘truly became myself, which I discovered was a lot of different things’. The lyrebird is eventually saved from death at the hands of forest-clearers by being taken to a zoo, but the cost is to lose his voice. The voice of a bird is repeated elsewhere in the collection, in the story ‘Turnstones’, in which a young bird tries to understand his world whilst braving predators. The story ends with his mother being caught by a hawk and taken away.

The collection is threaded together by a sense of loss, be that the loss of a bird’s call, or the loss of a child, or the loss of the sea (experienced by a mermaid in ‘Lady Venetia’). All of the stories start well and drop the reader straight into the narrative, which is another feature of effective short stories. Williams also has some lovely phrasing, which evocatively portray a scene or feature. For example, in ‘Swansea Malady’, the sea is described as ‘trembling in and out of Swansea Bay like a tired hand’; women gather in a pub ‘with empowered looks but sparse clothing’ and, in ‘Black and Blue’, a story told from a young boy’s perspective, an insect crawls across a hand, its ‘head dipping down into another lifeline’.

The best stories in this collection are those in which Williams writing is pared back, allowing such phrasing and imagery to shine through. ‘Tangerine’ is a successful example of this, in which a growing girl (who wants to be known as a young woman ‘since growing up last month and being just like Mum’), comes to terms with the final illness and death of her grandmother. The girl peels tangerines for her ‘Nan’, who becomes too unwell to eat them, suffering with an illness that ‘smells like rubber or bad breath when you have a cold’. The girl’s isolation at the hands of concerned but misguided relatives means she leaves her peeled tangerines outside her grandma’s room. They remind her of both life and death, of her grandmother’s fragility and the continuation of life:

the pips make me think of ovaries […]. I watched a film at school that told us how three generations of women can contain the same egg and it made my stomach sick. I think of myself as an egg, lodged halfway down my mother’s fallopian tubes like the blocked pipes in the bathroom, and then I imagine those pipes being forced inside my Nan’s stomach in the same way they stuff the turkey at Christmas, so we’re all squashed together at once.

It is an arresting, visceral image, one that powerfully conveys the relationship between a granddaughter and grandmother, and the emptiness that will come with the grandma’s death.

Georgia Carys Williams has produced a moving collection of stories; Second-hand Rain is an accomplished debut. She manages to convincingly describe the worlds of her characters, from their varied points of view. I look forward to seeing how it fares in the Saboteur Awards when the results are announced.

Young Skins by Colin Barrett

-Reviewed by Rebecca Burns-

Young Skins is Colin Barrett’s debut collection of short stories. It is published by The Stinging Fly Press and comprises seven tales in total. About 180 pages long, it is one of those rare pieces of fiction: a crackling, blazing set of stories, written in language both jolting and poetic. The book won the Frank O’Connor short story award earlier this year, with Alison MacLeod, novelist and on the judging panel, quoted as asking ‘How dare a debut writer be this good?’ I’d already earmarked Young Skins as a book to read following Barrett’s win, wanting to see for myself just what it was about this collection that so impressed the judges. For almost all of the stories in the collection, it was obvious.

Young Skins by Colin Barrett

The collection is set around a group of characters who live in an Irish town. Mostly bored, detached, and young, the characters engage in casual sex, violence and drinking. Yet this is not a polemic about disaffected youth; rather, what struck me from the opening passages of Young Skins’ first story was the empathetic portrayal of the protagonists and their situations, which chime with the reader. The first story, ‘The Clancy Kid’, blasts off with searing honesty: ‘It is Sunday. The weekend, that three-day festival of attrition, is done. Sunday is the day of purgation and redress; of tenderised brain cases and see-sawing stomachs and hollow pledges to never, ever get that twisted again. A day you are happy to see slip by before it ever really gets going’. We’ve all lived that kind of weekend. This is very, very real writing.

Violence permeates the pages. In ‘The Moon’, Martina Bolan, the sexual interest of the character around whom the story revolves, shows up for her first night at a bar ‘sporting a pair of knee-high leather boots and strategically gouged pink tights, hair dyed to a high orange flame, and a murderous glint in her eye’. Others characters have brutal nicknames: Bat, Arm, and shocking cruelty erupts from nowhere. For example, in ‘Stand Your Skin’, Bat is disfigured by a random kick in the face as a youngster, thus changing the course of his life. Even mundane tasks glitter with venom. Bat has problems with his contact lenses: ‘his eyes mildly burn; working his contact lenses in this morning, he’d subjected his corneas to a prolonged and shaky-handed thumb-fucking’. This line, among many others, made me snort out loud.

Barrett’s characters are not paper-thin or two-dimensional. In casual, easy lines, he conjures up rich impressions of the men and women stalking his stories. An elderly woman is ‘a sweet old ruin of an alcoholic who spends her days rationing gin on their ancient, spring-pocked settee, lost in TV and her dead’ (‘The Clancy Kid’). In ‘Bait’, a young man searches women the worse for drink: ‘I heard laughter, the clop of unsteady feet, I saw flickers of hair and shuttering legs’. The snappy description captures perfectly the rapid movement of tipsy women. In ‘Stand Your Skin’ an individual is described as having a ‘spotty face like a dropped Bolognese’. These are visceral images – the reader can visualise Barrett’s characters clearly.

Barrett’s descriptive power is, for me, the book’s strength. His characters are painted with an unsavoury edge, but are the more convincing for it. Even Fannigan, the bad guy in ‘Calm with Horses’, Young Skins’ longest, novella-like story, is written with a line of sympathy: ‘Fannigan dropped the shirt and vest, and was soon shivering in a way Arm found hard to watch. Fannigan’s torso was pale as milk, his chest hair a scutty fuzz petering down to his navel. His tattoos, in the dark, looked like bruises on his arms’. His vulnerability is raw, but that does not stop Arm from killing him. As an ex-boxer and now hired muscle, ‘Arm had the clear head and cold-bloodedness required by the ring, the knack of detachment’. And yet Arm is also drawn empathetically, and is shown to care deeply for his young, possibly mentally disabled son.

‘Diamonds’ is the one story in the collection where Barrett’s raw, thumping narrative does not rattle through, and we are not dropped into the fully-formed life of the nameless, central character, as in other stories. I missed this about this story, though the loneliness of a transient alcoholic is well written.

Young Skins is a skidding, breathtaking ride of a book, punchy with humour yet real and heartfelt. The dialogue is crisp and often hilarious, reminding me of Kevin Barry, another Irish writer and recent winner of the Sunday Times Short Story Award. Colin Barrett is a writer to watch; Young Skins is a book worthy of accolades.