Saturday 16 December 2017

Book review: Both ways is the only way I want it

Maile Meloy (Canongate, €10.40)

You can tell a lot about a book from the quotations on the cover, or rather from who those quotations are by. So you might approach Maile Meloy's second collection of short stories with some level of confusion and curiosity.

Meloy has secured accolades from Bridget Jones creator Helen Fielding and the grand master of the American short story, Richard Ford. Although these may appear to be the most unlikely bedfellows, Fielding and Ford are actually surprisingly suitable for Meloy's selection of quirky tales, which combine elements of Fielding's observations about dysfunctional romance with Ford's ability to distil the essence of American life.

'Travis B', the first story, introduces us to Chet, a young ranch-hand at a critical crossroads in his life. He suffered from polio as a child and has grown up in the shadow of his more able brother, half-living a life with very little adventure. But this straight line takes a new twist when Chet accidentally attends the wrong evening class and feels a true connection with the teacher. Although it is utterly impossible, he feels real love for her, a sensation he always wanted to experience but now regrets he ever did. "He had wanted practice with girls and now he had gotten it, but he wishes it had felt more like practice."

With this opener, Meloy confirms that she possesses wonderfully textured imagination and is a writer of quirky style. In just a single paragraph, she manages to combine the familiar with the strange and display an admirable practicality to her language, a well-weathered sparseness that conveys so much through so little. However, this first story sets the bar very high and the subsequent ones never quite reach its levels of success, often falling well short as they veer into more Fielding than Ford territory.

The second tale tells of the end of a girl's childhood, as she realises her father will not always protect and guide her and may even abandon her to the wolves. It starts strong before gradually petering out. Whilst the third suddenly changes pace entirely, cramming an entire future into just a couple of paragraphs.

The self-indulgence inherent in the title is a theme running through many of the stories, which are peopled by characters who want to have their cake and to eat it.

In one story, a man hesitates about leaving his wife for the beautiful young swimming teacher he's having an affair with. In another, a woman comforts a friend who's convinced her husband is having an affair, unaware that the affair is actually with this comforter. And in a further tale, a husband is still pursued by the memory of a one night stand he had with the wife of a friend. Another man in the same piece has left his wife to pursue his soulmate only to realise his life can only be complete with both of these women.

Meloy does have the ability to convincingly flesh out her characters, to give them a past, present and future. She manages to combine the strange with the familiar, the rational with the irrational. Her characters know they can't have everything both ways but that doesn't stop them wanting it.

Meloy's key subject matter focuses on betrayal, dysfunction, desire, frailty, lost love, failed love, destroyed love, absence of love, betrayal and more betrayal. Her worlds are driven by broken marriages, breaking marriages, empty marriages, dead marriages. In fact, there is such a strong theme of infidelity that you do wonder if Meloy may have been a victim of such an act herself.

Buy 'Both Ways is the Only Way I Want it' from Eason

Irish Independent

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