Monday 17 December 2018

An arresting, brave and bold collection

Fiction: Shift, Mia Gallagher, New Island, €8.10

Mia Gallagher
Mia Gallagher
Shift by Mia Gallagher

Justine Carbery

Irish writing is experiencing a golden revival at present, and most welcome is the recent upsurge of interest in the short story form.

Quite different from the old school, today's writers are unafraid to reveal the underbelly of Irish society, to take risks in form, and to be brave and original in scope.

Mia Gallagher is no exception, adding to the canon of modern Irish literature with her long-awaited trail-blazing collection Shift.

The 15 stories in this thought-provoking collection present us with off-beat characters living on the margins of society.

A curmudgeonly driving instructor, Dessie, recalls his time working as a furniture shifter with a cross-dressing depressive in the titular story, Shift.

A young art teacher reminisces about her stint working in a Dublin prison with a larger-than-life inmate called Bear in Headhunter, and in Trust In Me three students up from the country fantasise about the prostitute who lives on a floor below them and plays Nights In White Satin to her snake.

Death and sadness hang over many of the stories.

Adam lies dying in his hospital bed in You First, unable to forgive his tomboy friend Georgie for a childhood betrayal, while depression and suicidal thoughts rear their heads in More Often In Future, Departure and in the domestically dysfunctional With Soldiers in a Cup.

But in all of her stories, nothing is as it seems. Nothing stays stable.

Characters are constantly shifting from the hunter to the hunted, from the jealous to the envied. Sexual obsession and sexual fluidity feature often.

In Hello My Angel the neighbour has multiple partners, sometimes men, sometimes women.

Found Wanting is a similarly compelling story about intense sexual obsession. A woman has a reckless affair with a musician, Johnny O, 'slick and lean as a piece of liquorice, black hair scooped up either side of his head like the plastic coiffure of a replica Elvis', but breaks it off when he utters the words 'I love you'.

Unruly and difficult to pin down, these stories take a walk on the dark side. They cover everything from awkward dinner parties, extramarital affairs and nightmare neighbours, to ghosts, kelpies and blow-up dolls.They move with a light step across the years, spanning the past, the present and a dystopian techno-future in Pinning Tail on Donkey.

The urban landscapes are gritty and raw, crossing the river divide like Dessie and Christo in Shift.

The voices are strong, Roddy Doylesque, and Gallagher's flair for character evident on every page. Her language is innovative, her descriptions striking. In Headhunter, when Bear 'lifts his head, sweat glistens on his waxy forehead and catches in the scar which maims the left side of his face, carving through the eye socket like an ugly white worm'. Around him Sonia 'feels like straw, insubstantial, easy to break'.

In every story there were sentences I lingered over, savouring the newness of them. But they are not easy reads. Gallagher makes the reader work. Nothing is spelled out, with endings shifting, petering out, leaving space for the reader to become part of the fiction itself.

Christopher de Rossa, a short and sinister piece, sits uneasily on you like a scratchy jumper, while in Pollyfilla, a very drunk architect unleashes a vicious alcohol-fuelled attack on a party guest.

Then there's Lure, about a Scottish water sprite, a kelpie, chasing through The Square in Tallaght.

Wildly different in tone, pace and theme but brave and engaging.

A highly accomplished and arresting collection.

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