Sunday 21 July 2019

Belfast Stories: All human life on show in 16 stories from a changed Belfast

FICTION

Belfast Stories

Edited by Paul McVeigh & Lisa Frank

Doire Press, €15

Belfast Stories
Belfast Stories

Anne Cunningham

In her preface to this anthology, Lisa Frank writes: "In the sixteen stories I saw such a vastness in themes and in writing styles, in characters and in voices. In this way I found the stories to be like Belfast itself, a city so different from one end to the other." Frank has distilled into a few words the huge appeal of this collection; it is marvellously multi-dimensional. And books such as this anthology are really required reading for "southerners" like me, who spent their childhood seeing Belfast through the prism of the six o'clock news. A car-bomb here, a riot there, another shooting, another hunger strike, another senseless and violent death. Twenty odd years of peace - and long may it last - has changed the city, almost beyond recognition, and Belfast Stories is testament to this.

In 2013 Lisa Frank edited a similar anthology, Galway Stories, with contributions from authors like Mary Costello, Nuala O'Connor and Kevin Barry. The literary lumens in this particular volume are no less bright. Winner of this year's Kerry Group Novel of the Year, David Park has a story included here. Jan Carson is also here, with Ian Sansom, Lucy Caldwell, Caoilinn Hughes, Wendy Erskine and that's not all of them. Because of the diversity within this clutch of authors, the reader is treated to a real mixed bag of stories, all centred in a particular place somewhere in Belfast.

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Jan Carson's Filters, for instance, describes a mother's attempt to shepherd her family to C.S. Lewis Square for their annual Christmas card photograph. But this year the kids are too old to visit "Narnia" and their protests cause some consternation for Mum. It's a bittersweet comedy about a mother wishing to preserve, for as long as she can, the childhood state of her children. And in typical, gorgeous Carson prose she describes walking along Belmont Ave: "Past the […] home bakery, its door propped open with a brick. Passing, they get a noseful of spiced sugar and hot-buttered air."

In Michael Nolan's Bottles - a bleakly funny caper - he describes the protagonist's junkie friend Maxi as "Maxi with the clammy skin, the battered face and skinny body too thin for the smallest sized clothes. They hung on him like a bad life, hunching him over, the bottoms of his tracksuit bottoms dragging across the ground gathering dirt, tearing."

There's an ominous kind of comedy in Ian Sansom's Red Eye, about a newly-wed English husband meeting his staunch Belfast Protestant extended family of in-laws. The bride's grandfather reminds the new groom that he's not in England now. "You want to grow your hair, then. […] You look like a squaddie. You don't want to look like a squaddie." Another in-law is describing her insatiable appetite for macaroni cheese when she was pregnant on her second. She had to eat it six times a day. "Plays havoc with your insides," she said. "The macaroni cheese?" [I said] "The babies," she said."

The fun continues in Glenn Patterson's A Small Problem, as the protagonist explains how Belfast natives feel "duty-bound" to "applaud all references to the Titanic". He goes on: "I told him my apartment overlooked the dock where it was built. […] My flat, to be strictly accurate, overlooked the clock, which overlooked the Custom House, which looked across the Lough around the corner from the dock where the Titanic was built…"

The shadow of the Troubles hangs ghost-like over some of the darker stories. In Linda Anderson's Stone, for example, a woman flies from Belfast to Blackpool to see her dying brother. He can't ever set foot in Belfast, having been a British Army soldier during the Troubles. He swears that he never killed anyone, but he knew men who did. "He was a hands-free murderer" is how the protagonist describes him.

All human life is here in these well-chosen short tales about the citizens of a city which is bloodied but unbowed, clinging tightly to its still fresh and hard-won freedom. If Brexit allows...

 

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