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I Want to Know I Will Be OK: Deirdre O’Sullivan’s hypnotic mixture of real pain and the paranormal

Strange occurrences and ghostly presences fill Deirdre Sullivan’s stories, writes Emer O’Hanlon

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Deirdre O'Sullican. Photo by Diarmuid O’Brien

Deirdre O'Sullican. Photo by Diarmuid O’Brien

I Want to Know That I Will Be Okay by Deirdre O’Sullivan

I Want to Know That I Will Be Okay by Deirdre O’Sullivan

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Deirdre O'Sullican. Photo by Diarmuid O’Brien

There is something luscious and intriguing in Deirdre Sullivan’s voice, which fuses fairy-tale logic to a real-world earthiness with breathtaking results. In her new short story collection, I Want to Know That I Will Be Okay, she provides us with a masterclass in writing about trauma, women’s bodies and hauntings of all kinds.

These stories take place in a gloriously macabre world, where real life frequently intersects with the supernatural. A disembodied presence turns up in a commuter’s car after she keeps driving past the site of a fatal road accident. A couple go to extraordinary lengths to have a child. A woman estranged from her mother sees her image everywhere.

The events in this collection could fill a dozen horror films, but for all the genre ghastliness, there is real tenderness and pain in each story. In Skein, a teenage girl shaves her body hair compulsively, and worries about the appearance of what she believes to be an STD. The narrator in Hen questions her fiancé’s commitment to her after strands of red hair begin manifesting all over their house.

I Want to Know That I Will Be Okay is Sullivan’s first work of adult literary fiction, though she has already proven to be a dynamic and engaging writer for young adults. She has shown her preoccupation with the world of small towns and fairy tales in Tangleweed and Brine (2017) and Perfectly Preventable Deaths (2019). In Savage Her Reply (2020), she gave voice to Aífe, the traditional villain in the story of the Children of Lír; the resulting novel is equal measures otherworldly, grounded, and heart-breaking.

Sullivan has proven time and again that YA titles can be just as disturbing and nuanced as anything else. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that the voices in this collection sit so comfortably alongside each other, whether they come from a girl nervous about attending her first house party, or a rueful older woman struggling to care for her mother with Alzheimer’s.

Inspiration drawn from the language of folklore and horror has been fruitful for many recent short story collections. Daisy Johnson’s Fen explores ghostly occurrences in rural England, while Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties uses well-worn tropes from horror stories and urban legends to explore queer women’s trauma.

I Want to Know That I Will Be Okay sits comfortably alongside both of these, while also bringing a uniquely Irish focus on small-town life and a preoccupation with the reality of women’s bodies to the genre. Sullivan’s bodies are the sites of ghostly possessions and strange occurrences, and each story brings a chillingly resonant reckoning with bodily autonomy and control that feels timely.

Banshee Press is quickly becoming one of the most exciting places to find compelling short-form writing, and their move into producing short story and poetry collections (in addition to their twice-yearly journal) is a welcome addition to the rich landscape of Irish literary publishing. I Want to Know That I Will Be Okay joins Lucy Sweeney Byrne’s Paris Syndrome and Bebe Ashley’s Gold Light Shining to form a trio of slim, accomplished volumes which highlight the diversity and strength of small-press publishing.

With its hypnotic mixture of real-world pain, memory, and the paranormal, this collection hits all the right notes and marks a confident, engrossing addition to Sullivan’s enviable body of work.

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