Saturday 20 July 2019

Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine: Belfast stories weave seamlessly from poignant to blackly humorous

Sense of place: Belfast author Wendy Erskine. Photo: Doug O'Connor
Sense of place: Belfast author Wendy Erskine. Photo: Doug O'Connor
Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine

Tanya Sweeney

Even before Anna Burns took the Booker prize home this year, Northern Ireland's literary revival was already going at full pelt. Among the scene's many new leading lights are Michael Hughes, Lucy Caldwell, Bernie McGill, Richard O'Rawe, Sheila Llewellyn and Wendy Erskine; all writing with a thrilling, acute sense of place.

English teacher Wendy Erskine has set her series of short stories in an ever-changing, contemporaneous East Belfast (and occasionally, the Belfast of yore). Truly, this new city and its inhabitants jump to life in her writing; prose that is - to borrow a description of her own - dense and creamy, but also packed with salty wit.

Sweet Home's backdrop city is compelling on the page. Belfast is, after all, a city whose identity seems to shift shape from one month to the next, but also one in which there are several folks left disenchanted, struggling, or left behind. Many of Erskine's characters are living commonplace, ordinary lives: others are wounded, or just trying to get by. 'Inakeen' charts the story of lonely widow Jean who desperately wants to befriend her newly arrived, niqab-wearing neighbours while attempting to uphold relations with her wayward son Malcolm.

In 'Last Supper', a pair of young church café workers end up having sex in the workplace bathroom. There's a change of tone in the hugely affecting 'Sweet Home', about Susan and Gavin, a middle-class professional couple who relocate from London to the city after the death of a child, and who walk headlong into yet another traumatic moment.

In 'To All Their Dues', Kyle, a local thug with evidently no small share of problems of his own, shakes down local salon owner Mo for protection' money. 'Locksmiths', meanwhile - a story that has already found its way into the Female Lines anthology of Northern Irish writing - charts a young DIY enthusiast with a murderer for a mother, as the latter is afforded day release from prison to attend her own mother's funeral. Erskine isn't afraid to try out the stylistic possibilities of the short story form, either: in '77 Pop Facts You Didn't Know About Gil Courtney', the Cregagh rock star's life and story is laid out in a magazine 'trivia' style. Even within its seemingly innocuous and light 'listicle' format, Erskine manages to deliver a dark tale about a recluse nearing the end of his days on the street he grew up on.

And it's this ability to weave seamlessly from affecting and poignant to blackly humorous and all-out comedy that gives Sweet Home its inimitable charm.

Finding the intensely personal and the complex in the everyday is certainly nothing new, but there's something in Erskine's concoction of the visual and the lyrical that results in an assured and audacious writing voice. Erskine writes her characters with sensitivity and humanity, but it's their own bleak and unpredictable humour that really excites.

At 221 pages and 10 stories, Sweet Home appears a slim enough offering on first impression. Rest assured, though, that there's plenty of humanity, poetry and nuance packed within these pages.

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