Brilliantly diverse multi-level collection constantly shifts gears
Short story: Shift, Mia Gallagher, New Island, paperback, 298 pages, €10.95
The predators in Mia Gallagher's first collection of stories come in many guises - men, women, children, demons, water spirits and other elusive entities that wield power and speak in distinctive, beguiling voices. Set in Dublin in the past, present and future, the stories in Shift evoke a city that is both familiar and strange, a city where trickiness and danger lurk in surprising places: a puddle near a shopping mall, the walls of an old terraced house. Identities are unstable and destabilising. In the space of a few paragraphs, the quarry can become the hunter and vice versa. Characters are haunted, sometimes by themselves. There is often more than one reality and transformation is key.
Gallagher's two novels - HellFire and Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland - demonstrated her talent for voice and the voices in this collection are strikingly diverse: mysterious, disquieting, downright nasty and sometimes all three. The characters include master dissemblers and a fair scattering of violent, potentially murderous misogynists, but it's always necessary to stay with them, sinister or not, often as much to find out who they really are as to find out what they've done or what will happen next.
In 'Polyfilla', a left-wing architect has a vicious row about Iraq with a fellow dinner party guest, the two men "cherry-picking atrocities from opposing arsenals. Rwanda. Bosnia. Mugabe. Hitler. Pakistan. Belfast. Kabul. No point having weapons if you don't use them".
It's a brilliantly rendered, very recognisable scene but the story gets progressively less recognisable when the architect leaves and is pursued by a woman he met earlier and who was - criminally - older than he initially took her to be: "Crow's Feet. Flabby upper arms. Polyfilla make-up." She emerges, cloaked, from the darkness and, as happens in almost all of these stories, there is a shift - in the plot, in the reader's expectations, in the character's perception of themselves.
The protagonist in the title story, an insomniac driving instructor, is seriously riled by one of his current pupils. "She hates being called 'love', like it's an insult or he's having a dig at her liberation bollocks." As he lies awake, the "new recession" about to hit, he remembers a removals-and-deliveries job he had in the 1980s. His employer's son, who occasionally dressed as a woman, used to go in the van with him.
Gallagher knows how and when to plant questions and how and when to withhold and reveal information. At first, the two strands of 'Shift' seem like parallel roads but as the story progresses they converge, more than anywhere else, in the reader's mind. Nevertheless, not all questions are answered; not everything is made clear. 'Found Wanting' is a similarly powerful and propulsive story about intense sexual obsession that is, ultimately, also a story about a warped friendship between two women. Unlike a lot of writers, Gallagher allows her readers space to actually read - to read into, under and beyond the text, which means the fictions linger and stick.
It's a gratifyingly unified collection with recurring motifs and social commentary about power, pollution, consumption, hubris, development and gentrification. Many of the stories are in dialogue with each other. In 'Hello My Angel', a neo-gothic tale about feuding neighbours, and 'With Soldiers, In a Cup', houses and house extensions are the site of uncanny happenings that could be manifestations of psychological or societal trauma - or something else.
In 'Pinning Tail on Donkey', an endearing, idiosyncratic voice given to neologisms (soosidebooms, chemfare, fleshware) speaks from a treeless future, in which very little - not time or space or identity - is fixed. Almost a novel in miniature, the story is a warning, looking back on the present day or near future from after a Fossilfuel&Water War.
The stand-out piece in the collection is 'Lure', a mesmeric chase through the Square in Tallaght narrated by a confronting, outrageously funny kelpie, or Scottish water spirit.
Gallagher's writing is as fluid as the story's narrator - at times the rhythm of the prose mimics the different velocities of water - but the kelpie's prey is also a shape-shifter of sorts; she is Margaret, Maggie, Magpie, Missus, lady, woman; sometimes her name changes within the same sentence. The sense of possibility here, of boundary-busting and transgression, encapsulates what Gallagher does best in this blazingly intelligent, multi-level collection.