Sunday 21 January 2018

Joyriding from North Circular Road to Jupiter

Short Stories: Room Little Darker and Joyride to Jupiter, June Caldwell and Nuala O'Connor, Little Island, €11.95 & €10.95

June Caldwell's writing... 'frantic and breathless and there's a danger...'
June Caldwell's writing... 'frantic and breathless and there's a danger...'

Anne Cunningham

Two authors with a lot in common are celebrating having very different collections of short stories published.

Within the last month, Irish publishing house New Island has published two volumes of short stories, Room Little Darker and Joyride to Jupiter. Both volumes are written by women. Both of these women are within shouting distance of 50 years of age and both grew up in Dublin.

Both volumes explore the perennial themes of love, loss, sex, betrayal, death, family, womanhood itself. But the similarity in themes is where it ends. These two books couldn't be more different, and I believe it's a credit to the diversity of vision within New Island that they stand side by side in the bookshops.

June Caldwell won the Moth Short Story Prize with Upcycle, included in this, her debut volume of short stories. Upcycle is a savage account of life lived in the shadow of a violent alcoholic father. SOMAT is also here. First appearing in The Long Gaze Back and causing a stir given the times we live in, it's about keeping a clinically dead woman alive, to protect her foetus. Caldwell's stories are ferocious beasts, kicking and screaming in rabid, frothing rage. Almost all of her stories are dark and the sex - most of it some twisted form of S&M, scattered through several pieces - portrays woman as victim, man as pervert. Although there are moments of tenderness, too.

The final story, Cadaverus Moves, about a brother's death, is, as the title suggests, moving. And funny. It's a kind of frantic, breathless letter to the dead brother, and it reels through scenes from shared childhood and adult experiences, not joining the dots, making a wondrous collage of it all. Much of the writing is actually frantic and breathless and there's a danger, a malevolent madness that pulls an ominous thread throughout Caldwell's stories.

Dublin doesn't fare too well, depicted as a cesspit of violence and drug addiction, with children left to die (shades of Trainspotting - and there are others), or being beaten by drunken fathers.

The other end of society emerges no cleaner, as in Imp of the Perverse, where a student is ditched by her philandering college tutor.

If you like your fiction raw and angry, smeared in bodily fluids - and solids - then Room Little Darker (€11.95) is for you.

Nuala O'Connor also explores death and mourning in her new volume Joyride to Jupiter (€10.95). Her final story, Storks, is about a childless couple on holiday, after suffering their latest miscarriage. In Extremadura, they bump into an old school friend of the husband's, with unexpected events ahead.

The title story explores the slow descent of an old woman into the depths of Alzheimer's, and of her husband's attempts to cope. There's something suspect about this loving husband, but O'Connor likes to tease our imaginations. Her narrators are not always reliable. She likes small incidents and sotto voces to scream from the page. Her shock tactics are coolly measured, clad in the quiet velvet of truly sumptuous prose, but they still pack a punch. She doesn't splay the mess all over the place, but we still see the mess.

Consolata is about a young nun from the convent next door to the protagonist's orchard home and it's a real shocker. But it shimmies along with such impeccable restraint that it's impossible to see what's coming next. This story is set in a world similar to that of Jennifer Johnston's novels; the old, crumbling house with its old, crumbling mistress. A visit from the mistress's daughter over Easter reminds us of incidents that, perhaps, were best left forgotten.

Tinnycross could probably only have been written in Ireland, tracing as it does the age-old Town Mouse, Country Mouse theme between brothers, and of how it all falls apart when the town brother claims his half of the family farm.

There are some flash fiction pieces here, too.

Fish is a particularly fine morsel, about a woman accidentally spotting her next-door-neighbour naked in his back yard. Yellow is a fantasy about couples catching babies with butterfly nets, and is both disturbing and exquisite.

My favourite "flash" is Jesus of Dublin. If a Dublin taxi driver were to find himself cast inside an alabaster statue of Jesus, stuck on a plinth in the middle of O'Connell Street, I guess this is what he'd have to say for himself. It's funny and honest and true.

Many of these stories have appeared elsewhere in publications like the already-mentioned Long Gaze Back and also in the likes of The New Yorker, The Stinging Fly and Granta. Inclusion in such titles is a measure, if these things can be measured, of O'Connor's literary status.

Like a volume of rich poetry, this collection begs to be returned to, again and again.

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