I’ve not been reading much as I’m either working or doom-scrolling Twitter and foreign affairs news – refreshing the websites of the BBC, The New York Times, Foreign Policy, the Kyiv Independent, The Financial Times, The Economist, The Guardian and The Times. I have too many subscriptions, plus my work is foreign affairs orientated, but being well-informed doesn’t make me any less powerless. However, I was determined to participate in Cathy’s Reading Ireland month, and here it is.
Wendy Erskine’s latest collection of short stories, Dance Move, appeared earlier in 2022, and I’m yet to read it. I have read her debut collection of short stories, Sweet Home, however, which was first published in 2018 by The Stinging Fly press. The Stinging Fly literary magazine and press has attracted lots of interest over recent years, largely due to Sally Rooney’s role as editor. Rooney’s debut novel Conversations with Friends won widespread praise and enjoyed big commercial success (though I didn’t love it), and her addictive and emotionally resonant second novel Normal People was Booker-longlisted, while the subsequent TV series was pretty much perfect (with some fab outfits). I’m not big on tortured millennials, but I did love Normal People, though I never get why people don’t just tell each other how they feel in relationships, so that part maddened me – and that aspect of Rooney’s storylines is basically her USP. I’ve always gone all in, personally! Anyway, I’m really not here to talk about Sally Rooney – I gave up on her third and latest novel, and I’m so over endless self-indulgent whinnying and whining by privileged, educated people who just need to make a bloody decision or decide to trust someone for once. Wait till they’re my age, then they’ll have something to moan about – ha! pah!
Deep breathes and back to Sweet Home, which was later picked up by Picador – it published it for a less niche audience in 2020. The 10 stories that make up Erskine’s collection are Belfast-set, and tell tales of ordinary people’s lives, in a way that transcends the everyday to reveal moments of strangeness and profundity. The opening, and longest story, To All Their Dues, is an enormously assured three-hander, which reveals the insecurities and emotional baggage underlying the unknowingly interconnected lives of a beauty salon owner, a local thug and racketeer, and his long-suffering girlfriend. Another particularly great story is coming of age tale Observation, in which a teenage girl becomes increasingly obsessed with her best friend’s tales of illicit sex with her mother’s much younger boyfriend. But, really, they’re all more or less great.
Erskine mentions Lucy Caldwell in her acknowledgements, and her style is reminiscent of Caldwell’s work in its setting and perspicacity, without ever being derivative. Erskine has a dry wit and a very humorous turn of phrase that lightens these stories. I’m not usually a big fan of short story collections, but Sweet Home is a really enjoyable collection of fiction, which manages to entertain while packing a real emotional punch.