In reading, as in life, it is important to acknowledge and face one’s own prejudices and bigotries. Two years ago, when sent a debut novel by a Northern Irish writer (and theology graduate) with the rather evocative name of Jan Carson, entitled Malcom Orange Disappears, I had a good look at my own preconceptions, before turning the cover. To my confoundment, the story was a joyous and imaginative romp in the magical realist genre, set in Portland, Oregon. Malcom quickly became my book of the year.
In Children’s Children, Carson, who was born and raised in Ballymena, County Antrim, has come home with a bang. Having worked as Arts Outreach Officer in Belfast’s Ulster Hall for several years, Carson has set her debut collection of stories in east Belfast, the location she now calls home. The stories reek of Northern Ireland, authentic and richly imbued with the dialect and black humour of the people. From Bill exacting his petty meanness and revenge on his wife’s doorstep, to Samuel the Jon Bon Jovi fan, these people could have come from nowhere else but the cold and brittle streets of the six counties (or “Northern Ireland”, as some of them would very definitely prefer.) These are our people. And how will the people fare? Will we come together, for the greater good? Carson does not answer her question, leaving us to wonder whether we can make the necessary changes within ourselves.
The collection embraces a variety of styles: realist, surrealist to fantastic. We have the mundanity of a life in the day of an unpaid family-carer, but we also have floating infants who must be tethered to the ground, and writers who recycle their unpublished novel of six years, in the hope that it may come back to life as a dictionary, or something useful. Hope, despair, loss, isolation, and a deep sense of duty; duty to a parent, to an unwanted child, to a spouse at home waiting for his ice-cream, to a dream of a life once to be lived, now nearing its end — a gorgeous smorgasbord of stories to be enjoyed in several giant mouthfuls, or savoured, story by story.
Whilst reading “In Feet and Gradual Inches”, my left hand flew up to my mouth in distress and remained clamped there until the very last word, a rare corporal reaction to the printed word that last happened to me while reading the final story of Laura Weddle’s collection “Better than my own life”.
A tear slid down my face during the spare and pared-back “Den and Estie do not remember the good times”, and although I often cry when I read, I will not forget this plain, simple story quickly.
The family in the sixth story must be cousins of the criminal family in Bernard MacLaverty’s classic Belfast story, “The Trojan Sofa”. Carson’s story evoked that same, pragmatic northern world so clearly that I had to set the book aside and dig out and reread MacLaverty’s (Matter of Life and Death, Vintage 2006). Carson’s tale, We’ve got each other and that’s a lot, is a funny and back-handed glance at middle-class stiff-upper-lipness, and the importance of not being made to look foolish in front of the neighbours. The story also brought to mind the kidnappings of Elizabeth Browne and Patrick Berrigan from Dublin in 1950 and ’54, and it is perhaps no coincidence that both of those children were eventually found in a respectable Belfast home.
Carson has had a wide and varied role in her career as Arts Outreach Officer in the Ulster Hall, and is particularly proud of her Tea-Dances for senior citizens. She has collaborated with other artists to raise funds for the Alzheimers Association’s “Singing for the Brain” workshops. These events use music as therapy for those with dementia, recalling the vital role of The People’s Committee for Remembering Songs which is pivotal in rescuing Malcolm Orange from his incipient disappearance. In this new collection, Carson invites us to look afresh at our society, and at how we treat our most vulnerable; our young, elderly, demented or simply lonely citizens. A prayer of a book, without a word of preaching, even in the penultimate story which is a gentle, carefully nuanced look at faith, and how it is absorbed and passed on.