Roisin O’Donnell (New Island Books 2016, Trade Paperback) 184 pages, cover price n/a
Metaphorically at least, art at its best exists as the Customs House managing the flow of two great nations that don’t entirely get along yet have to do business with each other for the sake of commerce. Those two nations are talent and craft. In simplest terms, talent is the ability to see something as a metaphor of something else; shapes in clouds for instance, or those very odd people who are always seeing the face of Jesus in a piece of toast. Craft then is the discipline to take these little flights of imagination and make them line up together like good little schoolchildren being called in from the yard at the end of recess. It is up to the artist – and here we will narrow down the frame to writers – who must sit in that Customs House and manage the trade between the two.
There is not a great writer on Earth who doesn’t find this task exhausting. This will sound like Freud 101 to which I say, you’re darn right it is. The artistic happy Id just wants to keep on having happy artistic Id thoughts, which are incredibly annoying to the Superego crafter who just wants the Id to shut the hell up and stop trying to change the goddam story all the time! And so there sits the Ego, behind the desk in that Customs House. That was Geoffrey Chaucer’s job you know – ran the customs for the port of London back in the thirteenth century. Somehow he also found the time to write the Canterbury Tales.
It was reading Roisin O’Donnell’s first collection of short stories, Wild Quiet that got me to thinking about all this. I happily announced Roisin as the 2015 winner of San Diego Book Review’s Dorothy Parker Award on the basis of just two short stories: Infinite Landscapes, and How to Learn Irish in Seventeen Steps. Both of those I am delighted to say are in Wild Quiet and the latter in particular is one of five short stories I consider to be perfectly written. (Oh, now you’ll want to know the others. Fine then – Mrs Parker’s Big Blonde, Hemingway’s The Killers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Diamond as Big as the Ritz and Chekhov’s The Lottery Ticket. Now can we get on with it? Thank you.)
What so vastly impressed me about Roisin’s work then and this new collection just reinforces my opinion is her so very rare ability to balance a truly fantastic talent for observation and interpretation with the discipline to craft rock solid, leak-proof structures. It’s all rather like one of those three-tiered cake stands that are presented to your table at a high tea; every layer is filled with tastefully arranged scrumptiousness, but it’s not over-filled either. You get to appreciate both the savory and the sweet because there’s just enough of both.
That was why I was impatiently awaiting the publication of Wild Quiet. I wanted to see how this young Irish writer’s skills were expanding. So what I found was … the reason why I started talking about Chaucer and Customs Houses.
I ask you, Why do we still bother with reading and studying the works of Chaucer? Why put up with the torture of decoding Middle English? It certainly is not because the old boy was the first great storyteller in our language; all kinds of people are first at things but that doesn’t mean that any of them were particularly good at it. Whoever first held the course record at St Andrews certainly doesn’t hold it now, and I don’t think rugby’s Webb Ellis would last long faced with a scrum of New Zealand All-Blacks.
No, Chaucer had and still has two things going for him. One, he was able to write the Canterbury Tales in the distinct individual voices of all those pilgrims. You’re not going to mistake the Knight for the Summoner for the Pardoner and you sure as hell won’t mistake any of them for the Wife of Bath. (I actually had a Professor who had an unabashed literary crush on the Wife of Bath, but that’s a lurid story for another day.) Secondly, it may sound obvious, but Chaucer understood travel and the accommodations one is forced to make in getting along peacefully with a group of strangers. How does one fit in?
Now, I’m not going to say Roisin O’Donnell is Geoffrey Chaucer – that would be doing to her what drunken sportswriters do to sixteen year old high school basketball players when they announce them as ‘the new Michael Jordan (hic)!’ However, she and Chaucer do share the same strengths. It amazes me – literally, truly, with no exaggeration amazes me – how this young Irish writer can mind meld and speak with the voice of (to name a few): a thirteen year old black immigrant boy with a learning disability, a heartbroken and suicidal Japanese woman, a young girl who is a refugee from Somalia and is afraid to speak of her past, or a thirty year old Irishman racing back to Indonesia because his childhood friend needs him. Every one of these voices, as most of the twelve stories are written in first person, is so linguistically distinct it is like reading stories by twelve different talented writers. Or one Chaucer. Or one O’Donnell.
Now I know what you’re going to think – that no one can be as good as I’m saying Roisin O’Donnell is. And fine, yes, there are a couple of errors. There is one in Infinite Landscapes which was either not there the first time I read it or I missed it. A character who discovers she is pregnant calls her mother back in Africa via Skype at a time well before Skype had been thought of. Oopsy daisy. I suggest in the future editions that be changed to a garden variety long distance call and then Bob’s your uncle. As well, I’m not totally sure that the story Titanium Heart works as a fantasy tribute to O’Donnell’s birthplace of Sheffield. The steel city is quite literally made of steel, as are the internal organs of some of the inhabitants. The steel quite literally begins t melt but the city is revived by the planting of millions of trees and, well, you know I like a good allegory as much as the next man but I think the message rather forced the execution of the story rather than supporting it. Still, Titanium Heart has its entertaining virtues and you may well say it’s your favourite. Such is life, such is taste.
Ultimately though, when you read Wild Quiet (and if I have anything to say on the matter you bloody well will read it) you will place a few hours of your life in the splendid company of a master storyteller. You will find as I did that each of the twelve narrative voices are equal parts sharp, occasionally whimsical, occasionally sentimental, and always empathetic to the surrounding story. The scenes of Africa or Indonesia are as eye-catching and true as those written by a Graham Greene or Somerset Maugham, and when O’Donnell sets up the situation in On Cosmology of a modern woman who may be pregnant by a lunkhead who surreptitiously pulled off the condom; well I think if Dorothy Parker herself was alive today she’d be applauding. Here’s a sample from On Cosmology. Our narrator is speaking to her three-week old foetus:
Our second date should never have happened. After the love bite I had sworn I was never going to see your father again. But I longed for the closeness of him. So, like an eejit, I waited at the Spire one November night, shivering in a black miniskirt, ankle boots and purple tights. And as I stood in the roaring neon rush of O’Connell Street, I rehearsed the reasons why I shouldn’t sleep with David. There were plenty of reasons. He was clearly a player, and would finish with me as soon as we’d had sex. At the age of thirty I had turned a corner and was now making Positive Life Decisions. Plus, he was the type of guy who was used to getting everything he wanted, and I wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction. But my breasts were traitors, shouting to be caressed. My skin was singing to be touched. The evening had a thunderstorm inevitability about it. Amd when we ended up naked in bed, I don’t think either of us was surprised.
Lastly, there is a very nice note in Wild Quiet’s acknowledgements thanking me for being Roisin O’Donnell’s first fan. Well, I’m quite sure there were teachers, editors and undoubtedly parents who came before me chronologically but it was a lovely compliment. Yes indeed I am a fan and I urge you to be a fan too. Believe me, it is a fan club that is going to grow very large over the coming years.
Be seeing you.