Broken down estates, gangsters, failed and failing marriages, suicidal mothers, a woman who is either being poisoned or having a mental breakdown, farmers cheating on their pregnant wives while they grow far-from-legal crops for local money men, a shitty post-cancer holiday in the rain, children being run over, faith healers – Louise Kennedy’s riveting collection of shorts has it all. I could make some sort of allusion here to Kennedy’s other career as a chef, as she combines various literary ingredients, heats them in the oven of her intellect, and serves the reader up a sumptuous meal, consisting of several narrative courses, but that kind of metaphorical hogwashologising is beneath me, so I won’t.
If that litany sounds depressing then it shouldn’t, because this is an excellent bag of tricks, filled with snapshots that take us backward and forward, both temporally and geographically, just like those in ‘Gibraltar’ where Kennedy employs old photos as wormholes for time travelling in an admirable display of storytelling sleight of hand.
In the title track, so to speak, Sarah’s husband Davy has run off – he might have been spotted somewhere in Europe – leaving her in the lurch, and other inhabitants in a worse place altogether, over the housing estate they built, which now has a donkey squatting in it. Why does nearly everyone in Ireland fancy themselves as some sort of property expert? Sarah must face the consequences in the unpleasant form of bad bastard, Ryan, who is owed money. There are no donkeys, but the presence of a possibly mystical hare upsets the bored Siobhán, who has found out that living off the land isn’t as easy as it looks in the books, in ‘Hunter-Gatherers’. Peter hooks up with a younger woman in ‘Wolf Point’ but, as often happens with such unnatural messing, things don’t stay fine for him, as Emma’s not well. Jason’s healing hands (‘Hands’), Aidan the gardener/stalker (‘Once Upon A Pair Of Wheels’), Mairead sick to her back teeth of Brendan and his stories (‘Sparing The Heather’) – each successive character and scenario engenders further admiration and wonder at the quality of the work presented here.
It’s also, as Kennedy recently succinctly put it on Twitter, “full of riding” and where’s the harm in that? Tim in ‘What The Birds Heard’ sounds like a fine lump of a man for a start, but you do get the feeling that Doireann is only passing through.
The standard never dips below the high bar that is set from the off, but the lipstick on the handbag, the blood on both sets of clothes, and the recognition of a droopy eye on a television set in ‘In Silhouette’, the pain – and the guilt at the pain – of having a child that’s different in ‘Brittle Things’, and the tragic story of Baby and the baby that was never meant to be in ‘Garland Sunday’ are particularly well-handled. You might say it’s all cooked to near-perfection and beautifully presented. Damn it. A brilliant debut.