I rarely agree to look at a book in response to a direct request from the author. Given that this blog is about books I’d be happy to recommend to a friend, there’s too much of a risk I won’t enjoy it enough to review it which always feels like a personal rejection and I’m sure writers get enough of that. Deirdre Shanahan’s stories, however, had already received a good deal of critical acclaim from the likes of Wendy Erskine and Billy O’Callaghan whose My Coney Island Baby I loved so I felt on safe ground which proved to be the case. Carrying Fire and Water comprises seventeen stories, most a mere ten pages or so, many of which share themes of loss and longing.
When reviewing short story collections, I usually pick out a few that I found particularly impressive but with this one I’m spoiled for choice. I’ll start with the titular piece as does the collection which sets the tone well with its tale of a woman on holiday in Istanbul who realises that childlessness for her husband is much easier than it will be for her. In ‘The Beach on Silhouette Island’ a woman is haunted by the memory of her absence when her mother died thanks to her lover’s selfish insistence on a holiday. ‘Dark Rain Falling’ is a ‘be careful what you wish for story’ which sees a woman whose affair ends badly when her lover finally gives in to her ultimatum. In ‘The Architecture of Trees’ news from the outside world finds its way to the peaceful convent into which a young woman has retreated after a broken love affair finding solace in simple tasks, while in ‘Araiyakushimae’ a woman staying with her dying mother visits the uncle who had abused her and takes a small but satisfying revenge.
Shanahan explores her collection’s overarching themes of loss, absence and longing with a perceptive delicacy. Her stories are written from the perspective of women in search of consolation, often travelling or on holiday, but inevitably bringing their past with them. Each one is mourning a loss of some sort – sometimes it’s the loss of a parent, or the chance to have children or the aching absence of someone they love. Even the occasional grittier piece such as ‘The Love Object’, set in a children’s home, expresses a longing for something lost or never had. As so often seems to be the case with short story collections, the writing is striking. Hard to pick and choose but here are a few quotes to whet your appetite:
The shortcut took them through the bog, lumpy rustland with a hush of heather. Mustardy tones she hadn’t seen for years. Out on the main road, leaves glowed like embers in fires (Araiyakushimae)
They’d dripped like spun cotton but she had set the sapling in the shade of the wall, where wild pink roses struggled up, colourful as a girls’ night out (The Architecture of Trees)
I know all about ghosts. How they hang around and screw up your life, making noises when you don’t want them to, never letting go (North by Northwest)
This is a quietly understated, introspective collection, marked by a wistful, yearning tone and written with a spare elegance which I found very appealing. If you like the sound of it and would like to buy a copy, you can order direct from Splice. They’re a tiny publisher no doubt finding it hard to stay afloat in our current challenging times.
Splice: Birmingham 2020 9781916173033 163 pages Paperback