Irish writer Sheila Armstrong’s debut collection How to Gut a Fish came with a glowing endorsement from Roddy Doyle which was part of the lure for me; that and the hint of the surreal in its blurb. The collection comprises fourteen stories, none more than twenty pages long, each very different from the other.
As the sky begins to soften into shades of sepia, the noise of a tractor huffing awake startles a flock of starlings into flight and they perform a swooping murmuration. The birds fold over and back into themselves; a pulsing cloud of magnetic filings
As ever, I’ve picked out a few favourites to give a flavour of what’s on offer beginning with the opening piece, Hole, set on the longest night of the year when a series of people are drawn to the edge of a fairy fort, sucked in, never to be seen again. In Lemons, a woman’s life unfolds in a series of snapshots, from dancing with her sister in a polystyrene snowstorm to the consolatory visit in which her sister knows not to talk of her bad news. Hold Fast captures the loneliness of a break-up when a trip to Iceland becomes a solo journey after a man makes a confession to his partner, each thinking of the other and their unhappiness. In Dado, a widower, preoccupied with thoughts about the cabinet he’s making, is involved in a tragic accident but tells no one. Life goes on with this secret which seems almost to be kept from himself. The final story, Dome, is an almost painterly series of images of a coastline and the people who visit it.
She had a heart as big and billowing as a rainbow spinnaker, but she couldn’t fold it up enough to care about the little causes
Armstrong’s stories range from the titular piece about a man performing a run-of-the-mill task while anxiously waiting for a rendezvous to the surreal and unsettling Red Market which sees a naked young woman, bound and wrapped in clingfilm, on display at a Christmas market, made all the more disturbing by the mundane details of stallholders and customers. Most of her stories are disquieting, peopled by idiosyncratic characters, often outsiders ill at ease with themselves. All are beautifully expressed, studded with poetic images and the occasional flashes of humour. Just one piece didn’t work for me but that’s because I’ve never been a stream of consciousness fan. Not a bad hit rate out of fourteen. As with so many Irish short story writers whose work I admire, I see Armstrong is a contributor to Stinging Fly. Someone there knows what they’re about.
Bloomsbury Publishing: London 9781526635778 224 pages Hardback