I’m on a winning streak with Irish women authors this year. I’m sure to hit a dud eventually but Niamh Mulvey’s debut, Hearts and Bones, certainly isn’t it. This slim collection comprising ten stories comes with a subtitle which sets the tone, echoed by that brilliant jacket, as its narrators, mostly women, look back at those points in their life which marked a turning point.
She came home for a month the year her marriage ended. It had faded away like a photograph in the sun
As ever, I’ve picked out a few favourites to give a flavour of what’s on offer beginning with the opening piece, Mother’s Day, in which a woman, married into wealth, meets her estranged mother of whom she’s slightly ashamed. In Feathers, a bored, anxious teacher’s visit to her boyfriend in France turns out to be surprisingly liberating when his cleaner becomes an ally and a friend. First Time is narrated by a sixteen-year-old boy awed by his girlfriend who always seems so in charge of herself until one day she doesn’t. In Childcare, ten-year-old Julia watches as her alcoholic mother blossoms knowing that it can’t last and resolves how to survive with an unnerving maturity. Blackbirds sees two siblings, a brother who loved their parents’ bohemian poverty and had no interest in getting on, and his bright sister who became a doctor, brought back together when her marriage fails.
He enjoyed the person he was in her mother’s warnings, a rebel in a leather jacket from a world that didn’t exist
Mulvey explores fraught family relationships, class, religion and love mostly from the perspective of female narrators who experience anger, resentment, liberation and often epiphanies as they navigate their way through the difficulties of life. Julia’s ten-year-old voice is particularly powerful, a child with no say in her life who learns to watch and act according to what she observes. Mulvey’s writing is marked by a pleasing economy: she has a habit of dropping in short, stark sentences that pull you up short. There’s humour and wit to enjoy but these are mostly sober stories, many of which capture the pain and confusion of childhood and adolescence. No surprise to find that Mulvey’s a contributor to Stinging Fly a subscription to which I’ve added to my birthday list.
Picador: London 9781529079913 176 pages Hardback