After a Dance by Bridget O’Connor: Dark, funny and occasionally surreal

Cover image for After a DanceI’d not come across Bridget O’Connor’s writing until I was sent a nice little package of links to various spring titles by her publisher just before Christmas. An acclaimed short story writer and playwright, O’Connor died in 2010, aged only forty-nine. After a Dance is a collection of fifteen of her stories all but one first published in the 1990s. Most are hardly more than a few pages, some quite striking in their originality.

‘I’ve only got six months’, she sobbed, six years ago.

As ever with short stories, I’ve picked out a few favourites to give a flavour of what’s on offer beginning with the titular piece in which a young girl on holiday agrees to spend the night with a boy she meets at a dance but finds it an unsettling experience, tossing and turning all night while he snores beside her, echoed by his uncle downstairs. In Harp a busker spots a young harpist dressed in gold raking in money and is determined to get her hands on his harp no matter what it takes. Old Times sees Rick and Len, friends since they were four and now nearly forty, indulge in their yearly big bash which seems more like an endurance test than a celebration. In Remission a husband, distraught at his detested wife’s seemingly endless remission from cancer on which she’s built a lucrative career, finds an unexpected and deeply ironic release. The final story, We Do Not Forward Suicide Notes, is a darkly comic piece in which a clifftop cafe owner shares what she plans to be her last supper with a criminal, inadvertently rescuing him from impending trouble.

She went to France often to have her cheeks briskly kissed by strangers. This hunger was never assuaged.

O’ Connor’s collection is introduced by her daughter, Constance Straughan, beginning with a colourful anecdote of the author’s grandmother having her copy of her granddaughter’s book exorcised. Conveniently, the priest called every Friday but until then she sat on the book, a story which would have sat quite comfortably alongside the ones in this collection. O’Connor explores human nature with sharp observation and a black humour sometimes with a dash of the surreal. Many of her characters are selfish and occasionally stupid but they’re often very funny, if unwittingly so. Some struggle with disappointment, social ineptitude and loneliness while others have their eye to the main chance no matter what the cost to others or are so caught up in themselves, they neither notice nor care about the distress of friends or family. In her introduction, Straughan tells us that all four of O’Connor’s siblings were convinced their sister had written her stories about them, not a claim I’d particularly have wanted to make, entertaining as they are.

Picador Books London 9781035024896 160 pages Hardback (read via NetGalley)

14 thoughts on “After a Dance by Bridget O’Connor: Dark, funny and occasionally surreal”

  1. Seems a wonderful collection, the humour perhaps toning down the darker aspects. I don’t get to short stories as much as I should but this sounds well worth exploring.

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