Jamie Guiney’s collection first caught my eye at What Cathy Read Next. It was its striking jacket that snagged my attention, perfectly fitting its theme with four figures of different ages making their way up a staircase towards a halo although several of Guiney’s characters are more likely to be travelling downwards towards a rather different destination. Comprising eighteen stories – some lengthy, others just a few pages – Guiney’s brief collection offers snapshots of life’s different stages, from an early arrival to a much mourned end.
The Wooden Hill opens with a father remembering his daughter’s happily anticipated birth in ‘We Knew You Before You Were Born’. ‘Summer Stories’ captures the dogged determination of a six-year-old intent on accumulating a collection of carefully selected stones, rudely interrupted by kindly adult concern while in ‘Peas’, a young boy waits for Santa on Christmas Eve only a little disconcerted by what he’s overheard through his older brothers’ bedroom door. ‘The Cowboy’ sees a bout of scrumping launch a boy into a lifetime of dishonesty and in ‘A Woman Named Celie’ the antics of a dog provide distraction at his master’s funeral to the relief of the congregation and the disgust of the priest. A veteran pins his medal to his new Harris Tweed suit and marches smartly through his village, the sounds of long ago battle in his head in ‘A Quarter Yellow Sun’ as the collection approaches its end.
Guiney has chosen a very appealing theme for his collection whose tone is often engagingly intimate. There’s a healthy streak of humour running through these stories, some of it a little slapstick – the pipe-smoking dog was an amusing if surreal turn – some of it dark. His characters are well drawn but it’s his writing that I found most impressive: clean and plain yet often poetic in its descriptions. Here are a few favourite quotes:
But we knew you before you were born. Felt this powerful connection from our hearts to yours, like an invisible spindle of silk
Out in the barley, you catch the flicker of a giant stork lifting off, the majesty of its spread wings pushing off against the blue
It is like winter has crawled inside me and decided to rest out the other three seasons
She’d watch his rugby matches every weekend and hug him as he came off the field no matter how wet or muddy or sometimes even bloody he was. Now he did nothing and his body had sagged like a baked apple
I stand beside Dad. As we sing the hymn, his body shakes. Trying with all its might to cry. Trying with all its might not to cry
Altogether an enjoyable collection, both eloquent and moving in its portrayal of the human condition.