BOOK REVIEW: Wild Quiet By Roisin O’Donnell

 

From the current powerhouse of Irish fiction New Island Books comes the arrestingly brilliant ‘Wild Quiet’ written by the supremely talented Roisin O’Donnell who blows up the competition with her debut anthology; where every story is wonderfully crafted and delicately executed making ‘Wild Quiet’ a ride you’ll never want to forget.

If your standing in the book shop deciding whether to spend your hard earned money on this debut anthology ‘Wild Quiet’ or ‘Some title with Girl in it’ (which seems to be the go to word in a title at the moment). Roisin O’Donnell ensures that you will be leaving the bookshop with her book sitting snugly in your bag.

This debut collection opens with the fabulously haunting ‘Ebenezer’s Memories’ that is written with such composure and mastery that you will quickly forget that this is a debut collection. I found the opening story in this book to quite literally something to behold. I don’t know whether this is because I have family in Northern Ireland or the mastery in which O’Donnell writes the nuances of the Irish language or the attention to detail she offers everything she writes; no words are freeloaders, each adds to the wonderful tapestry O’Donnell is intricately weaving together.

‘ “So ye heard it?” Grandad gave a single nod. “Aye. That’s coz Ebenezer’s hungry. I’ve to feed him newspapers every day, and other things. What things, Catherine? Scary things, pet. Things we’d rather forget. But do yous know what his favourite thing to eat is?” We shook our heads, and Grandad leaned closer. “His favourite snack is wee wains from England. So yous are not to go playin’ in that cupboard again, understand?” ‘

This is just the first story and it is that groundbreaking that you feel where can she go from here? Roisin O’Donnell quickly answers that question with the intricately deep and lovely story of ‘How to be a Billionaire’. This story centers on the relationship of Kingsley his learning support worker Miss Lacey, the girl who occupies his dreams in Shanika and his brother Ezekiel. The story meanders through the classroom, his work with Miss Lacey, his wobbly tooth and how he’s going to get to be with Shanika; until the fates align and he gets to spend a fleeting moment with her on the roof of an old hut.

‘Yeah, I say, and fake tooths cost thousands of euro, abd Por-See-Lin comes from cups. So imagine you had some cups, you could make hundreds of tooths and sell them and be a billionaire.

Really? Shanika starts playing with her hair, twisting it round and round her finger. Being close to Shanika like this makes my breathing sort of funny, like I’m in space and I’m running out of Ox-E-Gen.

You know Shanika, I move a little closer, if an astronaut gets one small hole in his space suit, he can get crushed by Gra-Vee-Tee and then he can hexplode?

O’Donnell’s use of prose throughout this story gives us an insight into Kingsley’s unusual spelling helps knits together a wonderful story around the difficulties of being a child, growing up in the world and that childhood wonderment.  You can’t help but be swept away with Kingsley and his pursuit for happiness; and this is testament to what Roisin O’Donnell has been able to achieve in such a small story.

‘Infinite Landscapes’ explores the spiritual strain surrounding Abeyomi and her struggles to conceive a child; not to mention that she left her homeland of Nigeria and was now residing in Ireland. I can imagine myself that this would take a fair while to acclimatise. This spiritual strain is often delivered via SKYPE calls with her relatives and their village wise woman.

‘Abeyomi called her mother, Sama Nanosi, on Skype. The wise woman of Kwara crouched over a cola, her dreadlocks brushing against the webcam as she listened to her daughter’s story.

“Mark my words,” Sama Nanosi nodded, “this child will be abiku, a spirit child predestined to forever come and go”.

Abeyomi came off Skype with a list of tricks and remedies.

From that night on she began leaving a pair of open scissors by her bedside to scare the spirits away.’

‘Titanium Heart’ is a fabulous science fiction story set in the friary steal furnace of Sheffield that impresses from the off and shows that Roisin O’Donnell is at home in a variety of genre. I personally found this story one of the best within the collection and it was hard not to think of her writing in the same category of the great Isaac Asimov. Her ability to make the impossible seem possible is a true demonstration of her undeniable talent as a writer; which only leaves me asking the question will we see an anthology of Science Fiction writings from O’Donnell any time soon?

‘The famous might of the Steel City had threaded through generations, dating back to when Sheffield was founded on the River Sheaf. City of knives. City of iron. Sheffield was forged in the furnaces of metal works dominating the skyline. It was a solid city. A grey city. A city that, it seemed, would never end. And yet Eva and Stephen were hardly surprised when they first noticed that Sheffield was melting.’

‘Under the Jasmine Tree’ an earlier version of this story was given an honorary mention in the Bath Short Story Award; and it’s easy to see why. Like many of the stories within ‘Wild Quiet’ Roisin O’Donnell is not afraid to show us a side of Ireland that is not typically being written about by many Irish writers today. With many of her stories focusing on foreign nationals or those who may have emigrated or been given asylum she paints the very cosmopolitan Ireland that from the outside people don’t see or hear about. With ‘Under the Jasmine Tree’ O’Donnell focuses our attention on a matter the Spanish would rather forget – this being ‘Spain’s Stolen Babies’. I’ve included a fabulous link by the BBC which will get you up to scratch in no time and save me having to delve into this too much now (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-15335899)

Roisin O’Donnell tackles this subject with a deft tenderness as the story is told from the point of view of the Spanish mother, awaiting the arrival of her forgotten (stolen) son; who is there on holiday and wanting to meet his birth mother.

‘When he runs out of safe things to say, he clasps his hands nervously. “It’s a beautiful house. So strange to think of my grandparents, great-grandparents…Sorry, Alma, I’m rambling here. My head is racing. I’ve been on holidays here in Seville the last week, but I just wasn’t sure I’d pick up the courage. It was my wife who encouraged me to call on you. It’s just so hard to know what to say”.’

‘On Cosmology’ this is another arrestingly simple but masterfully executed short story; and re-reading it whilst writing this review made me smile and laugh to myself when I stumbled over the words that Roisin O’Donnell decided to use and the comparisons and craft she shows in painting this tale of disastrous first dates and second dates; wrong men and where these choices leave her. The story itself is told from the point of view of a young woman talking to her unborn fetus. It was hard to choose a passage to share; with so many good ones on offer but I decided upon this one as it did as the cool kids say make me LOL.

‘I pulled off my purple snood to find an ugly bruise on my neck the colour of summer fruits about to darken into sticky-sweet rot. I Googled ‘How to get rid of a hickey fast’, and Google advised me to apply an ice compress and to brush the area with a toothbrush to regain circulation. So I found myself at 2:05 a.m. with a bag of frozen veg pressed against the soft flesh under my jaw, an electric toothbrush in my hand. If you’d seen me, you’d have laughed.’

‘How to learn Irish in Seventeen Steps’ which was first published in the talent filled anthology ‘Young Irelanders’ by New Island. It’s clear to see why this story was in this anthology and why Roisin O’Donnell opted to use it in her own anthology; and the reason is, is that it is utter brilliance, every word and sentence in this story fights for the right to be on the page and part of this astonishing short story. The prose of the piece is ingenious; set up as we follow Luana Paula de Silva and Sean as Luana attempts to learn Irish over Seventeen steps. Each step is magnificently detailed and O’Donnell delivers some brilliant work; I can’t say I could read much of the Irish, but I gave it a go with me asking my wife many times “How would you say this, in your best Irish accent?”.

‘Step 13: Teach. Sometimes you will need the distraction provided by your class of infants far more than they need you. “Teacher, he hit me!” “Teacher, my nose is itchy!” “Teacher, she won’t be my friend!” through the eyes of your assembled six-year-olds, see yourself not as a broken wanderer but as a Fixer of All Things. On yard duty, try to keep check on the dizzying rush of children, an enterprise as pointless as attempting to patrol a hurricane. Pupils will swerve around the yard, haphazardly bright in their winter coats, like escaped pieces of a Cubist painting.’

Next up in the beautifully haunting ‘Kamikaze Love’ where Roisin O’Donnell; takes another tragic subject and a subject so current that it can resonate with you long after you finished the story and even the book. The story revolves around Anju and Oisin and how Anju’s suicide has left her haunting him, trying to get hold of his mobile phone that contains the last message she ever sent him before she committed suicide. It had me thinking quite often of the amazing scene in ‘Ghost’ when Patrick Swasey is tormenting Whoopi Goldberg with his singing. O’Donnell delivers the laughs as well as the heartache in this tight and concise work of art.

‘The first time I met Oisin’s friends, they looked at me strangely. “A Japanese girl?? Ya dark horse!” Tom said when he thought I couldn’t understand. The other lads laughed. And I imagined Oisin as a stallion galloping the Dublin streets with the wind in his long black mane. I pulled my sleeves down over my hands while Tom and Oisin’s other friends were talking. “That is a scratch, “ I’d told Oisin when he first noticed the white streaks on my wrists, “I was climbing Mount Fiji.” He believed me: I loved that about him.

‘Wild Quiet’ is a beautiful story, a story I feel is becoming all to familiar, the story of how we try to indoctrinate refugees and how we expect those who arrive in our countries or at our shores to automatically acclimatise overnight, and we don’t take into account the horrors that those individuals have faced or even suffered. The story follows the somewhat quiet Khadra as she and her parents begin life in Donegal since fleeing Mogadishu. Roisin O’Donnell delivers a unique and powerful story, that gives a voice to those with none and we after reading this should be changed for the better; two words, truly powerful.

‘U-N-I-C-E-F. Those were the first English letters you learnt to read. You and Aniya watched those blue letters flapping on a white plastic sheet over your heads. Later, you asked Dad to tell you what those letters said. “Repeat after me,” Dad said, and he looked almost happy, like how he used to look back home in Mogadishu. You liked the scrambling kanecco shape of English letters, so different from Arabic. Over the next few years in Dadaab, your Dad taught you how to say lots of other things in English. Hello. My name is. I come from Somalia. So when the white man with wriggly blue lines in his hand said “Hello there,” you were able to say back, “Hello, my name is Khadra, and this is Aniya.”’

‘When Time Stretches’ is a wonderful tale. It was a tale I didn’t want to end. The way O’Donnell is able to describe other countries, cultures; ways of life, with all its intrinsic beauty is seeing someone who is at the top of their game. And that’s the shocking part; this is Roisin O’Donnell’s debut collection of short stories; O’Donnell has a profound gift and knows just how to use it.

‘Iman. Your name means faithful. All these years, I’ve been presuming you blamed me. Can’t you see? No one was less to blame than the child they carried from the workshop with his fingers covering his face, bright rivulets or blood trickling between his knuckles. And when the pulsing red-and-blue lights had carried you away to another place, I sat in the red dust with my wooden Sita doll in my arms, holding my elbows, shocked beyond tears. My dad brought me home in a rattling tuk-tuk, to find our mothers sitting on our porch in each other’s arms. This time, both of them were crying.’

‘Death and the Architect’ was an interesting short story and the difference in its prose is the appealing nature of the story. The story focuses on Antoni Gaudi and the building of the Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona. The different tone in this story compared to the others within the collection makes this one to remember and stand out. I am also astounded at the detail in which O’Donnell writes time and time again, no details are left unsaid. It also makes me wish that my passport were as well used as hers seems to be!

‘Dear Senor Gaudi,

Once again you have exceeded city limits and we, the councilors, are obliged to tell you to stop. The city of Barcelona will no longer permit your wild flights of fancy to scar our cityscape. It must stop. In fact, we remind you that we only every asked you to design the street lamps in Placa Reial, and look what happened on that occasion.’

‘Crushed’ was a beautiful story that really hit me. It reminded me of my life growing up on a council estate, going to a rough estate Primary School where violent fights were something that happened on a daily occurrence and assaults on the streets were also another memorable occurrence. Roisin O’Donnell beautifully illustrates this in ‘Crushed’. I grew up in the age of Damilola Taylor. Where the news reported the horrendous story of the 10-year-old (I was 9 at the time) Nigerian schoolboy Damilola Taylor who died at the hands of several young boys; who were later convicted of manslaughter charges. The world then was a different place; the world today is a different place with some horrific similarities and O’Donnell is able to weave such a beautifully tragic but relevant story that leaves the reader feeling somewhat changed after reading; a real tour de force of a short story writing.

‘But Ezekiel kept on walking, and soon the roar of the nearby M50 overpass swallowed Kingsley’s shouts. Ragged-winged crows circled the estate, and a moth-eaten tabby slunk out of an alley with a sparrow in its mouth. When he reached the middle of the field, Eziekiel looked back and saw those two white guys from the morning coming down Hunter’s Run in the direction of Kingsley and Shanika. Bad luck, he thought, to bump into those weirdos twice in one day.’

Would I recommend this book? Yes I bloody would.

Would I buy this book? Yes without question.

So people, remember the name Roisin O’Donnell as I have no doubt that she will be a defining voice of her generation. A magnificently astonishing, totally arresting collection from a debut author; as d:ream once sang ‘Things can only get better’ so I cant wait to see what Roisin O’Donnell comes up with next. One things for sure I’ll be buying it!

Wild Quiet was published by New Island Books on 19th May 2016.

You can purchase a copy of Wild Quiet from Foyles or Indiebound:

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To discover more about New Island Books click here

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Review by Ross Jeffery

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