BOOK REVIEW: Quartier Perdu by Sean O’Brien

Comma Press has done it again. I recently reviewed The Book of Tbilisi, a collection of short tales detailing the history of the Georgian capital. Quartier Perdu and Other Stories is, you guessed it, another gripping collection of short stories. This time, all the stories are written by a single author. Sean O’Brien does it all. Not only does he write stories, but poems, novels and plays which have won him a number of awards, including the T.S. Eliot Prize and the E.M. Forster Award. Quartier Perdu and Other Stories is his second collection of short stories. Unlike The Book of Tbilisi, the tales in O’Brien’s collection aren’t connected by one setting in particular. Instead, they’re connected by subtle snippets and mismatched clues. It’s a rollercoaster of a collection. Make sure you’re strapped in.

‘You are born out of nothing. The world lies all before you, issuing its invitation to the voyage on this blue evening.’ (“Lovely”)

Quartier Perdu is immediately enticing, opening with a story about a woman who gets caught up in a bombing. The next tale is about a town which has more cats than people. O’Brien’s collection is divided into three parts. Not only is each part different, but the stories inside each part are not exactly similar either. Some rely more on description while others are fuelled by dialogue. The tales switch between first, second and third-person. “Story Time” is structured like a diary and the titular story “Quartier Perdu” is written as a collection of letters. While each story is unique in its own way, Quartier Perdu has a creepy thread running throughout. Reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe, O’Brien appears to echo Gothic tropes throughout his collection. On the whole, he echoes them well.

‘It was as if Susie was already sitting in some other place, a kind of future, confident that soon the desired visitor would arrive and stay, and the redundant one would be gone.’ (During an Air-Raid)

One of O’Brien’s greatest feats throughout the collection is his character descriptions. Although we don’t stay with any of the characters for long, they are crafted as carefully as the protagonists of a novel would be. It’s almost a shame that they only exist within the limited scope of short stories. Take Caterina, ‘the nineteen-year-old daughter from the restaurant next door, tanned to cinnamon in her tiny red shorts, moving effortlessly among all the glances that followed her’ (“The Sea-God”) or Mrs Yorke who ‘had the faint stylised hesitation found among those who are never entirely sober’ (“The Good Stuff”). O’Brien makes use of details which could simultaneously pass us by and reveal critical elements of a character’s personality.

‘Now, I thought, now it might happen: since boyhood I had always wanted to be inside a story, and it seemed as if this could be it, the opening page of a narrative that turned out to be true.’ (“To See How Far It Is”)

It’s hard to choose a favourite from a collection where every story possesses its own sense of humour or mystery. However, one that particularly strikes me is “Lovely”. Written in second person, “Lovely” details an evening stroll and a date in a coastal town. Not many authors are brave enough to write a story in second-person. I suppose that’s why “Lovely” is my favourite; I appreciate O’Brien’s risk. For a few pages, you become the protagonist. An entire story is dedicated to you.

‘Surely, you might think, the outcome simply could not be predicted. There was nothing inevitable here. I can quite see why it is necessary to think so. But you would be wrong.’ (“Certain Measures”)

As with any collection of short stories, especially one of this length, some stories are not as memorable as others. When writers compile a short story collection instead of a novel, there is a reason for their choice. If I were to give one piece of advice before picking up this book, it’d be to not power through the collection as you would a novel. O’Brien is talented enough to have produced a collection in which each story stands alone. There is no need to devour the stories in one sitting. Keep this book on your bedside table and dabble in and out.

‘Leah was found two days later, washed up on a mudbank in the mouth of the Haven, fully clothed except for her shoes and with no marks of deliberate injury.’ (“A Cold Spot”)

If you’re currently between books and not sure whether you fancy reading romance, crime or fantasy, Quartier Perdu is the collection for you. If you’re not in the mood to invest in an entire book’s worth of characters and storylines, open up to a random page and start with one story. If you just feel like reading well-written, cleverly plotted and gripping fiction, O’Brien is a great place to start. So far, Comma Press has not disappointed with its short story collections. When’s the next one?

Quartier Perdu is published by Comma Press and is available here.

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Sean O’Brien

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Sean O’Brien is a poet, critic, editor, translator, playwright, broadcaster and novelist. His poetry has won multiple awards, including the T S Eliot Prize, the Forward Prize (three times), and the E M Forster Award. His eighth poetry collection, The Beautiful Librarians, won the 2015 Roehampton Poetry Prize.

His second novel, Once Again Assembled Here, was published in 2016, as was Hammersmith, a chapbook of poetry and photographs. 2018 sees the publication of his ninth collection of poetry, Europa, and his second collection of short stories from Comma Press, Quartier Perdu.

Born in London, Sean O’Brien grew up in Hull and now lives in Newcastle upon Tyne. He is Professor of Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Reviewed by Alice Kouzmenko

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The SHALLOW CREEK Short Story Competition

Mallum Colt, proprietor of Colt’s Curiosity Shop, invites authors to explore the sinister shadows and crooked streets of his once splendid town of Shallow Creek.

Guests are gifted a Shallow Creek visitor pack consisting of a map of Shallow Creek, a character profile, a specific location, and an item of interest.

These items shall act as a source of inspiration as Mallum Colt guides his guests through Shallow Creek and reveals the secrets and stories of a town bereft of sleep.

For more information and full terms and conditions click here

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EXIT EARTH includes the short stories of all fourteen finalists of the STORGY EXIT EARTH Short Story Competition, as judged by critically acclaimed author Diane Cook (Man vs. Nature) and additional stories by award winning authors M R Cary (The Girl With All The Gifts), Toby Litt (Corpsing), James Miller (Lost Boys), Courttia Newland (A Book of Blues), and David James Poissant (The Heaven of Animals), and exclusive artwork by Amie Dearlove, HarlotVonCharlotte, CrapPanther, and cover design by Rob Pearce.

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