BOOK REVIEW: Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine

I first discovered Wendy Erskine and Sweet Home when it was brought to my attention in the best books of 2018 by Rachael Smart (which you can find here). Once reading her short review of Erskine’s debut collection I couldn’t help myself but to hunt it out and start reading.

I have a bit of a love affair with Norther Ireland, my wife’s family originate from there and there have been many times in the intervening years since we got married, that we travel over and see family and take in the sites of such a beautiful part of the world. What I love particularly about Northern Ireland is the sing song of their speech, the dialect, the way they construct their sentences – it’s something that is both pleasing to the ear and warming to the soul.

Sweet Home is set in contemporary Belfast, against the backdrop of the here and the now. Having visited Belfast on numerous occasions, each story is littered with fabulous observational writing which really strikes home the location and the people that reside there – with as mentioned above particular detail given to the way people speak (which of course is made easier with Wendy Erskine being from Northern Ireland).

Erskine unpicks the fabric of ordinary people with a deft touch and with great skill, unravelling stories and lives by tugging on a loose thread that she has masterfully woven into her storytelling. As the thread is pulled the tension is released, things more often than not come tumbling apart, and in turn, what we think is the issue, is only the patch sewn over the top – which made me muse about how often this is the case for ourselves.

It is the ordinariness of the stories Erskine masterfully executes that pulls the reader in. She makes us care for these people as if they are real lives that we have the pleasure of being a fly on the wall of. Real people with actual relatable issues – there are no monsters lurking, no huge set pieces, nothing out of the ordinary – but if you are looking for extraordinary writing told with a sublime innocence and a masters touch then look no further.

The themes of loss, tragedy, loneliness and survival seem to spill across the stories within this collection, but they are also supported by bittersweet moments, beautifully constructed prose and Erskine’s very dry wit, which at times perfectly punctuates a story.

Domestic life and the inner dynamics of relationships are key to many of the stories. I could unpack all the stories in the collection – as I sometimes do with my reviews but I feel that would do a disservice to Erskine’s work – I feel that the stories are so impressive that they are best discovered over a coffee and a cake (which I did with many!) – so I will try and restrain myself from giving too much away and focus on two of the stories that I found impacted me the most (although the whole collection is something so very special!).

The opening story ‘To All Their Dues‘ centres on the manager of a new beauty salon which is targeted by thug called Karl, who is looking to extort her – Erskine deftly splices in humour to this story when Karl tries hypnotherapy to help him deal with his anger issues. This story in particular had me by the balls and the conclusion was expertly delivered. It was a great way to start the collection, and I feel it sets the reader up for what is an unforgettable ride, delivered with a  commanding and powerful new voice.

Inakeen‘ is another fabulous tale which is wrapped up in isolation and loneliness, but there is a huge dollop of humour in there too. It reminded me of the street my wife’s Nana used to live on. How she used to sit at the window and watch the lives of others on the street moving and going on around her, snooping and assuming things about those she had been witnessing (with a slight bit of racial tension thrown into the mix). Erskine delivers this tale with such astute observations that it is hard not to be blown away by her ability – at many points it were as if I were observing the whole thing myself, twitching at my curtain and letting my mind run wild.

Sweet Home is the perfect addition to any short story fan, it is astonishingly good, if you are learning your craft in the short story realm then this should be on your core reading list. If you are after great story telling from a fabulous new voice then look no further – this should and could be going on to win awards this year!

An undeniably fascinating new voice in short story writing, who we are confident has an astonishing future!

Sweet Home is published by The Stinging Fly and is available here.

Wendy Erskine

Wendy Erskine lives in Belfast. Her work has been published in The Stinging FlyStinging Fly Stories and Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland (New Island Books) and is forthcoming in Being Various: New Irish Short Stories (Faber and Faber), Winter Papers and on BBC Radio 4. Sweet Home is her first collection.

Reviewed by Ross Jeffery

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