BOOK REVIEW: Being Various edited by Lucy Caldwell

Lucy Caldwell in her fabulous crafted introduction say in her own words…

‘Ireland is going through a golden age of writing: that has never been more apparent. I wanted to capture something of the energy of this explosion, in all its variousness…’

…and boy is she right, and boy does she achieve what she has set out to capture. Being Various not only has more energy than a child gorging themselves on sweets before bedtime, it also has a delicate energy of storytellers at the top of their game spinning tales that leave their mark, branding you with their brilliance long after the book is finished. The other thing about the anthology is that it does what it says on the tin, it is a wonderful and intrinsic blend of variously delightful tales – there is something for everyone in this anthology.

Lucy Caldwell is a writer I very much admire, her collection Multitudes was a stunning discovery for me and her short story that features in said collection, and also in The Penguin Book Of The Contemporary British Short StoryPoison‘ is astoundingly astute and quite brilliant (review here). So, when I heard that she was editing Faber’s new collection of Irish Short Stories (an ongoing series showcasing the best Irish writers) – it was something I couldn’t turn down the chance to review.

The collection is like one of those mix tapes (remember those?) that you would spend hours pouring over before you’d head off to sunnier climes, splicing together all your favourite songs, so you would in fact have made your summer anthem music – each song chosen to create that energy you wanted for your trip, the chill out blending perfectly with the more up-beat, and then of course you’d have your guilty pleasures in there too.

Being Various, was for me, like a greatest hits tape, bands (in our case writers) chosen for their brilliance – a realisation that seems to have hit me after finishing the collection and starting to write this review. Caldwell has crafted something quite magical, something that transports the reader out of their world and into another, an anthology that you will always remember reading. Like all great mix tapes it taints you with its goodness, songs, well in our case stories, that remind you of the time you first encountered them.

Being Various has opened my eyes to new (for me) writers (Yan Ge, Louise O’Neill, Elske Rahill & Kevin Barry), whilst also enrapturing me with new stories from a whole host of writers I love and admire (Paul McVeigh, Wendy Erskine, Sally Rooney, Nicole Flattery, Kit de Waal and Sinead Gleeson) – it’s also helped me bolster my already burgeoning short story collections as I’ve gone out and purchased a few of the writers other works (Sinead Gleeson’s ‘Constellations‘ and Elske Rahill ‘In White Ink) on the back of finishing this anthology.

With twenty-four writers and with all of them hitting their mark on producing stand out stories, I’d be here for hours talking about the brilliance of each, so for this review I’m going to mention those stories, which for me, were personal favourites – and trust me when I say this, Being Various is definitely a book that all short story fans should get hold of – to  devour, discover and digest for themselves.

Yan GeHow I fell in love with the well-documented life of Alexander Whelan – This is in essence a story of woman meets man, they share a connection, chat, swap Facebook details and then the infatuation starts. Our main protagonist starts to stalk him, finding out where he works, what his favourite pub to drink in is, his usual eatery – it’s an obsession and addiction which is played out on the page, as she flits through his various social media accounts, everything she might ever want to know, catalogued online. Which was a very vibrant and fresh warning to the amount of stuff we stick up online, that if someone has the time or the inclination – they can find out our daily routines, where we will be when. But our protagonist soon learns that dead people can’t love you back – you see after their exchanging of numbers, after she befriended him on Facebook…in a few hours he will turn up dead – his Facebook wall full of RIP’s and messages about the deceased. He may be gone, but her infatuation is just starting. A deftly crafted tale told with a unique and vibrant voice, which was a fabulous way to kick off Being Various.

Paul McVeighThe Swimmers – McVeigh delivers a broiling tale which as I was reading gave me a very unsettling vibe. There is something hidden deep within the prose that was disturbing to read and digest, something lurking in the periphery of the story that isn’t uttered but lurks there with a malignant intent. An unspoken secret (possible abuse) sewn delicately throughout the story – but at the heart of the story there is an innocence too, a childlike purity which McVeigh captures mesmerically, the innocence punctuates the story masterfully, blending perfectly with the underlying deep and dark themes that are deftly sewn into the fabric of the story. The Swimmers is about a son who wants to impress his Da, wants his Da to love him for who he is and what he is. He wants to do anything and everything he can to impress him, to spend time with him, to keep swimming with him. No matter the cost, the hurt or the trouble. A very impressive tale from a writer I always enjoy reading – a powerful and gripping story which unsettles the reader…and what a joy it is to be unsettled from time-to-time.

Elske RahillStretch Marks – Well this for me was one of the standout stories of the collection, from a writer I’ve never read before. Rahill is a masterful storyteller, weaving a tale that is so raw, emotive and desperately heart wrenching – it’s a powerhouse of a story. Everything about this piece struck me as perfect, the protagonists voice is a delight, the descriptions and observations are enrapturing, the similes and metaphors within the piece are deliciously astute. It is in fact a work of art. The story is a slow burner, it builds and builds until it is a big ball of brilliance, which Rahill then smashes in an arrestingly touching and poignant way. Although the story turns into this unstoppable juggernaut, Rahill still has full control over it, dictating where it goes and when. Her guile in storytelling ensuring that each nuance impacts the reader at just the right time – with the social place of women in Ireland, abortions, the abortion act / vote, raising a child and parenting all adding to the weight of the story. It’s as if Rahill has selected the finest cuts of meat, the most delicious vegetables and has put it all in the slow cooker, creating a meal which is cooked to perfection. Stretch Marks is a feast for the heart and the literary world – I have to also say that after finishing this I went straight out and purchased Rahill’s short story collection ‘In White Ink’. What a precious gift Elske Rahill is to the literary world…a name you would do well in remembering!

Kit de WaalMay The Best Man Win – Another fascinating story, one that gripped me from start to finish, so much so that I had to go back and re-read it straight afterwards such is the readability of de Waal’s offering. May The Best Man Win seemed to evaporate right in front of my eyes – this I feel helps to exemplify brilliantly what an astute raconteur de Waal is. May The Best Man Win is such an accomplished, detailed and deliciously simple story at its heart and de Waal’s expertly crafted prose knocks it out of the park. There is something to be said about telling a simple story, an ordinary story, well. Our lives at times are just plain ordinary, and de Waal encapsulates all of that and deftly executes it with her sublime gift. I love de Waal’s writing and with this story she gets you hooked early on with a rising racial tension – what’s going to happen? Who’s going to clock who? How will this end up? It’s unrelenting and helps to shape the story which de Waal wants to tell…and boy does she tell it! The dialogue within the story is the key, it seems to undulate in wonderfully crafted canters across the page, each utterance taking you deeper into the lives of those in attendance, nothing seems forced, it is just the banter of ordinary folk, living ordinary lives, whilst doing ordinary things – it is storytelling which is mesmeric and effortlessly beguiling – a real jewel in the crown of Being Various.

Adrian McKintyJack’s Return Home – McKinty delivers a crime novel in the space of a short story, such is the quality and the sheer amount of detail in this dark and culturally relevant tale. A daughter returns to Ireland to bury her father (head of a sordid underbelly that is still thriving) but she’s an outcast. She’d been banished to a town in the arsehole of Scotland because she’s a lesbian, and there is no place for that in this family, or in this city, the ramifications for such are too much to even contemplate. She returns home after being given a pardon, allowing her safe passage, to put her father in the ground. She’s reluctant at first, but is spurred on by her Muslim, drummer girlfriend (oh how the family will frown upon that hidden detail). Things soon begin to unravel with a meeting in the dead of night, where a request is made of her which will change everything she’s ever known. If she follows through with the ask, it will take the power away from the man that banished her when her father got too ill to run the family business, the man who has seized power with an iron fist. But can she do it? Will she do it? And will she be accepted back? This is a fabulous addition to the anthology – I’m not one for crime stories, or gangster stories as it were, but this has so much heart, so much loaded in there, tension blended wonderfully with discrimination, that it was a real can of worms to crack open – a crisply executed tale, loaded from start to finish with delectable prose and energy that it just keeps giving until the very last word.

Sally RooneyColour and Light – There is just no stopping Sally Rooney at the moment, she seems to be everywhere you look, her books plastered all over the place in magazines and billboards, she’s quoted here and there in newspapers and book jackets – and I can testify it is for a good reason. Sally Rooney seems to have exploded onto the literary scene, a breath of fresh air (as many of the authors in Being Various are) sweeping a stagnant literary world into order, demanding that they stand up and pay attention. Rooney’s writing is in essence captivating, whether in the long or short form, stories that deal with real people and real lives. Her deftly crafted tales allow the reader to journey with her protagonists as silent companions, taking in the lives that are being shared in the most beautiful and ordinary of ways. Colour and Light is nothing short of brilliant – I immediately felt drawn into the story (I confess I had heard the opening few pages when attempting to listen to it online – but I’m not one for audio books so I stopped) but she weaves a tale of intrinsic and arresting beauty in the normal, in the mundane, in the chance encounters and the lives that are affected by such things. Rooney writes in a way that is not flashy or deliberately wordy, each word in fact, fighting for the right to be included, each sentence carefully constructed. Rooney I feel is keen on portraying a believability in her prose, in telling the story the way people need to hear it, with innocence and delicate realism. Colour and Light does remind me of Mr. Salary (review here) in tone, and thats a huge compliment, as that’s the story that got me hooked on Rooney as a writer. With Colour and Light Rooney totally smashes it – and will be trapping new fans in her net, pulling them in like a biblical fisherman!

Sinead GleesonThe Lexicon of Babies – Well if you’re a reader of STORGY reviews, or follow me as a writer, you will know that I absolutely love the weird. Strange fiction is where I find myself at home – it’s a craft that is difficult to master (and I’m not even there yet myself), an area where if you go too far you lose the reader. It’s a delicate balancing act, taking the normal and shifting it slightly, to create something weirdly captivating and something you cant look away from of forget – taking the mundane and expected and then turning it on its head. Well, you lovers of the strange and weird have a surprise waiting for you here. The Lexicon of Babies is just balls to the wall bonkers – it is marvellously ingenious and fabulously weird, a must for all weird fiction fans – I don’t even want to elaborate on its brilliance as you really need to read it for yourself – the only thing I’d say is it’s like William S. Burroughs and Margaret Atwood’s lovechild.

Being Various is a delightful anthology and full of various and fascinating voices, each story within the collection is an enthralling read, obviously being an anthology there were some I loved more than others but on the whole it is something to be cherished, read and explored further.

If like me you are a lover of the short story form, you’d be hard pressed to find another anthology this summer that is as high in the quality stakes as this. I wouldn’t be surprised to find this on many peoples summer reading list or a book that finds itself into your collection at some point. The only disappointment I had was that Lucy Caldwell didn’t have a story in the collection too.

Another wonderful addition to this ongoing series from Faber and an anthology that is beautifully various, not only by the stories collated within its pages, but also by the unique voices included – if variety is the spice of life, then Being Various is medicine for the soul!

Being Various is published by Faber & Faber and is available here.

Authors

Yan Ge, Paul McVeigh, Danielle McLaughlin, Louise O’Neill, Wendy Erskine, Elske Rahill, Sheila Purdy, Melatu Uche Okorie, Jan Carson, Stuart Neville, Kit de Waal, Darran Anderson, Belinda McKeon, Eimear McBride, David Hayden, Jill Crawford, Adrian McKinty, Nicole Flattery, Sally Rooney, Sinead Gleeson, Arja Kajermo, Kevin Barry, Peter Murphy and Lisa McInerney.

Editor Lucy Caldwell

Born in Belfast in 1981, Lucy Caldwell read English at Queens’ College, Cambridge and is a graduate of Goldsmith’s MA in Creative & Life Writing. She is the author the novels Where They Were Missed (2006) and The Meeting Point (2011), which featured on BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime and was awarded the Dylan Thomas Prize. Her stage plays, LeavesGuardians, and Notes to Future Self, and radio dramas, Girl From MarsAvenues of Eternal PeaceWitch Week, have won awards including the George Devine Award and the Imison Award. In 2011 she was awarded the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature for her body of work to date.

Review by Ross Jeffery

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