Homesickness by Colin Barrett; Dance Move by Wendy Erskine – reviews | Short stories

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It’s eight years since the Irish writer Colin Barrett made a splash with his debut story collection, Young Skins, whose standout piece, Calm With Horses, about an ex-boxer working as the muscle for a grudge-bearing drug dealer, was turned into a well-received film of the same name. Homesickness is another finely crafted collection, again set largely on Barrett’s home turf of County Mayo, portrayed once more as a cauldron of alarming violence and simmering disappointment.

Crisply told, fond of an eye-catching flourish (pint glasses “honeycombed” on a pub table; a “sudsy” blowjob), the stories draw energy from the rhythms of west of Ireland small talk, added to Barrett’s eye for striking detail: witness the music leaking from the headphones of a gunshot victim in the opening story, or the barman who explains that his sunburnt neck is the result of falling asleep on his mother’s roof while listening to a mixedmartial arts podcast.

The Alps starts with the pub banter of three burly brothers but shifts gear when one of them returns from the gents, having “thrummed a sulphurous piss into the gurgling trough”, to find a sword-wielding stranger named Derek has joined the drinkers. Barrett plays the situation for off-kilter laughs as well as peril; a similar left turn animates Anhedonia, Here I Come, about a self-regarding poet who, out to buy weed from his regular dealer (a camogie-playing schoolgirl about to go straight), finds himself propositioned by a fellow customer, a man carrying a baby girl in a sling.

The scenarios are richly layered, with punchy payoffs. The Low, Shimmering Black Drone, about an unpublished writer paid to look after a novelist’s dogs during lockdown, is a smart bit of post-pandemic fiction that manages to send up the clamour for such a thing without compromising its emotional force. Barrett has any number of cute exit strategies: a story involving a delinquent school pupil ends with him falling asleep in front of a video game blinking “Do you want to continue?”, while the one about the gunshot victim ends with a cop reviewing her notes to write up the report of what we’ve just seen.

Barrett is hardly shy of explosive drama, but he’s just as interested in how life plods on in the face of adversity. Where he truly excels is in his ability to condense the richness of family saga into just a couple of dozen pages, as in The 10, about a young car salesman, Danny, living in the shadow of his disappointment at being let go by Manchester United as a teenager. Probably the best football-related fiction since Ross Raisin’s A Natural, it deftly portrays the desires and disappointments of a range of characters in Danny’s orbit, including the widowed sister of the girl he’s seeing, and his older brother, left using a wheelchair since a childhood car accident.

Barrett’s opening lines tend to be are-you-sitting-comfortably? scene-setters: “Eileen watched the bus pull into the depot and the passengers debark, stiff and groggy, into the crisp November air, their breaths flashing like handkerchiefs in front of their faces.” A more ambiguous note is struck by the openings to the equally excellent stories in Wendy Erskine’s Dance Move, another follow-up to a celebrated debut collection (2019’s Sweet Home). These Belfast tales set us wondering from the off about who, where, when and why. Try, for instance: “It actually only takes the taxi ten minutes to get there from the hotel.” Or: “Even on the morning of his wedding Lee texted her, because it was the allotted day” – the start of a paragraph that can only be understood once we reread the story it introduces.

Wendy Erskine: ‘daring, funny, heartbreaking’
Wendy Erskine: ‘daring, funny, heartbreaking’. Photograph: Chad Alexander

Relationships in these stories are often opaquely troubling: in Mathematics, a cleaner named Roberta shoplifts vital supplies to care for the small girl she discovers abandoned in one of the properties she cleans for her exploitative landlord. There’s a great deal of sadness, not least in His Mother, about a woman removing the missing person posters she put up for her dead son, but there’s also surreal comedy, even in the book’s uglier moments: see Nostalgie, in which a faded English singer-songwriter who had a hit single in the 80s gets booked out of the blue for a private post-retirement gig driven, he discovers, by a paramilitary group’s unlikely love for its B-side.

Memento Mori, the most stunning piece here, brings everything in Erskine’s formidable repertoire together for maximal impact. Her fondness for wrongfooting the reader gains force once it becomes clear where the protagonist, Gillian, shown taking mindfulness classes, actually is at the time of telling. The story turns on a doorstep killing that takes place with improbable timing right outside her home as she’s caring for her terminally ill partner, Tracey; it’s easily powerful enough on its own terms, yet there’s an unmistakable satirical force, too, in how the story pits the imperatives of public commemoration against the needs of private grief. Daring, funny, heartbreaking and, like everything else here, out and out entertainment, not to be missed.

  • Homesickness by Colin Barrett is published by Jonathan Cape (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

  • Dance Move by Wendy Erskine is published by Pan Macmillan (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply



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