Five collections that will put Northern Ireland women writers on the map
Lucy Caldwell, Bernie McGill, Jan Carson, Roisín O’Donnell and a new anthology edited by Sinéad Gleeson are raising the profile of North’s female short story writers
Northern stars: five titles to look out for
Short fiction is having a remarkable moment in Northern Ireland, and this boom is being led by women writers. With the honourable male exception of David Park’s remarkable Gods and Monsters, this year has seen female writers from the North take over the short story scene with a diverse array of tales told well.
Of course, there are some vital prior exemplars of the genre, among them Anne Devlin’s The Way Paver, Mary Beckett’s collections and the stories collected in The Female Line, edited by Ruth Hooley and published by the Northern Ireland Women’s Rights Movement in 1985.
Some of the most surprising crime stories in the Belfast Noir anthology were written by women, and dealt with themes such as teenage obsession, amateur detectives and dog fighting.
There is a sense that current writers are exploring the potential of this form to tell a variety of stories, and it is particularly important in a post-conflict Northern Ireland that a range of stories and experiences are heard. While certain themes are common (adolescence; encounters with the wider world; sexuality) the collections below showcase authors using the short story in distinctive ways, which are at times experimental, challenging and poignant.
Bernie McGill, Sleepwalkers (2013)
These stories feature a variety of cultural encounters and settings, from the South of France, Ancona and Andalusia to the Northern Irish coasts. They are bursting with emotional life, whether the dark swirl of grief to the most potent sensuality. McGill’s careful control over her stories ensure the reader is carried along by these moments, and her writing is all the more powerful for showing how the worst and best of life can co-exist in her short, sharp stories. Women deftly navigate their self-definition against the violent past and the hopeful future. McGill’s stories echo what the narrator of Islander imagines her unborn child is telling her: “We carry the living, and we do whatever it takes to wake the dead”.
Lucy Caldwell, Multitudes (2016)
In many ways, Caldwell’s writing is the thread that holds this short story boom together as she has stories in Belfast Noir, The Long Gaze Back and The Glass Shore, as well as a recent Granta special issue on Irish writing. Killing Time won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Several of these feature in her landmark collection, published by Faber, which shows a remarkable tonal range that extends from the maternity ward to underage drinking.
These stories are by turns quietly powerful, utterly devastating and blackly comic. They are dense with nostalgic detail from Northern Irish teenage girlhood (“Strawberry lip balm from The Body Shop or Take That keyring from Athena”) and also ask vital, troubling questions about the power of home and family. They capture the mysteries of desire and longing with particular power, and show the complexity of women’s lives in vivid detail.
Caldwell has been prolific across genres but this collection showcases her writing at the height of its power. About writing in this new form, she said: “I’ve been writing – or trying to write – short stories as long as I’ve been a writer. I think they’re the most magical, taut, elusive, alchemical of forms. I love the freedom that short stories give you as a writer – to write in the second person, or the future tense, or to come at things fleetingly, or aslant, to pare narrative away and have something more akin to a spell for conjuring up or evoking a mood, a place, a certain slant of light. Short stories are addictive; having finally published a collection, I just want to write more.”
Jan Carson, Children’s Children (2016)
This collection is dazzlingly inventive and demonstrates that Carson is a talent to watch out for in the years to come. Her stories range from the everyday heartbreak of grief to the lightly fantastical to the utterly, wildly absurd. They are fundamentally Belfast stories but their askew glance makes the reader see the city afresh, as a place where anything could happen. These stories effectively point out the absurdity of political certainties with a light touch as she features vibrating weight-loss “mermaids”, floating girls, ghost children and shifting land masses against a landscape often treated with the most reverential realism. At turns laugh-out-loud funny, blackly comic and gut-punchingly visceral, this is the most strikingly original Northern Irish book in any genre for years.
Roisín O’Donnell, Wild Quiet (2016)
O’Donnell has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and the Forward Prize, and has had her poems and short stories widely published before this debut collection. Her stories explore in complex detail, the wildness of the title and examine how contact with nature can powerfully influence the ways in which we see ourselves. There are fantastical beasts, a range of encounters and also moments of quiet, sure power. The strength of the collection is demonstrating the enrichment of the characters by a variety of cultural encounters with a range of people. They often deal in the intimacies of grief and loss and showcase a writer who will surely develop into a talent to be reckoned with.
The Glass Shore, edited by Sinéad Gleeson (2016)
After editing the successful volume, The Long Gaze Back, which featured stories from several Northern writers, Gleeson turned her editorial attention exclusively to Northern women. Gleeson notes that: “I chaired two Long Gaze Back events in Belfast, and people come up to me and said ‘We love this book – but women here don’t have one. Where are our stories?’ Very little exists in terms of all-female anthologies in the North, so I felt those stories had to be represented. We all need to hear those voices.”
This collection, forthcoming in the autumn, is highly anticipated and will feature work by Linda Anderson, Margaret Barrington, Mary Beckett, Caroline Blackwood, Lucy Caldwell, Ethna Carbery, Jan Carson, Evelyn Conlon, Anne Devlin, Martina Devlin, Polly Devlin, Erminda Rentoul Esler, Sarah Grand, Rosemary Jenkinson, Sheila Llewelyn, Bernie McGill, Alice Milligan, Rosa Mulholland, Anne-Marie Neary, Mary O’Donnell, Roisín O’Donnell, Tara West and Una Woods. The past, present and future of the genre will be in its pages, and we will all be the richer for it.
Dr Caroline Magennis is a lecturer in 20th and 21st Century Literature, University of Salford