Joyride to Jupiter review: a collection of skilfully crafted fictions
Nuala O’Connor’s deft short stories blend caustic irreverence and poignancy
Nuala O’Connor: does a fine line in unsympathetic narrators, who fire off withering put-downs with provocative insouciance. Photograph: Finbar McLoughlin
Joyride to Jupiter
New Island Books
It is often said that smells can evoke memories more powerfully than sights or sounds. They crop up time and again in Nuala O’Connor’s short story collection, Joyride to Jupiter: the stench of fish guts on a quayside, the sour tang of hotel bedrooms, the soapy odour of an older couple’s bedroom, the mildewy pong of damp-ridden lodgings, the passing whiff of a familiar perfume. The protagonist of one story, Futuretense, writes marketing copy for fragrances. Her reflections on the suicide of her beloved brother, whose scent she helped him choose as a child, are interspersed with corny product blurbs, pointedly juxtaposing personal introspection with the vapid gibberish of commercial puff.
Many of these 19 stories – whose settings range from Dublin and obscure Co Mayo villages to Naples and the Copacabana – are concerned with loss or absence. Room 313 is about a Ukrainian cleaner who only gets to see her young daughter via Skype, while Squidinky tells of a tattooist grieving for her partner: “I am lonely, it’s true, but it’s more more that – I’m alone.” This melancholic timbre is animated by bursts of ironic wit and sprinklings of bawdy humour.
Affairs and infidelities abound. The narrator of Consolata catches her father having sex with a nun (“As I approached I heard a moist slap-slap . . .) and is compelled to keep quiet about it. In Mayo Oh Mayo, a young Irishwoman’s feelings for her American lover dissipate into indifferent contempt, concluding that “there is no getting to the bottom of the man because there are no depths to flounder in”. In Napoli Abú a jaded singleton speaks of her regret at having diminished the frisson of her affair with a married man by googling his wife.
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O’Connor does a fine line in unsympathetic narrators who fire off withering put-downs with provocative insouciance. The narrator of The Donor, for example, describes a woman as having “a reality TV face; one of those faces that drips tears when her dough fails to prove, or her house mates vote her out”. Xavier, a sperm donor, is surreptitiously scoping out his biological son by befriending his mother.
At the start of this dubious undertaking he is flush with the optimism and misplaced paternal zeal, but his enthusiasm soon gives way to disappointment and disgust, to the point that the sight of the boy playing with his dog is described thus: “Ludo hunkered down and began to talk absolute shite to the mutt . . .” The narration here is in the third person, but it internalises Xavier’s perspective in a breezily scathing indirect speech.
In Tinnycross, a pair of estranged brothers squabble over their inheritance following the deaths of their parents. Revisiting his rural childhood home elicits, in one of them, a pang of nostalgia for “that precious, pellucid place of scant worldly pain”. He wonders: “Is it possible . . . to be in love with a field? . . . And if it is possible, is it wise?”
In the volume’s title story, the narrator’s dementia-stricken wife regresses to child-like capriciousness: she takes to wearing a tracksuit and buys a garish teeny eyeshadow called Joyride to Jupiter; when her daughter scoffs at this, she gives her a slap.
Both of these tales brim with wistful affection and human warmth. O’Connor moves seamlessly from this to a jovially sardonic portrait of coupledom in Penny and Leo Married Bliss, whose narrator has just trashed her errant boyfriend’s laptop in elaborate fashion (“I knew he was watching that auld porno and I was having none of it”) and is idly pining after the local priest: “God forgive me but I’d bounce up and down on Father Hugh Boylan all night, given a chance.”
This blending of wry, caustic irreverence and meditative poignancy is central to the success of O’Connor’s storytelling. The mix is just right: the internal monologues are exactly as long as they need to be; the humour is well-timed and effective. The dramatic moments, of which there are a fair few – including an illicit lesbian dalliance and the murder of a would-be paedophile by his wife – are rendered with unobtrusive deftness.
O’Connor’s fourth novel is due out in 2018; if these skilfully crafted fictions are anything to go by, it will be one to look out for.