Mothers by Chris Power review – lonely voices living in a maternal world
Power's affinity with the short story form comes through in this debut collection
A large deal of detection of the lonely voice, to combine two famous descriptions of the short story, is at work in Chris Power’s debut collection, Mothers. The London-born author, whose father is from Waterford, has been writing for more than a decade on the form in his “brief survey of the short story” column in the Guardian. His fiction has been published in The Stinging Fly, The Dublin Review and The White Review, some of which – like the engrossing story Run – reappear in this debut offering.
As with most of the stories in the collection, Run centres on a character’s loneliness. For David the narrator, this occurs within his relationship to Gunilla, a woman seemingly uninterested in loving or being loved. After a fractious night in Gunilla’s childhood home in Sweden that sees mother and daughter tear strips off each other, the narrator and his girlfriend retreat to a guest house in Simrishamn where he fears impending abandonment: “He had never known anyone as independent as her. When she left a room it might be for five minutes, or three hours, or forever.”
Power zooms in on the everyday battles of his characters, many of whom are struggling to stay afloat. If the 10 stories have a common thread, it is the difficulty of relating difficult experience. “Stories need everything extraneous to be stripped away,” says the narrator of The Colossus of Rhodes. A trip with his family to Greece prompts a memory of a holiday as a child where a sordid encounter with a strange man was beyond explanation. Now a father himself, he realises the impossibility of keeping his own daughter safe from danger.
Other characters still strive to get their stories across. The deluded and troubled narrator Liam in Above the Wedding accompanies his brother to Mexico for the wedding of Nuria and Miguel, determined to set his feelings for the latter down in a letter that will hopefully derail the marriage. A backdrop of Aztec culture and the cliff divers of Acapulco bring the story to life. It is one of many unusual settings in a collection that travels from eastern Europe to the west of Ireland, from the Greek islands to the Alps.
Much of the roaming is done by Eva, a rootless woman whose unhappy life from childhood to old age is documented in various stories throughout the collection. The evocative opening story, Mother 1: Summer 1976, sees Eva yearn for more information about her absent father whose photo her mother occasionally lets her glimpse: “I was so excited when she let me look at it, but I never asked her to; it seemed right that I shouldn’t be able to see it whenever I wanted. It needed to be earned, albeit through some mysterious process I didn’t understand.” The unhappiness that stems from not knowing who we are or where we come from is compounded when Eva subsequently loses her mother.
The reader is left to assess the damage in later stories. In Mother 2: Innsbruck Eva is ostensibly in Spain, “in the loveliest village in the Costa Brava”, but really she is lost in her roving memories that see her move from a fling in Croatia to a small cottage in Connemara, to the hushed tones of the church tower of Saint Joseph in Le Havre whose “uniform sections of concrete and glass sped away from her, their diminishing perspective pulling her eye towards what looked like a black aperture at its apex”.
The map-hopping plot thickens as we learn that Eva has come to Spain to make a decision about whether to go to Innsbruck, a moment that later becomes imbued with tragic meaning.
The collection as a whole is engaging and rarely flags, with characters’ dilemmas playing out in various interesting scenarios from Swedish burial sites to dance clubs in Paris to treacherous river crossings in the English countryside. The way Power skilfully mixes the petty resentments of domestic life with the wider world recalls Elske Rahill’s recent collection In White Ink, and the wonderful drawing on nature and science in the stories of Danielle McLaughlin.
In Mexico City, through a ferocious hangover, Liam watches the dawn emerge as “red fingers slip around the edge of the sky”. Before disaster in The Crossing, “an arrow of sun pierced the cloud and struck the running water, sending sparks skidding over its surface”. In Le Havre, Eva imagines “what a bullet must feel like, just before it gets shot from the barrel”.
The penultimate story, Johnny Kingdom, is a clever and well-placed piece before Eva’s last hurrah. Comedian Andy has made a career impersonating a famous comic persona. Deemed a “necrophiliac” by his peers, his journey to a stag party in Florida makes abundantly clear the difficulties of creating something from nothing. Power, on the other hand, makes the whole ordeal look effortless.