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After a Dance by Bridget O’Connor: Riotous stories set in grimy Irish London

The pages are populated with rogues, addicts and grifters of all genders, whose stasis offers despair, but also a mixture of humour and pathos

After a Dance: Selected Stories
Author: Bridget O’Connor
ISBN-13: 978-1035024896
Publisher: Picador
Guideline Price: £16.99

Before she was a writer, Bridget O’Connor worked in a building site canteen and, later, a bookshop. Between the cement-dusted chaos and the spines of books, she must have encountered thousands of characters – and that’s without the revelation in the introduction to this collection that some of the stories are based on her own siblings. It’s this combined sense of reality-meets-fiction that forms much of the comic grotesquery here.

O’Connor was born in 1961 to Irish parents. Her summers were spent in Ireland, but life in England pivoted around Irish culture. The setting for the stories is recognisably London, but it’s the city’s grimy, squalid pockets rather than the sleek, white houses of Belgravia. The interiors are grotty flats and a dated neon bar; a gloomy AA hall and a clifftop restaurant beloved of suicidal jumpers.

This collection is introduced by the author’s daughter Constance Straughan, who recalls a quote by her mother: “Selfish people attract me because they’re not soaking up any experience, they’re not really seeing anything”. O’Connor’s characters behave outrageously, even stupidly, in the service of their own selfishness. In Love Jobs, the best man at a wedding, thwarted by a bone-deep hangover, brings the newly-weds’ dog for a walk. The creature ends up dead and Joey is the victim of an attempted mugging. Instead of grief and outrage, he goes on a bender with his attackers.

Similarly, Tina in I’m Running Late is too self-absorbed and in need of distraction to assuage the worries of a friend who has tried heroin. Gabriel Ascending unites two star-crossed addicts at an AA meeting – but not all of the characters crave oblivion, or are dependent on substances. Nerve Ending introduces a woman obsessed with tactility, who details this magnetic pull on various parts of her body. She resorts to gluing an eyelash to her cheek just to feel a man’s breath blowing it away, and takes trips to France just to be double-kissed.

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These pages are populated with rogues, addicts and grifters of all genders (a kind trans woman proves to be one of the few people living a non-chaotic life).

O’Connor died in 2010 of breast cancer, aged just 49. Based on this arch, riotous collection, she is a huge loss to Irish literature

O’Connor’s menagerie – and these characters are just that – are trapped or tethered to lives they can never fully discard. For all the terribleness, there are people who know what they want, mostly women. In Here Comes John, one young woman who has affairs with rich married men knows “they might be tit, cunt and leg men, but they all want brain. They’re all stockbrokers, they’re all Tories, and they’re all BORING ...” but she resolves to take each one of them “for everything he’s got”. Feckless Eric in Remission marries terminally ill Lucy, a carcinomic icon, beloved of the TV chat show circuit, for her money. Eric monitors “the swoop up of Lucy’s cancer star, the chewy stretch of her remission” before realising that his wife is not dying at all.

O’Connor can unite cruelty and comedy, the rational and the absurd, best demonstrated by stories such as the wild, outlandish Heavy Petting (which echoes Leonora Carrington’s surrealist fiction). If there is a watermark of Irish in the work, it’s most evident in the language, which is not a mere tool, but a Trojan horse of multiple meanings and unexpected imagery. Troubled Majella used to be a “laughter line in a nightie”; her raver boyfriend is “a slice of shadow, a stripe of Adidas in the crack of a cab”. The entire family are medicated, including her detached, mentally ill mother, who makes strange soupy concoctions, watched on by a luminous goldfish companion.

Not every story is as memorable as this one, and some suffer a little in their concision, coming off as sketches rather than narratives, but how fresh and modern they sound – I could hear echoes of the bawdy, bodily chaos that Cathy Sweeney and June Caldwell do so well.

After the Dance contains stories of people who cannot understand each other, who aim and miss repeatedly in life. O’Connor once said of her characters that “they long to escape, they try to, but they eventually go nowhere”. Their stasis offers despair, but also a farrago of humour and pathos.

As well as short stories, O’Connor wrote plays for radio, stage play The Flags, and several screenplays. With her husband, Peter Straughan, she adapted three feature films, including John le Carré's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. For this she and Straughan were nominated for an Oscar, and a Bafta for best adapted screenplay in 2012 – which they won. Sadly, O’Connor’s win was posthumous – she died in 2010 of breast cancer, aged just 49. Based on this arch, riotous collection, she is a huge loss to Irish literature, and readers can only imagine the uncompromising stories she had yet to tell.

Sinéad Gleeson

Sinéad Gleeson

Sinéad Gleeson is a writer, editor and Irish Times contributor specialising in the arts