Shine/Variance: stories with a sure-footed delicacy rare in a debut

Book review: Stephen Walsh’s stories are intimate studies of unspoken fear, longing and love

Stephen Walsh’s  collection of short stories contain ‘high-stakes writing despite the gentle pace of events’

Stephen Walsh’s collection of short stories contain ‘high-stakes writing despite the gentle pace of events’

Stephen Walsh’s debut collection of short stories slips readers into the lives of mostly middle-aged, mostly middle-class, mostly urban Irish people. If you try to summarise, not much happens: a woman on a miserable family holiday in Spain imagines escape, a boy taken by his unhappily divorced mother to say goodbye to his dying grandfather imagines a different life, a retired history teacher imagines helping a teenager he meets in a cafe. A man walks his dog and doesn’t have an affair with a woman who walks hers. The most dramatic moment is when three men remember a plane crash averted without serious injury. In the title story, a man and his son eventually manage to buy a Christmas tree.

They’re all great, beautiful little studies of unspoken fear and longing and love, told with a sure-footed delicacy rare in a debut. Walsh is playful and often funny. He’s fascinated by the weird poetics of instructions; in Wonderhouse (Some Assembly Required), written entirely in the imperative, someone (“Part Y, you”) tries to construct a flatpack “wonderhouse” for “D”, “daughter or similar loved one, (not pictured)”. Y has not allowed enough time. He is alone (“NOTE: it is to assemble alone unsafe.”) His list of “tools also present and necessary” includes “1 Galway Hooker IPA 50cl 4.8%” to which, as the hours go on, he adds “Smirnoff, orange juice and ice”. “Bear mild to medium resentment towards breezy nature in which step is described, belying feat of human endeavour within. Simply place Space Shuttle into Earth’s Atmosphere as shown, taking care to align with landing site. Do not explode.” It’s the calibration of “mild to medium” that makes this so good. Y could be, and isn’t, simply a man amusingly losing his temper with flatpack instructions. The story is about an act of love, a doomed but faithful attempt to redeem or at least revisit a broken relationship. “Could call helpline. Reach out to page 28 on floor in O positive pool. But aware now that warranty is voided. Helpline closed. Text unread.”

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