The Wooden Hill review: Promising debut from Armagh writer
Jamie Guiney’s collection of stories is a mixed bag, with some stark moments of clarity and emotion
Jamie Guiney: a talent for atmosphere and setting
The Wooden Hill
The circle of life is the focus of Jamie Guiney’s debut collection The Wooden House, 18 short stories that show a promising writer who needs to delve further into his subject matter and characters. Split into three parts, the stories begin with birth and end with death, giving a pleasing roundness to the collection. The quality varies, however, in a lucky dip draw that can veer from stark moments of clarity and emotion to slight, anecdotal writing.
Some of the stories in the collection have been published in literary journals such as the Penny Dreadful, the Honest Ulsterman and the Lonely Crowd. From Armagh, Guiney is a graduate of the Faber Writing Academy who has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His work has been backed by the Northern Ireland Arts Council and he has also been chosen by Lagan Online as one of their new original writers. Such accolades are no doubt the result of the author’s talent for atmosphere and setting, with different milieus coming to life in a few short strokes. Many of his stories have an immediacy about them, which is sometimes achieved through the use of second-person perspective or elsewhere by repeated themes presented in new and thought-provoking ways.
The evocative opening story, We Knew You Before You Were Born, sees a father tell his daughter the story of her life before she can remember it herself. The power is in the details that the father notices, and in his desire to share them with the child: “You get excited when you see bananas. They are your favourite. One morning you unexpectedly said Mumbai. You have mum’s blue eyes, her dimples too.”
Guiney is strong on beginnings in general and has an eye for opening lines that hook. In the Fight we meet a man who decides to take on the town heavy for the sake of his wife: “He was by the sink rubbing his hands with a flowery tea towel when his wife came through the back door wearing a face full of upset.” The townspeople and their surrounding landscape are vividly rendered: “The river beneath them roared, like a gale pushing through a forest of trees.” There is a mythic quality to the tale – a David versus Goliath fight that can be won with a single perfect punch – but a questionable ending of song lyrics lets it down.
Another good opening line sets up the moving predicament of poverty-stricken Jimmy Doherty in Christmas: “It seemed everywhere he looked there were trees going someplace.” Jimmy comes across as a pauper with integrity, someone who wouldn’t steal even if he was starving himself, unlike the odious, Roald Dahl-esque Boon in an earlier story, The Cowboy.
When Guiney gives his characters space to develop, the reader feels connected to their plights. One of the most memorable stories is Milk, which shows a husband – unable to help, unable to sleep – struggling to deal with his wife’s cancer diagnosis: “He entered the garage through a door off the kitchen and tugged the string-light, then stood under its orange intensity, searching for the dumbbells he used to lift back in the day.”
Loss of tension
Stories such as the above have a staying power that recall recent debuts from authors like Wendy Erskine and Owen Booth. In her collection Sweet Home, Erskine created vibrant, memorable protagonists for each of her stories as they went about their daily business. Booth’s preoccupation with legacy and his questioning of the human condition also inform Guiney’s work, but What We Are Teaching Our Sons goes deeper into these subjects.
Guiney loses tension too often with stories that don’t hold their own and dilute the power of the collection as a whole. It is a similar problem to another recent collection, Brian Coughlan’s Wattle and Daub, though The Wooden Hill is less self-knowing in tone. Too many of the 18 stories don’t leave their mark – the slight tale of a young girl in Summer Stones, the almost flash fiction in length (though not in concentration) of Window, the muddiness of She Will Be My Joy, the randomness of The Lady in the Garden.
Guiney frequently writes in phrases instead of full sentences, and a tendency towards a staccato style needs more variation: “I arrive at the yard. It is already warm … She pays the wages. Is nice to all the workers.” Elsewhere some sentences are too convoluted to unpack: “The smell of roasting turkey savours the air with a taste of anticipation.” The closing line of Christmas leaves us with Jimmy: “Gaze drifted to the window, where a log of turf glanced over the hedge.”
With an upsurge in the short story form in recent years, the ones that deserve to be lauded and highlighted are those that are strong throughout. Guiney has started the climb but this hill is a steep one and he’s not there yet.