Derry-born Bernie McGill’s second collection of stories has been eight years in the making, and it was worth the wait. There’s always a desire when reviewing a collection of stories to draw out themes and larger trends, and it is possible to do that here – memory, regret, the returning past are all recurring features – but it wouldn’t do justice to the range of expression in This Train is For.
The title story describes a train ride from Coleraine to Belfast – delighting in the found poetry of the placenames along the way: Mountsandel, Ballyclabber, Glarryford, Landhead – which becomes a journey into the past. A related motivation drives A Loss, where a man inherits an ice-house, but finds the ties to his aunt's memory burdensome: "I'll stay in the city where I have no history, where I can walk the streets in peace."
There’s a welcome wit peppering the stories – in one, a new priest “is very popular, he said the mass in twenty minutes” – though often it is the bright edge on a shadow. In A Fuss a woman mocked by her colleagues (“She overheard one of them once as she walked into the staffroom say something about a plain-clothes nun”) turns out to have good reasons for her “bricked-up chimney of a heart”.
There are closing lines that satisfy while leaving enough open to keep the reader thinking. It’s a rare achievement that McGill makes look easy. “She is travelling between the lights, a thing her father told her was dangerous to do,” goes one. “And she still has miles to go.” The only story that fell flat for me was The Snagging List, whose chatty text-message format is too light to bear much weight, so the occasional lyrical line that seeks to add psychological depth feels forced.
Elements of the uncanny round off the surprising features of McGill’s stories. The Escapologist opens with a strange “boy with dark wet hair” in the narrator’s room, and spirals inward from there. But the best story might be the last, In the Interests of Wonder, which takes an illusionist’s visit to a school and invests it with sinister strangeness. It reminded me of Thomas Mann’s great allegory of power and credulity, Mario and the Magician, and I can offer no higher praise than that.