A review of the short fiction collection Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine
Wendy Erskine’s excellent debut collection of short stories was published in September by The Stinging Fly Press, based in Dublin. The British publishing industry weekly The Bookseller reported in October that the international rights to the collection have since been acquired by Picador, and Sweet Home is set to be published in the UK and internationally in mid-2019.
The 10 stories that appear in this collection are set in Belfast, and they largely tell of the lives of apparently ordinary people. The opening, and longest story, To All Their Dues, is an enormously assured three-hander. This piece reveals the insecurities and emotional baggage underlying the unknowingly interconnected lives of a beauty salon owner, a local thug and racketeer, and his long-suffering girlfriend. The cover quote, taken from this story, is indicative of Erskine’s style: “There was pain and there was passion and there was no God. Some people had to wait a lifetime to find out that kind of thing, had to study and read books, gaze up at the stars. But it had been made apparent to her when she was young, it had come all in a rush when someone was whacking her with a porno mag. You might never experience that intensity of revelation ever, ever again.” Erskine has a dry wit, and an often very humorous turn of phrase, which lighten these stories, which are not afraid to acknowledge the dark side of life. In coming-of-age tale Observation teenage schoolgirl Cath becomes increasingly obsessed with her best friend’s tales of illicit sex with her mother’s much younger boyfriend. Kim, the mother, is vividly described: “She had a tattoo of some text on her shoulder and when she turned Cath was able to read it. Only God Can Judge Me. She was a badass and mortal opinion was of no interest to her.” Erskine is adept at throwing in an acerbic and seemingly effortless killer phrase: in the title story, Sweet Home, for example, a husband, reflecting on his marriage, notes that, while he doesn’t really fancy his neighbour’s wife, at home “with Susan it was all about those dreary and micro-managed handjobs”.
The everyday is beautifully described. The protagonist of stand-out story Last Supper is disillusioned church café supervisor Andy, who has taken on the role after a questionable religious experience on his brother’s stag do, and the piece is imbued with pathos. Shopping locally for groceries, “He sees the bank of sweets in front of him, the garden ornaments to one side, scales and sandwich makers to the left. There’s the polyphonic sound of a row of animatronic fish, flexing as they sing … There’s a spangled sign saying that raspberry cava (non-alcoholic) is on offer … There’s a range of cakes, discounted, that the label says have been baked in a country kitchen.” Erskine recognises the ironies present at the heart of daily life, and has an awareness of the potentially disproportionate impact of seemingly incidental events.
Her characters are sympathetically drawn, no matter what their foibles or major fault lines, so that the collection never tips over into bleakness. Characterisation is all too often neglected or sacrificed in short fiction, due to the essential brevity inherent to the form, but these stories display emotional depth throughout. Erskine has an ear for the rhythms and cadences of everyday speech, and her characters always ring true. She is psychologically astute, and makes efficient use of her recognition of the somewhat Freudian disconnect that can exist between the internally fragmented personality, swarming with inchoate and perhaps irrational desires, and the person as presented on the outside. Arab States: Mind and Narrative is instantly relatable for anyone who has ever lost touch with an old school or college friend made good, and wondered how their own life might have been different. Paula is a woman dissatisfied by life who happens upon Ryan Hughes, who has restyled himself Ryan Kadrov-Jones, on a political discussion show on TV. “He ruffles his thinner hair and begins an answer full of qualification and proviso. Even though Paula doesn’t know much about Beirut, she can tell it’s a nuanced response. But then Ryan Hughes used to answer like that even if the question was, ‘you wanting tea or coffee?’
The penultimate story, 77 Pop Facts You Didn’t Know About Gil Courtney is more experimental in style. As suggested by the title, it is in a ‘fact file’ format, cataloguing events in the life of a fictional rock star. This one I felt didn’t work quite as well, but this is a minor gripe.
Sweet Home is undoubtedly an enormously enjoyable collection of short fiction, which also packs an emotional punch. Erskine makes reference to the writer Lucy Caldwell in her acknowledgements, and Erskine’s style is somewhat reminiscent of Caldwell’s work in both its setting and perspicacity, without ever being derivative. Erskine deserves to be widely read, and has demonstrated herself to be adept at picking apart the quotidian to reveal the moments of strangeness and profundity that lie beneath.