Sunday, 4 June 2017


Louisa Carroll in The Sunday Times reviewed my book alongside June Caldwell's début short story collection today. Here is the full text of it below. I'm pleased as a dog with two pockets :)


Love affair continues with the short story
Reviews by Louisa Carroll
June 4 2017, 12:00am, The Sunday Times

Joyride to Jupiter by Nuala O’ Connor New Island Press £9.99 pp180

Room Little Darker by June Caldwell New Island Press £9.99 pp220

If, as the writer Lorrie Moore claims, short stories are like love affairs while the novel is a marriage, then I’ll happily stay unattached. Being perfect for the phone readers and the pressed for time may explain the short story’s recent surge in popularity. However, as shown in two new collections, Joyride to Jupiter by Nuala O’Connor and Room Little Darker by June Caldwell, the short story also best reflects the intensity of contemporary life.

“With these moments of clarity we learn to value tiny things . . . that’s what I’m telling myself. We’re f*** all on the grand scale,” says the sadomasochistic slave narrator of Caldwell’s story Leitrim Flip. The characters in both collections share this ability to muse insightfully about the purpose of their own existence while simultaneously behaving in ways that contradict the insight. This calls to mind the title of Thomas Morris’ recent short-story collection We don’t know what we’re doing. As Caldwell’s slave continues: “I feel so mentally crazed so much of the time, I just want someone to take me in hand, to show me how to behave.”

O’Connor’s vivid characters are at least in the driving seat of life’s joyride, but seem far from in control. Those characters in Joyride to Jupiter who resist their own futility by using coping strategies such as repression, egotism and belligerence fare poorest. In the title story from the collection, the repercussions of elderly Mr. Halpin’s belief that he is “the worm” in his wife Teresa’s “dementia apple” costs him dearly, as does the blind egotism that leads Xavier in The Donor to decide on a whim to track down a young boy conceived through his sperm donation.

It is the characters that relinquish control in favour of acceptance who find momentary peace such as in O’Connor’s Girl Grief, in which a grandmother and her recently orphaned granddaughter surrender to the abyss of grief together. O’Connor’s language is clean and conscientious as well as poetic and lyrical, evident in the abstraction of Yellow. The collection exudes a quiet confidence and exercises the exemplary restraint of a seasoned writer who knows when to pull rather than push.

Caldwell’s high-octane Room Little Darker is the more freewheeling. From the outset her prose is a bombardment of sounds and images, like a boy racer’s car throbbing to its own dub-beat soundtrack. This is an unflinching collection which thuds with life and kicks with horror. It is miserably hilarious, taking in subjects as diverse as drug addiction, sadomasochism, homelessness, and even child robots designed for paedophiles in BoybotTM. Caldwell’s first collection is a mark maker, relentlessly demanding the reader to “take our modern horrors on the chin in the same way sewage is turned back into drinking water, axiomatically”.

Caldwell’s stories are underwritten by a deep assessment of the fallibility of the human condition. Upcycle is an affecting portrait of a family’s contradictory relationship to their abusive father’s dementia, and Cadaverus Moves is a loving warts-and-all depiction of a beloved brother’s death by cancer.

Both collections benefit by the other’s existence. O’Connor’s collection would be served by some of Caldwell’s fearlessness, and Caldwell by O’Connor’s informed subtlety of hand.


Rachel Fenton said...

Smashing review, Nu - congrats! Good to see short stories getting this detailed attention and interest

Nuala O'Connor said...

Thanks a mill, Rae. Now I am wondering (reading into your comment) re. the extent (or not) of coverage in New Zealand for the short story.

Rachel Fenton said...

There's interest from readers and writers, but little follow-through; there's one decent short story comp that gets the attention of the publishers in NZ - Sunday Star Times - but it's cliquey, and the resulting books tend to be novels not short stories; little representation in Auckland's only writers festival - I hope this changes. Select authors here get their short stories published here, but I am feeling a bit starved - need more story love, tbh.

Nuala O'Connor said...

It's so disappointing isn't it? It has to be grassroots - one or two small publishers willing to do it for love (mostly). That's how it is in Ireland. S/s collections are by no means mainstream.
We need a huge overhaul, though, imo. My theory is we need to train readers to love short stories and then storybomb them :) That might be done if lots of national newspapers and mags would publish *quality* fiction. Even here, the stuff that gets published in wide circulation mags can be drossy, it doesn't represent the story at its best.
This conversation goes on and on here. It may need HUGE action to remedy the situation.

Rachel Fenton said...

Aye; storybomb's about the size of what's needed. Here there's a recognisable "New Zealand story" that's done much to reduce the status of the form. Your idea for national papers and mags to publish the anti-dross is a good one. But NZ is so small that it's the same clique in control of everything, so the dross goes on; it's a system abuse. I don't know how to remedy that. Yet. Certainly a few truly independent publishers would help things along.