Review by Yasmina Floyer
Publisher: V. Press
This heart-wrenching flash collection tells the story of a poverty-stricken Irish family dealing with the effects of loss and alcoholism. Each flash story can be read as a stand alone yet together they culminate to form a bigger story. Some stories run to a couple of pages in length and other are less than page. Each succeeds in creating a depth of atmosphere and characterisation that is truly impressive. Monaghan’s collection shifts between the perspectives of young daughter Nuala and that of her mother, bringing the voices of her characters to life using colloquial prose.
The reader is introduced to the hardships experienced by the family and how the lives of both mother and daughter are devastated by father Seamus’s alcoholism. In ‘Nuala: Whiskey’ we see the child scribing a humble shopping list of basic items dictated by her mother – flour, potatoes – only to have her father interrupt with ‘whiskey’. What makes scenes like this all the more poignant is that we get a real impression of a child bearing witness to dysfunctions of family life. We are presented with Nuala trying to make sense of the world, admiring her handwriting in the way a child does whilst also musing whether ‘…it is still penmanship with a pencil.’ Her thoughts are interrupted by her parents who begin to argue, triggered by the suggestion of ‘whiskey’ for the shopping list and Nuala begins to ponder all the other words beginning with ‘wh’, concluding with, ‘Why, for all the questions she never asks.’
Nuala’s sections are narrated in third person keeping close to her character’s perspective. This creates an intimate tenor with the young girl, as though we are witnessing the arguments and fallout of an alcoholic father spending money they don’t have on drink, at the same close range as the girl. It is effective that Nuala’s narration details what she witnesses in such frankness, as it not only speaks to how ordinary the dysfunction has become, ‘It is Da’s turn to cry’, but also evokes a child’s resignation to a situation that cannot yet be fully comprehended. We see how the tragic becomes commonplace in her world and just how much she is able to infer of her parents’ volatile relationship, ‘…Mammy is using that shiny voice when everything sounds lovely but it isn’t.’ Throughout Nuala’s sections, we are not told how she feels, rather we see how she reacts to situations she is presented with. When her father cries, ‘Nuala burrows under the pillow but Da is too loud.’ In another section when the child senses her parents are on the cusp of another row, she ‘…puts down her fork and crosses her fingers.’ This endearing gesture depicts the heart-breaking helplessness of Nuala’s life without falling into sentimentality. We are presented with a child quietly applying faith and hoping it will bring refuge from her situation. This is seen most overtly in her infatuation with a nun from school, Sister Angelique, who she uses to fill the void created by her mother’s inability to show warmth and affection.
Throughout The Neverlands we see how faith is not rewarded. When Nuala prays that God doesn’t place her near to the well-dressed Aoife on the day of Holy Communion, thus emphasising her own modest gown cut up from her mother’s wedding dress, she is put right next to her.
In Mammy’s section ‘Star-crossed’ we see her as a sixteen year-old putting her faith in Seamus but learning only when it is too late what she has let herself in for.
Mammy’s perspective is narrated in second person ‘You’, and this again has the feeling of remaining close to Nuala’s perspective, especially given that the pronoun ‘Mammy’ is used to identify these chapters where the narrator echoes the role of silent witness that we see in young Nuala’s sections though this voice is mature and filled with understanding.
Mammy’s sections are filled with absences. The absence of touch. The absence of her husband’s presence whenever he disappears to the pub. The absence of her mother, her sister, the babies she lost whose absences haunt her. In ‘Mammy: Ghosts’ she dreams of her husband and when he turns to face her, ‘…there’s a black hole where his face should have been.’ Through Mammy’s perspective, we are able to sympathise with her inability to connect with her daughter, whom she clearly adores yet finds it near impossible to be affectionate with.
I absolutely loved The Neverlands. It is stunning from start to finish. The realism that is present throughout enables a strong ending in which we see Mammy striving to change her and Nuala’s circumstances. The reality that things may not work out for her and Nuala, that Mammy may never be able to overcome her habits and connect with her child, that the ending isn’t necessarily a ‘happy ever after’ though it has the potential to be – ends the collection beautifully in an atmosphere of fragile hope. If you have never read flash fiction before then this collection is an excellent example of the form at its best.
Since completely a Masters in Creative Writing at Glasgow University, Yasmina’s short fiction has been published online and in print in anthologies and literary journals, most recently in 24 Stories (an anthology in aid of the Grenfell Tower survivors), Litro Magazine and Gordon Square Review. Her creative non-fiction is published in Shooter Literary Magazine and her poetry is on By&By Literary Journal. She lives in London where she teaches English and takes care of her family.