Review by Alex Reece Abbott
This award-winning, debut collection (Eludia Award, 2014 and BGEIBA 2016 Irish Short Story of the Year) published by independent American press, Sowilo, brings together twenty-four, darkly funny short stories that vividly capture the tensions of modern life.
In Death Sentence, a wife observes:
“…She was sleeping alone. Sleeping alone for the first time since her last confinement in the maternity hospital. Sleeping without Jim’s reassuring bulk and solid presence in the bed beside her. Sleeping in the silence of her own sudden, unexpected solitude, like a woman freshly widowed after an abrupt accident. Bliss…” (p.144)
McAlinden conjures up an entertaining, vivid, intergenerational cast of (sometimes recurring) feisty characters, warts and all. Consistently engaging, the stories range from two to twelve pages, and span class, religion, gender, race, culture, sexuality and age – there are no taboos or polemic here. Meet addicts, bigots, plotters and schemers, thieves and hypocrites, adulterers and dreamers – ordinary people getting on with their lives, in a complex, extraordinary setting.
“…Dad. Where the hell are you, Dad? Daddy? I held my phone in my hand all the long, sleepless hours of dark, listening to the secret sobs escaping the box room. I’ve lost track of all the false alarms I’ve had, the phone buzzing all night long with texts and emails and even voicemails. None from Dad. I’m tired, Daddy, and I can’t do this on my own. I’m sorry for all the crap I put you through, for all the contradicting, and whining and always having to be right. I’m sorry I drove you away…” (p.131)
They are not McAlinden’s family (as she makes clear in the author’s note), and they are not your family, but as in the best fiction, we can readily recognise these characters. Tackling universal concerns of relationships, loyalty, betrayal, vanity and ambition (both thwarted and fulfilled), the setting of Northern Ireland’s fractured, polarised world brings a fresh edge to the collection. In Strike, the young narrator notes
“…They did not wear balaclavas, that would be too honest, but they had scarves wrapped tightly around their lower faces and some had hoods well pulled down. She could not see one face clearly; here a wisp of reddish beard, here a splash of a livid strawberry birthmark popped up above the encircling fabric, but not enough. Not enough to say yes, I could recognise this man… (p.1)
Organised in an apparently incidental sequence, in the opening story, Strike, sectarian industrial action threatens a little boy’s everyday journey to school. The title story, The Accidental Wife explores aspiration and enduring bigotry. The collection comes full circle with Bleeding, about how things have changed across the generations in the stories – and stayed the same. The Troubles reverberate through every aspect of the inner and outer lives of these diverse characters, yet it is the political with a small ‘p’ – the power dynamics – that bind this moving collection together. Drawing on her Portadown roots, McAlinden’s stories are threaded with uncompromising everyday feminism, sharply, unswervingly observed, yet compassionate and told with directness and pathos. Leavened with wry wit and great humanity, there are no simplistic stereotypes or tidy resolutions in these entertaining tales that are rooted in, yet transcend, Irish life.
More can be read about the author here and the collection of short stories can be purchased here.
Alex Reece Abbott is an award-winning emerging writer, working across genres and forms and hemispheres. Her historical literary crime novel, The Helpmeet, was a winner in the 2016 Greenbean Irish Novel Fair. A finalist in the inaugural Bath Novella in Flash Award with 37 Foolish Things in 2017, her short fiction is widely published and anthologised. Her story By-stander has been selected for the Word Factory Citizen: The New Story season. She is Writer in Residence for the Sixth Hysteria International Writing Competition in 2017. More: www.alexreeceabbott.info Twitter: @AlexReeceAbbott