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WAITING FOR THE BULLET:
Róisín Kelly reviews Madeleine D'Arcy's début short story collection
After completing her MA in Writing at NUI Galway, Róisín Kelly came south to partake in Cork's literary scene. As well as writing journalistic pieces, she also works on poetry and fiction. Her poetry has been published in Doire Press's North Beach Nights: Anthology Three, and a short story featured in Adventure Hat, the anthology brought out by the Black Fort Writers. In 2013, she won the short story competition run by NUIG's student newspaper and was shortlisted in both the poetry and fiction categories for the Cúirt New Writing Prize.
Waiting for the Bullet
(Doire Press, 2014)
Buy from Doire Press
“I wish I had known the things I needed to know in life at the time I should have known them.” It’s a line that couldn’t contain a more simple sentiment, but this kind of unaffected language is emblematic of Madeleine D’Arcy’s collection of short stories as a whole. Her refusal to bow down to a style that conceals rather than reveals—as in through suggested meaning, elusive language or convoluted plots—is a sensibility that is reflected in the stories’ structures themselves. Rather than ‘stories’ as such, they are more like snapshots into a moment in time, into how a particular character feels on a particular day, and are all the more powerful for that
So the opening story ‘Clocking Out’, in which we find that wistful musing on how life lessons are inevitably learned too late, consists of just five pages of a woman’s stream-of-consciousness as she travels across London to work. It flows so naturally, it is easy to overlook the skill with which D’Arcy brings us backwards and forwards in time. The story begins in the past tense, and we think that this will be a straightforward narrative of the character’s first day working in an Irish factory, when she is almost instantly charmed by the roguish floor manager. But after only half a page, D’Arcy brings the present cutting in mercilessly: “I had to leave that job. That’s why I’m here in London. I’m on my way to work now, on the Piccadilly Line.” It’s a masterful stroke, drawing the reader irresistibly to the heart of the story. Why did she have to come to London; what happened to the narrator that now her time in Ireland is only a memory?
The revelations that follow might have been expected, yet what sets this story apart from other run-of-the-mill tales about babies born out of wedlock is the deceptive simplicity with which brutal events are described. D’Arcy manages to say everything without saying much at all, and the story concludes with one of the finest paragraphs on guilt that I’ve ever come across. This understated style and brevity of emotion reaches a high point in the collection with ‘Esmé’s Weekend’ (perhaps the most traditional of all these stories, with its linear narrative spanning one weekend in a woman’s life). As Esmé searches through her boyfriend’s possessions for evidence of infidelity, her emotions are summed up more astutely in one sentence than a paragraph detailing multiple symptoms of physical agitation ever could: “She has a bad feeling.” Later, the mere colours of homeware products for sale are infused with an almost heartbreaking poignancy as Esmé and her boyfriend go through a department store together: “She studies rows of classic kitchenware: Le Creuset in honourable blue, in warm reddish orange, in an honest green; solid pots and pans for an imaginary kitchen she doesn’t have.”
Yet although the sadness portrayed here feels very real, it is offset by D’Arcy’s dark humour that consistently comes into play when her characters are confronted with such situations. ‘Esmé’s Weekend’ culminates in a frenzy of meat-cooking by Esmé, to the amusing horror of her vegetarian boyfriend. Despite the dependable bleakness of normal life, what these stories impart is some kind of lightness of life and humour bubbling along the surface of hurts and complications. Themes of love, money, food, natural disasters and illegitimate children are all given equal weight here with the same tenderness of view and wry distance. This delicate handling of such topics on the author’s part is particularly obvious in the eponymous ‘Waiting for the Bullet’, in which the ridiculousness and desperation of the Celtic Tiger-era is captured in the witty depiction of two couples playing a game of mock-Russian Roulette at a dinner party—yet not at the expense of the reader’s building panic and dread as we wait for a bullet that will never come.
No detail in these brief tales feels superfluous, although sometimes the economy of sentiment can backfire. ‘Is This Like Scotland?’—in which a man brings his new Swedish wife and her parents on holiday to the place in Ireland where he grew up—left me eagerly reaching into the gaps of what’s not being said. The story ends abruptly, with the reader having almost reached an understanding of something about the characters, but it is cut off short. In fact, almost any meaning that might be gleaned from these stories slips away into the tapestry of everyday life. The characters here do not have any unique insight into what it means to carry on through hardships and trials that all of us undergo at one point or another, which cleverly disguises the author’s own keen fingers digging into the ordinary to unearth the gleam of these little vignettes. D’Arcy’s talent lies in easing the reader towards a sometimes uncomfortable but always compassionate empathy with her characters, and a recognition of their lives as so familiar to our own.
©2014 Róisín Kelly
Purchase Adventure Hat containing Róisín Kelly's short story 'Cassini-Huygens'
More work by Róisín Kelly in Southword