‘An international who’s-who of up-and-comers alongside a few thoroughly established writers’ – A Kind of Compass, ed. Belinda McKeon

akocsodTramp Press are making proper waves in the Irish publishing scene; we looked at their Dubliners 100 anthology a few months back, we’ve heard excellent things about Sara Baume’s spill simmer falter wither, and this most recent release is something of an international who’s-who of up-and-comers alongside a few thoroughly established writers – surely something of a coup for a fledgling press. A Kind of Compass is, according to editor (and novelist) Belinda McKeon, themed around distance; she argues that the stories she’s commissioned here each both enact and interrogate this idea, and she’s not wrong: estrangement, separation, and exile characterize the pieces, each of which explore their characters’ physical, psychological and emotional distances from one another, from their homelands, from their pasts. From Kevin Barry to Yoko Ogawa, and from Éilis Ní Dhuibhne to Sam Lipsyte, the roll call of contributors is as stylistically as it is geographically diverse, and so the thematic unity is particularly impressive. As with any broad-reaching anthology, there’s both something for everyone, and no pleasing everyone – you’ll love some, you’ll hate some, according to your own stylistic proclivities, but it’s above all an interesting and an ambitious collection.

A few highlights… We were taken (as you might expect, if you follow us at all closely) by Kevin Barry’s ‘Extremadura (Until Night Falls)’, the story of a wandering and heartbroken Irishman in Spain: his monologue to an old dog tied to a fence sketches out his ‘tale of the lost years’, and the parents back home who ‘must be waiting for me or for word of me, at least’. As ever, Barry’s humour and lyricism jumps out at you (‘the sky pales […] as if somebody has had a Jesuitical word’) and he doesn’t shy from the emotional fallout of his character’s situation – the last sentence here is as wrenching as they come. Then there was Ross Raisin’s ‘Holy Island’, set in the not-too-far back past, when a Northumberland girl meets a boy the same week as her fisherman father’s gone missing at sea. Raisin’s commitment to detail (the process of the gutting of the fish, the quarrymen at work) is fantastic, as is the way his story unfolds slowly to the rhythm of the characters’ relentless days, so that the release of emotion – love, loss, fear and hope – is gradual and undramatic, like his minimal dialogue, and all the more convincing for it; the ending to this one, too, is superb. The book is topped-and-tailed by a coupe of space stories – the first, Elske Rahill’s ‘Terraforming’, stars a woman who’s sneaked away from her home and her partner and small child to audition/interview for a place on a ten-year mission to Mars; the last, Maria Takolander’s ‘Transition’, introduces us to another women, this time actually in space, on a one-way exploratory mission, who’s finding her voluntary sundering from Earth to be harder than she’d expected. Rahill’s story uses the Mars project to echo her protagonist’s difficulty with parenthood, with the loss of her own father, and with the gap between who one is and who one might want, or hope, to become, while Takolander’s piece is less pensive and more claustrophobic – here, escape is a complex notion, and her heroine finds that enclosed in her capsule, she’s no further from her Finnish childhood than she was before lift-off. The lack of resolution in both stories – particularly Rahill’s – was especially effective; distance, after all, isn’t a concept easily contained.

We also liked Porochista Khakpour’s ‘City Inside’, a piece that was almost surreal in its dissection of urban disconnection and alienation – here, a newcomer to a ‘famous city’ finds he cannot leave his studio apartment, and stares compulsively at the woman whose apartment overlooks his own, until, that is, she climbs through his window to tell him a few home truths. It’s funny and anxiety-inducing and massively memorable – and it’s got an underage door-to-door knife salesperson. Go on, you know you’re intrigued. Lipsyte’s piece, too, ‘The Naturals’, about a son who visits his dying dad, is as funny, and as sharp on masculinity and family life as you’d expect from him, and it’s got its very own pro wrestler, the Rough Beast of Bethlehem, whose outburst on the final page is worthy of Mark Wahlberg’s Tommy Corn in I Heart Huckabees.

There’s seventeen stories here, so we’ll stop here, but just to say if you like them short, you’ll love the contributions from Mark Doten and Niven Govinden; if you like more experimental, fragmented and self-referential stories, you’ll like Gina Apostol’s and Suzanne Scanlon’s works; and anyone who wants their fiction with a touch of the magical might want to turn to Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s ‘Distant Song’. We didn’t like every piece in here, but as we said earlier, that’s to be expected in a collection with this scope. A final shout-out, then, to two more that we did love:

The ever-unsettling Yoko Ogawa’s ‘Six Days in Glorious Vienna’, and ‘Finishing Lines’ by Sara Baume, which makes us think we really ought to chase down that novel of hers.

Any Cop?: It’s a strong collection with a really eclectic mix of styles. There’s enough ‘difficult’ pieces here to put off, perhaps, a novice to the short story, but we’d advise you push on through anyway, and you’ll get a handy overview of what’s going on in the short fiction world in 2015.

Valerie O’Riordan


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