“Support the small presses!” – Ferenji and Other Stories by Helena Mulkerns and Hearing Voices / Seeing Things by William Wall

Ireland’s Doire Press is always worth a look if you’re interested in short fiction (and poetry); both of the following books came out earlier this year, but if you’re after a Christmas read that isn’t plucked straight off the shelves at WH Smiths, then you might be in the right place.

ferenjiMulkerns’ debut – the title story translates as ‘foreigners’ – is a harsh read; it looks at the humanitarian crises emerging out of current and former conflict zones (some real, some fictional, or at least fictionalised), and, by bringing these to the fore via the perspectives of the ferenji that pass through these sites – military personnel, journalists and photographers, humanitarian aid workers – Mulkerns is able to examine the uneasy relationship between those who can choose to leave (mostly Westerners) and those who can’t (civilians and refugees). Amongst others: war photographer is forced to consider the suffering of one of his subjects; another, home on leave after a year ‘in-country’ and a visit to a refugee camp, is overcome by the display of plenty in an Irish supermarket; an aid worker sleeps with a pilot only to discover, to her discomfort, that he used to work for the military in Afghanistan; two Irish military personnel on a peacekeeping mission find a five year-old girl severely injured by a landmine and try to pay respects to her family.

The best of these stories force the reader into an uncomfortable situation longer than she might like, and to consider, then, how she might react were she in the characters’ positions. In ‘Dogs’, an Irish photographer traveling to document an arms exchange along with a Pakistani-British United World (read: UN) worker is confronted with the reality of life as a woman in Taliban territory, as her companion is attacked by the District Administrator for insufficiently covering herself up and denied entry to the event; their Swiss colleague refuses to help or sympathise, and the two women spend almost five hours locked in a baking car in the desert heat before their worried driver returns. In ‘Ferenji’, an NGO worker pleads to an impassive group of international experts for emergency aid for a community on the brink of famine. In ‘The Package Man’, an elderly Cambodian refugee in Paris tries to send a package to a camp on the Thai border, but the post office won’t accept it and racist violence flares. In these pieces, the tension lies in the moral quandaries faced by the protagonists and the stories’ power lies in their lack of resolution, because the moral buck, so to speak, is passed on to the reader: how would you handle it?

But it’s this same lack of resolution or development that makes some of the other stories less successful: Mulkerns’ tendency seems to be to sketch out a troubling situation without bringing much plot to bear on it, and in some pieces (‘The Biggest Liar’, ‘Image of the Day’) the effect is one of a slightly simplistic didacticism: ‘this stuff is bad, isn’t it?’ The characters realise that a situation isn’t a good one, but we don’t see them have to deal with this knowledge in any active way; instead it seems to instruct the reader how to react, and, in fairness, most readers will already know that refugee camps are awful, the West is profligate, women are under-represented, etc..

The press release describes Ferenji as a themed collection, and while that’s certainly true, it’s nonetheless an insufficient description: these stories’ power is gained through accumulation – they’re considerably more than the sum of their parts. It’s not that the individual stories don’t have impact – they do, though (as above) in various cases we found them lacking – but that the relentlessness, the realism, the horror, kicks in particularly well en masse. You could dip in and out, but to do so would be to miss the point: horror can’t be subdivided; it’s huge and merciless and you ought to be overwhelmed. If you find yourself becoming desensitized as you read, the book will call you to attention, as it does its characters as they flip between exhausted levity and exhausting anguish (see, in particular, ‘Reprisal’ and ‘The Thousand Mile Rule’).

hvstwwWilliam Wall’s Hearing Voices / Seeing Things is an equally slim volume (both books are less than 150pp), and, though very unlike Mulkern’s in subject matter, is equally, and perhaps even more, compelling. Wall, a former Booker longlistee, is the author of many previous books, and Hearing Voices / Seeing Things displays a tonal and stylistic range that speaks to that experience. The stories are set between the late 1950s and some point in what we’re guessing is the near (more than a little creepy) future (‘Statement Regarding the Recent Human Soul Experiments’, we’re looking at you), and they’re mostly set in Ireland, or starring Irish protagonists. In ‘Bridey and Jim on Kodak’ and ‘Etty and Jim Crowe’, he evokes the peculiar boom-time of an Irish seaside town made suddenly and temporarily prosperous by the construction of an off-shore oil refinery; in ‘Kingsland Waste’, an Irish immigrant working as a prostitute in East London watches her John gets dressed; in ‘Telling’, a young boy is at the mercy of a sadistic priest at boarding school, and can’t tell anybody they’re related. ‘I Follow A Character’ offers up a wry type of metafiction, as the writer-narrator follows one of his creations home, but Wall deftly twists this, as we start to question what the narrator’s motivations might be. The particular genius on display throughout this book is Wall’s ability to complicate his characters, and to avoid the obvious plot: in ‘The Clearing’, the source of menace suddenly shifts as the protagonist, on the run from bullies, is left alone with an uncle he abruptly recalls is no savior; in ‘Etty and Jim Crowe’, Etty is no lovelorn walkover, but neither is Jim as much of a deadbeat as one might expect to discover. The stories’ endings are thought-provoking and lingering – and their characters are as credibly frightening as real people – in ‘John and Mary 1995’, Walls sets up his readers to sympathize and root for his narrator, before unleashing a violence and instability within him that’s both wrongfooting and entirely gripping.

His fluency in different registers is, perhaps, what struck us most: from the educated, formal diction of ‘I Follow a Character’ and ‘Signals’, to the run-on choked outrage of ‘Torching Sam’ and the painfully humorous horror of ‘For Fun Times Phone Dodger’, he seems to have every angle covered. We loved the book, but the throat-grabbing opening story (‘Paper and Ashes’), the misery and, again, horror, of ‘The Trap’, and the colloquial brilliance of ‘Torching Sam’ stand out in particular – not because they’re necessarily the best, but because they set us up for a powerful and memorable collection and we weren’t disappointed.

Any Cop?: Ferenji is no Dispatches, and the slight distortions involved in details like the UW/UN switch seem an unnecessary obfuscation, but it’s an interesting, if (unsurprisingly) depressing, look at the aftermath of contemporary war. Hearing Voices / Seeing Things is an absolute belter; one of our favourite collections of the year. Buy it now – support the small presses!

 

Valerie O’Riordan

 

 

 

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