Rumour has it this book’s been brewing for twenty-eight years, and if rumour’s right, then the rest of us might do well to seal our manuscripts in a barrel for a decade or three. Shift is Gallagher’s first story collection following two novels – most recently the stupendous Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland – and it’s a knockout. It’s only a wonder she’s not yet better known internationally.
The fifteen stories here cover everything from painful dinner parties, extramarital affairs and prison art classes, to ghosts, kelpies and techno-futurism, and considerably more besides. Gallagher’s range is striking, and not just in terms of plot and topic, but also in voice and tone and length and style: the middle-aged urban colloquialisms of the title story bear little resemblance to the sinister neologisms of ‘Pinning Tail on Donkey’, and the joyous, vicious, glorious loquacity of ‘Lure’ stands in direct contrast to the blunt domestic misery and regret of ‘With Soldiers, In A Cup’. The book’s long gestation – Gallagher’s long career – means that she’s been able to thoroughly curate it: there’s no staleness here, no redundancy or filler, but rather a compilation of work that’s so strong it reads like the Greatest Hits of one of the best writers you’ve never yet read.
Standout pieces for us included, again, the title story: ‘Shift’ is voiced by Dessie, an aging and crotchety driving instructor who’s alternately coaching a young woman through her test and remembering his early years as a furniture shifter for a former opera singer, Isabella, and her depressed cross-dressing son, Christo. As Dessie’s carping gradually reveals more about his marriage and his relationship with his unlikely former employers, the story moves towards tragedy. It’s a convincing and compelling read – funny and brutal and tender, with a shade of Roddy Doyle’s idiomatic fluency – and it’s also a fascinating glimpse into what might have been a thematic precursor to Beautiful Pictures. Then there’s ‘Lure’, a story that weaves watery folklore and nasty urban savagery into a galloping wreck of assault and bullying and revenge, but that’s nonetheless ferociously beautiful. The folklore here isn’t dainty or bucolic, but dirty and lusty and needy, and so the pairing of the kelpie with a damaged woman and a horde of vicious young girls, and the setting (Dublin’s city buses and retail parks) is shockingly apt. ‘Found Wanting’ gives us a woman who’s been having an almost wordless affair with an acquaintance, Johnny O (‘slick and lean as a piece of liquorice, black hair scooped up either side of his head like the plastic coiffure of a replica Elvis’); it gives us all the desperation and merciless compulsion of her sexuality, but – hurray! – refuses to couple it with that old chestnut, romantic love. And that’s perhaps what links these stories: a disinclination to draw those easy lines. Gallagher is a master of the liminal world, where we don’t find what we expect, where the territory, which is, initially, familiar, is made strange by her embattled commitment to the complex and the unruly.
Any Cop?: Fans of Sarah Hall will need to read this. It’s not easy, but when is a brilliant book ever easy?