Wendy Erskine’s debut collection was first published in Ireland by Declan Meade at The Stinging Fly in 2018, which should give attentive lit-nerds cause to sit up and pay attention – Meade is, after all, the editor who first brought us Kevin Barry, Danielle McLaughlin, Colin Barrett, Claire-Louise Bennett and Mary Costello. Sweet Home is out in the UK, now, with Picador, so word has clearly – and deservedly – spread. The book’s ten stories are set in East Belfast, and though they’re wide-ranging in theme, style and voice, there’s a notable focus on isolation and loneliness throughout (Frank O’Connor wasn’t wrong there), a witty attention to detail, and an ear for dialogue that would give Kevin Barry a run for his money. It’s not often that every single story in a collection is equally attention grabbing, but Erskine’s pulled it off: this is an astoundingly assured and absorbing book.
While the stories here are mostly – though not exclusively – centred around working class lives, the title piece, ‘Sweet Home’, is a real showcase for the author’s ventriloquist skills, as she swoops between four narrators – a middle-class couple who’ve lost their child and the working class couple who do their gardening and cleaning – and invokes tremendous empathy for each, without veering into stratifying stereotypes. This proficiency in moving from one character’s viewpoint to another’s without diminishing the reader’s compassion for the first is similarly on display in the opening story, ‘To All Their Dues’, a tripartite account of the intersecting lives of three people: a salon owner, the man who runs the local protection racket, and his partner. There are no outright antagonists in Erskine’s work here: even Kyle, lobbing rocks through windows to claw money from small business owners, warrants affection. This portability of point-of-view is also a canny technical manoeuvre: in ‘Arab States: Mind and Narrative’, the main character’s slow, and then fast, mental collapse is thrown into sharp relief on the last page, when we switch from her own close narrative to the perspective of a disinterested – and uninterested – observer who had encountered her in passing: ‘big, silver alien face, didn’t know where she was’.
‘Inakeen’ is a striking play on the idea of otherness; an unhappy white woman spies on her Muslim neighbours and longs to don a veil and join them. ‘Observation’ takes a handful of familiar topics (teenage sexuality; ambivalent friendships; local gossip) but tackles them in a way that’s thoughtful and fresh. ‘Lady and Dog’ (spot the Chekov ref, people) uses the lingering religious/cultural divides in Belfast to sketch out an middle-aged teacher’s loneliness and desperation as she falls for the Gaelic football teacher brought in to her (Protestant) school: this is more Zoe Heller than Joan Lingard, though, so brace yourselves…
‘Last Supper’, is, perhaps, the story that will linger longest: here, a group of misfits work in a charity-run church café, until a concatenation of ill-timed trivial problems heralds the end of their ordinary little haven. It’s a quiet, gentle story; an account of routine, pettiness, affection, griping, and support networks; it’s captivating, very funny, and devastating in a minor key: The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter meets ‘Beer Trip to Llandudno’ with a dose of Kent Haruf thrown in for good measure.
Take note, now: we’ve interviewed Wendy Erskine for episode 9 of the Bookmunch podcast, and that interview took place in the context of the Caught In The River: Fiction event in Hebden Bridge (in beautiful West Yorkshire for all y’all further flung readers), during which we saw Wendy in conversation with David Keenan (he of For The Good Times fame). Take this here as an enormous shout-out for that day: the writers-interviewing-each-other format made for an outstandingly entertaining affair, with none of the stiffness that can otherwise characterise the interviewer/interviewee dynamic. As well as Wendy and David, there was also Galley Beggar prize-winner Anna Wood, poet-turned-novelist Helen Mort and debut novelist Jessica Andrews, and the atmosphere was engaged and smart and relaxed throughout (plus the venue – Hebden’s Trades Club – was spot-on, particularly if cheeky afternoon pints were in order, ahem). The Erskine-Keenan chat was worth the price of entry alone, though; racing through everything from what Keenan called ‘the imaginative projection of place’ (he does no research) to Erskine’s determination to write back against the homogenisation of place in storytelling (i.e., the story of Protestant culture in Northern Ireland), and from Erskine’s analogy comparing story collections to music albums, to Keenan’s announcement that words are basically letters copulating and giving birth to meaning. Bet you wish you’d been there, eh?
Any Cop?: A subtle, masterful, wildly entertaining short story collection; and particularly impressive given that it’s her debut. Keep your collective eyes on Wendy Erskine!