Too brief and un­con­vinc­ing

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - SARAH GILMARTIN


What makes a good short-story col­lec­tion? Without the length and scope of a novel to de­velop char­ac­ters and plot, a story has to be pre­cise in its aims and lan­guage. There is a spot­light on ev­ery­thing, an un­will­ing­ness to for­give the wrong turns or flab­bi­ness that nov­el­ists can get away with in a more gen­er­ous medium that of­fers read­ers other plea­sures. For a col­lec­tion, each story must pull its own weight but also lean in to the oth­ers. There must be co­he­sion and con­sis­tency for a col­lec­tion to come to­gether.

Both are sadly lack­ing in the Welsh writer João Mo­rais’s de­but col­lec­tion. Things That Make the Heart Beat Faster starts with two strong sto­ries whose power is rarely matched in the rest of the book. The ti­tle is in­tended to re­flect mo­ments of in­tense change in a char­ac­ter’s life. This is shown beau­ti­fully in the book’s sec­ond story, The Tea Party, as sud­den ill­ness prompts a grand­daugh­ter to re­gret the way she has treated her beloved grand­mother: “There’s noth­ing she can do ex­cept hold the warm leather of Nana’s hand.”

For most of the col­lec­tion, Mo­rais fo­cuses on much younger char­ac­ters than Nana. Teenagers com­ing of age, first-time drug tak­ers, emerg­ing artists try­ing to earn a crust, and young women who run food stalls at fes­ti­vals amount to an in­ter­est­ing con­tem­po­rary back­drop. The funny open­ing story, The Pave­ment Poet, is told by an ir­rev­er­ent, first-per­son nar­ra­tor whose ob­nox­ious views on home­less peo­ple – “He’s twenty-past-eleven drunk at twenty past eight. You know how ag­gro they get when they’ve had too much tram­pagne” – come back to bite him in the end. Fur­ther strength­en­ing the story is a Friel-es­que de­liv­ery that breaks the text into pri­vate and pub­lic thought.

Mo­rais is from Cardiff, and his short sto­ries, re­views and po­ems have been pub­lished in the New Welsh Re­view and Wales Arts Re­view . He has been short­listed for the Rhys Davies Short Story Com­pe­ti­tion, the Percy French Prize for Comic Verse, and the All Wales Comic Verse Com­pe­ti­tion. This flair for hu­mour is seen in the open­ing story and in sparse flashes else­where. In Un­ti­tled (Text on Pa­per), the at­ti­tude of a so-hot-right-now graf­fiti artist con­trasts nicely with the graft of painter Alexis. Her dig at the Arts Coun­cil as “fund­ing from the Old White Men” lands, though ul­ti­mately the story is let down by in­au­then­tic di­a­logue, car­i­ca­tures and a twee end­ing.

The prob­lem with di­a­logue is more pro­nounced in Ask­ing a Shadow to Dance , in which the di­alect of an im­mi­grant fam­ily feels forced. A teenage son gets rep­ri­manded by his mother’s boyfriend in a novel fash­ion but the re­sult­ing epiphany doesn’t chime with the voice: “Be­cause for the first time in his life, Jor­dan had seen the same per­son that ev­ery­body else saw. He was see­ing the woman who was bring­ing up two young sons on her own, the woman who still grieved for her lost lover.”

A ten­dency to ex­plain sem­i­nal mo­ments ru­ins other sto­ries, as with the in­tense sit­u­a­tion of One of the Cul­lens, where chug­ger Glenn goes on a date with the ex of a lo­cal heavy: “Glenn looked at [Cullen’s] arm. He un­der­stood what it was now. His cut was a cry for at­ten­tion in phys­i­cal form. Cullen wanted to show her and say, look, this is what I feel.”

Vi­o­lence is a re­cur­ring theme but its ef­fects war­rant far more ex­plo­ration. De­spite its good ti­tle, The Anatomy of a Beat­ing is re­lated in the un­con­vinc­ing voice of a man caught up in the murky world of steroids and drug push­ing. The story arc it­self is murky, an is­sue through­out the col­lec­tion.

In The Visit, nei­ther the predica­ment nor stakes are clear as a young man goes to visit his friend in prison, awk­wardly splic­ing a tale from the out­side world with the meet­ing. The ver­nac­u­lar doesn’t chime, draw­ing at­ten­tion to it­self and away from the story: “You goes proper deep into your swede to tell the story.” Nar­ra­tors in mul­ti­ple sto­ries speak the same way, with re­peated gram­mat­i­cal er­rors and slang words that seem more au­tho­rial than gen­uinely suited to voice.

In the ti­tle story, Things That Make the Heart Beat Faster, the voices of the teenage party-go­ers do mostly ring true but there are far too many of them for a co­her­ent nar­ra­tive. In­stead we get anec­dotes about kids tak­ing drugs that aren’t re­ally drugs, the bones of a story re­lated in snip­pets that aren’t al­lowed to de­velop.

Novel read­ers of­ten com­plain that short sto­ries aren’t sat­is­fy­ing enough. They’re over too soon, they take you away from the char­ac­ter just as you’re get­ting to know them, they don’t give enough back­story or con­text. Good short sto­ries can counter these ac­cu­sa­tions, but there is nowhere to hide for the ones that don’t.

Left hang­ing: João Mo­rais

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