Updated: Jun 15, 2021
Buddy read with Nat K and Kev Ansbro.
“The Boatman and Other Stories” is the first taste I have had of Billy O’Callaghan’s writing. This collection of twelve short stories was Kevin Ansbro’s pick in a buddy read with me and Nat K. I am counting myself extremely lucky that we went with this book because I simply love O’Callaghan’s writing.
The twelve short stories all share the common theme of grief. Grief in its many forms and levels. Grief that is so overpowering that one cannot go on living. To more subtle, but debilitating grief. They also portray the different ways people cope, or fail to cope, with grief.
As with all collections of short stories there are always going to be some stories that stand out, shine brighter, than others. But there is one element that is consistent throughout all twelve and that is the beautiful prose of O’Callaghan. He has this wonderful ability, this talent, to take what is, in its most basic form, a slice of the life, a snapshot of ordinary people from all walks of life, just living, and with this book grieving, and make it a joy to read.
“As I age, I find myself favouring novels and stories that I know will end happily, not because that makes them more believable but because the very inverse of that is true, because their sense of reality softens and they again get to be something more than the world as it has shown itself to me. Not bad all the way to its core and rarely intentionally so, not without its beautiful moments, but neither naturally set up, it seems, for happy endings. Because in the end there’s always death, and always broken hearts. Happy stories, at least, get to hold the air of magic.”
“mumbling the catholic prayers that we’d all been taught by heart, the strings of words in two languages and stripped of meaning or worth in either one.”
“Being with someone at first is like a slow dance. You are conscious of every moment, and of taking a wrong step.”
“Buildings converged, the streets narrowing and heightening to a claustrophobic sepia, and the ground, lined in ancient, broken cobble, put up a severe challenge even to her low-heeled sandals.”
Please forgive me I could go on quoting the whole book, just one more, my favourite,
“Silk, of a shade of red that at this hour is just another shadow. Like blood in a black-and-white movie.”
Yes indeed, if you are a fan of beautiful prose you will probably enjoy the collection simply for the writing. However, there are some brilliant little gems tucked away between the covers.
My favourites chopped and changed as I progressed through the stories but the second story, “The Boatman” is gut wrenching and heart breaking. Yet at the same time equally beautiful. It is four in the morning and a boatman prepares to dig the grave and bury his daughter. He is lost, he describes the house as a hole that his wife has fallen in and he is clinging to the edge.
“Beginish” is perhaps the darkest story when a happy love story turns into a hellish nightmare. A couple decide to spend some time together on a small inland island. Mother Nature turns this little holiday into chaos. You can almost feel the rain slashing your face with this one.
If I had to pick a favourite it would be “Love is Strange”. A young boy named Sam shows his empathy and decency as he always leaves whatever games he and his friends are playing to help a lonely old lady with her groceries. He ignores the constant jibes and ribbing he receives from his friends. This relationship reminded me of the one in Ali Smith’s Autumn, compacted into a short story. There is a beautiful powerful message that goes with this story, but I will leave that for you dear reader.
I will also leave some of the other stories for Nat K and Kevvy to fill you in on, as they inevitably do a much better job than me. But I will mention “Wildflowers” because I think they found it a little boring. The narrative is about a man who visits his mother each day and brings her this bunch of wildflowers that he has picked up on a whim. It is the understated narrative that allows O’Callaghan’s prose to shine again. I believe the flowers are a metaphor for his aging mother. Just as the flowers age and wilt with time, he notices his mother’s face thinning her posture wilting and drooping.
Well we have racked up nearly ninety posts discussing this book and it has been immense fun discussing it with two of my best mates on goodreads.
Thanks guys, please make sure to check out their reviews when they post them.
Billy O'Callaghan was born in Cork, Ireland, in 1974. His books include the short story collections: ‘In Exile’ (2008, Mercier Press), ‘In Too Deep’ (2008, Mercier Press), and 'The Things We Lose, the Things We Leave Behind' (2013, New Island Books/2017, CITIC Press, China); and a novel: 'The Dead House' (2017, O'Brien Press/Arcade, USA).
His latest novel, 'My Coney Island Baby', was published in 2019 by Jonathan Cape (UK, Ireland & the Commonwealth) and Harper (USA), as well as in translation by Grasset (France), Ambo Anthos (the Netherlands), btb Verlag (Germany) and Paseka (Czech Republic). Translations are also forthcoming from: Jelenkor (Hungary), Ediciones Salamandra (Spain), L’Altra Editorial (Catalonia), and Guanda (Italy).
A new short story collection, 'The Boatman, and Other Stories' was published by Jonathan Cape (UK) in January 2020 and Harper Perennial (USA) in April 2020. A new novel, 'Life Sentences', is forthcoming from Jonathan Cape in 2021.
His work has been recognised with numerous honours, including three Bursary Awards for Literature from the Arts Council of Ireland, a Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Award and a Costa Short Story Award shortlisting, and his short stories have appeared in more than 100 magazines and literary journals around the world, including: Agni, the Bellevue Literary Review, the Chattahoochee Review, the Kenyon Review, the London Magazine, Narrative, Ploughshares, Salamander and the Saturday Evening Post.
Here is a link to a nice little interview with Billy on TheWildGeese - https://thewildgeese.irish/profiles/blogs/interview-with-billy-o-callaghan