Based on the short story collections that I’ve read, what I’ve to come to expect from a typical short story is a discrete narrative, a kind of novel in miniature. That is to say, most of the short stories I’ve encountered have been more or less like polished gems, very much self-contained in their little short-story packages. Where such stories are polished gems, though, Barrett’s are like rocks chipped out of some surface, rough and jagged and imperfect in the way that all organic things are. They’re stories that feel ongoing rather than discrete, not always going where you expect them to, and not always giving you what you want, either. In Barrett’s hands, though, that’s not at all a drawback.
Barrett’s stories are not really interested in giving you a nice, clean narrative with a delineated beginning, middle, and end, but rather in dropping you into the lives of their characters and seeing what happens. In “The Ways,” three siblings who have recently lost both their parents to cancer go about their lives; in “Anhedonia, Here I Come,” a struggling poet mired in his work attempts to deal with his various frustrations over it; in “The Alps,” the patrons of a club encounter a young man who walks in with a sword. They’re stories that, for the most part, don’t have any flashy or grandiose moments–in fact a lot of them actively lean towards the mundane–but in every one of them there is a tautness, a dramatic tension that holds the story upright and keeps you wanting to keep reading.
Unlike the typical short story I’m used to reading, Barrett’s don’t all end with a moment that clinches the point of the story, or come with some kind of critical passage that’s the key to unlocking the thematic focus of the story. That’s not to say that these stories are pointless, or that they’re devoid of any important moments–because of course they have a point, and of course they have important moments; it’s just that those are all woven into the various circumstances that these characters find themselves in.
And let me just say, these stories are so propulsive, so intensely readable. I think a big part of this is because they’re very much built around narratives where things happen: people go places, do things, meet other people, talk to them, etc. Characters think about things, but they also do things, and the “doing” part is what really spurs the “thinking” part of these stories on. (I don’t know how to describe this in a way that doesn’t sound trite–don’t literally all stories feature people thinking and doing things?–but IT’S TRUE, OKAY.)
It would be impossible to review this collection without talking about Barrett’s writing, because it’s just stellar. Colin Barrett’s writing feels like a photo with the contrast turned up: everything stark and punchy and evocative. It’s so sensorily rich, all the details just pop. I highlighted a lot of descriptions, but here are some of my favourites:
“At the far end of Lorna’s table an elderly woman was supping on a bowl of vegetable soup the colour and consistency of phlegm. The woman was eating with great involvedness. As she brought each tremulous spoonful to her lips her features contracted in an expression of anticipatory excruciation.”
“Bobby stared at his teeth, which were neatly aligned and all the same, toothpaste-ad hue. He appeared to be nothing more than a nondescriptly handsome wodge of heteronormative generica, tidily styleless in a sweater and chinos.”
“It was only gone two in the afternoon, but the sky was already so grey it was like being on the moon, the light a kind of exhausted residue. To their right coursed the Moy, dark as stout and in murderous spate; to their left high conifers stood like rows of coats on coat racks.”
“Steven Davitt, the lad at the rear of this pack, was such a specimen. A comely six-foot string of piss, faintly stooped, with shale eyes darting beneath a matted heap of curly black fringe. He shied from looking her way, of course. In the middle was one of the Bruitt boys, the scanty lichen of an unthriving moustache clinging to his lip.”
Barrett is funny, too, and his sense of humour shines through in a lot of these stories. Sometimes the humour comes in the form of wry or witty comments, and sometimes in the form of cutting comebacks (sibling dynamics in particular are so well-portrayed here). “The Alps” actually made me laugh out loud at one point, so absurd and absolutely wild it was but still surprisingly moving.
Favourite short story is easily “The Ways.” Other favourites include “The Alps,” “The Low, Shimmering Black Drone,” and “Anhedonia, Here I Come.” I liked all the other ones, too; the only story that I didn’t really get was “The Silver Coast,” though I feel like it would definitely benefit from a reread.
As you’ve probably gathered already, this was a different kind of short story collection than I’m used to reading, but I absolutely loved it.
Thank you so much to Grove Atlantic for providing me with an e-ARC of this via NetGalley!