‘Scenes from the Life No. 23: Parental Advice’, by Janice Galloway

Galloway’s novel The Trick is to Keep Breathing was the single most important book that I ever read. It was the novel that made me want to be a writer, and it was the novel that showed me the possibilities of the form beyond the rather staid 19th Century French stuff we were made to read in class. Les Rougon-Macquart and La Comédie Humaine, which I may appreciate now more than I ever did then, seemed outdated, indicative of a reality that was no longer. Galloway’s broken text and wild mix of literary (and non-literary) genres felt more real to me than anything I had ever read.

I immediately set out to read everything she’d written, and found a copy of her short story collection ‘Blood’ at the WH Smith’s on the Rue du Rivoli. Except, rather than finding it on the ‘literature’ shelf between Gaddis and Gass, the book was on a shelf labelled ‘women’s fiction’. Having spent years reading horror and only gradually making my way into the macho lit that was popular at the end of the 90s (your American Psychos and Fight Clubs) I was confused by the fact that the author I found more emotionally devastating than anything I’d read, was relegated to stand beside pulpy romance novels.

The story I remember most vividly is this short piece, written as a play, like the other “scenes from the life” that are scattered across the collection. Here, a (single) father named Sammy feels that he needs to make sure that his son, Wee Sammy, can stand up for himself, as he is about to start school. He makes the son sit on a mantelpiece, and tells him to jump off, that the father will catch him, and keeps telling him “would I let you fall?”, “don’t be feart, this is your da talking to you”. But of course, when the boy jumps, Sammy steps aside, letting the boy hurt himself.

“Let that be a lesson to you son: trust nae cunt,” is the story’s final line.

But what really stays with you is the detail that comes just before that: the father choking back a sob.

Included in Blood, Secker and Warburg, 1991

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