‘How to Gut a Fish’ by Sheila Armstrong

Another astonishing short story collection from Ireland; another writer finding an arrestingly original way to write about the way the past disfigures the present. This is the title story from Armstrong’s debut collection and it is divided into twenty-seven numbered paragraphs in which the second person narrator, kills, guts, cooks but fails to eat a mackerel. The precision of the descriptive language (“the black tube of intestine, the white swell of swim bladder”) is counterbalanced by the associative swell of unconnected thoughts (“Nothing you do tonight will make you retch, you try to convince yourself”). As the boat bobs on the sea waiting for a rendezvous, dread mounts. Despite our best intentions, our attempts to do things in the proper order, life has a way of undoing us. “Look your fish in the eye: they say the last thing a man sees is imprinted on his pupil. You check every catch this way for your own reflection, but there is only a dark hole of fright.” To say more would be unfair: just read it. This is a magnificent story. In the acknowledgements, Armstrong says she is a member of a writing group called ‘Chekhov or Fuck Off’. Love her.

First published in the collection How to Gut a Fish, Bloomsbury Publishing 2021

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