Paul McVeigh’s novel The Good Son (2015) conveyed to me more of the atmosphere of the Troubles in Northern Ireland than any number of factual accounts. Its hero, young Mickey Donnelly, was introduced to readers some fifteen years earlier in this short story. Mickey’s voice and his feistiness are there, loud and clear, and McVeigh is already showing his ability to navigate the geography of both the Ardoyne and the human heart with great precision. Remarkably, he says this was his first attempt at prose, never mind a short story!
The summer holidays were near at hand when I made up my mind to break out of the weariness of school life for one day at least.
As the day grows sultry they feast on biscuits and chocolate and bottles of raspberry lemonade. Too tired to reach their destination they rest in a field where they are approached by an old man “shabbily dressed in a suit of greenish-black”, a Beckettian tramp-like figure with a good accent who embarks on a series of unsettling monologues, first and innocuously about literature, then about “girls”.
He gave me the impression that he was repeating something which he had learned by heart or that, magnetized by some words of his own speech, his mind was slowly circling round and round in the same orbit.
“I say! Look what he’s doing!”
As I neither answered nor raised my eyes, Mahony exclaimed again:
“I say . . . He’s a queer old josser!”
(In his version of the real-life encounter, Joyce’s brother Stanislaus calls the man a ‘juggins’ (a simple-minded or gullible person, a simpleton; the equivalent American term might be ‘doofus). Many years ago an English professor told me that ‘josser’ was once a slang term for God, which raises not a few questions. It’s a claim I’ve never been able to verify but am happy to pass on for your consideration. If the episode offers any epiphany, or sudden spiritual illumination, it is a particularly downbeat one.)
Fourteen other short stories make up Dubliners – the greatest of all short story collections, each exploring themes of loss, inertia, indecision and flight. They were published when the author was still in his early twenties. You could read one a day for two weeks.
This story begins in medias res, as if, like Pegman on Google’s Street View, the reader is dragged and dropped into the narrative on a sizzling Japanese beach, “…and so my timing was thrown off. And so a space opened in my emotions.” These are the summers we all can’t quite remember – the summer of our burgeoning sexuality, of our changing bodies in our brand-new swimsuits, of our crushing crushes and fizzing desires, of being stung by jellyfish, burned by the sun and scorched by first love.
Yūko Tsushima (1947-2016) was the daughter of the extraordinary Japanese novelist Osamu Dazai (check out his No Longer Human in all its Japanese existential autobiographical angst). Her father had left the family home to live with his mistress and, just after Yūko’s first birthday, he and his lover had committed suicide by drowning themselves in the Tamagawa Aqueduct. There is a lot of water in Tsushima’s work, a lot of death, a lot of missing fathers, and her fiction concentrates on abandoned woman fighting their way in a misogynist society, a feminist viewpoint against a male-dominated society.
The story has similarities to Yukio Mishima’s ‘Death in Midsummer’, which also concerns sunburns, sandcastles, the sea, death, fathers and also has a character called Keiko. Tsushima’s work is sparse and incandescent, dreamlike while dealing with real problems. For further reading, go to Territory of Light and Child of Fortune, both Penguin Modern Classics. Another of her summer stories I could have chosen – ‘The Watery Realm’ – is in the pocket-sized Penguin Modern series along with ‘Of Dogs and Walls’.
There is more than one summer-themed story in Chris Power’s sparkling debut collection. I could just have easily picked ‘Innsbruck’, the second of the three linked stories about a woman called Eva that give the book not just its spine but also its central nervous system – but I’ve gone for ‘The Colossus of Rhodes’. Power splits the story between a recent family holiday (his unnamed narrator is married, with two young children) and a long-distant one, when he was ten years old. There are delicately sketched pen-portraits of the various family members, and a couple of luminous ‘spots-of-time’ moments that suck the story into them like a whirlpool*, but what I really love is the elegant way it unpacks itself at the end, making this the perfect story for our autofictional times. It doesn’t matter how closely Power’s ‘real’ life and experiences might happen to align themselves with his narrator’s fictional ones; what matters is how deftly he teases away at that border, and the conundrum it poses, which is where we seem to be looking, most often and most closely, for our meaning in literature just now.
* One of these moments, serendipitously enough, makes direct reference to another story picked in this summer special. You’ll have to read it to find out which.
In Mothers, Faber, 2018. Chosen by Jonathan Gibbs. Read Jonathan’s Personal Anthology here
And, if you reach the beach, walk back across it like everything is fine, toward your family who would not like to see the abyss you have just swum over.
A last line suggestive of a mother’s happy reconciliation with her family after a near-drowning undermines our wilful happily-ever-after with its “if”. Undecided, the story throws the woman back into the sea, keeps her there, “moving arms and legs”, near-drowning, near-happily-ever-after. Not sure. How quickly summer holiday stories turn sinister, or how sea under sun dazzles, makes us giddy. But that’s not what I read here, in this lush story where “The tarmac is a warm body beneath my feet”. What I read is the domestic tyranny, the maternal drudgery that even a holiday, a French village, a strip of sea can’t shake. A woman steps into the sea so as to no longer see whether her partner is choosing to pay attention to their children or choosing to read a book. She swims the channel so as to no longer be able to see, to no longer have to know. It’s a brief act of maternal finitude and one that sheds an acerbic light on parenthood. “Shall I tell you what it is like to drown? It is very calm and quiet.” As in, it is calmer and quieter to drown than to mother?
In Vertigo, And Other Stories, 2016. Chosen by Olivia Heal
I suppose I associate Leesa Cross-Smith with summer because I discovered her in in July of 2014. (I know the date because it’s when I started my Twitter account, and I joined Twitter pretty much to stalk her, I liked her work that much.) I also feel there’s some sort of summery-ness about all her work, whether she’s writing about the season or not: it takes the form of a buoyant energy, a playfulness, a brightness. ‘Out of the Strong, Something Sweet’ is no exception: I read it as soon as it was announced on Twitter (the following paid off!), and I love it because it encapsulates so much about summer, coming of age, female friendship, boys, kissing, and a part of the world not far from where I grew up, without once going exactly where you think it’s going to go. This is the kind of story that lulls you into thinking you know how it’s all going to play out, and then ambushes you with fearless, magical, risk-taking writing that pulls that proverbial rug right out from beneath your feet. I won’t spoil the structural surprise, but my heart thrilled once I reached the first set of three asterisks and watched the piece bloom, stretch and shimmer.
I can’t mention this piece without also noting Jazzmyn Coker’s accompanying artwork, which so perfectly frames this piece.
Published in Paper Darts, 2016) Chosen by Ingrid Jendrzejewski
Set in rural France during the 1950s, this story uses the classic device of terrorising the reader over the fate of a five-year-old child, who is encouraged to enter a locked holiday house via the titular skylight and open the window downstairs. The mother, frazzled from travelling on her own with her son, is nicely drawn. Students I have shared this with have been split over whether she is a victim of circumstance and the age she lives in, or a neurotic idiot who shouldn’t be in charge of a child. I tend towards the former, as a parent of young children who knows it’s not plain sailing. A brilliant piece of ordinary horror and the ending is one of surprise that leaves me reeling after many, many reads.
Collected in Saturday Lunch with The Brownings, 1977) Chosen by Andrew McDonnell