Wendy Erskine’s two volumes of stories are both equally brilliant. I was tempted to include the superb ‘Inakeen’ from her debut collection Sweet Home, but finally chose the longest story from her second collection, Dance Move. ‘Cell’ tells the story of an impressionable and naïve young Belfast woman, Caro, who after graduating from UCL, comes under the controlling influence of a radical and cultish, left-wing group. Her circumstances appear to be close to modern slavery as she is isolated from the outside world, conditioned into accepting her subservient role as general dogsbody to domineering Bridget and Luis. The only other resident left in the house—others have long gone and established new lives, and original group leader Bill was killed in a road traffic accident—is the older and infirm Maurice, a principled and diffident intellectual, who was once Bill’s partner and is now too weak to leave his bedroom. Aside from the richness and vitality of the characters and the narrative—Wendy Erskine’s stories are full to bursting with life in all its various shades—what impresses most about this story is the deft handling of time. How it sways back and forth between the present and the past so effortlessly. What transpires is shocking and appalling and heart-rending, made more so by the ingenious way the intricate narrative is revealed, gradually and naturally, to the reader.
Collected in Dance Move, The Stinging Fly Press 2022, Picador 2022
Wendy Erskine is like Vermeer, I think. In the same way that supposedly ordinary people and places are illuminated by Vermeer in a way that is technically flawless, but also imbued with something extra that can’t be extracted from the whole, or seen or replicated. I do think it is genius really, in the both of them.
There is a moment in this story where Erskine makes a plant come to life. It suddenly bursts into bloom. It astonishes and delights a youth in a recreation room. It’s on the television, of course. In time-lapse. Ritchie, the character reporting this event is not moved by the miracle. Regarding the boy, he feels pity. “I thought you poor bastard. You stupid bastard.”
The moment is about five lines long, and part of a genuinely beautiful story about a woman letting go of her comforting routines. I am highlighting it because Erskine doesn’t generally veer from the real and solid world, but always finds a place for some magical intervention to enter the space when required. The plant blooming is something we have all seen, but it is also honestly miraculous. The sweet pain of seeing it through the cynical eye of the narrator is sharpened to the point it makes you catch your breath. You stupid bastard. But you’re not stupid, you’re miraculous really.
First published by Tangerine Press, 2021. Collected in Dance Move, Picador/Stinging Fly, Feb 2022
Wendy Erskine talks about meeting people in Belfast who insist they knew the real man she’s writing about, or his mother, or his music. Maybe’s it’s the comforting familiarity of the mode of writing, or the delicate precision of the detail; or maybe it’s just her profoundly humane imagination, and her love of the that particular side of Belfast, one that’s never been written about enough. Until Erskine came along, that is; and now, I doubt it’ll ever be written about better.
Published in the collection Sweet Home, Stinging Fly, 2018/Picador, 2019. Available online here
Erskine’s protagonist is used to clearing up after other people. One day in the course of her work as a cleaner she finds a young girl alone in a house after a party. Deciding she has no choice, she takes the child home, hoping to locate her mother. But as the story progresses we come to suspect the mess she’s attempting to fix was made long ago, somewhere else entirely. I wondered if Dance Move, the soon-to-be-published collection which this story opens, could possibly surpass Erskine’s debut Sweet Home. It does: by the end of ‘Mathematics’ my eyes were wet. Like all twelve of my choices it made me feel, as Shirley Hazzard writes in one of her several perfect stories, “a momentary sensation that the world had come right; that some instant of perfect harmony had been achieved by two minds meeting.”
First published in Dance Move, Picador, 2022
The voices! The exacting details! The unsettling vacancy of modern life!
Collected in Sweet Home, The Stinging Fly Press, 2018 and Picador, 2019
In ‘To All Their Dues’, Mo has opened her own beauty treatment room, precariously starting out and trying to make ends meet, before finding out there’s a hidden cost she hasn’t bargained for. A wonderful starting point, but the story becomes so much deeper, as Mo runs through in her memory the previous version of herself she is striking out to escape from: working in a call centre giving “mystical advice” in sometimes heart-breaking circumstances, only one step away from answering the sex lines. And the same goes for the next characters we encounter. Everyone in the story is trying to run away from what haunts them, no matter how weirdly violent or utterly straightforward they seem. I loved that.
First published in Sweet Home, Stinging Fly, 2018/Picador, 2019 and available online here
Wendy Erskine’s humane and wonderfully funny stories are set in Belfast, a city of church-run coffee shops, DIY superstores, hairdressing salons and community centres. Her characters are ordinary people doing their best to cope under pressure, but bizarre and fantastical things are never too far away. This particular story focuses on teenager Cath and her friend Lauren. The girls meet regularly in a café called ChipShop. On the day the story begins, they’re in there with a crowd of boys who are “occupied with downloading porn ringtones to their phones” and then ringing each other “so that they could hear the elaborate crescendo of female gasping”. Lauren’s mum, Kim Cassells, is beautiful, bad tempered and exhaustingly sexy. Kim Cassells goes on adults-only holidays and has lots of boyfriends. Lauren confesses to Cath that the current boyfriend Stuart is only twenty-six and has kissed her in passing on the stairs. Cath’s knowledge of guys is “pretty theoretical” but here is a real live sexual drama playing out right under her nose. She starts dropping in to see Lauren on various pretexts and finding reasons to stay overnight, sleeping on the floor of Lauren’s room. She regards Kim Cassells with a mixture of horror and fascination, and she can hardly take her eyes off Stuart. The claustrophobia of small houses where you can hear people getting up to go to the toilet yards away from you is beautifully evoked. The story captures the intensity and the boredom of teen years in a small town.
First published in Sweet Home, Stinging Fly, 2018, Picador, 2019
This collection blew me away by how observation of the parochial can be so simply amplified into a bigger picture, resonating with the world as it is. This story, of loneliness, imagination and the power of the other to fascinate us, is funny sad, and being written in a minor key allows us to expand on it, bringing our imagination to bear on hers…
In Sweet Home, Stinging Fly, 2018/Picador, 2019