Belfast Stories, edited by Paul McVeigh & Lisa Frank

Review by Laura Marriott, 27 August 2019

In Donegall Square, in the centre of Belfast, Lisa is working in the Welcome Centre. Tourists flock in searching for Game of Thrones sites and she spends her days dolling out information about the city and giving tours to VIPs. In a job that involves greeting visitors to the city there is a great symmetry in starting the collection at the Welcome Centre; the reader stepping inside the collection as tourists step inside the centre to ask what kind of city is this? One of the Centre’s regulars always asks if there are going to be any parades. Eventually he asks why there will not be. ‘Progress.’ Lisa is not sure if she was correct in saying this and his response is similarly ambiguous. It is with this that Belfast Stories delves into the beating heart of modern Belfast.

Belfast Stories is the new short story collection from small publisher Doire Press that has made a name for itself by focusing on new and emerging writers. The idea of Ireland and what it means to be Irish is never far away from its collections. This volume was funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (how good is it to hear of a short story collection receiving arts funding. If only it could happen more often) which helps to highlight how we are experiencing a resurgence of the short story in the artistic boom coming from the island of Ireland. The collection is divided by region. These stories take the reader from Belfast city centre, to the Waterfront, Cathedral Quarter, The Shankill, The Falls and further afield. Maps at the back of the book allow the reader to follow the stories around the city which is a great touch and elevates this collection into a story in and of itself.

As a long-standing fan of Jan Carson I was pleased to find her in these pages and really enjoyed her story of a mum Linda trying to hold onto to the memories and magic of her childhood in Filters. However times have changed and her two children prefer video games to Narnia. As she fights to hang onto something, to connect her childhood with theirs, she becomes embattled, frazzled, instantly recognisable.

Lucy Caldwell also reflects on how things have changed in the absorbing Here We Are; a story of a summer of young love in East Belfast. Two school girls fall for each other and their courtship happens in secret, until the summer frees them to spend time together as they please. The description is beautiful and evocative: “every day the heavens open, and the rain comes down; not the usual summer showers with their skittish, shivering drops but heavy, dull, persistent rain; true dreich days”. The warmth of their evolving relationship pours off the pages and into the readers hands. The mention of a marriage equality march at the end shows how different, and also how much the same, Northern Ireland still is.

The Strong Silent Type is sad, beautiful and unusual. It would spoil it to give too much away but it was an unique take on the invasion of American style proms to our secondary schools and with them the pressure to find a partner and wait to be ‘picked’ (and with it the weight of expectation and judgement on whether one is attractive enough in the ‘right way’). Our heroine subverts this with wit and bravery, and like most heroines, she suffers for it. This is an incisive, witty insight into male / female teen relationships.

‘Welcome to Northern Ireland, they all said. Welcome to Ulster. Welcome to Belfast.’ When Ian Sansom’s Englishman marries into an Ulster Protestant family he finds out quickly that as far as they are concerned their identity is set in stone and it is up to him to get up to speed. The most striking thing is how his new family feel the need to reassess and reassert their identity in a way in which the unnamed English man does not. ‘It’s our culture too, you see. The language, everything. We have as much right to it as them.’ The humour is harsh and spiky, the dialogue in thick Belfast dialect, yet still recognisable to anyone who has ever lived through an awkward family event. This story is ambitious and fascinating and worthy of a full review of its own, as it skewers class and identity with ease.

Jamie Guiney’s Climb into the Sky is a tender and delicately painful depiction of a gravedigger helping the dead on their way. He remains nameless, as indeed he does to the hundreds of mourners who pass through the gates. Even though he doesn’t know the dead he still tends to them and leaves them something to take on their way. The steady pace and repeating pattern of the gravedigger’s day has something sad, yet necessary to it. The final image is a deeply sad one that will linger in the readers mind. This was perhaps one of the most memorable stories in the collection. In contrast to this Linda Anderson’s Stone is told from the first person. Frieda has set up her own tombstone engraving business. When her brother contacts her out of the blue, she has to face their years of estrangement and his oncoming death. Has enough time passed for hope to blossom?

Belfast Stories makes a point of integrating as many different voices as possible into its pages. All sides of life are captured in the one volume. This is one of its main strengths as life behind the headlines is portrayed in all of its messy glory. Perhaps because I am of the generation that grew up after the worst of the Troubles had passed, the name ‘Belfast’ does not instantly invoke just darkness and pain and in a way it is a shame that new stories, new voices, new writers, are and probably always will be, referenced in relation to the dark days. For those who think of Belfast as the city of bullets and bombs, Belfast Stories will be an excellent antidote. This collection deserves its place on any bookshelf and has something to capture the attention of almost anyone.

Laura Marriott is a historian, theatre critic, writer and poet. Find her at lauramarriottwriting.wordpress.com

Belfast Stories Ed. Paul McVeigh & Lisa Frank (Doire Press, 2019). 978-1907682698, 260pp., paperback.

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