Shiny Prize Season – Falling Animals by Sheila Armstrong – The Ondaatje Prize shortlist

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Review by Annabel

2024 marks the twentieth anniversary of the ‘Ondaatje Prize’, awarded by the Royal Society of Literature for a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry, evoking the spirit of a place. The winner of the E10,000 prize will be announced in mid-May.

In case you’re wondering, it does have an indirect link to author Michael Ondaatje as the prize is sponsored by his older brother Christopher. The Sri Lankan-born Canadian-English businessman represented Canada at the 1964 Olympics in its 4-man bobsleigh team and was a very successful stockbroker before moving into publishing and philanthropy.

I can instantly say that Sheila Armstrong’s first novel fills the Ondaatje criteria with a strong sense of place. It is set in a fictional seaside village in the north-west of Ireland, popular with tourists during the season, which is just kicking in now it is early summer.

We begin with a scene-setting chapter entitled ‘the collector’; it’s early in the morning and we are following Frank and his van, sent to remove the body of a seal that had washed up on the beach after a storm. Armstrong gives us a lovely description of the panorama, with the masts of a wreck poking through the waves. Meanwhile, Franks gets on with his job, checking for leakage(!), winching the carcass onto a tarpaulin and into the van. We leave Frank as he tries to drive off the beach, struggling to grip the sand with the extra weight of the seal working against him.

Frank’s difficulties are seen by Oona, ‘the witness’ in chapter two. She is walking on the beach, waving to the coastguard in their helicopter, watching her grandson swim, when she disturbs some gulls and finds a body.

It is sitting propped up against a sand dune with its hands folded and bare feet crossed, perfectly serene, and she wonders at the neatness, that the sea spat it out so delicately.

The man has been dead for a good while, and she pops the wedding ring that had fallen off the stump of his finger into his pocket. The Gardaì arrives and statements given, she’s off to the pub, where she’ll tell her story all evening, ‘not a local’ they all reckon.

And so the story is passed on to Teresa, the pathologist.

The puzzle has sparked a small throb of pleasure in her stomach, a revving of her brain. Her eyes flicker around the scene, gathering up little pieces of the sky, sea, sand, details that will tell her a story, a story about the dead man sitting so serenely on the beach.

In turn, the story is handed on to each person who had an encounter with the dead man, be it ever so peripheral, from the son who got out for a cycle ride after caring for his mother in a wheelchair all day and bumped into him, to the bus driver who brought him there, to the wanderer who picked up his discarded purple rucksack, to the garda investigating the case. Armstrong gives us portraits of each, their lives, their hopes, their fears alongside their meeting with the man.

Then the narrative changes tack for a while. We continue in the same vein, but are now following the wreck, and the disaster that led to the ship’s abandonment some years ago. The shipping company trying for ages to claim on their insurance (until someone set fire to it), for what we will hear was an unseaworthy vessel, under-crewed, with an incompetent drunk in charge on the bridge. We meet crew that survived, the ship’s cook who stayed in Ireland, the diver who surveyed the wreck, and so on. Is there a link between the wreck and the man who died?

Armstrong brings the story to a close with a poignant chapter entitled ‘the dead’. A year after the dead man was found a monument to those who’ve lost their lives at or by the sea, with a plaque giving their names is unveiled with a ceremony which brings the whole village together and gives a voice to those who perished. Sad it may be, but it is also a positive act and allows all involved to move on.

This is a beautifully observed novel. It could be regarded as more of a story cycle, given the many narrators – but they are linked so closely and the story advances cleverly from one to the next, so it holds together as a novel too. Armstrong’s language about the sea is wonderful and impressionistic, poetic even; her backstories for all the narrators ring so true but don’t give into hyperbole. It may be low-key for the most part, but there is an intensity to her prose that gives balance and an overriding need to carry on reading.

Falling Animals was yet another Irish discovery for me and I highly recommend it.

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Annabel is a co-founder and editor of Shiny, and would love to visit Ireland again soon.

Sheila Armstrong, Falling Animals (Bloomsbury, 2023). 978-1526635853, 229 pp., hardback.

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