Book review: A Kind of Compass — Stories on Distance

IT is good to see an anthology of short stories from a new Dublin-based publisher, and even better to discover that the anthology is not confined to Irish writers, nor does it claim to be the “best of” anything.

Edited by Belinda McKeon

Tramp Press, €15

It is a themed collection, with 17 contemporary writers selected by the editor, Belinda McKeon, writing on the theme of distance.

The authors are from Ireland, England, Italy, France, Iceland, Australia, Nigeria, the Philippines, Iran, Japan and the United States. 

McKeon has published two well-received novels and several short stories, and worked as an arts journalist in Dublin before moving to New York where she now lives. 

She also teaches creative writing at university level, as do about half of the writers. The chosen Irish writers are Elske Rahill, Kevin Barry, Sara Baume, David Hayden and Éilís Ní Dhuibhne.

An anthology needs a theme to give it focus, but it also needs a theme that does not impose too many constrictions on its contributors, and distance fits the bill perfectly.

It is also an obsession of the expatriate editor, for whom ‘distance’ has come to be synonymous with exile. She also quotes the concept of ‘a faraway deep inside’ as being at the core of the short story form. 

The expression was gleaned from Rebecca Solnit’s seminal essay collection, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, as was the collection’s title, A Kind of Compass.

The anthology is also to be praised for its generously inclusive definition of a short story. 

McKeon’s introduction quotes Richard Ford’s description of short stories as ‘daring little instruments’, but takes this idea a step further.

To her mind, readers looking for good stories ‘want to take a plunge, make a wrong turn, find themselves lost and feel their hearts thumping as they scrabble around for a field guide’. 

Size is not an issue, with stories ranging from less then two pages to around 30. Humour, fantasy, historical fiction and sci-fi are all represented, and the standard is consistently high.

With the exception of the young British writer, Ross Raisin, whose novels have been widely short-listed for awards, I have to confess that all the non-Irish writers were new to me. 

Like McKeon, I enjoy stories that are disorienting and unpredictable, stories that take you to places you did not particularly want to go. I like stories that are long and challenging, in which the writer takes risks, and stories with a strong voice. 

Most importantly of all, I agree with William Trevor, who insists that whatever else, a story must have ‘a point’, a clearly identifiable reason for having taken up your reading time.

Of the 17 stories, five I found exceptionally strong. Both Gina Apostol and Suzanne Scanlon have written long, complex stories, in which communication is fractured, each of which seems to contain an integral critique of its own method and content.

The Unintended by Apostol, a New York-based writer who grew up in the Philippines, is an intricate story about story telling and memory that is cinematic in theme and structure. 

Scanlon, a Chicago-based novelist’s contribution, The Rape Essay (or Multilated Pages), is a riveting, illuminating and humorous story, about sexual harassment in academia.

Six Days in Glorious Vienna by Yoko Ogawa, a leading Japanese writer, is an apparently small, well-behaved story that packs a huge punch, while New Zealand Flax by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne is a hauntingly beautiful account of the distance created by bereavement.

Finally, Big Island, Small Island by Francesca Marciano, an Italian who writes fiction in English, about a woman visiting a former boyfriend who has gone native on an African island, is a compelling page-turner that perfectly encapsulates the collection’s themes of distance and direction.

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