Sharp insight into strangeness of life

SET in locations including coastal Ireland, Fleet Street pubs and big spooky houses,
Alannah Hopkin’s collection of her best stories from the past 30 years, is entertaining and colourful with its cast of eccentrics and aspiring writers.

The Dogs of Inishere
Alannah Hopkin
Dalkey Archive, €15

However, the title story, outlining a tentative romance, lacks well-drawn characters.

Instead, it evokes island life on the smallest of the Aran Islands where the inhabitants are “great dog lovers”.

There is something mildly sinister about the predatory dogs that form a pack, preying on a Spaniel bitch.

The next story, ‘Ripe’, set mainly in Soho, couldn’t be more different with its urban detail including the alienating sound of a pneumatic drill that assails the hung-over
narrator who is woken in her flat by street noises on a Saturday morning.

An aspiring writer, who works in PR and drinks and socialises during the week, experiences “the first surge of weekend depression”.

Weekends are meant to be for writing but the lure of wine in the fridge is too strong and the loneliness is too acute.

When the narrator makes a Sunday pilgrimage to the grave of her literary hero (her only hero), Malcolm Lowry, she is enervated and inspired.

However, you can’t help wondering whether she is more wrapped up in the romantic notion of being a writer than
capable of knuckling down to the hard grind of working with words.

Whatever talent Fleet Street gossip writer and noteworthy poet, Dan O’Neill, once possessed, has disappeared.

He is that great cliché, the alcoholic hack that could have been a contender in the writing stakes.

In ‘Twentyquidsworth,’ the narrator, Ashling, herself a writer and former lover of Dan, recounts an erotic encounter (or possible hallucination) with him, in a big old house near the Irish sea that has a reputation of being haunted.

It’s an unsettling story, full of atmosphere and yearning.

A big dusty ancient house is the setting for ‘Star Quality,’ a truly strange story that sees an up-and-coming arts journalist, Izzy Maclaren, calling to the rural Irish home of a former film star who played the dying aesthete, Roderick Usher, in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’.

Izzy appears to take the actor, Kurt Karlsson, by surprise.

He mixed up the date of the interview. However, this charming man, who, when in full makeup, has cheekbones “highlighted until they stood out like flying buttresses” is not at all forgetful, as it transpires.

He shows a cruel controlling side to his personality that could be devastating for Izzy.

In ‘An Explanation of the Tides’, a bunch of pub regulars in a quiet seaside town, are witness to the disappointments of love.

Narrated by Thomas, a self-described idle man who is a day-time drinker running up a hefty tab at the bar, this is a story where not an awful lot happens.

However, every little incident, or overheard intriguing comment, assumes gargantuan proportions.

Naturally, a budding love affair, conducted in the pub, is of particular interest when it is thwarted.

The final instalment in this collection of 11 stories turns into an interrogation of what actually constitutes a story.

Hopkin, referencing BS Johnson, a little known writer who killed himself in 1973, toys with notions such as facts, truths, lies and autobiography.

She relates two versions of a story involving a relationship with a difficult man.

She comes clean with the fictional bits of the story.

However, they’re only minor details.

What matters is the truth of the story, if it rings true.

Whether a writer mines his/ her life for material or takes an imaginative leap creating fictional characters and scenarios, is irrelevant as far as the reader is concerned.

What counts is the desire to inhabit the lives being written about.

Hopkin, for the most part, writes insightfully and engagingly and, no doubt, draws on her own life.

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