Dance Move, the second collection by the Belfast-based writer Wendy Erskine, comprises eleven short stories – little snapshots of life with all its minor dramas and incidents. While several other reviewers love this book, praising the stories for their humanity, authenticity and colour, sadly I found it somewhat uneven as a whole. On the positive side, there are five or six very solid stories here – memorable, highly relatable pieces that made a strong impression on me. These are the stories that I’ll focus on in my review, with a few brief notes on the less satisfying ones towards the end.
Erskine’s strongest pieces tend to feature ordinary, working-class people, stoically dealing with the small dramas and preoccupations of everyday life. In some instances, there is a strong sense of looking back to the past, of paths not taken or opportunities left unexplored. In others, a more dramatic event takes place – an incident of some sort that interrupts the status quo, frequently ushering in a change in the central character’s perspective or direction. The stories are mostly set in Belfast, and the gritty social landscape of the city comes through clearly without this feeling laboured or contrived. Erskine also uses humour very well, and several of the best pieces display a sharp sense of dry wit, especially in the dialogue.
In Mathematics, one of my favourites in the collection, a domestic cleaner named Roberta finds an abandoned girl in an empty rental property during her shift. When the girl’s mother fails to show, Roberta takes the child home with her rather than alerting the authorities – otherwise the child might be taken into care. As Roberta tries to help the girl with her homework, she is reminded of her own learning difficulties at school and the bewilderment this generated at the time.
Then they lifted her out to sit in the little room with the plant and box of tissues to speak to the woman in the cardigan who made her say numbers backwards, find words in a swirl of colour. Mistakes again, so they sent her to that other school with its buses, where she had to sit with a plastic bag on her lap because she was sick every journey. (p. 13)
The story ends with a shocking discovery, an emotional jolt that pulls Roberta (and the reader) up short, making it a memorable start to the collection – the kind of story where you wonder what the future holds for these individuals, especially the child.
In the poignant His Mother, Sonya scours the city, systematically removing any ‘missing persons’ posters of her son, Curtis, who has now been found dead. These images are tragic reminder of a life unlived, a sense of potential snuffed out.
In her bag, Sonya has a paint scraper, a cloth and a big bottle of soapy water. She has tried to work methodically, moving in succession along each of the radial routes coming out of the town. It’s been a laborious process. She looks for green electric boxes and lampposts, the black street bins, but it could just as easily be gable walls, or even corrugated iron, the shutters of shops that have been empty for six months or so. She looks for anywhere where she can still see her son. (p. 63)
What works so effectively here is the maelstrom of emotions Sonya experiences when she discovers a new ‘missing persons’ poster in place of her son’s. At first, Sonya is indignant that Curtis has been forgotten so quickly; however, this annoyance is soon replaced by a wave of sorrow – a heartfelt kinship for another traumatised mother, desperately hoping for a glimmer of light.
Memento Mori is another poignant story exploring the impact of bereavement, albeit from a different angle. While Tracey lies ill with cancer, a young girl is stabbed outside the house she shares with her partner, Gillian. As time passes, Gillian feels worn down by the constant stream of mourners leaving flowers and cuddly toys by the hedge, encroaching on her privacy as she tries to care for Tracey. Unsurprisingly, these feelings of resentment are heightened when Tracey passes away, prompting Gillian to lash out in a moment of anger. As in the other stories discussed above, Erskine gets right to the emotional heart of the scenario she is exploring here, which makes for a satisfying read.
In Bildungsroman, my favourite story in the collection, seventeen-year-old Lee makes a startling discovery while staying with his neighbour’s sister, Eileen, during a short work placement in Belfast. It’s a secret that connects Eileen and Lee for life – to say any more about the details of this shared understanding might spoil it for potential readers, so I’ll leave it there in terms of the plot. Nevertheless, this is an excellent story featuring highly relatable characters who find themselves in a surprising (but entirely believable!) situation. There’s also a great sting in the tail with this one, an ironic touch that’s very effectively done.
I also liked Cell, an intriguing story of a Belfast girl who falls under the spell of a pair of scammers while living in London. The story is told in flashback, ultimately revealing the double meaning of the title ‘Cell’ when the reader reaches the end.
Others pieces, such as Mrs Dallesandro and Gloria and Max, felt a little slight or underdeveloped for my tastes – I would have liked a little more fleshing out of the characters or a stronger hook in these sketches. Similarly, Golem – a story featuring a couple travelling to a family celebration – seemed diffuse and lacking in focus despite its longer length.
So, in summary, a rather mixed reading experience for me, but I’m definitely in the minority on this one. (Maybe I’m just not Erskine’s reader; sometimes it’s hard to tell…) For another, more positive perspective on this collection, you can find Cathy’s review here. Cathy is also co-hosting this month’s Reading Ireland event – more details at her website, 746 Books.
Dance Move is published by Macmillan; personal copy
I’m one of those readers who rhapsodised about this one last year. Reading your review, I’m amazed at how fresh Erskine’s stories still are in my mind. Short stories usually slip from my memory fairly swiftly!
I think I’ll remember Bildungsroman, Mathematics, His Mother and Memento Mori, but probably not the others!
You’ve picked two of my favourites as ours Jac
Sorry! Hit return too soon! I thought Mathematics and Bildungsroman were two of my favourites, and like Susan, it’s amazing how fresh they still are in my mind.
Yes, those two were the strongest for sure. In some ways, I think I’ve been spoiled by reading a lot of other excellent short-story writers from Ireland/Northern Ireland over the past couple of years, writers such as Lucy Caldwell, Claire Keegan, Kevin Barry, and of course William Trevor…All masters when it comes to short fiction, and that’s a very high bar for other writers to live up to!
Indeed. I just finished Walk the Blue Fields by Claire Keegan and she is up there with the best.
Ah, excellent! I got that collection for Christmas, so I’m glad to hear it delivered for you.
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Rather sad and dark, so probably not for me. I have become quite hypersensitive especially to ill treatment of children.
I think you can happily skip this one, Gert!
Interesting one, Jacqui. I’ve not read Erskine and although some of these sound intriguing, I wonder if they’re a little dark for me. But I’m glad some of them worked for you!
I wouldn’t recommend this one to you, Karen, especially as you don’t read a lot of this kind of contemporary fiction. Claire Keegan or Lucy Caldwell would be better options, should you ever want to give some recent Irish stories or novellas a try.
Sometimes that’s how it is with books and movies. For whatever reason, even when critically acclaimed, they just don’t speak to us. Ah, well. Onward, ho. In a comment, I noticed you mentioned Lucy Caldwell, whom I’ve never heard of. I’ll be looking her up.
Yes, indeed. Life would be very boring if we all liked the same things or had similar responses to everything. Lucy Caldwell is an excellent writer. From what I know of your tastes, Laurie, I would recommend her latest novel, These Days, which is set in the Belfast Blitz during WW2. I wrote about it here:
Or if you’d prefer short stories, her collection, Intimacies is great. Most of the pieces are about motherhood, looking at it from different angles.
Thanks, I clicked on the various links in your piece and ended reading your review of Invitation to the Waltz, which I requested through our interlibrary loan system. Unfortunately, Lucy Caldwell’s books are not available in our system.
Oh, cool! Those Rosamond Lehmann novels are excellent, and I really hope you enjoy Waltz. The sequel, The Weather in the Streets, is quite a bit darker than Waltz but just as good. A quietly devastating book.
I love Lucy Caldwell, so I was thinking of picking this one up – but you say the stories are darker?
Not necessarily darker, just different. They’re two different writers, and that’s reflected in their styles. I preferred Caldwell’s stories (e.g. the pieces in her collection Intimacies), but Erskine uses humour very well!
I am always so interested to hear different perspectives. I am some individuals’ fave writer, the best short story writer out there. Others think I am awful. I am just very grateful when people try to engage in good faith with what I do, whatever the final judgment. Thank you Jacqui!
Oh, Wendy, this is so very generous of you, and I’m sorry I didn’t quite gel with all of the stories here. Readers’ responses often vary depending on their mood, life experiences and expectations etc, but I’m definitely something of an outlier on this one. Bildungsroman and Mathematics are excellent stories, with Memento Mori and His Mother nipping at their heels. I’m sure I’ll remember these pieces for quite a while!
Jacqui, I’m just pleased you read them! Thank you. In truth, I don’t really conflate people’s personal preferences in terms of stories in my collections with anything too definitive in terms of good or less good or whatever. That would be daft of me. It’s just the nature of a collection of anything! BUT one of the things I find really interesting in terms of collections is the way that we do often kinda rank order the stories. I do this. And yet i buy into the idea of many collections operating as gestalts, which is in some ways pretty incompatible with that approach. Jonathan Gibbs has written in a very illuminating way on this subject. Ok, it’s Saturday night. I’ll shut up! Thanks again!
That’s a really interesting point about gestalts, and I’ll definitely take a look at Jonathan’s blog to see what he’s written about this. I love his criticism in general, partly because he thinks deeply about these things (both creatively and analytically, if that makes sense) – and naturally his knowledge of the art of story construction is much more extensive than my own!
Thanks again, Wendy, for engaging so generously about your work. I’m very much enjoying our chat!
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Absolutely love the expression “altering the authorities” because it seems to me, recently reading Lacan, perhaps that is what needs doing and not just alerting them!!
Oh, that’s a typo! Many thanks for mentioning it. The phrase should read ‘altering the authorities’ (now corrected), although I like your idea of altering them – we definitely need a lot more of that in the future!
His Mother sounds absolutely devastating. Such a simple premise but so powerful.
Yes, that’s it exactly. The ending is excellent as it taps into the mother’s conflicted emotions. As you say, very powerful and emotionally truthful. A story with staying power, I think.
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These stories do sound good, that theme of the road not taken is always one that resonates. I don’t know anything about Wendy Erskine, but seen this reviewed before, one for me to look out for.
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