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