Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Friday, March 25, 2022

The Scattering -A Collection of Short Stories by Jaki McCarrick - A Post in Observation of Irish Short Story Month

The Scattering - A Collection of Short Stories by Jaki McCarrick (2013, 235 pages)

March 1 to March 31

Jaki McCarrick

Posting on a collection of short stories presents more of a challenge, to me at least, than posting on a novel.    For me I find the best way to write about a collection of short stories, both in terms of assisting  possible readers or buyers of the collection and respecting the writer, is by  posting in some detail on a representative number of the stories and then make some general observations on the collection and offer my thoughts to prospective readers.

  For those in a hurry, I will say The Scattering - A Collection of Short Stories by Jaki McCarrick is an amazing body of work, withing shimmering and incredibly entertaining stories that go deep into the heart of many of the issues facing contemporary Ireland.  This book deserves tremendous success and a very wide readership.  It both confirms and rises above the common elements of the Irish short story I have spoken about this month;; the weak or missing father, the presence of the stage Irishmen, the uneasiness of the relationships of men and women,  the heavy reliance on alcohol, the temptation toward arrogance as a way of dealing with the humiliating consequences of colonialism, the obsession with death, and the false rebellions of posers of all sorts.  

"By The Black Field"

"There were times when Angel thought that the land
communicated with him. He knew that this was irrational, and
probably due to overwork, and to the fact that he had not yet lost
his city-born infatuation with green fields (and also, possibly,
because he’d spent his childhood summers in this place and had
fond and lively memories of it). He imagined that after a few
more years on the farm he’d be as hard nosed towards the land
as every other farmer he knew. Still, he could not dispel the sense
he had that wherever he went on his six acres he was not alone."

"By The Black Field", the lead story, gets this collection of to a marvelous start.  It is set on a six acre farm in Ireland, up near the border with Northern Ireland.  Angel not to long ago inherited the farm and he and his wife not to long ago moved back there from London. Angel loves working the farm but he misses the excitement of London and his wife misses it more than he does.    As the story opens he is building a fence on some wet land and he is thinking maybe he should have built a stone wall.  He and his wife live in an old cottage but all their neighbors live in modern houses.  This is a story, in an oblique way of how a returning exile feels a deeper connection with Ireland than those who never left.  (You can see this some of the better short stories of George Moore also.)  Like any short story  master McCarrick gets us interested in the people in the story (there is something different about them and I loved how this was slipped into the story so subtly), we learn a bit about their life history, a sort of conflict with a neighbor the man does not like, she reminds him of the things he does not like about London, then something big happens. We are left with a mystery as to exactly what did occur but that just makes the story all the better.  "By The Black Field" is a wonderful story, it also give you a kind of feel for what can be the darker side of Ireland, never far from the surface.  Death has been my constant companion this month as I read Irish Short Stories and he is with me today.  I do not mind him so much as I once did.  

"The Badminton Court"

"She says little at breakfast. The evening before she had been
on fire. Rapid, erratic thoughts, unfinished sentences, sentences
that unravelled, ending in lacunae, gibberish. She had been
rude, her inhibitors obstructed by that thing, growing,
multiplying inside her. Tumour talk, Frances calls it."

"The Badminton Court" is a very moving story about a debt repaid through service to seventeen year old Miranda, dying of a brain tumor. It is a story of the memories of twenty two years ago when the narrator never dreamed these would be her happiest times.  Her father is rich and always away on business trips an her mother is simply gone and no one ever speaks of her.  There are two people taking care of Miranda.  One is Francis, a household servant of long standing and the other is the daughter of a man who was in debt to Miranda's father for some dubious business deals and somehow the debt is being paid by his adult daughter being Miranda's final companion.  This is a tale which can only end one way or another in death.  It is also about how happiness comes often from small seized moments of joy as shown in these wonderful lines spoken twenty years after an amazing act of kindness and cruelty is committed.  We never quite know why but that works perfectly.

"Once he asked if I was happy. Before I had the chance to
reply, he said his own life had been good and prosperous, but
hardly happy. Mine was the same, I said. What is happiness? he
asked, as if I knew any better than he. I pondered on this. For
me, I said, happiness is two girls playing badminton under an
azure sky with clouds that are bird-shaped. Those summers
were best, he replied, when I used to watch you play. It occurred
to me then, that for nearly a quarter of a century we had both
been sustained by a few intoxicating memories squirrelled from
our youth. I told him it was high time we lived a little. He agreed
and told me then of his plans to flatten the court."

"The Scattering" 

"Further along the beach he saw a car parked above the dunes.
A woman was standing by the edge of the dunes looking at the
sea. She was holding a blue plastic bag tensely against her
cream coat. He thought of turning back as he was now alone
on this stretch and did not want to alarm the woman, who had
begun her descent to the beach. Suddenly a dog came
bounding towards him. He had seen the exuberant three-legged
collie on the beach many times, always alone, absurdly oblivious
to its missing limb."

"The Scattering", the title story of the collection, like the two prior stories I have posted on have death at its core.  The "plot action", not a phrase I am crazy for, is fairly simple. A man has died and following his wishes his ashes have been scattered in the ocean.  A quick look at images of the Ireland seacoast in Google will reveal lots of dramatic sea shore cliffs that would make an excellent venue from which to scatter ashes in the water.  I suspect this is what often leads to the request.  Maybe it also the fulfillment of a wish while living, to throw oneself in the water.  It is the story of contrasts of two scatterings, one with a large respectable number of people and one with just a woman with a blue plastic jug and a three legged dog for her company.  There is a great deal in this work and I hope you will be able to read it for yourself.  

"The Burning Woman"

"Despite his name, Quigley claimed
no Irish heritage, and John’s Irishness was meaningless to him
as he had left Limerick at fourteen and had never returned. To
find as neighbours two young Irish ‘artists’, was, John told me
later, an enormous relief to him. We gave him hope, he said, that
a gay man with no interest in hurling, in Leinster vs Munster, or
the Irish language, might be able to go home one day without
fear of being strung up. On the basis of our mutual disregard for
any particular nationalism, we four formed a strong friendship,
avoiding Irish haunts in London like the plague despite his name."

I really liked this story.  It begins with an invitation to a funeral.   Sometimes people say they going to someone's funeral means you won and they lost.   The deceased is an artist, from Ireland who moved to London in a time when he had no way to make a living in Ireland.  He made it big time as a painter, living out the dream of the crazy artist, his description makes it seem he looked a bit like Aleister Crowley.  There is just so much to like in this story.  In the figure of the man, who they have not seen or heard from in decades, John, we have the crusty embittered writer raging at the world for its failure to see his genius.  We also have occult elements, pentagrams, paintings of burning women and such.  I do not have a way to talk about what happens in this story without trivializing it so I won't.  It is about exile, about wanting to forget your are Irish, about why Jack Kerouac still matters, about what London means to the Irish, about failure of nerve.  In this  story I came to see the full power of McCarrick, it is deeper, danker and darker than the first three works I spoke about. 


"What are you researching, Lara?’ he asked.
‘Oh. Settlers to this area in the fifteenth century.’
‘From Britain?’
‘No,’ Lara replied, scanning the huge ivory pages. As she did
not elaborate, and as he was afraid to enquire further, Fred
turned to his wastepaper basket and began to sharpen his
pencils. The room seemed to fill with small, intrusive noises:
the trembling chalky sound of the ivory pages being turned, the
pencil shavings hitting the screwed-up balls of paper like rain,
the swish of Lara’s dress each time she moved, her assured slow

Like "The Burning Woman", "Blood is in part about an Irish writer.   I have come to see this as kind of a license for eccentric behavior sometimes accompanied by the arrogance mentioned above, almost as if it were on loan from W. B. Yeats and James Joyce to name but a few exemplars.  

One of the characteristics of a society in which the old certainties are dying is a preoccupation with non-standard accounts of history,  occult systems.   One saw this in Ireland when for a time leading figures flirted with the theories of the Order of the Golden Dawn, the Waite Tarot and such.  Knowledge of arcane systems brought with it a feeling of superiority a smugness made all the more annoying as it was parasitic upon the backs, the blood of others for whom they claimed to speak but for whom they had contempt.  There are two on stage characters in "Blood" a simply marvelous, very smart, very funny story that helps explain why vampires are central to Irish culture and why they always seem to be so elitist acting (Carmilla this means you.)  We have Fred, he is a 30 year old who has never done anything but go to school.  His aunt is a world famous researcher into middle Eastern culture  and is often away at international conferences.  She has an incontinent cat and in exchange for taking care of the cat, he gets to live in her mansion.   The mansion contains a library of rare books and manuscripts and Lara has a letter authorizing her to use the library.  She is also female, something Fred has had no personal knowledge of for six years and sees as way to complicated a topic.   He will stick with academia.   Besides the cat, they are the only ones in the mansion so of course they talk.   I want you to read this story (and the whole collection) without it being spoiled for you.   I will just say it is flat out hilarious and you will marvel at the close.  

"Trumpet City"

"There was a danger to what he could smell in the
music, and he liked that. He liked that a lot."

I have recently started reading, after hearing it was chosen as the One City One Book selection for April James Plunket's classic novel set in Ireland in 1913, Strumpet City and I am betting this title is a play on that account of the mean streets of old Dublin.

The crazy musician seeing more in the world than the mundane people of the world do is a standard character in lots if novels and short stories.   This story does a great job with that idea.   The trumpet player dreams of playing in New York City or New Orleans, the holy cities for jazz music.  I believed in his love of music.  The story is also about the changing times in Ireland, the hard times where it is not easy for an aging musician to make a living.   A very good story.   

"The Hemingway  Papers"

"She felt it would be
like reminding him of his enormous failure as a father. That
he’d neither seen to the removal of their furniture from London
to Ireland – nor to the transportation of his own things, that
he’d hung back in London while her mother had reared her and
her siblings alone and that he’d only holed up with them years
later when he’d run out of money. That was the truth of it and
Clare knew that somewhere inside her father, he knew it. But
there was no point in going through all of that again. They had
rowed about it for too many years – about his drinking"

"The Hemingway Papers" is a very good story and almost a text book illustration of the extreme importance of the weak or missing father to Irish literature.  It also is about a man who hid behind drinking and his ability to be a good friend to other men, if not a good husband or father.  Story telling, whether real stories or made up lies also is a big factor in the Irish short story.  Another one is the complications involved in the relationships of adult children to their parents.  In this story the father is in a hospital ward.  For thirty years now he has been claiming he had an extensive correspondence with Ernest Hemingway.  He  had sent Hemingway a number of short stories to read and he had told the father to submit them to his publisher and he will try to help him.  Of course the man never followed up on it and he always told the family he left the letters and stories in a box in an apartment he illegally sublet to somebody when he lived in London.   The daughter somehow tracks down the man who now has the box and she brings it back (spoiler alert) and yes the father was actually telling the truth all those years.  The big story of his life was true. The ending is very suspenseful and I will let you have the pleasure of reading it yourself.

I totally endorse this very Irish collection of short stories with themes that are universal and people that those far from Ireland can see as totally real.

There are eleven  other marvelous stories in this collection, each one a delight to read.   

I want to share the description of the book from Seren Books, the publisher of this and lots of other great books.

The Scattering is a collection of 18 stories, many set on the Irish border, where this London-born author currently lives. These stories explore states of liminality: life on the Irish border, dual identities, emigration, being between states - certainty and doubt, codependency and freedom. Some explore themes of catastrophe and constraint. All explore what it means to be alive in a fraught and ever-changing world. This first collection from prizewinning author and playwright, Jaki McCarrick explores the dark side of human nature, often with a postmodern ‘Ulster gothic’ twist.
One of the stories ‘The Visit’ won the Wasafiri Prize for new fiction, and many have been published to much acclaim in literary magazines.
Author Bio

Jaki McCarrick

Jaki McCarrick lives in Dundalk and studied at Trinity College, Dublin, gaining a Master of Philosophy Degree, Creative Writing – Distinction. Before this Jaki gained a BA Performing Arts, First Class Honours Degree at Middlesex University. She has also completed an RNT Directors Course, 2001.
Jaki is a playwright and short story writer who is also working on a novel. She has won many awards for her work including: Winner of the 2005 SCDA National Playwriting Competition for The Mushroom Pickers; Shortlisted for the Sphinx Playwriting Award 2006, Bruntwood Prize 2006, Kings Cross Award 2007 for The Moth-Hour; Shortlisted for the 2009 Adrienne Benham Award for Leopoldville and the 2009 Asham Award for short fiction for The Congo – in this collection. Most recently her short story The Visit, included in the Badlands collection, won the Wasafiri Prize for New Writing in October 2010 and Jaki was declared the first ever winner of the Liverpool Lennon Paper Poetry competition, which she was awarded by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. Another story from the collection, Hellbores, was recently shortlisted for both the Fish Short Story award and Bridge House Publishing's World Stopping Event writing prize. Bridge House want to publish that story in a new anthology and it has also appeared in the Irish Pages journal.
Jaki McCarrick's blog

I hope to read and post on more of her work in the future.  She has kindly agreed to participate in a Q and A Session for Irish Short Story Month so please look for that.

Mel u

1 comment:

Buried In Print said...

I would have a tough time choosing just one of these stories to read. You've done such a fine job of describing each and simultaneously giving us a general idea of her tone and style.