240 pages, paperback original, £9.99
Reviewed by Deborah Brooks
Ryan O’Neill is an Australian, though born in Glasgow, and The Weight of a Human Heart is his second collection of short stories. These facts constituted the entirety of my knowledge about the author before I began reading. It’s a relief, sometimes, to come to a book unencumbered with expectation or a desire to like or dislike based on the hype or the writer’s previous works.
The first story, ‘Collected Stories’, tells of a daughter orphaned by her mother’s commitment to writing. It’s a strong beginning that gives us the title of the book and also sets the tone for what is to come – playful with both form and voice. O’Neill has much of weight to impart and this story increases the sum of my O’Neill knowledge with the fact that he is a gifted writer and one deserving of hype.
A strong opening allows the reader to relax into the collection and O’Neill’s proceeds by moving between Africa, Australia, Asia and Europe, introducing an array of characters many of whom are writers or teachers. There is a deep interest in language and its uses and abuses running throughout – in particular a consideration of what can be lost and found in translation between cultures and individuals. The most striking thing for me however is the creative way in which the stories are told – ‘Figures In A Marriage’ is told entirely through graphs and diagrams (and yet still manages to be absorbing and moving), ‘The Eunuch In The Harem’ is hilariously imparted through book reviews, and the standout story for me, ‘Four Letter Words’, is a story in which each section is entitled with a four-letter swear word given meaning by the touching story that unfolds beneath the crudity
Playful feels too light a word for the skill that underwrites all of this and yet this is how I experienced the book. I suppose this is the literary equivalent of an audience watching rhythmic gymnastics and enjoying the spectacle whilst being aware too of the hard work that has gone into the performance. Any writer or aspiring writer of short stories would do well to read this collection merely as an example of what is possible.
After reading a few stories I found myself thinking of one of my favourite Philip Larkin poems – ‘For Sidney Bechet’ – in which the poet says of Bechet: ‘On me your voice falls as they say love should/Like an enormous yes.’ Although O’Neill’s book is not perfect and indeed some stories fall flat or are too studied, there are moments in which, had I been a more demonstrative person, I might have punched the air in pure joy and equally moments when I was moved to tears in recognition. I imagine this is what Larkin’s ‘enormous yes’ might feel like in literary form. I look forward to reading whatever O’Neill writes next, confident that it will both surprise and satisfying.