Sweet Home

Wendy Erskine

Published by Picador 27 June 2019

240pp, hardback, £12.99

Reviewed by Alison Burns

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First published, to acclaim, last year by Dublin’s sharp-eyed Stinging Fly Press, these stories set in East Belfast are immensely readable and immediate.  Erskine’s voice is as specific and local as James Kelman’s and her tales are as memorably engaging as those of William Trevor or Muriel Spark.  In a freewheeling, deceptively simple style, she follows the thoughts and survival techniques of ordinary men and women in run-down neighbourhoods going nowhere. Her themes include loneliness, limited horizons, stoical hopelessness.  Many of these stories have stings in their tails.

The opening one is a triptych, featuring a girl who runs a beauty salon, the angry bloke who offers her ‘protection’ and his wife who nurses the memory of her life’s one glimpse of sinful excitement. There follow stories about, for example, a widow finding an unexpected way to befriend her three Somali neighbours; two schoolgirls circling around the fact that one of them is having sex with her mother’s young boyfriend; grimly repetitive life in a church café; a traumatized spinster schoolteacher’s quiet desperation.  In the final story, ‘The soul has no skin’, a young man in a dead-end job manages his blighted life through routine and memories, and the occasional small epiphany.

A wretched moment in a fitness centre seems to sum up the whole collection.  As an anxious (and by now very drunk) woman searches for an old flame, people surround her, asking: ‘Where is it you’re looking for, love?  Where is it you’re looking for, love?  Love, what is it you’re looking for?’

Imaginative, poignant and compassionate.  Highly recommended.

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