When I was a child my older brother had a Benetton T-shirt that was adorned with images of various species of fish and carried the message ‘If this pollution continues we will grow legs and join you.’ I was reminded of this portentous garment while reading the title story of Salt Slow, Julia Armfield’s debut collection, which is set in the aftermath of a climate change apocalypse. The pregnant narrator is traversing a watery landscape on a boat with her boyfriend. She gradually develops webbing on her hands; when she gives birth, the couple are dismayed to find that the baby has tentacles. Metamorphoses are a recurrent theme in Salt Slow. Unlike Kafka’s hapless Gregor Samsa, whose transformation into a giant bug was decidedly purposeless, Armfield’s characters undergo situationally appropriate mutations, as if in thrall to some obscure quasi-evolutionary force.
In one story a young woman morphs into a praying mantis, in another a jellyfish. The narrator of ‘Formerly Feral’ develops an intense bond with a baby wolf adopted by her eccentric stepmother. As her affection for the creature grows, her attitude towards her own sister becomes commensurately distant. Intent on supplanting the sibling, the wolf becomes jealous and possessive: ‘I found she came for me often, waiting patiently outside the school the way parents did.’ The stand-out story is ‘The Great Awake’, a brilliantly unsettling tale about a most peculiar public health emergency. People experience ‘the removal of the sleep-state from the body’ and its personification as a wraith-like entity: ‘a girl I knew complained that her Sleep sat ceaselessly atop her chest of drawers, swinging its heels and humming, while another confided that her Sleep trailed its fingers down her calves, demanding cones of mint ice cream.’
Armfield’s language is crisp and elegant, and the icy poise of her prose evokes a tingling dread. Boys are a source of wary curiosity: schoolgirls ponder ‘the hundred meanings to be derived from the way they chew their gum’; a lad called Peter is ‘the kind of boy who grows too fast and too abruptly over the summer and returns to school war-torn and alien’. As for the couple in ‘Salt Slow’, their attachment to one another is wanly ambivalent: ‘she had loved him in a hot and cold way that relied on his eyes and his lazy way of doing things, the kindish planes of his wide-boned face.’ ‘Stop your women’s ears with wax’ tells of a feminist girl band whose rise to stardom is accompanied by a quiet epidemic of male despair. When an interviewer asks a band member why their cultishly devoted fanbase is overwhelmingly female, she pointedly retorts, ‘you don’t come to a party you weren’t invited to.’
Male foibles are wryly lampooned in Nicole Flattery’s debut collection, Show Them a Good Time. The protagonist in ‘Track’ bemoans the coddled sense of entitlement felt by her rich boyfriend, whose retinue of helpers makes him seem ‘like a man with a thousand relentless wives’. Observing him holding forth at a dinner party, she is repulsed by his social neediness: ‘The desperation darted across his face, clawed up his cheeks.’ (She finds a therapeutic outlet by trolling him on an online forum, using his mother’s name.) The narrator of ‘Hump’ discovers that her chiropractor is a canoe enthusiast, prompting her to concede that ‘the gap in my canoe knowledge was huge and overwhelming’. The narrator of ‘Sweet Talk’ surprises herself by falling in love with a very dull man: ‘It takes a special kind of hard-working mind to fall for someone so helplessly and honestly ordinary.’
These funny and exuberant stories hover on the threshold of farce. The collection’s centrepiece is the novella-length ‘Abortion, a Love Story’, which tells of a drama student called Natasha who has an affair with her professor. She recalls that the relationship was ‘brutal, unforgiving … he kept making me watch films of a high cultural standard’. Natasha befriends a mercurial posh girl called Lucy, who is in the habit of putting cotton wool in her ears to avoid having to deal with people. The pair write and produce a play – entitled Abortion, A Love Story – that is both powerfully poignant and riotously silly. Several of Flattery’s protagonists have modest, small-town backgrounds and view the machinery of cultural capital with an outsider’s scepticism, which is rendered with a deadpan bluntness. Summarising the film The Exorcist, one character remarks, ‘It was just priests, really – priests in unusual circumstances.’
‘Parrot’ is a more sombre riff on the same theme. Here a woman and her partner try to improve themselves by spending time in Paris: ‘Exhibitions were something she was trying out, attempting to adjust to their sophistication, their unique shush.’ Despite their best intentions, the couple wind up going ‘to the wrong bars, the wrong restaurants, the wrong streets’. At one point, the narrator fancies she can see her mother’s face in the mirror and is unnerved. Her mother had lived a sheltered life: she ‘would have liked to do more, although she didn’t really know what’. The story speaks to an anxiety familiar to anyone who has ever sought to transcend their origins: what if your limitations are actually hereditary and therefore immutable?
In her introduction to Being Various: New Irish Short Stories, Lucy Caldwell expresses her fear that Brexit will put a halt to the cosmopolitanism that has thrived in Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement. She recalls how the 1998 deal ‘changed everything for my generation. Suddenly, psychologically, we were free to experiment with and to embrace pluralities – contradictory ways of being.’ This collection is duly diverse, featuring contributions from the Chinese-born, Dublin-based author Yan Ge and from Melatu Uche Okorie, who was born in Nigeria and moved to Ireland as an asylum seeker twelve years ago. Literary styles and registers are similarly varied; the sheer range in this volume is testament to a literary scene in rude health.
Some stories, such as Kit de Waal’s ‘May the Best Man Win’, which is set in 1980s Birmingham and tells of a relationship between an Irish pub worker and a West Indian barfly, are straightforwardly social realist. Others, including Wendy Erskine’s ‘Mikey Mulholland’, are more subtle tales of quotidian bathos. Here two BBC journalists interview an old man for a Desert Island Discs-style programme. He is unhelpfully reticent, so they play him an old Hoagy Carmichael song from the 1920s in the hope of arousing a response. What did he think of it? ‘Not much. It was just somebody playing the piano. I’ve heard the piano before. It’s just one of those things. The piano.’ The hero of Kevin Barry’s ‘Who’s-Dead McCarthy’ is an oddball who takes pleasure in reporting the deaths of local people: ‘He would arrange his face to match precisely the tang or timbre of the death described.’
Elsewhere the tone is more arch, even absurdist. In Lisa McInerney’s ‘Gérard’, the narrator’s friend, C, decamps to Paris and announces that she has moved in with Gérard Depardieu. The narrator and her friends are understandably bewildered – ‘Do you not find him cumbersome? we asked’ – and try to picture the domestic scene: ‘We imagined C speaking with Gérard Depardieu, her in her wily Hiberno-English, him in excited malapropisms, constantly misunderstanding each other. They would find it hard to argue because they would not be able to correctly state their stances.’ If this is what cultural exchange looks like, long may it continue.