AT THE OPENING of Black Dirt by Nell Leyshon , Frank has been brought home by his middle-aged daughter Margaret to die. In the same room he slept in as a boy, he reaches to activate the drip controlling his pain. As he drifts in and out of consciousness. he recalls the stories his father would tell him and his sister Iris as children: tales drawn from various legends of the local Glastonbury region, in which Arthur's knights pursue the Holy Grail, animals chat and pun with Joseph of Arimathea, and King Alfred is slapped by the housewife whose cakes he burns. But as the morphine swirls around Frank's system, and as pressure mounts on him to make arrangements regarding the future of his retarded son George, he cannot stop uglier memories from intruding. In Leyshon's detached prose every word feels precious, particularly when capturing the nuances of human interaction. A rural idyll is evoked, celebrated even, and old stories are given a fresh gloss. Even if, as George discovers, 'you can't be remembering everything', the past still exists somewhere in the peat of one's mind.
Robbie, the cheeky, tender-hearted Catholic lad who narrates Hugh O'Donnell's 11 Emerald Street enjoys a regular Dublin childhood. In between serving as an altar boy, narrowly getting out of scrapes, and forming crushes on local girls, Robbie fantasises about future careers, ranging &m hypnotist to footballer. After suffering appalling head injuries during a crush at Croke Park, Robbie comes to believe that God has given him the gift of healing others. 07Donnell asks important questions about the nature of faith and miracles. Is it enough that Robbie believes in his talents? Certainly there are incidents where Robbie's apparent successes could be regarded mostly as the result of his over-active imagination. Yet his alcoholic father's cancer does abate, and when Robbie becomes stranded for a year in a residential hospital for seriously ill children, his loyalty towards and compassion for his new friends are the catalyst for much beneficial change. 11 Emerald Street is touching without being rnawkish, and full of warm humour.
The eponymous narrator of Maurice Caldera's darkly atmospheric The Double Life of Daniel Glick also tells stories (other characters call them lies) - although, unlike Robbie's, Daniel's are consciously self-serving. Daniel is often mistaken for other men. He lives in a city prone to earthquakes, in an unnamed (possibly Central European, certainly totalitarian) state. One of these earthquakes - Daniel claims - rendered him an orphan at the age of twelve. In his early twenties he sits in a bar watching his wife Marina emptying their apartment of all her possessions before she disappears. Accused of her murder, Daniel is beaten up by the police, and then vents his anger on a vagrant who has been pursuing him relentlessly across the city, and who is also his doppelganger. Caldera has written a curiously compelling piece. Beneath the conventional narrative surface rumbles a crazy world of topsy-turviness: women look like children or dolls; men speak in high women's voices; and, like the clowns Daniel sees at the circus, people wear clothes which are either too big for them or too small. As the spectre of another earthquake hangs over the city, Caldera looks at the destructive-power of anger.
Darien Dogs , the debut collection of five short stories from award-winning poet and sometime travel writer Henry Shukman. flaunts the best attributes of both those earlier vocations. Panama, the parched setting of the opening novella, is instantly recognisable to anyone who has visited Latin America; the Sahara. the Caribbean and Ireland are also vividly portrayed. Shukman's male protagonists are traveller;, latter-day Pilgrim Fathers in search of their own promised land. All (an ex-trader, a Czech film director, a lusty salt miner, a jaded painter in oils, and a journalist in the Maghreb) are reckless, their insatiable appetites (for exotic women, drink, the big story, the big deal) contributing to their downfall. But each learns somethings about himself as a result of his 'narrative journey'. The opening novella is perhaps the collection's least successful story; Jim Rogers's ambiguous salvation is acquired too quickly to be convincing. The other stories possess much crisper plots and twists. Shukman's prose is utterly seductive, especially when he indulges his poet's eye for imagery.
Between Mountains , Maggie Helwig's profound, assured UK debut, is about truth and integrity, and the human need to tell one's story. Its focus is the emotional legacy of war - in particular, the recent genocide in Bosnia. Lili is a chainsmoking freelance interpreter, working at the Hague tribunals in 1999, where she is translating at the trial of Markovic, a suspected war criminal. Daniel is an international war correspondent, a veteran of the Balkan conflicts. Fearful of compromising her professional integrity, Lili imposes restrictions on their burgeoning romance. When Daniel is cited as a possible prosecution witness in Markovic's trial, both are faced with challenging moral choices. Despite the rawness of its themes, this novel is elegantly written, which is appropriate given its examination of the power of language both to hurt and to heal. In keeping with Lili's 'sworn duty to be precise', Helwig's prose is meticulous. Between Mountains is at once a tender love story, a . compelling narrative about recent history, and an unflinching account of human cruelty and sacrifice.