The Things We Lose, The Things We Leave Behind is the third collection of short stories by Billy O'Callaghan (Cork, Ireland) I have so far had the great pleasure of reading and posting about. Prior to this I read his In Too Deep: Short Stories of Ireland and his In Exile. He also contributed a very informative and highly informed Q and A session to ISSM3 last year. He is extremely well read in the short story, as any one who follows his Short Story of the Day Feature on Facebook would agree.
The more collections of short stories I post about, the more difficult I find the process. In most cases the stories in the collection were not originally written with the idea of placing it in a collection. Reviewers, I do not consider myself a reviewer, I just read things and then post on them, tend to write a sentence or two on a few of the stories, then indulge in lyrical metaphorical descriptions of the collection that on analysis often make little sense. I prefer, and I think it shows more respect for the author and potential collection reader, to post in some detail on a number of stories in the collection.
From that point, I feel open to talking about common themes in the stories.
For those who want the bottom line first, I completely endorse this collection to all lovers of exquisite prose and brilliantly plotted psychologically acute short stories. I see O'Callaghan rapidly developing as an artist and I hope to read many more stories by him.
At the end of my post I will include a link to his Q and A and to the two short stories he has very generously allow me to share with my readers.
"Zhuangzi Dreamed He Was A Butterfly"
"I wish for the closeness we'd once enjoyed, but life has a way of widening voids, or maybe it was enough to know that we'll love one another until we die".
One of the things O'Callaghan is very good is letting us see how time and events change relationships between men and women, how a living relationship is fluid, in some ways it will get worse, in others better. This is a story with a terrible tragedy at the core. It is about how the death of a totally loved six year old daughter, who had become the heart of their, impacts a marriage upon her death. It is told by the husband. The death created a breaking point, a before and after in their relationship. The man must bear his own pain at that of his wife. He must listen to others in unshattered worlds, world with before and afters. He sees how even his memory of Aiko changes, everything is in flux. He things about his marriage, maybe he mourns the unclouded love they once have. He knows he shares a bond with his wife he can share with no other. This is a story that every parent hopes will always just be a fiction for them. We are made to see how this terrible pain has deepened the wisdom of the husband, we are left in stasis on the wife, only hoping she can sleep through the night again one day.
"He has never been anywhere, and can barely imagine a world beyond the little he knows, but these books are like fire to his mind".
Ireland, like a lot of places, is full of young people nobody wants. In a way, and I accept I am looking for this as I read, is part of the notion that the grand theme of modern Irish literature is that of the weak or missing father, some would add to this the notion of monstrous fathers. I will leave it open for now if monsters are not masking terrible weakness brought on by their own sense of powerlessness. The story centers on a teenage boy released from a Christian Brothers School, rightly or wrongly places with bad reputations for abuse, into the care of a farmer. There is a formal arrangement where the boy has to work for the farmer in exchange for room and board. The farmer tells him do your work and their will be no trouble. The veiled threat is there to send him back. The work is very hard, the days are very long but the boy sees it as better than the school. He lost his mother, we have no idea where his father might be, at an early age. He has a sister who sends him novels about the old days in the American west. These stories captivate him. Much of the power and beauty of this story is it the descriptions of life on the farm. The ending is as harsh as the Irish countryside can be and as cruel. This is a story of a seemingly pointless life, a boy treated with cruelty by people who know no better for themselves.
"Are the Stars Out Tonight"
"At nineteen your horizons have not yet burned"
"Are the Stars Out Tonight" is about the last days of a marriage of two decades or so. The wife very calmly tells the husband the time has come for him to move out, it is what they both want. There is no surface anger or angst, the wife has been having an affair with a mutual friend. Nobody hates anybody, all very civilized, maybe repressed. They have a daughter in college. O'Callaghan is very good at taking his characters through changes in relationships. There is still a passion between between them. The daughter adds much to the story. One of, as I see it, the theme of the authors is how people come to cope with the loss of the the first hopes of life, of relationships.
"We're Not Made of Stone"
Many people decades into their marriage may find this story more than a little painful. The description of James retreat into reading was a bit close for me! They both have OK regular jobs, they get along fine, they have sex once and a while. They long wanted a baby but they accepted it was not to happen. Then one day she tells her husband she, at forty five or so, is at last pregnant. The story is how the adjust to this potentially massive disruption in their lives. Each is watching the other very closely to discover how their partner really feels. I don't want to tell more of the plot. One of the frequent leitmotifs in Irish literature seen in our author's work, is the impact of the long term repression of emotions on relationships. Neither party understand how to fully express or even understand their feelings for the other. This is a very acutely observed story. I felt a deep empathy for the husband, he wants an heir but he loves his routine. N
You can read this great story on The Reading Life
"Goodbye My Coney Island Baby"
So far four of the first six stories have been about marriages with flaws, marriages that endure long after the first reasons for it are over. "Goodbye My Coney Island Baby, set in New York City is about Peter and Susan. They have both been married for a long time but not to each other. They work in the same office building and have been having an affair for seventeen years, meeting for sex in out of the way motels. Neither really wants to leave their spouse. The descriptions of the sexual aspect of their relationship was very well done, Susan still acted like a girl friend, even after seventeen years. Now I am for sure not saying a wife is not preferable to a long time girl friend but a lot of this stories readers will quietly feel the difference. Of course they feel guilty. Peter has just told her that his wife has been diagnosed with very aggressive cancer. You can feel Susan's fear in this but we are not quite sure what it is she is fearing. In a way, there relationship has not really developed or matured much past the opening stages.
OK, here is a question for all readers of this story- did you think of Hemingway as you read this story of a matador forced from the bull ring by an injury, and by a bull a clear rank below his level? It was good to see a story in the collection set outside of Ireland. Stories about bull fighting in Spain are stories about proving your manhood. This is a very intriguing strory about what suffering a career ending injury does to the psyche of a bull fighter. I liked it very much.
"Keep Well to Seaward"
"And in those few seconds I saw her as the old woman she'll be one day.
"Keep Well to Seaward" is one of the longer stories in the collection. It centers on a twenty seven year old Irishman living in Taipai. He makes his living from his writings, most short stories and he is hundred or so pages into his first novel. He is there alone. Of course Taipai seems very exotic to him. He reads in Lonely Planet Guide to Taiwan of a modestly price restaurant near his place that is supposed to have nontourist Chinese food at low prices. You have to ponder how he sees his time in Taipai. Is he Orientaluzing his experience in the "exotic east" or does he just need some serious time away from Dublin to write. He begins to go regularly to the restaurant and slowly gets to know an attractive but much harder get to know woman his age who waitresses there. Slowly a romance and a sexual relationship develops between them. Politically main land China, who claims Taiwan, saber rattles while he is there but nothing happens. He is used to political instability back home. Slowly they seem to fall in love. You have to decide for yourself why they love each other. There is a twist to the plot I totally did not seeing coming, and neither did our Irishman. The way O'Callaghan ends this story is just great, he deals wonderfully with the impact of time passing on his characters. I liked the young writer, I felt somehow a reserve of loneliness, a holding back of emotions.
There are six other stories in the collection, each a great pleasure to read.
Here is the publisher, New Island Books, description of the collection