It’s safe to say that Irish writing is enjoying something of a purple patch. Between Molly McCloskey, Lisa Harding, Sara Baume and Lisa McInerney, the groundswell of new writers in particular has been a thing to behold; each of them confident, vibrant, and with an ear for the lyrical and a nose for innovation.
And now there is June Caldwell, a former journalist and prize-winning short-story writer whose debut collection has just been published. Caldwell has been on the radar thanks in no small part to her story ‘Somat’, a tale written from the point of view of a foetus whose mother is essentially dead of a stroke. Room Little Darker carries on this brilliantly inventive style with gusto.
Where some writers favour the lilt of poeticism, the cadence of beautiful prose, Caldwell has stirred up a bitches’ brew of anger, spiky rage and deft humour. She has captured the fetid air of Catholic Ireland, the pedestrian grey despair of the old folks’ home and the cloying stillness of suburbia. Yet the stories themselves are neither pedestrian, nor fetid. Each crackles with writing that doesn’t so much bristle the reader as approach them with a roaring chainsaw.
These stories may be relaying the familiar topographies of Ireland, but you’ve probably never read about contemporary Ireland quite like this. Chinese chicken balls, for instance, are described as “lava-hot balls of scrumptiousness, snowed in gorgeous lumpy rock salt… when you bit into them, the chicken played a strange trick on your tongue, opening up like a new expensive umbrella, pushing suitcases of hot batter around the gum-line”.
A scene on a Dublin street later on in the book features a “junkie with a pert arse (who) does a great car alarm with her toothless gob”.
This straight talking is Caldwell’s delicious, murky stock-in-trade, and every single sentence packs a similar punch. The alpine-fresh metaphors come thick and fast, and all of them land on target: a delightful, satisfying reading experience in and of itself.
Despite being a relative newcomer, Caldwell’s writing bristles with chaos and confidence. Her characters don’t always have the most charitable or charming worldviews, but they’re all the better for it. It’s clear there’s a strong, salty, swaggering writer behind such prose: better still, she has the literary nous to make her views on everything from dementia to contraception pulsate. The opening tale, ‘Upcycle: An Account of Some Strange Happenings on Botanic Road’, brings home the complexities of having a parent with dementia, while ‘Implant’ recounts the break-up of a long-term couple, albeit with an abortion inducement to complicate the tale. ‘The Man Who Lived in a Tree’, meanwhile, is visceral, shocking and malevolent.
All told, Caldwell has more in common with the likes of Irvine Welsh or Hubert Selby Jr than any of her homegrown contemporaries, but this is writing that does not lend itself easily to categorisation or comparison. Either way, consider our caps well and truly doffed.