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Danielle McLaughlin reviews Billy O'Callaghan's newest short story collection






danielle mclaughlin

Danielle McLaughlin lives in County Cork. Her stories have appeared in The Stinging Fly, Southword, Long Story, Short, The Irish Times, Boyne Berries, Crannóg, The Burning Bush 2, Inktears, and Hollybough. They have also been published in various anthologies, most recently Willesden Herald New Short Stories 7 (2013), The Salt Anthology of New Writing 2013, Scraps - the NFFD Anthology 2013 and have been broadcast on RTE RadioShe has won a number of prizes for short fiction including the Writing Spirit Award for Fiction 2010, the From the Well Short Story Competition 2012, the William Trevor/Elizabeth Bowen International Short Story Competition 2012, The Willesden Herald Short Story Competition 2012-2013, the Merriman Short Story Competition in memory of Maeve Binchy, and the Dromineer Literary Short Story Competition 2013. She was awarded an Arts Council Bursary in 2013.






billy ocallaghan book

The Things We Lose, The Things We Leave Behind

Billy O'Callaghan

(New Island, 2013)

ISBN: 978-1-84840-267-6

€13.99 paperback

Buy from New Island





How real is reality?  Is it something fixed and unyielding, a wall against which we either break or bounce, depending on what we are made of? Or is it a more malleable thing to be bent and moulded as our needs dictate?  Billy O’ Callaghan’s exquisite third collection, ‘The Things We Lose, The Things We Leave Behind’, contains thirteen stories set in locations as diverse as Taiwan, Ireland, the United States, and Spain. Each story, in its own particular way, is an exploration of survival, an examination of how people, when faced with loss or grief, seek out other ways of existing.  ‘Reality is just a concept’  says the psychiatrist in the lead story, ‘Zhuangzi Dreamed He Was A Butterfly’,  and there is a duality in the way O’Callaghan’s characters negotiate their lives, their physical existence played out on one level, the essence of what makes them human often retreating, or escaping, to another. Like coma victims, ‘other things are going on beneath the surface of their placid sleep.’ Some survive by turning to the past, while others walk away from it. Leaving is sometimes a matter of geography, but often, it is the character’s emotional life that retreats to a distance.

            In ‘Zhuangzi Dreamed He Was A Butterfly’, the narrator, attempting to come to terms with the death of his daughter, has ‘come to understand that there is no substance to time.’ He proceeds through life as if in a coma, waking occasionally to register small details. ‘The greater part of who I am,’ he tells us, ‘confines itself to memories.’ Hiromi, his wife, deals with things differently, and so they remain largely separate in their grief. In the reality that the narrator has chosen, his ‘paradise moment’ finds him at a family picnic, ‘down on my knees in the burnt summer grass, inches from the solid, still unscarred shape of my little girl’s skull...I recognise this now as heaven. I’d been through here once before, and almost passed it by.’

The past is ‘exhumed and reawakened’ in ‘For Old Times’ Sake’ when the narrator, while sorting through his dead father’s belongings, discovers the telephone number of a former neighbour. As a teenager, he used to spy upon this neighbour as she undressed. ‘Telephones play such wicked tricks’ he tells us as, decades later, he dials her number, to thank her for leaving her curtains open.   It is a call that could have gone badly wrong, but what transpires is a ‘quantum leaping’, ‘witchery of a high degree’, as he revisits a past ‘full of sweetness and glory and even back then probably nine-tenths imagined.’

In ‘Farmed Out’, Thomas, an institutionalised orphan boy in 1950s Ireland, is sold into what is effectively slavery when he is sent to a farmer in Enniskeane. The boy sleeps, not in the house, but in the barn with the hay and the farm implements, on a mattress spread over timber pallets. In the scheme of farm life, Thomas ranks lower than an animal and the story does not shy away from detailing the fierce cruelties of daily life, where his only time off is a few begrudged hours on Sunday morning to attend Mass. Solace of a sort is found in the paperback westerns sent to him by his sister. Thomas ‘has never been anywhere and can barely imagine a world beyond the little he knows, but these books are like a fire to his mind’, their covers depicting ‘granite-jawed types set against a background of desert, canyon and cactus, often but not always astride a galloping Appaloosa...’  As the story moves towards its harrowing conclusion, it is this west that Thomas conjures up in his bleakest moment, a place he imagines peopled with men and women like him, ‘living small and barely perceptible lives.’

If life sometimes permits the ‘small and barely perceptible’ to slip beneath the radar, not so this collection. O Callaghan is a skilled prospector of language, sieving for the details that in less careful hands might be lost. He finds gems in the ordinary, the everyday, and holds them up to the light, and like the tines of the fork in ‘Throwing in the Towel’, ‘they flash a signal across the room, full of some intent...’  In ‘Keep Well To Seaward’, the narrator tries not to stare at Mei’s hand close to his own on a cafe table, ‘her narrow fingers splayed, the skin thin enough to show spindles of bone and turquoise ribbons of vein.’ Elsewhere, as lovers walk the pier at Coney Island, ‘every drawn breath salts their throats and tongues’  and the boards ‘are coated deep into their grain with algae a shade of green so dark as to be almost black’.

Even when, or perhaps especially when, detailing that which is familiar, O’Callaghan doesn’t fall into cliché. Every word is a carefully placed stitch in the larger tapestry of story.  The extent of his dedication to language is evidenced in the way he writes about the weather. In ‘Icebergs’, ‘Noon is smothered in rain, a cold, heavy fur of mist that mutes everything,’ and in ‘Farmed out’, when Thomas meets McNamara, the farmer, for the first time, ‘the low white sky bulges with a certainty of rain, giving Enniskeane a bruised, tormented look.’

The title story, described by Dermot Bolger as ‘a masterclass in understatement’, recently won Writing.ie Short Story of the Year at the Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards. It’s an outstanding story, sad and beautiful, the island setting and its inhabitants luminously portrayed in all their bleakness and broken majesty. The prose is clear, evocative, with the elegance and rhythm of long sentences masterfully handled, something O’Callaghan is particularly good at.  He is also adept at knowing just how much space to leave the reader. ‘Our pasts pool around our ankles, dragging at every forward step we take...’  As the narrator revisits what he lost and what he left, we are never fully privy to this past. Instead, we get glimpses here and there, enough to allow us do what Bessie did for her young grandson: to fill in a few of the blanks; enough to lead us to speculate on what might await the characters in the future.  And herein lies one of the great joys of the collection as a whole: O’Callaghan’s ability to create stories that happen off the page as well as on. This is a stunning collection, powerful and lyrical, with stories that unfold, not just in the finely crafted words and sentences, but also in the gaps and silences.




©2013 Danielle McLaughlin



Author Links


'A Different Country' shortlisted for Writing.ie Short Story of the Year 2013 Award

'The Governor's Gin': fiction at Long Story, Short

'Fields with Asterisks are Mandatory': fiction in Burning Bush 2

'All About Danielle McLaughlin': a guest post by Ethel Rohan

'To the Tea Rooms' by Danielle McLaughlin on RTE Radio 1

Purchase The Stinging Fly with fiction by McLaughlin (Issues 21, 23, and 26)

'Midnight at Ali's King Kebab Takeaway': a short story in Southword (Issue 22)






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