The first story in Jan Carson’s Children’s Children, tells the simple tale of an immigrant single mother who works as an overnight nurse in a private clinic.
The fantastic element of the story – a weight-loss programme that takes the Relax-a-Cizor concept to its extreme, putting obese women into a long-term sleep state during which they are shaken to slimness – works very well as a social metaphor and is vividly rendered through the compassionate, credulous eyes of the nurse: “The damp, green glow from their monitors reflected off them so they seemed to float on their beds like luminous squid, or jellyfish suspended in a tank.”
For this mother and her child, these vibrating “mermaids” act as a somnolent cushion, temporarily separating them from the outside world and staving off the inevitable pain of maternal separation. This was one of my favourite stories in the collection, showcasing Carson’s ability to create a magical reality in which the delicate complexities of human relationships can be grotesquely magnified.
Children’s Children is a collection of very short stories set in Northern Ireland. The specific backdrop does not seem particularly relevant to the plots – these characters live with the same sort of neglect, isolation and desperate mundanity found in various pockets across the First World. Apart from the closing story – a fable about a split island that was, for me, far too grand in its claim and small in its scope – the subject of these stories is not the history of Ireland, but the subtle gradients of heartbreak inherent to family relationships.
Carson uses fantasy as a tool for getting at the bits of truth that realism is too blunt for. The stories that work best, like “In Feet and Gradual Inches” and “More of a Handstand Girl” are the ones in which a surreal plot is used to track a psychological reality – an impressive feat and one that is achieved with a mastery that makes for effortless reading.
Some of the stories are firmly rooted in the real world: a lost pregnancy; a grieving widow; a middle-aged woman caring for her senile mother.
There are lovely observations here: “The smaller her mother shrinks the heavier she seems to feel. Once solid, Estie is now a bird of a woman. She is bent along the middle as though caught in a long study of her own slippered toes. Yet the weight of her wakes Den up in the middle of the night. She worries constantly. The feel of it is a pain in her ribcage, as if worry is made of sand and the sand has gathered inside her and cannot be shifted while lying down.”
And there are some surprising and effective descriptions: “She let the crocuses be, relishing the way they crept along her windowsill like a slow bruise.”
But these straighter stories are less focused, less engaging and vaguely mawkish compared with the sharpness of her more fantastic tales. When Carson employs magic realism, the fantasy acts as a kind of channel, avoiding sentimentality and cutting to what is interesting at the heart of her characters.
In the Mix
There is an unfortunate downward trajectory in the quality of this collection. The first seven stories are exacting and graceful, but the prose and tension of the second half is a little looser at the seams. The same similes start to crop up (arms worn like belts), and at times there seems to be a slightly forced quirkiness that I found a little irksome.
In the later stories, the author starts to break away from the character’s perspectives, inviting the reader to laugh at them through goofy jokes that don’t quite work – a couple trying to return the disappointing baby to the hospital, a man fumbling his key in the wrong lock “like a first-time lover”. That said, as the dour sort of reader who will easily get through a Flann O’Brien novel with a straight face, I am no authority on the subject of humour, particularly of the surreal kind.
Nonetheless, the collection might have been stronger with fewer stories in it. There is much repetition of the less-loved-child theme, starting with the wonderful “In Feet and Gradual Inches” through “Contemporary Uses for a Belfast Box Room” (the significance of the “Belfast” bit was lost on me) and the predictable but moving, “Alternative Units”.
The story “Floater”, about a child who floats like a helium balloon due to her conception in an airplane, is told like a moral tale, but as such it is rather vague. The subtext is that the floating is due to fatherlessness. It might be some sort of abortion comment, or simply a play on the difference between mothers and fathers, but the pointed fabulism left me feeling as though there really was an intention to say something more, and that I hadn’t quite grasped what that was.
Some of the stories in this collection have a haunting quality that has made me want to reread them already. Whether they work or not, each of Carson’s tales has a momentum of its own, and she never fails to build a thickly-layered world that draws a reader in.
Children’s Children by Jan Carson (Dublin: Liberties Press, 2016)