Wendy Erskine has a great ear for how ordinary people speak, and what they say, and an astute understanding of the twists and turns, stops and re-starts, tragedies and re-adjustments of the haphazard nature of human life.
Through Sweet Home, Erskine gives us insight into the everyday lives of people in Belfast. Her characters are easily recognisable. They could be our mothers, aunts, friends, the couple across the street, or the boss in the office.
In “To All Their Dues”, Erskine lays bare the unpalatable reality of shop owners who struggle to eke out a living under the tyranny of local thugs, with no knowledge of who to turn to for help.
It is a revelation in how complicit a society can become, aptly captured when the butcher in the story advises the protagonist to pay the bribe demanded of her: “Just pay it,” he said. “Ain’t really that much, just pay it.” This story is reminiscent of Min Jin Lee’s new novel, Pachinko, set in 1930s South Korea.
An incisive understanding of the relationship between parents and children, that often-unacknowledged disconnectedness within families, is beautifully explored in “Inakeen”. In “Observation”, Erskine cleverly uses a narrator whose wry voice helps temper the severity of a theme of deceit: “It was always easy to keep highly confidential something that no person was interested in knowing anyway.”
In “Locksmiths”, Erskine draws the reader’s attention to simple phrases used to describe everyday happenstances in the exact way they are said, like a grandmother’s instruction, “not to answer the front door under any circumstances whatsoever”.
It is hard to read “Locksmiths” without recalling stories of classmates’ families that occasionally circulated in school: “In my year, there was Gary whose big brother shot somebody outside a snooker hall. And then in the year above there was Mandy G whose dad beat a woman to death.”
Just when a reader is about to dismiss the protagonists, Gavin and Susan, in “Sweet Home” as “one of those” fancy couples with a pretentious lifestyle, one is thrown off guard by the revelation of a tragedy in the couple’s past.
There is a clear moral to this story – that those who from the outside may appear to have it all, are still beset with the loneliness and troubles that plague the rest of us, and are sometimes those with very little.
Every office possibly has someone like Andy in “Last Supper”: a collaborative leader who fails each time to act. An example of his woolliness is wonderfully described by Erskine in Andy’s reaction to his staff member’s dress: “Rebekah’s polo shirt is tied in a big knot at the back so that it’s stretched tight across her chest. It certainly improves the fit but it seems a bit unnecessary. Andy doesn’t want to say anything about it though.”
One finishes this story undetermined as to whether to commiserate with or criticise Andy. The same uncertain feeling lingers at the end of the next story “Arab States: Mind and Narrative”, a tale about a woman, Paula, who goes in pursuit of a lost love. Numerous life stories indicate that the consequences of such attempts can be disastrous. Sadly, this is one of those cases.
“Lady and Dog” is one of my favourite stories in the collection, as Erskine convincingly lays out the character of Olga, a primary-school teacher, in a way that the reader feels her pulse. She is unapologetically cynical and grumpy. She does not ask to be liked but you find yourself caring. There is a poignancy to this story, which tackles the under-explored lives of teachers, those to whom the life of almost every child is entrusted at some point.
With “Pop Facts You Didn’t Know About Gil Courtney”, Erskine creates a story about fame and misfortune that – borrowing the words of an unnamed character in the story – “just penetrates to the heart of what it means to be lonely, … or to feel a failure”, while in “The Soul Has No Skin”, the ramification of a slanderous allegation is impassively narrated.
Do people ever fully recover from such accusations even if cleared? As the character Barry succinctly puts it, “It didn’t matter if they hadn’t done anything, sometimes people still ended up in jail.” This is another favourite of mine; it looks at injustice in a way that is rarely done.
Erskine’s Sweet Home is a brilliant debut collection. Her matter-of-fact writing allows one to empathise with her characters without feeling manipulated into doing so. Her deep insights into the lives of everyday people shine through the work.
Her protagonists are recognisable, and the reader cannot help but nod in agreement at her portrayal of them. The widespread praise Sweet Home has received is well-deserved.