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Monday, June 27, 2022

Dance Move by Wendy Erskine review – a propulsive second collection | Short stories

The stories of the Northern Irish writer Wendy Erskine, though colloquial and streetwise, are largely traditional in approach. She doesn’t mess the reader around. There are no games or tics, unless you count a taste for the adjective “sleek”. The titles in Dance Move, her propulsive and pleasurable second collection, tend to identify a character or characters (Mrs Dallesandro, Gloria and Max) or an emotional atmosphere (Memento Mori), dabbling at their most extreme in the meta-fictional (Bildungsroman) or double-edged – Nostalgie refers both to a song and the emotions it stirs, Cell to a faction and the virtual imprisonment entailed by membership. Even when Erskine begins with an unexplained allusion (“the night before”) or glimmer of intrigue (a man saying something not “entirely true”), the facts straighten themselves out soon enough, and just as often a situation is set down with unselfconscious baldness: “He was there as visiting professor of film”, “For the last nine years Linda and Rae had been having a takeaway together on a Friday night”.

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The collection’s title is borrowed from one of the stories, though with a shift from the plural suggesting a desire for unity or cohesion. If anything serves to realise this function, beyond the Belfast backdrop and the use of the third person, it’s the emphasis on the unlived life. These are ghost stories of a kind, with alternative possibilities occupying the role of spectre. The opening tale, Mathematics, begins with a reference to the “remnants of other people’s fun” that the hotel cleaner Roberta keeps in her bedside drawer, and the closing story, Secrets Bonita Beach Krystal Cancun, ends with Rae asking Linda, “What do you think that looked like?” In between are many acts of wondering, speculation, daydreaming, fanciful forecast (“He’d have a Porsche Carerra at some point”). Rhonda, in Golem, about two couples at a country wedding, imagines absconding with her brother-in-law: “It was endlessly sunny with Edgar and sometimes they lived in a house she had seen in an interiors magazine that belonged to a professor at Stanford; a house in Palo Alto, all greenness and beautiful wood.”

Erskine’s characters devote much of their energy to these acts of magical thinking – wishing that a child hadn’t died, or had been born to begin with, that a fleeting encounter had lasted longer, that potential hadn’t remained untapped, that “cosmic order” would displace the “patternless” and “meaningless”, or the “arbitrary rules” of everyday life. Temporary experiences provide a short-term way of trying on another self or sizing up another life, and also a breeding ground for future reverie. In Mrs Dallesandro, a wealthy middle-aged housewife recalls a teenage love affair back in County Antrim and a time when she “had ideas then about doing all sorts of things”. In Gloria and Max, an academic gives a woman a lift to a Christian film festival “in some godforsaken spot”, and long afterwards remembers “a stained pink anorak, her hand on his arm”.

Erskine certainly doesn’t vindicate her characters’ fantasies or indulge their moments of self-pity. At times the punishment can be severe. Caro, in Cell, loses 25 years to the hollow promises of political utopianism. In Nostalgie, Drew, a former pop singer who works in IT, employs tortuous logic to justify accepting a compromising gig – and is repaid with regret. Gillian, in Memento Mori, had all along been “dreaming of” someone like Tracey, and Tracey’s mother had always hoped she’d meet someone like Gillian, but their relationship is brought short. Rhonda’s vision of California bliss with Edgar is suddenly “vaporised” when she sees him wearing slip-on shoes.

Dance Move by Wendy Erskine

As a writer, Erskine is confronted by a similar quandary – discipline and control on one side, freedom and possibility on the other. Sometimes she keeps things too simple, and makes her intentions too plain. Nostalgie, which ends with Drew at a slot machine trying to lose his tainted commission, is a 10-page parable, a cautionary tale about temptation and short-term thinking. Gloria and Max is a sketch. On the other hand, Golem feels overburdened with perspectives and backstory. But in the best stories – Mathematics, Cell, Memento Mori – Erskine’s unflashy effects accrete, achieving genuine cumulative power. She identifies what is most fruitful about her characters’ predicaments – the emotional core, the most resonant ironies – and traces with rapt and infectious attention their doomed if valiant attempts to shimmy away from the real.

Dance Move by Wendy Erskine is published by Pan Macmillan (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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