John O'Donnell

John O'Donnell, Barrister, Poet and Author

IRISH INDEPENDENT

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“Versatile debut collection shows many sides to the short story… a very good anthology… enthusiastically recommended” – Irish Independent

Almost the Same Blue is the debut short story collection from Dubliner John O’Donnell, though he has previously published (and won awards for) individual stories, as well as books of poetry. It’s a very good anthology, 16 tales of deceit, regrets, bad memories, reckless passions, fatal misunderstandings and, in some cases, hopefulness and beauty.

Unusually for a short fiction collection, Almost the Same Blue contains a high quotient of actual stories. The format usually lends itself to vignettes: impressionistic little sketches where, as the saying goes, the reader arrives after the action has begun and leaves before it reaches a conclusion.

This isn’t any kind of problem, by the way. Personally, I love how short stories hint at things, alluding rather than explicitly describing, and leave a significant space for the reader to step into the piece and flesh it out and imagine possible futures. In other words, we co-write the story to some extent.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with a ‘proper’ beginning-middle-end narrative, either; the restricted length can give real punch and tension when you have to wrap it up so briskly.

Almost the Same Blue, published by Connemara-based Doire Press, has several fine examples of both types of story.

‘Away Game,’ for instance, pulls the kind of black-humour twist that wouldn’t go amiss in an episode of Tales of the Unexpected. A cheating husband, on a Parisian tryst, discovers that the plane he had told his wife he would be on – travelling to a match in England – has crashed.

Similar in tone is ‘Partners,’ in which a strident boor, confident of promotion and contemptuous of his wife’s artistic friends, feels his world fall apart with each perplexing pinch of his expensive shoes.

These pieces are misanthropic, mischievously wicked and often funny.

The title story is a taut, dreadful (in the literal sense) account of a missing child and the mental acts of will that a bereft parent will make when needs must. ‘After Pandora’ updates the old tale of sailors adrift at sea, drawing lots to see who will live. ‘Ostrich,’ meanwhile, is a nerve-jangling piece about a van of workmates being stopped by hooded men during the Troubles; again with a twist, though this time it’s not funny, just horrifying. 

For all that I enjoyed these ‘straight’ stories, though – and being the contrary sort that I am – what stayed most in my mind were some of the less linear, more open-ended works. ‘Marks,’ about a chronic gambler, is a simultaneously grim and, in a strange way, sort of rapturous by turns; ‘Promise’ is sweet and sad, exploring the bounds of friendship and duty in the face of medical catastrophe; ‘A Great Big Bible Wind’ is like a Harold Pinter play in miniature, with unspoken truths and simmering resentments at a two-couple dinner party.

The standout piece is ‘Kane’. It starts out, you think, as a harrowing recollection of brutal schooldays; then deftly swerves into unexpected territory of transgressive romance and dwindling faith; then swerves again into something floaty, almost like a reverie. It’s all rendered with great precision: the reader feels physically present in the car during the final scene – gazing out the window, dreaming about the potential a single life can hold.

As mentioned, O’Donnell is also a lauded poet. Happily he wears that lightly. The writing is clean and subdued; there are no performative pyrotechnics that put language ahead of story, character and theme.

Not every piece worked for me, although that’s probably inevitable in a collection – subjective taste is everything – but overall Almost the Same Blue is enthusiastically recommended.

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