John O'Donnell

John O'Donnell, Barrister, Poet and Author

SUNDAY INDEPENDENT

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“O’Donnell’s stories hit you like little bullets of astute observations, tightly wrought explorations of complex truths, narrated in beautiful, fluid, uncomplicated prose” – Sunday Independent

Like most people at the moment, my attention span is shot. But I coaxed myself to sit in my garden and read John O’Donnell’s debut short story collection Almost the Same Blue, and I’m delighted that I did. Not only is it an engaging, compulsive read, it also kick-started my reading habit again, and that is where you will find me most days now, in a sheltered spot in the garden with only the resident robin and blackbird for company, and a diminishing to-be-read pile of books.

But short stories are more than just a quick fix of fiction for the time-strapped or attention-deficient. They are like little silent bombs exploding in front of you, cracking open a slender gap in your reality or reducing to rubble your previously held perceptions, allowing you to see things in a new and fresh way. O’Donnell’s stories hit you like that, little bullets of astute observations, tightly wrought explorations of complex truths, narrated in fluid, uncomplicated prose.

Reflecting O’Donnell’s long experience as a barrister, his stories tend to be populated by people on the fringes of society: gamblers, swindlers, petty thieves. But despite their shortcomings, we end up sympathising with them. We know we should feel repulsion and horror at some of the situations but, instead, we come to realise that nothing is black and white, every action and reaction a result of complex realities.

The opening story, Marks, is a tense, pacy tale featuring the aptly named Con, who runs foul of some loan sharks, who help fund his gambling addiction. Despite being a thief who skims money from the till at work, we root for him and hope he succeeds in letting go of debt-inducing ways. O’Donnell achieves this with his beautiful prose, eliciting our sympathy through tiny significant details, like his love of his teenage sister, who “chews her hair in a way she doesn’t know is lovely”.

Shelley is narrated in the voice of a 12-year-old boy, who appears not to understand the gravity of his crime, but again, although the situation should be clear-cut, O’Donnell manages to make us feel ambivalent about the outcome and a measure of sympathy for the boy’s plight.

Away Game is a twisty, dark tale about a cheating husband whose tryst in Paris is disrupted by a news flash on the TV, while The Truck Driver’s Wife shows us a different side, the personal stories behind other news items. A Great Big Bible Wind delves into the familiar themes of jaded marriages, the death of a child and the ties that bind, and Ostrich, set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, has a surprise ending that reminds us of a past we’d like to forget.

The titular story, Almost the Same Blue, wraps itself around you, making you want to believe, like the protagonist, that the returned girl really is her lost daughter, and Kane flits between harrowing memories of schooldays, young love and a betrayal of friendship. It’s a powerful piece, well crafted and wonderfully nuanced, a whole life caught within its tight structure.

Overall, this collection made for very enjoyable reading, perfect for these housebound times.

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