John O'Donnell

John O'Donnell, Barrister, Poet and Author


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“Sharply observed short stories that catch the complexity of life…O’Donnell’s maturity as a writer shines through… rich enough to read again and again, Almost the Same Blue will surely find readers who delight in doing so” – The Business Post

There are some short stories that appear not to have been written, but “caught”. The subject was already sitting there, the writer simply needed to angle his shot. It’s an illusion, of course, but a pleasing one, this fencing off of what seems like reality.

In his debut collection, Almost the Same Blue, John O’Donnell seems to have slipped through a crack in the doorway of life and caught it in the act. His stories read like candid snapshots, incriminating photos – slight and contained, yet fully complete; enough to tell you everything.

A senior counsel by trade, O’Donnell probably has more experience than most of the cruel undoings that hide beneath the skin of normality. Two twelve-year-old schoolchildren involved in an inappropriate tryst, a disenfranchised citizen implicated in the murder of a banker during the recession, a childless woman impelled to kidnap a baby from a shopping centre – these might make clear cases from a legal perspective, but in story form, all that’s obvious is how complex and sad life can sometimes be.

Some of the stories in this collection are inspired by real events – Ostrich, about a bus that is intercepted by gunmen on its way home from a work party is based on the Kingsmill massacre, while Promise, about a rugby player who suffers a spinal injury and convinces his friend to take him to Switzerland, got its prompt from a newspaper clipping.

But for the most part they seem born of the question authors so often play with: “what if?” What if my husband were a suicide bomber? What if I were working so hard I didn’t notice my wife was having an affair? What if my child were kidnapped? O’Donnell’s what ifs are compelling, if often outrageous. More importantly, they’re positioned just so, so that they pulse with tension.

At times, while reading, I was tripped by the brevity and subtlety of the writing style. “She’s standing over me and I can smell ThreeNines off her” goes the opening of Marks. Initially, I thought “she” was a lover and “ThreeNines” was the lover’s perfume (in fact, they are the protagonist’s mother and the mother’s partner, respectively). There is no room for fumbling on the part of the reader. The stories expect us to be as careful and precise as the writing on the page.

It’s a fair exchange. Collect each fact, pay attention to each marker, and you shall be rewarded.

Though this is O’Donnell’s debut as a fiction writer, he is already an accomplished poet with four collections to his name, and a radio documentarian – last year, Back to the Rock, about the 1979 Fastnet Yacht race, was part of RTÉ’s Documentary on One series. His stories have won the Hennessy Award for Emerging Fiction and the Cúirt Festival of Literature New Writing Prize for Fiction and have been published widely. Thus, despite his “debut” status, O’Donnell’s maturity as a writer shines through.

Language is a major preoccupation. The sentences in this collection are frank and then at brief, well-earned moments bursting with poetry. In Young Woman With Unicorn, which features a pregnant portrait model in renaissance Rome, a sentence like “I lie back on the bed and wait for what comes next, the kicks inside me getting stronger, like hooves approaching from a distance” strikes a strange and perfect blow. In Away Game, the description of bathwater as “silky, warm” is simple, yet lingering.

Words often have double meanings. This can be humorous – Meaney’s is “the best name for a bookie yet” – or touching: the image of a ringing phone displaying the word “Home. Home. Home” is a moving emotional cue, while the “say nothing” motif in Ostrich refers, poignantly, to both the Troubles and the death of the protagonist’s child.

Admittedly, some stories in this collection – Away Game, Ostrich, Into the Red, Shelly – spoke to me more than others. Yet there is a coalescence to the work as a whole. Allegories, words and motifs ping across the pages. Though written over the course of ten years or so, these stories speak to one another naturally. There is much to be dug for beneath the surface. Slim enough and rich enough to read again and again, Almost the Same Blue will surely find readers who delight in doing so.

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