“Captivating…the detail of the writing makes the stories sing… a high-octane debut from a natural storyteller” – Irish Times
Strap yourself in for a high-octane journey before opening John O’Donnell’s debut collection. The 15 short stories here are written with a flair for the dramatic, in keeping, perhaps, with O’Donnell’s day job as a well-known senior counsel in Dublin. (The author is also an award-winning poet, whose latest collection, Sunlight: New and Selected Poems, was published by Dedalus in 2018.) His stories have won him the Hennessy New Writing Award for emerging fiction and have been published in the Stinging Fly and the Hennessy Book of Irish Fiction, among others.
Some of these stories feature in Almost the Same Blue, a collection that ranges from moving, fully rounded pieces to tales more anecdotal in style. All of the stories, whether literary or commercial in nature, succeed in entertaining the reader. O’Donnell is not a writer who holds back. Many of the stories contain multiple tragic strains where the darker sides of human nature are examined. There are drunk revellers, grieving fathers, paramilitary murders – and that’s just in a single story.
Sometimes, as with the compelling Ostrich, it all comes together, but elsewhere there is too much going on for the length of the pieces. With so much drama – suicide bombers, adulterous popes, cheating spouses, plane crashes – the reader can become desensitised to the pain. The stand-out stories are those where the pain is front and centre.
O’Donnell is skilled at voice – young or old, male or female – and his stories have a sense of immediacy
O’Donnell is skilled at voice – young or old, male or female – and his stories have a sense of immediacy, landing us in the plight of his narrators. The exceptional Promises tells of rugby player Neil (21), on the cusp of playing for Ireland when a collapsed scrum leaves him in a wheelchair.
His team-mates come and visit him: “They crowded into the apartment; hulking, good-humoured, decent men.” His girlfriend stays with him at the start, “but the visits became shorter as she became more and more distracted by what he’d long since realised: that this was it. The pressure-sores and the spoon-feeds, the rhythmic, constant wheezing of the ventilator pumping air in through the hole in his trachea.”
The dramatic ending will divide readers into those who like a twist in the tale and those who prefer a quieter, more realistic finish.
O’Donnell is a fan of dramatic irony, a la Roald Dahl, and frequently his stories come to an abrupt and surprising finish. Ostrich begins in medias res (“By then there were nine of us left on the minibus”) and what follows is a tense story of loss and violence that ends quite literally with a bang.
Titles often have clues or double meanings as to likely outcomes – the poignant titular story of a mother whose daughter has been kidnapped; the obnoxious lawyer in Partner who may not be as secure as he thinks in his marriage or his job; or Away Game, with its story of adultery set against the backdrop of an Irish match abroad.
The detail of the writing make the stories sing. A man awaiting trial for the death of a banker describes his prison cell: “The window’s so small and so high up it looks like a stamp at the top of a postcard.” In Rainbow Baby, a woman desperate for a child remembers a pregnancy that ended in miscarriage: “The bone-deep tiredness of it, sinking me to the bottom of the sea, my eyes closing until I’d wake to find the ultrasound technician twinkling at me as she manoeuvred the transducer over the globe of our new world.”
“Desperate” is a word that could apply to lots of the situations O’Donnell’s characters find themselves in. They are often on the wrong side of the law, and as expected from a writer of his background, the many legal details are interesting and realistic. Just as senior counsel must sell their story to a jury, O’Donnell is quick to hook the reader with each tale.
O’Donnell chooses stories that make for sensational headlines, and then goes behind the scenes to give a different perspective entirely
The brilliant opening story, Mark, is a case in point. Within a few paragraphs, we understand the bleak, broke world of Hoppy, a gambling addict, and what he and his family will lose if he doesn’t get his act together soon.
Trying to cover his debts and to protect his younger sister, Hoppy short-changes the customers who come to his checkout: “They roll in off the motorway, pasty-faced, exhausted; you could serve them up the leg of the Lamb of God and they wouldn’t notice.”
The award-winning story Shelley, meanwhile, asks us to consider the case of a teenage boy charged with molesting a neighbour with a disability.
O’Donnell chooses stories that make for sensational headlines, and then goes behind the scenes to give a different perspective entirely. Almost the Same Blue is, beyond a reasonable doubt, a confident debut from a natural storyteller out to please.