John O'Donnell

John O'Donnell, Barrister, Poet and Author

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“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.

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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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“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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‘His prose is elegant, frictionless and pleasingly direct…While langorous anatomisations of the dating scene command much of the attention these days,  O’Donnell’s stories show that there is still room for others to articulate what William Faulkner called the “eternal verities” of the human heart.’  Sunday Times

John O’Donnell’s gifts as a lyric poet are widely celebrated in Ireland. His talents in the short-story format may be less so but that could change with Almost the Same Blue, his first collection.

As you would expect, his prose is elegant, frictionless, and pleasingly direct. There is no conscious striving for big effects, and little truck with the postmodern tricksiness that characterises so much contemporary short fiction. Instead, there is a plain-spoken, slightly old-fashioned allegiance to the beginning-middle-end cohesion that typifies great short-story writers such as William Trevor and John McGahern.

Trevor famously defined the short story as “the art of the glimpse”. O’Donnell tends to offer the whole picture. Some of his stories are more like mini novellas, with a broad cast of characters, complex plots, and quirky twist-in-the-tale resolutions.

Thematically, the stories could hardly be more diverse, encompassing meaty subjects that might test the unwary writer’s susceptibility to easy melodrama. O’Donnell, who is a practising barrister, resists the temptation admirably.

In Away Game, two lovers find their cover blown when the pretext for their secret trip to Paris goes up in flames. The plane he was supposed to catch crashes, and with his family frantically texting for news he wonders how he will explain his survival, while his abandoned lover languishes in their hotel suite.

Promise portrays a rugby player disabled through injury who decides the “keep fighting” platitudes will never be enough and opts for assisted suicide. As he is “carried from the chair for the last time t the pristine-sheeted bed”, the profound moral dilemma facing the friend he has conscripted to help is achingly portrayed.

The standout story is Kane, in which a middle-aged man reads an obituary of his former schoolmaster, a priest, which triggers bittersweet memories of his adolescent passion for an older woman. We discover the passion was shared by the teacher. Here, O’Donnell undercuts the old expectations of brutish priests in a story full of poignant epiphanies.

In short-story mode, O’Donnell seems to hold in check the exuberance of the poet but in places it bursts through: lawyers in court are all “standing around like great black birds”; a full ashtray contains “a cairn of butts”; as a car passes, we hear “the slish of tyres going by in the rain”. His way with telling details holds our attention through what are often quite dense and convoluted stories.

What is really striking is how the author seems to swim upstream against the current of the contemporary Irish short story. Even the notion of a middle-class author writing about middle-class subjects will seem deeply suspect in some quarters. Throw in the equally suspect question of the “male gaze” exemplified in Martin’s Mrs Robinson-style desire for Mrs Rock in Kane and all kinds of red lights start flashing. Some of the stories have first-person female narrators, a further heresy. While languorous anatomisations of the dating scene command most of the attention these days, O’Donnell’s stories show that there is still room for others to articulate what William Faulkner called “the eternal verities” of the human heart.

Bert Wright