“With Dance Move Erskine has shown us how the banal can also be epic in its compassion and understated raw beauty.”
Belfast-born Wendy Erskine’s second collection of short stories is a remarkable revelation of the everyday extraordinary. The eleven stories in Dance Move traverse generations, genders, sexualities and classes, resulting in a collection that, while not explicitly interlinked, makes for a familiar and cohesive world.
In ‘Mathematics’ we meet Roberta, a cleaner and character whose existence is played out on the fringe: both the fringe of society and something like the fringe of reality itself. She describes numbers as ‘congregating in the corners of the ceiling’, smirking at her in the same way that she notices the people around her do. With this, Erskine sets the tone for the rest of her protagonists, a collection of individuals who are isolated and confused by a universally accepted normality; characters who are often overlooked, but who have a depth of personality and experience that allows them transcend the restrictive mould which life has imposed on them. Roberta describes a child as having ‘a basic face, as if someone in a hurry had drawn quick features on a pebble’.
Erskine’s characters are are far from ‘basic’; rather, they are expertly painted masterpieces. In short strokes we are brought into an intimacy with them, dragged by the hand into their little worlds that suddenly aren’t so little at all, but complex and wonderful and painful. This is accentuated by many of the stories’ domestic scenographies: kitchens, cars, attics and living rooms. These confidential settings allow Erskine to reveal the lives flourishing in these often concealed spaces.
What is perhaps most beautiful about these short stories is Erskine’s emphasis on how the past leaves an indelible imprint on our future and our present. In ‘Memento Mori’, Gillian reflects on the night she met her partner Tracey; ‘what happened next, remembered so many times, is burnished and glittering and perfumed’. Erskine alerts us to the power of memory, showing how these ‘glittering’ moments frame normality and linger with us. The author herself even appears briefly in ‘Memento Mori’ – not as an omniscient God looking over her creations, but instead as a friend, checking in on her characters.
Erskine’s third person narrative has a compelling authenticity, combining candid dialogue and deliberate prose. She can deliver powerful emotional blows that leave you almost winded and breathless as a reader. The epigraph of ‘Dance Move’ is taken from Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’ and reminds us of the importance of both ‘Joy and Woe’. This is reflected in the endings of these tales, which are neither happy nor unhappy but optimistic lilts that transport us safely ‘Thro the World’.
With Dance Move Erskine has shown us how the banal can also be epic in its compassion and understated raw beauty. This is a book that carries with it a quiet joy, a reminder of the intensity of life, even at its most quotidian.
Words: Holly Gash