Book Review: Postcard Stories 2 – Jan Carson


Posted 3 weeks ago in Print

Int Lit Festival – Desktop

Postcard Stories 2

Jan Carson

The Emma Press

“Postcard Stories 2 enters a world bruised by confinement, restriction, and the consciousness of frailty. Ironically, Carson’s paring down of prose writing has allowed her to dial up her ambition.”

It must be frightening to lose your superpower. Many artists must lie awake at night dreading the loss of their inspiration. A pandemic might hit, the chatter of your mind might suddenly abate, and in the blink of an eye, your art is gone.

When Jan Carson suffered from writer’s block in 2015, she set about writing daily stories on postcards to friends. Soon enough, she couldn’t stop. Since then, she has published her debut short story collection, Children’s Children (2016), and a novel, The Fire Starters (2019), magical and realist in equal measure and tonally comparable to Anna Burns’s Milkman. The first selection of Carson’s prose exercises, Postcard Stories (2017) might be read as messages in a bottle from Belfast and thereabouts. These prose snapshots, accompanied by Benjamin Phillips’s humorous distillation into pictures, were perfect for our Twitterified literary culture of skim reading and image-as-text.

Postcard Stories 2 is the second instalment, and enters a world bruised by confinement, restriction, and the consciousness of frailty. Ironically, Carson’s paring down of prose writing has allowed her to dial up her ambition. The pieces in Postcard Stories 2, some of the best microfiction Carson has written since 2015, were written in places as far flung as Ballymena, Baraboo, Jaipur and Kells. Carson draws characters expertly from her daily life and imagination: on one page, we meet the resurrected Frida Kahlo on a seaside mini-break, on another, cuffed prisoners pulling Christmas crackers. There are also crafty old biddies who’d be at home in a Leonora Carrington story, and middle-aged girls dressed up to the nines for a day trip to Derry.

Carson pairs the simplicity and length of children’s writing with the fresh, ironic beauty of Northern Irish idiom, often with an unmistakably Protestant flavour. I giggle at the girl who must cover up her Halloween devil’s costume at a Church ‘harvest party’ and sigh over the unspoken etiquette of the Senior Citizens’ dance (‘never man with man’) that nods to traditional social mores or the infringement of LGBT+ rights, depending on how you see it. More subtle, but no less vivid, are the details of Northern Ireland then and now: the care workers from abroad; creeping gentrification and changing class aspirations; memories of grannies tending linen loom in Lisburn and Portadown.

The snapshots that linger of Postcard Stories 2 often reflect upon themes of representation and capture. Carson’s arresting, fantastical treatment of painting and photography certainly exploit the resources of visual art, but her modulations of tone and perspective remind us that literature equally draws from other sources.

Even as she affectionately mocks artists, with their airs, graces and superpowers, Carson remains down to earth. Her line on the American novelist Flannery O’Connor suggests the scope of her own ambition: ‘She simply wished to write good stories and see these stories published and subsequently read, and if there was any time left over, breed peacocks on her own little farm.’ A modest aim from a skilful writer whose impressions dazzle in depth and range.

Words: Syamala Roberts

Check out our review of Postcard Stories (2017) here.

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