Room Little Darker
“It is hardly worth telling, this story of mine, or at least in a modern context, because so many people go through the same these days and feel it too dull and inconsequential to mention.” These are the first tongue-in-cheek words of June Caldwell’s debut collection, and never an untruer word was written. These stories are anything but standard fare; dull and inconsequential they certainly are not. There is a dark surrealism ripping through these pieces, with strange and magical inflections. And yet the Dublin evoked is instantly familiar and tangible, a world of dingy flats, brown stockings, packs of Amber Leaf tobacco, the “winter sun bouncing off the river in solid shards of light, turning the faces of pedestrians to warm plastic”.
Emotional and social vulnerability, supernatural and psychological phenomena, sexual deviance and degradation, wildly inappropriate desires, substance abuse and physical violence abound. In ‘Upcycle’, the narrator’s ailing father, having spent a lifetime terrorising his family, comes to haunt the family home, “crawling around the wall like a crazed lizard”, his body “partially flattened . . . his neck bent as if it had been snapped and yanked back into place with a heap of loose skin sewn back on roughly”. ‘Leitrim Flip’ is the tale of an alpha submissive and her partner who are kidnapped and held captive in a cage by a couple, Lord Canine and Mrs Mutt, while spectators in gimp masks look on. In ‘Imp of the Perverse’, we witness the disastrous trajectory of a lecturer/student relationship, ending in the student’s pregnancy, dismissal from university and mental decline/transformation into a werewolf. ‘SOMAT’ chronicles the hideous, science-fiction-turned-reality of a brain-dead woman kept alive as an incubator for the 14-week-old foetus inside her: the grisly story here is narrated by the foetus. And ‘Boybot™’ is the story of a falsely convicted paedophile in rehabilitative treatment involving Conor, a sex robot built to resemble a “blonde muscular ivory innocent” teenage boy.
The subject matter is as dark as it comes, graphic and violent, but the treatment is the surprising thing. Caldwell never lets her readers stand on easy ground, and the stories shift delightfully, moving and writhing in unpredictable, electrically charged directions. Their true power resides in an uncanny combination of the familiar and the outlandish – this is the real world, alright, but through a lens unlike any other. And this reality rings true, preventing the shocking content from feeling like it is there for shock value alone. For all its swagger and guts, there is a tender humanity at the heart of this collection, a deep understanding of pain, and a righteous fury – these stories matter, they demand to be told, and to be read. This reviewer’s advice is to obey and read them. I for one will be sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for whatever June Caldwell publishes next. (Warning: I have been having some very strange dreams over the last few days while reading this book: the two things may or may not be related).
Words: Liza Cox