Almost the Same Blue, by John O’Donnell, Doire Press, 180 pp, €14, ISBN: 978-1907682759
Almost the Same Blue is a collection of sixteen short stories written by John O’Donnell. The author has won several awards for his poetry, while maintaining his day job as a practising barrister. The stories in this collection cover wide and varied ground, and they involve a range of different narrative voices, both male and female. Twelve of the sixteen are told in the first person singular: seven of those are written in different male personae, and five in those of different women. Most of those are written in the present tense, which adds to the sense of immediacy, and almost all of them address dark themes. These include child abuse and abduction, life-changing injuries, terrorism, a plane crash, gambling addiction, cannibalism, assisted suicide and murder. Against that vivid and turbulent background, those stories that merely focus on run-of-the-mill adulteries may come as a form of light relief. The diversity of narrative voices, and the impulse to draw upon such extreme and sensational story lines suggest that this collection might be as exploratory for the author as it is for the reader.
The inspiration for the plots may have come from O’Donnell’s own experiences in the criminal courts. The story called “Ostrich” led me to recall the infamous Kingsmill massacre in Co Armagh in 1976, when a bus carrying textile workers returning home after their shift was ambushed in south Armagh by an IRA gang. In O’Donnell’s story, and in the real Kingsmill incident, the only Catholic on the bus is separated from the others and allowed to leave while the rest are murdered in cold blood. The Catholic survivor of the sectarian atrocity later said that his workmates assumed they had been stopped by loyalist gunmen, and believed that he was going to be shot because of his religion. One of them tried to signal to him to pretend that he was a Protestant. This simple but courageous act of human decency also features in “Ostrich” and is worked skilfully by O’Donnell to connect with a parallel story that concerns the traumatic loss of a newly-born child. The two narratives support and cast light on each other in what is one of the most effective pieces in this collection.
Most of the other pieces display the traditional strengths of the well-made short story ‑ with clear beginnings, middles and ends. At times the plotting can seem a little contrived, and the resolutions can sometimes tie the various story lines a little too neatly together. If there is to be a twist in the tail of these stories – à la Roald Dahl ‑ that twist needs to be unexpected in more ways than on, and O’Donnell is not always able to deliver that level of critical payoff. In the story called “Partners”, for example, where an arrogant and inept middle manager finally discovers his wife’s infidelity, some plot points are signalled a shade too early, preventing them from coming as much of a revelation. he characters in most of the other stories are tested by more extreme circumstances, but character does not need to be revealed through catastrophic events. That can also become apparent through small and apparently trivial domestic incidents. Indeed, the smaller the incident the more revealing it can often be, and the greater insight it can provide of character and situation.
There are, however, many examples in the collection where the ambitions of the stories are matched in their execution. One such is the final piece, “Ichthyanthrope”. The unusual and puzzling title refers to the ancient belief that human beings can sometimes morph into hybrid types of fish. This story is one of several that involve a legal or courtroom setting, and these scenes are written with an informed and convincing authority. But the realistic detail of the setting is offset by a growing sense of an opposing narrative that is surreal, menacing and chimerical. “Ichthyanthrope” is narrated by an insinuating and rather sleazy character who has homicidal tendencies and is probably deranged, the prose written with an archness and self-conscious precision that borders on pedantry. O’Donnell clearly wishes to lead us into unfamiliar and disturbing territory ‑ in this he succeeds admirably ‑ and the conclusion of the story is left appropriately open-ended.
In a sense, this may also provide an implicit commentary on O’Donnell’s own work ‑ both as author and barrister. The narrative in “Ichthyanthrope” is delivered by the defendant in a murder trial to his legal counsel. He urges her to present the court with an explanation for his wife’s death that defies conventional reason, but argues that it matters less if that defence is true than that it should be original and delivered to the jury with complete conviction. As one might expect from an accomplished poet, the stories in this collection are well-written and consistently entertaining, but they also reveal a sense of creative assurance that the defendant in the last story might envy.
David Blake Knox is an author, a former director of production with RTÉ and executive editor with BBC Television. His independent production company, Blueprint Pictures, was founded in 2002, and has produced a range of TV programmes and films.