Sweet Home – Wendy Erskine
The stories in this collection by Wendy Erskine are all set in East Belfast. A working-class area that is overwhelmingly Protestant, East Belfast is known for being the childhood of C.S. Lewis, the place where Van Morrison grew up and the birthplace of George Best, the Manchester United player regarded as probably the greatest football (soccer) player of all time. It was the home of countless shipbuilders who worked at Harland and Wolff, the company that dominated world shipbuilding in the 20th century. They were the builders of the Titanic. The all-time high number of workers was 35,000, and in 2019, the shipyard was rescued from closing and the workforce was around 79. Because East Belfast is in the shadow of (quite literally) the shipyards, it has long gone unnoticed.
Not only is East Belfast undiscovered by most tourists, but many readers (like myself) who revel in reading Northern Irish fiction of the 20th and 21st century, find few works about this part of the city. One of the best known contemporary Northern Irish writers is Jan Carson, raised in Ballymena, and now based in Belfast. Her recent novel The Fire Starters, winner of a 2019 EU Literature prize is set in East Belfast.
As in many short story collections, each reader will have their favorites, and find some stories less compelling. One or more are set during the Troubles, and in others, the time of the Troubles is not far removed. Although East Belfast is unfamiliar to many outside of Belfast, one of my contemporary Irish fiction book club members, a native of Belfast, went to the same primary school as a character in one of the stories. Her favorite story, and one of mine, was “77 Pop Facts You Didn’t Know about Gil Courtenay”. Erskine shared in an interview that many readers are convinced they have heard of Gil Courtenay, although he is fictional. I wasn’t sure he was fictional but wondered why I had never heard of him. I looked up his address on Google maps, and there is a home there – one of many small brick row homes in blocks of the same. My absolutely favorite story was “Arab States: Mind and Narrative”. Paula is married to Jimmy and mother of Ellie, who lives with her partner Meg, and is thinking about a domestic partnership (oh how far things have come in Northern Ireland). One night on a TV news show, Paula sees an acquaintance from university days who is now an expert on the Middle East. She becomes obsessed with learning more about the Middle East and obsessed with this man, which leads to a rather sad ending. This collection features people who often lead narrow lives, with limited horizons. The dialogue is fantastic, and her stories take us in different directions.
Wendy Erskine, born in 1968, studied English at University of Glasgow. In her 20’s, she was unsuccessful in getting a novel published, and it took her some time to return to writing. She lived in East Belfast with her husband and three children, and taught in a local grammar school when things changed. In 2015, she won a spot in a writing course in Dublin, organized by The Stinging Fly, and traveled there weekly for the course. This was the beginning of her short story writing and she promises to have much more to come.
Shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize 2019