Valerie O'Riordan's Enough
is an intriguing thing. On the cover the letters of the title appear plucked from black velvet, tufts worried loose to reveal the word exposed in the warp and weft. It speaks of small, private compulsions, secret moments of need. Inside, ten short tales suspend ten strange lives, a slice of each in aspic. If you're not tempted by a collection that promises 'Fake mermaids and conjoined twins, Johannes Gutenberg, airplane sex, anti-terrorism agricultural advice, Bluebeard and more' then there's probably no hope for you at all.
'Enough' is a funny word. "That's enough", we say, when something's just right. "That's enough!" we shout, when something's too much to bear. O'Riordan dances down the middle, giving us just enough detail to lure us into immediately immersive realities and then springing moments of such perfectly rendered agony that some of these stories are almost - almost - too hard to read. The Runt,
for example, genuinely made my armpits prickle with mounting dread.
The title story, Enough,
where we meet the conjoined twins, is a masterclass in heartbreak by degrees. The incremental horrors heap up, the mother unravelling tiny blankets, the x-rays 'a row of flattened ghosts, hanging from a clothes-line'. But there's a strange hope in there too, the babies 'curled towards each other, telling secrets, a language of tangled veins and mingled blood.' Their intimacy, an intimacy beyond our understanding, only serves to highlight the impotent exclusion of the parents.
The Girl in the Glass,
the tale of the fake mermaid and the man who 'loves' her, traps you inside the thoughts of the narrator, unable to tear yourself away, like when you dream about trying to run underwater. The brevity of these stories only makes them more troubling - you say no, no, no, I must go back, but you can't.
There are moments of humour here too, like when the schoolgirls of Turbulence
discuss sex - 'Yeh can't do it standin' up,
Carrie, otherwise his yoke goes in too far an' yeh get a kidney infection.' Or in Homeland Security: Field Guide (Beef)
, a brilliant shout of defiance and ingenuity with perfect details like the 'food colouring in Wickes' Brilliant White'.
Sometimes there's a moment of redemption. In Extra Time
we join a bride in her hotel room, readying herself for the biggest day of her life. Something's not right, though. She sucks her travel alarm clock, feels as 'the tick-tick tick-tick jars like toothache', the clock tasting like 'Wet Sundays in a mouldy tent and Graham's waders'. 'Graham says I'm gone flaccid', she says, and we know what she needs to do.
These stories are lithe and vicious, perfectly honed and armed to the teeth. I don't think I'll ever forget the dawning horror of Magic Mirror,
the final story in the collection, or the moment in 1440
when 'The bishop surveys his new home - the caches of bones and teeth in odd nooks'. It is as though O'Riordan knows the ideal dose of poison - not so much as to kill us, but just enough to do the damage.
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