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Book Review: The Weight of a Human Heart

By (July 19, 2014) No Comment

The Weight of a Human Heart: Storiesweight of a human heart

By Ryan O’Neill

St. Martin’s, 2014


According to Glasgow-born Ryan O’Neill, many of the stories in his debut collection The Weight of a Human Heart were written as part of the MFA program at Australia’s University of Newcastle, and he needn’t have explained this, because the stories themselves bear the stamp of their workshop-origins. All over the world, these signs are roughly the same: an arch lack of realism, an over-clever footsie-playing with the mere trappings of language, and most of all, an admiring gaze fixed unwaveringly not on the paste-board posturings of the characters but rather upon the author himself.

These sticky, distasteful signs are clinically conclusive: if you encounter all three in a book, that book germinated in the preening, incestuous murk of a workshop somewhere. And in nine cases out of ten, the diagnosis is fatal: your reading pleasure will experience a heightened irritability, a gradual lassitude, and finally a fitful death, usually around page 50, or when a main character makes a third or fourth ironic reference to Hasbro board games, whichever comes first.

Ryan O’Neill is the tenth case; his The Weight of the Human Heart has enough true worth in it to overweigh easily its MFA affectations.

There are plenty of those affectations, alas. There are skimpy little stories like “Four Letter Words,” broken into vignettes dictated by things like “Cock” and “Fart”; there are skimpy little stories like “English as a Foreign Language,” laid out around an ESL exam; there are skimpy little stories like “Typography” organized around – well, but you can guess. These are the sorts of silly little one-note gimmicks that would have fallen prey to an editor’s pencil in the days before writing workshops; now, they flourish unimpeded, live much-praised lives, and when they die go to Heaven and become Wes Anderson movies.

But even some of O’Neill’s stories along these lines work better than they should, like “A Speeding Bullet,” which uses the well-worn condescension-gimmick of a child so obsessed with comic books that he sees reality entirely through their stories. The story is hampered by this gimmick, of course, but its simple pathos at times comes through, as when the boy discovers the dead body of his mother:

Comics had taught me that death was impermanent. Heroes and villains could die, but they always came back to life a few issues later, through sorcery, or time-travel, or the Lazarus Pit. Even my mother’s favourite super hero, Jesus Christ, had risen from the dead.

But when I saw the red of her blood I knew my mother was gone forever. No comic-book panel ever had such a color.

But the book’s worth comes not from such salvage operations but from the eight or nine stories out of these twenty-one that dispense with MFA fripperies and get right about the business of creating drama. It’s in these stories that O’Neill shows his real talents, a strong sense of place, a good ear for dialogue, and a sure storyteller’s knack for twisting his tales. O’Neill sets his stories in many far-flung locations, but the ones set in Africa are usually the most well-realized. The Rwandan genocide casts a long shadow over these stories, and those shadows find their way into the lives of even the simplest characters, like gentle schoolteacher Mrs. Watt in “The Saved”:

She had found the best way to think of Rwanda was to imagine it as a postcard, cheerful farmers and graceful women balancing baskets on their heads, and not to concern herself with what was outside the edges of the picture. In this case she had cropped the genocidaires who were working on the road that led to the teachers’ house. One of them wore a loop of grubby white cardboard around his neck and was leading the other prisoners in prayer. On the edge of the postcard, Mrs Watt could glimpse her own small mudbrick house and the garden she had stopped tending when her digging brought up bones.

Africa is also the setting for the collection’s most powerful and memorable story, “Africa Was Children Crying,” in which feckless jerk John Gilchrist finds himself in that country while his wife works in orphanages. During one of the brutal, endless bus-rides that will be familiar to anybody who’s ever travelled in Africa (“Gilchrist squirmed and swallowed his nausea while a baby cried and cried, as if for future sorrow”), Gilchrist’s malaria flares up. He stops in the nearest village to wait it out, and the imagery O’Neill summons is clearly shaped from his own memories:

He [Gilchrist] lay down for a few moments, then stood unsteadily and went out into the heat. He paced slowly across the compound to the pit latrine, like a pirate measuring out his treasure. Breathing through his mouth, he urinated over the flies that flew up, dazed and bloated, from the hole. Outside, he washed his hands under the warm drip of a broken tap. The baby was being dried off after his bath. Drops of water curved and traced along the child’s perfect brown skin and his eyes were astonished.

Gilchrist is a coward and a weakling (his offstage wife is the noble one), and yet he’s thoroughly human, and when the tragedy that stalks him throughout the story finally finds him, every reader-sympathy is engaged.

Sympathy is also finely-manipulated in the collection’s open and most complex story, “Collected Stories,” which follows the difficult relations between best-selling Australian author Margaret Hately and her daughter Barbara, who’s spent her entire life watching her mother callously transmute reality into fiction:

I wasn’t surprised when my mother killed me. The first time was a plane crash, the second I was burned alive, and the third was a swimming pool drowning. Even the critics took notice, with the Sydney Morning Herald, in its review of A Serpent’s Tooth (‘In just two collections, Hately has become our foremost short-story writer”) wondering at the number of young women dying in her stories. It was uncomfortable visiting home around this time, thinking that even as she made small talk, or made lunch, my mother might be planning another murder. But there must have been a limit to how often a mother could kill her daughter, as after my fourth death (from choking on a chicken bone, in a story published in Meanjin), she let me live.

Ryan O’Neill’s fiction has been extensively praised and honored for years in its periodical appearances, and this book brings those stories together into a debut of great intelligence and promise. What path he takes from here on out is anybody’s guess – will he embrace the fierce independent vision of stories like “Africa Was Children Crying” or “Collected Stories,” or will he succumb to more lists and tricks and gimmicks? He currently teaches English at the University of Newcastle, so all hope may be lost. Time will tell.