Wendy Erskine’s second short story collection conjures an achingly beautiful topography of the everyday, writes Aimée Walsh.
After her critically acclaimed debut Sweet Home, Wendy Erskine’s follow-up collection Dance Move has been hotly anticipated, and it is a spectacular feat in the short story form. Since launching onto the literary scene in 2018, Erskine has become an indomitable voice in Northern Irish fiction. A writer whose work is synonymous with the heartbreaking and wonderful lives of Belfast’s residents, she turns her hand in this new collection to conjure up an achingly beautiful topography of the everyday: From a one-time musician who finds himself lauded at a paramilitary function, to a woman who posters her local area in search of her dead son.
Erskine’s Dance Move has such a beautiful deftness of touch that in writing the intricacies and intimacies between people in their most vulnerable moments, there is a tenderness felt by the reader which surpasses words. Once read, each of the stories cannot be unfelt; there is a lasting imprint. These frissons, however, are not localised in a distant memory, but rather the past speaks to the characters with a red-hot intensity. It is exactly Erskine’s ability to create a compelling dialogue between past and present which cements her as a future classic of Irish literature. The title story shows just this, when Kate struggles to contain her teenage daughter’s thirst for life, from high-kicking her way through dance routine — presumably Cardi B’s WAP — with a friend, to sneakily attending a rave in a disused hardware store. This mother-daughter tension is mirrored with Kate’s own traumatic coming of age, when her then-teenage brother’s life-changing accident on a lads’ holiday left him paralysed. In the words of Kate’s own mother: ‘It’s not doom and gloom. It’s called reality’. Here, as throughout the collection, Erskine shows that there must be joy hidden where we least expect it.
In the opening story, ‘Mathematics’, cleaner Roberta finds all sorts of corporeal detritus in rent-by-night apartments; hair, blood, and even ‘a tooth, shreds of gum still attached.’ Although her discoveries are not limited to the detached and severed, she finds a child left behind in the flat after her mother disappears. In this story, Roberta becomes a short-term surrogate mother to this lost child, and Erskine’s writing is at its best. Here is where she writes of the unlikely spaces in which tenderness flourishes and then, often, shortly after, withers.
Elsewhere, in the story ‘Memento Mori’, Gillian and Tracey meet by chance at a book launch and quickly fall in love. Soon after, Tracey is diagnosed with cancer and a young woman is murdered outside their house. In this, there are two grieving processes happening simultaneously: the public memorial set up just beyond the parameters of her home for the young girl killed by her ex-boyfriend, and Gillian’s own personal grief at the passing of her beloved. Erskine has a magnificent skill in turning the painful into the exquisite. As this story closes, and after Tracey is gone, ‘they whisper to each other all the things that they never thought to say.’
When Sweet Home was published, you couldn’t move for being asked if you’d got your hands on it yet. There was such a buzz around this new voice in Irish short story writing. I have absolutely no doubt that for the coming months and years I will be asking friends near and far, ‘Have you read Dance Move yet?’, and if they are unfortunate enough not to have, there will be a swift pressing of the book into waiting palms. This is to say: please, reader, take this review as my pressing Dance Move upon you: you absolutely must read it.
‘Dance Move’ is published by Picador next Thursday. Pre-order your copy here (£14.99), with special edition signed bookplate while stocks last. We launch ‘Dance Move’ with a sold out event at The Social, London, on Monday.
Aimée Walsh is a writer with a PhD in literature. In winter 2021, she was awarded an Arts Council of Northern Ireland Emerging Writers Bursary in conjunction with the Irish Writers’ Centre. In Spring 2022, she is participating in the Faber Academy. She is writing a novel. Follow her on Twitter here.