Review of A City Burning – Nation Cymru

Jane Fraser

The acclaimed Irish short story writer, Claire Keegan, has stated that, ‘the short story begins after what happens, happens.’ After the drama has passed is the territory the writer has to work within: a time, a place, and a context of emotional consequences where, after the water has been stirred up and settled, what was before, is not now.

The making of a short story into a beautiful art form is therefore a delicate and challenging craft.  And Belfast-born Angela Graham has risen to that challenge, exhibiting in her debut collection, A City Burning, twenty-six stories which allow the reader to feel the emotional intensity of a range of characters as they stand at pivotal moments in their lives in the aftermath of personal tragedy.

Territory and transition

So to unpack Graham’s territory. Although all stories are unified by the theme of transition as characters move towards a new ‘now’ (though perhaps not ‘new normal’) in their lives, the stories move over a wide time-span – from the end of World War 2 to the current COVID-19 era – within the geographical settings of Northern Ireland, Wales and Italy.

‘The Road,’ the opening story in the collection sets the tone for the reader’s journey ahead. The narrator (an adult filmmaker) looks back at herself as a child through the lens of a camera – a Catholic living in Protestant East Belfast in the summer of 1969 where ‘something huge was burning’. From the perspective of the new now, the narrator states that there was “another angle” that the lens did not capture: a moment of choice where she herself was witness to soldiers being murdered during the ‘Troubles’.

Angle of vision

Graham’s cinematic angle of vision winds through this collection as does the idea of bearing witness to, in the many first person narratives, told with an unflinching eye. In ‘Life-Task,’ a lone and lonely man waits in a large crowd at a station for the arrival of Italian prisoners-of-war to be unloaded off an approaching train. Even though he has ‘no one to imagine in particular’ he stands and observes. Graham brings everything into sharp focus as the train, approaching along the tracks, finally closes the “far distance over the surface of Europe, the distance between them and us” and the narrator sets himself to learn anew and rebuild his life on seeing something shockingly beautiful.

These are quiet stories. Tales of ordinary people getting on with their ordinary lives trying to cope as best they can and battling on. In ‘Acting Abby’ Graham cleverly creates a story within a story, in which Abby, an actress, dissects an author’s script. Her response encapsulates what all the stories are about and what makes them function so successfully as bursts of light in often dark places.

‘Most people’s lives are small-scale. That’s what so awful when the Bad Thing happens: the life just bursts apart ‘cos it wasn’t meant to contain this much pain.’

Deep water

These are stories that are often long in the making in characters’ lives. In story-telling language, the inciting event was the ‘once upon a time’ and the ‘unfolding’ of the tale only emerges in the present, prompted by a crisis, or sometimes a reconnection with a familiar place, or object, that evokes memory. As Myrtle, a woman in her sixties says in ‘Snapshot:’‘Some damage doesn’t show till later.’

Nowhere is this more evident than in ‘Coasteering’ (one of my favourites in the collection) in which a fifty-something mother literally jumps into the deep water (a metaphoric pre-requisite for the writer of a short story) in the sea off the Antrim coast during her first summer ‘without children or young grown-ups,’ longing to take a risk that she’d never taken before and realising that it was ‘a great way to let go of time.’

This story, where the sea is present (as it is in many others such as ‘The Sea Hospital’ and ‘Sugared Almonds’) reveals a writer with a love of water, who knows the places she writes about from the ground up and from the surface of the ocean down. These are first hand, lived-experiences made real again on the page in the sense of place she re-creates for the reader. You can see and taste what her character does as she swims in water ‘which was bizarrely like swimming in scentless Guinness.’

And this:

‘Unlike those massive blue stretches of the far south, our northern Irish sea has no steady colour. It takes its hue from the coming and going of the sun as it parts clouds – to raise – from the dun acres of water far below, shining fields of vivid jade wrapped in the darkest bottle green. Seen from cliff-tops, these colours display themselves as vast sheets of luminous intensity.’

Graham has a finely-tuned ear and mind as well as a finely-tuned eye. Her voice is therefore not singular, but plural: lyrical, colloquial, political and philosophical. She has an affinity to many languages as revealed in her Ulster Scots, Italian and Welsh characters and on occasion, there is wry and mordant humour. She also knows the power of the unsaid.

Loss and untidy endings

Graham, like Keegan, understands that the short story is ultimately about loss. For fiction is a temporal art and time is irreversibly passing. Things will never be what they once were. This collection reveals Graham’s understanding of the human condition in that at times of greatest loss, emotional stress, and self-realisation there are often no words. Or few, as illustrated by Juliet, a married woman in ‘Safety First,’ suddenly realising the enormity of her situation, poised between husband and lover:

‘She recognised that he and she would hold their pain in place till it evaporated. No explosion. A dismantling by silent, invisible stages. Many, many days.’

In conclusion, to return to Keegan, who has also stated that short stories are not just about what is on the page, but about what is left behind after the final page is turned.  A City Burning is a collection that will live long in the mind as it succeeds in doing what it should: convey our human struggle with all its untidy endings. For after all, the short story is a mirror of life where death is the only tied-up ending.

It is a collection that confirms Graham’s place as a serious and accomplished writer of this most beautiful, yet often under-valued, work of art.

A City Burning is published by Seren and can be bought here.