There’s a line in Paul Simon’s song Hearts and Bones, where his wife – Carrie Fisher – tries to lure him on an all-night drive to Mexico, to which he sings, “Why won’t you love me not / For who I am / Where I am. It perfectly captures the dislocation at the center of Niamh Mulvey’s early life, where the characters often find themselves out of step with their situation and with each other. Described as “love songs rather than short stories, they are played out of time and lean towards dissonance rather than close harmony.
The book opens on Mother’s Day, in which a woman meets her mother in an art gallery, where a few needle exchanges tell you everything you need to know about their relationship. It’s the kind of mother-daughter tango that plays out in Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms or Jeremy Cooper’s Bolt from the Blue – the adult-child dynamic reverses once the mother needs more care, but the he old balance of power remains. Just when the story feels like it’s heading in a familiar direction, it veers into something more interesting. It ends with a subtle moment of revelation that redefines what came before it.
The theme of motherhood also appears in Childcare, told from the perspective of a mother’s 10-year-old daughter who seeks attention but doesn’t give it. The daughter is a literal and figurative outsider: either locked out of the house while her mother sleeps, or excluded from the version of her mother that others see and celebrate. Again, this is a story that plays on the distance between the characters rather than their connection. The mother is neither who nor where her daughter needs her.
Good For You, Cecilia and Blackbirds explore the role of status change in sibling relationships. In the latter, a loving brother is eclipsed by his gifted younger sister, and their lives and fortunes diverge from there. It’s a story that does one of the trickiest things in short fiction: conveying the passage of time. Mulvey achieves this by using a fast style and seasoning the prose with only the details that matter – the brother is described in adulthood as a “single uncle as far as we know”, a phrase that does the job of multiple pages of backstory.
When brother and sister reconnect later in life, we sense something complex and nameless, yet palpable, between them. To some degree, being good for the news means being good for the ends. Although there was a place for the ambiguous, the unresolved, it felt like a story where something more definite was available and needed. By contrast, First Time – a clever story about a young couple’s first sexual experience (and burglary) – ends with a satisfying “click”, which makes it enjoyable and solid.
The main Hearts & Bones story is set in more conventional Irish short story territory. A teenage church member becomes pregnant amid abortion debates in Ireland. In the eyes of her religious model, redemption does not come from forgiveness, but from adapting the story around her pregnancy to that of Christian suffering. While interesting, it feels less distinct than some of the other stories in the collection, as if written earlier, when the writer was still in the process of individualizing himself.
The star of the collection is The Doll, a bizarre and quirky story about a fragile young man who uses a ventriloquist dummy to vent his self-loathing. The “doll” becomes an unhealthy obsession for him. Though lifeless, her role in the story’s later drama makes her a sinister presence, representing all the unspoken darkness the reader’s imagination can conjure up. The Doll is a minor epic that showcases Mulvey’s strengths as a writer: weirdness, originality, perfect pacing, and the way each development sheds new light on what came before it.
As a collection, Hearts & Bones is very accomplished. Mulvey – a trained editor – has a refined understanding of what makes a short story work. But for all his technical virtuosity, what stands out is his mastery of his own originality. She takes risks and makes weird choices that work when you see them on the page; his stories are inventive in their premise, without being contrived; she knows how to examine flawed characters without undermining them in the eyes of the reader. Although he’s a fledgling writer, Mulvey hits the mark with a book that delivers a lot and promises more.