Nicole Flattery’s publisher paid big money for these debut stories (plus a novel-in-progress), and it’s not hard to see why: they’re often extremely funny – peculiar as well as ha-ha – and highly addictive... Trauma lurks in the background, with allusions to attempted suicide, abuse and a 13-year-old’s miscarriage, in You’re Going to Forget Me Before I Forget You. Yet Flattery’s stories don’t depend on bringing such things to light; they’re just there – part of a woman’s life – which ultimately proves more disconcerting.
The clipped quirkiness of her prose relieves the text of the burden of narrative, which to Flattery usually means tedious contrivance or self-serving sentimentality. The narrator of ‘Hump’ – a reference to the hunchback she suddenly develops – mocks the tendency to transform life and people into stories and characters as she does the catering at her father’s funeral, trying to avoid fake interactions with people who ‘looked like someone I might sort of know’:
Flattery lays bare what feels like a listless, nationalised feminine pathology across a series of stories that could almost be narrated by or be about the same woman. That woman is disengaged, ironic, and fascinated by her lack of discernible power and personality. She views men – usually predatory and hopeless in bed – with an idle, resigned contempt. They, in turn, tend to project a similarly dim view back... Flattery is not yet 30 and there is an adolescent world-weariness about these sometimes baggy stories that, paradoxically, promises a great deal. Many of them are about women in their 20s, who have taken a long, hard look at the world and found their options for properly inhabiting it lacking. Their despair has manifested itself as a form of ennui that, in turn, can infect Flattery’s writing. Yet she has a spiky, vinegary talent that won’t be corralled. I suspect her next book will be wiser, and possibly better.
Some of these pieces reminded me a lot of Deborah Levy, and particularly her earlier stories: brutal, disorientating, filled with appetite, anger and characters who seem to spring from nowhere and everywhere at the same time. Their milieux are both provisional – an entropic world, halfway houses, temporary caravans – and intimately tied to political and social structures. It is a bold beginning, and one that you can only hope Flattery finds continuingly productive.
Like her contemporary, Sally Rooney, Flattery is drawn to the power imbalances between young women and older men, “a transaction that was professional and centuries old”. Her depiction of such relationships is more nuanced than victims and exploiters — Natasha is “involved with the professor after a protracted and fraught seduction he had feebly protested” — though nor does she let men off the hook. Flattery’s judgments crackle with cruel, clear sight. The professor takes her to “a film where time was the enemy and ageing was a singular tragedy: a film about a middle-aged man”. The account of a man failing to enjoy having hit “the sexual jackpot” is delicious: “the real issue was that Natasha made him feel like a young man and he hadn’t liked being a young man.”
his book is not boring, not unimaginative, not without a dry humour or a sense of irony. It also does have an authorial voice — but Nicole Flattery’s narrative voice is monotonous, with almost no variation in tone, no cadences, no impetus. It is persistent without being insistent. It does not shock, nor engage the reader with its rhetoric. It will not raise readers above their own level of experience or excitement. The stories are heartfelt and poignant, but the heart needs a bypass and the poignancy needs a shot in the arm.
The second serious issue is the lack of originality.
“At seventy, after suffering several disappointments, the first being my mother, the second being me, my father died.” The opening line of Nicole Flattery’s short story Hump stood out for me the first time I read it and has remained in my memory ever since. To put this in context, Hump was one of nearly 400 stories I was asked to read in order to co-edit an anthology to mark the Stinging Fly’s 20th anniversary last year. For a story, and particularly a line, to have such an impact amid so many others says much about an author’s talent. Flattery’s voice seemed so fully formed and assured for her age. At just 29, her debut collection, Show Them a Good Time, continues in this vein, announcing a bright new voice in Irish literature.