Keely O’Shaugnessy, Baby is a Thing Best Whispered (Alien Buddha Press, 2022)
Keely O’Shaugnessy’s collection of short stories is a hard-hitting spin through scenes of horror and glimpses of hope. Screams are heard as whispers and whispers are screamed…
The collection is strewn with violence and fear. Domestic abuse, in particular, is a recurring theme. ‘Hidden in the Margins of a Gideon’s Bible’ is a grimly vivid snapshot of three characters’ responses to such horror: the mother, bloodied and beaten; the ‘kid sister’, inquisitive and fearful; and the older sister holding her family (and the narrative) together. All three lay in a single motel bed, aware to varying degrees of the perils of their situation, a disturbingly evocative metaphor for the widespread impacts of abuse.
For all the horror, however, O’Shaughnessy offers plentiful moments of redemption. Dreams spiral up, emerging from the darkness. In ‘Practising Tricks, Spells and Other Incantations’, the narrator opens with a wonderfully unstable first line:
You’re seven when I fracture my wrists, still young enough to believe in magic
The contrasting personalities housed within this line encapsulate the delicate balance between believing and disbelieving that runs throughout the collection. Magical possibilities interact with harsh realities, often losing but always putting up a fight.
Transformation is a tantalising prospect in a world where escape is often a character’s greatest hope. In ‘What If We Breathed Through Our Skin?’, a boy turns into a frog. Less literally, motherhood transforms characters. The narrator in the collection’s opening story, ‘Baby is a Thing Best Whispered’, is undergoing perhaps the greatest change of her life but ‘the ’90s playlist we devised nights before’ is drowning out moment. The start of a new life blurs into ‘long and winding’ speeches in which the bride and mother-to-be barely features. Starting with a character who feels absent from her own story is a superbly disorienting technique, which sets the scene for the collection’s distinctive instability.
Meanwhile, the convincing co-existence of life-changing and trivial is one of the collection’s greatest achievements. Small details that seem scarcely to warrant a mention are in fact pivotal, like the shade of red on a car used for an extra-marital affair or the different sizes of balloon thrown in water fights as a pregnant narrator’s baby kicks. The ripped chinos the narrator imagines her father might have worn as he threatened her mother with a knife seem vanishingly insignificant yet somehow essential to the made-up memory.
In a collection with such carefully scrutinised memories, vagueness stands out. In ‘The Manicure’, the narrator’s throwaway reference to ‘a long dead actress whose name I can’t remember’ feels like a fitting epithet for many of the collection’s absent and self-absent characters. Loss accompanies transformation like night follows day. ‘How to Bake Cookies When Your Child is Dying’ is not, as the title suggests, a self-help guide for coping with grief; rather, it is an eight-step recipe that advances with unnerving inevitability. Baking, for the narrator, is a gesture. It is ambiguous whether this gesture is meaningful or meaningless. Simply, when going through the motions is all one can do, one must go through the motions.
O’Shaughnessy’s writing certainly does not go through the motions. Her rhythmic prose showcases masterful narrative control and her stories have the ability to surprise with devastating simplicity. Nowhere is this better seen than in ‘Teaching a Clean Front Kick’, where words spoken and unspoken are reflected in actions done and undone. The child narrator sits on her infant sister but is dragged off before she can cause too much harm. The ominous presence of Uncle Jerry, however, lurks over the story – and provokes its chilling final line.
Keely O’Shaughnessy, Baby is a Thing Best Whispered (Alien Buddha Press, 2022). Available here.