I Want to Know That I Will Be Ok (Banshee Press, 2021), Deirdre Sullivan’s first book for adults, is a collection of beautifully strange, engrossing and unsettling short stories. Her short stories have already been published in literary journals and the Irish Times, but she is perhaps best known for her award-winning books for children and young adults. It may be this experience in writing for children, which invites writing that deep-dives into strange and wondrous worlds in unique ways, that has influenced this collection for adults; and, on investigating further, Sullivan’s YA books are not exactly your average adventure, fantasy, or coming-of-age YA books. To give unfamiliar readers an idea of some of her books to date, Savage Her Reply (Little Island, 2020) is a retelling of The Children of Lir, told from the perspective of stepmother Aífe, and is described as ‘a dark and witchy feminist fairytale…unsettling and dark, feminist and fierce, yet nuanced in its exploration of the guilt of a complex character’; Tangleweed and Brine (Little Island, 2017) is a ‘collection of thirteen dark, feminist retellings of traditional fairytales…with brave and resilient heroines’; and Needlework (Little Island, 2016) is a girl’s meditation on her efforts to maintain her bodily and spiritual integrity in the face of abuse, violation and neglect. This fascination with the female experience, exploring both the darkness and the power that this embodies, is something which has undoubtedly transferred through to her writing for adults.
The fourteen short stories in I Want To Know That I Will Be Ok draw on universal themes, many pertaining directly to the female experience, and all explored from the female perspective: motherhood, pregnancy and baby loss, illness, relationships, love, insecurity and infidelity, anger, difficult family relationships and the ties of family duty, and the growing pains of adolescence. However, Sullivan’s unique ability to take these very real experiences, and propel them beyond a threshold into strange and unforeseen places, is what makes these stories so startling and utterly gripping. Stories seamlessly move from everyday, relatable situations to the strange, the inexplicable and the downright terrifying.
Drawing readers in from all vantage points, using first, second and third person narrative, Sullivan gathers a cast of narrators and protagonists who are, by and large, uncomfortable in their own skins; either psychologically, physically, or both. The stories explore how we inhabit our bodies, the way we can feel connected to, or disconnected from, our bodies, and the way presences can linger, both within us and around us. What could be heart-wrenching stories about women and girls who have experienced loss, trauma, and a sense of not belonging, are elevated to something more powerful and gripping due to the strange turns the stories take.
The collection opens with ‘The Mother’, where a woman endures the pressure of social expectation; the intrusive questions born from the socially constructed urgency to be in a relationship, to marry, to have children, and the pressure when the children don’t come as quickly as we’d like. Ultimately, the story defiantly, and with dark humour, challenges the notion of what it is to be a mother, and the lengths people could go to to conform and belong in some way. Faced with a barrage of questions, the woman feels that ‘people felt entitled to little bits of her’. This is a sentiment which crops up several times throughout the book, including in ‘Hen’, another story which explores the pressure faced by women to meet and satisfy social expectation, or in ‘The Bockety Woman’ where the narrator feels people want to ‘eat you up in disappointed bites, like sandwiches at funerals’. This sentiment reinforces the sense of a woman’s body and business, in our society, not always being fully her own, but also symbolises the physical effect that psychological strain can have, trauma cutting away at, and modifying, the body.
In ‘Hen’ Sullivan explores the disconnect we can experience from our bodies. The woman at times observes and interprets moments in a purely physical, biological way; seeming detached, as if observing from outside her body, evoking an almost existential terror. Other characters, as in ‘Pearleen’ and ‘Skein’, experience the opposite, feeling all too present in their bodies as old presences linger in the aftermath of trauma, and new inexplicable presences begin to form.
Most of Sullivan’s characters have difficulty fitting in and she beautifully explores the darkness of our innermost thoughts; interior monologues of anxiety, self-doubt and striving to find a way to belong. The titular story in the collection explores the awkwardness of adolescence, both physical and psychological, coming to a climax at a party where a young girl’s desperate attempts to fit in backfire, until she finds some small moment of connection and comfort in a realm beyond the ordinary. Sullivan’s characters often desperately try to present a facade that matches expectations. The woman in ‘Hen’ reflects ‘you show them faces you want them to see’, while in ‘Missing in the Morning’ the girl simply feels ‘there didn’t seem a right way for Leontia to be in the world.’
As is often the case with short stories, part of the power and momentum is gained from moving back and forth between past and present. The past serves to further inform and explain the present; exploring how past events and trauma can shape the present, affect us down the line, and even carry down through generations. ‘All That You Possess’ – don’t read this one before climbing into bed at night – considers the possibility of psychological troubles passing down through generations, and the power of the mind on the body, in a terrifying way.
Many of the stories explore the difficulty in human relationships and family dynamics; as a writer established in writing for children, it’s particularly interesting to see how Sullivan writes relationships and interactions between adults/parents and children, taking into consideration the different perspectives that adults and children have of the world. She moves seamlessly between writing these relationships from an adult or a child’s perspective, creating a distinctive voice for each.
In ‘Appointment’, which explores guilt, resentment and feeling trapped by family duty, Sullivan’s narrative style is very questioning; reflecting the searching, self-reflective aspect of existence where we seek to know, to understand, and to fix uncertainty. We do, after all, want to know that we will be ok, and Sullivan’s characters are each trying to find their own way to exist in this world. This questioning writing style is employed in several of the stories, drawing us in to join the characters on their innermost journeys and struggles. Despite the pervading darkness and uncomfortable feeling to many of the stories, there are redeeming moments of genuine tenderness and human connection woven in occasionally, even if only momentary.
The stories in I Want to Know That I Will Be Ok are gorgeously strange, powerful and haunting. This is storytelling that beautifully captures the complexity of what it is to be human, contemplating the darkness that is woven into the fabric of everyday life, and the ways in which it can manifest itself. As is often the case with the best short stories, Sullivan sometimes leaves us with a sense that we are not exactly sure what happens in the end, only sure of the feeling we are left with; creeping under our skin and burrowing deep into our psyche, tapping into the strangeness and darkness of life, the human mind, and what it is to exist within our bodies.
I Want To Know That I Will Be Ok is available directly from publishers Banshee Press or by supporting your local bookshop.
Deirdre Sullivan is a writer and teacher from Galway. She has written seven acclaimed books for young adults, including Savage Her Reply (Little Island 2020), Perfectly Preventable Deaths (Hot Key Books 2019), and Tangleweed and Brine (Little Island 2017). She was the recipient of the CBI Book of the Year Award in 2018 and the An Post Irish Book Award for YA in 2020. Her short fiction has appeared in Banshee and The Dublin Review. I Want to Know That I Will Be Okay is her first book for adults.