Book Review – The Last Resort by Jan Carson

The Last Resort is a collection of ten linked short stories by Jan Carson, each focusing on the existential plight of one of the residents staying at Seacliff Caravan Park. Far from the idyllic sun and laughter filled caravan parks of happy childhood summers, Seacliff is huddled at the edge of a remote, blustery cliff on Antrim’s North Coast and has seen better days; a perfect reflection of the minds of its residents. Most of them are here against their will, because they have nowhere better to be, or because they are hoping to regain some of the happiness once found in this place; resulting in an accumulated sense of sadness and stagnancy hanging over the park, a place where presences and memories linger. To add to their misery, as the stories unfold, it seems there is a thief among them, as items of value begin to disappear.

The collection opens with Pete’s story. The residents are gathering in the February rain to place a cliff-side bench in memory of ex RUC man Frank’s daughter Lynette, who died here in a bomb explosion several decades back. This reference to the Troubles firmly anchors the stories in context of place, but also creates a subtle thread running through the stories; Lynette’s death, and the impact on Frank, resurfaces in other stories, offering different reflections on the legacy of this tragedy. The way the stories are interlinked considers how individuals briefly and even unknowingly feature in, and impact, each other’s life stories; how humanity is often intertwined beyond our conscious knowledge. 

Carson’s stories touch on broader and more sweeping themes, including the Troubles, immigration, gender politics and the social strictures of religion, as well as more intimate themes of complex family dynamics, alcoholism, dealing with dementia, people creating facades, and people being unable to stand up for themselves. There is Pete, who is being saddled with the running of this park and, although it’s not something he wants, finds himself unable to express this; instead, he waits passively, and is relieved when the final decision is taken out of his hands. Then there’s Richard, who doesn’t have the courage to reveal to his father what he really does for a living, so hides away here at the edge of the world, despite knowing his secret will be revealed sooner or later. Anna also allows herself to be pushed around; whether it’s by the ghostly presence of her mother, or the resident child sleuth, Alma. Alma appears in many of the stories, hot on the case of the disappearing valuables. Dynamic and Agatha Christie-obsessed, she represents a lively contrast to the adults around her. Where they are often meek, reticent, shirking responsibility, or taking the easier road by deceiving each other, she is bright, confident, and proactive; often seen in a position of power over the adults. Richard reflects, ‘I try to remember I’m the adult here. I shouldn’t let a child intimidate me.Then again, I let everybody boss me around’. Alma’s fearless and determined nature stands in stark contrast to how, as we enter adulthood, we sometimes lose that original bold, wondrous, inquisitive spark of childhood, and instead seem to gain baggage that only serves to hold us back.

The beauty of short story collections is how they allow writers to conjure and develop an array of diverse characters, with diverse backstories to be revealed; each presenting the opportunity for exploring different mindsets and behaviours. Carson vividly brings to life this cast of complex characters, each with their own troubles, and the more introspective passages allow the reader to gain a greater understanding of how they have arrived to where they are now. Vidas reflects on his ill-fated decision to leave Lithuania in search of a better life, and ultimately realises that sometimes we just have to learn things the hard way for ourselves, while Kathleen struggles to manage stark, traditional religious values alongside her love of her daughter and grandson.

The caravan park is a perfectly apt setting for a selection of stories exploring the complexities of existence, and the obstacles people can face in moving forward with their lives. Lois, separated and trying to relive prior happiness with her now older and uninterested children, reflects ‘a caravan’s meant to make you mobile. But this one’s static, which means, despite my best intentions, I am perpetually stuck.’ The remote location at the edge of the cliff is also replete with significance. It embodies both the sense of isolation, people teetering on the edge, as well as the irony of all these private spaces huddled together; they are only metres apart, yet behind each flimsy caravan door lurks a secret or a deception of some kind. In this ‘end-of-the-road kind of place’, where there is nowhere to run, people may just have to begin facing their flaws and their fears. 

Amidst the serious themes being explored, Alma’s sparky detective ventures and the magic realist elements add a touch of playfulness to the stories: Anna conversing with her mother’s ghost, Malcolm’s telekinetic powers, and Richard’s caravan which seems to expand exponentially on the inside the more guests it needs to house. With lightness of touch, and compassionate humour, Carson portrays her characters, and their troubles, with great empathy; despite their hardships, her characters struggle on, and we get a sense that they are going to come out the other end of their stay the better for it.

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The Last Resort was published in 2021 by Doubleday Ireland, and is available online or by supporting your favourite bookshop.

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Jan Carson is a writer and community arts facilitator based in Belfast. Her first novel, Malcolm Orange Disappears, was published in 2014 to critical acclaim, followed by a short-story collection, Children’s Children (2016), and two flash fiction anthologies, Postcard Stories (2017) and Postcard Stories 2 (2020). Her second novel, The Fire Starters (2019), won the EU Prize for Literature and was shortlisted for the Dalkey Novel of the Year Award. Her work has appeared in numerous journals and on BBC Radio 3 and 4. She has won the Harper’s Bazaar short-story competition and has been shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award and the Seán Ó Faoláin Short Story Prize. She specialises in running arts projects and events with older people, especially those living with dementia.

Carson also runs her own blog , where she posts news about her own books, as well as a multitude of other bookish news and musings.

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