Dance Move by Wendy Erskine is a collection of short stories that brings to life a broad and varied cast of characters, each trying to move forwards in their lives. Binding these stories together is the profound impact that moments in our past can have, either shaping how our lives have progressed or simply resurfacing unexpectedly in our present, eliciting deep emotions and impacting our decisions. There is glamorous, gracious and high-flying Mrs Dallesandro, paying regular visits to the shabbier side of town where no one knows her to indulge her innocuous secret, who relives a simple time in her past that was to have a profound impact on her, contrasting all that her life has become. In the titular Dance Move an incident from her family’s past has led a woman to be overly sensible, displaying conservative disapproval at those around her enjoying their lives in such a carefree manner, until she is faced with the choice to just let go for once.
Many of the stories also illuminate the deep, if momentary, connections that can occur, between the most unexpected of people, at the most unexpected of times. In the opening story, Roberta the cleaner makes an impulsive decision that dredges up her past when she finds more than she bargained for in one of the short-stay houses she cleans, while in Secrets Bonita Beach Krystal Cancun a woman whose close friend goes on a fancy holiday with her new love interest books a less glamorous holiday of her own, which takes an unusual turn. In Bildungsroman, Lee finds himself in a lasting predicament as the old lady he is staying with for a work placement turns out to be not as ‘beige’ as he first observed. In these stories, there is often a sense of how the unexpected, even the absurd, can have a deep impact on our lives.
Erskine beautifully builds the world in which her stories take place; while the focus is on the moving experiences of her main characters, the stories don’t neglect the external for the internal. In His Mother, a woman moves around the city trying to erase all traces of her lost son, finding his face and her grief swallowed in the humdrum of community life, as the next piece of news takes over; she is experiencing a devastating loss, yet the world around her moves on.
Erskine also shows great imagination in the specificity of the story lines she has created; unique vignettes in the wide expanse of life stories that could play out in our world, harbouring sentiments that are universal: grief, wistfulness, unfulfillment, nostalgia and sadness, but also moments of hope and realisation that an alternate and perhaps better future is within reach. The book’s epigraph evokes the idea that life is inevitably part happiness and part sadness, and this concept is deeply embedded in the stories brought to us in this collection. What I love about short story collections is this reminder about the infinite potential for life stories evolving at any given time, and the histories contained within each and every one of them, and this is a collection which perfectly encapsulates this concept. In a writing style which is sharp and filled with humour, compassionate and questioning what makes people tick, Erskine brings us a delightful and meaningful selection of snippets from imagined lives.
A standout story for me from a highly enjoyable collection was Golem; a beautifully crafted story about two married couples, that skillfully weaves in and out of the lives of the characters as they cross paths, revealing their memories, disappointments, regrets and fantasies.
Book 3 reviewed as part of the #20BooksOfSummer22 reading challenge hosted by Cathy at 746books.com.
Wendy Erskine lives in Belfast. Her debut collection, Sweet Home, was published by The Stinging Fly Press in Sept 2018 and Picador in 2019, has been translated into Italian and Arabic and optioned for TV. It won the 2020 Butler Literary Award, was shortlisted for the Edge Hill Prize 2019 and longlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize 2019. The story ‘Inakeen’ was longlisted for the Sunday Times Audible Short Story Prize 2019. Sweet Home was Book of the Year in the Guardian, The White Review, Observer, New Statesman, and TLS. Wendy’s second collection of stories, Dance Move, was published in February 2022, and has just been long-listed for the Edge Hill Prize 2022.
Her work has been published in The Stinging Fly, Winter Papers, Female Lines: New Writing from Northern Ireland and Being Various: New Irish Short Stories (Faber) and read on BBC Radio 4