The title novelette of this anthology from Retreat West Books, Homemade Weather by Tom O’Brien was the winning entry in the publisher’s new novelette-in-flash contest, judged by Damhnait Monaghan, and deserves its star position whole-heartedly.
The author immerses us in his protagonist’s world, keeping the focus tight and intimate. Celia Finn lives within view of a mountain that frames her childhood. Rather than bickering like other families in the area, her parents have periods of tense unspoken exchanges that Celia imagines as she sits on the stairs within earshot of what’s unsaid.
Celia is a faithful believer in rituals, and the novelette opens with her writing her name three times, an act that serves both to introduce her to us and to offer a sense of protection as her dog Ollie whistles his last breaths “to the mountain across the valley, with its band of shadowed woods.”
There’s a striking control to O’Brien’s writing – each word chosen with care and each statement neatly balanced to underplay emotions in a way that ensures they seep under our skin. Each sensation felt by Celia is delivered to us with considered care. At the doctor’s, “I felt his peppermint breath turn from me when he sent a look to my mother”, while her parents fail to argue out loud, she wants ‘to go back to my room, to close the door and hear only clean quiet.”
Celia is deeply observant, noting how her father “doesn’t shout, but “his voice hurts my head”, and taking pleasure from watching how people “are in the rain. Some act as if they don’t notice or care. Others cover their hair with one hand and run.” It is as though she is endlessly cataloguing behavioural traits and keeping a record that might serve as a shield against as yet unidentified dangers. It is as though she can sense the darkness waiting on the other side of light. “I shiver in the sun, even though I was warm in the rain.”
In her family home, “We don’t hit. We don’t shout, We choke on motes of tension.”
Through the quiet surety of O’Brien’s delivery, we’re reminded how every family harbours its own shadowy secrets, but that these are not always even the ones identified by those within the family.
And this is only Book One of this particular novelette.
When Book Two opens, Celia is fully grown and at her ailing mother’s bedside, where silence remains both as bargaining chip and condition: ‘The TV is always on, even with the sound off, but there’s a programme about petrified forests we both watch.”
It’s in this section that the O’Brien reveals his full ability to use space to paint the silence we’ve grown familiar with, so that some stories are told entirely by, or with only a handful of lines more than, their title, leaving the remainder of the page stark and white and devastating.
Book Three contains my favourite story in this winning novelette: ‘Drowning Hazards in the Traditional Irish Kitchen.’ Beautiful, raw and rippled through with human needs (for air, for the safety of our loved ones…), it sings arias as a standalone marvel.
A powerfully constrained drama to return to and mull over every line, each of which holds its own potency.
Read my review of What The Fox Brings In Its Jaw by Ian O’Brien, the second award-winning novelette in Retreat West’s anthology.
Read my review of The Impossibility of Wings by Donna K. Greenwood, the final novelette in Retreat West’s Anthology.
Homemade Weather: An Anthology of Novelettes in Flash is published by Retreat West and is available to buy from www.retreatwest.co.uk/homemade-weather
This book was given to me in exchange for a fair review.
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