It becomes clear fairly early in reading Catherine McNamara’s recently published collection of short fiction that the subtitle ‘Tales of Lust and Dirt’ could just as well have been upgraded to full title status. These are stories populated by all too real characters from all parts of the globe with all too palpable desires.
The opening and eponymous story Pelt, narrated by the African lover of a German man whose ‘estranged wife has come to see him, unaware that his lover is also heavily pregnant, sets the tone of the collection both because it brims with with the viscera of life (sex, pregnancy, and pissing all feature prominently here) but also because the international nature of the small cast here reflects that which is seen in the collection as a whole. A glimpse at the author’s bio – grew up in Sydney, Australia, lived in France, Italy, Belgium, Somalia and Ghana – provides the reader with a clear indication of the geographical breadth of these stories.
Yet first and foremost, the stories herein are character driven, realist tales that at their best bear comparison to the likes of Jennifer Egan and Amy Hempel. They deal with big issues (AIDs, sexual assault, child abduction, incest) but do not get bogged down by them, allowing the characters to live and breath under the shadow of these crises rather than be crushed by them whether within the reality of the stories or the structure of them. Often the narratives are explored through the eyes of what, at first, appears an unusual choice for narrative point of view, but this choice pulls the reader in, engages them as the story slowly reveals why it could only have been told by this character after all. The comparison to Egan becomes even more evident as the interrelationships between the stories and the characters that inhabit them become clear.
Pelt and other stories is a unique collection, both in the scope of breadth of its geographical narrative landscape, the emotional one the stories attempt to map with their many connections and overlaps. It presents a world like our own, populated by real people with real problems, in which there are no easy answers to life’s difficulties, while giving the reader a glimmer of hope for each of those whose plight, for the span of a few pages at least, we share.