One of the stipulations for any story is that it must be self sustaining, keeping the reader engrossed enough to travel to the end with a feeling of satisfaction of having been on a journey worth taking . The short story, if written well, is one often overlooked medium which satisfies this rule.
Ryan O’Neill, a Scottish writer now living in Australia, proves this repeatedly in his short story collection “The Weight Of A Human Heart”. This book is a treasure-house of journeys that he deftly steers us through with all the wisdom and vision of a seasoned traveller.
Superficially these journeys are literal, taking us to Australia, China, Rwanda, Lithuania and Scotland, providing us with a breadth of landscapes on which Ryan carves his characters and delivers haunting narrative. This merely reflects his own world experience, sharing it with not a hint of self satisfaction or showboating: he shows us a glaring, unaltered view of scattered continents, their inhabitants and invaders.
Ryan also steers us through the mechanics of storytelling. In some pieces, we enter the familiar territory of traditional narrative outlay, such as in “The Saved”, a story of injustice through unfettered bigotry painted expertly on a Rwandan backdrop of verdant hills, shimmering lakes and unrepentant sinners. The intimate and rich nature of these tales prove that Ryan is at home in the company of other short story writers such as Margaret Atwood, Kurt Vonnegut and Graham Greene.
In other outings, Ryan sends us to uncharted lands. He bends, or rather reinvents, the rules of narrative structure. In “Figures in A Marriage”, he graphically demonstrates the disintegration of the relationship between a husband and wife using Venn diagrams, flowcharts and doodles (among other devices). These visuals, far from distracting us from the plot, bring the destructive nature of the marriage into stark view by reducing it to cold categorisation and bare statistics.
This realism is further portrayed in “The Examination” where the 1994 Rwandan genocide is handed to us through an English test paper of a survivor. At this point the reader is no longer passive but employed as the boy’s invigilator and marker, mentally circling certain passages in blood-red ink. Never before has this horrific act of human savagery been so sensitively described by an outsider.
Alternatively, Ryan takes us inside his craft by dissecting the art of short story writing. “In Seventeen Rules For Writing A Short Story” he literally follows the stipulations outlined by other writers, deliberately creating a mish-mash of pulp fiction, demonstrating that creativity and originality cannot be governed by laws, even those pronounced by fellow writers.
However, at the centre of his collection are its wide range of characters, our travelling companions through these wonderful vignettes. Despite the all too brief moments that we spend with these people, Ryan manages to portray them so masterfully that they stay firmly with us. Even in the first paragraph of the first piece, “Collected Stories”, the huge chasm between a mother and daughter is firmly established, a chasm filled with the obsessive story writing of an isolated, chain-smoking widow. In “The Chinese Lesson” the true nature of the relationship between a teacher and student is revealed, recast and then revealed again, polarising our feelings towards them: wishing protection for one and perdition for the other.
“The Weight of A Human Heart” is a work of relentless brilliance with a heart of its own: deeper than the South China Sea, wider than the Australian outback and heavier than the salt tears cried by a world of characters in joy and sorrow.
To hear my exclusive interview with Ryan, click —>here<—