The Accidental Wife by Orla McAlinden

the accidental wife

At the beginning of this set of short stories, Orla McAlinden writes an author’s note which beautifully captures the essence of this book.  After stating that the characters and stories are all fiction she goes on to say:

‘However, the scenarios which fill these pages are familiar to my peers.  We shared the same fears: the stranger in the yard, the late-night knock at the door, the child who leaves home in a school uniform and returns in a closed coffin.  I have not told “your story” except to the extent that your story is also my story, and that the deeds of four dark decades have collectively become our story.’

Well, I can tell you something for nothing – if you are from Northern Ireland, those words are most definitely going to send a chill down your spine and resonate in the strongest imaginable way.

After reading such an eloquent description of her stories, I couldn’t wait to get started, but my fear was whether they would tip over into what can sometimes become a cliched tired view of Northern Ireland, a possibility when writing about the history of this small country.  Fortunately, I had nothing to worry about whatsoever.

Orla McAlinden has written a beautiful book of short stories which perfectly captures the tone, the voice and the lives of those who grew up in the North.  Being from Portadown, she had first-hand experience of life in the north, but her knowledge of farming (not sure where that comes from?!) and her ability to express both rural and city living with such an accurate eye, meant I read these stories repeatedly wanting to shout out – “Yes! Yes! I know exactly what you mean!  Sure, isn’t that just what the north and the people there are like!”

The stories revolve around the McCann family.  The author does a clever interweave of the stories, slowly connecting father and son, wife and daughter, families and communities.  However, the stories can also be read as separate pieces.  McAlinden nails the atmosphere of the troubles with a visceral authenticity which is uncanny.

The opening story ‘Strike’ pulls no punches.  Joan McCann is pulled over by a group of masked hooded men, while taking her son Rory to school.  However, it turns out to be (as do most of her stories) more complex than at first thought – Joan is taking her son to school despite a strike by The Ulster Workers council who have placards stating:

“Ulster Workers Council, No power-sharing, General Strike, In God we Trust.”

When Joan is determined not to be threatened by them, she decides to go about her business as usual, but her values, her religion and her views are shaken by her husband’s rough words and truths that she has been trying to avoid.    A cracker of a story to start this wonderful collection.

The author doesn’t shy away from using cultural references and the language of the people, and it is this that makes this collection unique and memorable.  I am sure for anyone outside of Ireland who reads the collection, they may have to check Google for a couple of references, but it is an education as to what Northern Ireland was like from the seventies to the present day.

The award-winning story ‘The Visit’ is a harsh look at the realities of dealing with paramilitaries and the lengths some people would go to in order to protect their land, their livelihoods and themselves.  Raw and poignant as most of the stories are, this one is particularly sad, when you see that at times good people were forced to take matters into their own hands, and suffering was an inevitable part of that.

My favourite story in the collection is a story entitled ICE.  Told from the perspective of a 12-year-old boy, it tells the story of how his life changes forever, with the arrival of a PSNI officer to their door.  Their father has gone missing.  It turns out he has run off with 4 million pounds from the client account of Jordan and McCann where he works as a lawyer.  Mark has always minded his mother and his three-year-old sister Siobhan.  ICE stands for ‘In case of Emergency’ which is how Mark’s father’s number is listed in his phone.  As he calls and calls and gets no response, he has to resign himself to the fact that his father is gone.  As his mother falls apart, it is the twelve-year-old Mark who is the only one who seems able to manage the family.  He has had to grow up far too fast (as many children did during the troubles.)  The language in this story is evocative and unbearably sad as Mark talks to his father in his head:

I’m tired Daddy, and I can’t do this on my own. I’m sorry for all the crap I put you through, for all the contradicting and the arguing and the always having to be right. I’m sorry I drove you away.”

As the news breaks, Mark’s family must flee to their Auntie Liz’s house.  We are reminded of the resilience of children as Mark learns to stand on his own two feet. When Liz is putting all the weight and responsibility on Mark he has a dig himself, saying:

“That’s right Liz.  You and me and Mum.  Against the world.” And it was nearly worth it, the whole shitty mess, just to see the blood drain from her face.”

What makes this collection of stories stand out for me and lift it from good to superb, is the use of language.  The Northern Ireland colloquialisms, some that brought a tear to my eye, as I remember my dad used to say them, such as ‘Houl yer whisht’ and  you lazy wee blirt (never said to me I am glad to say!)

The stories are such an authentic portrayal of Northern Ireland, from the middle-class families where appearance is everything, to the struggling farmers whose grit and humour get them through each day. If you want to get a sense of the character and tenacity of Northern Irish people, and the struggles they endured, this is a must read.

‘The Accidental Wife’ is a wonderfully evocative debut of short stories and I cannot recommend it highly enough.  I understand Orla McAlinden’s first novel is set in County Kildare in the 1800s.  I look forward to that, but I am also going to put in a request to the author.  Can we please have more of the Johnson family, especially 12 year old Mark?!