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Month: December 2020

Mom’s Ex-Fiancé Makes a Bad Boyfriend

“That Old Country Music” by Kevin Barry

Hannah Cryan waited in the Transit van up in the Curlews. Setanta Bromell had parked so that the van was secreted in the shade of the Forestry pines and could not easily be seen from the road. He had taken the dirtbike from the back of the van then and headed down to Castlebaldwin pissing smoke. His morning’s ambition was to rob the petrol station there with a claw hammer. Setanta was her fiancé of these recent times and, despite it all, the word still rolled glamorously to her lips.

It was the second Monday of May. She was a little more than four months pregnant. The whitethorn blossom was decked over the high fields as if for the staging of a witch’s wedding. Already the morning was humid and warm, and snaps of wind cut from the hillsides and sent the blossom everywhere in vague, drifting clouds. Even with the windows shut, her eyes streamed, and she could feel sore pulses in her throat like slow, angry worms. Setanta was thirty-two years old to her seventeen and it was not long at all since he had been her mother’s fiancé.

That’s the way it goes sometimes with close-knit families, he said.

Don’t even fucken joke about it, she said.

Setanta’s plan—if it could be held up to the light as such—was to get into the petrol station just after it opened, show the claw hammer and start roaring out of himself. As she waited on the mountain, Hannah jawed helplessly on her gums and tapped her phone for the time—it showed 7:17 a.m. and then died.

Fuckwad, she said, and threw the phone to the dash.

Castlebaldwin was a ten-minute scramble away and he’d been gone for more than twice that. The van had laboured to climb even the low mountains of the Curlews and she tried not to think deeply about its viability for escape. The drone from the N4 down below was becoming more steady, the morning traffic thickening to a stream. It was difficult to believe that just last night she had laughed with excitement as she took the first baby bump photo for her Insta and Setanta’s needle buzzed jauntily as he tattooed a lizard on his left calf. He told her in a voice scratchy with emotion that he loved her and that their souls were made of the same kind of stuff. She licked his earlobe and showed him the selfie and he cried in hard, gulpy jags. She did not remark that the lizard looked more like it had frog dimensions, really, nor that the rapid blinking effect had returned to Setanta’s left eye.

She had asked him to leave the keys of the van but he would not. When he had a plan worked out his mouth fixed into a tight hard rim like a steel toecap. In truth, she knew well that Setanta Bromell of Frenchpark was not making solid decisions lately. She sneezed and reflexively laid a hand to her belly to reassure the visitor. High slants of sunlight now breached the top of the Forestry pines and showed a stretch of scarred hillside rising to Aghanagh bog. The gorse on the higher hills was lit from the inside out an electric living yellow. Dead for half a year the Curlews were like some casual miracle reviving. Setanta Bromell said that May, always, was the number one month of the year for going mad.

Passing through the narrow kitchen of her mother’s house, four and a half months previously, he had placed a hand to her skinny hip and turned on the cow eyes and that was enough. Her mother when she’d been drinking slept like the dead. By night, it had become the custom that Setanta and Hannah would talk. She liked to listen to his stories about work. He told her about the man with the huge swastika on his back that Setanta had remodelled into the ancient flag that showed in quadrants the symbols of the four proud provinces of Ireland: the red hand, the triple crown, the hawk and dagger, the harp.

Better a “Ra head than a nazi he said.

There was a quick russety shimmer athrough the yellow gorse as a fox moved for her den. Hannah’s lip moved softly at the sight and made a wordless murmuring. Now the birds were going dipshit unseen in the hedges, in the pines. Setanta Bromell owed her mother, like, four grand? His eyes rolled up as if to see the stars when he came.

She waited. The Transit van smelled like a stale morning mouth. She listened for the growls of the dirtbike climbing the backroad but no sound rose above the birds, above the N4’s sea-like drone, above the hot wind in gusty snaps from the hillside.

Her hands lay folded loosely across her belly. She tried to do what the lady doctor at the clinic had told her to do in the panic times—she felt out her breaths on an individual basis. You had to get yourself on intimate terms with every breath that passed through your body. You had to listen to each breath as it travelled and smooth out its journey. In the Transit she sat and concentrated as well as she could but still her breaths came short and wildly.

Now the sunlight broke fully across the canopy of pines and came starkly through the van. Hannah closed her eyes against it to see dreamy pink fields on the back of her lids. She clawed at the greasy vinyl of the seat. She listened, and in the gaps between the wind it was just the birds in conference, in the high springtime excitedly, a vast and unpredictable family.

Still on the air there was not a whisper of Setanta Bromell’s dirtbike.

He did not drink much. She’d say that for him. He would sit up late while her mother slept. For a long while, they had sat at opposite ends of the L-shaped sofa, as far apart from each other as they could get, which in itself had signaled a situation. He said that particular stretches of ground had for him a lucky vibration. He said the Curlews most of all. Once a prime buck had skittered from the ditch and lurched into the side of the van and dropped stone dead of the shock and all Setanta had to do was haul it home and hang it to be skinned.

These are the type days I get in the Curlews all the time, he said.

He spoke often of fatedness and of meant-to-be’s. Then came the 3 a.m. of his soft, slow hand in the kitchen, and it was a case of smoochy-smoochy and throwing each other up against the walls before anyone knew the fuck what was going on.

She pulled down the sun visor for its mirror. She had a face on her like a scorched budgie. She detested her new self. By nature like a stick, she was taking on weight with the pregnancy. Beneath her breath, she made the words of a Taylor Swift song for distraction but the song did not take.

News headline: there was no sign of Setanta Bromell on no fucking dirtbike.

She saw him with his limbs splayed on the petrol station floor. She heard the ratchety cruel tightening of the cuffs. Or maybe the Belarussian who worked the morning shift had just hopped the counter and grabbed the hammer and laid Setanta out flat with a single bop to the broadside of the head. The Belarussian was a massive fuck who must have weighed about as much as a cement mixer. Setanta’s plan had gaps and weak spots.

Hannah Cryan climbed from the van and walked from the Forestry pines onto the backroad. By now the morning had clouded over and the vast spread of the whitethorn blossom across the hillsides and the high fields and the ditches made an ominous aura as it moved in the wind. Once, as a child, she had been slapped across the face by her mother for bringing an armful of the blossom into the house. The whitethorn flowers so much as passing the threshold was a harbinger of certain death in the family. By about the Tuesday of the next week. She had meant it as a gift for her lovely young mother.

As she sat on a five-bar gate up in the Curlew mountains the great meanness of the morning descended on her. She hummed a string of four or five notes against the meanness, not knowing where they came from nor how.

The plan was that they would drive through the day and the north to the ferry at Larne for Stranraer, and from there descend through Scotland and the Borders— she watched his lips move as he recited solemnly the steps of it—through Cumbria to Yorkshire and to his cousins in the city of Wakefield. Over the nights, as they conspired, the word “Wakefield” had taken on the burnish of legend. She saw the city lights spread out. She imagined a child with a North of England accent and a neat little flat in a tower block. She saw herself and Setanta in the bed eating toast and taking photos  of each other—his muscles flexed; her eyelashes fitted— and the toddler gurgling along in pure happiness on the rug on the floor. Setanta Bromell might soften his cough in Wakefield, she believed, and think harder about his decisions, and forget all the nonsense with the lizards and the claw hammers.

The day was up and about itself. The fields trembled.

Catastrophe was a low-slung animal creeping darkly over the ditches, across the hills.

Her mother had found her one careless morning under the throw on the sofa, topless and asleep in the hot, emotional clutches of Setanta Bromell. That had made it a morning for the annals. Since then, they had slept in two sleeping bags zipped together at his King Ink studio. The studio was located over a butcher’s shop in Boyle. It reeked of their wild love and animal death. Setanta was 18 months behind on the rent and had a notice to quit and lately this involuntary blinking in the left eye.

But desperate times, he said, very often turned out to be disguised opportunities.

Wakefield, as a shimmering prospect, was held aloft before her like a priest’s chalice.

By now she knew that he would not come back from Castlebaldwin. On the five-bar gate of a tiny farm high in the Curlew mountains she again closed her eyes for the pink fields. She went into a dream. If the moment was never-ending it might not even exist. She felt the presence of something very old and uncaring on the air. An insect’s steady keening from the ditch was incessant like a hopeless prayer or the workings of his needle. He had tattooed on her inner thigh a swallow in flight.

In the black times make you think of summer, he said.

In the black times, she thought, it’d take more than a badly-drawn swallow aiming for my fucken gash.

He was probably in the holding cell at Ballymote already. He was already on first name terms with every guard in the vicinity. Setanta Bromell was—and here the words came unbidden, as if from an old ballad recalled—already in chains. The new life within twitched with nervous expectancy. As if it knew already of all the disasters to come.

Hannah Cryan came to ascend from herself. Above the green fields and the whitethorn blossom moving in the morning wind, above the stone walls and the Forestry pines, above the inland sea of the grasses, above the broken drone of the motorway, above all of this she measured out the stretch of her seventeen years. They had been mean and slow-feeling years. She was almost as old as the century and felt it. Her man in jail and a child at the breast—it was all playing out by the chorus and verse.

Her legs weak, her step uncertain, feeling lightheaded and frightful, she trailed back to the van and climbed into it. She sucked the last warm dregs from a bottle of water on the dash but her thirst was not sated. Often he kept six-packs of sparkling water from Aldi in back of the van. For his digestion, he said, which was at the best of times troublesome.

They had been mean and slow-feeling years. She was almost as old as the century and felt it.

She got out and opened the back doors and rooted around among her fiancé’s astonishing detritus. She found no water but she did find the ten euro claw hammer from Simons Brothers hardware.

The scales of the morning fell away.

She stood by the side of the van with the claw in her hand.

She swung it hard and precisely to extract the eyes from the brute, lying face of Setanta Bromell. That the sockets might dangle and his lively tongue loll.

She hadn’t the strength to climb back in the van. She sat on the ground on the pine kernels and cried for a short while. A few months ago she had been skin and flint and edges and points—she had been hard—but now she was softened and plush like a lazy old cat. It was foreign to her. She felt slowed and mawkish with it. He had softened her merely with glances, his touch and words. More than softened, she had been opened.

On the mountain time loosened, unspooled. The fields blinked.

The gorse whispered. Morning?

It must have been coming by now for noon. If she had the legs to carry her, they might take her the five miles down to Boyle. But if she did not get past this moment, she would not have to face the next.

She looked out across the high fields. Just now as the cloudbank shifted to let the sun break through the whitethorn blossom was tipping; the strange vibrancy of its bloom would not tomorrow be so ghostly nor at the same time so vivid; by tacit agreement with our mountain the year already was turning. The strongest impulse she had was not towards love but towards that old burning loneliness, and she knew by nature the old tune’s circle and turn—it’s the way the wound wants the knife wants the wound wants the knife.

Now she heard before its sound even broke on the air the scratch and meek resolve of her mother’s Corolla. It was neither taxed nor insured. It was taken out only at moments of high emergency. These were not yet so few as her poor mother might have hoped.

And yes, here it came, inevitably, around the bend from the backroad into the Forestry pines, and Hannah felt a volley of tiny kicks within.

Lou-Lou Cryan was a hollowed woman now. She was like a reed from the drink and the nerves. She stepped from the Corolla and came soft-footed and stoically through the gloom of the pine trees to take her daughter in her arms.

Oh you poor fool, she said. Oh you poor sweet fucking fool.

The post Mom’s Ex-Fiancé Makes a Bad Boyfriend appeared first on Electric Literature.

Best Book of 1992: The English Patient

Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient is a famous novel, one turned into a famous film. Published in 1992, the novel co-won the Booker Prize with Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger. The English Patient is so famous, it barely requires a summary here: its settings are among the finest in the literature of the past fifty years – the Sahara, the bombed-out villa hiding in the Tuscan hills, and some of its vignettes (faithfully recreated in the film) are iconic: who can forget the penis sleeping ‘like a seahorse’ on the very first page, or the young nurse feeding her patient a plum she has chewed for him? Or the lonely game of hopscotch late at night, or the piano being played on its side in the rain-damaged library, or the Cave of Swimmers, found under a rock shaped like a woman’s back? I first read it when I was fourteen. I had been in England, a semi-foreign country, for a few months, and when I was asked where I was from, I had no easy answer, and found the question daunting. It was a narrow box I could not fit my family into. The English Patient helped me to reject the premise implicit in the question. It lifted the lid off my understanding of the world, and showed me what else a novel, and indeed a person, could be, and the metrics by which they might exist.

The patient of the title is a man whose organs are shutting down one by one after suffering full-body burns which have left him purple and featureless. He fell from a plane in flames into the Sahara. He was rescued by Bedouins, smoothed with a salve of the ash from peacock bones, and carried through the desert on a makeshift palanquin. His presumed nationality is down to him speaking English at a triage station.

He is cared for by a young Canadian nurse, barely twenty, who has effectively deserted her unit as they carry on north through Italy – she could not bear to see him moved, and the two of them are waiting for him to die. They are joined by a thumbless thief-cum-spy and fellow Canadian, Caravaggio, and, later, a Sikh sapper by the name of Kip, tasked with clearing the surrounding area. It is the spring, then the summer, of 1945.

Morphine injections are a formal device, allowing us to slip back to before the war, to a desert exploration expedition in North Africa, which flickers and pools silverly as a mirage. It is the prose’s pellucid sparseness that I love, its taut aridity and economy, its gorgeous soft-spokenness, the sense one gets that each word was weighed in the hand before it was placed on the page. Ondaatje once revealed in an interview that he still writes with pen and ink, and you can tell; you can feel the movement of nib on paper, its slow scratch and smudge. His novels remind me of Walker Evans’s photographs of tools, how they ennoble their subjects and impress their handfeel upon on the viewer. Ondaatje does such this with the smell of a dog’s paw, the defusing of  a bomb, a blowjob.

The film, directed by Anthony Minghella, appeared in 1996, and is responsible for the plot being recast mainly as the love story between Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Count László Almásy (Ralph Fiennes), which takes place on the eve of World War II, against the backdrop of the Sahara and the souks of Cairo. It is an emphasis which has carried back across to perceptions to the novel, but to do so is to sell it short. Yes, The English Patient is a love story, and a war novel, among the finest examples of either, but it is also one of the best and most beautiful disquisitions to be found on the nature of belonging.

The novel is composed of texts which trouble their own reading, make us question the very aims and conventions of reading: the cipher of the patient’s burnt body; the desert, considered void according to European epistemologies; and the patient’s sole possession: a copy of Herodotus’s Histories. The latter is something between a commonplace book and a scrapbook: he has ‘taken cigarette papers and glued them over passages that were of no interest’, he has added notes, written in the margins, he has even pasted in ‘a small fern’. This is perhaps the text of canonical history, into which the minutiae and ephemera of an individual life have been inserted. It is the interface where different historical scales collide and interrupt one another. It offers a historiography for the postcolonial, though the term ‘postcolonial’ has suffered something of the same fate as the Argonauts’ ship according to Roland Barthes’s observation: an overly capacious term, ever-modifying while staying somehow the same, the best thing we’ve got for now.

The narrative’s presumed thrust is to solve the mystery of the patient’s identity – is he the Count Almásy, desert explorer and perhaps spy? But this teleology loosens, unravels, and ultimately defers itself. The world that Almásy yearns for is one without nations, where many different histories are allowed to intermingle; where provenance is of little importance.

Hana and Caravaggio have reappeared from The English Patient’s most immediate predecessor, In the Skin of a Lion (1987), a novel like a mural – or a fresco – of the immigrant lives and labour which built Toronto. The English Patient is not a sequel, per se, to In the Skin of a Lion, more like a pendent piece, or the second of two hinged and painted panels. In the Skin’s epigraph offers a clue for The English Patient and the modes it models: ‘Never again will a single story be told as if it is the only one’, a quote from John Berger’s novel G. (It is also the epigraph of Arundathi Roy’s The God of Small Things, and reappears in a different guise in Ondaatje’s latest, Warlight (2018): ‘Your own story is just one, and perhaps not the important one. The self is not the principal thing.’).

The angrily anti-imperial ending of The English Patient, in which the A-bombs are dropped on Japan, and Kip levels his rifle at the patient, shouting ‘When you start bombing the brown races of the world, you’re an Englishman’, has been a bone of contention since the novel’s publication. Many saw it as an unnecessary politicisation, inelegantly tacked on to an evocative love story. But this, I think, is to miss the power of the novel entirely. While it is tempting to think of the novel’s North African settings as being staged for the white gaze – little more than the exotic mise en scène for an illicit love affair between two white Europeans – it also follows that the faded frescoes of the Villa San Girolamo are a backdrop from which the three non-Europeans turn away. Hana, Kip, and Caravaggio may revolve around the patient’s diminishing imperial body for a time, but then they scatter, to a world which has decreasing need of the English. They trouble England’s centring of itself in the history, now myth, of the Second World War. This may be the story told at home, but England no longer controls the narrative elsewhere.

The end that Fukuyama foresaw (The End of History was published in the same year as The English Patient) may well have ended up being not of history itself, but of a certain kind of history, the long drawl of a lone voice, history as monolithic myth, as nation-building force. History could be shattered, speaking in many different voices at once, simultaneously large and small, and its traditional teleologies could be renounced: no more lists of battles fought and won, but the anecdotal and incidental, the uncredited labour, the softer stuff which never makes it into the records, the ‘bodies we have swum in like so many rivers, manner of kiss’. These histories possess insurrectionary strength. They can topple nations, and the nations know it, which is why Ondaatje presented his treatise cloaked in a novel about love and war.

Photograph © Stefan Gara 

The post Best Book of 1992: The English Patient appeared first on Granta.

A Short Analysis of ‘When Shall We Three Meet Again’ from Macbeth

‘When Shall We Three Meet Again’ is the opening line of William Shakespeare’s great tragedy, Macbeth. Spoken by the First Witch, the line immediately ushers us into a world of witches, prophecy, and black magic, elements which Shakespeare probably chose to include because the new King of England, James I, […]

WD Presents: Call for Short Short Stories and From Our Readers Entry Deadline

This week, we’re excited to announce an upcoming deadline for the Short Short Story Competition, the deadline to enter your thoughts for the From Our Readers column, and more.

There’s always so much happening in the Writer’s Digest universe that even staff members have trouble keeping up. As a result, we decided to start collecting what’s on the horizon to make it easier for everyone to know what’s happening and when.

This week, we’re excited to announce an upcoming deadline for the Short Short Story Competition, the deadline to enter your thoughts for the From Our Readers column, and more.


We want to know your thoughts!

The From Our Readers question is now live on the WD site! This time, we’re asking your opinion on an age-old piece of writing advice: Should writers stick to writing what they know? We want to know your thoughts! Click the link below to navigate to the article and post your response there for a chance of appearing in the March/April issue of Writer’s Digest.

Deadline: January 1, 2021

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Give the Gift of Writer’s Digest

The gift-giving season is upon us! Until December 31, 2020, you can gift a year’s worth of Writer’s Digest to anyone on your holiday gift list for only $10!

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Short Short Story Competition

We’re looking for short fiction stories! Think you can write a winning story in 1,500 words or less? Enter the 21st Annual Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition for your chance to win $3,000 in cash, get published in Writer’s Digest magazine, and a paid trip to our ever-popular Writer’s Digest Conference!

Deadline: January 15, 2021

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Four Online Writing Courses Start This Week

Four new online writing courses start this week, including Grammar and Mechanics, Writing Women’s Fiction, and more. Click here to check out the Writer’s Digest University calendar.

Build Your Novel Scene by Scene

If you want to learn how to write a story, but aren’t quite ready yet to hunker down and write 10,000 words or so a week, this is the course for you. Build Your Novel Scene by Scene will offer you the impetus, the guidance, the support, and the deadline you need to finally stop talking, start writing, and, ultimately, complete that novel you always said you wanted to write.

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Grammar and Mechanics

Do you remember the difference between the 8 parts of speech and how to use them? Are you comfortable with punctuation and mechanics? No matter what type of writing you do, mastering the fundamentals of grammar and mechanics is an important first step to having a successful writing career.

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Writing the Picture Book

Picture books are one of the most delightful—and important—genres in all of literature. In this course, you’ll learn how to write a winning picture book narrative, envision it with illustrations, and put together a picture package that a publisher will really notice. Plus, you’ll receive feedback on each assignment from your instructor and have the chance to participate in the peer critique section of the workshop with other classmates.

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Writing Women’s Fiction

You’re not sure how to describe women’s fiction, but when you read it, you know that’s the kind of novel you want to write. They’re the stories you relate to, that grab your heart and your imagination. They make you feel as if you know the characters, as if you’re sharing the journey. But how can you be sure that the story you write fits into the genre you love and captures and keeps your reader’s attention?

By identifying the essential elements that make up women’s fiction, gaining the insight to see inside your main character, and honing the skills needed to bring women’s fiction to life on the page.

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Check out the November/December issue of Writer’s Digest!

Writer’s Digest officially turns 100! In this special double issue, WD celebrates 100 years of helping writers improve their craft and getting published with advice from some of the biggest industry professionals and authors publishing today. We’ll look back on how writing has changed over time, the founding of WD, and much more.

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Polish your writing to find success!

2nd Draft provides a high-level review of your writing, pointing out reasons your work may be getting rejected, or may not meet the standards of traditional publication.

After an evaluation of your submission, one of the professional 2nd Draft critiquers will provide feedback and advice. You’ll not only learn what’s working in your writing, but what’s not, and—most important—how to fix it.

Send your work to Writer’s Digest 2nd Draft Critique Service!

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Plot Twist Story Prompts: Magic Trick

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, insert a little magic into your story.

Plot twist story prompts aren’t meant for the beginning or the end of stories. Rather, they’re for forcing big and small turns in the anticipated trajectory of a story. This is to make it more interesting for the readers and writers alike.

Each week, I’ll provide a new prompt to help twist your story. Find last week’s prompt, The Rendezvous, here.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Magic Trick

For today’s prompt, insert a little magic into your story. The magic could be something big like a spell that conjures up a terrifying storm right on the spot or that ends one. Or it could something lower key like a perfect item appearing at the perfect moment without explanation. In fact, the lack of explanation is what really gives magic its power.

Magic is fun for readers, because there is usually no explanation—even if the writer has an elaborate system of magical rules. That lack of explanation creates a space where anything is possible—for good or for evil. In many ways, a magical world is simultaneously filled with more hope and more dread than others.

(5 ways to surprise your reader without it feeling like a trick.)

Of course, the magic itself could be truly magical, or it could be a trick. The fun part for the storyteller is deciding when to use the magic, how often, and then unraveling what it means for all the characters. Does the magic create a positive reaction? A negative reaction? Maybe it’s confounding or humorous. Maybe there is an explanation at the end, but consider the possibility of leaving it up to the readers to debate.

Regardless of how you handle, insert a little magic and observe where it takes you and your characters.


If you want to learn how to write a story, but aren’t quite ready yet to hunker down and write 10,000 words or so a week, this is the course for you. Build Your Novel Scene by Scene will offer you the impetus, the guidance, the support, and the deadline you need to finally stop talking, start writing, and, ultimately, complete that novel you always said you wanted to write.

Click to continue.