Duncan’s first collection of short stories, (Lilliput Press, 2021) will likely leave any reader feeling as I did; like you’ve just watched a highly entertaining but ultimately scoreless draw in the Champions League knock out stages. By scoreless, I don’t mean to imply that there is no flair or excitement to these mostly excellent stories. Rather, much like a good drawn-match, we start to notice elements of the game that would go unnoticed in during a seven-goal thriller. Form, structure, the fleshing out at the back instead of a more direct style.
Duncan states at the outset that he has organised this collection into a “starting eleven and a coach”, and he has assigned each story a field position “based on the personality I perceived from it”. This may sound a wee bit self-indulgent, but by the time I had finished these stories I had grasped (hopefully) what he meant by this. The first story, assigned the role of goalkeeper is “Design No.8”. Much like a goalkeeper, it sets the tone for the on-field 10, defines the character, resolve and backbone of the rest, and is definitely the oddest of the bunch. It is lyrical, bizarre and mystifying, yet the imagery is bathed in a nostalgia that will remind readers of Claire Keegan’s short stories, mixed with a little splash of Kevin Barry’s style.
Like most teams, the midfield section of this book varies in quality, but it does contain arguably this collection’s strongest piece, “Oregon Grape Tree”. There’s a loneliness to the tone of this story that is quite touching, and the narrator’s discomfort with the rural Irish setting of the story will be familiar to fans of Donal Ryan’ early books, as well the excellent turn of phrase.
Overall, this is a strong collection of stories, lyrical and technically accomplished. It’s perhaps not what fans of Duncan’s brilliant novel Love Notes from A German Building Site might expect. Thematically it jumps around just a little too much, but anyone who has read Duncan knows already that his turn of phase is enough to keep most readers enthralled.
You can pick up your copy of Midfield Dynamo from the LitVox Bookshop.