Cork bookseller Caoimhe on ‘How to Gut’ A Fish by Sheila Armstrong.

4 STARS

For Fans Of: Carmen Maria Machado, Emma Donoghue, Deirdre Sullivan

Highlights: “the skellington dance” / “red market” / “lemons” / “instinct”

How To Gut A Fish is the debut collection from Irish writer Sheila Armstrong which is published today February 17th, 2022 by Bloomsbury – if you’re reading this on February 17th, happy release day HTGAF! Armstrong joins authors such as Susanna Clarke (Piranesi) and Kiley Reid (Such A Fun Age) in Bloomsbury’s repertoire of authors. Her stories have been featured in multiple publications, including Young Islanders, gorse and Best European Fiction 2019. This is her first full fiction collection and, let me tell you, it’s looking like a very promising launch.

These fourteen stories have an impressive array of characters – a troubled fisherman, anxious mothers, an old man with a secret, post-break up twenty somethings, a rescued dog, and more…

As with any good short story collection, each character is endowed with their own unique voice and storyline. Their emotions and their desires shimmer and smoulder across the pages and into the reader’s own heart. Armstrong’s prose is well-crafted and compelling with undercurrents of the uncanny aspects of real life pervading throughout. Each story takes you on a journey: sometimes you don’t know where it’s headed (special mention for “instinct” here – it literally made my jaw drop!) but you know it’s going to be good.

The collection opens with “hole” – a vivid and darkly atmospheric story of Irish superstition in which villagers disappear, one by one, into a sinkhole within an old fairy fort. Can you get more quintessentially Irish than a sinister fairy fort? I think not. The Irish landscape is as much a character in this story as the people are. It’s unsettling and strangely comforting at the same time.

For me, the most striking element of Armstrong’s brilliant use of unconventional similes and metaphors. The imagery jumps from the page so easily, you cannot help but to be utterly immersed in these narratives. For example, comparing children’s movements to spiders, someone’s complexion to the dirty water left over in a washing machine and counting years in increments of broken mirrors. It is truly excellently executed.

Interestingly, one of these stories – “the skellington dance” – includes Covid-19 in its plot (although it’s not explicitly stated, I’m assuming that’s what it is). Personally, I usually dislike reading about the pandemic in fiction or seeing it in TV show plot lines but it was very well done in this case. It was used to show the after effects of contracting Covid-19 on one woman’s life, but not necessarily in the obvious physical sense that you might think…

One of my favourite stories – “red market” – is probably the most disturbing of the lot. To me, it’s a commentary on the treatment of women’s bodies under capitalistic society, taken to the absolute extreme. So if that’s your kinda thing… I fully recommend checking out that story at the very least! Another stand-out for me was “lemons” – an authentic and heart-wrenching story of growing up, from girlhood to womanhood, and all the stages in between. (“lemons” TW: cancer)

I absolutely loved this collection and I can’t wait to see it on shelves and in customers’ hands. And if you won’t take my word for it…take author Claire Fuller’s (author of Unsettled Ground, shortlisted for the Women’s Prize and winner of the Costa Novel Award 2021).

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