Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 223 pages; 2022.
Aingeala Flannery’s The Amusements is a collection of loosely connected short stories set in Tramore, a traditional seaside town in County Waterford, on the southeast coast of Ireland, famed for its fairground and long beach.
There’s a distinct William Trevor “vibe” about the tales of small-town lives depicted here, so I felt validated to discover, via the author’s Acknowledgements, that she was inspired by Trevor’s work, explaining that his story Honeymoon in Tramore “set me off on a flight of fancy”.
The way Flannery explores the interconnectedness of people living in the same small community, where everyone knows everyone else, where people bear grudges and are suspicious of “blow-ins”, comes right out of Trevor’s “school of writing”. Even her characters — life-like, flawed and shaped by their local community — could have stepped out of his pages.
But that’s not to say her work is derivative; it’s not. The Amusements is a highly original, closely observed portrait of a town and its residents, both permanent and fleeting, and the ways in which their lives intersect over the course of 30 or so years.
There are 16 stories in total and most are framed around the Swaine family headed by bitter matriarch Nancy who never has a nice word to say about anyone.
My sister says our mother is ‘spitting venom’. I can’t tell any more if Tish is trying to warn me, or to guilt me. Seems to me Nancy always spat venom, was always out with somebody: Auntie Stasia, the next-door neighbour, my brother Michael and his ‘appalling’ wife. It’s not easy to stay in with a person whose default position is disapproval.
We first meet Nancy in “Star of the Sea” when she’s a widowed mother who breaks up her teenage daughter Stella’s close friendship with budding photographer Helen Grant. She appears again in “Making Friends” when she has a serious falling out with her new neighbour Vonnie Jacob. Later, in “Home” Nancy is residing in an aged-care facility and her now-adult daughter Stella —who has moved to London via New York — returns to Tramore on a flying visit to see her. In “The Reason I’m Calling” she is dying, aged 68, and by “Woodbine” she has passed away.
Her children, Tish and Stella, star in separate stories: Tish is married to a “good husband” and has a young daughter, Evie, but seems harassed and discontent with her lot; Stella, who moved away to become an artist, lives an unconventional life and hates returning home to Tramore because it just reminds her of all the reasons she fled in the first place.
Other subsidiary characters from the town — such as the butcher Thaddeus Burke, the public health nurse Jenny Supple and the bed-and-breakfast landlady Muriel Power — are also featured. Many of these characters move from one tale to another, and events which happen in one story are concluded, or referenced, in the next. But there are also a few that end abruptly and don’t seem to add much to the overarching narrative, and I would question their inclusion.
Tramore is also a character in its own right, a place that comes alive in summer as a bustling tourist hot spot, but dies down in winter when the amusement arcades close and the fairground rides shut down.
But regardless of the season, idle gossip, reputational crises and personal struggles abound. Anyone who has lived in a small town or close-knit community will recognise the people in these pages.
The Amusements is a terrifically entertaining read, brimming with life in all its messy, chaotic complexity. It has been shortlisted for this year’s Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year.
This is my third book from the 2023 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year shortlist. I am trying to read them all (there are five) before the winner is named at the end of May.