Sam Mills

Women on the edge

Leanne Shapton’s ghost stories may fail to chill, but highly original collections from Nicole Flattery and Ruby Cowling deserve all their hype

In Nicole Flattery’s Show Them a Good Time (Bloomsbury, £14.99), her female protagonists grapple with abusive relationships, degree courses, difficult bosses, unemployment programmes and a lascivious professor. The stories are tragicomic and deliciously odd. The author writes sentences that make you laugh, and then immediately want to reread to savour a striking image: a woman’s boss ‘had a way of looking me up and down like I was a CV full of errors and misspellings’. They somersault from the everyday to the absurd, in a way that reflects the disorientation of the characters, leaving one feeling both sympathetic and alienated.

Flattery captures the pressures on women to be ingratiating, and the friction that creates between how they might feel and how society expects them to behave. A teacher on a date reassures her male companion ‘I can be likeable if you get to know me’, while ‘silently wondering if this was true’. In ‘Parrot’, an art student drops out of university and hopes she can still be ‘complicated and interesting without a degree’; but instead she finds herself mothering the men she dates, and muses: ‘Why wouldn’t they let her commit the delinquency she knew she was capable of? Why was she always standing next to the delinquents, apologetically shaking her head?’ A subsequent affair leads to inner turmoil, yet she finds herself smiling amiably in public, ‘like a tourist, like a secretary’.

At times the sardonic, detached narrators left me feeling too far removed from their predicaments. But in a recent interview Flattery explained that they suffer the modern malaise of dissociation: ‘I think a certain element of trauma pushes you outside yourself and forces you to watch yourself.’ She has been hailed as one of Ireland’s rising literary stars; like Sally Rooney, she is adept at capturing millennial culture, but her voice is more distinctive in its daring, eccentric intelligence.

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