[Following is the official OnlineBookClub.org review of "Woman with Doll and Other Stories" by Joan Slowey.]
This is a collection of nineteen short stories all set in the same small town on the north Irish coast. They are woven together not only by the shared location, but also by the characters who pop up in each other's stories, and the common theme of people struggling in one way or another with the situation in which they find themselves.
It would take too long to describe each one in detail and introduce all the often weird and wonderful characters that people them, like self sufficient Rosemary who has arranged her life just as she wants it until her sister comes to stay; Sadie with her dreams of romance and marriage; and cat-obsessed Myrtle who has her own dark secret. For me, one of the most poignant stories is 'Andy' with its tale of thwarted plans and broken dreams.
Set in a time when family ties are very strong and domestic violence is common, drama and emotions run deep below the surface of their apparently humdrum lives; substrata of helplessness, hopelessness and the need to escape lead to alcoholism, suicide and even murder. To me the stories conveyed a feeling of the isolation of the individuals and their inability to communicate with each other, in spite of the fact that in some cases they have lived together so long and know each other so well they think they can read each other without words.
Contrasting with this is the power of one person to influence another, and how the choices that each one makes will affect others as well as themselves; one single, simple action can have far reaching, unforeseen repercussions far beyond the original intention, such as Hilary's practical joke in 'Haunted'.
The characterisation is good and I could often hear their voices speaking through the pages. They are a realistic mixture of heroic, vengeful, deceitful, weak, hopeful, despairing and manipulative, and range from mildly eccentric to the positively psychotic. The author shows us them from the inside so we can get beyond the stereotypes (such as the bullying husband) and see them as they view themselves even if we do not approve of them. They all have flaws, which makes them seem more real and believable, and the reader can understand the emotions and frustrations they feel in dealing with the world around them.
She has created some particularly strong, occasionally domineering, women who find very inventive ways to cope with the problems they are presented with, some are openly intimidating while others are deviously manipulative, some find the courage to make changes and others are just unable to take up the chance to escape.
Some of the stories are rather bleak, reflecting the lives and circumstances of the characters, but, having said that, I enjoyed reading them as they are very well written and I could sense an Irish-ness in the dialogue and descriptions. There are some clever twists when deceptions are found out, shams exposed or when people make the choice to radically change things, and several stories finish on a positive or unexpected note.
I officially rate this book 3 out of 4 stars, but would rate it 3.5 stars if possible.