Book Review

Carl MacDougall, Someone Always Robs the Poor, Freight Books, £9.99, pp176, 1911332139

Carl MacDougall’s return to short stories, after an absence of ten years, will bring little cheer for readers who need a feel-good shot to mitigate the harshness of life; the fiction is too close to non-fiction for comfort. Tales of lost aspirations, broken dreams, relationships gone awry, dysfunctional families, bereavement, alcoholism – all the messiness that warps the soul and oppress the characters who struggle, and sometimes fail, to keep themselves together.

But there are the cracks in everything where, Leonard Cohen bleakly assures us, the light gets in and some photons of hopefulness frame the beginning and the end of this collection. In the opening story, ‘Is this the place you now call home?’, past events are gleaned as a narrative about a young man returning home from London adeptly unfolds. Happiness is a step too far for the central character but the concluding paragraphs are so finely nuanced as to leave you feeling something worthwhile has been attained. 

The final story, ‘And turn the water’, tells of a heartbroken couple trying to cope with a terrible loss. The prose is pared but precise and becomes a parable about losing faith in the possibility of there being a God but finding a splintered redemption that comes from the struggle to go on living responsibly and acknowledging the sufferings of others.

James Joyce described his short stories as a chapter on the moral history of his country and McDougall is doing something similar here. Both writers share insights into stupidities of male egos and the title story of this collection, ‘Someone always robs the poor’, illuminates the theme as the reader pieces together the grim tribulations of a resourceful woman who leaves pre-EU Poland with her husband in the hope of a better life in America. She ends up as an illegal immigrant in Scotland, her experiences narrated by her daughter, and she comes to embody the unrecognised heroism that is needed to overcome the slings and arrows of misfortune that come at those who least deserve it.

Sean Sheehan is author of ‘Žiżek: A Guide for the Perplexed’ (Continuum, 2012) and a forthcoming guide to Herodotus’ Histories.