BOOK REVIEW: The Weight of a Human Heart (Ryan O’Neill, Black Inc.)

Despite the present-day profusion of literary magazines and outstanding short-story collections, the 21st century does not seem to be as hospitable to short-story writers as the 19th and 20th centuries were. It has often been said that few writers make a living from writing short stories today, or that the form only thrives in the independent sector, or in academia, or online. In this radically diminished landscape, Ryan O’Neill’s intriguing debut short-story collection is invaluable. In a style reminiscent of Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, The Weight of a Human Heart slides across characters, generations, decades, styles (we’re not talking first person vs third—this is venn diagrams, filled-in exam papers and page-long footnotes) and tones (from heartfelt to the black humour of a headmaster/bishop, scissors in hand, pursuing long-haired schoolgirls in ‘The Saved’) in a mosaic of styles and voices. O’Neill’s well-crafted stories are vital in their dramatic situations and as subtle studies of the human character—everyday triumphs and tragedies are briefly illuminated, the secret places of relationships laid bare. In the hands of this able practitioner, the minor art form of the short story becomes major art.

Jennifer Peterson-Ward is an editorial assistant, reviewer and former bookseller who divides her time between Melbourne and Perth. This review first appeared in the Feb/March issue of Bookseller+Publisher Magazine.

 

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