A Famine in Newcastle
by Ryan O'Neill
First collection? No
Awards: Shortlisted, 2007 Queensland Premier's Literary Awards
Ryan O'Neill was born in Scotland in 1975. He
lived and worked as an English teacher in Rwanda, Lithuania, and China,
before finally settling in Australia. His stories have appeared in
various literary magazines and anthologies including Best Australian Stories 2007,
Ink and Westerly.
He has had two short story collections published by Ginninderra Press, Six Tenses and A Famine in Newcastle,
the latter of which was shortlisted for the 2007 Queensland Premier’s
Literary Awards. He lives in Newcastle, New South Wales with his wife
and two daughters.
with Ryan O'Neill
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"My father could never
remember my birthday, yet he knew that I was born at the beginning of
the third chapter of Northanger Abbey, four lines from the bottom of
Reviewed by Majella Cullinane
Ryan O Neill's collection of six stories, shortlisted for the
2007 Queensland Premier's Literary Award, comprise of stories set in
Africa and Australia. His characters are a blend of the intelligent,
quirky, misguided, resilient and observant, which makes each of these
six stories quite distinctive from the next.
Jesus for Sale, tells the story of Lynch who reads an ad
in a newspaper advertising a Jesus for sale in Glasgow. O'Neill depicts
the unusual and humorous circumstances of the sale and its aftermath as
Lynch carries the cross through Glasgow, and finds he's taken on more
than he's bargained for.
Maggie is the central character of the title story of the collection, A Famine in Newcastle.
A self-righteous, misguided, and not a terribly likeable character, she
believes that because Africans starve then she must do so too. However,
as the story progresses we discover why Maggie acts the way she does,
highlighted by the irony of what occurs with her African boyfriend, and
it is this, and a reverberating and haunting image that make her
realise her self-imposed famine has gone too far:
"She closed her eyes for hours and when she opened them it was to see
her mother standing in the doorway, her hands to her mouth, and her
mother screaming into the telephone which did not work, and then she
felt her fat, ill, weak mother lifting her in her arms as if she was
nothing and carring her away into the street."
set in Africa is about Lockhart, a man
who invents his life and history because he believes that by and large
Africans are gullible and illiterate. Stricken by another dose of
malaria he promises to mend his ways:
"Lockhart lay there in his fever, biting breaths from the air like an
epileptic, listening to the mosquito. They should make its hum the
African anthem, he thought,"
but as the sickness retreats, it is only a matter of time before he
regresses back to his old self and his resolution for new beginnings is
For the most part expatriates, and travellers abroad have a propensity
to bandy together and talk about the "old country" often in an
idealistic and patriotic manner. Unusually, the character in this story
resists the temptation to participate in a conversation between two
Scots, and is determined to observe it from a distance, happy he hadn't
betrayed himself in a toast which is the title of the story, To Scotland, Wherever It Is.
White Cat, is the story of the orphan Innocent, a child
who has to fend for himself in the war-ravaged Rwanda, a country where
you can buy a bullet with a crate of Fanta. It is is a moving and
poignant story of one child's resilience and compassion, combined with
his desperate bid to survive and protect his most prized possession, a
Personal obsession can often isolate and alienate us from the people's
closest to us, which is the central theme of the final story in the
collection, about a man who has more time for books than his own
family, hence the reason he is called Halfbook.
permeate throughout the narrator's life. She is even disciplined and
spanked with a copy of George Orwell's essays; furthermore, her father
only knows when she was born from what he was reading at the time,
Northanger Abbey. Her father's inability to express himself, his
emotional distance, even after the death of the narrator's sister,
results in what appears to be an immeasurable rift between father and
daughter, and yet there may be a chance for some kind of redemption:
"I took Greene and went out and walked to the graveyard. It was a hot
day and I sat in the shade of my father's grave. The sun was high in
the sky, and I thought of metaphors and similes it had burned away. For
me, it simply shone."