Apparitions and Late Fictions
 by Thomas Lynch

Jonathan Cape
2010 Paperback
First collection







"He could imagine the larval stages of next year’s hatch of dragonflies and hexagenia, caddis and stoneflies, the imperceptible growth of antlers and turtle shells, the long pilgrimage of hatchling and fingerling, the return of the grayling and wolverine. He would try and sense his body’s oneness with the pace and nature of the world around him. Better not to think too much, he often thought."

Reviewed by James Murray-White


Thomas Lynch is a writer whose day job is the undertaking profession – I have seen him described as "the great undertaker poet". He came to international attention with a collection of poetry, The Undertaking, and in this gorgeously reflective collection of 4 stories and a novella, death in all its many nuances is to the fore again. Lynch writes about death in minute detail; how it rears its head and how we, through the lens of these various characters, anticipate it and react to it. Why should he not make it his literary bread and butter? It is coursing through his veins, and I’m grateful, both as a reader and as an interested layman, for that.

Catch And Release is the richest of the 4 short stories. It deals with a son’s journey up a river to release his father's ashes – there are many levels to this journey: the man works on the river as a guide, and has an intimate knowledge of its pools and tributaries, and unusually in the recent fiction I have read, had a good relationship with his father, so it is not a brooding, melancholic journey. It is a mellow, fertile journey of a story, very grounded within the rivers flow:
“He loved the snug hold of the river on his boat, the determination of its current, the certain direction, the quiet”.
Lynch demonstrates a unique way of writing that combines brevity in a single sentence, which tells us a lot of detail or back story quickly, while getting layers of emotion in there too. This form of telling continues through the other stories, but is most evident here. I also loved discovering the word "blethermania"!

Bloodsporthas a startling opening, and is a tale of tragedy. It can be summed up within the line: “yes, love and grief, maybe something complex like that”.  This piece is told through the voice of an undertaker, and we journey with him into two bereavements in a family over five years. It really gives an insight into how an undertaker stays calm amidst all the death and carnage that is his world, and how those who follow this profession (including the art of embalming) understand the human condition – "over time Martin learned to live with the helplessness and the sadness and the shame. He quit trying to figure the right thing to say. He listened. He stayed."

Hunter’s Moon continues the nature writing begun in Catch And Release, using a big dog that seems terrifying and threatening to the main character at the start, but by the end is passive and becomes beholden to Harold. The dog is a metaphor for the unpredictability of life, and looms out at Harold from the wood where he takes his daily walks. Harold reflects upon the loss of his wives and daughter from the sanctity of his lakeside house, and yet doesn’t seem to find peace within the wild. A life spent trying to reconcile himself to the women in his life while being a travelling coffin salesman has left him sad and troubled. By the end of the story, he hasn’t resolved these issues, but the reader has been on a long life journey with him of reminiscence and some regret.

Matinee De Septembre really gathers up the reader from the start, and builds pace as a character who is initially calm and collected, an eminent writer and professor of literature, “…a person of substance and discernment, trusted and tenured, who though seated in the back of the plane was nonetheless flying on someone else’s dime…” becomes obsessed with another, and the reader becomes privy to her mental breakdown and decline. This is soulful writing, getting into the heart of the characters back-story and her motivations, really peeling open the nature of obsession with forensic delicacy. Of all of the stories, this has a beautiful and unexpected ending.

Death features chiefly in the frame of her dead husband, a famous writer upon whom the professor guards and expands his intellectual legacy. Death has a background presence here, though I resonated with the writing about her feelings about flying: "the sudden press of mortality that air travel always stirred in her".

The final piece in the collection, Apparition, is an 89-page novella charting the effects of his divorce upon a Methodist minister, Adrian Littlefield. It is a rollercoaster ride of a story, in turns both funny, ironic and bitter. I found it too long overall – Lynch could have lopped some of the longer descriptive passages out and brought the reader quicker to the central characters interaction with the woman who has experienced a long and happy marriage. This simple counterpoint to Adrian’s story is a gentle and ruminative conclusion. This collection is a great example of the principle of "less is more" in writing. The novella included here feels like it has too much space to fill, and is the least weighty of all in the book.

Within the four short stories, Lynch shows his tremendous skill for creating worlds and frail human characters to inhabit them. I feel that some phrases sound like those penned by Updike or John McGahern. In fact, knowing that Lynch spends part of his time in Ireland, I eagerly await some stories set upon the Emerald Isle. Until then, I appreciate this collection, and commend to it warmly readers seeking a soulful read.





Read an excerpt from a story from this collection on W.W.Norton.com


James Murray-White  is a writer, reviewer and filmmaker, based in Bristol. .

James' other Short Reviews: "Sea Stories"

S Yizhar "Midnight Convoy"

Guy Dauncey "EarthFuture"

Hugh Brody "Means of Escape"

John McGahern "Creatures of the Earth"

"Park Stories"

Peter Wild (ed) "Paint a Vulgar Picture: Fiction Inspired by the Smiths"

"Ox Tales: Earth, Fire, Air and Water"

David Constantine "The Shieling"

John Updike "My Father's Tears"

                     
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Thomas Lynch is the award-winning author of 3 collections of poetry and 3 books of non-fiction. He lives in Milford, Michigan and Moveen, West Clare.

Read an interview with Thomas Lynch