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Hieroglyphics and other stories

Anne Donovan

" Ah mind they were birlin and dancin roond like big black spiders. A couldnae keep a haunle on them fur every time ah thoat ah'd captured them, tied them thegither in some kindy order they jist kep on escapin. "

Reviewed by Michelle Reale

To get the most of this fine collection of short stories, one must read them slowly, and in some instances, go back and read again. Anne Donovan, a transplanted Glaswegian, wrote many of the stories in Glaswegian dialect, a brilliant convention that works on more levels than one. At first one might worry that they will not "get" it or won’t have the wherewithal to endure. Quite the opposite is the case. There is a beautiful rhythm to the dialect, one that is easy to pick up, letting the reader imagine the tone and feeling of the words on the page. What’s more is that the dialect, in no way, impedes the story, but rather enhances all aspects of the experience. The reader can quite easily conjure up the street scenes of Glasgow, with the stories a treasure trove of quotidian details of what might be found there. 

Childhood is a major and prevailing theme: buds bursting, causing pain, growing into who we will be and having a foot in the worlds of childhood and impending adulthood are the dominant themes. Donovan has managed to use some very clever conventions in this collection, including the story Virtual Pals. Two pen pals, Siobhan from Glasgow (sio2c@allan.gla.sch.uk) and Irina (2c@allan.jupiter.net.sch.uk) from "Jupiter" embark on a warm correspondence in which they share details about their lives that confound and delight one another in the gentlest of ways, with the metaphor of childhood being a whole different country altogether: 

"Dear Siobhan; It was somewhat surprising to receive your electronic mail since in our science lessons we have learned that the area of your planet know as Scot-land is devoid of intelligent life, due to adverse climatic conditions. 

Dear Irina, Your e-mails are just pure brilliant. I don’t know how you manage to write all they big words. I have to look up a dictionary to find the meanings of half of them. Miss Macintosh is dead chuffed cos she says its gonnae improve my English."

Mary, in the title story Hieroglyphics, tries hard to follow the writing rules in school but can manage only what the teacher, Mr. Kelly interprets to be hieroglyphics: 

"'So Mary, if hieroglyphics means Egyptian writing, why do think I am referring to your script using that term? '

'Because you cannae. . . can’t read it, sur.' 

'Precisely, Mary. And since the function of reading is to communicate, what point is there in writing something which is utterly unintelligible? '

'Ah jist sat there.' 

In the end, Mary finds beauty and resilience in her own "vision,”" though the beauty is the fact that she is hardly aware of it as such and has no idea of what future consequences might be. 

Other characters come to similar conclusions allowing pin pricks of light to shine through even the most desolate of tales. Donovan’s stories detail the no-nonsense approach to child rearing amongst the working class and the often both sad and magical worlds that children inhabit both literally and figuratively. Donavan’s writing shines in many ways, but most especially because it lacks a certain sentimentality that could so easily cloud and obscure meaning. Instead she writes in a that allows hard truths and stark poignancy shine through.

Read two stories by Anne Donovan in the Mad Hatter's Review

Michelle Reale is an academic librarian working in a university in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Her fiction has been published Dogzplot, Verbsap, elimae, JMWW, Blood Orange Review, Willows Wept, The Blue Print Review, Apt, Pequin, Monkey Bicycle, Yellow Mama, Diddledog Bewildering Stories, Underground Voices and others.
Michelle's other Short Reviews: Sana Krasikov "One More Year"

Jody Lisberger "Remember Love"  



Publication Date: 2001

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?Yes

Author bio: Anne Donovan has published stories that have appeared in anthologies and have been broadcast on BBC radio. She was the winner of the Macallan/Scotland on Sunday short story competition in 1997 and a Canongate Prize winner in 1999. Her first story collection Hieroglyphics and Other Stories was published in 2001. Buddha Da, her firs novel was short-listed for the Orange Prize in 2003. Her second novel, Being Emily, was published in 2008. She lives in Glasgow.

Read an interview with Anne Donovan

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What other reviewers thought:

The Independent


Library Thing