A Famine in Newcastle
 by Ryan O'Neill

Ginninderra Press
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, Sleepers Almanac, Meanjin, Wet 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. 

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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 the page."

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 Europe, 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."
Malaria 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 compromised.

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.

The 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 white cat.

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. Books 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."

Majella Cullinane was born in Ireland and currently lives in Glasgow. Writing awards include a Sean Dunne Poetry Prize, a Hennessy for Emerging Poetry, an Irish Arts Council Award, and in 2007 she was long-listed for the Fish Short Histories Fiction Prize. More recently, she’s worked as a Writer in Residence in Scotland. 

Majella's other Short Reviews: Jim Tomlinson "Nothing Like An Ocean"

Tim Jones "Transported"

Gerard Donovan "Young Irelanders"

Alex Keegan "Ballistics"

Midge Raymond "Forgetting English"
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