Sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, this collection turns the rules of storytelling on their head.
A series of graphs illustrates the disintegration of a marriage, step by excruciating step.
A literary stoush – and an affair – play out in the book review section of a national newspaper.
The heartbreaking story of a Rwandan boy is hidden within his English exam paper.
A young girl learns of her mother’s disturbing secrets through the broken key on a typewriter.
Ranging from Australia to Africa to China and back again, The Weight of a Human Heart heralds a fresh new voice in Australian Literature.
I fell in love with Ryan O’Neill at the 2013 Newcastle Writer’s Festival, partly because of the sessions I sat in on where he spoke, and partly because of his Scottish accent I’m not gonna lie. I had looked at this book in the shop beforehand but after hearing him speak I snagged a copy at first chance and got it signed. I am still annoyed it has taken me this long to get around to reading his book. It has been sitting patiently beside my bed for months, not forgotten but continuously bumped back.
In this collection of short stories O’Neill “redefines the boundaries of what is possible” to quote Patrick Cullen’s quote on the front cover. And it is completely true. I saw things in this book I did not even know was allowed in writing until now, and the fact that they are has changed the way I think about what books are capable of.
The beauty of all of O’Neill’s stories is that they seem to start so innocently, and in the space of a few pages can change your mood completely, whether to sadness, joy, amazement, or just pure admiration for his impressive skill in storytelling.
His stories show the power and impression parents have on their children, as well as the impact of an adult’s reflection on these impressions. There is also a diversity which I love about all of them, no two are alike but there are common themes running through each of them if you know where to look. There is also a poignant and bittersweet emotion that you develop as you read which consumes you, making you want to take a moments reprieve but you find yourself unable to let go of the book. You have to keep going even as you feel it pulling at all your emotional strings.
One of the real joys though of reading each of these stories is the chance I got to learn something. In Four Letter Words I learnt about a range of word origins, in The Cockroach and Africa Was Children Crying I learned about just some of the traumatic events in Rwanda, in The Examination I learnt about the English language and in The Eunuch in the Harem I saw something seemingly impossible work brilliantly.
Even away from the gorgeous stories, you have to admire O’Neill’s ideas and his creativity. Not to mention the obvious work and effort that has gone into writing some of them. The different styles and formats that are mixed through this book are so unique, and certainly nothing I have seen before. I know John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines used graphs through it, but what O’Neill has done is far beyond simple graphs. Each story is something different and that is just part of the charm, after awhile you just don’t know what to expect from the next story but you welcome the surprise.
The way O’Neill plays with ideas within a story is also brilliant. It shows not just the types and ranges he is capable of in presentation, but in doing so he still manages to tell a complete and understandable story. It just works so well, something you may not believe upon a first glance, especially for a few of these stories but by the end you are so caught up in the narrative that you almost look pass the unique presentation, but still revere it in the back of your mind and see how it is flawlessly used to aid the storytelling.
After I had read the first story, I remarked on Twitter that even after only being one story in I already felt that my life had changed just that little bit. Now, having finished the book I stand by this statement. I did not know what to expect from these stories but I could not have asked for anything better.
I implore you to read this book, find these stories and read them yourselves. The stories will move you and educate you about so many things, about life, family, the English language, the ranges and impacts of the printed word, and the variety of people that exist in this world: good, bad, ignorant, and indifferent. You become involved in these short, complicated snippets of these people and their lives and it shows you that stories do not need to be long to capture an entire lifetime and bring about emotion. It can also show you that there are so many other ways to tell a story besides the basic formatting we’re so used to in stories. Even if these stories were not as wonderful as they are, you cannot fault O’Neill on his pure imagination and creativity about how some of these stories have been presented and told.
One of the things I loved about O’Neill at the festival last year was the way he spoke about characters. He said it was easier, or at least more fun, to write stories with miserable characters rather than happy ones. There are some miserable characters in this book, but the best part is that every character does not have the same level of unhappiness, nor are all kinds of unhappiness the same. There are levels of unhappiness O’Neill plays with and the depth, nature, and cause of this unhappiness differs for each character and each story.
He also said that if you have an interesting storyline then that can create an interesting character, and his characters are definitely all interesting. For a short story you manage to understand them completely, in simple actions or words you can see who they are as people and I feel that is a real skill O’Neill manages wonderfully.
From the 21 stories in this book A Short Story and Seventeen Rules for Writing a Short Story have to be my favourites, though A Story in Writing is also up there. Though I really could start just start listing the contents in its entirety because in their own way I loved, adored, and admired every single one.
I assure you, the next Ryan O’Neill book I get my hands on will not be sitting on a shelf until I have gone from cover to cover. I am still trying to find all the words in the word search.
You can purchase The Weight of a Human Heart via the following