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Seventeen novels, 25 million books sold worldwide, many translations and — most famously — the P.S. I Love You film adaptation, have made Cecelia Ahern one of Ireland’s biggest exports and a beloved name for many devoted readers. But what if you aren’t one of them? What if her new collection of short stories, Roar, was your first foray into Ahern’s literary world? Would you be convinced of her prowess as a storyteller of matters of the heart? If you were a reader unfamiliar to speculative fiction then, yes, you would. There’s a great deal of whimsy in these stories, but the unfortunate label of ‘magic realism’ given to them is doing them a disservice — no reader of magic realism would be impressed by Ahern’s attempt to make physical the trials of being a modern woman.

The premise for each of Ahern’s stories is fairly literal — ideas aren’t suggested or implied; there’s no subtlety about what she wants to say — which, of course, isn’t necessarily a negative aspect of her narratives. In fact, the little fantastical element, what is referred to as the “magical realm” in these stories, is quite literally just literal: a physical manifestation of the mental or emotional struggle each protagonist is experiencing.

A woman being eaten up by guilt finds bite marks all over her body. A woman so embarrassed that she wishes the floor would open up and swallow her, falls down a hole that suddenly appears in the ground. A woman feeling she is no longer relevant to society starts to fade away; though she colours her hair, wears louder clothing and speaks up more, as she nears 60 she finds that she is nothing but a glimmer in the world and has to repeatedly say out loud “I am here, I am here, I am here.” A hijabi immigrant grows wings to rise above those who judge her daily outside her children’s school in an alien country. A woman so loved by her husband that he wants her to give up everything and just be admired — “I want you to leave your job and sit on this shelf so that everyone can see you, so that they can admire you, see what I see: the most beautiful woman in the world. You won’t have to lift a finger. You won’t have to do anything. Just sit on this shelf and be loved” — allows herself to be added to his trophies and sits on a physical shelf in her living room for years. A woman missing her past starts to eat photographs to recall how she felt until she finds she is consumed by her memories and missing out on her present. And so on.

Cecelia Ahern’s collection of short stories has a great deal of whimsy, but is often too predictable and heavy-handed in its narrative exposition

The lead character in each story is known simply as “the woman.” Ahern’s point is valid and clearly made: she’s writing about every woman, any woman, but this technique ends up feeling a little cold. Sure, you can relate to the situation every woman is in, as most women will emphatically be able to, but it is hard to relate to the character on a deeper, personal level. You don’t care for her; you simply take note of what she is experiencing as a solid example of what so many women go through, even if you have not experienced it yourself. The concerns each woman has will be familiar to most female readers; there isn’t anything startlingly new here in terms of struggles. Most female readers will be able to relate to most of the protagonists, and if they haven’t personally experienced the same struggle, they will definitely know someone who has. But that’s pretty much Ahern’s point with these little glimpses into ordinary lives that take a little shift into the slightly odd: these are the lives of many, many women. These are the lives of you and I, of our mothers, sisters, daughters. Each story resonates with truth, but some are more powerfully told, containing a pricklier, angrier energy; those are the ones that work best. Each story is almost a parable. There’s a lesson to be learned, but thankfully not each is as didactic as the other.

Since Ahern is a mainstream writer, these stories will never be called speculative fiction — which is fine, because readers of speculative fiction would find them too cutesy. And they can be. After the third story or so, one starts to wonder if Ahern really needs to spell out as much as she does for every slightly fantastical element. Each woman has her epiphany, her moment of self-realisation and agency, which is very much the point of the collection, though whether we need to be spoon-fed the realisation quite so solidly and forcibly is a matter of opinion. There’s a definite pattern to the stories which becomes a little repetitive if all 30 are read within the span of a day or two (and they’re easy to read quickly and absorb). The title of each story sets it up, there’s a very brief premise, an entirely unsubtle exploration of the metaphor and a denouement in which the point is driven home even further, in case anyone missed it earlier.

She enters a six-digit PIN code on the panel; the date of birth of her twin sister. It is of course her date of birth too, but it is her sister’s date that she keys in. This is followed by a click. The shoe shelves that line the wall of the closet move back, and slide to the right behind her row of dresses, revealing a secret room. Greeted by blush-pink velvet walls and a soft plush pink carpet, she removes her shoes and steps inside. As the wall of shoes closes automatically behind her, she allows her eyes to adjust to the gentle pink glow of a night-light. She smiles, at peace. Then she opens her mouth. And roars.— Excerpt from the book

Roar has been picked up for television and will be co-produced by Hollywood actress Nicole Kidman’s company, with one of the showrunners being Carly Mensch, the screenwriter behind Glow, Netflix’s massive hit about female wrestlers. But whether it will be produced with subtlety or force is anyone’s guess.

The reviewer is a book critic, editor of The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories and hosts the interview podcast Midnight in Karachi at Tor.com

Roar
By Cecelia Ahern
HarperCollins, UK
ISBN: 978-0008283490
352pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 6th, 2019

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