Book review - How to Gut a Fish

In her assured fiction debut, Sheila Armstrong combines unsettling themes with the commonplace and reveals a keen eye for detail. The author, who is originally from Sligo and now lives in Dublin, sets several of these stories in her home country. Lemons is a response to the eighth amendment campaign in 2018. A woman’s life is described in terms of her body: a home abortion is “a pulling from deep inside”, while a mastectomy is “negative space, like a scoop removed from an ice-cream tub”. With an impressive economy, Armstrong distils each passing decade into a few paragraphs.

In the title story, a fisherman recounts in meticulous detail the gutting of a mackerel. Written in the second person as a series of numbered points, it builds tension through Armstrong’s deft foreshadowing: “Look your fish in the eye: they say the last thing a man sees is imprinted on his pupil. You check every catch this way for your own reflection, but there is only a dark hole of fright.”

In Red Market, customers bid for a young woman’s organs. The horror is amplified because Armstrong’s country gathering feels so ordinary: the woman is trussed up and put on display “in between the diving hat and the roasting trays”.

Armstrong has a talent for disrupting our expectations and her prose is sensorily rich. In Dado, a story about a hit-and-run, “the spit-hot rage of teenage girls lingers in the black ink on the cubicle doors” of a school bathroom. An old man’s grief leaves him “untethered and the days carry him along in their surf”. In Mantis, the narrator compares the “whip-crack thud” of his domestic violence to the “whip-crack claw” of a mantis shrimp.

Her evocations of landscape are extraordinary and there’s a satisfying circularity to the collection. It opens with Hole and the night visitors to a field with a “fairy fort”, a ring of stones. It ends with Dome, a typical day at the beach. An image of the sea and the sky meeting memorably concludes this haunting collection.

Originally published in The Observer