As its title suggests, this slender pamphlet, thick with flash fiction and long on short stories, follows the course of water, keeping pace with its flow, whether it idles through a pastoral idyll or surges in the open seas. Marine Drive is an appropriately reflective medium on which to find yourself adrift, and these pieces catch the light in ripples, affording the contemplation the urban press hurries away.

These, then, the curtailed and the tale, are stories to dip into, each having its own specific gravity. To tear through them is, in fact, to muddy the waters, to dilute their impact. Navigating them, nonetheless, certain commonalties emerge.

For instance, the author Sarah-Clare Conlon has a distinct predilection for the first person plural. The stories themselves may be singular, but her narrators almost never are. At times, the effect is almost conspiratorial, enlisting the reader as an accomplice, pressing them into her gang. For the landlubber, perhaps, the device keeps them at one remove – faces press up against the porthole, uncertain whether they have the legs for the sea.

The unsettling effect of such mal de mer is paradoxically increased when Conlon uses maritime terminology with all the impressive fluency of a second language. You can practically hear it rolling off her tongue as the sentences pitch in ways you are unaccustomed to, so that meaning you haven’t quite grasped is carried off with the wind. All the same, the specificity of spinnakers, of terms and terns, lends particular pieces the tang of reportage, albeit of an allusive kind, a degree too poetic for the Saturday magazines. The drip-fed detail of place name and topography add salt to the backwaters and shallows, co-ordinating them by map reference and reference book, mooring the vignettes with the anchoring heft of non-fiction.

In the more familiar thesaurus of the land-locked, however, the particularity of her lexicon comes into its own as possessing a kind of musical exactitude, like a shell whispering against your ear or a siren singing you into the story’s depths. If this approach has a drawback, it is that, as a consequence of Conlon’s distinctive timbre, it can feel that, from song to song, for all that the lyric may be different, it is the same siren singing it.

The best of the collection strings her pearl-like phrases into heart-stopping showpieces. A blast of light and then it’s gone, for instance, is spun out of the materials used to celebrate particular anniversaries, fashioning something precious out of stolen silk. The price paid is not monetary because the prize sought cannot be reckoned in such terms. It ends, propitiously, with a door opening.

There’s similar matter at the heart of Surface Tension, in which the needle of meaning is not wielded to stitch together but to drive ink beneath the flesh, more permanent than feelings. Conlon’s protagonists, like those in Pete Shelley‘s songs for Buzzcocks, are rarely explicitly gendered, but here she slips into a man’s skin, as easily as he slips though forbidden to do so, into the pool where he is employed as an attendant.

Like these others, From Nowhere is again more dry-docked than sea-faring, carefully weaving the disconnected impressions of  a stranger in a strange town with appeals to identify a missing person, knotting them into a consideration of how in going under the radar, you can also lose yourself.

By the time you reach Ditch, you begin to conclude that Conlon’s work is at its most affecting when the tide she follows is the arterial pulse. Its terse vivisection of mistrust growing alongside the product of a wayward coupling as a chill reality dawns is painful as a paper-cut, as profound as it is brief.

Blood, it transpires, really is thicker than water, and the heart is as deep as any ocean.

By Desmond Bullen


Copies of Marine Drive are available to buy here.