Neil Gaiman describes short stories as, ‘Tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.’
Sean O’Beirne’s debut short story collection A Couple of Things Before the End (Black Inc., February 2020) fits this description perfectly. In his slim-ish 201-page volume, O’Beirne gifts the reader with eighteen windows into other worlds, minds and dreams, set in the past, present and future, and painted on an Australian canvas.
The diverse characters and themes in the collection include a young actress who flirts with a wild Barry Humphries on a London-bound passenger ship in the 1950s. A teenage boy recounting his last year of high school, including his very first relationship with a girlfriend in the 1980s. A security guard’s redacted-report on the life of asylum seekers in a Nauru detention camp. The leader of the New Australia Party setting out his racist, authoritarian agenda at a post-election press conference in the not-so-distant future. And a woman who pleads to be accepted by a private gated community to escape the heat and rising sea levels threatening her suburban home in a climate-changed world.
O’Beirne also experiments with form in his writing. In addition to traditional narrative and dialogue structures, the stories are written as diary entries, letters, interviews, phone calls, texts, speeches, reports, social media posts and emails. He closes the collection with a heart-wrenching child-like journal by a young woman eking out a living in a post-apocalyptic underground car-park.
A Couple of Things Before the End receives high praise from noted Australian literary figures on the cover. Helen Garner writes, ‘These voices, so superbly heard and rendered, threw me into fits of laughter and slyly broke my heart.’ Christos Tsiolkas asks, ‘How do we speak and write into a future? I think Sean O’Beirne is showing us the way of doing it.’
I read O’Beirne’s collection in bed at night before going to sleep. Unlike Gaiman, I had the joy of journeying to the far side of the universe with these short stories without worrying about being back in time for dinner.
In our anxious days of coronavirus and self-isolation, A Couple of Things Before the End delivered the escapism my soul needed.