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The Weight of a Human Heart, By Ryan O'Neill


Leyla Sanai
Monday 09 July 2012 20:07 BST

Ryan O'Neill was born in Glasgow and has lived in Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia. This mirrors the geographical spread of his first story collection, of pithy, tragi-comic vignettes. Several of the protagonists are writers or teachers, exhibiting the foibles of these professions: pedantry about grammar; an almost uxorious love of language; competitiveness.

Playful with content, O'Neill is also joyfully original with format. "Figures of a Marriage" is related entirely in graphs, pie charts, tables, Venn diagrams, flow charts and lists. "Seventeen Rules" tells sequential paragraphs of a story by adhering to the writing tips of famous authors.

There are harrowing tales of the Rwandan genocide. Freshness is maintained by allowing characters' personalities to show rather than merely recounting carnage. In "English as a Foreign Language", a Rwandan student defends himself from reliving the trauma by only talking of it in clichés.

The undue emphasis on religious teaching in some African schools is highlighted in "The Saved", where a bishop equates attractiveness with wanton sexuality, and plots against an able but non-Christian Ugandan science teacher. The pain of Africa is captured in throwaway phrases: "a baby cried as if for future sorrow". But "a riot of colour" to describe African markets seems hackneyed.

There are several Scots male protagonists here, and they provide humour as well as brutality and tragedy. "Four Letter Words" is a boy's story of his parents, constructed around the profanities his father taught him. "Typography" is a prize-winning story about a teenager coping with loss.

There is a magnetic insouciance and irreverence to many characters, such as the complaints handler who had taken to "silently lipping obscenities as he listened to grievances". And the lack of objectivity of some critics is mercilessly lampooned in "The Eunuch in the Harem". Ambrose Bierce's quote, "the covers of this book are too far apart", appears here – but it can't be said about this brilliant collection.

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