British poet Adam O'Riordan, winner of a Somerset Maugham Award in 2011, marks his first foray into fiction with a probing collection of short stories that maps fractured lives against the alienating vastness of California.
Tender yet piercing in verse, O'Riordan does not lose his poet's touch even as he migrates across genres.
His voice is far more restrained in prose, generating a sense of detachment that initially keeps the reader at a remove. But the contrast between the startling quality of his images and this sense of restraint gives depth and a sense of intrigue to the collection.
The tales are filled with ambivalence and uncanny resonances. Travel is a strong motif, drawing parallels to protagonists who are often suspended between life stages and faltering relationships.
THE BURNING GROUND
By Adam O'Riordan
Bloomsbury Publishing/ Paperback/ 186 pages/ $36.50/Books Kinokuniya/4/5 stars
In the opening A Thunderstorm In Santa Monica, a man takes a flight from London to Los Angeles to reunite with a long-distance lover, but is confronted with the realisation that he has become far more enamoured with a trip's manufactured sense of purpose than with the lover.
The journey continues in The El Segundo Blue Butterfly, when a reporter experiences deja vu as he returns to California for an interview with a scandal-plagued businessman, recalling the weight of expectations that he had carried as a teen from a low-income family, on a journey to speak to the same man for his high school paper.
O'Riordan's evocative treatment of California's landscapes also mirrors a keen awareness of the passing of time and he condenses such meditative contemplations into strikingly composed scenes.
In Wave-Riding Giants, a war veteran, confined to a nursing home, tracks the buoyant scenes of families on a Santa Monica boardwalk through a pair of binoculars.
Black Bear In The Snow opens with the protagonist singing a nursery rhyme of the same name to his young son and closes with the child reeling on the ground after shooting a bear on a hunting trip, initiated by his father in an attempt to repair their estranged relationship years after.
The one piece that sits at odds with this collection is the last title, Magda's A Dancer, told breezily through lines of dialogue as a group of friends make their way to see a performance. The banter is self-conscious and humorous, sharply deviating from the contemplative slant of preceding stories.
Still, his experiment works, reflecting the energy of metropolitan Los Angeles life.
Like watching smoke curl up from a fire, fleeting scenes settle into something weightier in The Burning Ground.
O'Riordan acutely captures what is lost, unsaid or too complex to articulate in everyday life in lingering detail and the pleasure of reading the collection comes from the satisfaction of seeing this complexity crystallised with such spareness.
•If you like this, read: Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968, $26.67, Books Kinokuniya), a collection of essays describing the writer's experiences in California in the 1960s.