As part of our extended #ReadIndies, today I’m very happy to be taking part in a blog tour for one of my favourite indie publishers, Renard Press. My focus has mainly been on their reissues of lost and wonderful classics, but they also release really interesting new titles; a particular success has been “This Good Book” by Iain Hood. Last month they published a new short story collection, “Women and Love” by Miriam Burke, and it really is a stunner!

Freedom is the price you pay for love.

Burke hails from the west of Ireland, with a previous career as a clinical psychologist. Her stories have appeared in a wide range of publications, and “Women in Love” is her debut collection. In it, through seventeen powerful stories, she explores love in all its guises, how women experience it and how it affects them. This is no lightweight, trite anthology, however, as Burke’s women are negotiating difficult lives and settings, dealing with violence, trauma, betrayal, mother love, LGBTQ+ experiences and every other aspect of love you can imagine. The book explores love in all its guises – messy, emotional often physical and always with the potential to be emotionally destructive.

I work for myself. I don’t pay taxes because I do not trust the State. I have seen how politicians will let their own people go without food and water so they can buy more weapons. I I know how easily a country can fall apart, and I know there is no one to save you when it happens.

So there’s “Vincero”, exploring the bond between a pair of burglars; “The Thing About Being Human” which contrasts the past life of an ageing gay lethario with that of his carer, whose backstory is heartbreaking; “Looking Out” which takes a painful look at the love of parent for child and the fears you can have; and “The Unchosen” which delves deeply into sperm donation and the ethics of choice. “Beyond Love” was a particularly dark entry exploring the parent/child relationship which can go so wrong. Those are just a few of the excellent stories; the settings and characters are wonderfully varied, and whether it’s the immigrant carer, the rich woman, the fading artist’s muse or the betrayed lover, Burke’s mostly first-person narratives brilliantly capture each individual, giving them a voice of their own.

You overestimate the human species – it’s why your socialist revolution didn’t happen. All people want is a job that gives them enough money to buy junk food, and television programmes that provide material for their sexual fantasies. And as long as they believe someone is worse off than them, preferably emigrants, they’re happy.

Some of the most resonant stories for me were those which looked at the lives of older women, in particular “Fingerprints”, the closer of the book. In it, a group of women gather at the funeral of an old friend and look back on their youthful aspirations and ideals, wondering where they’ve gone. I guess it’s the same for all generations, but certainly as I look back on the late 20th century and the social changes we hoped would happened, this story really affected me.

Do check out the other reviews on the blog tour!

“Women..” is one of those collections where the stories are so good that I had to take a break between each one to let it digest and settle in my mind. To simply describe them as tales of women and love is perhaps somewhat reductive, as they do range widely over the human condition and this is the kind of writing which makes you look again at the familiar and see it in a new light. Burke writes brilliantly and each story is compelling, often with a little twist at the end to make you gasp. Intriguingly, despite my assertions, when asked, that I don’t want to read pandemic fiction, the few stories in which the virus has a discreet presence were actually really good and I was impressed at how Burke had worked this into her stories without making it too dominant an element.

Of course, the running theme of the book *is* love, and is Burke’s message that no good can come of it? Well, I don’t think so. Her stories are painful yet tender, with people finding connections where they least expect them and making the most of their situations. And despite the agonies it causes, we’re always drawn back to looking for love, although we know things may well go wrong. As one of Burke’s characters says:

I’m sure I’ll end up old, ill and alone, but I will have lived my life, and not retreated into the bunker of marriage. I tried happiness and found it wanting. I don’t think humans have evolved to be happy. We enjoyed conflict, we like deprivation followed by satiation, we like to love and lose and love again, we relish the relief we feel when pain stops, we like feeling safe after we’ve known fear, we enjoy feeling rage and we like to forgive.

As you may have guessed, I absolutely loved “Women and Love”, and as I’m someone who doesn’t read an awful lot of modern fiction that’s a real tribute to the book! Whether Burke’s previous career has given her an insight into humans and their foibles, I can’t say; what I can say, though, is that she’s a marvellous writer of short stories and has created a wonderful collection of tales about women of all types and in all situations who are quite unforgettable. “Women and Love” is a brilliant new work, and kudos to Renard Press for releasing it – proof that they really are an indie to watch!

Of course, after publishing this, I realised that it also qualified for Cathy’s Reading Ireland month – so a blog tour and two challenges in one book! Love that! 😀