Culture critic Naomi Simpson finds Tom Wards’collection of short stories an absorbing and powerful reflection of the lives of everyday people
Even at first glance of the title, Tom Ward’s collection of short stories Dead Dogs and Splintered Hearts is simultaneously jarring and intriguing. Ward’s work consists of 29 individual pieces which, despite seeming almost deliberately disconnected in plot and setting, are united by the unflinching way in which they embrace the potential for strangeness in short stories through an unlikely but effective blend of unreality and realism. At times, the purpose of the narrative becomes a bit lost in the mix of these stories, but this creative risk ultimately pays off. When an author can jump from New Year’s Eve in Paris to a New York diner, to the depiction of an alcoholic Santa getting into bar brawls and still have each plotline feel human and honest, you know you’re reading something pretty special.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of Ward’s work is its distinct lack of traditional character development. Although characters encounter strange incidents and are backed into absurd and terrifying corners, there is little emotional resolution to each story and seemingly always a sense of missed opportunity or a mistake made which cannot be rectified. In this way, Ward allows plot to dominate over character to such a degree that the reader is carried through this mosaic of storytelling, urgently reading on as the action continues to shock, sadden and even delight in its dark humour. Ward is purposefully pushing what we expect of a short story. This is not an author who deals in happily ever afters.
Among the stories of brutality – and readers should be warned that some of the stories do contain potentially triggering content – and despair, there are flashes of a world which seems far more familiar and manageable. In such stories as ‘A Nice Trip’, the main character Jack visits an ex-girlfriend and experiences her new life in France. This bittersweet and ultimately ill-fated romance story catches the reader off guard. Placed as it is among stories with no hint of sentimentality, ‘A Nice Trip’ allows sentimentality to wound the characters just as violence wounds the other characters of the collection. The glimpses of closeness and joy in this story work in the broader context of the collection to give a fuller picture of the troubling world Ward creates. The author takes the cliché of two young lovers spending time in France and up-ends it with missed opportunity and the constant intrusion of the outside world through mobile phones in order to question not how absurd the world can be, but how absurd our expectations of it can be.
Dead Dogs and Splintered Hearts is by no means an easy read, but if the reader accepts this and the confusion of the many different narratives it becomes an incredibly interesting look into the things in life we try to forget about and brush over. Immorality, humour and honesty blend throughout the work to create what amounts to an album of snapshots of lives disappointed, scarred and ended by the loss of the short story’s happily ever after.