Anne Donovan’s Hieroglyphics and Other Stories is a collection of short stories which largely explore the lives and interactions of schoolchildren and their families (albeit with several interesting deviations). As brilliant a collection as Hieroglyphics is, the experience of reading these stories was slightly eerie, as I’ll most likely be teaching these selfsame stories in just a few months’ time, and so I couldn’t help but imagine how I’ll discuss Donovan’s writing with my teenage students. It’s an exciting prospect, though I’ll also glad that there’s still several weeks left before my course begins, as weather like this is meant for reading outside with your feet up.
I can certainly appreciate why this collection has found its way onto the school curriculum. Donovan’s language is skillfully chosen and deeply connotative, and her subject matter is subtle but affecting. Her writing evokes the thoughts and fears of a wide cast of characters with masterful ease. This collection also challenges one of my own unfortunate prejudices about books: I dislike reading any form of dialect. Unless it’s absolutely necessary, I’ll usually just skim over it and hope I didn’t miss anything too important. The ‘Sloosha’s Crossin” section of Cloud Atlas was a struggle, and it’s testament to David Mitchell’s writing that I didn’t skip over a single word. Donovan adopts a Glaswegian vernacular in many of the stories collected here, and I have to confess that at first I found this offputting. It’s been drilled into me for years that Scots and other forms of dialect are inferior to ‘proper English’, and it’s only with effort that I can overcome this assumption. In Donovan’s stories, however, this dialect is absolutely essential: it expresses the true voice of her characters and does not feel at all forced or hackneyed. In contrast, Donovan’s writing is enhanced by her choice of words, which intensifies the sense of sincerity conveyed throughout her stories.