Reviews: Making Sense

Jump to Alex -  Andrew -  Brent -  Fran -  Jessa -  Jessica -  John -  Paula -  Suzy -  Tim -  Tina  

 Alex Trask

Jim Murdoch has an original, singular intelligence, and it's worth reading anything by him. He's always surprising, and capable at any time of a stunning sentence or turn of phrase. These twenty pieces read like theatrical monologues, and perhaps would be best brought to life on the stage. In the main, I agree with Jessica Bell's review, although while she especially likes his first sentences, I like his last. Here's a few examples: "You should thank me. You really should." (Scent); "The rest is private." (Sub Rosa); 'Goad (God)? Are ye thur (there), Goad?" (Disintegration); "Gowan (Go on). Beat it." (Monsters). Read one story at a sitting, and don't speed through.You'll soon be charmed, and amply rewarded.

Originally posted on Smashwords on 17th June 2016

 Andrew McCallum Crawford

I don't read as much new writing as I should. I'm currently rereading some Kelman and Irvine Welsh, tried and trusted, although they make strange bedfellows. There is so much new writing out there that sometimes it's difficult to make a choice. A couple of years ago I was introduced to Jim Murdoch's work, and have subsequently published some of his poetry here and here on Wee Fictions, so it was with anticipation that I received a review copy of Making Sense,, his new collection of short stories. The stories Murdoch has included are, in the main, first person narratives — monologues, if you like. Indeed, one of them, 'Funny Strange', one of four stories written in a variety of dialects, was originally performed on stage. This, I find, gives a certain form to the collection, in that the reader soon gets into a rhythm. As I read further into the book, I began to wonder how Murdoch managed to create nineteen distinct voices for the nineteen stories gathered here.

Murdoch is best known for his poetry and novels, but it's clear from the outset that he knows what he is doing with the short story form. The flow of ideas in the characters' heads manages to keep the reader engaged. The first story, '√-1', is about a man who is obsessed with numbers. He is regarded as the 'local eccentric' and wants to tell us why he ended up visiting his doctor. The first line of the story is

It was not a nervous breakdown.

which immediately grabbed my attention. A nervous breakdown? Denial? It is followed by

Those were the six words he used but that was not what he meant… Often we say things we do not mean or say one thing and mean something else entirely… As a doctor his words would carry weight… We trust them because we have to trust someone or we would all go crazy.

The main character, Thomas, relates everything to numbers. They are the crutch he leans on:

Mathematics is the language of the universe. Numbers never lie. They never let you down. So many things in this life disappoint.

After some digression, he gets round to telling us about the visit to his doctor:

I was not taken on time. The wall clock in the waiting room was wrong but even taking that into account he was still four minutes late and seven minutes late by my watch which I had checked with the BBC only that morning. It would be too much to believe that the BBC had the wrong time.

There is so much in this story, but there has to be. Thomas is an obsessive. As in all of the stories in this collection, Murdoch makes some excellent observations:

He frowned and tapped his pen on the desk. It was an old Parker 61 fountain pen in burgundy… it must have been the first bars of a tune because in Morse code it was nonsense… You cannot attribute old-fashioned values to someone simply because they write with an old-fashioned pen.


I have found that there is an order to things and there is never anything left after the point if you do your sums right.

That last part is the crux of the story. '…there is never anything left after the point if you do your sums right'. This is Thomas's problem. He needs numbers to make sense of his life, and he knows that if he tweaks them in just the right way then everything will make sense. Don't we all do that to some extent? I well remember studying undergraduate chemistry — it seemed that the whole laboratory were fudging our titration results because, having boned up on the theory, we knew what the answer was supposed to be. But life isn't lived under laboratory conditions, and there is no textbook to crib from. Why would someone feel the need to fudge their results, to make things come out the way they, for want of a better word, should? Is it to avoid the truth that we are all just winging it?

Thomas eventually has a rather public nervous breakdown — he has a vision of an angel who speaks the language of numbers. Is this the divine personification of √-1? That's the way I choose to read it.

One can't help but notice the variety of voices and themes in the stories. In 'Poise', the unnamed narrator has a reverie about a woman on the bus. The narrator harbours feelings for the woman, but can't approach her. Murdoch strings the reader along nicely here (I won't give away the ending) but again he touches on themes which are much deeper than you might assume on a first reading. Interestingly, the woman appears later in the book — in the story 'Islands' (a number of stories have female narrators) — and so we get to see things from the other side:

Sometimes, on the bus to work, I get the feeling I'm not alone. Of course I'm not on my own―I'm surrounded by thirty or forty people―but none of them are with me. Only sometimes I get an inkling that feeling might be wrong. I look for Billy but he's never there.

In 'Objects of Affection and Intention', a young woman, Eve, finds out, quite graphically, that her boyfriend is gay. Sexuality features in quite a few of these stories and Murdoch is good at writing about it — one of the reasons he's good at it is because he knows how to make it funny. Better than Irvine Welsh, I would say, who lays it all on rather too thickly for my 47-year-old sensibilities (although I thought he was the bee's knees when I was 27). Eve tells her mother that she has broken up with her boyfriend and immediately gets grief:

…she knew I needed to be out of the house for something to happen with my life.

Getting over David wasn't the problem. I was the problem.

She decides to take art classes and, after a few weeks, poses nude when the model doesn't show up. She becomes an object for the other students in the class:

When the class was painting, it wasn't painting me, it was painting my body and that was fine. I didn't mind being a body for them. I minded being a body for David. I thought I didn't but I guess it turns out I did.

Her teacher asks her about her painting:

"What's the subject? "… "A skull and some pears? "… "No, no, no. They're the objects. You are the subject of everything you paint. It's through these objects that you get to understand yourself. "

Murdoch, of course, isn't just talking about painting.

'Jewelweed' — for me, the highlight of Making Sense — features a man talking about how he met his schoolteacher wife. I think Murdoch should have placed this as the last story in the collection. There is humour in all of the stories, as well as depth, as I've already mentioned, but some parts of this story are absolutely hilarious. The theme here is different from elsewhere, in that a man is trying to make sense of his partner. This is in contrast to most of the other stories, where the protagonists try to make sense solely of their own existence.

Have you ever caught a glimpse of yourself in a mirror and seen yourself for what you are, seen beyond the façade? Vivienne had. I still catch her looking from time to time staring at herself with a kind of question mark hanging over her head. I asked her once what exactly she was looking for but she said she didn't know because every time she looked it wasn't there. She wanted to be more than the sum of her parts, not less.

Vivienne's favourite plant is a Jewelweed:

The jewelweed…its common name is 'touch-me-not' and it's called that because, like other varieties of Impatiens, its seedpods, when ripe, will burst open at the slightest touch.

I like the subtle sexual undertones of that. No undertones in the next part, which almost had me falling out of my seat laughing:

…if you'd said to me within six weeks she would've given up her forty-year-old virginity to me across her creaky kitchen table one rainy Saturday afternoon―accompanied by a recording of the BBC Philharmonic performing the final movement of Mahler's Fifth Symphony at the Proms on Radio 3―I might've been shocked, but a part of me would also have been intrigued at the prospect… Afterwards―to be frank it didn't take too long―we gathered ourselves together but when she took one look at me with my hands on my knees and my trousers still at half-mast, wheezing like an old bull, she burst out laughing. You know, that kind of infectious laugh that makes you giddy. I looked back at her hanging out of her dress―I'll never forget the look on her face and I can only imagine the look on mine―and I was off too. I'm sure the rapturous applause of the Albert Hall's audience helped.

What I most liked about this story is the way the narrator is made to analyse his wife as a means of analysing himself:

Nowadays, when I look at Vivienne I know I'm judging myself. I'm pretty sure many think I've settled whereas she's dug her claws in and hung on for dear life in case her last chance slips away but it wasn't like that.

This is a nice twist at the end of the book. When it comes down to it, this is what we all do when we are involved in relationships. We try to work each other out. Sometimes we are successful, but you can never really understand someone else completely. The main point of Murdoch's stories is that we can never really understand ourselves completely, either, despite the internal monologue each and every one of us is privy to.

I realise that I've quoted heavily from the book, perhaps too heavily for a review of this length. However, I wanted to give you a flavour of Jim Murdoch's writing as I believe you can only really appreciate stories as good as these by reading them. With Making Sense, Murdoch shows us what an accomplished writer he is.

Originally posted on Wee Fictions on 17th July 2013

 Brent Robison

Is there any socially redeeming value to “making stuff up” - in other words, writing fiction? And does fiction offer any benefit for a reader beyond entertainment?

Unlikely as it may seem in this clangorous world, there are scientists studying those quiet little questions, and the first, best answer is one word: Empathy.

To my mind, empathy is what Making Sense, Jim Murdoch’s fifth published book, is all about. This book is a showcase of the uniquely human ability to understand the interior life of another conscious being; to transcend the limits of the self.

Making Sense is a slender collection of 19 brief stories, each exploring a different character, who is also usually the narrator. These are not plotted stories, but character vignettes and voice-driven monologues. Nearly half the narrators are women, and the range of ages and types is wide; they are not just thinly disguised versions of the author. All but two of the stories are narrated in first person, but even the third-person omniscient narrator uses a very conversational, first-person-like voice and even addresses the second person (the reader) with lines like, “Do you see that man over there….”

The whole collection is full of a lively energy, like meeting real people. Murdoch has a gift for imagining himself into the minds of others and capturing their ways of speech. The differences in the subjects, in their voices and their lives, is what provides the empathic spine of this collection. All these engaging voices show us that the Other is really just like ourselves, and that is one of the most crucial messages for a divided, brutal world.

George Ovitt explored this subject rather brilliantly in his Atticus Review article “Fiction and Empathy,” which I highly recommend.

And to dig a little deeper (getting back to my earlier statement about scientists): a series of experiments support the fiction/empathy claims above, and show that the empathy effect is strongest with literary fiction as compared to genre fiction, factual non-fiction, or not reading at all. Perhaps the first empirical data on the subject, the studies were recently published in a top journal, Science, and subsequently well covered in Scientific American and the The New York Times. (Thanks to the On Fiction blog for bringing it to my attention.)

So it’s true: stories that delve deeply into characters’ internal worlds, depicting the complexity and unpredictability of real life, effectively teach us how to empathize. Our world leaders desperately need to read more literary fiction!

In the never-ending struggle between dark and light forces, Murdoch’s Making Sense adds to the positive side.

There is just one more aspect to the book I want to address. Murdoch uses a few of these stories to experiment with technique: how to create distinct regional dialects or accents on the page so that they will sound authentic in the reader’s inner ear. While his urge to capture a unique voice is admirable, I found these stories less successful. As I struggled through the altered spellings and syntax for Scots, Cockney, and New York accents, I lost the fluid rhythm of the speech and even the line of the story. A lighter touch, just hinting at the dialects, would have been more to my taste (especially for New York, where I’ve lived for 25 years without hearing an accent like the one depicted here).

In the end, this is a valuable investigation. I respect the care and thoughtfulness with which Murdoch approached his dialect stories, and perhaps the effort serves best to illustrate how thoroughly immersed each of us is in the speech we hear every day. Language is indistinguishable from thought; it’s like the air we breathe.

In other words, there are simple, universal human sensibilities under the complex exterior of such stories, like the root language of which the dialects are just surface variations. This entire book supports the idea that we are One.

Originally posted on Ultimate Indivisibility on 9th March 2014

 Fran Lewis

Within the pages of this book you will meet many different people whose voices you will hear, listen to and try and understand as their stories unravel, they bear their souls to readers and try and explain why life has dealt them difficult hands that forced them to do the things that they did which impacted the lives of others. Within the first story we meet Thomas whose life seems quite sheltered, organized and structured. Promptness is equal to godliness, lateness is unforgiveable and dealing in numbers, their meanings and values helps him to stay on task and point. As you hear him speak with the man he refers to as Doctor, and listens to his words you realize that Thomas has his own single thoughts, his visions, and voices that instruct him as to where to go, how to deal with his daily life and when he is supposed to be at a specific place. Living his life according to numbers, which never fail you and you, can trust, he works himself up into frenzy and winds up having a nervous breakdown in public. Going to the same place for lunch each day, equating what to say to the waitress and living his life with structure and rigidity, Thomas finds himself within a shell that only contains numbers, figures and 2+2 is an act of faith according to Thomas. It is not so until you believe it to be so! Interesting thought if you think about it. He believes what he wants and he is settling for a world that makes sense to him. The next story is about a woman who becomes fixated on another woman that she sees on the bus. Her mind wanders as to her appearance, her clothes, her face and the thrust of her private conversation within herself is that this woman could never be a model. Yet, she takes her apart piece by piece and creates a life within her own thoughts that she thinks she might be living. Riding on the bus this woman does not take notice of our narrator yet she thinks that perhaps she might be wondering why she chose her of all people. Thinking that maybe she might notice of talk to her but not today: maybe tomorrow. Within both stories both narrators seem to live within their own insulated worlds that they have created as we come to another story where the characters might remind you of someone you know: Coping. What would you do if you realized your husband was having an affair with your sister? What would you do if he had many other indiscretions? How would be deal with it? Within this story our narrator relates how she watches her mother deal with the world and life "With the sound off." In other words she sees, but does not compute. She makes excuses for the foibles or mistakes of others but none are due. What exactly is selective hearing? Well in this case the mother hears and sees what she wants as the narrator relates that she feels she does not let her brain register or understand what is really happening in her life or because of those around her.

Questions that were left unasked are now being asked as the narrator's father passes away and she finds the need to bring to light the truth about her father. Her mother she states hears what she feels is "safe to hear." So, like a sculptor or create painter she created her own masterpiece of life that she could live with and not worry about any flaws. When answering her daughter's question you will be amazed at her response and wonder: Just whose world had the sound off and why the pain was able to go away with 8 simple words that she spoke. Happiness is whatever we want it be read the story and find out why.

Within each of the stories the main narrator or person they are describing has is trying to deal with and make sense of their lives in many different ways. As you read each story and learn more about their problems, feelings and issues, you the reader might find it plausible to reassess your own life and try to make sense out of some of your difficult situations too. As we come to another story that I would like to spotlight: Stray. One man who can't seem to find a place that he can call home. One man who seems to live on the edge of nowhere and wonders where his life is going as he finally moves from his home, one that he considers a mere shell that protected him and his family but no longer exists. Leaving home he describes his feelings, ambitions and why he wound up on the wrong side of many things. Burying himself in his work and never really relating to anyone or anything special. As he travels through life he is no different than the man in the first story he needs numbers to have equalize him, the woman who buries her head you might say in the sand and this man who runs or roams from place to place trying to find something he can call home. He like many that fined them alone in the world and with no place to call their own often define himself or herself as a dog or cat might without an owner as a stray. They really do not belong to anything or anyone and are just floundering until maybe they will stop, look, and listen and turn up the sound. There are many stories that I could spotlight but I will focus on two more.

Life: is an interesting story about a man who loves his wife yet wants more. Meeting an old girlfriend he decides to test the waters and see what happens if two old friends decide to hook up. Flashing back to his family, his grandfather and then focusing on Helen, he puts his wife Mary, in the back of his mind and forges ahead to see what happens. But, incidents arise and he begins to think about Helen when he is intimate with his wife and you wonder whether she, Mary and the woman in the story Coping, are enjoying life with the sound turned off in order cope with what is happening in the present. Does he realize that he made a mistake? What happens when he returns home? What will his Life be like? Will Mary let on that she knows? Will he just resume as if nothing happens? Read the ending and you decide for yourself where Mary and Stephen are going.

Two short stories one dealing with a young girl who finds out she was adopted and the next one about a young boy who is having relations for the first time. In Katherine and Juliet we hear the narrator's voice as she learns she is adopted, what she does to find out who she really is and the final outcome that will surprise you. The next is about a young man who describes his first time and then well I guess he's on a roll ready to tell about the second. What he telling you about will surprise you and the end result spills over to another story titled Objects of Affection and Intention where this same character returns. Finally, the last story that I want to spotlight is called Jewelweed. Vivienne is an old fashioned school teacher you might say as we hear the narrator describe her as if she is a piece of bread with no butter, cream cheese or anything to make it special. She lives her life in a vacuum, tending to everything but herself. Her appearance is not remarkable, the classroom she taught in remained unchanged and she compares her students to flowers that she cares for but not as people. She was left a conservatory and took care [of] the flowers stating when asked her favourite: Jewelweed. Explaining the history or the derivation of this flower you can learn on pages 117-118 and more about Vivienne to follow. She is quite religious, her home is filled with religious items but according to the narrator they are of poor quality. How they met and their relationship is discussed but mainly the narrator allows the reader to learn that when looking and judging this woman in a sense she is judging himself too. A story quite telling and an ending quite remarkable as something about her shines through letting you know that she just might be human and have feelings that she keeps hidden within the flowers of her conservatory.

Making sense out of life: read the stories, hear the many voices and you decide where you might fit in and how you still might need to Make Sense out of yours. Very different and unique stories that deal with real life issues in unique and different ways. Every story has its own unique voice and characters which sometimes reappear in another story as we realize that the man who left the office before Thomas in story one is the jeweller in the story titled Sub Rosa and then our Thomas is the one that lends the girl in Coping a pen so she is able to write a note and to put in with her child she abandons. There are many stories, which have different dialects such as Disintegration, Zeitgeist and Monsters, which each reader might want to read after referring to the glossary of terms at the end of the book.

"Numbers come alive when they acquire meaning." These stories come alive because each one is significant and will get you to thinking about your own life.

Originally posted on Just Reviews on 4th December 2013

 Jessa Larson

Is it possible to make sense out of life and living? The random occurrences and interactions? Is it worth attempting to unravel the chaos? Some people would say that attempting to do so defeats the purpose. That the mystery is perhaps the purpose entirely. I think we just can’t help ourselves. Trying to find explanations I mean. We concoct a mess of reasons, justifications, and excuses to give our lives a higher meaning, a sense of purpose. In Making Sense, a collection of short stories, we meet twenty individuals who have absolutely nothing in common other than their persistent need to force life into making sense. They do their best to answer life’s questions and when they inevitably fail, they rely on other psychology senses.

I will give you some advice right now. Read the glossary of Scottish slang located at the back of the book before you begin. Unless you’re Scottish of course. Then you will know exactly what Murdoch’s characters are talking about. I don’t mind slang from the general area of the United Kingdom, but I felt like the style of writing was authentic to the author’s native tongue, yet forced you to read in an accent I’m assuming most of you don’t have. I had to read through the stories a few times to get the hang of it before really getting into the true depth of each story as it was slightly distracting.

There were a few stories in this collection that stood out to me. I really enjoyed the short story titled “Objects of Intention and Affection”. I really felt the characters come to life and Eve was very relatable. She swims, and perhaps nearly drowns a few times, through life and in the end finds that her problem wasn’t the people she interacted with, but the way she viewed herself in the interaction. Once she realized she was a subject rather than an object, her entire perception of life changed and I’d like to think it was definitely for the better.

“Katherine and Juliet” was another story in this collection that touched me. Katherine seems to have put her sense of identity onto the shoulders of her mother and when she finds out she was adopted, she struggles to find someone to pin that responsibility and sense of self onto. I have felt that struggle and I found it enlightening that Katherine finally realized she was her own person and her identity was up to her to shape and develop.

As a whole, I will admit that I loved the authenticity and reality of each story and its characters. It was wonderfully written and I will definitely be picking up more work by Jim Murdoch. I feel like I discovered something new each time I re-read each story. I have to say, I found this collection absolutely brilliant.

5 stars

Originally posted on Luxury Reading on 4th May 2014

 Jessica Bell

Jim Murdoch's Making Sense is a book of short stories. But they're not your average short stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. In fact, some don't even end at all. And I'm not saying that as a criticism-it adds to the fabulous charm of Murdoch's style. They make you think.

Most (as the majority are written in 1st person) are what I would call "glorified journal entries," as they are very much focussed on how each narrator perceives the immediate world around them. They are making sense out of their life. In the words of Murdoch in his introduction:

"There are five (arguably six) senses and yet we use the words 'sense' to describe many other ways in which we perceive and conceive the world around us, that we use to make sense out of this world and wonderful place in which we find ourselves; sense of humour, of entitlement, of community, of place, of urgency, of being, of justice ..."

Reviewing a book of short stories is quite a task. Because each story is different. So, I'm going to offer some thoughts about the collection as a whole, while drawing upon aspects of individual stories.

Let me first tell you that I really really enjoyed this book. Any criticisms I make are not a reflection of dislike, they are merely observations-things that stuck out at me, but did not in any way affect my level of enjoyment. If you read the book, you may very well feel differently. And I do highly recommend this book. Especially if you are a fan of the vignette.

The collection started off brilliantly. The first story was so brilliant, I even emailed the author to tell him so. He replied, "just because one story's brilliant doesn't mean they all will be." Ha! I laughed. I read the second story. Again, brilliant! One of my favourites. What's he on about, I thought. He's being too modest. I read the third. Hmm ... okay, I'm not sure about this one. Perhaps my ambivalence had to do with the fact that it is written in a dialect, which was tough to follow (I'll go more into that in a minute.)

Overall, some stories weren't as strong as others, but the strong ones were really strong. Strong enough for me to want to give the book five stars. In the end of opted for four, because I decided I should be looking at the collection as a whole, not just what I loved about it.

So let me break this down into subheadings:

Female Narrators

Sometimes (not always) I couldn't recognize the female narrators as such. On many occasion they sounded male to me, but perhaps that's because I know the author personally and could recognize his own voice in the pieces. So this could absolutely be a matter of being too close to the author. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this if you decide to read the book.


I felt that, on occasion, the dialogue is a tad wooden. I think it has to do with the fact that, in these few instances, it is too "what you read is what you get," and doesn't integrate enough subtext. However, some of the dialogue is so well done that I experienced writer envy. I just adored the way he approached the dialogue in the story, Life, in which a man reflects on his right as a man to cheat on his wife:

It's only fair one supposes that, as he thinks about other women while he's making love to his wife, then he should return the favour while making love to another woman.

"Stephen? What's up?"
"I can feel that. What's going on?"
"For God's sake, Mary, I'm doing my best."
"Helen, yes ... sorry."
"Come on, lover boy."
"Just give me a second will you?"
"I could flick you again."

First Lines

Murdoch is a master at first lines. Clever, witty, all-round fabulous. Here are some of my favourites:

"If there's one thing that annoys me about my mother it's this: she watches life with the sound off." (Coping)

"I'd always expected one day I'd feel this click inside, from OFF to ON, and I'd go, yes, now's the right time to start thinking about having kids." (Failing)

"Nowadays people make too much of a thing about being touched." (Islands)

"All men are the same-a few bubbles short of a bath," (Silence)

"Now befaw we go too fah down dis road let's you and me get a few tings straight: I'm yer narratah; my name's nonna yer goddamn business, but whad I say goes." (Monsters)


I found that most of the stories written in 1st person (excluding ones in a dialect) sounded like the same person. Of course, they each had their unique quirks, but I think because these are short stories, and there isn't enough time to really develop character, it would have been tough to make them all sound completely different. So this isn't a criticism, it's just an observation. There are 20 stories in this book, so kudos to Murdoch for being able to write from 20 different perspectives in the first place. I have a hard enough time writing from three different perspectives in a novel.


Ah ... dialect. I think Murdoch anticipated a little struggle from his readers regarding the stories written in dialect, because he added an Afterword called "A few thoughts on voice," which explains a few things about his choices. But let me tell you about my thoughts.

I have nothing against writing in dialect. I have written in dialect on many occasion. When I write in dialect, I chose a few select words to alter the spelling of, which reflect the accent, but still enable the reader to get into the flow without too much effort. But the difference between Murdoch's dialects, and the dialects I use, is that Murdoch really goes the full hog. I'm talking practically every second word being an unrecognizable spelling to those unfamiliar with it. That made it tough reading.

Thankfully, these were short stories, and not Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting (which I had to study at university; it left a bad taste in my mouth), so I got through them. I found Zeitgeist and Disintegration the hardest to follow. But found Monster relatively easy and it ended up being one of my favourite pieces. I imagine it has to do with the fact that Zeitgeist and Disintegration are written in Glaswegian, and Monsters in a "New York mobster circa 1930" (Afterword) accent, which I have most likely had more exposure to from television.

My Favourite Stories

√-1, Poise, Stray, Life, Failing, Scent, Silence, Katherine & Juliet

My Favourite Lines

"I realise Adam was supposedly split down the middle and hence males and females were intended to be a match made in heaven but there has to be more to any relationship than complimentary genitalia." (Poise)

"Houses are unnatural places, full of rules and straight lines. Nature doesn't have much use for either of them." (Stray)

"When a china plate hits, say, a kitchen wall, it breaks, it shatters into fragments but when a watch breaks it just dies; you have to look closely to tell. That's what must have happened to my parents' marriage." (Stray)

"I used to worry about being me, that I might not be doing it right." (Scent)

"The only real answers you're ever likely to get in this life are the ones you've been carrying about in yourself all your life. It's not until someone pops the right question that the answer makes sense." (Scent)

Closing Comment

Er ... buy this book! Read one story a day with your morning coffee. They're short, but rich. And you might learn something new about yourself and wonder why you've never thought about the world like that before. I certainly did.

Originally posted on Vine Leaves Literary Journal on 8th July 2014

 John Baker

The first time I saw her if you'd said to me within six weeks she would've given up her forty-year-old virginity to me across her creaky kitchen table one rainy Saturday afternoon — accompanied by a recording of the BBC Philharmonic performing the final movement of Mahler's Fifth Symphony at the Proms on Radio 3 — I might've been shocked, but a part of me would also have been intrigued at the prospect. It would've taken quite quite a stretch of the imagination but then I guess that's why I've always found wedding rings a strange source of fascination. Why? Because that's a sign to everyone they've done it — with a man — probably more than once, possibly the previous evening and yet you see them all over the place — these most-ordinary women — on the bus or the train, clattering away on typewriters or trying to control hoards of unruly schoolchildren and you can't tell — but you know. When I met Vivienne I couldn't imagine her with anyone. The only wedding ring she possessed dangled on a chain between her breasts and they were well covered up. The thought simply never crossed my mind. It was a pleasant surprise to find she still possessed a fine cleavage indeed . Afterwards — to be frank it didn't take too long — we gathered ourselves together but when she took one look at me with my hands on my knees and my trousers still at half-mast, wheezing like an old bull, she burst out laughing. You know, that kind of infectious laugh that makes you giddy. I looked back at her hanging out of her dress — I'll never forget the look on her face and I can only imagine the look on mine — and I was off too. I'm sure the rapturous applause of the Albert Hall's audience helped. I think that was when we fell in love (our coup de foudre), if you really wanted to pin things down to a moment in time, as if any one moment in time's all that important.

(A taster from 'Jewelweed')

The opening story of this collection is a stream-of-consciousness first-person narrative from an obsessive-compulsive character on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But there are several stories here which are narrated in the form of a monologue. 'Poise' introduces us to a middle-aged woman who is entranced by another woman she only sees at the bus-stop or on the bus; they have never met, though they did once exchange a few words. Our narrator is poised for that one day when they will become friends. It didn't happen today, but it might happen tomorrow. In 'Funny Strange' we meet a man who was once a professional comedian, but who, after a long sojourn with alcohol, is longing to bring some humour back into his life.

There are a couple of stories here which I couldn't read. From time to time Murdoch throws into the mix a short narrative in what I assume is Glaswegian dialect. I did try with each of them but made no headway whatsoever. Unfortunately, the glossary of Scottish words at the back of the book discovered a pit of indolence in me.

But in the main these stories present us with a character and a problem or a dilemma, together with an often rambling attempt at a solution or exposition. And usually the solution comes in the form of a realization from within. I don't wish to give the impression that most of the stories follow a similar pattern, because they don't and Jim Murdoch is an intelligent and practised writer, and he knows exactly what he is doing.

What he is doing in this collection is writing continually interesting narratives. His characters may often be idiosyncratic and not always adept at conveying their point, but they do invariably grab our attention and keep it until they decide to close down.

When I received this book in the post (supplied by the author) I had just finished the latest collection of stories by Alice Munro, and was deeply engaged with a collection from Annie Proulx. Both of these writers are magicians with the short-story form and, quite frankly, I did not expect Jim Murdoch's collection to be in the same league.

I was right. But having said that, Murdoch does have an intuitive feel for language, the knack of knowing what will engage his readers and the unfailing ability to spin a tale of intrigue and suspense out of the everyday ingredients of life.

I would recommend Making Sense without hesitation.

Originally posted on John Baker's Blog on 14th July 2013

 Paula Cary

Jim Murdoch's collection of short stories in Making Sense is his best work yet. Twenty stories that encompass a wide range of personalities, lifestyles, and ages provide perspectives on everything from gambling to intrigues to fetishes. There are also a variety of "voices" as some are written in dialect that require you to read the story aloud in order to sound out the character. Several of the characters struck a chord with me, reminding me of people I knew, and I bet you will find the same in these pages.

There are some great lines in these stories that hooked my attention. In 'Coping,' the opening line is: "If there's one thing that annoys me about my mother, it's this: She watches life with the sound turned off." How can I resist? With those of us who have living mothers, we immediately begin thinking about our own. The story entails a discovered intrigue and the mother learns to live with the news, not say a word, and move on through hearing only what she wants to hear. Most of us know such people and it's a story you might be familiar with yourself.

Another story, about a woman discovering her man is into men, has a sense of humor to it which I appreciate: "A week later I barged though the back door laden with half-a-dozen shopping bags and with my purse gripped firmly between my teeth to find him in flagrante delicto in the hall with the bloke from 4G but what the heck? I guess they couldn't make it to the bed in time. We'd done it in the hall before. It wasn't exactly our place but I quite liked doing it there..." Honestly this made me laugh with the "not exactly our place" and the rest of the story is light considering the heaviness of the situation. Life goes on, is what I take away from the story.

I only revealed a couple of the stories to you, there are some funny and wonderful surprises in the pages of this collection

Originally posted on Poet Hound on 23rd August 2013

 Suzy Watts

This collection of short stories is themed around the title, Making Sense. One is written in gangster/New York dialect, two are written using a Scottish tongue and the others are in more or less plain English, which makes for an interesting mixture of styles.

The stories are told in the first person, and many of them have a female as the lead character, which is a difficult genre for a male author to conquer. I found the female personas entirely believable and thought these stories were very thoroughly researched and in no way sexist or condescending.

There are nineteen narratives contained in this slim volume, but the content is meaty enough for all tastes. There are happy tales, sad tales, cheeky tales, serious tales-tales of deceit, love, disappointment, and numerous other highs and lows of everyday life. My personal favourites included 'Katherine and Juliet', 'Failing' and 'Sub Rosa'.

The author's style of writing is refreshing and entertaining. It is also heartening to find a book with practically no grammatical or typographical errors.

Most enjoyable reading which I fully recommend to all.

Originally posted on Footnote Reviews on 22nd December 2013

 Tim Love

19 stories, an introduction, an afterword and a glossary of Scottish words (because 2 stories are in Glaswegian). In his introduction he writes "People write for lots of different reasons. Top of my list is the need to make sense of things". The collection's a mixture of first and third person narratives, male and female - mostly internal narrators who think that words will help, albeit retrospectively. Several of these personae are trying to talk themselves into understanding something. In the course of their story, some make progress. In searching for sense, different strategies are adopted

  • Some parents are investigated by their children - partly to learn strategies, partly to learn about the self. In "Coping" for example the narrator's mother says "If he'd to go in on a Sunday then I made him sandwiches. I hadn't a clue if he ate them, shared them with his fancy woman or fed them to the swans down the park. I didn't make them for him. They were for me."

  • In "Islands" the narrator's not convinced that reasons explain things.

  • In "Scent" the narrator says "By making sense, I mean translate well into words. What I was just talking about. Smells work but it's harder to make sense of them.". At the end of that story "It's not until someone pops the right question that the answer makes sense. We spend our entire lives looking for questions to make sense of them. Well, some of us do."

  • Some personae have more immediate concerns. In "Disintegration" (which has shades of Godot) there's "Ah jist need tae get through this mornin', that's aw.
    Goad? Are ye thur Goad?

Throughout, there are quotable phrases and paragraphs, though I'm not always sure they're in character

  • an excuse which is a lie without balls (p.90)

  • I come from a broken home. When a china plate hits, say, a kitchen wall, it breaks, it shatters into fragments, but when a watch breaks it just dies; you have to look closely to tell. That's what must've happened to my parents' marriage. And just the same as a stopped watch tells the right time twice a day, every now and then things passed for fine at home (p.29)

  • I left home, as most people do, brimming with ideals, ambitions and with the wrong-end-of-the-stick-completely stuck up my arse. I gazed in awe at the world through eyes that'd seen so little and I described my universe by reference to the tiny island that was moi (p.29)

  • I don't know about you but I can't make head nor tail of the theory of relativity. What I want to know is what's anyone doing in a train travelling at the speed of light anyway? (p.79)

Though you may feel sorry for some of the characters there are few attempts to tug at your heart-strings. This is due in no small measure to the non-judgemental over-arching viewpoint. Sweet dreams are made of this.

Individual stories

  • In the first piece, "v -1 ", a character's obsessed by numbers - "Thirteen is the sixth prime number and the smallest emirp". I found this interesting because I've written a similar piece about a word-fixated person.

  • "Stray" is typical of one type of story here - as much essay as narrative, with an identifiable theme and an ending that neatly meshes into the beginning.

  • In "Zeitgeist" the author says that "we have a man whose world's collapsing around him"

  • "Katherine and Juliet" is about identity, being classified - "It dawned on me the only thing I had in common with the guy next to me and the guy next to him was my sexuality and that was it" (p.111). It ends with "Jeremy..." "Yes, love...?" "You're drunk." "Quite possibly." - "drunk" being as limited an adjective as "gay" was earlier. But Jeremy killed himself.

  • "Objects of Affections and Intention" uses Art to explore identity - people can become objects

My favourites are "Katherine and Juliet" (I like how twins, The Twilight Zone and Kafka are used) and "Objects of Affections and Intention".


The male/female split's about 50/50. The pieces are mostly first-person, though in some of these the main character isn't the narrator - in "Poise", the attention is mostly on "You" (the object of adoration); "Sub Rosa" is more a portrait of Mr Hutchinson, and "Coping" is a portrait of the character's mother.

The third-person pieces adopt different perspectives - "Monsters" has an in-your-face external narrator, the "Tomorrowscape" narrator is in the story as an anonymous observer, and in "Life" there's an external narrator too

These narrators are sometimes aware of their role -

  • On p.39 the narrator says "and I think that's where the point to this story lies".

  • "The plot of this story should be straightforward" (p.45)

  • "I should point out I found out about all of this at a much later date. I'm not part of the story yet" (p.118)

  • "Now befaw we go too fah down dis road let's you and me get a few tings straight: I'm yer narratah ... whad I say goes" (p.125)

In "Monsters" especially but also in "Scent" the reader's directly addressed.

Beginnings and endings

In several of the stories the theme hinted at in the title is picked up in the first sentence and returned to at the end, as this crude table illustrates -

v -1 It was not a nervous breakdownIt is not so until you believe it to be so
PoiseYou could never be a modelIt might've been but there's always tomorrow
Funny StrangeOi, I've got a new joke fer youI could do wiv a good laugh
CopingIf there's one thing that annoys me about my mother it's this: she watches life with the sound offMy mother's happy and I should be happy for her. I should and I do try. I really do
StrayHomethat can't see itself as anything more than a stray. I expect that's been me all along
Objects of Affection and IntentionI'd always suspected David hadn't asked me to move in with him simply due to my wry sense of humour and decadent personality"Only if there's raffia involved"
LifeThe plot of this story should be straightforward - boy meets girl, they fall in love, get married and settle down to start a family - but that's never it, is it?"I couldn't get you out of my mind" "Really? I'd much the same problem."
FailingI'd always expected one day I'd feel this click inside, from OFF to ON, and I'd go, yes now's the right time to start thinking about having kidsMaybe he quit too soon
ZeitgeistMa wife sez Ah'm too seriousYe'er aw right
IslandsNowadays people make too much of a thing out of being touchedSometimes I wish I was a poet. I think that might be easier to live with
ScentMy mam once said, "There's a bad bit in you"You should thank me. You really should
Sub RosaMr Hutchinson was a peculiarly private person, not that I'm suggesting for one minute there's anything wrong with valuing one's privacy, but it does set tongues waggingThe rest is private
SilenceAll men're the same - a few bubbles short of a bath, so some women say - but it's not trueJenny? If you can hear me: night, night, pet. I love you
DisintegrationHe'll be here by half sevenGoad? Are ye thur Goad?
TomorrowscapeThe future, if you think about it as simply another place to go you've never gone before, is bound to have its ups and downsMaybe it was funny once but not anymore - not in the slightest
Katherine and JulietI first met Katie when I was sixteen"You're drunk" "Quite possibly"
First TimeThey say you never forget your firstNow, let me tell you about my second time
JewelweedOne would've thought that a prerequisite for being a schoolteacher, even before one starts to consider academic qualifications and relevant experience, might be a fondness for, or at least not a total loathing of, childrenI'll take her a wee sherry in a bit, when the time's right
MonstersNow befaw we go too fah down dis road let's you and me get a few tings straight: I'm yer narratahIt's all yer gettin' outta me in any case so ya can shovawf now. Gowan. Beat it

See Also

The book's on sale online. In an article, Homogenised tongues, the author discussed the purpose and difficulties of writing in dialect.

Originally posted on Litrefs Reviews on 28th June 2013

 Tina Chan

This is one of those books that makes you think. You know, one of those make-you-pause-in-your-busy-life-and-just-think type of book. Readers looking for a book with a strong plot should not read this book. Readers looking to reflect and look at the 5 senses differently should pick up this book. I love the concept of this book: Murdoch explores the "other" senses not categorized into the usual 5 senses, like sense of humor, sense of acceptance, sense of love, etc.

As I mentioned before, there really is no beginning, middle or end in Making Sense. Rather, you get to meet an array of different characters in each short story. Each character explores what life means to them. In each "meet the character" story, readers get to explore a new "sense." I must say, the characters you meet in Making Sense are some of the most diverse characters you will ever meet.

There is one sentence I really loved...the words the author uses are all chosen very carefully. So one of the characters is talking about how scientists still haven't been able to create a vacuum because "there're always one or two stray atoms bobbing up around with nothing better to do than screw up their experiments." Then I love this sentence that follows shortly afterwards when the main character is caught lying to his spouse: "It was my silence that found me out, just a moment's silence--it doesn't take much--a moment's silence and a few molecules of meaning." Isn't that a beautiful comparison? (Or maybe that's just my inner geek calling out, lol)

There were a few stories that were harder to read due to the character's accent in his/her narration. The words were spelled with a Scottish accent. Don't get me wrong--it was still readable, but it took much more concentration to figure out what the words were. The writing kind of reminded me of the writing style Mark Twain used in The Adventures of Hucklberry Finn. Here's an example from Making Sense, "Ma wife sez Ah'm too serious."

Over all, I liked the book and found it fun to read. There were definitely a few characters and their stories that really stood out to me. The writing wasn't too long so that it became tedious to read yet it wasn't too short either.

Originally posted on The Book Landers on 9th December 2013