[28 February 2011]
Anne Enright edits this anthology of 30 of her peers and predecessors in an eclectic arrangement that highlights the narratives “in which a writer is most himself”. Or, herself: ten women join to resist the expected “Irishness” that sentimentalizes what gets published and peddled for the international market. Among those born during the past century, Enright chooses some storytellers perhaps unfamiliar to a global audience.
Enright’s presentation proves subtle. She neither alphabetizes stories by author nor stacks them by birth date or obvious themes. She introduces them with a sharply observed preface: “Whoever thinks the short story somehow harmless for being closer to a ‘folk’ tradition has not read John McGahern, whose stories are the literary equivalent of a hand grenade rolled across the kitchen floor.” She repeats how Ireland suspects its writers: if they are loved, they’ve done something wrong. They tell of their island’s unreliable weather and its fickle people, as they lose their religion and gain their avarice. Enright remarks how “there are even more stories about choice and infidelity in the Irish tradition than there are about priests.”
This trend will only continue: the shame, the humiliation, and the problem of power within the family as well as the institutions that have longed ruled complicates the tribal vengeance and slow cunning inherent in many of these domestic dramas. Bluntness may be edging out lyricism. Charm may be peddled, but calculation wins. Enright’s display unsettles the reader expecting romance, blarney, and mist.
Michael McLaverty’s “The Road to the Shore” opens the volume, with nuns on an excursion. Then it swerves into a deft character study on class distinctions and moral reward doled out by clerical approval. Roddy Doyle’s “The Pram” comes to a post-Catholic Dublin where a Polish immigrant nanny confronts a yuppie mother in an updated Gothic yarn that recalls fairy tales gone awry. Maeve Brennan’s “An Attack of Hunger” documents the desperation of a lonely mother waiting until her seminarian son will merit his own parish to run so he can hire her as a housekeeper, 30 years on. These three stories deploy social power in the lives of women determined to make the system work for them, however deviously.
John Banville’s early tale “Summer Voices”, as with Elizabeth Bowen’s “Summer Night” and Eugene McCabe’s “Music at Annahullion”, fails to energize a pastoral setting to fend off narrative decay. Anne Devlin’s “Naming the Names”, with its West Belfast Troubles setting, jolts these pages with an examination of informing on one’s enemy as opposed to loyalty for a cause.
Keith Ridgeway’s “Shame” remains enigmatic, as its native Dubliner in some colonial century collaborates with a shadowy project surveyed by the River Liffey. Val Mulkerns’ “Memory and Desire” matches an uneasy partnership between a reality-t.v. documentary maker and a prosperous, if shifty, glass-blowing magnate. “The Mad Lomasneys”, a comparatively overlooked story by the masterful Frank O’Connor, stands out for sustained dialogue capturing a manic pitch as it examines courtship a half-century ago. Of young Rita, one of those wooed: “She had a curious, raw, almost timid smile as though she felt people desired no better sport than hurting her.” O’Connor stirs humor into commentary, so his tragicomic touch eases the necessary satire, in a collection that skimps on stories of a lighter tone.
Some of the best entries turn the shortest. Philip Ó Ceallaigh’s “Walking Away” captures a one-night stand neatly; Clare Boylan’s “Villa Marta” shows two young women with their own encounters on a holiday of not much more duration. Mary Lavin’s “Lilacs” failed to draw me in, but Patrick’s Boyle’s strange juxtaposition of the beaver’s fate, in “Meles Vulgaris”, with that of a long-married couple’s entanglement stands out for its unexpected boldness.
Seán Ó Faoláin’s “The Trout” sums up another animal-human encounter briskly, recalling the ancient storytellers as with many stories Enright includes. Neil Jordan’s a filmmaker who draws on the same elements, so in “Night in Tunisia” he uncovers the disturbances of adolescence and coming of age set in today’s surroundings but among those feeling unmoored. His forlorn protagonist “was left alone with his sister who talked less and less as her breasts grew bigger.”
Next arrives Edna O’Brien’s “Sister Imelda”, which pairs a troubled young nun with a convent school student, who concludes after their psychologically fraught relationship: “In our deepest moments we say the most inadequate things.” John McGahern’s “The Key” intervenes, with its own hints of a religious, even mythic, resonance, before Colm Tóibín’s “A Priest in the Family”, which bookends O’Brien’s entry with what, decades later, that phrase suggests for a nation weary of scandal.
Hugo Hamilton’s “The Supremacy of Grief” dramatizes death’s presence in those who survive its impact; Jennifer Cornell’s “The Swing of Things” attempts to do the same for those suffering senility. Even if its structure by comparison with other entries looks shakier by intention, it manages to convince: “this was why we fall in love: because we need another’s eyes to convince us we remain things of beauty, because without another’s tongue to tell us we assume words can not be said.”
Aidan Matthews, an often neglected writer, deserves recognition. Yet “Train Tracks”, by its own headstrong determination to ram its symbols home, tries too hard to make an impression. Still, its overwrought episodes do lodge deep in the memory, for worse if not better. Kevin Barry, a recent talent, succeeds with “See the Tree, How Big It’s Grown”. It sharpens an investigation of mental breakdown and uncertain recovery. It balances mystery and exposure impressively.
Another promising writer, Gerard Donovan, with his poised compassion in “Visit”, looks at old age calmly and movingly. However, Colum McCann’s “Everything that Must” and Seán O’Reilly’s “Curfew”, trying to mix mythic elements into encounters that hint at their surrounding Troubles, fumble their chance. The Northern Irish writer Bernard MacLaverty, in “Language, Truth and Lockjaw”, presents an offbeat fable of a philosopher’s comeuppance. It reminds me of Socrates and his shrewish spouse, Xanthippe.
Many entries do not depend upon an Irish setting or characters: these elements are incidental (as the fact their authors are born in Ireland) to the human truths of these tales. But the last four blend an awareness of Irish social pressures and timeworn mores into compelling dramatizations of how people must bear punishment even as Ireland rushes into sin and spending. Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s “Midwife to the Fairies” continues her characteristic mingling of folkloric with contemporary elements. Clare Keegan’s “Men and Women” nimbly shows how feminism struggled to make a tiny imprint in the muck of rural habits. Joseph O’Connor’s “Mothers Were All the Same” unfolds its own morality tale confidently as we understand the events as the narrator does, haltingly and awkwardly.
The collection closes with William Trevor’s “The Dressmaker’s Child”. As with Ní Dhuibhne, Barry, McGahern, Ó Faoláin, Boyle, Ridgway, and McLaverty, his parable evokes Ireland now as well as as it once was, and somehow still is, in its mystery and baffling refusal to make its meanings clear. Trevor’s protagonist wanders as if trapped by the character he summons out of the gloom, and in his pilgrimage, he appears as recognizable and as haunted as any out of James Joyce or Samuel Beckett.
This volume, by publicizing lesser-known stories even by successful authors, and by featuring newer writers along with the greats, will please many readers. It provides a welcome opportunity to widen one’s appreciation of leading Irish writers. While your favorites may differ from mine, among these 30 stories, most should entice you into looking up others from their creators, to discover more.