Sunday 11 December 2016

Books: Morrissy's tales nothing short of marvellous

Short­stories: Prosperity Drive, Mary Morrissy, Jonathan Cape, hdbk, 288 pages, €26.85

John Boland

Published 06/03/2016 | 02:30

Barbed wit: Mary Morrissy.
Barbed wit: Mary Morrissy.
Mary Morrissy's new book Prosperity Drive

This is the most pleasurable book of stories by an Irish writer that I've read for many years - perhaps since the 1970s heyday of William Trevor, with his three great volumes from that decade: The Ballroom Of Romance, Angels At The Ritz and Lovers Of Their Time.

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That's high praise but, as with Trevor, there's a psychological acuity and an emotional understanding to Mary Morrissy's stories, along with an often barbed wit, that can only be achieved by the very best of writers.

And to further continue the Trevor analogy, there's a satisfying sense of completeness to each of these stories so that, even when the lives of the characters remain unresolved, the reader feels everything has been said that needed be to be said.

But beyond such comparisons, Morrissy is very much her own writer, with her own take on the world - or at least that microcosm of it to be found in the mostly middle-class suburban Dublin road of the book's title. And although the name suggests Morrissy is about to embark on a cautionary tale of Celtic Tiger boom and bust, what she actually does is infinitely more interesting.

Characters who are main players in one story reappear in other stories as older or younger versions of themselves, sometimes as central figures but also sometimes in minor roles or merely recalled by other characters. This is not a new device (Donal Ryan employed it in his 2012 debut, The Spinning Heart, a book of related stories that was termed a novel), but Morrissy uses it to great effect.

In the opening story, for instance, we meet the widowed Edel Elsworthy, who's suffering from early dementia. She's being cared for by her reluctant and resentful daughter Norah, whose own life hasn't worked out too well, and in the final story we encounter them again, as well as Norah's sister Trish, who has sought to escape her own problems by fleeing to Italy.

But we've already met a younger Trish in the book's fifth story when she's waiting to catch a Malaga flight to Rome and spies in the terminal a former neighbour, the mixed-race Mo Dark, with whom she had a fleeting adolescent relationship, despite her mother's warning: "Remember Shan Mohangie. He was from Africa, murdered his Irish girlfriend. A teenager, just like you." Trish, though, had imagined their future "as a plucky, mixed-race Romeo and Juliet without the bad ending".

And in another story we're told of the exotic, indeed somewhat unsettling, circumstances which led to Mo's conception, while elsewhere we learn about Norah's brief marriage to Louis, and about 27-year-old Julia Fortune, who has chosen an anonymous Manhattan hotel as the venue in which to end her life.

And there are many other characters who reappear throughout the decades in various stories, though it should be stressed that each works perfectly well on its own terms and brings its own satisfaction.

In this respect, I'm reminded of Maeve Brennan's wonderful stories of suburban Dublin life in the Ranelagh of an earlier age, all of which featured the same handful of characters, though each story had its own potency.

Morrissy is just as good a writer and she can be as funny as she's elegiac. Ted's "poor da", for instance, "was straight from Irish father central casting" and had made family life a misery, though "at least he'd had the grace to exit early". But the same beady authorial eye is also directed at the women characters, who are just as capable of being foolish and deluded and petty as the males in their lives.

These 18 stories are so crammed with warmth, wit and insight that I wished for 18 more. Marvellous.

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