Sunday 4 December 2016

Secrets and lies thrive in Prosperity Drive

Short Stories: Prosperity Drive, Mary Morrissy, Jonathan Cape; €17.99

Anne Cunningham

Published 04/04/2016 | 02:30

Mary Morrissy wafts pungent scents of our dirty old town at us in her collection of short stories, 'Prosperity Drive'
Mary Morrissy wafts pungent scents of our dirty old town at us in her collection of short stories, 'Prosperity Drive'

It appears that all human life is there in Prosperity Drive, Mary Morrissy's latest volume of short stories. Prosperity Drive could be anywhere, although the various clues point to a suburb in South Dublin.

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The Dublin of this book has slid back a couple of decades, though. It's the Dublin of civil service typing pools, of the telephone exchange in Andrew Street, of grimy city centre bars thick with cigarette smoke, not yet made over and homogenised to look like every other bar.

One needs to be a certain age to recognise this Dublin, but for those of us who are, Morrissy wafts pungent scents of the dirty old town at us while she picks and picks away at the scars on the souls of her characters.

The characters in these stories are all in some way connected to Prosperity Drive, symbolically built beside a cancer hospital from which many never emerge.

Death and sickness are recurring themes, as are birth and babies, childhood and adolescence and the constant, interminable deluge of disappointments that seems to constitute adulthood.

With hawk-eyed watchfulness and an assassin's precision, Morrissy cuts the ground from under this disparate group of suburbanites and reveals truths, actual and implied, that make the reader squirm in uncomfortable recognition. It is truly wonderful stuff.

The Elworthy family features in several of the stories including the first one, where mother Edel Elworthy, widowed and senile, suffers a fall. She also suffers a moment of clarity, a slice of memory like a deadly shard of glass, which is infinitely more painful. Edel's daughters Norah and Trish feature in several stories, exposing the cruelties that siblings carelessly confer on one another, not all of them in childhood.

In 'The Great Wall', a honeymoon in Venice goes horribly wrong, with both of the newlyweds moving from rapturous passion to mutual contempt in the space of a heartbeat. And it's brilliantly executed.

In 'Miss Ireland', the young home help decides to gas herself. And her employer, a former Miss Ireland in the days when it meant something, wonders how she'll handle the gossipy neighbours, and the grief of her youngest son.

It's not only the address that connects these stories. There's a sense of time passing, with children later appearing as adults, creating an invisible line that gives the sense of a novel. Yet each story glitters independently in this series of self-contained, beautifully written vignettes.

Morrissy is not without humour, sometimes offering laugh-out-loud observations. But the undercurrent throughout brings to mind Thoreau's line about most men (and women) living lives of quiet desperation.

Her style, her intense moments of close clinical dissection, reminds me a little of John Banville. But she shows more compassion for her cast of characters, perhaps not unlike Alice Munro.

All human life is indeed there in Prosperity Drive, or Irish life at any rate, with our casual racism, our holy paedophiles, our blameless sons and slightly shop-soiled comely maidens.

It's not a pretty picture. But it's a magnificent read.

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