Sunday 25 September 2016

Books: Homeland and away

A Kind of Compass, Belinda McKeon, Tramp Press €15.00; Young Irelanders, Dave Lordan New Island Books €13.99

Published 14/09/2015 | 02:30

Belinda McKeon is included in the The Long Gaze Back: An Anthology of Irish Women Writers
Belinda McKeon is included in the The Long Gaze Back: An Anthology of Irish Women Writers

Long before the Bible there have been stories of exile and distance, of migrants seeking refuge from the cruelty of despots and mankind. The relative distance of memory is a shifting element in the short story form. There is no beginning, middle and end. Long and short-term memory mesh and unspool. Geographical distance no longer determines eternal separation. The elasticity of the far and near past, of home and distant lands, the relative closeness between individuals, stretches and shrinks in A Kind of Compass, edited by Belinda McKeon.

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Truncated prose allows a snapshot, a spyhole onto an inner narrative and this anthology is anything but a melancholy collection of homesick memoirs. The writers are Irish and international and lead you to places of discomfort and unresolved disquiet, sometimes familiar, sometimes repulsive, always provoking.

Sarah Baume, author of Finishing Lines, deals with an uncle's childhood and his current anxiety over his homing pigeons. The journey to retrieve a lost pigeon in England (we discover that they have metal in their beaks which automatically re-directs them to magnetic north) reveals the narrator's own need for distance from her new baby and the perspective she achieves from afar. Our interference with nature is exposed by the man-made disturbances on land and in the air that have interrupted the pigeon's flightpaths. Baume has well-constructed the X and Y co-ordinates of distance in this structural metaphor.

Kevin Barry's Extremadura consciously evokes the alienation of a Roscommon man in Spain, exiled from love, lost in loss. Fifteen years of walking from place to place, cripplingly slow passing of time, watching others, knowingly hopeless. His character is the prodigal who does not return.

In Big Island, Small Island, Francesca Marciano deals with a similar Italian character, Stella's former lover lives on a tiny island off the coast of Tanzania. It is 15 years since she has seen him. She visits while at a conference on the mainland, expecting to find the vivacious Roman. Old and new worlds confront each other in the distance between Rome and Islam.

Cultural distance is explored in Yoko Ogara's Six Days in Glorious Vienna, where two Japanese strangers on tour have to share a bedroom. Kotoko is in her 60s, the narrator is in her 20s and succumbs to helping the older woman negotiate the signage of alphabet letters that perplex her en route to tracking down an old lover. The author plays with an absurd set of existential circumstances that become comic and credible. A mission to Mars, a fantasy fulfilled, a flight to London, a mother's dream, a father's wish - memory and the ultimate distance are satisfyingly resolved in Elske Rahill's Terraforming.

The trope of photography and film-making provide a lens and angles for Gina Apostol in The Unintended. In the quest for her origins, the narrator uses the interrupted notes of a mystery writer and interrogates the truth of the Samar Island Massacre and the American-Filipino War.

There is so much more in this thought-provoking collection, including works by Sam Lipsyte, Maria Takolander, Mark Doten, David Hayden, Ross Raisin, Porochista Khakpour, Niven Govinden, EC Osondu, Kristín Ómarsdóttir, Suzanne Scanlon, and Éilís Ní Dhuibhne.

In contrast to A Kind of Compass, another contemporary anthology deals with Home. Young Irelanders is edited by Dave Lordan, who teaches experimental fiction. The collection departs from the classic Irish short story of the small town, the farm, the melancholy and the penury. The small town is no more, in Saving Tanya, Kevin Curran observes the universal, invasive impact of FaceBook and Click Culture. The slut-shaming and cyber-bullying, that seems to be all too prevalent today, leads to surprising and tragic consequences and is poetically narrated by a young teenage boy.

Roisin O'Donnell breaks the bounds of the short story in a long narrative about a Brazilian primary school teacher married to an Irish musician. In How to Learn Irish in Seventeen Steps, O'Donnell has innovated with a texture and depth not often encountered in the short form. In order for Luana to teach in a primary school she must be able to speak Irish, this involves a visit from the cigire and a trip to the Gaeltacht. There is a subtle tyranny at play and a low level infidelity. Luana poignantly asks herself, 'how do you say how you really feel in any language?'

Novelist Mia Gallagher has included an extract from a novel, Beautiful Pictures of the lost Homeland, adapted to deal with the theme of national identity, homeland and how we collectively and individually navigate that identity in times of crisis. Also selected by Lordan to represent Ireland's gifted short-fiction writers are Sheila Armstrong, Claire-Louise Bennett, Colin Barrett, Rob Doyle, Oisín Fagan, Alan McMonagle, Cathy Sweeney, Eimear Ryan and Sydney Weinberg.

These two diverse and compelling collections represent the finest talent in contemporary writing and editorial guidance in a world where homeland is mutable, distance is relative, identity is fluid and exile is never far away.

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