Tuesday 6 December 2016

O'Faolain: A tender, funny bouquet of Roses

Fiction: Under The Rose, Julia O'Faolain, Selected Stories, Faber & Faber, €19.99

Anne cunningham

Published 11/04/2016 | 02:30

Julia O'Faolain
Julia O'Faolain

The Irish are like pillars of salt, Julia O'Faolain once observed in interview. "They're always looking back". As we continue to bombard ourselves with 1916 memorials, it's difficult to disagree. Other nations have commemoration days, the Irish have commemoration years.

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In a later interview she named only Claire Keegan as a young Irish writer she admired, but added that Keegan's stories, up to then at any rate, were set in rural Ireland, "the Ireland of my grandmother."

She wondered who might write convincingly about "the New Ireland". I'm tempted to slip her a copy of Paul Murray's The Mark and the Void. And that's just for starters.

Ironically, this book is also looking back. It is a retrospective, reprinting stories which have already been published, either in her books or in journals such as The New Yorker. Selected from 1968 to 2006, and including locations like Los Angeles, Paris, London and of course the oul' sod, they sweep across a vast swathe of time and space but never lose focus on the particular, the pernickety, the very nub. And they remind us of what a marvellous stylist O'Faolain is.

Julia O'Faolain was sent to convent school and then to France and Italy to study languages. She appears to have absorbed all of the influences of her own history and imbued them, with honesty but not much empathy, into her short stories. One particularly brutal tale, The Man in the Cellar is written in the form of a letter from a battered wife to her Italian mother-in-law, who dotes on her violent and unpredictable son. Brilliantly executed, it's a disturbing case history of Nietzsche's warning; "Be careful when you fight the monsters, lest you become one."

Another monstrous act permeated by a woman, is described in Daughters of Passion. Maggy has blown an English policeman to smithereens with a letter bomb, and she's persuaded in jail to hunger strike for status as a political prisoner. A young Irish immigrant girl, she's blinded by the romance of it all. "Political? The notion exhilarated. Old songs. Solidarity. We shall overcome. In gaol, as in church, that sort of language seemed to work." Ms O'Faolain casts a cold eye alright.

But she can be tender, too. And very funny. The Corbies' Communion, about 90-year-old Liam mourning his wife's death is both delicate and hilarious. Liam was a high-profile civil rights lawyer whose caseload included several lawsuits against the Catholic Church. He's now faced with having a Catholic funeral for his devout wife. "Priests, Liam had hissed, were like crows. They battened on death." After much persuasion by his "near-friend" parish priest, he softens. But at his wife's requiem mass, he "plopped to his knees at the wrong moment, hid his face in his hands and threw those taking their cue from him into chaos."

Reading O'Faolain, the question persists; why is she not read more widely? A short-listed Booker Prize nominee, she is very highly esteemed. But then she never played the coy Irish Colleen, although neither did Edna O'Brien, who enjoys greater prominence. Whatever the reason, in this year of endless commemoration of the good, the bad and the ugly, this collection is as timely as it could possibly be. Lest we lose the run of ourselves altogether.

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