Thursday 23 May 2019

A brace of anthologies showcase some of Ireland's finest writers

Short stories: The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Women Writers From The North Of Ireland, Edited by Sinead Gleeson, New Island Books, €19.95

Sinead Gleeson
Sinead Gleeson

In Evelyn Conlon's short story, Disturbing Words, the central character remembers his grandmother observing the creation of the Border from her kitchen window, saying of her friends and neighbours: "That's making them from a different country. How could that be?" The notion that a line that runs along the top of a ditch, a stretch of stones across a river, can divide a whole country seems suddenly bizarre, but divide it has, creating a sense that Northern Ireland is a place both familiar and separate - a place apart.

This theme runs through The Glass Shore, ably curated by Sinead Gleeson, as 25 Northern Irish women writers take us on a journey through the familiar - marriage, infidelity, pregnancy, the menopause, work, family, and all the stuff of women's lives - and the different, too. We might expect nuns, priests, rain, soil, the Big House, the returned emigrant, the large family, but we get none of that, at least, very little. Only Frances Molloy's The Devil's Gift, a riveting tale of a postulant drummed out of her convent by a vengeful Mother Superior, seems instantly familiar to readers this side of the Border - notable perhaps because women of that religion and class were not heard in the first half of the 20th century.

Instead, we encounter a sprightly bit of early-20th-century feminism from Sarah Grand in Eugenia, as heiress Eugenia refuses to accept the advances of the calculating Brinkhampton in favour of a man who is not her social equal. For Ethna Carbery and Margaret Barrington, the superstitions and magic of old Ireland receive a fresh and invigorating twist: in Carbery's The Coming of Maire Ban, Maire's ghost returns to her husband - and her lover - on All Souls' Night; in Barrington's A World Without Men, a second "Viking" invasion is welcomed by a group of deserted Donegal women. There's a surprising directness and modernity to the feminism on display here, a lack of self-conscious shame that might have been present under the beady eye of the Church. Indeed, in Polly Devlin's witty The Countess and Icarus, Dora gleefully recalls her affair with serial womaniser Victor, who has "three women, if you are counting my wife".

Money and class were clearly the social passports of the time, but for less fortunate women the moral strictures were keenly felt. In Janet McNeill's The Girls, a married, childless couple face the horrors of a school reunion and the questions that follow about their status; for Caroline Blackwood's respectable Mrs Ripstone in Taft's Wife, the double standards of the time are cruelly exposed over lunch in Claridge's.

The scar of the Troubles inevitably marks some of the stories in The Glass Shore, engaged with head on - as in Mary Beckett's Flags and Emblems, which makes personal those most contentious of Northern Irish symbols and Rosemary Jenkinson's The Mural Painter, in which an eager young artist is beaten savagely for putting love before politics - or obliquely, as, in Linda Anderson's The Turn, when a stay in hospital compels Anna to look back at her policeman father and at the trauma that was his everyday, or Anne Devlin's subtle Cornucopia, in which two plaster goddesses remind us that while we can leave home, we can never truly escape. But for many modern writers in this collection, lives are lived in the North just as in the South: in Mary O'Donnell's The Path to Heaven Lauren plays fairy godmother to her Polish cleaning lady, only to have her largesse rebuffed; Lucy Caldwell's young student in Mayday orders abortion pills from Holland on the internet, telling herself that she is "one of the lucky ones". And yet, we are reminded once more of our difference by Helen in Annemarie Neary's The Negotiators: "Before each trip, she had developed the habit of laying out both her passports - the back-to-front harp and the party-hatted lion and unicorn. Whichever one she chose, she was left feeling incomplete", and again in Jan Carson's Settling, as the narrator misses, the "iced fingers for a Friday treat... drizzle in the summer and shops that don't open till lunchtime on the Sabbath" of her native Belfast. The familiar and the strange appear once again. Towards the end of Evelyn Conlon's story, the hero uncovers his late grandmother's sketched map of a basement that would cross the Border, that would unite North and South in her mind. Fanciful, perhaps, but The Glass Shore serves as a rich and vivid metaphorical tunnel under that Border, bringing us closer to a world that we think we know and yet that is full of surprises.

The Long Gaze Back told us the first part of the story of Irish women writers - in The Glass Shore, that story has been given its complex, rich, joyful ending.

Alison Walsh

Short stories: Trouble Is Our Business: New Stories by Irish Crime Writers

Edited by Declan Burke, New Island, €19.95

With the current fashion for short-story collections showing no sign of abating any time soon, New Island has shown canniness in commissioning an anthology by some of the leading lights of Irish crime fiction.

The problem with all these things, as mentioned by editor Declan Burke in his thoughtful introduction, is that it is impossible to fit everyone in.

This seems a particularly hard chore in the case of "Emerald Noir", a subgenre that has developed a muscular international reputation for consistency, intrigue and atmospherics.

As Lee Child, who pens the foreword, suggests, there might just be something to that old tag of Irish storytelling prowess, after all.

Crime fiction lends itself especially well to the format, you feel, due to the breadth of styles and tones that it can employ. The 20 authors here were given free rein with the brief, and the variety of styles, backdrops and registers that duly winged its way back to Burke is this superb collection's strongest card.

Dipping in and savouring a shady confection is all the easier when the colour palette is continually being reset.

Take the two Eoins involved here. McNamee (whose real-crime work Blue Is The Night was a standout release of 2014) massages his trademark spare, hard-to-hold style into a short series of interview transcripts, autopsy reports and newspaper clippings.

Colfer, meanwhile, is as playful as you'd expect from a mega-seller and genre-jumper. His A Bag of Hammers pokes fun at exponents of this art, telling of a world-weary loner who has sold a bucketload outside Ireland by rehashing his "single story of a murderous psychopath in a small town fifteen times".

It is as hilariously irreverent as McNamee's Beyond The Bar, Waiting is grim and woozy. The two could not be more dissimilar, and yet both feel right at home in this volume.

There is room for magic, superstition and science fiction here too. Hot off the heels of Lying In Wait, woman-of-the-moment Liz Nugent serves up an entombed voice that is darkly perplexing, while Alan Glynn warps political time spheres and the lives of the Kennedys into a shifting elseworld, full of bemusement as well as cold realism.

Brehon Laws and the Burren landscape nicely buttress a murder case in the contribution by Cora Harrison, an author who prefers historical landscapes and their differing social norms to add extra uncertainty to her intrigues.

For John Connolly, a writer famed for his knack of infusing the crime template with voices supernatural, a grieving husband and father is lured down into his well-stocked wine cellar each night by "a presence, listening".

This is an especially sumptuous inclusion in the manner in which it sucks you in so surreptitiously.

An altogether different language is spoken in Ken Bruen's Miller's Lane, where a stranger jets into Galway city for revenge. Dialogue here is made to zing with the same sharp music as Elmore Leonard. The soundtrack to bad behaviour, you might call it.

More familiar ghouls haunt this reality, elsewhere. Ulster-noir doyen Adrian McKinty reminds us via a tale of domestic abuse that not all villains cackle loudly from the shadows.

Typical of the author of the excellent Sean Duffy series, Fivemiletown concludes on an insidiously gut-wrenching note that you won't see coming. Julie Parsons's Kindness works the localised intrigue of Hitchcock's Rear Window into a complex moral superstructure told from the banality of a small basement flat. Such a setting, Parsons suggests, is as good a stage as any on which to brew bloody motives.This is exactly the kind of truth that the crime author is able to underscore as a by-product of their craft, as is the faint assertion by Niamh O'Connor that the distant backdrop of the recession is proof that society's predators lurk in loftier strata too.

Louise Phillips's first-person log about a dead marriage, infidelities and a plot to exact revenge on the husband with the help of a new lover is not especially original but she tells it in a few pages with flab-free focus. Others would need a whole novel or screenplay to build characters and venomous motives as sturdily.

The temptation with any short story collection is to find some common thread running throughout.

So what, then, links all the entries in this "broad church"?

The task of answering this falls, unsurprisingly, to Ruth Dudley Edwards (of this parish) to distil the very essence of the crime scribe in her own macabre mystery with a line about "the satisfaction of trying to find out what really happened rather than what's convenient to believe".

This perhaps is the binding quality of what Burke (our foremost commentator on the genre, and a handy practitioner to boot) describes as not so much "a collection of Irish crime fiction stories as it is a collection of stories by Irish crime fiction writers".

For this reason, Trouble Is Our Business is one of the essential literary fiction compendiums in Irish publishing this year.

Hilary A White

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