Saturday 19 January 2019

A store of riches from a writer at her best

Fiction: Selected Stories, Eilis Ni Dhuibhne, Dalkey Archive Press, €14.99

Eilis Ni Dhuibhne's stories are widely acclaimed for their acute perception of Irish women's lives
Eilis Ni Dhuibhne's stories are widely acclaimed for their acute perception of Irish women's lives
Selected Stories by Eilis Ni Dhuibhne

Anne Cunningham

This volume of short stories, most of them from previously published collections, spans almost 30 years of Eilis Ni Dhuibhne's work, from the first story here, Blood and Water published in 1988, through to the last, The Coast of Wales, first published in The Long Gaze Back in 2015. The settings in time and place vary, from rural and suburban Ireland to the US and the UK, from the aftermath of the Famine to the aftermath of the Tiger, but her themes of repression, of humiliation and guilt, inferiority and secrecy, and of grief and love in all its forms remain like quiet linchpins holding this sweeping collection together.

Blood and Water - beautifully crafted and shocking, describes the scald of shame felt by its young protagonist at having a relative who is mildly retarded. Mary describes idyllic childhood summer holidays with her family in her Aunt Annie's house in Donegal. Aunt Annie was "lucky" to have been born in 1925, when being "slow" was simply accepted - she was described as "delicate" - but she at least lived a normal life in the family homestead. Had she been born into a more recent generation, she would have no doubt fallen foul of a variety of clinicians' labels - Asperger's maybe, or autism, or possibly ADHD - and most likely would have spent her life in an institution. But when young Mary is sent, aged 11, to an Irish college in Aunt Annie's village, she refuses to recognise or even greet her aunt - childhood cruelty possessing neither conscience nor boundaries - and she insists to her teacher that she doesn't know Annie. Fast forward to the present day and we see that Mary has learned virtually nothing about compassion. This might just be the finest story in a very fine collection.

But there are other jewels, too. The Banana Boat is about the anguish of a mother who believes her son might have drowned - practically under her nose - off the beach in Castlegregory. The tragedy is averted, but it fires a stream of profound emotional repercussions in the mother, who feels she is losing her sons anyway, as she watches their teenage personalities evolve. "One thing was clear," Ni Dhuibhne writes. "This would be one of our last holidays as a family. Next year they would probably refuse to come with us." She then walks the mother into a labyrinth of terrifying what-ifs. Defying all convention, Ni Dhuibhne wanders through scenes from Mary Lavin's The Widow's Son and Alice Munro's Miles City, Montana before alighting on the factual tragedy of John Kennedy Junior's plane crash. It's a deft hand indeed that can stitch these seemingly disparate elements together into one cohesive short story, one sole meditation on the vulnerability of motherhood.

Wales, or its coast, features twice in this volume in two very different tales. Summer Pudding is the first, in which two sisters escape the ravages of the famine by selling their dead relations' clothes to garner their boat fares to Britain. They join the tinkers in Wales and learn how to steal and beg and do whatever's necessary to survive. Eventually they find work as maids, but the younger sister's head has been turned by one of the tinkers, Naoise. The second story, The Coast of Wales, is an elegant vignette exploring new widowhood, presumably echoing some of Ni Dhuibhne's own experience in recent years, but penned without a single trace of sentimentality. Rather, it is wryly funny, depicting a scene in a graveyard where another recently widowed woman almost loses her small dog to the slow, crushing, inexorable wheels of a hearse. "The driver isn't expecting one to run out in front of him. How ghastly. First your husband, then your dog." It would take a heart of stone, to paraphrase Wilde, not to laugh.

Chekhov gets more than a salutary nod here, as his The Lady With The Dog gets a 21st-century rewrite in The Woman With The Fish. Dmitri the banker becomes Michael the college tutor and Anna the young wife remains simply Anna the young wife, although she is also a college tutor. With a pet fish called Anton. Draw your own conclusions...

Sometimes the wit is laugh-out-loud, as in Literary Lunch. Francie Briody, writer, has had enough of Alan Byrne, Chairman of the Board, who's turned Francie down for a bursary exactly 12 times. Now Francie's got a gun in his Tesco bag-for-life, as Chekhov gets another nod; "And if there's a gun on the table in act one, it has to go off in act three…" It is gorgeously detailed and extremely funny. The follow-up story City of Literature isn't as bristling but will still raise a grin, tracing Francie's new-found fame as jailbird and best-selling bete-noire of Dublin's literary scene.

As a chronicle of Ni Dhuibhne's journey through the last three decades, this collection is a precious little nugget from a rich and diverse writer at her shining best.

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