Tuesday 22 October 2019

Being Various: New Irish Short Stories collection offers fresh, diverse perspectives

Fiction: Being Various: New Irish Short Stories

Edited by Lucy Caldwell

Faber & Faber, paperback, 354 pages, €13.99

Editor: Belfast author Lucy Caldwell
Editor: Belfast author Lucy Caldwell
Being Various

Hilary A White

When future academics want to study the evolution of literary Ireland, Faber's short story collections may be useful.

The 2011 instalment, edited by Joseph O'Connor, seemed to embrace themes of missed opportunity and desperate rebirths, fitting given the economic deluge and introspection at the time. Kevin Barry's, two years later, was populated with young upstarts looking outwards and beyond. When Deirdre Madden's turn came to edit this periodical anthology, her 2015 collection seemed to focus on Irish landscapes external and internal.

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Each editor sets out the criterion they see fit - Madden, for example, did not consider for inclusion writers who had appeared in Barry's collection - and inevitably something comes out in the broader picture about movements, trends and shared consciousness, even if unintentionally so.

In the case of Lucy Caldwell, the celebrated Belfast laureate who helms this ship, the feeling is that Irishness itself is on the menu via a wonderful assortment of "fresh narratives, perspectives and multiplicities that are coming from immigration to a place long and persistently defined by emigration".

O'Connor touched on this during his tenure, about how passport requirements are best kept loose because "literature opens citizenships of affection", but Caldwell goes further. The "new Irish", those who don't fit a tired textbook description, may be the most exciting thing to happen here in a long time.

Two-thirds of her selection, she outlines in her introduction, are born in Ireland, with half of those from the North. Two thirds currently reside on the island while only a third are male. (This final percentage is arguably also reflective given the week-by-week domination of bestseller lists by female authors these days). Her year zero, meanwhile, is the Good Friday Agreement and writers who have come to prominence since.

The spectrum of colour and texture in these stories is as diverse as the writers themselves. Dublin-based Chinese writer Yan Ge brings some of Murakami's angular dream-realism to her entry about a potential suitor whose death is revealed via social media. That most ubiquitous of modern fora turns up elsewhere. Belinda McKeon's brilliantly beleaguered mum in Privacy bemoans a dearth of Instagram likes, while BrownLady12345 by Melatu Uche Okorie (the Nigerian author of This Hostel Life) sees online dating negotiated against a backdrop of direct provision.

The modern can be formal as well as thematic, and you'd be alarmed if it wasn't. Eimear McBride's warped The Adminicle Exists sucks us into a woman's trepidation about her man's release from institutional care. It is an untethered, unruly thing that requires elliptical reasoning. There is surrealist mischief afoot in Lisa McInerney's dotty Gérard as a certain weak-bowelled Gallic filmstar is used as a symbol for a pal's disastrous new boyfriend. There's substitution of an altogether weirder kind in Feather from the wonderfully singular Nicole Flattery, while Sinead Gleeson's riotous political satire The Lexicon of Babies is bemusing, dark and elusively thorough in its cautionary tones.

Between these alone, Caldwell's assertion that a "golden age" is in play is justified but further evidence is available. Some familiar names remain true to form, with varying results. Kevin Barry whets lips for his forthcoming Night Boat to Tangier with Who's-Dead McCarthy, a folk tale from grimy Limerick that merges Barry's customary prodding of Hibernian fatalism and something tenderly quaking.Sally Rooney chimes bright and clear in Colour and Light but its tale of romantic ships passing in a stormy night runs out of road. Sectarian boils are lanced north of the border courtesy of emerald noir maestro Adrian McGinty. Then there is Louise O'Neill, representing modern Ireland's YA proponents, who sounds a tragic note in Legends as coercion, insecurity and brutality become by-products the morning after the night before.

O'Neill's story is perhaps as bleak as things get in Caldwell's collection. Even those times where the immigrant experience is related for what it so often is, it is the presence of warmth and humour that prove vital. Dublin-based Scandinavian cartoonist Arja Kajermo was a prize winner in the 2014 Davy Byrnes Short Story Award, and her mastery of the form is displayed in Alienation, a stunning self-contained analysis of Irish society's perversity that is precisely the reason that we need "insider-outsider" voices such as hers.

Alternatively, Ireland is home to the likes of Peter Murphy. The Downtown Queen, a nostalgic sizzle of love and art in the heady proto-punk years in New York's East Village, shows that being Irish does not necessarily mean drawing from the Irish well. This exquisite vignette thrives in a world entirely divorced from the concerns of this island.

Both are highlights in a collection that is almost uniformly potent, and remind us that the title "Being Various" is as much about the diversity of Ireland's writers as it is the narrative perspectives they wield.

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