Wednesday 13 November 2019

Books: An early present from Maeve

Short stories: A Few of the Girls, Maeve Binchy, Orion, hdbk, 416 pages, €28.50

Limitations: Short stories do not best serve Maeve Binchey's memory, with longer novels allowing her wit and sparkiness more room to breath.
Limitations: Short stories do not best serve Maeve Binchey's memory, with longer novels allowing her wit and sparkiness more room to breath.
A Few of the Girls by Maeve Binchy
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Saluted as a national treasure while she lived, mourned far and wide when she died, her books translated into 37 languages and all of them bestsellers - Maeve Binchy had nothing left to prove.

And how I wish the guardians of her legacy would bear that in mind when they consider publishing posthumous books in her name. New collections of short stories do not best serve her memory.

Maeve was a natural storyteller, her writing characterised by compassion, humour and astute observation of the human condition. She brought joy to readers, worked hard at her craft and deserved her success. She was kind to fellow writers, and generous enough to feel glad rather than threatened when others made it into print.

At a time when worldwide attention for Irish writers was by no means common, Maeve's track record was stellar. A former teacher turned journalist, her first novel, Light A Penny Candle in 1982, became an instant hit. One international bestseller after another followed, and books adapted for film included Circle of Friends and Tara Road.

When she died in 2012, people who had never met her felt as if a dear friend was lost to them. It seemed as if the faithful would have to content themselves with re-reading her work. And many of the novels do stand up well to a second reading.

But last year, a posthumous collection of short stories appeared under the title Chestnut Street - unpublished 'rainy day' stories she had squirrelled away in a drawer over a period of years.

Now comes another collection, A Few of the Girls, obviously aimed at this year's Christmas gift market. It features more than 40 stories which appeared in a variety of publications from Image magazine to Australian Woman's Weekly between 1986 and 2010.

At their best, the stories bring to life well-developed characters, often in the space of a few paragraphs, and brim with Maeve's warmth and common sense. She writes particularly well on loneliness, and about the hopes and fears of young people on the cusp of adulthood.

Other topics include long-standing friendships and unsuitable loves, and no one skewers miserliness quite like her, or the meanness of women who prey on men already spoken for. But there is a similarity between a number of the stories which mars the collection, and I can't believe that a writer of Maeve's talents would have signed off on the inclusion of all of them.

The title story, 'A Few of the Girls', isn't particularly memorable. But her trademark bounce is visible in 'Be Prepared', about an outspoken aunt who returns home from abroad for Christmas and unsettles her relatives but forms a connection with a 14-year-old boy.

Maeve's novels are more truly representative of her wit and sparkiness, and Orion would do justice to her memory by re-issuing some of those books in beautifully presented gift editions. That would keep her legacy alive with more integrity than another collection of short stories.

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