Sunday 22 April 2018

Books: Blistering stories with huge global appeal

Beneath the Earth, John Boyne, Doubleday, €17.99

Boyne book cover
Boyne book cover

Síle McArdle

This blistering collection of short stories by John Boyne sets off at a cracking pace and doesn't let up until the very last page.

An immense achievement given that the first one, Boy, 19, will grab your attention so tightly where it hurts you might well wonder how the other eleven tales of loss, promiscuity and treachery in Beneath the Earth can possibly live up to it. You'd be wrong.

Blessed and cursed with a searing intellect, the unnamed teenager starts to work as a rent boy to fund his university course and separate from nauseating flatmates who, he feels, diminish him.

Boy relays the graphic details of his lifestyle so matter-of-factly that it seems as if no struggle is involved - until flashes of his remaining emotional intelligence, unerringly placed, convey otherwise.

Like many characters in the anthology, Boy has been the victim of criminal parenting, a shocking car crash and an erratic world that turns regardless of his suffering.

The locations, ages and times in each story changes intriguingly - rural Ireland, inner-city Dublin, England, Holland, the Allies' trenches and several British Empire countries; teens through to middle-age; World War I to nowadays - but the raw, earthy readability of these highly sexed, highly charged stories is a true constant.

Boyne has achieved a careful authenticity with his people and their words and their situations - whether he is releasing to the reader his Celtic Tiger teen whose disgraced banker father has fled to Canada and who desperately seeks a male role model to worship, or giving us elegant glimpses of the disintegration of a mystery author's marriage as she endures a whistle-stop British Empire tour and inhabits a sardonic era where practically every word has an accusatory or critical edge.

He explores the nonchalant savagery of world wars in two stories, The Country You Called Home and Rest Day.

The former is gentler, its brutality as yet unrealised, as it lays bare the dilemma of signing up for an English-Irish battalion which cleaves a loving family in a tight community.

The latter is set bang in the middle of that festering, bloody brutality and presents a searing, understandable scrutiny of the temptation to desert.

You may dislike some of Boyne's people, but you will care about them nonetheless.

One who repelled me at first but then redeemed himself is the bereaved faithless man in Amsterdam who reluctantly brings his wife on a travel-writing trip and cannot control himself in the face of a trigger relating to his beloved lost son.

The only thoroughly heinous Beneath the Earth creation is the farmer of the title story. You will abhor his stomach-churning actions which occur without reprieve.

Thankfully, touches of diabolical humour serve as a welcome counterbalance to the steel strands of cynicism and outrage and agony which structure this book.

The bizarre conversation between their son's bemused teacher and disastrous parents Toastie and Gloria, in sinister A Good Man (the only tale that didn't quite hit the mark for me), will amuse many readers.

However, I laughed aloud at Student Card and wept with mirth during The Schleinermetzenmann, especially the exchanges between childhood friends, Pierce and Arthur - one a cynical failed author licking his wounds and the other a pretentious successful one determined to rub his nose in it.

Boyne's Beneath the Earth is a satisfying and polished set of short stories with definite longevity and immense global appeal.

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