Thursday 22 August 2019

Books: Scanlan's collection of stories that find drama in the truly undramatic

Fiction: A Gift For You, Patricia Scanlan, Simon & Schuster, hdbk, 291 pages, €15.99

Cosy collection: Scanlan’s short stories are moving and funny
Cosy collection: Scanlan’s short stories are moving and funny
A Gift for You
Lorraine Courtney

Lorraine Courtney

Patricia Scanlan writes whopping door-stoppers of books - beach books, fireside books, the kind of stories women read alone in bed with a packet of chocolate biscuits.

The author's 1990 debut, City Girl, about three women negotiating contemporary urban Ireland, has long been credited with single-handedly kick-starting contemporary chick lit in Ireland, paving the way for the likes of Marian Keyes and Cecelia Ahern.

Philip McDermott, co-founder of Poolbeg Press, had initially put it to Scanlan that anybody could write one book, but could she write two, three, four or five? She did just that. And 25 years later, each one of her 18 fiction books has been a bestseller.

In her latest collection of short stories, we meet Polish emigrant Magdalena as she prepares for the birth of her first child, while her family are faraway: "Tears blurred Magdalena's brown eyes. What she wouldn't give for a hug from her mother and father and hear them all call her kochanienka." Christmas tree decorations tell us the memories and secrets they contain. Irene remembers her dead husband on Valentine's Day and fate finds a bittersweet way to remind her of their love.

Frumpy Claire as she finally finds the courage to confront her fair-weather friend: "Why should I allow my daughter's birthday to be ruined by forcing a relationship that is not good for her? Why do I let Victoria walk all over me and treat me with such disrespect? She has never appreciated any of the 'kindness' shown to her. Even my mother has gone off her. 'Got above herself, the little madam'."

It is the tidiness of comeuppance rather than the anarchy of vengeance that steers the course of these tales. Be a crooked business man and you will be found out. You'll lose your wife, too. Embrace frivolity and artifice and you'll meet your just reward.

Scanlan's is a simple, comforting world, reminiscent of the schoolgirl complicities of Mallory Towers. Here, unadulterated prettiness, botox and highlighted hair conceal a cold, selfish heart, and it is the plump girl with the lovely smile and frizzy brown hair who finds her happy ever after.

As ever the writing is fresh, psychologically accurate, frequently moving and funny. It is domestic fiction, of course, in which critics might say nothing happens.

Nope, nothing does happen: people just get married, or fail to; they have children, or lose them; they make homes, break homes, cope, suffer and make do on an ordinary level with life itself. All that happens is the riveting, day-to-day, quiet, heart-breaking stuff of middle-class lives - so nothing much, really.

Books like Scanlan's generally have little action and few histrionics, they are about the drama of the undramatic, the steadfast dailiness of a life that brings its own rewards, the intensity of the emotions and, above all, the importance of human relationships.

If that sounds dull, you can always go and see Spectre. Otherwise, curl up with this delightful hot-water-bottle collection.

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