Wednesday 25 April 2018

Books: Short story book's slim victory

All Over Ireland: New Irish Short Stories, Edited by Deirdre Madden, Faber & Faber, €13.99

Highlight: Eoin McNamee's The Comets is a stand-out inclusion in Faber's new Irish short-story anthology
Highlight: Eoin McNamee's The Comets is a stand-out inclusion in Faber's new Irish short-story anthology
Book cover of All Over Ireland

Hilary A White

In her essay Garlic In Fiction, Shirley Jackson spoke of the reader as the "unrelenting, genuine enemy" of the author, to be defeated. Short stories, the legendary US writer goes on to say, must be armed with key ingredients - or "garlic" - in order to snag the enemy's affection.

It'd be fun to hear Jackson's take on this fifth Faber anthology of Irish short-story writing and the way the format generally seems to hold no obstacle to warriors from these shores. Kevin Barry - who edited Faber's previous volume in 2013 - upended the medium to award-winning effect. A Donal Ryan anthology is keenly anticipated, as is one from Tramp Press edited by Belinda McKeon.

McKeon herself is one of 14 new and established writers here who give a fine account of themselves under the limitations of the medium. All tales are previously unpublished, editor Deirdre Madden says in her intro, and anyone published in Barry's edition was not considered here.

If a theme links these tonally and stylistically varied pieces then it is places geographical and internal being regarded from this island, or vice versa. Colm Toibin, revisiting the maternal dread of The Testament of Mary, conjures the anguish of Lady Gregory on receiving news of the death of her only son, Robert, during the War. In Queen Of The Night, newcomer Natalie Ryan brings us to Ghana for injustice and exploitation as seen by an expat, while Andrew Fox's My New Life finds a child observing the toll of a move to San Francisco on their parents. In For Keeps, McKeon meanwhile charts the crushing displacement felt when, during a return visit, a migrant can't make sense of her homeland and the relationships it bore.

A terrible beauty wafts from The Comets, Eoin McNamee's hypnotic offering. A tragic tale told in McNamee's woozy, spare style, it summons the imagery of night-flying birds and dark coasts he put to spectacular effect in last year's Blue Is The Night. It is a standout inclusion, as are Frank McGuinness' feral, unhinged energies in The Widow's Ferret, which sees an Ulster mind collapsing feverishly in on itself. Both utilise Jackson's "garlic" in wildly different but unforgettable manners.

Lighter hues are found in Ita Daly's Villefranche, as the role of ire in friendship is immaculately observed. Less effective is Killing Time, where Lucy Caldwell tunnels into the perspective of a suicidal girl laboriously.

Madden hints in her introduction that jewels were left on the cutting room floor, which irks given All Over Ireland's slimness. Joseph O'Connor's 2011 edition had 26 entries and felt like a hearty celebration. With the likes of The Stinging Fly and The Dublin Review scouring for talent, surely something fatter and more nourishing could have been gathered together to combat the ranks of hungry enemies.

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