Sunday 16 June 2019

Books: Vibrant collections from home and away

A look at the some of the best short story anthologies

Belinda McKeon is included in the The Long Gaze Back: An Anthology of Irish Women Writers
Belinda McKeon is included in the The Long Gaze Back: An Anthology of Irish Women Writers
Anne Enright
Let Me Tell You
The Long Gaze Back
Lost Between: Writings on Displacement
Best European Fiction 2016
New American Stories
Maria Edgeworth
Barbara The Slut
A Kind of Compass
The Dress

Ruth Gilligan

We've all seen the poster: Beckett in the middle, a prune for a face; Joyce bottom left, pretentious in specs. And along the bottom, the words "Irish Writers", as if these 12 black-and-white (and male) portraits tell the full story.

But earlier this year, a different poster went viral - one with Maria Edgeworth and Elizabeth Bowen; one with people in frocks. Then the first ever Laureate for Irish Fiction was announced; a woman. And now Sinéad Gleeson has compiled Enright and Edgeworth and 28 others into the excellent and necessary new volume The Long Gaze Back: An Anthology of Irish Women Writers (New Island Books, €19.99).

The gaze spans four centuries in total, yet within it, continuities abound: men chat up women in bars; Irish men and women find themselves lonesome abroad, or back from being abroad, torn between 'home' and "home home - emphasis is where the heart is". So says the narrator of Belinda McKeon's 'Long Distance', which depicts a family reunion in the wake of a father's death. And this is an anthology laden with grief - parents, partners, even neighbours pass away, as in the subtle yet spot-on 'Through the Wall', where Eimear McBride's formal experimentation yet again captures the complex workings of the human mind: "My son was the in and my husband the out and the workable fine those had become."

Elsewhere, Lucy Caldwell's heartbreaking story about a dying newborn, 'Multitudes', leaves us eager for her forthcoming collection, while the promise of publications from some of the anthology's emerging contributors - Roisín O'Donnell, EM Reapy - lets us know that the long gaze forward is also looking good.

Another new anthology tracing a national line is New American Stories, edited by Ben Marcus (Granta Books, €14.99). By comparison, Marcus's volume is a more high-octane affair, the introduction likening the short story to everything from a drug to a miracle to a weapon: "Let's get bloodied and killed," Marcus suggests, "in 32 different ways".

Of the 32 contributors, big names like Don DeLillo, George Saunders and Yiyun Li stand out, while Zadie Smith's science fiction gem 'Meet the President!' whets our appetite for her forthcoming sci-fi film project. Offerings from unfamiliar names are no less high-octane, such as Rachel B Glaser's trans-millennia, alternative evolution story 'Pee On Water', so that by the end of the anthology we are left as exhausted as we are excited by all that is taking place across the Atlantic.

Staying in America, Let Me Tell You (Penguin Classics, €20) is another kind of compilation, this time of a single writer's work. Here, the unpublished stories, essays and lectures of Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) portray a woman as tethered to domesticity as she was to the imagination. So we find everything from humorous guidelines on 'How to Enjoy a Family Quarrel', to shrewd descriptions of how to tell stories while doing housework, to "take the edge off cold reality".

By contrast, Lauren Holmes's debut collection, Barbara the Slut and Other People (Fourth Estate, €12.99), sardonically relishes the cold, harsh reality of millennial ennui. Here men, women - even their pets - make out and come out, break up and throw up, all while struggling to really communicate with one another. So in 'How Am I Supposed to Talk to You?' a girl visits her mother in Mexico to tell her she is gay, and instead spends her time selling contraband Victoria's Secret panties to local teenagers desperate to buy "the American Dream".

Returning closer to home, the anthology Best European Fiction 2016 (Dalkey Archive Press, €17.99) combines 29 different writers from across the continent, here translated into English. Concerned largely with politics or literature, the standout story is Veronika Simoniti's pertinent 'A House of Paper', in which a translator is convinced her body is shrinking as some sort of penance for her lifetime of "counterfeiting […] in another language".

Lost Between: Writings on Displacement (New Island Books, €11.99), meanwhile, focuses on just two European countries - Ireland and Italy - combining writers from both nations. Here, the thematic 'displacement' ranges from the national (as in Liz McManus's 'Liverpool/Lampedusa'), to the personal (as in Nuala Ní Chonchúir's 'The Donor', which contains the unforgettable line: "She - the mother - had a reality TV face; one of those faces that drips tears when her dough fails to prove, or her housemates vote her out").

Centred around a similar theme, this time with Belinda McKeon as editor, comes A Kind of Compass: Stories on Distance (Tramp Press, €15). However, unlike the other collections, here we find no national confines, with writers hailing from all over the world. So notions of travel and border crossing are reflected in the anthology's very organisation.

In 'Extremadura (Until Night Falls)' Kevin Barry's typically-atypical protagonist wanders aimlessly, trying to escape his broken heart. Meanwhile Porochista Khakpour's Henry, in 'City Inside', strikes up a bizarre dynamic with the woman whom he watches through his apartment window.

Coincidentally, the compass often points to London, be it for a conference on space travel (Elske Rahill's 'Terraforming'); a visit to an estranged Nigerian brother (EC Osondu's 'The Place for Me'); or a rescue mission for a great-uncle's wayward homing pigeon (Sara Baume's 'Finishing Lines').

This is the first book newly-formed Tramp Press have published since Baume's astonishing debut Spill Simmer Falter Wither, and the standard is just as impressive.

Like Gleeson, Tramp are also champions of Irish women in publishing - and indeed, of the short story form in general. We look forward to wherever they and their literary compass may take us next.

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