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Bookworm: Loneliness belongs in short stories

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Colin Barrett

Colin Barrett

Colin Barrett

Colin Barrett, whose Young Skins has just been shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, is attracted to the short story form because, in its focus on "intensities", the short story is "closer to poetry than to the novel" and, like poetry, "cannot be browsed or skim-read".

Writing in the newspaper that has shortlisted his first collection of stories, the 32-year-old from Mayo says that, although he grew up in a rural town similar to that depicted in six of the book's seven stories, what fascinated him was the "essential unknowability" of the various characters he has depicted.

Established masters of the short story would agree with his observations - William Trevor describing what he does as "the art of the glimpse", and VS Pritchett noting that "the novel tends to tell us everything, whereas the short story tells us only one thing, and that intensely".

And Frank O'Connor, in his marvellous 1963 book, The Lonely Voice, observed that short stories seldom have heroes but rather "outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society" - and you'll certainly find such people in Barrett's arresting collection, along with the "intense awareness of human loneliness" that O'Connor felt was a quality of the finest short stories.

And, indeed, Irish writers - from James Joyce and Daniel Corkery through Maeve Brennan and John McGahern to Claire Keegan and Kevin Barry - have always been especially attuned to the essential loneliness that's to be found in what O'Connor termed "submerged population groups": those people who never had access to the social and financial stability that traditionally was seen as a prerequisite for the writing of longer fiction.

And certainly the short story rather than the novel has been the notable Irish fictional achievement over the last hundred years, from Dubliners in 1914 to Young Skins a century later. Yes, there have been outstanding novels, but the lonely voice still makes its plaintive and potent presence felt. Long may it continue to do so.

Indo Review