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Little Red and Other Stories: Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s collection is a treasure chest filled with jewels

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Chronicler of women: Éilís Ní Dhuibhne

Chronicler of women: Éilís Ní Dhuibhne

Chronicler of women: Éilís Ní Dhuibhne

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne was my tutor when I studied creative writing. Like many people new to writing fiction, I had made the mistake of assuming that the correct approach was to start with short stories and work up to novels, as if writing was an apprenticeship in which I would learn to lay words in courses, like bricks. I soon discovered that shorter does not mean easier or less complex. Often, it’s the opposite. While all fiction, as Ní Dhuibhne told the class, is about “need, need fulfilled”, what makes short stories different is their concentration rather than expansion. In a good short story, she told the class, “every word shines like a jewel”.

Little Red and Other Stories is a treasure chest, full of such jewels. Its 11 stories feature characters coping with change or crisis, or simply the unfamiliar newness of a situation. With varying levels of success, each is struggling to find equilibrium in the world.

Lemon Curd opens with the zinger “I’ll cut the b*****ks off your mother”. Retired Miss Moffat has moved from Dublin’s southside to north. “People — in Greystones, but also in her new neighbourhood — seemed to find the choice astonishing. It was generally assumed that she must be ‘from here originally’ and had come home to die.” She has upended her life, a decision that brings unexpected aftershocks.

Ageing, and how women’s visibility within society dims over time, is a persistent theme. In Little Red, Fiona, a divorced woman in her sixties, is persuaded to try online dating by a stranger on a plane. Ní Dhuibhne plays with the worn-out term ‘soulmate’, as Fiona’s comparative analysis of the dating site’s algorithm reveals it makes matches based on religious belief. “Religion or lack of it was the key factor, the thing that would unite you with your soulmate. And when you think about it, that made a certain amount of sense. Although souls, hers or theirs, were the last thing on their minds.”

In Blocked, the narrator’s mother falls and breaks her leg, an episode which her daughter sees as “the first sign of Bronwyn’s vulnerability, the first major indication that she was definitely in the ranks of the elderly, that she was about to metamorphose from being an independent adult, who could be called upon for help, to the opposite: a needy old person — a burden.”

Ní Dhuibhne has been a noted chronicler of the lives of women for decades. Her 30-plus books — she writes in Irish and English — include a memoir, six collections of short stories, novels, plays and children’s books. Her television work includes screenwriting for Ros na Rún and Glenroe. The latter makes a self-deprecating appearance in the final story, As I Lay Dying, when the narrator recalls her teenage depressed self “watching any stupid programme that came on — The Lucy Show, Glenroe, The Fugitive”.

Her many awards include the Pen Award for Outstanding Contribution to Irish Literature and a Hennessy Hall of Fame Award. When receiving that accolade, she noted that being published in New Irish Writing was “the best encouragement a young writer could get” and being enrolled in the Hennessy Hall of Fame 42 years later was “one of the best encouragements an old writer can get”.

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This collection is beautifully written and precisely crafted and, as with her previous fiction, shot through with wry and often very funny observations about human behaviour. In Little Red, Fiona is reading a book by Rachel Cusk, “a sort of auto-fiction novel, the very latest fashion — hybrid car of the written word”.

Ní Dhuibhne’s characters confront the backstories that define their sense of themselves and their place in the world in unexpected ways. They realise it’s OK to be brave and fearful at the same time.

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Little Red and Other Stories by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne

Little Red and Other Stories by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne

Little Red and Other Stories by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne

Short Stories: Little Red and Other Stories by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne

Blackstaff Press, 192 pages, paperback €12.99; 
e-book £9.18


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