Sunday 8 December 2019

Rich interior lives are explored in beautifully crafted collection

Short story: Selected Stories, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, Dalkey Archive Press, paperback, 229 pages, €14.00

Storyteller: Eilis Ni Dhuibhne's short stories are among some of her best offerings
Storyteller: Eilis Ni Dhuibhne's short stories are among some of her best offerings
Eilis Ni Dhuibhne - Selected Stories
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

There are no small lives. To others, they may seem inconsequential, but to the people living through them - cultivating hopes, negotiating reality - their lives are as significant as any that teem with incident.

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne recognises this truth. Her characters, often women mulling over unsatisfactory choices and limited options, possess rich interior lives. No matter how humdrum the exterior trappings, their thoughts swarm with possibilities. Life may, and probably will, grind them down. But their innate optimism propels them forward.

It is this quality which lends dignity to her characters, even when their actions occasionally are driven by self-interest. They want to be better than they are, but are candid enough to be conscious of falling short.

Ní Dhuibhne has been widely published in both Irish and English, writing novels, short stories, plays and non-fiction, and in 2015 she won the Irish PEN award for her contribution to literature. Her short stories are among her best work, and there are rich pickings in this selection of a dozen written between the 1980s and the present day.

She is a storyteller who understands her craft, above all knowing when to leave things unsaid. The tone is at times droll, at other times laced with humour, and sometimes a hint of menace twists the familiar into shapes that are foreign and threatening. A number of the pieces have Irish-speaking communities in Donegal as their setting, while others venture further afield to the US. Some are situated in the present, others in the Ireland of 40 or 50 years ago - although it feels like a distant age to present-day readers - and several showcase her skill as a writer of historical fiction, when she brings the 19th century vividly to life.

'The Flowering' is a gem, poignant in its unblinking account of a Donegal girl whose potential can never be realised, and who explodes at the injustice of it. The Congested Districts Board sends an instructor to her townland to teach girls crochet work as a supplement to the family income. They call the needlework 'flowering' and 13-year-old Sally Rua soon outstrips her mentor. It is clear she was born an artiste - but fate is not inclined to cut her any slack.

Several stories feature two women making Martha-and-Mary style options: whether to choose domesticity or adventure. 'The Pale Gold of Alaska' follows two sisters who emigrate to the US in the late 1800s. One has a comfortable and undemanding job as a parlour maid, the other takes an uncongenial husband and finds herself following a man with gold fever into the Klondike. Which choice was for the best? Ní Dhuibhne introduces O Henry undertones here - the notion that destiny can never be thwarted, regardless of the path which a character takes.

She returns to the theme in 'Summer Pudding', when two sisters leave famine-devastated Ireland for Wales. "Kill me and eat me. I will die soon enough anyway," their father tells them, after he has lost his work on relief projects. One of the girls is drawn to a life on the road with a community of Travellers, while the other prefers to scrub flagstone floors and empty chamber pots in return for bed and board.

The real life Ladies of Llangollen - 18th-century Irish upper-class runaways who lived together in a relationship that scandalised contemporaries - make a guest appearance in the story, viewed through the eyes of servant girls who laugh at their eccentricities.

Some stories, such as 'Illumination', weave a supernatural web. It describes the lures set for a writer befriended by the mysterious inhabitants of a fairy-ale house hidden in the woods. In this sly retelling of the Tir na nÓg myth, relocated to America, Ní Dhuibhne explores how an individual might be tempted to stay in this illusory place instead of returning to reality.

Her final story, 'The Coast of Wales', takes place in a graveyard where a widow is tending her husband's grave, and during the course of it the author meditates on love and death. Her conclusion is hopeful - a fitting coda to the collection.

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