Thursday 20 June 2019

Shining welcome light on female voices from North

Short stories: The Glass Shore, Edited by Sinéad Gleeson, New Island Books, hbk, 378 pages, €19.95

Fitting conclusion: Róisín O'Donnell
Fitting conclusion: Róisín O'Donnell
The Glass Shore, edited by Sinead Gleeson

Ruth Gilligan

'Nothing but mischief comes of women thinking for themselves." So declares Brinkhampton, the hapless toff on a quest for love in Sarah Grand's short story 'Eugenia'. Born in Co Down in 1854, Grand is just one of 25 female writers from Northern Ireland who have been brought together in Sinéad Gleeson's latest anthology, The Glass Shore.

However, despite the accompanying biography outlining Grand's immensely prolific career (her autobiography, The Beth Book, sold more than 20,000 copies in its first week alone), Grand's work has been - unlike that of her male counterparts - almost entirely forgotten, a fact of which the pompous Brinkhampton would no doubt approve.

The sheer volume of forgotten female authors from the North was precisely the impetus behind Gleeson curating this anthology, seeking once again to re-address the disproportionate maleness of Ireland's literary canon. Gleeson's first attempt to rise to such a challenge, The Long Gaze Back: An Anthology of Irish Women Writers, was published last year to much well-deserved acclaim. But even in the wake of its staggering achievement, it became clear there remained a need for something similar in terms of women who hailed specifically from the North.

One of the many reasons for canonical male dominance is that there are those who still believe female authors can only write about certain issues. Coupled with this, there remains the lazy assumption that Northern Irish authors can only ever deal with one particular issue. As the protagonist of Evelyn Conlon's story bemoans, "they couldn't stop hearing the headlines in my accent".

Sectarian violence and political tensions do of course feature in The Glass Shore, most explicitly in Rosemary Jenkinson's 'The Mural Painter' or Mary Beckett's 'Flags and Emblems'. However, beyond the marchers and fighters, we also get Polish cleaners and wayward travellers and oil executives on business trips to Algiers; psychic performers who reunite the living and the dead, and male council workers who reunite orphaned children and their estranged, eccentric parents.

The latter is the premise for Caroline Blackwood's story 'Taft's Wife', where the awkward reunion takes place in a lavish London tea-room. London features again as a site of possibility in Jan Carson's story 'Settling' after a young couple decides there is nothing left for them in Belfast and embark on a new life across the water. Carson beautifully captures the protagonist's wavering excitement and the eventual creep of homesickness as she slowly feels herself 'splitting in two' - an internal border between home and away; between what was and what might now be.

Carson is the third-last author in the anthology's chronological progression. After her story comes Lucy Caldwell's tragically intimate 'Mayday' and Róisín O'Donnell's other-worldly 'The Seventh Man'. As it happens, all three of these writers have had story collections published to glowing reviews in 2016, offering hope that the contemporary literary scene, at least, appears far more inclusive of women from the North. Meanwhile, with its fantastical twist, O'Donnell's story serves as the perfect note on which to conclude the anthology. For throughout these tales, the ethereal and the uncanny, the spiritual and the mythical, feature heavily.

O'Donnell's protagonist is a woman who has survived for thousands of years by feasting on the life of the men she marries. With her seventh husband, however, it is a very different story. This time, she is really in love and the fact that he is dying has nothing to do with her. We watch her waiting by his hospital bedside, thinking back over history and the spells she has cast, right up to the present day and the forays on Tinder that led her to her beloved. The tale as a whole veers towards the sentimental, but the narrator's tenderness remains palpable, while the ending sounds a truly poignant note.

Such unexpected poignancy also catches the reader off guard in Bernice McGill's 'The Cure for Too Much Feeling', where a hardened woman who gave up her only child many years ago suddenly finds herself inexplicably moved by a painting on a museum wall; or in Una Woods's positively odd 'The Diary, An Everyday Fable', in which the emotions and ambitions of three pieces of scrap metal pose an existential enquiry into the true meaning of loneliness.

Margaret Barrington's 'Village Without Men' is also a sort of fable, in which the entire male population of a village is drowned at sea, forcing the women and children to devise a new sort of existence. One must resist the temptation to read the story as an analogy for the anthology as a whole, but certainly in its quiet, wry, uncanny power, Barrington represents the kind of forgotten voice one can expect to find from this delightfully varied, utterly necessary new book.

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