Thursday 21 February 2019

Two recent anthologies - 50 years apart

  • Letters in  the Sky, Eddie Cunningham, Ballpoint Press, €14.99
  • The Rebels, Richard Power Syracuse University Press, €25.00
Letters In The Sky
Letters In The Sky
The Rebels

Anne Cunningham

The short story is, we're told, enjoying a 'revival' in recent times. A revival, though, would seem to suggest some sort of recovery from decline and I must admit I've not witnessed any waning of interest in the short story. It is a reader's most immediate connection with both author and his/her characters and there are many readers for whom the short story is preferred reading material.

Some of this year's finest fiction has emerged from short story collections like Wendy Erskine's sublime and quite brilliant Sweet Home. 2018 ended with the publication of two very different collections, one of them from the Irish Independent's motoring editor, Eddie Cunningham, and the other from Richard Power, an almost forgotten writer who died in 1970, well before his time.

Eddie Cunningham's Letters in the Sky is an eclectic mix of tales that, according to the blurb, "picks the lock of the bizarre and the everyday". And indeed it does.

Whether he's writing about a flight passenger who foresees airborne disaster and insists on disembarking - with the inevitable ensuing hullabaloo - or about a man who unwittingly gifts his wife a bag of nettle seeds, or about the ancient suicide pact between two old soldiers, Cunningham's material certainly covers roads less travelled.

He is unafraid to take risks in form and structure, with some stories sweeping whole decades into a corner of a single page.

While it is accepted that short stories might offer only a glimpse, a snapshot of a moment or at most a time span of just a few short days, Cunningham throws away the rule book in his story 'The Last Fish', one of the strongest in the collection. Here he traces an entire lifetime of 93 years in just four short pages, with maximum effect.

This is a quirky and unusual anthology, funny and humane, exploring perennial themes of loyalty, love and duty across the boundaries of our patchwork planet. And, indeed, beyond.

Richard Power's short life and untimely death in 1970 is well documented in James MacKillop's introduction to The Rebels and his introduction is essential for providing context.

This newly-published collection is testament to Power's gigantic - and yet largely forgotten - talent.

These stories are altogether magnetic. His Ireland is that of John McGahern, Edna O'Brien and William Trevor. The introduction states that Power perceived those writers, along with Brian Friel, Brian Moore, Benedict Kiely and Aidan Higgins as direct rivals, all of them being roughly the same age.

The title story describes, with almost reverent precision, the casual savagery of a primary schoolmaster, cane in hand, quoting long swathes of Paradise Lost as he skins yet another young boy's bottom. However, just pages later, we are forced to witness a compassionate and almost tender moment between this same master and one of his weaker students, as Power slyly fiddles with the reader's haste to condemn.

Human weakness and its condemnation are themes explored in several other stories. In 'The Land of Youth', Power jostles kindness along with cruelty in a small, confined island community. Of an island woman's disabled son, born during a drowning tragedy where she lost the rest of her family, Power writes: "…she was to rear it for the madhouse in Ballinasloe."

But there is humour here too, sometimes black as onyx. For instance Fr Conroy, the parish priest in 'An Outpost of Rome' suspects his new marble altar contractor of being not only a Protestant, but a freemason as well!

Power's novel, The Hungry Grass (republished by Head of Zeus in 2016), had its roots in this uproarious short story. The Rebels is a remarkable anthology, a true find among the publications of late 2018.

Here's hoping there are more unpublished works from Richard Power to emerge in the future.

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