Wednesday 21 February 2018

Wistful and restrained

Belinda McKeon
Belinda McKeon
Deirdre Madden
Lucy Cadwell
Colm Toibin
Selina Guinness
Sean O'Reilly
All Over Ireland
Mary Morrisy

John Boland

For this fifth Faber anthology of Irish stories, Deirdre Madden was permitted to include authors who had featured in the initial two collections edited by the late David Marcus and in the subsequent collection edited by Joseph O'Connor, though she was asked to ignore writers who had featured in Kevin Barry's most recent anthology.

Thus you'll encounter no new stories here by Mary Costello, Colin Barrett, Julian Gough, Nuala Ní Chonchúir or any other of the other authors favoured by Barry as exemplars of the "great, mad and rude new energies" of contemporary Irish writing. Instead, Madden has mainly opted for stories in which rude energy has been replaced by wryness and regret.

There are exceptions. Sean O'Reilly's 'Ceremony', narrated by a damaged man who's in a dangerously volatile relationship with a much younger woman, grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go. And legacies of Northern violence haunt both Lucy Caldwell's 'Killing Time' and Frank McGuinness's 'The Widow's Ferret', while the fate visited on a vulnerable girl in Eoin McNamee's 'The Comets' is savage in its bleakness.

Elsewhere, though, the tone is more wistful than grim, as in Mary Morrissy's 'Emergency', where a mother and daughter in war-time Ireland encounter a young man who has crash-landed in their field and out of whose silk parachute they subsequently make bloomers and other garments.

Colm Tóibín's characteristically restrained 'The Journey to Galway' is set during the earlier world war and concerns the death of a young airman and the visit of his mother to her daughter-in-law with the fateful telegram.

The mother, though unnamed, is Lady Gregory and the son is Robert, who in Yeats's famous imagining foresaw his death. The story is beautifully told.

Also very fine are Selina Guinness's 'The Weather Project', about a mother revealing her past to her two adult daughters; Ita Daly's 'Villefranche', in which the main character veers between considering her lifelong friend "not a bad old stick" and "an eighteen-carat bitch"; and Belinda McKeon's 'For Keeps', in which an unhappy young emigrant encounters further personal disillusionment on a brief visit home.

In her introduction, Madden finds it "striking that emigration features in several of the stories", and while that's true of the Guinness and McKeon and of a sad little San Francisco-set vignette by Andrew Fox, most of the stories take place either in the Dublin or rural Ireland that have been the chosen locales of the great Irish storytellers.

And it's to the memory of one of these, John McGahern, that the editor dedicates her anthology. Indeed, I think he would have admired some of these stories for their depth and finesse.

short stories

All Over Ireland: New Irish Short Stories

Ed by Deirdre Madden

Faber and Faber, pbk, 272 pages, €13.99

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