Exploration of our changing landscape is, in short, compelling
This collection captures where we are now, says Pat Boran
Few anthologies of new writing can be read as simply a 'gathering of flowers', as the original Greek might suggest. In Ireland, perhaps more than elsewhere, a new collection of stories is expected to be more than the sum of its parts, and must somehow describe the present state of the nation and perhaps of Irishness itself.
If editor Kevin Barry's introduction is a somewhat perfunctory one from a writer who can usually be relied upon to engage, his claim for a genre "pulsing with great, mad and rude new energies" is for the most part borne out by this selection of well known and emerging names.
Leopold Bloom's assertion that "A nation is the same people living in the same place" is sent up by Ned Hynes ("If that's so I'm a nation for I'm living in the same place for the past five years"). The notion is challenged here too, if not entirely exploded, and Town & Country features stories set in Germany, Barcelona and an unnamed island in the North Sea, among other locations, with one of the most moving and troubling, by Desmond Hogan, having its emotional heart in the post-conflict Balkans.
Even so, geography is a good place to start, and location, properly explored, has often been relied upon to produce story. Thus Town & Country, perhaps fittingly, opens in rural Ireland, with Dermot Healy's typically dialogue-spare and suggestive piece about a photographer visiting (revisiting?) ruins and abandoned houses in the West. Though the historical view is longer, it is difficult not to see here some echo of the more recent ruins and derelict buildings of the Irish landscape.
One of the reasons why Ireland may be a natural home to the short story again is that our society has undergone such change in recent times. And change, whether above or just below the surface, is what the story is best equipped to explore.
The most able writers know how to zoom in on and frame those ongoing changes in precisely observed moments. Mike McCormack's A Winter Harmonic brings together a lorry crash and the discovery of medical files, among other things, to tell the story of "how lives in a small village hold together", while Nuala Ní Chonchúir, in a story that has a hint of Roald Dahl about it, shows how the move for his wife into a nursing home (with the creepy title Emerald Sunsets) is one change too many for her doting husband.
Julian Gough's hyper-inventive tale of an exiled Irishman's efforts to create a pop song "as addictive as cocaine" is both extended riff and compelling fable and adds one of the few truly playful notes to a mostly serious if not grim or grey volume.
Contemporary Ireland is, variously, a country "where the young have the run of the place" (Colin Barret in the powerful The Clancy Kid) or where Celtic Tiger cocktails come in "oversized glasses filled a third of the way" (Eimear Ryan in The Recital).
But it is also a place where so many relationships are under strain and old models no longer trusted. Michael Harding, in an affecting story of a man coming to terms with illness, sees an unbridgeable gap between past and present in a country where "the church is now so disgraced that all the buildings will probably be Omniplex cinemas by the time I'm 75".
Making no prediction about the future, the stories in Town & Country instead offer a compelling if fragmented picture of where we are now.
Pat Boran is a poet, writer and broadcaster.