Wednesday 22 November 2017

On the street where you live

Chestnut Street Maeve Binchy Orion, hdbk, 400 pages, €26.20.

Maeve Binchy: The stories in this collection are ones she hid away in a drawer over the years
Maeve Binchy: The stories in this collection are ones she hid away in a drawer over the years
Chestnut Street by Maeve Binchy
Maeve's husband Gordon Snell
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

When an author of the international stature of Maeve Binchy dies, readers feel a sense of loss – not just because she was beloved, but because they are disappointed to think her last tale has been spun.

There was some consolation for Maeve-ites in a gift from beyond the grave, in the shape of a posthumous novel which became an international bestseller. Now, somewhat surprisingly, comes the opportunity to read further new work, in the shape of a short-story collection.

Following her death in the summer of 2012, fans were delighted to learn that she had recently finished a novel, A Week In Winter. It was that year's Christmas bestseller, and it seemed appropriate that a writer with such a knack for capturing life should hold death at bay a little longer.

Most readers were resigned to her storytelling ending there. This month, however, almost two years on from her death at the age of 72, another new Binchy book will appear in bookshop windows. The latest work, a collection of short stories called Chestnut Street, is being published worldwide on the same day.

Her widower, Gordon Snell, explains at the beginning of the book that as story ideas occurred to Maeve over the years, she wrote them up and put them aside in a drawer, saying they were "for the future".

While she didn't live to see that future, the stories survived her. Now, he has gathered together a large quantity of them, produced over several decades, and combined them into Chestnut Street. A few have been published already in magazines, but most are new.

Maeve's husband Gordon Snell

Maeve's husband Gordon Snell

The common denominator in the collection is that its characters live on or have links with Chestnut Street – a fictional Dublin street just round the corner from St Jarlath's Crescent of Maeve's novel Minding Frankie'.

The lives woven through these tales are recognisable: they are yours and mine. Our insecurities about work or relationships, our money worries, our aspirations are laid bare here. And because they were written over several decades, these stories chart the changing face of Ireland.

From people who keep up appearances to people who get their comeuppances, Maeve plays God with a light touch. From the start, most of her characters capture the reader almost instantly.

But I wonder if she wouldn't have revised some of the stories in this, her sixth collection, before handing them over to a publisher: in certain cases fleshing out plots which are really only the glimmerings of an idea, or sprinkling her trademark humour and wit through others.

Some charming stories feature, showcasing her compassion for human frailty. But others should never have made the final cut. All carry the germ of a good idea but a number of them have an unfinished aspect and clearly needed more work – which I have no doubt she would have attended to, professional that she was, had she been granted more time.

In total, the collection runs to 36 stories spread across more than 400 pages, and if the number had been reduced by up to half it would have led to a book of more even quality. Perhaps this is best viewed as a work in progress, and it will certainly interest those who might like to observe the genesis of stories and the lines along which they develop.

Chestnut Street by Maeve Binchy

Chestnut Street by Maeve Binchy

For me, her talents were primarily grounded in character and dialogue, best showcased in the generous, sweeping novels for which she is justly admired, such as Circle of Friends – made into a film with Minnie Driver and Chris O'Donnell – and Light a Penny Candle, her first book in 1982.

It is understandable that those who were close to Maeve should wish to keep her name current among readers. However, her legacy might better be served by publishing handsome re-issues, in collector format, of her earlier novels. (No doubt that will happen.) These could be enjoyed by a new generation of readers, as well as by Maeve loyalists.

A number of the stories in the collection are stamped with her warmth and wisdom. 'It's Only A Day' tells of three girls who grow up fantasising about their weddings – and how reality compares. 'Joyce and the Blind Date' charts the awakening of a beautiful model who initially dismisses a potential boyfriend because he is fat, but finds herself intrigued by his air of confidence.

Other stories weren't yet ready for publication and tend to peter out, although perhaps Maeve-ites won't mind. Especially with memorable characters elsewhere whose lives are waiting to be shared, including the hardworking window cleaner Bucket Maguire, who won't hear a bad word against his renegade son; hairdresser Lilian, who defends her skinflint fiancé because being tight with money isn't the worst crime in the world; and Molly, who writes to her American friend Erin for a cure for sleeplessness passed down by her Irish granny.

Maeve possessed a great deal of style as a person – as we witnessed again recently when details of her €10m will were revealed, in which she divided belongings among friends who admired them in her lifetime. That thoughtfulness and generosity were evident in her art.

Fans recognised and were drawn to it, and it explains why her extensive body of work has sold in excess of 40 million copies worldwide. A number of those novels will stand the test of time, and many will prefer to remember her for them.


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