Tuesday 18 December 2018

Rediscovering Maeve Kelly's brave, beautiful voice

Tramp Press is re-issuing the short stories of Maeve Kelly and publisher Lisa Coen says she deserves a new generation of readers

Maeve Kelly: profound empathy and scathing imagination. Photo: Kenny's Bookshop Galway
Maeve Kelly: profound empathy and scathing imagination. Photo: Kenny's Bookshop Galway

Last week at the Dublin Book Festival, we launched Orange Horses by Maeve Kelly as part of our Recovered Voices series. Broadcaster and writer Sinead Gleeson spoke about the collection to the assembled crowd of Maeve's family, friends, supporters and interested new readers.

In his introduction to the new edition, Simon Workman had described how, in the book's reviews first time around, critics had waived away Kelly's nuanced treatment of marginalised women, by saying she 'does pile it on'.

To further underscore Simon's point that this was reductive and plain wrong, Sinead read the opening lines from the title story:

Elsie Martin's husband beat her unconscious because she called him twice for dinner while he was talking to his brother. To be fair, she did not simply call him. She blew the horn of the Hiace van to summon him.

Later in the pub, a friend said to me: ''Raymond Carver would kill for an opening line like that.''

That's more like it. Why isn't that the received wisdom around this exceptional writer? It's hard to know for sure, but could dismissive reviews like the ones mentioned in Simon's introduction have undermined the ability of this book to reach a wider readership?

Certainly at a time when Kelly's contemporaries were almost all male, and she was writing about challenging topics, the book needed more than polite, dismissive readings, but deserved to be celebrated as an important point in Irish literature.

Every year, Tramp Press chooses one title to republish as part of our Recovered Voices series and asks similar questions. We believe in finding great books that for one reason or another have fallen from public awareness and deserve to be revisited, presented again to a new generation of readers.

Previous titles have been Charlotte Riddell's A Struggle for Fame and Dorothy Macardle's The Uninvited, titles that readers have found funny, surprising, relevant and important.

We're especially excited to publish Kelly's Orange Horses with an introduction contextualising her writing and activism for a new generation of readers.

This is an exciting collection of stories by an author who just this year had her collected poems published by Arlen House. Kelly is a dynamic and vital author, and it's astonishing that she's not a household name.

Orange Horses is a brilliant collection of stories that should be taught on any Irish writing course as a counterpart to James Joyce's Dubliners. They're by turns funny, sad, angry, challenging, experimental and traditional. For instance, the title story is a devastating account of domestic abuse in Ireland, told from the perspective of Elsie in ostensibly traditional narrative (but check out that ending).

Kelly goes after pillars of the community, suffocating propriety, and hypocrisy in a way that is still razor-sharp. The multitude of voices in Orange Horses represent a complex and brilliant weaving of a secret history of Irish women from an author capable of profound empathy and scathing imagination. There is no 'piling on', only brave and beautiful craftsmanship.

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