Monday 19 March 2018

Review: Apparition and Late Fiction: A novella and Stories by Thomas Lynch

(Cape £12.99)

This is an outstanding first book of prose fiction by a writer admired for his poetry and essays. A native of Michigan and a funeral director by profession, Lynch has been publishing well-regarded verse since the 1980s but first came to prominence with his 1997 collection of essays The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, notable for its elegant prose, dry wit and compassion for ordinary humanity.

"Every year, I bury a couple hundred of my townspeople," he begins the title essay, casting himself as someone who, through his chosen work, stands between "the living and the living who have died", honouring those who have passed on and offering solace to their loved ones -- a discreetly sympathetic witness to the bewilderment and anguish of human beings at their most frail and vulnerable.

He brings the same scrupulous sensitivity to the people who inhabit these five stories. In Catch and Release, 30-year-old angling instructor Danny pays homage to his father, who has died unexpectedly, by casting his ashes into the lake where they had often fished. In Bloodsport, undertaker Martin buries a young woman who's been shot dead by her brutish husband and recalls the desire he had felt for her when she was a teenager at her father's funeral. In Hunter's Moon, Harold, a sales rep for coffins, tries to make sense of his three marriages and of his troubled relationship with his daughter, wrenched from him in a train accident.

If the themes of these stories seem depressing, the treatment of them isn't. Lynch is a master of wry observation and arresting insights and his attention to the quirks of his characters ensures that they come vividly alive.

And his sympathetic range is such that, in Matinée de septembre, he can offer as protagonist a wholly persuasive career woman -- 40-year-old poet and academic Aisling who, widowed and emotionally unfulfilled, becomes infatuated by a young Jamaican waitress who's working at the island retreat where Aisling has gone for a pre-term rest.

There's high comedy here as well as a poignant understanding of human yearning and of how it can become dangerously obsessive. "On the subject of beauty," Lynch observes, "Aisling could wax eloquent, but in the presence of it she was smitten to silence."

The 90-page novella that closes the collection and gives it its title is even finer. Methodist minister Adrian, whose wife has left after cheating on him with a younger man, embarks on a new and very successful career as self-help guru on fractured relationships: his book Good Riddance -- Divorcing for Keeps is a bestseller, as are its successors, The Good Riddance Workbook and Questions and Answers about Good Riddance. His change in circumstances is wittily evoked, but as the novella progresses Lynch reveals depths to his main character that are as engrossing as they are unexpected.

But that's true of all the stories in this superb collection.

Irish Independent

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