Saturday 25 November 2017

Review: New Irish Short Stories Ed by Joseph O'Connor

Faber, €10.99, Hardback

Dedicating this anthology to the memory of the late David Marcus, Joseph O'Connor says that "nobody will ever do more for Irish literature". This is a bold claim but few would seriously dispute it.

In the days before super-agents, extravagant advances and pop-star profiles of authors, Marcus was a one-man talent-finder -- initially as founder of Irish Writing magazine and then as editor of the weekly New Irish Writing page in the Irish Press.

In fact, it's hard to think of an Irish writer over the age of 40 who wasn't published -- and frequently for the first time, too -- in New Irish Writing, which he edited for two decades with a cool discrimination and quiet authority that, for those who were privileged to know him, weren't really at odds with his impeccably courteous and self-deprecating manner -- the passion of the born enthusiast invariably tempered by critical rigour.

Indeed, as the man behind earlier anthologies in the Faber Irish Short Stories series, he would probably have been less indulgent than the current editor regarding criteria for inclusion.

I don't think, for instance, that he would have given a free pass to Richard Ford merely because the American author's Trinity professorship and the "respect" in which he's held by Irish writers of O'Connor's generation "make him one of us and always will".

As if in further justification, the editor blithely confesses that he has not been "overly focused on passport requirements", and this permits him to also include a story by Connecticut-born filmmaker and writer Rebecca Miller, though at least, as spouse of Daniel Day-Lewis, she partly resides here and her story, unlike Ford's, has an Irish context.

Perhaps I'm just quibbling at an editor's magnanimity ("Purists will see much to complain about," O'Connor says in his spirited introduction) but the problem of where a line is to be drawn remains.

If an Irish writer takes up an academic post in Paris or marries a Parisian, does that qualify him or her for inclusion in a book of French short stories?

Happily, there'll be no quibbling over most of the 26 hitherto unpublished stories included here, which O'Connor offers as correctives to the "innumerable shames" perpetuated in a country dominated by "advertisers, propagandists of the slick, chancers, salesmen, illusionists, liars", not to mention "politicians we don't trust" and a morally bankrupt church.

A few don't really register -- Colum McCann's Aisling is little more than a doodle, the literary equivalent of a musician practising his scales; Peter Murphy's The Blacklight Ballroom comes across as cartoon-apocalypse; while interesting set-ups devised by Julia Kelly in Giant, Belinda McKeon in Chicago Here We Come and Elaine Walsh in Midnight Blue peter out uncertainly at their close.

But William Trevor's The Crippled Man, set in a bleak rural Ireland, is characteristically poised and quietly unsettling; Colm Toibin's The News from Dublin, about a teacher seeking a favour from an uncaring politician, arrestingly evokes the dutiful deference of the 1950s; Emma Donoghue's Visiting Hours, whose action takes place in a maternity ward, is toughly funny and rather sweet; and Joseph O'Neill's Goose, which observes a Tuscan wedding through the eyes of the groom's long-time friend, is wonderfully wry and very moving, too.

My two favourites, though, were Viv McDade's A Gift for My Mother, chronicling the course of a young girl's best intentions and as limpid and subtle as anything by Maeve Brennan; and Kevin Barry's Beer Trip to Llandudno, which, like so much else by this writer, manages to be both deliriously funny and achingly sad.

Indo Review

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