Sunday 17 December 2017

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

Faber & Faber, €10.99

Hilary A White

There is something essentially post-Celtic Tiger about this new anthology of short stories that gives added meaning to the "new" in the title.

The cover shows an early morning shot of Dublin's Samuel Beckett Bridge, flanked by a skyline of cranes and half-finished construction projects. The horizon is an amber sunrise bloom, hinting at a new beginning making its way towards the island from the east.

This is hardly accidental on Faber's part, the publishers surely aware that a nation that has consistently punched above its weight where the written word is concerned is now undergoing a crisis of public confidence. Modern Ireland, the country of Doyle, Toibin and Trevor, is sharing a sense of loss and missed opportunity, and this collection of 26 writings somehow acknowledges all this, sometimes explicitly so.

While we may only assume Faber sought to capitalise on such a landscape, editor Joseph O'Connor, fast becoming the nation's literary everyman, is acutely aware of the times we live in. He says so in his introduction.

Here, he speaks of "a renaissance" for the short story in the Ireland of now and acknowledges the work of journals such as The Dublin Review and The Stinging Fly as well as the late Sunday Tribune in championing the writings of Irish newcomers. In a discussion on "Irishness" and qualification for inclusion here ("I have not been overly focused on passport requirements," O'Connor points out), the editor eloquently surmises that "literature opens citizenships of affection" before, with a sigh and an annoying wag of the finger, reminding us all that the country needs this right now.

Is this really necessary? The short-story collection, a proud tradition of publishing, is above such constraints on context, you would have thought. Frederick Forsyth's No Comebacks, or the legacy of Somerset Maugham are, granted, the works of single authors of lofty talent, but their sentiments are ageless -- shouldn't that be the point?

Perhaps the best tribute O'Connor can pay to David Marcus (editor of the preceding editions and to whom this is dedicated) is in the quality of the collation as a whole, a celebration of the myriad costumes and intents of the Irish sentence ("the greatest thing we have ever invented," the editor remarks).

The spectrum, from light to dark, sandpaper to silk, is found within. Rooney Prize-winner Philip O'Ceallaigh's The Fuck Monkeys is a woozy journal of island life, filled with fantastic realism. Beer Trip to Llandudno by emerging talent Kevin Barry is charmingly scatter-brained and recounted like the pub yarn of a tipsy stranger. Roddy Doyle's gorgeous folk tale Animals uses the recessionary malaise as a backdrop for a tale about a father jumping through hoops to acquire pets for his children. Doyle has a lightness of touch that allows an achingly beautiful moral to sidle up to the reader in the closing paragraphs and remind them what really matters.

Elsewhere, things are not so rosy, with loss and isolation, recurrent themes throughout, becoming more insistent. Elaine Walsh makes her publishing debut with Midnight Blue, a crushing but perversely cleansing story of childhood abuse and painful silence in a Dublin tailors during our transition into prosperity. A startlingly brave way for any newcomer to open their account.

Notably, it sits with ease beside the likes of William Trevor (The Crippled Man) and Colm Toibin (The News From Dublin), each of whom weave tales of longing and insidious transformation. Trevor uses the dysfunctional isolation of backwater Ireland as viewed by two migrant workers, while Toibin, his language buoyant and colloquial, tells of a desperate trip to the capital during the TB epidemic of the late Fifties.

A more anecdotal tone is used in One of Those Stories by Anthony Glavin, himself once an editor of the "New Irish Writing" segment in the Irish Press. It is a stand-out piece, one that distils love and mortality into dinner among friends by way of the Grand Canal or a table in Birchell's pub. Glavin makes the local seem universal and vice versa -- a fundamental criterion of the short story -- and in his powerful ending speaks to all of us, wherever we are reading from, about "how we do that scripting bit ourselves, make our lives into stories as we stumble along".

When O'Connor alludes to broken banks, untrustworthy politicians and a stomach-turning clergy in his introduction, he makes a strong case for the redemptive power of the arts in general. No one can argue with that. A discussion remains to be had, however, about whether such a volume would better serve the nation, not as a paperback remedy for our collective bruised ego but instead as something we can proudly put in bookshops around the world and say "remember us this way".

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