Friday 15 December 2017

Review: The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story by Ed. Anne Enright

Granta, €29.99, Hardback

William Trevor described the short story as "the art of the glimpse", while for VS Pritchett "the novel tends to tell us everything, whereas the short story tells us only one thing, and that intensely".

In truth, there have been hundreds of efforts to define this most tantalising and elusive of fictional forms, most of them as unhelpful as Flannery O'Connor's: "A story is a way to say something that can't be said any other way."

Anne Enright quotes that last observation in her introduction to this new anthology and then goes on to offer some of her own. Short stories, she says, are satisfying to write "because they are such achieved things. They become themselves even as you write them: they end once they have attained their natural state". However, she immediately follows this with the qualification: "Or some of them do."

In other words, it's a tricky business, this attempt to pin butterflies on wheels, and Enright wisely doesn't try to be too prescriptive about it, nor does she have a glib answer to the old puzzle of why Irish writers are so good at short stories -- she gives Frank O'Connor's famous thesis about stories encapsulating the lonely voice of the outsider its due, while not being entirely persuaded of its generalising truth.

And in the end, like any anthologist, she chooses stories because she likes them and because she wanted "to put together a book that was varied and good to read, with a strong eye to the contemporary".

With this in mind, I paid special attention to the stories by writers who were no more than names to me and I was well rewarded by Gerard Donovan's poignantly observed Visit and Philip O Ceallaigh's deft sketching of self-absorbed alienation, Walking Away, though less taken by the contrivances of Jennifer C Cornell's The Swing of Things and Keith Ridgway's attempt at historical evocation in Shame.

The selection is from writers born in the 20th century, but there are notable absentees; and I would gladly have forfeited some of what's here for work by James Plunkett, John Montague, Mary Beckett, Frank Ronan and a few others, including Enright herself, who's an outstanding story writer. And her choices from some masters of the form don't always show them at their finest -- The Dressmaker's Child isn't vintage Trevor, while John McGahern was so unsatisfied by The Key (formerly Bomb Box) that he omitted it from the 2006 edition of his stories.

These are quibbles. There's much to enjoy in this selection of 31 stories, which honours such neglected writers as Val Mulkerns, Patrick Boyle and Michael McLaverty, while demonstrating that Colm Toibin, Claire Keegan, Kevin Barry and others are bringing to the Irish short story a continuing vibrancy.

Irish Independent

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