Wednesday 25 April 2018

Review: The Shelter of Neighbours by EilIs NI Dhuibhne

Blackstaff Press, €17.65


John Boyne recently said that, in the perfect short story: "Nothing much needs to happen. But the nothing much has to be completely fascinating." He might have been talking about Eilis Ni Dhuibhne's sixth collection, which is full of people on the brink of extraordinary insight into otherwise ordinary lives.

There is always something rapturous about Ni Dhuibhne's work: through her acute eye and cool, appraising descriptions, she is able to evoke life in all its messy, mundane, exhausting and exhilarating everyday detail. She has the power to condense the apparently inconsequential into frozen moments laden with significance. The insights are never forced and as ever, she displays her glorious grasp of people, their deepest desires and contradictions. The title comes from the Irish proverb, "Ar Scath a Cheile a Mhaireann na Daoine" or people live in one another's shelter, and these stories paint a vivid picture of communities and the way people interact.

The theme of writing runs through the book. In the opening story, we meet Finn O'Keefe, a school teacher, who plans to spend his summer holidays writing, but is paralysed by writer's block. Illumination is about a writer on a retreat.

In A Literary Lunch, a board has met to consider the handing out of bursaries to writers. The board's newest member thinks about how she has failed to win a bursary for an old friend. This friend, the terminally unsuccessful Francie Briody, eats a tuna-filled baguette in a nearby cafe as he plots deadly revenge. It is a wickedly compelling and clever satire, unmistakably modelled on the Arts Council, about how such groups chose which artists to support.

Accounts of youthful unrequited love and thwarted middle-aged desire pervade the collection, too, with Ni Dhuibhne digging deep to uncover the passions and desires that rumble beneath the surface of everyday life.

A Swedish immigrant visits Ikea in Belfast. Inside, amid the flatpack furniture, memories are awakened of a life and love she wanted to forget. It's a feeling reiterated in Bikes I Have Lost, a story about a young girl who stops eating after her first love abandons her. Almost autobiographical, Ni Dhuibhne is writing about a college undergrad who stops eating, parallelling her own experience of anorexia, when her weight fell to six stone and she suffered temporary sight loss.

Again and again, she knits folklore into tales of contemporary reality and it is this unique fusion that is Ni Dhuibhne's signature style. In It is a Miracle, Sara meets a man she imagines to have stepped out of a fairytale. "He was like a woodcutter in a fairytale; he reminded her of Red Riding Hood's father. This country was rich in fairytales, forests and wild animals, abandoned children. Looking at him, sipping his glass of white wine, you could see where those characters had come from." Odysseus, some Irish lore and a sprinkling of Old Norse legends creep into everyday life and it's the deft insertion of these that makes Ni Dhuibhne's stories kind of epic sagas distilled into sparkling miniature.

This year seems to be the year of the short story.

Heavyweights such as Joseph O' Connor and Kevin Barry have collections out. Arlen House is publishing three debut collections. In Taboo, Ni Dhuibhne writes that a short story is, "I don't know, sort of in and out before you've really got used to it". You certainly tumble into these beautiful, spellbinding stories and each one climbs close to perfection.

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