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Joy, compassion, anger, sadness in women's voices

Alison Walsh

It is tempting to review this anthology of short stories by Irish women writers by trotting out the well-worn argument about whether there is any need for such a thing. After all, this is the 21st century, when women can work on equal terms as men, both in life and in writing. Surely there's no need for the ghetto, for the women-only literary prize, for any of those pats on the head for women writers?

And yet, Robert McCrum's recent selection of the top 100 novels of all time in English included just 21 women, and Kate Mosse, author and founder of The Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction, provided the illuminating statistic that even though women published around 60 per cent of all novels and bought 70 per cent of all novels as readers, they made up less than 10 percent of leading prize shortlists.

It's inevitable, perhaps, that any collection by women writers will be seen in those terms, as a political gesture, as nursing our female grudge. However, The Long Gaze Back offers something richer, more complex and varied than a mere 'so there' to the male-dominated literary establishment.

In her introduction, editor and broadcaster Sinead Gleeson sets out her goal, to 'look back as well as forward, to trace a line back to the past when women publishing their writing was rare, and often discouraged.' The title provides a framework through which to examine the development of women's voices chronologically, from early pioneers to the current generation of new voices, both in literary and political terms.

Unfortunately, this does mean opening with arguably the least interesting story in the collection, Maria Edgeworth's wan maternal warning of the dangers of getting what you want in The Purple Jar, and Somerville and Ross's Poisson d'Avril, whilst crackling with comic energy, is quite naturally of its time, with our hero Sinclair's dry amusement at the carry-on of the quaint Irish folk.

It is in the 20th century that the stories begin to demonstrate their growing power, and where the contrast between women's lives then and now emerges. Kate O'Brien's shy lady traveller, scared away by the advances of an over-enthusiastic restaurateur in A Bus From Tivoli contrasts with Anne Devlin's freewheeling traveller in Winter Journey, running through Germany to escape her lover; Mary Lavin's rural widow Vera, who finds her vulnerabilities exploited by a local farmer, in In the Middle of the Fields, is a world away from Eimear McBride's modern mum in Through the Wall, fighting her feelings of anger and uncertainty: 'who wants to segue into fleeces and using words like "snug"'?

Maeve Brennan's Mrs Bagot, urged to pull herself together and get over the death of her child in The Eldest Child wouldn't recognise Siobhan Mannion's Grace in Somewhere to Be, with her 'animal howls' as she loses her baby. In Elizabeth Bowen's terrifying The Demon Lover, respectable Mrs Drover is haunted by the past, 'her married London home's air of being a cracked cup from which memory, with its reassuring power, had either evaporated or leaked away.'

Contrast this magnificent restraint with emasculated Alan's vernacular in Lisa McInerney's Berghain, kicked out of a local nightclub by a girl he loathes even though he has been all the way to Berlin. And then there are the relationships between mothers and their children - the painful tragedy that lies at the heart of Christine Dwyer Hickey's The Cat and the Mouse, teacher Jo's efforts to connect with her teenage son following her separation in Susan Stairs' As Seen from Space or the gap between old lovers in Mary Costello's chilling My Little Pyromaniac.

Modern women are leading lives more complex and difficult than earlier writers could have imagined, from Nola in Lia Mills' The Crossing understanding that, 'she was young then; her life ahead of her, but she hadn't realised what that meant' to Anne Enright's Lara in Three Stories about Love, whose senile father 'forgot to call her "stupid" and 'called her "darling" instead; to the deep sadness of childhood friends reunited, in Molly McCloskey's Frogs. There's nothing girly about these stories; there are no cliches, no Mr Rights, no wedding bells, no evenings with Chardonnay. Instead, this collection represents the richness of women's lives, past and present. The joy, the compassion, the anger, the sadness. It's all there. And to that question about whether there is a need for such a thing as a collection of stories by women writers, this collection provides the answer.

The Long Gaze Back



New Island Books, €19.99

Sunday Independent