A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Disclaimer: I know nothing about Irish fiction as a taught subject. This is the first time I’ve read any, apart from a bit of James Joyce and Molly Keane. So I’m treading on very thin ice in this review, in someone else’s territory, and I simply have no proper understanding of what I’m talking about. But we all have to start somewhere, don’t we? So, in we go.
I was working through the books that my lovely friend Anne lent me, thrusting an armful of Irish short story collections into my hands before whizzing off on her bike. The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story (ed. Anne Enright, a terrific essayist as well as a novelist) was not quite unremittingly grim, but it took me on a slow descent into gloom. Beauty, warmth, love, gentleness were all there too, but my reaction was ‘it’s so DARK’. What is it with the compulsion in these Irish to write so much about unhappiness? Bernard MacLaverty’s story ‘Language, Truth and Lockjaw’ relieved the gloom briefly with a story about dentists and language set in a miserable holiday cottage that had me snorting out loud with laughter. Thank you, Bernard. But, several collections later, I was still looking for the next laugh. I came across lonely jokes, wry one-liners, and isolated paradoxes that zapped me with cleverness before disappearing as if they had never been. But I wasn’t finding humour or comedy as I know it.
Loving warmth and affection lapped around me in stories of family and faith and neighbours, but they were laced with bitterness and a miasmic coldness that I could only track back to religion. Faith-based hatred and bigotry lurk horribly in these stories from the 1940s onward, where people’s lives are ruined due to being the wrong religion, and people believe vehemently and without doubt what they are told to believe. The overwhelming sense of folk helplessly doing wrong in these stories, and never being able to get things right, simply shocked me. I’ve never read anything so painful before that’s based on love and family. It’s not that I haven’t read sectarian fiction, or stories about the destructiveness of religious fervour: the Scottish literature of my upbringing was well stocked with that. These Irish stories show a sadness in daily life that comes from a faith interpreted in bizarre blind alleys of antagonism.
There are strange practices in ordinary lives that produce terrible effects. Frank O’Connor’s stories in A Life of Your Own are about mothers who are so devoted to their children that they won’t let them live away from them even when they marry; mothers who put their sons’ socks on and off every day; a Protestant wife who causes immense gossip when she starts taking Catholic instruction, thus somehow (I could not understand this) shaming her atheist husband. Edna O’Brien’s collection Returning was simply memories of misery and punishment, from parents or gossip. Her writing about big houses and resentful tenants reminded me strongly of Molly Keane’s novels, but without the laughter. For the older stories, it was easier to take the bracing social rigidity if I read them as historical notes from a time long past. But I couldn’t get away with this for the more modern writers.
Kevin Barr in There Are Little Kingdoms took me up to the here and now, with black wit about very modern lives, in which the darkness and loathing still lurks. His stories were relentless and devouring, soft but deadly. A farmer and his wife take up swinging with a neighbouring couple (yes, that kind of swinging), and the tangle of spouse-swopping and farming bankruptcies gets too tangled to endure, though you do have to laugh. ‘Little Penguins’ is the blackest of tall stories, about the controlled emergency descent of a plane onto Greenland. I was able to snort with giggles at that one, but wincing. I had to stop reading half-way through this collection because I simply couldn’t take any more.
The same thing happened with Claire Keegan’s Walk the Blue Fields, but I feel more able to return to her stories. Beautiful, simple killer punches though they are, they don’t leave me with the sense that the horror and pain is still continuing. She seems to be able to show me the darkness in some very deep pits, and then close the door, so I can get on with my life, very relieved that it is not one portrayed in any of these stories. Her stories are perfectly expressed, but too intense to read more than one at a time.
Anne Enright (ed.) The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story (2011); Claire Keegan, Walk the Blue Fields (2007); Kevin Barr, There are Little Kingdoms (2007), Frank O’Connor, A Life of Your Own (1958), My Oedipus Complex and Other Stories (1963 and later editions); Edna O’Brien, Returning (1982).
Kate podcasts about the books that she really, really likes on http://www.reallylikethisbook.com.