Mary Lavin is probably one of the best short story writers you have never heard of. A former staffer at The New Yorker in its heyday, Joyce Carol Oates has called her one of the ‘finest short story writers of the twentieth century’.
Her stories are, in the main, concerned with the domestic sphere and in particular, the lives of women. She explores what it means to be a mother, wife and widow and lays bare the inner lives of wholly believable and relatable characters. Often these women are frustrated with their lot, hiding their true spirit amid the trials of the everyday and attempting to make the best of what life has offered them.
The title story centres around the widowed mother of three girls, who insists on the pursuit of happiness despite the pain of loss.
Her theme was happiness: what it was, what it was not; where we might find it, where not; and how, if found, it might be guarded. Never must we confound it with pleasure. Nor think sorrow its exact opposite.
Here is a woman, facing down loss and death convinced that if she just tries hard enough, she and her daughters could attain happiness. While her daughters don’t share this belief, their mother finds a modicum of what she searches for by steadfastly refusing to give up on her belief that happiness was there to be attained.
It takes effort to push back the stone from the mouth of the tomb and walk out.
Lavin is a master of ambiguity and many of these stories have a wonderful vagueness that focus on a pivotal moment within a wider tale. It is interesting that she herself said of the short story form,
I don’t think a story has to have a beginning, middle and end. I think of it more as an arrow in flight.
Several of these stories have the feeling of an arrow in flight, we do not know where they have started from, or where they will land but the journey itself is what is important.
In The New Gardener, Lavin asks the reader to rely on his or her own intuition to decipher the truth of the tale. A man arrives at an estate to take up the post of gardener. As he settles himself and his children into their new home, two things are striking – the absence of a mother and the devotion of the father to his children. However, when two police officers arrive, we are asked to question the basis for the entire story.
One Evening sees the painful breakdown of a marriage through the eyes of a son, who cannot make sense of the events that are happening around him, but who, like the reader, must look for clues to explain the exceedingly bizarre behaviour of his mother and father.
In A Pure Accident Lavin uses subtle humour to explore the confining life of the priesthood when an embittered priest causes an accident while lying in wait for a thief. The local priest is often a staple of the Irish short story and in this collection Lavin seems to have some sympathy for the claustrophobia of the religious life, while also examining the hypocrisy of their position.
In the final story The Lost Child, a married woman converts to Catholicism for the sake of her marriage and suffers a miscarriage all in the one day. The faith she has so recently gained is almost lost as she tries to make sense of what has happened to her child, and what will happen to the soul of her child following the miscarriage. As the local priest tries to explain the notion of limbo to her, she comes to realise the limitations of this faith that she has embraced, and how it negates the beliefs of women and mothers.
‘What more does the church know that any of us in this matter – or, in fact’ – but beyond this she didn’t go, her face cold and proud… ‘If it’s anyone’s guess, why shouldn’t it be mine – or at least, a woman’s?’
Lavin writes with a real sympathy and honesty, exploring the human experience as it is lived from day-to-day – those disappointments and tensions that lurk under the surface of all families and all relationships. Beautifully structured, these stories benefit from striking opening and closing lines, which frame the often-slippery narratives in such a way as to suggest that these are the pivotal moments within much larger stories.
She eschews extremes, preferring to see the multitude of emotions contained in the ordinary – she is an extremely realist writer, teasing out the essence of what it means to be human.
About the Author:
Mary Lavin (10 June 1912 – 25 March 1996) was a noted Irish short story writer and novelist. She is regarded as a pioneering female author in the traditionally male-dominated world of Irish letters. Born in Massachusetts of Irish parents in 1912, Mary Lavin first visited Ireland at the age of four with her mother Nora. She would return, permanently this time, five years later.
Lavin’s début collection of stories, Tales from Bective Bridge (1943) won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction, and marked her out as a short-story writer of brilliance who brought a new and piercing female perspective to that form. The subject matter of her work was often controversial, dealing with matters including abuse in the Roman Catholic Church and feminist issues. In both respects, Lavin was an author very far ahead of her time.
Mary Lavin’s work received numerous international awards, including the Guggenheim Fellowship and the Katherine Mansfield Prize. Many of her stories were first published in the prestigious New Yorker.
An article in The Paris Review on Mary Lavin’s stories
Mary Lavin’s obituary by W J McCormack in the Independent
The Microscopic Magic of Mary Lavin in The Irish Times
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