Brian Moore was undoubtedly the most successful novelist to come from Belfast, publishing over twenty titles, being shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times, and seeing several of his novels come to life as internationally acclaimed movies.
It is interesting then to think of Moore in new terms, but that is what The Dear Departed asks us to do, as it is the first selection of Moore’s short stories to be published. Turnpike Books released this collection in 2020 and it features ten stories written between 1953 and 1961 and prefigures many of the themes and settings that would come to dominate Moore’s novelistic output.
Here are stories set in Belfast, Toronto, Haiti and Sicily which explore Catholicism, the difficult relationships between fathers and sons, the stifling atmosphere of home and the thorny question of emigration.
No other postmark can compete in authority with the place of one’s birth. It’s what we fled: it may, at any time, reach up and try and reclaim us.
In the opening story A Vocation, two young boys decide that it would be best if they become priests, not out of any deep conviction or religious fervour but because they are scared of what might happen if they don’t. A short, simple story, it perfectly conveys the overpowering sense of pressure and control wielded over young minds throughout Moore’s childhood.
In Off the Track a sociologist and his wife are visiting Haiti (the setting for Moore’s novel No Other Life) and their quest for an authentic experience off the tourist trail leads them into dark territory and forces them into an uncomfortable and threatening situation of their own making.
The question of authenticity is also explored in Hearts and Flowers, a lighter story about a journalist and photographer who go to a Christian mission in Montreal in search of a heart-warming story involving the homeless men who are there to have a Christmas dinner. When the men don’t take too kindly to being treated as fodder for a PR exercise, they create a photo opportunity of their own which eschews the staged for the spontaneous.
The two strongest stories in the collection explore the implications of emigration. In the affecting Grieve for the Dear Departed a mother is torn between mourning the death of her intransigent husband while at the same time celebrating the return of her son from Canada, who, like Moore, left after a row with his father. In the beautifully structured Uncle T, another young man emigrates to New York with his new wife after a row with his father. There he meets up with his Uncle, who seems to have it all and has promised him a job in publishing. Once there, he quickly realises that Uncle T doesn’t have the life he thought he had and understands that running away from something bad doesn’t mean you will reach something better. This is a nuanced and emotional story, which deftly elicits sympathy for all the main protagonists.
Other stories here highlight Moore’s sly humour. The earliest story Fly Away Finger, Fly Away Thumb originally appeared in London Mystery Magazine in 1953 and is a gleefully gruesome tale of a magician who, when incarcerated in a jail cell, cuts of his finger and thumb and uses them to unlock his cell and kill his guard. It’s a delicious little slice of Hammer horror which belies Moore’s leanings towards genre and pulp fiction.
These stories are not just of interest for what they can tell the reader of Moore as a novelist. Structurally they are exquisite and Moore has a wonderful eye for descriptive prose. In New York ‘the sky haemorrhaged in an advertising glare’ while a newspaper editor’s public persona ‘had been moulded by exposure to a movie version of ‘The Front Page’’
What emerges from the collection as a whole is Moore’s sensitivity to character and the accuracy of eye in even the slightest of sketches. He is adept at bringing his characters to life in only a few pages and in creating a grounded sense of place. The stories have a wry, self-deprecating humour and yet are both wise and elegant.
The Dear Departed gets right to the heart of existence, exploring the hidden emotions that drive so much of human behaviour and the collection is an interesting taster for the rest of Brian Moore’s work.
Lizzy has also reviewed The Dear Departed for the centenary celebrations and you can check out her great review here.
Why not join in next month when I will be reading Cathlolics, Brian Moore’s novella from 1972 which would be a great choice for Novellas in November!
You can also check out the great events happening throughout the year at the official Brian Moore at 100 website.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!