Joyride to Jupiter by Nuala O’Connor

Joyride to Jupiter cover

Nuala O’Connor’s stunning new collection of short stories Joyride to Jupiter opens with the line ‘I knew something was going to go wrong as sure as I knew west was west’ and closes with the promise that ‘All will be well.’ Things do go wrong in these stories, sometimes very wrong, but O’Connor moves seamlessly from despair to hope in this witty, humorous and moving collection.

Loss permeates a lot of the stories in Joyride to Jupiter as relationships falter, adulteries happen and familial ties are tested.

In the affecting Tinnycross estranged brothers are fighting over the inheritance of their family home, while the narrator of Consolata looks back on the childhood moment when she caught her father having sex with a nun. ‘How could my Sister Consolata want to be better friends with my father than with me?’

In Futuretense a copywriter for a fragrance company reflects on the suicide of her brother as she comes up with the blurb for new scents; while Squidinky depicts a tattooist grieving for her dead partner.

Yet this is not a depressing collection by any means. What makes these stories successful is the deft blending of wit and tenderness coupled with effective and welcome moments of humour. O’Connor is also skilfully aware of the importance in the short story of allowing nothing in particular to happen; yet when dramatic moments come they feel cohesive and well-timed.

In the wonderfully named title story, a man struggles to deal with his wife’s dementia and her regression into child-like precociousness. She starts wearing tracksuits and cheap teenage make-up and becomes more and more reliant on her husband.

And then she laughed because laughter falls from her now as it never did; it falls and pools around us, the one good thing. I knelt and stepped her feet into her knickers and pulled them up. I put her arms into the sleeves of her blouse and fiddled with the tiny buttons. She was childlike in her pliancy. I kissed her forehead. ‘You’re my dolly’, I said.

Poignancy soon gives way to unease as O’Connor skilfully portrays the unreliability of our narrator and as with all these stories there is a sense for the reader that we are never quite sure where we are going to be taken.

There is a strong sense of place in these stories, from rural Ireland to Naples via Rio de Janeiro, with vivid descriptions of landscape that often catch the breath.

Tonight there is a moon-rind, a nicotined fingernail, hanging low over the lake; above it, a Swarovski sparkler of a star

Being in a place or being away from a place are often the crux of these stories, whether it be a Ukrainian chambermaid watching her child grow up via Skype or a young emigre working in Manhattan and thinking of her mother back in Galway. These characters might as well be on Jupiter for the distance they have to breach.

My face is a shadow. My Mammy’s features blur and slip out of focus. I put my hand to the glass and rub at it to try to conjure her again. And I am flattened by the truth of things; no more than the poor little maneen from Ballinasloe, I will never look into my Mammy’s eyes again.

O’Connor’s characters are often ‘flattened by the truth of things’ and a lot of the stories rest on a moment of realisation and clarity. Whether or not anything will come of these moments of revelation is often tantalisingly left up to the reader.

Narrative voices are well-captured, particularly in the hilarious Penny and Leo in Married Bliss, where Penny’s anger at her belief that Leo is cheating, online and in real life, doesn’t stop her from fantasising about a tryst with the local priest.

Ah, he’s a fine thing though. God forgive me but I’d bounce up and down on Father Hugh Boylan all night, given a chance

The seemingly ironic nature of the title of the story does not play out the way you would expect and the story turns on its head to suggest that happiness comes in many forms.

In Joyride to Jupiter, the shortest pieces are no less affecting, unsurprising given O’Connor’s experience as a flash fiction writer. In Fish a neighbouring man and woman see each other in a state of undress, ‘and none of it could be undone’ while in the affecting Girlgrief a mother deals with the death of her grown son by looking after his daughter she has never met before. The ingenious Yellow verges towards science fiction as couples try to catch flying babies in a net – the style of the story perfectly capturing the surreal nature of infertility treatment.

Joyride to Jupiter is a collection that shows a writer with complete mastery of her craft. The best of the stories hint rather than shout but all are poignant and complex, riding on the dichotomy between hope and despair. She is clear-eyed when exploring the dark realities of human behaviour, but the humour and wit displayed within her affecting prose allow this collection to soar.

 Nuala O'Connor author 2

Nuala O’Connor AKA Nuala Ní Chonchúir was born in Dublin, she lives in East Galway. Her fifth short story collection Joyride to Jupiter was published by New Island in June 2017. Penguin USA, Penguin Canada and Sandstone (UK) published Nuala’s third novel, Miss Emily, about the poet Emily Dickinson and her Irish maid. Miss Emily was shortlisted for the Bord Gáis Energy Eason Book Club Novel of the Year 2015 and longlisted for the 2017 International DUBLIN Literary Award. Nuala’s fourth novel, Becoming Belle, will be published in 2018.

www.nualaoconnor.com

 

No 599 Intepreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

In the title story of this wonderful collection of short stories, Mr Das, a tour guide and taxi driver in India muses on his abandoned career plans.

He had dreamed of being an interpreter for diplomats and dignitaries, resolving conflicts between people and nations, settling disputes of which he alone could understand both sides.

Ideas of interpretation and misinterpretation, and the need to reach a point of understanding dominate this collection, which features Asian characters, many of whom have come to America from India for school, relationships, work or to escape political upheaval. They attempt to assimilate, to leave behind the cultural and literal borders they have passed through, but some are more successful than others. What makes this collection so successful is that Lahore herself transcends the borders she writes about. Her work illuminates not only the Indian- American experience, but human nature in general and how, no matter where we have come from, we yearn for connection and understanding.

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What is striking in a collection that has such emotional heft is that Lahore’s characters are, in general, ordinary. Often quiet, or even passive, they appear at the outset to be undramatic. The prose style echoes this – there is little in the way of metaphor or stylistic tricks, the stories appear simply written, but instead accumulate details to become incredibly multi-layered and complex, creating a deep emotional charge.

In the flawless A Temporary Matter, a couple, who have grown apart since their first child was stillborn, enter into a confessional game during a power cut. A reunion and reconnection seems imminent until both share one secret too many. In ‘Sexy’ a young woman enters into an affair with an older, married Indian man and it is not until she acts as babysitter for a boy whose own parents are splitting up that she understands the reality of her situation.

This gap between the memories of the past and the reality of the present run through all the stories. There is a sense of a cultural transition that has been undergone, a transition that has brought a loss. The couple in Sexy visit an exhibit and stand at either side of a transparent bridge – and all Lahore’s characters feel as if that bridge is always there, pulling them back to India. Mrs Sen a young Indian woman who babysits while her husband works at the University says of India ‘everything is there’, but now in Boston, her isolation is keenly felt.

‘Eliot, if I began to scream right now at the top of my lungs, would someone come?’

Eliot shrugged. ‘Maybe.’

‘At home that is all you have to do. Not everybody has a telephone. But just raise your voice a bit to express grief or joy of any kind, and the whole neighbourhood and half of another has come to share the news’

Unable to reconcile where she is now, with where she has come from, Mrs Sen instead must make do with occasional trips to the market to buy the fresh fish she misses so much.

Food is a talisman throughout Interpreter of Maladies, bringing reassurance and memories of happier times.

From the kitchen my mother brought forth the succession of dishes: lentils with fried onions, green beans with coconut, fish cooked with raisins in a yogurt sauce. I followed with the water glasses, and the plate of lemon wedges, and the chili peppers, purchased on monthly trips to Chinatown and stored by the pound in the freezer, which they liked to snap open and crush into their food.

Food is given as a sign of friendship (When Mr Pirzada Came to Dinner), acceptance (Interpreter of Maladies) or forgiveness (This Blessed House) and is always at the centre of a story. How after all are we to express our culture but through the food we prepare and eat? The ritual of eating is emphasised and in When Mr Pirzada Came to Dinner, a young girl comes to equate candy with praying and offers up sweets for the safety of her friend’s family.

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While Lahore’s book does touch on the political situation in the East, she does not dwell on it. Hers is a world of human beings, who are often happy to be adjusting to a new life while at the same time regretting what is being lost.

The writing is never sentimental, or calculated, but the simple uncluttered prose creates wonderful moments in time and teases us with characters about whom you could happily read a whole novel.

Beautifully constructed and effortlessly told, these stories are deceiving. They may not appear to, but they contain the world.

Read on: Book

Number Read: 148

Number Remaining:598

 

No 628 The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson

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What a fantastic collection of stories to kick off my 20 Books of Summer Challenge!

Often considered one of the most terrifying stories of the twentieth century, Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery created a sensation when it was first published in 1948. The New Yorker received a record number of complaints about the story ranging from the confused to the outraged. Today it is considered a classic work of short fiction, but is not necessarily indicative of the other stories contained in this collection. What it does have in common with the other twenty – four stories in this collection is a remarkable way of creating tension and suspense out of both the chilling and the ordinary.

Frank O’Connor said that within the short story, ‘there is an intense awareness of human loneliness’. This is particularly true of Shirley Jackson’s stories, which take this loneliness and search for identity and combine it with a sense of tension and suspense to create something irresistibly weird. Her stories explore the nature of identity and competition, fear and paranoia with an air of latent suspense, rather than all out horror. Jackson’s aim appears to be to disquiet the reader, with tales of seemingly ordinary people, often mothers and women starting their careers or family lives.

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The stories in this collection can start off in a seemingly ordinary fashion but they often become surreal, suggesting a tension, paranoia or madness taking over. Often the stories lack context or a discernable ending and like Joyce Carol Oates, you are often left with an atmosphere rather than a conclusion. Unsettling as that can be, the stories still feel fated and perfectly formed. The closing line of The Renegade captures this ambiguity perfectly, as a harassed mother wonders what to do about her errant pet dog.

 Everything was quiet and lovely in the sunlight, the peaceful sky, the gentle line of the hills. Mrs Walpole closed her eyes and suddenly feeling the harsh hands pulling her down, the sharp points closing in on her throat.

The nature of identity and how we define ourselves is questioned often in this collection. In The Villager, a young woman at a furniture sale poses as the owner of the apartment, while in Like Mother Used to Make, a man feels his identity threatened by a neighbour who messes up his pristine apartment. In Charles, a young boy creates an alter-ego to hide his own bad behaviour and in Trial By Combat a woman is unable to confront the fact that her neighbour is stealing from her when she realises just how alike they really are. This sense of combativeness and competition is never far from the surface and provides some moments of humour in an otherwise tense collection. In A Fine Old Firm, the mothers of two soldiers attempt to outdo the other in their pride for their boys and in Afternoon in Linen a young girl scuppers her mother’s attempts to show off to a friend.

Indeed, children and young people are often exposed as being smarter and more adult-like than they should be. In The Intoxicated a drunk party guest tries to chat to his hosts daughter about homework, only to have her lecture him about the imminent end of the world and The Witch and The Renegade capture that gleeful love of the macabre that children often have. In one story children are described as

 Hideous little parodies of adult life

But Jackson shows that often the adults are not much better and is particularly adept at exploring the hypocrisies and snobbery rife in the domestic arena – most notably exploring the effect of racism in Flower Garden.

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Shirley Jackson

 

Some stories do veer more towards the horror that Jackson is known for and explore fear and paranoia, hinting at mental illness or delusional fantasies. In the surreal Pillar of Salt, a New Hampshire housewife sees a much longed for trip to New York descend into mental breakdown to the point where she is unable to cross a road.

She looked longingly at the cigar store on the opposite corner, with her apartment house beyond; she wondered, How do people ever manage to get there?, and knew that by wondering, by admitting a doubt, she was lost.

In the surreal and nightmarish The Tooth, a woman loses her sense of what is reality and what is fantasy after a painful tooth extraction, while in possibly the most nightmarish tale The Daemon Lover, another young woman spends her wedding morning frantically searching for her missing husband-to-be.

This is where Jackson excels, creating a sense of general underlying unease and a feeling that things are about to go horribly wrong, so that even if they don’t, we as readers are still left feeling unsettled and shaky.

 Mrs Tyler recognized finally the faint nervous feeling that was tagging her; it was the way she felt when she was irrevocably connected with something dangerously out of control: her car, for instance, on an icy street, or the time on Virginia’s roller skates…

When reading these stories I was filled with that faint nervous feeling and as Dorothy Parker so perfectly described Jackson, she is an “unparalleled leader in the field of beautifully written, quiet, cumulative shudders”.

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The centerpiece of the collection The Lottery is an undoubtedly chilling parable about an annual ritual murder in a small New England town, but it doesn’t feel as subversive today as it would have done in 1948. Having said that, it is a perfectly formed and delightfully unsettling story about a town lottery to choose a sacrificial victim for the harvest. Jackson presents it as contemporary realism, but with no context or background, which adds to the isolated and rather surreal atmosphere. Is it horror? Is it social commentary? Is it a response to anti-Semitism? It could be one or all three and the ambiguity only adds to its effectiveness.

Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones.

At its core, the story explores the randomness and traditional nature of persecution among mankind and Jackson herself said

I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.

The best of the stories in this strong collection explore themes of isolation and identity, mental disturbance and random cruelty and rather than presenting the reader with big shocks or frightening climaxes, Jackson is more interested in that sense of prolonged tension that never lets up.

This is a fabulous collection that is more than the sum of its parts with its pervading sense of strangeness and delightful relishing of the odd and the other.

Read On: Kindle

Number Read: 119

20 Books of Summer: 1/20

Number Remaining: 627

 

 

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Young Skins and New Irish Voices

At the end of last year, the Guardian published an article called A New Irish Literary Boom: the Post Crash Stars of Fiction, which explored the recent flourishing of literary fiction from the island. Focusing on writers like Kevin Barry, Eimear McBride, Paul Murray, Belinda McKeon, Rob Doyle and Sara Baume to name but a few, the article celebrated the new and original work currently being produced by Irish writers and the new found optimism of independent publishers like Tramp Press, Liberties Press and The Stinging Fly. The writer Julian Gough sees the financial crash as being instrumental to this upsurge in new writing;

The crash plunged us back into self-doubt and anger and black humour and negative equity; places in which Irish literature is more comfortable. Irish writers function best when everything is going to hell, whether a psyche or an economy.

However, Kevin Barry has a note of caution, saying

I think it would be smug and premature to herald a golden age but maybe a proper radicalism is at last starting to re-emerge in Irish writing. We should always remember that being innovative and wild and not afraid to go completely fucking nuts on the page is what built its reputation in the first half of the 20th century.

Whatever the underlying causes of this new literary scene, there is no denying a new generation of writers is emerging, gaining national and international attention and winning high profile awards.

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Over the next week for Reading Ireland Month, I will look at the work of some of these new writers, starting today with Young Skins by Colin Barrett.

 My town is nowhere you have been, but you know its ilk

So begins Colin Barrett’s striking debut collection of short stories all set in the fictional County Mayo town of Glanbeigh. These unsentimental, often brutal stories lay bare the lives of the young male in a small rural Irish town and present us with a post-Boom world of alienation and hopelessness.

Barrett’s characters have little ambition. Bouncers, petrol station workers or thuggish small time criminals, they are the ones who stay in the town while the smarter kids head off to University in Dublin or Galway. In The Moon, bouncer Val, well known in the town, becomes involved with his boss’s daughter.

‘you like this place, don’t you Val? You like everything about it’, said Martina

‘that sounds like an accusation’

‘Not at all. Someone has to stay put, hold the fort’

‘You’re not going anywhere that far’

‘Galway’s not that far’, said Martina, ‘but it might as well be the moon for people like you’

Outside of Glanbeigh may well be the Moon for the majority of the characters in Young Skins where random acts of petty violence and passionless relationships are the yardsticks for directionless lives.

William Faulkner described his Yoknapatawpha County as a ‘cosmos of my own’ and Barrett does the same with Glanbeigh and like Faulkner is ‘sublimating the actual into the apocryphal’. The stories all stand alone, connected only by place, apart from one minor character, Nubbin Tansey, the town fighter who bigs himself up in a pool hall before appearing in another story to kick someone’s head in, with disastrous consequences. Later we are told that Tansey has hung himself,

He was one of them couldn’t stand being in his own skin.

Not many of Barrett’s characters can stand being in their own skin. In Diamonds, a recovering alcoholic finds that coming home doesn’t provide him the solace he needs to stay sober and he ends up pretending to be someone else. In Kindly Forget My Existence two old friends cower in the pub rather than go to the funeral of a woman they both loved. This perfectly structured story echoes with references to death, from the title which is taken from Joyce’s The Dead, to the name of the pub they sit in – The Boatman.

In the effective and moving Stand Your Skin, Bat tries to anaesthetise the trauma of a vicious assault through beer and late night motor bike rides, but nothing can stop the headaches or the worry of his mother.

This is what a mother must do: pre-emptively conjure the worst-case scenarios in order to avert them. She never considered or foresaw that little shit Nubbin Tansey and his boot and he happened. She cannot make the same mistake again.

There is a part of her that hates her son, the enormous, fatiguing fragility of him

All Barrett’s young skins are looking for meaning in a world that is scornful of their attempts. In The Clancy Kid, Tug, whose nickname is Manchild, becomes obsessed with a boy who went missing three months previously and conjures up theories to explain the child’s disappearance. In The Bait, Matteen is also obsessed, this time over a girl he was with for two weeks, and has his friend drive him past her house again and again.

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Sex and relationships provide little solace for these men. When Bat sees his friend Tain getting together with a man from the town he notes that,

 there’s something mechanistic and barely controlled in her reciprocation. It looks coercive

There is little romance when it comes to dating or getting together in Glanbeigh

Shifting was a curiously bloodless, routinized ritual, involving lengthy arbitration by the friends of the prospective pairings, who, as in arranged marriages, did not so much as get to say hello until they were shoved into each other’s arms and exhorted to take the dark walk into the maw of the woods.

His characters may be tough, or lost or aimless, but what elevates this collection is the detail with which Barrett conveys the moments of softening and of hope. This is seen most particularly in the centrepiece of the collection – a striking novella called Calm With Horses.

A young drug dealer, Dympna and his right hand man Arm find themselves in a difficult situation when a sexual predator creates problems with their suppliers. Arm has an autistic son, with his estranged partner and it is through this father son relationship that we glimpse the ordinary man, who could lead an ordinary life if only he wasn’t in the profession he was in. Arm tries to do the right thing but comes to realise that things can spin out of control with frightening ease

Arm tried to assess the situation, but what was there to assess? Things had got fucked, precipitously and in multiple ways and for little reason

In the Tarantino-esque scenes that follow, Barrett could easily have made Arm that cliché of the tough guy with the heart of gold, but instead he creates a vivid and complex man, convincing rather than convenient.

Colin Barrett

Nature too is hard in Glanbeigh. The local woods are called Bleak Woods and the River Mule that runs through the town is less an attraction and more a means to get rid of a dead body. Cows in the field are ‘sullen’ and the coastline is a ‘gnarled jawline’.

This may be a post Celtic Tiger Ireland, but the old myths are never far from the surface. A young man is led into the woods by mysterious girls and a strange old man known as Father Time is an unsettling figure. In The Clancy Kid Tug and Jimmy encounter some strange children guarding a bridge, while tree branches brush their faces like ‘witches fingers’

The beams of the crippled bridge warp and sing beneath us all the way over, and when we make it to the far shore and step back on to solid earth, a surge of absurd gratitude flows through me. I reach out and pat Tug on the shoulder and turn to salute the boy king and his giggling girl entourage. But when I look back across the tumbling black turbulence of water I see that the children are gone.

Myths are not just in the past in Young Skins, they are always being created in an endless, resonant process.

In a piece for the Guardian last year, Barrett said

I grew up in a town like this, knew people infused with the same peculiar sensibility as this cast of characters, but do not let me mislead you by implying I have any authoritative judgment to deliver on this world.

Barrett is not delivering judgement, rather he is shining a light on the small lives, the hard and hopeless lives of his young skins and using language to give their desperation a significance. There is a real poetry to Barrett’s writing, despite, or perhaps because of the subject matter. The sophisticated use of language gives the stories a metaphorical significance.

 The railings were eaten through, thinned to crusted spindles of rust at their most exposed points. Beyond them lay the rush-topped hillocks and sandbars, the sand milk-blue in the moonlight. Arm scanned the boiling surf for a long time, watched the way each wave rose, evolved like a fortification, and then collapsed.

These are stories that are beautifully written and open ended enough to invite multiple readings and mark an extraordinary debut from an exciting new writer.

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The Long Gaze Back – A Giveaway!

To celebrate Irish women writers, I am delighted to host a very exciting giveaway on the blog this week.

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I will be giving away a hardback copy of The Long Gaze Back, an anthology of short stories by Irish female writers, edited by Sinéad Gleeson along with a copy of Maeve Brennan’s novella The Visitor, from which The Long Gaze Back takes its name.

The Long Gaze Back was published last year to showcase the many women writers in Ireland whose work has been overlooked in the past. The Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories was published in 1989 and included only 7 women writers out of 39 stories. Worse still, the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing published in 1984 contained no women writers at all.

In 2001, Evelyn Conlon and Hans Christian Oeser edited a collection which aimed to redress the balance. Cutting the Night in Two featured short stories from 34 Irish female writers which made it clear that these writers had always been out there, they just weren’t being heard.

The Long Gaze Back follows on from this, featuring as it does 34 writers and spanning 218 years. The collection includes stories from Maria Edgeworth, Charlotte Riddell and Norah Hoult and includes 22 living writers, all of whom have included stories never before published.

The Long Gaze Back is a substantial harvest, a seriously comprehensive and celebratory volume.                                                                     The Irish Times

Sinéad Gleeson has described the anthology as a triptych, featuring deceased classic writers; well established writers from the last decade like Anne Enright and the new voices currently emerging from Ireland – Belinda McKeon, Mary Costello and Lisa McInerney. The themes covered in the anthology show the breadth and depth of issues facing women today and throughout history – emigration, pregnancy, loss, capitalism, motherhood, ghosts, art and much more.

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The Long Gaze Back was the winner of the TheJournal.ie Best Irish-Published Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards 2015

There’s nothing girly about these stories; there are no clichés, 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.                                                                                    Sunday Independent

Maeve Brenan’s novella The Visitor was written in the mid-1940s but was only discovered in a university archive and republished in 2006.

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It tells the haunting story of Anastasia King, who, at the age of 22, following the deaths of her parents, returns to her grandmother’s house in Ireland where she lived as a child.  However, instead of solace, she finds coldness and intransigence from her grandmother and comes to realise that refuge may not lie in the past after all.

The Visitor is the work of a sure hand…and Brennan’s prose is terse and exquisitely precise throughout…Only in the work of Emily Dickinson can the same ferocious vision – of love, pain, transgression and death – and economy of expression be found.                                 The Guardian

 

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Maeve Brennan

 

If you would like to win these two fantastic books, simply comment below telling me either your favourite Irish woman writer or just your favourite woman writer and you will be entered into the draw which will take place on Friday.

Good luck!

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A Slanting of the Sun by Donal Ryan

After years of rejection, Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart, a tale of the impact of the recession on the lives of people in rural Ireland, became a literary sensation. He won the Guardian First Book Award, the EU Prize for Literature and the Irish Book Award as well as being longlisted for the Booker Prize. His second novel The Thing About December was published in 2013 to equal critical acclaim and announced Ryan as a true original.

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A Slanting of the Sun is his first collection of short stories, which owes a lot to his previous two novels, featuring as it does characters who are faced with bereavement or loneliness, disaster or deprivation. These are broken lives – ordinary people damaged by loneliness, exile or failure.

A character in Losers Weepers, a story which wouldn’t feel put of place in The Spinning Heart, with its shadow of bankruptcy and shame, says

The world is filled with unwelcome words. Insolvent. Bankrupt. Unfriended.

Many of Ryan’s characters face unwelcome words, from the young traveller girl in Trouble who realises she will always be the ‘other’, to the refugee in Grace who deals with casual racism and bigotry. In Long Puck, a Catholic Priest in Syria is faced with shifting allegiances, while a talented small town actress finds that the nickname Meryl is one of both admiration and ridicule.

Ryan may visit far flung places like Syria and Kinshasa but the majority of these stories are set in the rural Ireland of Limerick and Tipperary, where decent people face adversity with stoicism and downtrodden acceptance. This is a world where

The houses of this road are strung with sorrow, like rows of old houses anywhere. A map of loss plotted all down it.

If only the characters in these stories had a map as they move through life ‘into the cold arms of the waiting years’. Instead there is a pervasive sense of loss and grief, a guilt for bad decisions made and a mourning for chances missed. In The Passion, a young man who killed his girlfriend through dangerous driving tries to absolve his guilt by starting an undefinable yet intimate relationship with her mother. In the brutal but astonishing story The Squad, an old man in a nursing home looks back on an incident in his youth when he took revenge on a boy who raped his friend’s daughter.

The ways of some things are set, like the courses of rivers or the greenness of grass… or the hard light of knowing in people’s eyes

In The House of the Small Big Ones, a man approaching old age muses on a time in his youth when he had the opportunity to go to Australia, only to throw it away by moving in with a woman old enough to be his mother and taking over the running of her pub. There are lost chances and lost loves and Ryan explores with a melancholic beauty the impermanence of time and the power of memory.

Donal Ryan

Donal Ryan

 

In Physiotherapy a woman in a care home looks back over her marriage, a past affair and the death of her beloved son and there is a sense of time bending in on itself, of everything co-existing and of a taking leave;

I’m seventy- seven and I’m twenty, my child is dead and he hasn’t yet been born, there’s a thickening of the air about me again in this day room, in this honeymoon suite and my heart is slowing and my mind is quickening…

In Tommy and the Moon, which for me is one of the most perfectly formed short stories I have ever read and the stand out story of this book, a young writer speaks of the death of his 80 year old friend in a way that perfectly captures a life in its entirety. It is a luminescent, moving and sombre story that captures all the ‘beauties of the world’ that are inherent in a single unremarkable life.

Something will always come along, he said, to light the way a little bit…a book he hadn’t read. Or a story he hadn’t heard before. Or the shiver of a leaf, or a certain lay of light along the land.

It is an unforgettable story of the small moments that sustain the spirit and it is beautifully written.

Ryan is just a confident with moments of shock and humour. Violence can burst through at any moment. In Retirement Do, an old man commits one last horrific crime to ensure he ends his days in the relative comfort of solitary confinement. The perfectly paced  Nephthys and the Lark, juxtaposes a wife and mothers unremarkable daily routine of lighting candles at church and peeling potatoes for the family dinner with her mor remarkable behaviour when she goes to her evening shift as a care worker for vulnerable adults.

Some stories are too elusive to be entirely successful but what unites the collection is Ryan’s gift for language and sharp ear for dialogue. His prose is musical and moving and resonates with a deep understanding of what it means to be human. Even the smallest and most passing of descriptions shines with the joy of language. People are ‘as full as ticks with satisfaction at their own smartness’; someone who is hungry would ‘ate the arse off a low-flying duck’, while a bird’s song has ‘the cut of a young fella going to a disco’. The beauty of the writing is what brings a sense of hope to this stunning collection.

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When I went to hear Donal Ryan read from A Slanting of the Sun at an event in Belfast last year, he said that he found writing short stories to be a much more intense and terrifying prospect than writing a novel. He compared it to being in a barren landscape with snipers all around, waiting to take you down if you made a misstep.

There are few missteps in this collection and A Slanting of the Sun cements Donal Ryan’s reputation as an original and exciting voice in Irish literature.

 

 

 

 

 

No 637 Dark Lies the Island by Kevin Barry

 

William Trevor, one of Ireland’s most lauded short story writers says,

Heroes don’t really belong in short stories. As Frank O’Connor said, “Short stories are about little people,” and I agree. I find the unheroic side of people much richer and more entertaining than black-and-white success.

Kevin Barry’s Dark Lies the Island is a sharp collection of thirteen tales about the unheroic, the little people for whom success is a far away dream. The best of these stories turn dramatically with a well-placed phrase, causing the reader to stumble and re-evaluate what has gone before. All are written with a vividness, humour and sharp wit as to bring you immediately to the heart of the experience, whether it be a quiet moment of self-realisation or a terrifying moment of unexpected violence.

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Barry is drawn to the underbelly of society – those on the edge, in trouble or winging it. White Hitachi follows a pair of dodgy brothers, scrabbling through life in an attempt to avoid jail or destitution, whichever comes first. Their hopeful chat. love for their car and best laid plans leave them well-meaning, but ultimately doomed. Violence looms unexpectedly in the aptly named A Cruelty where a young disabled man has his routine, and possibly his life, forever changed by one random act of malice. The Girls and the Dogs is an Irvine Welsh style tale of bad debt, bad sex and psychotic torture that leaves a nasty hangover while Ernestine and Kit displays all the humour and horror of a Tales of the Unexpected as two elderly ladies on a day out in the sun reveal a very dark side.

What were they taken for, they wondered, out there amid the light and gatherings of summer? Maiden aunts, they supposed, or a pair of nuns who…had left their order, or maybe as discreet lesbians just a little too aged for openness. What was certain was they would be taken for gentle, kind souls with their aunt-like smiles to seal the contrivance.

Many of these stories have a wry self-knowing bloke-ishness to them – often featuring men who romanticize women in an unrealistic way. In the hilarious Wifey Redux a middle class, middle aged man realises that his wife is no longer the young, beautiful creature he married, while his seventeen year old daughter is.

It’s just one of those things you’re supposed to keep shtum about. Horribly often, our beautiful, perfect daughters emerge into a perfect facsimile of how our beautiful, desirable wives had been, back then, when they were young. And slim. And sober.

His frustration with his life takes the guise of anger towards his daughter’s ex-boyfriend and builds to a comic catharsis of epic proportions. In Across the Rooftops, a young man finally gathers the courage to kiss the object of his affections, only to find, in the dying days of summer, that it is too little too late. Doctor Sot finds its titular character – an ageing, drunken doctor become enamoured with an itinerant woman whom he visits in her caravan on the outskirts of town.

He felt the tiny fires that burned there beneath her skin. Her lashes were unspeakably lovely as they lay closed over her light sleep. If Doctor Sot could draw into his palm these tiny fires and place them in his own, he happily would.

Beer Trip to Llandudno, about a Real Ale Club’s day-trip which ends in one of its members running in to an ex, could be played for laughs but instead uses humour and empathy to explore the universal need to belong and the nostalgia that comes with age and regret.

‘Put a gun to my head’, said Big John, ‘and I don’t think I could look past the draught Bass I had with me dad in Peter Kavanagh’s. Sixteen years of age. Friday teatime, first wage slip in my arse pocket’

‘But was it the beer or the occasion, John?’

‘How can we separate the two?’ he said, and we all sighed

Not all the stories are successful. The Mainland Campaign, in which a young Irishman is a cog in the wheel of a bombing attack on London has an interesting premise but lacks direction and Berlin Arkonaplatz – My Lesbian Summer in which a young photographer works for a lesbian artist in Berlin, is knowing rather than engaging.

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Kevin Barry

 

The stories that work best are those where Barry’s great ear for dialogue, his humour and his sense of place all work together to create moments of real emotional heft. In the title story Dark Lies the Island a young woman has retreated to her architect father’s modern holiday home on an island in Clew Bay, ostensibly to take a year out to work on her art. Instead she spends most of her time thinking about self-harming, or not self-harming, her polite well-heeled parents too terrified of tipping her over the edge to give her any meaningful help.

Her brain was moving so fast it was out the other side of town already and looking back. She saw herself drive. She felt like she was filmed every minute of the day

Barry writes here with real sensitivity and insight, using nature as a metaphor for the loneliness and isolation of his protagonist’s troubled mind.

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Clew Bay

 

The highlight of the collection is the marvellous Fjord of Killary in which a poet with writer’s block is regretting the purchase of an old hotel in North Galway due to grumpy staff, grumpier locals and a distinct lack of inspiration.

My poetry was known of but was not a difficulty for the Killary locals – there had never been a shortage of poets out here. Every last crooked rock of the place had at some point seated the bony arse of some hypochondriacal epiphany-seeker. Some fucker who’s forever be giving out about his lungs

As a flood threatens the hotel in apocalyptic fashion leading to panic, drinking and disco-dancing, inspiration comes pouring in, in a moment of emotional epiphany and understanding.

 Kevin Barry has an ease to his writing which makes his stories very accessible and the ability to swiftly turn a tale on a moment, a line or an emotional shift. His stories often feel like they could take one of two paths, either towards happiness or towards pain and the enjoyment is found in letting him lead the way. His characters all have their problems, and what they have in common is that they know what the problems are, they are just struggling for a way to solve them.

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