Liam Harte, ‘In short, masters of the genre’, review of David Marcus, ed., The Faber Book of Best New Irish Short Stories 2006-2007, in The Irish Times (14 April 2007), Weekend Review, p.10.

[‘Protection in art is only justified by a fairly strong claim for the home product. Such a claim the stories here will have to substantiate”. Thus Elizabeth Bowen, introducing The Faber Book of Modern Stories in 1937.]

Seventy years on, her words might well have been borrowed by David Marcus for this, his second Faber anthology of new Irish short stories in two years, for the quality of the home product on display here emphatically affirms the continuing excellence of Irish writers in this particular literary genre.

The narrative energy and stylistic vivacity of these 24 stories make for an immensely enjoyable read. The most engrossing stories strike the ear as forcefully as the eye. Repeatedly, we are drawn in by the modulations of singular voices and beguiled by all manner of vernaculars and disclosures: by Roger Casement’s emboldened male lover, whom Dermot Bolger powerfully ventriloquises; by Anne Enright’s unsettled new mother, who fears that “there was nothing in her world except the baby”; by the psychosexual confessions of Patrick McCabe’s fallen priest; by the edgy intimacies of Emma Donoghue’s Yukon gold-miners; by the guarded vulnerability of Frank McGuinness’s brash gay persona. All seem desperately real and alive with emotion.

Other voices are more knowingly self-reflexive. A cluster of stories thematise the process of fiction-making itself, including John Banville’s First Light, which is narrated by the god Hermes, who exults in his powers of contrivance, and Michael J Farrell’s “The Written Word”, which tells of a man who began writing “directly for the universe” when publishers rejected him. Farrell’s quirky meditation on creativity is followed by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s pungent satire “A Literary Lunch”, which skewers the snobberies and grievances of literary Dublin, and then fashions a hilarious ending from the creative-writing axiom that “a short story is an arrow in flight towards its target”. This metafictional strand culminates in Aidan Mathews’s In “[The] Form of Fiction”, which lays bare its fictionality with scintillating deadpan wit: “I am building up to something big in an ascending series of disclosures and deferrals. Bear with me”.

As with Marcus’s critically acclaimed 2004-2005 Faber selection, the majority of these stories circle the hidden heartbreak of ordinary lives and pick at the scrim on buried emotions. Mostly, we find ourselves in the company of characters living in the afterglow of passion or ambition, whose expressive silences are powerful indicators of unassuaged hurt. Transformative epiphanies are rare; the accent is on life’s dispiriting banality, purged of drama and exaggeration. As the narrator of “The Written Word” warns: “in a world where people kill each other with such regularity, and galaxies crash into each other on a daily basis, it would be dishonest to write as if life were smooth sailing.”

The importance and the elusiveness of love are recurring themes, typically focalised through the rueful gaze of disenchanted protagonists who still hanker after recognition or self-completion. Two of the most accomplished and affecting stories evoke the unexpressed sadness of middle-aged lives that have become as unnoticed as the weather. In “The Death of Billy Joel”, Joseph O’Neill manages pathos as skilfully as Raymond Carver to suggest the unspoken needs of an unneeded man who feels his life has been “reduced to a mere likeness of vitality”. O’Neill’s brilliantly understated narrative has a companion piece in Joseph O’Connor’s “The Talks”, an empathetic portrait of a divorced civil servant who is silently disappearing into an emotional black hole. That neither man can fully fathom the mystery of how their lives have come apart compounds their shared tragedy.

“The Talks” is one of several stories that includes within its fabric troubled responses to recent social and cultural change. It begins with an uneasy father-son conversation about immigrants, which widens to register deeper discontents: “No one these days would honour a commitment; that was the problem with Ireland now: inconsistency, no integrity; people only in it for the buck, everyone waiting on the better offer.”

In Harry Clifton’s “A Visitor from the Future”, it is the depthlessness of Ireland’s globalised culture that perturbs Ann, a disaffected university tutor. Her attempt to interest her students in an older Ireland, “where people were continuous with themselves, and everything could be named”, exposes some deep attitudinal and generational fault lines, leaving her with a strange sense that the country she came from was levitating into a weightless, valueless space where everything equalled everything else. These things - disintegration, discontinuity - are not threatening but good, the best of them told her. Tomorrow we will change our names, invent ourselves again.

This vision of a present - and, by implication, a future - from which history has been evacuated is elliptically critiqued in what is, remarkably, the only story here that deals with the North. Carlo Gébler’s “Room 303” centres on the reunion of a divorced couple, Liam and Anna, on the anniversary of the death of their son by an IRA bomb. Their reticence about this loss shadows the emotional skirmishes that punctuate their drink-fuelled hotel stay, until Anna denounces “the new orthodoxy” that decrees “whatever you do, don’t talk about the dead or the Troubles”. Seen from this perspective, self-reinvention comes at a price that not all can afford or are prepared to pay.

There are many such ghosts that won’t go away in these captivating new stories, the best of which do what Bowen said a good short story should: “magnetise the imagination and give pleasure - of however disturbing, painful or complex a kind”.

[ Liam Harte lectures in Irish literature at the University of Manchester. His latest book, Modern Irish Autobiography: Self, Nation and Society, is published this month by Palgrave Macmillan.]

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