This is a behemoth of an anthology – the kind of strapping hardback you definitely can’t fit in a handbag and that shouldn’t be hefted one-handed if you’ve got puny little wrists like me. Well, Granta don’t do things by halves. They’ve hired in Anne Enright as editor for this collection – Booker winner, Rooney Prize winner, Whitbread shortlistee – and she’s plucked out her favourite Irish short stories for our enjoyment, her main proviso being that the (obviously, Irish) writers had to be born in the twentieth century. The result is clearly partial – selection by committee can water down the sensibility or tone or oddity of a grouping, but selection by an individual can skew choice in all manner of ways. Enright hasn’t chosen a narrow range here – there’s variety enough to please any cantankerous coterie of readers or critics – but certain themes do dominate: family, betrayal, isolation. The question (for me) is whether you can then take these themes (or any others you might identify as you pick your way through the anthology) and pin them to the flagpole as specifically Irish concerns, or Enright’s concerns, or simply the domain of short stories, or literature as a whole? I certainly get concerned about national groupings. I fear stereotyping, essentialism and pigeonholing; as an Irish emigrant living in England, I’m hyper-aware of people’s preconceptions and assumptions about my country and what the people around me see as its preoccupations; I find myself, at times, in my own writing, very conscious about what notions I might or might be perpetuating, accidentally or otherwise, about my homeland, by virtue of the demands of a single, isolated story. So when you’ve got a large anthology like this one, I worry about what people will take from it, what conclusions they’ll draw about a place they’ve perhaps never visited but feel that they know, through the media, history and literature, pretty well. Which is all long-hand for: in this case, I was a nervous reader. But maybe I should get off my soap-box. Anthologies are a chance to showcase good writing; political agendas are perhaps by-the-by.
And? Of course, like other any anthology, I loved some stories and wasn’t keen on others. I found some of them out-dated in topic and linguistically irritating; other stopped me dead with inventiveness and the power of their emotions. Enright’s introduction left me cold; long and rambling, it discussed the short story as a form in general platitudes and didn’t deal adequately (or succinctly) with the actual collection at hand. As a defence of the form it was, well, too defensive; anybody that’s bought or is reading it is probably already convinced of the validity of the short story, or curious enough to give it a go regardless. That’s not to say we don’t need to drag the short story kicking into the mainstream daylight – sometimes it feels like we need to do just that – but I’m willing to bet that the typical Granta reader is already a card-carrying member of the choir. And (back on the soap-box) I’m not sure Enright’s essay really thoroughly explored why these particular stories, for her, summed up the cream of the Irish crop, as good as they may be. That said, the success or failure of the venture is in the reading, and it’s in the reading, of course, that you forget the editorialising and just enjoy yourself. And there is plenty here to enjoy. My tastes are bound to differ from Enright’s – as are yours – but she’s got some juicy numbers here, no mistake.
She hasn’t arranged them chronologically – which I liked, as it mixed things up nicely – but the collection does opens with an oldy: Michael McLaverty’s ‘The Road To The Shore’, originally published in 1976, is hardly ancient, but of all of the pieces in here, it’s one that clings most tenaciously to the past and, for me, it wasn’t an auspicious or inspiring way to kick things off. Clunky dialogue and nuns: there wasn’t any novelty here, and my old fear about stereotyping reared its head. But the pace picked up immediately with Roddy Doyle’s ‘The Pram’ – a modern ghost story about a Polish au pair and her excruciatingly awful employer, O’Reilly – and though religion isn’t completely dropped after this point, the stories Enright’s chosen have taken pretty unusual and refreshing perspectives on the theme. Maeve Brennan’s An Attack of Hunger, which features a mother obsessed with her son who left to join the priesthood, is really about a cloying, self-obsessed parent. The way the writer plays with our perception of the characters and their relationships to one another is gobsmackingly good. Likewise, Colm Tóibín’s ‘A Priest In The Family’ takes the same theme – a son in the clergy and a mother’s response – but is unremittingly contemporary in its take on disgrace and pride in a nosy community.
There’s plenty of stories featuring child narrators. John Banville’s ‘Summer Voices’ reminded me of Stephen King’s ‘The Body’ (or the film of that tale, Stand By Me), with two kids checking out a corpse, but it’s Banville’s fantastic ear for dialogue that made it especially memorable, overriding a clichéd sould-searching-look-in-the-mirror ending. Seán O’Faoláin’s ‘The Trout’ was not only a lovely evocation of childhood and a family holiday; though the tone was ominous as it went along, it had a hopeful, happy ending, which isn’t something I seem to come across often in good literary fiction – but maybe I have morbid reading habits? Jennifer C Cornell’s ‘The Swing Of Things’ was one of my favourites. A little girl and a stuntman babysit the child’s senile grandfather, while her widowed father reluctantly goes out for a pint with his friends. The sense of connections between strangers and generations was genuinely moving and if one of the stories here was going to make you cry, I’ll bet it might be this one. Beautiful.
The family theme is very dominant, and many of the stories highlight the tensions that swell and burst in private – perhaps none of them better than Claire Keegan’s masterful ‘Men and Women’, in which an ignored and put-upon country wife finally stands up for herself after an excruciating night out with her nasty husband. I was about ready to stand up myself and cheer for her by the end. Infidelity and betrayal pop up in more overt ways in Elizabeth Bowen’s ‘Summer Night’, a complex study of characters and relationships, featuring a troubled marriage, an illicit couple, and a peculiar brother-sister combo. Though she’s no minimalist, it’s all under the surface with Bowen, and a few reads of this one will stand you in good stead. Mary Lavin’s ‘Lilacs’ is about inevitability and family legacy and the sense of creeping doom that this can install – but it’s also very funny, and it’s all about dung, which isn’t something you read about every day. John McGahern’s ‘The Key’ is also blackly comic; it stars a hypochondriac old Sergeant and his bewildered and frightened family, particularly his unnamed son, the narrator, who has to figure out a way of handling him when he decides he’s about to die.
What wasn’t I so keen on? Anne Devlin, ‘Naming the Names’, while an intriguing story (an IRA operative on the Fall’s Road in Belfast arranges the murder of a friend), was structured oddly, with a long section of explanatory flashback at the end that frustrated me. Keith Ridgway’s ‘Shame’ was a historical story about colonial guilt that will probably sail right over the heads of anyone who doesn’t know much about the politics of the era. I’m not saying that writers should assume their readers are ignorant and cater to them accordingly, but this one relief too much on historical inference for my liking. Patrick Boyle’s ‘Mele Vulgaris’, which contrasts the memory of a badger fight with a wife’ attempt to seduce her husband, was crude: the back-and-forth felt laboured and the parallels too obvious, and the details of the fight itself was a tad too gruesome for me – and I like Bret Easton Ellis.
But I don’t want to end on a low, so I’ve saved some of my favourites for last. I haven’t by any means name-checked every story in the collection and there are lots of treasures left for you to dig out yourself, but these last few put a smile on my face from the joy of reading something outstandingly well-crafted – even if the content was, in some cases, pretty solemn. Hugo Hamilton’s ‘The Supremacy of Grief’ unveils a family gathering after a death, and the widower’s sorrow, his disconnection with his brothers and sisters, combined with his playful antics with his nieces, is so realistic, so bitter-sweet and heartbreaking, that, though the story is one of the shorter ones in the book, it towers above many of the others. Frank O’Connor, an old favourite on the Irish short story anthology scene, is represented by ‘The Mad Lomasneys’, one I hadn’t read before, a sharp and funny story about thwarted courtship and competition. Fantastic. Clare Boylan’s ‘Villa Marta’ is about a couple of lonely office girls on holidays; it reminded me of The Bell Jar, and was one of the more international-seeming choices, in that it wasn’t set in Ireland or written in reaction to any particular local tradition. And to round it all up, Kevin Barry’s ‘See The Tree, How Big It’s Grown’ – Barry’s one of the most idiosyncratic stylists I’ve come across in recetn years. Reading his work is like getting a glimpse into where the form could take us, into how a writer can take a local idiom and turn it inside out to make us view the world differently. A village is ‘a collision of a few byways and houses, a shop, and, finally, a pub.’ The narrator ‘knew what it was like to drink big in small towns – it was hard work sometimes, you had to have the same good time over and over again.’ A young lady has ‘agreeable knees’. I’ll stop there – read the rest for yourself.
Any Cop?: The good far outweighs the bad with this collection. Having finishing it, I’m still not sure how, or if, it goes any way to summing up ‘the Irish short story’, and I’m still not convinced that the effort is a worthy one – but neither would be any attempt to pin down the ‘English short story’ or the French be straightforward or satisfactory, I think. Anthologies raise as many quibbles as they solve. What we’ve got there is a large bunch of very readable, sometimes transporting, often hilarious, always thought-provoking tales. You’ll read authors you’ve not read before, and you’ll find some new favourites. Get stuck in.