The Davy Byrnes Short Story Award – sponsored by the rather excellent Dublin pub of the same name and organised by The Stinging Fly in association with Dublin UNESCO City of Literature (now there’s an editorial mouthful) – has become something of a legendary affair on the Irish literary scene. Despite this year’s affair marking only the Award’s third incarnation, it’s the stellar track record of the past two winners, the enormously impressive judging panels, and the half-decade between Awards that ratchets anticipation levels up to eleventy for all the eligible entrants (Irish citizens, that is, as well as residents and the diaspora). Anne Enright took home the inaugural award in 2004, winning the Booker three short years later, and Claire Keegan’s 2009 winner, ‘Foster’, is a story the very mention of which sends fans into a doe-eyed reverie; Richard Ford was the judge that plucked Keegan out of the slush-pile, and this year the panel comprised Enright herself alongside Jon McGregor and Yiyun Li. If UK writers and readers get heated up about their National Short Story Prize (aka, the BBC Prize), then this – surely Ireland’s equivalent – is equally worth our close attention. Conveniently, then, The Stinging Fly has issued the top six stories (one winner and five runners-up) as an anthology, complete with the judges’ comments and the writers’ own brief introductions. Is it good? Of course it is.
The three male and three female writers (nice gender equity there; not often seen on lists short or long) err mostly on the side of sketching out rural, or small town, Irish landscapes, though Arja Kajermo, a writer and cartoonist, hauls us all the way back to post-war Finland. Loneliness and isolation, loss and love (and its loss), and parent/child difficulties all echo throughout the text(s) – shades of Frank O’Connor, there – though five out of the six pieces (again excepting Kajermo, who seems destined to be the mould-breaker) are third-person accounts, which fact tugs us every so slightly from the claustrophobia of their characters’ typically oppressive, unhappy lives. (There are also numerous ill-fated dogs scattered about the book: whether this is a hint towards a new national literary motif or telling us something about the judges’ proclivities for destitute animals, we couldn’t possibly say.) Second-guessing a theme in such a brief anthology is a fool’s errand, of course; these aren’t commissioned pieces, and the real theme is simply that of quality – because the quality is high, as evidenced, perhaps, by The New Yorker’s printing of Danielle McLaughlin’s ‘The Dinosaurs on Other Planets’ just before this anthology launched. And, we ought to note, for short stories, these are long: most of them clock in at around thirty pages, which is somewhere in the region of eight thousand words – long enough, then, for a serious amount of world-building.
Julian Gough’s idiosyncratic blend of rural domesticity and extremely imminent and apocalyptic catastrophe, ‘Harvest’, introduces us to an old married couple who, in the few remaining moments before the sun ‘goes nova’, take to their bed to make love for the very last time. ‘What the fuck else is there, but love?’ they think, as the twin waves of searing devastation clap together in the Tipperary sky, and we’re with them on that: Gough’s ending is pitched perfectly, capturing science-fiction style galactic horror alongside a tiny moment of intimacy and tenderness that shows us – in very dramatic circumstances – how universal our moments of human affection can be. Gough describes the story as a mash-up of Larry Niven and James Joyce: a tad hubristic, perhaps, but while the Joycean parallels leap out in the final page a little too overtly, ‘The Dead’ is a hell of a touchstone for anyone looking to illustrate doom and love stirred up in one fatal paragraph. And, you know, the end times kicking in just outside Nenagh? It’s gotta happen somewhere…
Trevor Byrne’s ‘Go Down Sunday’ is a subtle portrayal of a boy’s uncertain relationship with a young priest; elliptical, again, in the good old Joycean tradition (bolstered by the kid being called Stephen, natch), this isn’t a story that offers many answers, but what it does offer is a sharply rendered moment in time, a cast of memorable characters and some storming dialogue – Stephen’s football coach and manager might be secondary to the plot, but they leap off the page. It’s a funny story so far as exasperated exchanges and sarky kids go, but the emotional undercurrents of Stephen’s vulnerability and Father Larkin’s curious interest in him give it a tension and a poignancy that linger. Byrne tells us that some of the characters recur, in later life, in his work-in-progress, which ought to be a treat.
While Byrne’s piece covers a few short days in the life of a young football team on an outing to exotic Arklow, Kajermo’s ‘The Iron Age’ traces out generations of a Finnish family’s life, before and after WWII, or, more particularly, the Continuation War, which refers to hostilities between the Soviet Union and Finland between 1941 and 1944. Detailing the impoverished lives of Finnish peasants – without electricity, without even tyres on their cartwheel – her narrator’s family history is long and brutal; it conjures up a world as remote from Gough’s Tipperary or Byrne’s Wicklow as you might want to imagine, and yet, in its focus on the destruction that can be wrought upon family homes by internal feuds and violence, it bears more than a passing relationship to both Baume’s ‘Solesearcher1’ and McLaughlin’s ‘Dinosaurs’.
Danielle McLaughlin’s piece, then, is what we’d call domestic realism at its best: a understated account of multiple relationships simultaneously imploding – a dying marriage; a burgeoning relationship that’s already failing; a grandmother who’ll never get the chance to properly bond with her grandson; children who put half the world between them and their parents; and an almost-affair that might have meant salvation and might have signaled doom, but that isn’t destined to get off the ground at all. And all this over a two-day trip to the Cork countryside! McLaughlin’s prose is delicate and precise, as is her imagery – a tiny skull taken by a child for a dinosaur’s; a crow strung up by a piece of twine. Nothing happens, and that’s the story’s tragedy; for Kate, our protagonist, nothing may ever happen again. In a way, this is the most polished story in the anthology; it’s without Gough’s pyrotechnics, Byrne’s tense obscurity, or the fascinating remoteness of Kajermo’s Scandinavia. We reckon it missed the main prize simply because it’s, perhaps, too polished; the tautness of the prose lacks the wildness and ferocity of both Colin McDermott’s ‘Absence’ and Baume’s winning piece.
McDermott’s ‘Absence’ introduces us to Anna Casey, a woman living alone seventeen years on from an undisclosed tragedy that took the lives of her three children. She goes in for a mastectomy and is taken care of afterwards by her neighbor, and, we assume, would-be suitor, Dan Bradley, while fostering a grim enmity with Michael Wintergreen, another neighbour and farmer. The story hinges on a dog that Michael tries to abandon and Anna to adopt; the dog, Lazarus, is the unwitting fulcrum around which the three adults bitterly spar. Like Gough’s, there’s more than a hint of ‘The Dead’ about the end of this – snow, introspection, the worry and the hardness of life – but, also like Gough, McDermott makes it his own, and there’s a tenderness and hope at the last that lift the story above its otherwise accumulating miseries (luckily for poor Anna).
Finally, then, the winner: Sara Baume’s ‘Solesearcher1’, another canine-themed outing, though to sum it up as such would be, of course, to do it a massive disservice: it’s a story, rather, about a suffocating father-daughter relationship, about alienation and isolation, about passion and rebellion. The main character, Phil is a female plumber and angler, who’s obsessed with landing a Dover sole – a rare catch that she snagged accidentally as a child, with her father. In the story, she gets interested almost against her will in the profusion of missing dogs in her area. We won’t spoil the ending, but we will say that we were struck by the skill with which Baume knitted the piece together: Phil’s isolation is neatly symbolized both in the rain-sodden landscapes of the story and in her position as the only female in sight; her life is knotted to her father’s in a way that’s both realistic in its dutifulness, but horrific in its implications for her happiness (or lack thereof); and the correspondences between her (hitherto) refusal to question her life and its trajectory, her (and her father’s) reliance upon habit and routine, and the angler’s persevering efforts are both very clever and very subtle – Phil’s life, after all, may not be joyful, but it’s got its reward. And as an exploration of gender in the fishing community and its associated drinking holes and online forums, it’s spot-on.
Any Cop?: It’s a short anthology, obviously, and so it’s not going to give you anything approaching an exhaustive sense of the scope of contemporary Irish writing, but it will give you a very tantalizing glimpse into the scene. Six excellent stories, six writers to keep watching, and a book that deserves to be passed around outside of Ireland as well as inside the twenty-six counties.