It’s been a bumper year for new Irish fiction: Órfhlaith Foyle’s second collection, Clemency Browne Dreams of Gin, is the latest volume to land on the Bookmunch desk, and it doesn’t disappoint. We haven’t read Foyle’s back-catalogue (in addition to the previous story collection, she’s also got a novel, a poetry collection and a book that’s part poetry, part short fiction) but if this is anything to go by, she’s not a writer struggling for ideas. There are nineteen stories in Clemency Browne, and they feature everything from murderous teens and African mercenaries to drunken psychologists and paedophile teachers. As you might suspect, it’s not a gentle, comforting read – it’s unflinching and, at times, brutal – but it’s very funny, very concise, and unafraid to poke the worst of our inner lives right in the eye. And that’s always good.
Our highlights included ‘Conversation Is Not Your Enemy’, in which a newly-released prisoner bonds with a truck driver: while, at first, our sympathy lies with Judith, who’s trying to ‘do something ordinary’ after ten years in prison, the slow reveal both of her crime (no spoilers, but it’s a bad ‘un) and, with it, her state of mind, as well as the back-story of her companion, Benny, who’s lost a child, means that the reader’s assumption about where the balance of power lies with this duo shifts chillingly over the story’s seven pages. And that’s another strength: Foyle doesn’t draw anything out beyond necessity: these pieces say what they need to say and then stop. The snapshot of domestic misery and abuse in the opening titular story gives us a vignette of a doomed life and leaves us to work out its implications; George’s illicit afternoon with his gay sister and her friends in ‘Blessing’ is a concise and touching exploration of his own repressed sexuality. Foyle’s nailed the ‘telling detail’ – her stories are packed with minor details that have huge implications.
If we were to get tough, we’d probably venture that there are too many stories here: nineteen pieces is a fair old heft for any collection, and a judicious prune would still have left a strong, albeit a slim, volume. But where to prune? We were more taken by the stories that eschewed the fantastical or the overly quirky in favour of (terrible) reality: stories like ‘Conversation Is Not Your Enemy’ and ‘Alice Grows Up’ (a teenager has had enough of her creepy older lover) are powerful because, however short they may be, they’re borne out of character, and the chilling implications of that character let loose on the world of the story in question, while, in contrast, pieces like ‘Husk’ (a woman in an asylum is reserved for post-mortem experimentation/mummification by an ‘inventor’) and ‘The Suicide Detective’ (a writer invents a future for the deceased to bring comfort to those left behind) rely on a central conceit, which makes them feel a little like imaginative exercises – which is fine, if that’s how you’re inclined, but we’re more of the hardcore-reality school of thought. So the tendency towards magical realism in pieces like ‘Mutant’ felt, to us, less original, then, than, say, the desperation of Clemency’s retreat into alcoholism in the first story, or the familiar, familial doom of ‘May’s End’. Those stories, too, that rewrite or reinterpret older myths and lives (‘Persephone’ and ‘Elsje Christiaens’), though they’re evocative and compelling in their own rights, felt less ambitious than those, like ‘The New Wife’, that are both simple in terms of plot (a wife from a different country tries to settle into her elderly husband’s family) and yet deeply emotional complex.
Whichever style you go for, though, the collection’s very cohesive at a thematic level: it’s all about love and loss and fear, and people’s disconnection from one another. Bad marriages and inappropriate relationships abound; addiction, murder, deception and betrayal are the order of the day. Foyle’s characters teeter in a liminal space between sanity and madness – hence the move towards the surreal – and so the reality/fantasy border recurs throughout. And yet, it has its moments of joy (the new wife’s small glint of pleasure at her husband’s confiding of his funeral plans to her) and humour (the EU guidelines to team-building in ‘Mr Tumnus’).
Any Cop?: If you like your short fiction served bloody and rare, you’ll get along with this.