Roisín O’Donnell’s début is a heartfelt and surprising collection of twelve stories that, if justice is served and the word is spread, ought to go a good way towards reshaping Ireland’s reputation as being a diversity-free hive of whiter-than-white Catholicism. Her narrators are immigrants, emigrants, and the children of immigrants, and the stories are bound up, for the most part, with issues of memory, identity, belonging and nationhood. If this isn’t the Ireland you know, you’re probably overdue a visit.
The most successful pieces are those most grounded in realism: the paired stories, ‘How to be a Billionaire’ and ‘Crushed’, which together trace the fates of a couple of young Nigerian brothers in a school in Dublin’s north-side, are both snapshots of a multi-cultural society still in its infancy and a touching story about bonds forged through violence – ‘Crushed’, in particular, is powerful, with O’Donnell sketching out her characters’ pained lives in quick, brutal scenes. ‘Under the Jasmine Tree’ is set in Spain, where Alma, a middle-aged woman, is visited by her son, Ciaran, a son who was stolen from her at birth and raised anonymously in Ireland: the story details Alma’s teenage passion for the boy’s father, a Galician deacon and her later realisation that the baby hadn’t died but had been snatched away; and her tender, awkward and terrifying reunion with the now-adult Ciaran. ‘On Cosmology’ is another one about parenthood, or potential and fraught parenthood: it’s in the form of an address to an unborn – perhaps never to be born – baby, by a woman who’d never planned to get pregnant. Despite the emotive theme, O’Donnell avoids all sentimentality – the story is immediate and snappy, earnest without lapsing into sentimentality or melodrama. The title story, ‘Wild Quiet’, features a Somali child who’s moved with her parents to a small Donegal village, having passed through a refugee camp in Dadaab where her sister, Aniya, was lost, and where the officials refused to help find her. Again, despite the difficult subject matter and the main character’s trauma (she refuses to speak), O’Donnell delivers a captivating and compassionate read that captures the bitchy social intricacies of twelve year-old girls as well as it does the bewildered confusion of the displaced, mourning child. ‘How to Learn Irish in Seventeen Steps’ is the story of a Brazilian primary school teacher who stayed in Ireland after falling for a local; her account of her frustrated, frustrating attempts to learn Irish (a requirement of her job) also details the breakdown of her relationship and her exasperation with both her adopted country and her homeland – despite the list format (which can feel about as tired an ‘innovation’ as they come), the story is poignant and the language is great, as O’Donnell explore the conjunction of cultural dislocation and heartbreak.
Not all the stories are as successful – I wasn’t convinced by the magical realism, or paranormal activity, perhaps, in ‘Ebenezer’s Memories’ (though this one, the opener, does set the tone of the book in terms of a debate about nationality, guilt, and memory), ‘Kamikaze Love’ and ‘Titanium Heart’. ‘When Time Stretches’ felt a little overblown – the tone too dramatic, the denouement not quite in proportion to the build-up – and ‘Infinite Landscapes’, though it features an excellent cast of strong women giving the finger to tradition and Irish society’s expectations, felt too rushed, too much of a summary of a life that could have been fleshed out over many more pages instead.
Any Cop?: It’s worth it just for its sketching out of Irish society’s newly expanded demographics; it’s far from John Banville this lot were raised. Keep an eye on O’Donnell.