‘Couldn’t be more relevant – nor, indeed, more brilliant’ – Orange Horses by Maeve Kelly

ohmkOrange Horses, originally published back in 1990, is the third in the Recovered Voices series from Irish publishers, Tramp Press (the folk who brought us Solar Bones). The idea here is that this series of reissued texts will re-engage us with forgotten writers whose work is ‘still valuable, relevant and brilliant’, and, well: in a global political environment where the rights of women are being shot down faster than we can say ‘F*ck Trump’, and a domestic one where the state still has the final word on women’s bodies, their duties and their innards), Kelly’s work couldn’t be more relevant – nor, indeed, more brilliant.

Kelly’s collection comprises twenty short stories on subjects ranging from domestic and paramilitary violence to TB culls and artistic love affairs; it features nurses, farmers, philosophers and ex-nuns, and settings that range from Ireland’s west coast across to its east, and over to London’s hospitals and student digs. There’s nothing repetitive about the pieces – in fact, to find a collection this long wherein each story is equally as compelling as the last is pretty unusual – but certain concerns did ring out again and again: most particularly and powerfully, that of the rights, or lack thereof, of women to control their own bodies, to determine their own lives. And this becomes enmeshed in the shared histories and bitterness of families, so that in ‘Journey Home’, Maura, whose life has been devoted to the family farm, gets locked into a galling battle of wills with the absentee brother to whom it’s soon to pass, and, in ‘The False God’, Tom returns from America to inadvertently face the sisters whose lives were made forfeit to make sure he got his dues. In ‘The Sentimentalist’, two cousins find themselves marginalized by the world at large – one by (male) academia, one by (male) politics and activism, and in ‘The Vain Woman’, the main character finds her restrictive suburban life blown open in a burst of creativity and excitement when she first befriends, and then takes as a lover, a neighbour artist – but, once discovered, in a pre-divorce Ireland, she must return to a husband who’s quick to denounce, but also to trap her.

It’s not all misery – or, at least, it mostly is, but it’s excellent misery, and realistic misery besides, and anyway, to pretend that women’s lives weren’t and aren’t constrained and derailed like this, and to ignore it and to carry on writing and reading about Other Stuff as if this repression and experience isn’t as significant as all the wars and adventures and so-called public life you care to mention is exactly what’s wrong with the whole lopsided nature of the so-called canon in the first place, and it’s why Kelly’s name isn’t as well-known as the McGaherns and the Banvilles and their international equivalents, and it’s why we need to be Recovering the Voices in the first place. But, nonetheless, it isn’t all misery: there are moments of joy and gentleness and beauty all over the place here, from a soaring love of the land (‘Amnesty’, ‘Day at the Sea’) to the steely bonds between parents and children (‘Love’, ‘The Fortress’) and the sustaining affections within those marriages that do work (‘Lovers’, ‘The Last Campaign’) and between siblings (‘Pilgrim’s Tale’). Kelly’s prose is savage in its dissection of society, not least when it comes to the role of the Church and the family in women’s lives, but it’s funny too, from the stinging wit of the Irish TB patient sparring with her pompous English boyfriend in ‘Anglo-Irish Relations’ (‘The British, I decided, with pleasant prejudice, are a very huffy nation’) to the coarse, wry lyricism of the student nurse in ‘The Morning at my Window’. She’s daring, too: see the Flannery O’Connor-esque ending to ‘Cause and Effect’ (sorry: no spoilers…) or her use of the supernatural in ‘Ruth’ – not as the story’s focal point, but merely as one detail in a longer exploration of family bonds and relations. And Kelly, though she’s clearly in the business of unveiling injustices and unspoken unhappiness, isn’t a didactic writer: she deals in subtleties and ambiguities, which means her stories have an echoing, lingering effect, and that’s perhaps never more clearly on show than in the title story – in which Elsie Martin, a traveller woman, beaten over and over by her husband, struggles in her relationship with her daughter. Their fates aren’t spelled out for us, and it’s in moments like the ending of ‘Orange Horses’ that we can see Kelly as a writer who deals in hope as much as one who doles out uncomfortable truths.

Any Cop?: I’ll be hunting down as many of her other books as I can; meanwhile you need to get your paws on this one.

 

Valerie O’Riordan

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