“Not an unqualified success” – The Dogs of Inishere by Alannah Hopkin

tgoiThe Dogs of Inishere is Hopkin’s first short story collection, though she’s also published two novels, and is probably most well-known, particularly to Irish readers, from her work as a travel writer and a book reviewer; these stories have been collected from across her career, with some dating back to the early 1980s. It’s a succinct complication, at 139 pages, and as well as evoking a vivid sense of isolated and sequestered lives across Ireland and the UK, it suggests too a writer who’s able to cross the fiction/journalistic divide with relative ease.

The Inishere of the title is the smallest of Ireland’s Aran Islands, off the country’s west coast (next stop, Ellis Island), and the setting for the title story, an account of a photographer’s holiday during which very little happens: Katy befriends a ‘solemn-looking bearded man’, Michael, a returning islander, and the two strike up a quiet friendship, exploring Inishere together. The story’s lack of events throws into sharp relief the few details Katy notes: the restaurant serving packet soup; the locals refusing to help a tourist with ferry times; the titular dogs, half-breeds wandering loose and copulating in a field. Hopkin sketches out a way of life that’s companionable, yet fearful; close-knit, yet slightly sinister, welcoming only if you’ve got the right contacts, and this is a theme that’s notable throughout the collection: ‘Strangers’, another island story, featuring another photographer, reveals a child living with a grandfather that, turns out not to have been her grandfather, but her abductor, a situation that’s gone unquestioned by the locals, three families and a ferryman, who’ve refused to engage with the ‘strangers’. In ‘Star Quality’, a young arts journalist is unwittingly tricked into what sounds suspiciously like slavery by a charismatic old movie star.

Hopkin has a knack for overturning the reader’s expectations: in ‘New Girl’, Deirdre’s miserable experiences in a convent boarding school teach her that ‘deviousness’ is the best way forward; she doesn’t tack on a moral or an epiphany about lessons learnt – there’s a canny realism at play here, even in a story that isn’t otherwise cutting new ground. In ‘Ripe’, first published in 1983, the narrator’s semi-pilgrimage to Malcolm Lowry’s grave makes her resolve to leave Soho, a decision that’s related clearly and without drama, again avoiding the cryptic endings more typical of the modern short story; the effect is unexpectedly startling. In contrast, the final story, ‘You Can’t Call It That’, plays with the idea of fiction and truth in a homage-slash-critique of BS Johnson that sets up a situation (a relationship) in order to dismantle and rejig it in a meta-fictional mélange that’s harsh on the idea of experimentalism, but entertaining all the same.

At times, the book seems to draw too heavily upon Hopkin’s pedigree as a travel writer, as local colour dominates over plot: ‘An Explanation of the Tides’, structured around bar chat in a pub about locals having an affair, felt like a comical snippet stretched out too far, and ‘Coo’, was likewise a character sketch (of a capital C Character) that outlived its credibility. And ‘A Shooting Incident in County Tipperary’ is a powerful look at a marriage turned sour that’s over-complicated by its proleptic structure.

Any Cop?: Not an unqualified success, but an interesting read. Note: we’ve not read Hopkin’s earlier novels, so if you have, let us know what you thought.

 

Valerie O’Riordan

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