Body and soul laid bare


SHORT STORIES: Nude By Nuala Ní Chonchúir Salt Publishing, 144pp, £8.99

EROTIC, YES, BUT also deceptive, funny, anticlimactic. Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s new collection of stories revolves around the theme of the unclothed body. Here is the nude not only as depicted in art but also in other contexts where there is an observer prepared to frame a subject with love, obsession or delusion.

From India to Paris to a Dublin drapery, we are led through a succession of unpredictable encounters where temptation is thwarted as much as rewarded. In Mrs Morison of Haddothe pregnant subject of the portrait feels intoxicated by a teasing authority, and is moved to make a pass at the painter her husband is paying. One of the most striking stories, Unmothered, depicts in stark language a mother’s grief for her dead, severely disabled young child, and we see how her posing nude for her artist husband is an ironic counterpoint to the emotional gulf that separates them.

Another highlight of the collection is Night Fishing, where the chosen theme is taken to a compelling, chilling conclusion.

In common with Grace Paley, the great New York writer, Ní Chonchúir offers intriguing inter-story connections. The artist Magda Bolding appears in the opening story, Madonna Irlanda, where she has to overcome her prudery to pose nude for her portrait, and later, when she has found fame as a painter herself (in Jackson and Jerusalem). She passes on the sense of empowerment she gained from her modelling to the alienated young man who comes to model nude for her: “She’s the kind of auld bird who makes you feel like the most special person in the world.”

The subject of a Boucher painting, Louisa O’Murphy, mentioned in Madonna Irlanda, is given her own platform to relate her history of discovery and abandonment by Louis XV in Mademoiselle O’Murphy.

The stories are composed of agile narrative voices, lively dialogue and the occasional lyric lift. In spite of their brevity, there is a confident, suggestive power that lingers through every ellipse.

Cowboy and Nellydwells on the lusty intimacy of two misfits but turns casually into the arena of surrogate pregnancy without breaking its stride.

Here Ní Chonchúir’s fascination with naming is exhibited, as Cowboy and Nelly have their chosen nicknames tattooed on each other’s skin. This is in homage to their feeling that only in each other’s company can they find acknowledgment for who they really are in an otherwise chokingly conformist world.

In Amazing Grace, where a young girl in a small rural community feels stirrings of erotic desire for an older, unconventional woman, there is a similar affirmative weight in the exchange of “name histories”.

Ní Chonchúir is a prolific writer: this is her third collection of short stories since The Wind Across the Grassappeared, in 2004, and she has written two collections of poetry. But Nude, with its thematic discipline, is a memorable achievement.

As with Brendan Kennelly’s ground-breaking collection of poetry, Cromwell, it is satisfying to sit down with a book that sets itself an explorative, self-questioning agenda, full of witty voices rendering adventures both savage and absurd.

Katie Donovan is a poet. She teaches creative writing at Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology