Living in the shadows

 

SHORT STORIES: The Shelter of NeighboursBy Éilís Ní Dhuibhne The Blackstaff Press, 265pp. £12.99

IN THE OPENING story of Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s new collection, a man attempts, with Godotesque farce and distraction, to escape to the country to write. His troubled son, a sick cat and his wife’s spinal issues all thwart the would-be writer, who hears a story on the radio about a seanchaí of old. In it, a man who knows no stories with which to entertain his neighbours is looked down on. It’s not until he is transported away by fairies that he finds a narrative, born of his experience. It reflects Ní Dhuibhne’s penchant for imbuing a folkloric tradition with modern relevance and showing how a life is a mass of threaded chronicles. Within this tale, hidden amid the dark humour and sentences that unfurl fluidly, is the narrator’s real concern – for his son Mattie, “whose blue eyes had darkened since childhood . . . they didn’t sparkle anymore”.

This story also introduces a recurring figure in the book: the writer. In Illumination, an Irish author attending a creative retreat in the US meets a mysterious family who live in the woods. She is repelled and attracted by their sub-Freudian bond, their ease with their isolation – the ultimate pursuit of the writer. Ní Dhuibhne uses this character as a mouthpiece for an intriguing discussion on new fictional forms. “What subject can the new novel deal with? One is left to write only what has been written – in a slightly different way – a million times already.”

But though Ní Dhuibhne acknowledges that fiction’s thematic furrows have been well trampled, she explores them with flair and not a scrap of sentimentality.

The stereotype of a writer’s life – a delicate equipoise of self-regard and necessary solitude – is humorously expanded in A Literary Lunch. In satirising funding decisions and bursary awards – and referencing esteemed book critics from this newspaper – Francie, a writer, embraces failure and turns his vengeance on those who don’t support him. His anger trumps every emotion that percolates in these subtle but effective stories.

The collection is set in the fictional south Co Dublin estate of Dunroon Crescent, and disconnection and rejection are its backbone. The ensemble cast of neighbours are as geographically proximate as they are emotionally distant. They drift in and out of overlapping stories, in a manner reminiscent of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, a story collection about a town that focuses on the loneliness of its inhabitants. Ní Dhuibhne examines the ennui of suburban life, which represents an unavoidable reality. Love, creativity and sex offer solace from duty and loneliness, and though the female characters in the main bear these burdens, they resist total passivity. Better yet, they survive, unlike numerous male characters who die young – by drowning, of leukaemia, in a motorbike accident – crystallised in amber, like heroes in a folk tale.

While several stories comment on an Ireland of the past, of overly familiar priests and no contraception, there are striking footnotes about the country’s recent metamorphosis. Social and economic markers, from the presence of Ikea to an obsession with the price of petrol, are often larded with elements of fable.

In the fairy reverie of The Man With No Story the main character becomes “a millionaire surgeon in the Blackrock Clinic”. In The Yeats, “the country, which had been so rich, descended into poverty, like a hiker who had been striding blithely along, stumbling without warning into an ancient well”.

The Celtic past – the historical, authentic one untainted by present-day pastiche – reverberates, as it frequently does in Ní Dhuibhne’s work: the book’s title is rooted in the Irish proverb “Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine”.

Ní Dhuibhne’s skill at writing in Irish, as much as in English, is mirrored by the fact that she is as comfortable with the shorter form as the novel. This is most evident in the book’s strongest piece, Bikes I Have Lost. Bordering on a novella (and of a similar length to Joyce’s The Dead), it telescopes a novel’s worth of experience into one story.

Helen, the protagonist, takes us through her life in bicycles – from the one that represented her mother’s premarriage freedom to the one that kills the love of her life. It’s a tremendous piece of writing that, when opened, contains, like an inverted Russian doll, something much bigger.

Recurring motifs tend occasionally towards repetition, but this is a minor fault when compared with Ní Dhuibhne’s skill at imbuing small moments and chance encounters with an anchor’s worth of weight. Richard Ford says that short stories are daring little instruments, and in this writer’s hands they shock and jolt with recognition.


Sinéad Gleeson is a broadcaster and arts journalist