Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s heart-tugging, hilarious and masterful stories
Selected Stories displays Ní Dhuibhne’s gift at interweaving old and new
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne is a master at the story within the story. Photograph: Máire Uí Mhaicín / Foras na Gaeilge
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne
Dalkey Archive Press
The narrator of Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s Illumination is on a writers’ retreat in California. Walking in the local redwood forest, she comes upon an old gate covered with Spanish moss and follows the path. She soon finds a beautiful white house in a clearing and is invited inside by its charming family. This is an old trope but one of Ní Dhuibhne’s many gifts is her ability to make the old stories new and fresh.
Midwife to the Fairies was my first experience of the Ní Dhuibhne magic, an Irish folk tale is woven ingeniously into an 1980s story of possible incest and child murder. This delicious interweaving of old and new continued throughout her groundbreaking The Inland Ice and the story Summer Pudding included here is from that earlier collection.
The narrator of Illumination wonders: “if it was possible to make new fiction, by which I meant find a new template, a new mould…Postmodernism…Had failed because a fractured narrative is not enjoyable – it just doesn’t work. But what is the point of using the pre-modern template?... Traditionally stories were about the conflict between the desire of individuals and the rules of society…But…Nobody is forced to marry for money or to please their parents. There are taboos, but not so many, and there must be a limit to the number of explorations of paedophilia or psychopathic crime that the world can endure. So one is forced to write only what has been written, in a slightly different way, a million times already.”
This calls to mind Laurence Sterne – so beloved of the postmodernists – speaking of the same dilemma three centuries ago: “Shall we forever make new books, as apothecaries make new mixtures, by pouring only out of one vessel into another?”
Like Sterne, Ní Dhuibhne is funny but much quieter; she steals up on you. Her relaxed lengthy stories are reminiscent of Alice Munro, spinning long threads that join up in a gratifying way. The Flowering about a 19th century Donegal lacemaker, who goes mad when she has to go into service and give up her “flowering”, asks many artful questions. Convincing historical settings are difficult but somehow – maybe because of her long apprenticeship as archivist – Ní Dhuibhne makes them real or perhaps true is the better word. She is a natural tale teller, a virtuoso. In The Pale Gold of Alaska set during the gold rush, another Donegal woman goes mad yet the tragedy is balanced against a fine sinewy wryness.
The funniest stories in the book, Literary Lunch and City of Literature, feature two consecutive arts council meetings, the first one set during the reign of the Celtic Tiger, the second in the aftermath. These are hilarious eye-openers and warnings for anyone contemplating the literary life. The fine details like toothpicks, skewer the vagaries of power, greed and sexual relations as the women miss out on starters, waiting to see what the dominant men are ordering.
Writers haunt these pages, such as Chekhov (whose Lady with the Dog is reflected in The Woman with the Fish), Alice Munro, James Joyce and more. The narrator of Illumination, reading a slew of biographies – Karen Blixen, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton etc – asks “if any ordinary sane person, lacking any stunning eccentricity could be a writer at all?”
A snippet synopsis of Mary Lavin’s A Likely Story is skilfully placed in The Banana Boat where for a short period, the narrator fears she has lost her child to the sea. Ní Dhuibhne is a master at the story within the story: The Banana Boat is set against a beautifully rendered Kerry landscape, seamlessly weaving in local writers like Peig Sayers, Tomás Ó Criomhthain so that Irish and English language stories are part of the same complex tapestry.
Ní Dhuibhne’s sense of place is strong – whether it’s the Dingle peninsula or a 1970s American temperance camp – she takes you there but the mother lode is Donegal. Her breakthrough story Blood and Water nails the universal sticky shame and fascination which the young feel for their family roots.
I’d read almost all of these stories before, most recently her heart-tugging story of widowhood The Coast of Wales, yet each story was an exciting renewal for me, like the narrator of Blood and Water who is refreshed by the “crystal clarity” of Lough Swilly which could be a metaphor for Ní Dhuibhne’s writing:
“It was greenish… Or … a brilliant turquoise colour…a great jewel, set in the hills. But when you were in that water, bathing, it was as clear as glass.”
Martina Evans is a poet and novelist. Her latest book The Windows of Graceland: New and Selected Poems is published by Carcanet