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In praise of Mary Lavin, by Belinda McKeon

Celebrating Irish women writers: ‘She depicted with immense power the inner lives of women’

Mary Lavin: her stories evoke situations with sympathy and candour, and often with a frank and delicious comedy. Photograph: Paddy Whelan

In 1938, Mary Lavin was writing a PhD thesis on Virginia Woolf. Then, all of a sudden, she was not. One day, after bumping into a woman who actually knew Woolf, Lavin decided that she did not want to waste her time writing about writers anymore; she wanted to write. She took her thesis manuscript, and on the reverse side, she wrote her first short story, Miss Holland. It was published by the Dublin Magazine. Lavin went on to write 13 books of stories and two novels. For almost 20 years, she published stories in the New Yorker. For her centenary in 2012, two of her collections, Tales From Bective Bridge (1942) and Happiness (1969), were reissued, but the rest of her work remains out of print, which is a great pity, because her stories are wonderful. They are darkly knowing on the stuff of human interaction, on its awkwardness and daftness and vulnerability; stories like The Shrine or In a Café are perfect emotional minefields in which sharply-drawn characters come up against one another, all nerves. Herself a mother (her youngest daughter, Caroline, would become the literary editor of this paper), and widowed young, she depicted with immense power the inner lives of women, women who had no reason to be anything other than honest with themselves about the realities of their situations. Her stories evoke those situations with sympathy and candour and with, in many cases, a frank and delicious comedy. She threw a lot of literary parties in her mews off Baggot Street, in the 1960s; those are still spoken of. But what ought to be much more spoken of is her genius. Because it was glinting and real. 

Other favourites Elizabeth Bowen and Anne Enright.

Belinda McKeon is the author of Solace (2012) and Tender, to be published in June