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Show Your Work: Essays from the Dublin Review — thoughtful, varied and compelling

Book review: Impressive anthology features Anne Enright, Sally Rooney and many more

Show Your Work: Essays from the Dublin Review
Author: Brendan Barrington (ed.)
ISBN-13: 978-1919626734
Publisher: Dublin Review
Guideline Price: €20

Brendan Barrington founded The Dublin Review, a quarterly journal, in 2000 and has edited it since. In Show Your Work, the publication’s second anthology of nonfiction after 2007′s Dublin Review Reader, he has curated a fine and impressively varied selection of its greatest hits from the past 15 years.

Memoir sits comfortably along reportage; the focus flits between the contemporary moment and pasts both recent and distant. A number of the essays explore personal, psychological themes — anxiety, hypochondria, psychosis, bulimia and gym addiction. Mark O’Connell speculates that his terror of moths could be “a mobile metaphor ... for some deeper nexus of dread, which is fixed and immovable and too large to be properly seen”. Looking back on her time as a champion debater, Sally Rooney believes the competitive debating structure created a “fantasy of invulnerability, of total control ... All the pleasure of conflict without ever really showing my hand”.

Other pieces touch on socioeconomic questions. Susan McKay’s investigation into the high suicide rate in north Belfast’s Ardoyne district is particularly powerful. McKay interviews the relatives of several people who took their own lives after being subjected to brutal beatings by sectarian gangs, and speaks to charity workers about the underlying causes of the mental health crisis. The picture that emerges is one of entrenched poverty exacerbated by welfare cuts, an oppressive built environment — cramped housing, few green spaces — and the ever-present threat of violence: one young man tells her it’s “like America, all turf wars and ghettos”.

Molly McCloskey’s somewhat melancholic meditation on the excesses of the Celtic Tiger era features a telling vignette about a friend whose bank manager encouraged her to buy a house in France despite knowing she didn’t have funds: “You must have built up huge equity in your own house,’ he tells her. ‘Release some of that equity. Treat yourself.’”

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On the literary front, Kevin Barry bemoans the crippling of his attention span by excessive internet use. He tries to read Flaubert’s Madame Bovary but ends up flinging it across the room in frustration: “It just wouldn’t move in the way I expect a narrative to move now.” Anne Enright wonders why there are relatively few accounts of labour and birth in Irish literature, concluding that it has something to do with the limitations of the novel form itself: “Babies ... have very little moral agency. Actually, let’s face it, mothers make poor characters in novels: they have limited choices, there is always something on their mind other than the plot.”

Revisiting his formative encounters with the work of French theorist Roland Barthes, Brian Dillon recalls that “it was not so much the thought that seduced me ... as Barthes’s style ... the hedging of parentheses, the sidelong views calmly opened and closed by em-dashes, the colons like stiles that invite one to clamber on over the thought, sometimes two or three in the same sentence”. It takes all sorts, I suppose.

Kevin Breathnach immortalises a pretentious pal who, embarking on a city break to Paris, incurred a baggage surcharge at Dublin Airport because he had packed 2.5kg worth of untranslated Michel Foucault essays

There is also plenty of levity. Rob Doyle recounts how he accidentally ended up doing a voiceover for a Hyundai commercial (“my greatest, my most perverse work to date”). Glenn Patterson pays tribute to the unprepossessing architecture of Belfast’s Central Station, which he rather charmingly likens to “the hug two men meeting perform who aren’t entirely sure that hugging is what two men meeting are supposed to do”. Kevin Breathnach immortalises a pretentious pal who, embarking on a city break to Paris, incurred a baggage surcharge at Dublin Airport because he had packed 2.5kg worth of untranslated Michel Foucault essays for the trip. Patrick Freyne relates a delightful anecdote about how he “became fourth-toughest boy in fifth class at Athgarvan National School by allowing myself to be repeatedly punched in the face by John Leahy (second-toughest) until, frustrated by the fact he couldn’t make me cry, he burst into tears himself”.

In one of the collection’s most intriguing essays, Selina Guinness recalls her brief encounter with Eduardo Rósza-Flores, a Bolivian-Hungarian-Croatian mercenary who was later implicated in a plot to assassinate the president of Bolivia. Guinness traces the links between Transylvanian far-rightists and nefarious businessmen who want Bolivia’s wealthy Santa Cruz region to secede from the central state. Elsewhere, Doireann Ní Ghríofa tells of how her great-grandfather, a member the Irish Volunteers, disguised himself as a woman to evade the clutches of Black and Tans who descended on his church during Mass. The priest lengthened the prayers to buy him time; the women chosen to escort him to safety were selected on the basis of height. Ní Ghríofa imagines the scene: “Down the aisle they all went, out the door, past the soldiers. Eyes lowered. Jaws tight. No flinching.”

There is very little filler here: the material is consistently thoughtful, consistently compelling. Here’s to another 22 years.