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Old Romantics by Maggie Armstrong: An audacious debut collection with a personality all its own

A dozen short stories are linked by a protagonist called Margaret, who is hapless, often bewildered, at times mean. You will love her

Old Romantics
Old Romantics
Author: Maggie Armstrong
ISBN-13: 9781915290137
Publisher: Tramp Press
Guideline Price: £13.99

Anyone who has half an eye on literary up-and-comers in Ireland ought to have heard of Maggie Armstrong. A former journalist and critic, she has, over the past number of years, maintained a steady output of excellent short stories and essays, in the likes of the Dublin Review, the Stinging Fly, Banshee and elsewhere. Now (at last) Tramp Press has published her debut collection, Old Romantics, a suite of 12 linked short stories, some in first person, some in third person, all centred on a character called Margaret.

The first thing to say is that we love Margaret. She is hapless, often bewildered, at times kind of mean. As the story Baked Alaska puts it, “She had no self-control, she broke all her promises, she was weak, gormless.” What more could one ask for in a protagonist?

We follow her through a series of doomed romances. In the opening story, Number One, she loses her virginity to an absent-minded and self-centred count, who never seems to have any money. By the final story, Trouble Again, she is pregnant with her second child and seeing a mediator with her husband. In between, she tries to orchestrate a marriage to her new housemate, who is indifferent towards her (The Dublin Marriage), has a liaison with a man suffering with mental illness (All the Boys), travels to the United States with a reckless and intolerable paramour (Old Romantics), takes up with the guitarist of a “kind of Celtic rock band” (Sparkle), falls for a married man (Trouble), has an affair with a car salesman (also Trouble), and generally spends large amounts of time stupefied by love.

The individual relationships are not as important as romance itself. Margaret loves to love. “It had not occurred to her, even watching him snarl and shout ... to ever be other than in love,” we are told, in Trouble. She is always on the precipice between great joy and great disaster (as in any good romance). Happiness is an unstable state. Margaret, variously, feels “unbearable happiness”, “dangerous happiness”, or is “weak with happiness”. A contented life is there for the taking, yet, her fatal flaw: “I wanted so much more than what was best for me”. So, there is drama, there is tension, there is adventure.


Like any good Romantic, Margaret is wont to turn her life into story. She is a writer. She returns again and again, as if involuntarily, to desks and rented office spaces to tap away. In The Dublin Marriage, her housemate “never missed a day of work, but I missed a lifetime, going back to write my little stories between sheets that needed putting in the wash”. She is by turns a restaurant columnist, a writer for a vanity press, and someone who writes fashion notes and profiles of commercial theatre stars. She tries to fails to publish short stories. Her work makes “no impact on the world, only [keeps] Margaret indoors, revisiting the past”. And yet, if we are to indulge the fantasy that Margaret and author, Maggie, are the same person (they are not, but the proximity of their names seems to playfully push us in this direction), we can delight in believing we are reading the fruits of that failure. How can someone so seemingly incompetent produce something so marvellous, we wonder.

Alongside Margaret’s writing life is a sort of shadow corporate life. In the opening story, Number One, she is a young recruit in a law firm, confident she will one day start her own practice. She has great potential – “she [is] very bright, well cut out for it”, aunts and friends say – a fact that feels strangely hazardous the further we read. In My Mistake, she is “nepotised” into the “fold” of a “big branch of a big consultancy firm”. She wants to “rise to its demands and excel”, but by the end she has dreadfully, hilariously, poignantly failed. Only in the story My Success does she flourish in the workplace, and only in the most quaint way. Her father gets her a job in the catering department of a firm in the financial district, and she succeeds in providing a meal for one of the clients. The story is a delightful example of Armstrong’s ability to turn something seemingly innocuous into something resonant.

Armstrong is an audacious writer, yet controlled. Her comic instincts are sharp (after the shock of childbirth, for example, Margaret sits down and writes a letter of complaint to her Empowering Birth facilitator). As for the prose, you could bathe in it. The details, the clever turns of phrase. A ticking clock is “strict, censorious, like a clacking tongue”. A heart bangs “like a broken toy”. The style will call to mind the likes of Nicole Flattery, or the early stories of Anne Enright, but Old Romantics has a personality of its own. No doubt readers will be smitten by its charms.

Niamh Donnelly

Niamh Donnelly, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and critic