Surge: New Writing from Ireland - Shards of glass and solid bricks in a winning collection

New writers hold their own against more established names in this enjoyable short story collection

Thought-provoking: Frank McGuinness. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

Thought-provoking: Frank McGuinness. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

Mon, Dec 22, 2014, 13:48


Book Title:
Surge: New Writing from Ireland


Sarah Gilmartin


Guideline Price:

‘In every successful short story you can find, among delicate shards of glass, that solid brick, threatening, wonderful, ready to propel itself, if necessary, into one’s imagination.” Frank McGuinness’s introduction to Surge: New Writing From Ireland sets the bar for the 16 stories that follow.

There is plenty of both solid stuff and delicate shards in this new anthology of short fiction by the O’Brien Press. A high standard is achieved throughout the engaging collection, comprised of stories from the various creative writing programmes in UCC, UCD, Trinity, NUI Galway and Queens. Ten stories by emerging writers are mixed with six others from their established mentors at the different universities.

Launched at the 2014 Dublin Book Festival, the anthology coincides with the O’Brien Press’s 40th anniversary and the centenary of the birth of its co-founder, Thomas O’Brien. The title, Surge, recalls the literary magazine published by his New Theatre Group. It is a word that reappears throughout the collection; sometimes literally, elsewhere by theme.

The order of the stories is neither alphabetical nor by university but left, according to Michael O’Brien’s introduction, for the reader to puzzle over themselves. Themes of aging, death, old wounds and new beginnings link the stories, from sons who refuse to lay their mother to rest, to a daughter seeking vengeance on an abusive father, to the voices of dead relations in Moscow’s Red Square.

Dead voices often control the living, as in Ruth Quinlan’s absorbing story Charcoal and Lemongrass, which sees its protagonist bound to Vietnam in memory of a local girl he knew for an instant. Such notions of duty do not bother characters in other stories however. Shay, the feckless narrator of Mary Morrissy’s entertaining Undocumented, comes back to Ireland to escape from his pregnant girlfriend in New York, desperate for “a life without consequences”.

Another hapless girlfriend is the focus of Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s excellent Goldfinch in the Snow, the shocking turn of events recalling McGuinness’s analogy as a twist in the tale wallops the reader. Darina’s outfit and high hopes for New Year’s Eve are a reminder of the chasm between expectation and reality.

In Paprika, McGuinness relays the pompous voice of an opera tenor who veers between grandiosity and despair. The shards of childhood pierce the narrative in an unusual and thought-provoking form. These early lessons maketh the man and his fatalistic, bleak outlook: “For now all the city does is remind me that dreams are my duty, wishes are my work, and my art is hard slog until my voice breaks again into the crackle of old age and I am forgotten.”

Violence is commonplace in these stories, from old war crimes that haunt in Claire Simpson’s intriguing No One Knows Us Here, to drone technology that keeps the destruction at a remove in Darran McCann’s Cleanliness is Next to Godliness.

Domestic worlds are also full of violence and pain. A daughter threatens the relationship between mother and son; a woman weeps in the dark for her loss, comforted by her husband’s music; people from all over the country come to a seaside village looking to be healed. Yehudit by Paula McGrath achieves much in a short space, painting a devastating picture of loss through two generations of mothers who find in music the solace they could not find in life.

Despite its dark subject of suicide, Colin Corrigan’s The Letter brings welcome humour to a sombre collection. Choosing the right font for his farewell missive is chief among the problems of the disenchanted narrator. The gulf of understanding between the self-involved James and his worried mother is at the heart of the story, their chances for connection poignantly missed.

Gina Moxley’s The Late Bite is a vivid rendering of an aging widower facing death: “His pills were laid out like septuplets, in separate baby-pink cots.” As his adult children fret around him, “untrammelled already by grief”, Mr Holmes buys a calendar to mark off the days. An unexpected visitor leaves the reader wondering about motivations, wanting to know more.

The Gravedigger by Helena Kilty intrigues from the beginning, its female narrator similarly untrammelled by a road accident. Her story shows, in a literal way, the lengths people will go to, to bury their pain: “I have been wearing guilt and shame like a second skin . . . I can’t keep living like this. This is not life.”

It is testament to the standard of the collection, and good news for writing in Ireland, that the emerging authors hold their own against the more established voices. For readers who aren’t familiar with these names, there is a biographical section at the end. And for those who are in the know, there is still plenty to pull apart, piece together and enjoy.