The Long Gaze Back review: a feast of female voices
This anthology of Irish women writers is a fine harvest – a comprehensive, celebratory volume, writes Martina Evans
Maeve Brennan: one of 30 Irish women writers to be featured in Sinéad Gleeson’s anthology
The Long Gaze Back
edited by Sinéad Gleeson
New Island Books
Here is yet another short story anthology, following on the heels of several Irish collections this year, including Deirdre Madden’s excellent All Over Ireland and Young Irelanders, which is also from New Island Books.
As a longtime short story fan, I could hardly believe at first that they were making a comeback. I feared that the claims might be similar to the extravagant announcements sometimes made for poetry, which despite everything stays firmly in the margins. But it appears that the story famine is over and the feast has begun. And now the questions is: do we need yet another anthology?
The answer is an overwhelming yes, for three reasons. First of all, it hardly needs saying that women have not been fairly represented, and this needs redressing. Women need champions.
Sure, Mary Lavin was one of the boys when it came to putting together an anthology, but she hasn’t received anything like the acclaim due a writer of her stature. We desperately need a comprehensive collection of her stories; I’ve had to cobble mine from many sources. In the Middle of the Fields is one of her authentic widow stories, and only a widow could write this honestly about widowhood.
Lavin is the extraordinary beating heart at the centre of The Long Gaze Back. She goes fearlessly into the darkness and untidiness of our human lives, and skewers the sadness. Yet somehow we are uplifted. Her nearest heir is another fearless Mary – Costello. My Little Pyromaniac is my favourite title and story in the book. If short stories are, according to Frank O’Connor, all about loneliness, this is one of the loneliest.
Costello communicates perfectly our many failures to communicate, our human hopelessness. In spite of this or maybe because of it, her characters’ persistence and courage reach out of the pages and connect with the reader. Connection at this level is as painful as the loneliness, but the humour and courage and the beauty of her language make her stories bearable.
The second reason we need more anthologies is hidden in the title, taken from a Maeve Brennan novella. It is both fascinating and necessary for us to look back and see how far the women have come.
Sinéad Gleeson has arranged her personal canon (this hefty anthology) as a triptych. Early writers such as Maria Edgeworth (whose didactic The Purple Jar transcends its genre) and forgotten pioneers (Charlotte Riddell, Nora Hoult) sit “alongside the feted names of the last two decades and the next generation of new voices”.
Brennan, who herself languished for many years before being rediscovered, has a light touch but she hits very hard. The Eldest Child is a both a beautiful story and a grim reminder of times when a mother’s grief for her dead child was expected to be neither seen nor heard. Siobhan Mannion’s Somewhere to Be sets up a nice contemporary echo later on in the anthology.
Thirdly, there is a need for more platforms for the extraordinary number of fine female writers. An anthology is one main route to discovery, and it is vital that writers get more than one opportunity to shine. Sometimes it takes more than one story to really hear a voice, particularly a new one. Furthermore, new writers don’t have the advantage of older writers, whose stories have had the time to rise like cream. We don’t know which story or writer will survive the ravages of time.
And there are so many of them. It is impossible to mention all of the stories here. The feisty, fabulously angrily funny Lisa McInerny doesn’t disappoint; neither does deep dark Nuala Ní Chonchúir. Ní Chonchúir’s story overcomes my usual suspicion of historical settings – she “took me there” to paraphrase the title of Niamh Boyce’s strangled heart-breaker. Mannion’s story is one of the quieter ones, but its pitch-perfect pulse really stayed with me.
Moving on to the chronological jam in the triptych sandwich, it is a great pleasure to come across the likes of Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, Anne Devlin, Evelyn Conlon and Christine Dwyer Hickey, who have been writing their fine stories since it was “neither popular or profitable”. I hope they can ride the wave of the new popularity because they deserve to be feted.
Conlon is brilliantly subtle and funny; I highly recommend her own anthology of Irish women writers, Cutting the Night in Two (New Island Books 2001). Ní Dhuibhne is simply a master, and her The Coast of Wales a perfect lyrical evocation of grief. Devlin’s Winter Journey uses melancholic dream-like scenes shot, through here and there with surprising flashes of humour. Both stories feel very close to poetry.
Story writing is a formal art and highly selective. It allows space to gather around the words, fulfilling Ezra Pound’s definition of beauty, “a brief gasp between one cliché and another”. The best stories are like the best poems.
When Anne Enright talks about the story, she could be describing poetry. “There is something irreducible about it,” she says in her introduction to The Granta Book of Short Stories. “Form and surprise are the same thing, and the pleasures of inevitability are also the pleasures of shape.”
It is no surprise to find that poetic precision in Anne Enright’s own rueful stories. Three Short Stories About Love occurs near the midpoint of Sinead Gleeson’s triptych, and their poetic economy – to quote Kevin Barry on what a good story can do – takes all the air out of the room.
Without knowing all the good reasons anthologists presumably have for their omissions, I was surprised that Edna O’Brien wasn’t included here. It seemed to me that any one of the stories from her Saints and Sinners collection would have added another dimension, and particularly because her voice is so distinctive and stories are all about style.
Another missing distinctive voice is that of Claire Keegan, someone who appeared at the beginning of the new exciting wave of women writers, an important milestone. And I would have loved a story from the great and often overlooked Leland Bardwell.
Still, anthologies by their nature have to leave out as much they leave in. The Long Gaze Back is a substantial harvest, a seriously comprehensive and celebratory volume.
We know that subtle changes are happening all the time to form and technology. This is the first book I have ever read on a Kindle.
Was it because of the Kindle, or because we are reading more stories than ever, or simply because it was so good, that I managed to get totally lost in The Long Gaze Back?
Martina Evans is Royal Literary Fund Fellow for the Reading Round 2014-2016. Her latest collection, Burnfort Las Vegas, was shortlisted for the Irish Times Poetry Now Award 2015