Wild Quiet by Roisín O’Donnell review: global Irish village voices
A modern, multiracial Ireland forms the backdrop of an ambitious debut collection
Roisín O’Donnell. Photograph: Daithi Taylor
‘Ireland was just something that happened on the TV in between construction of the Millennium Dome, the investigation into the death of Princess Diana, and ads for Cornflakes and baked beans” is how an English teenager thinks about her ancestral home, her parents having emigrated from the Troubles on account of their mixed marriage.
Visiting her grandfather in Derry, Cathy uncovers the secrets of her father’s death in a surreal opening story that deals with recollection. Ebenezer’s Memories evokes an older Ireland – the Troubles; grandmothers who make fresh soda bread; sleepy technology-free homes where the “arthritic brass pendulum of the fireplace clock wheezed the half hour”.
It is an intriguing choice of opener for Roisín O’Donnell’s ambitious debut collection, and the remaining 11 stories deal with a very different Ireland: immigrant voices, far-flung cultures, foreign landscapes. The results don’t always convince, but O’Donnell’s inventive plots and characters herald an emerging writer with promise.
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Wild Quiet’s blend of the real and the fantastic invites comparison to Northern Irish writer Jan Carson’s recent collection, Children’s Children, though O’Donnell lacks her comic touch. There are glints of humour here, but its stories are more often underlined with tragedy – lost babies, dead siblings, suicidal lovers.
In Titanium Heart, personal loss leads to wider civil unrest in a convincingly other-worldly Sheffield. In Kamikaze Love, Irishman Oisín is literally haunted by the ghost of his Japanese ex-girlfriend. Moving to Seville in Under the Jasmine Tree, an Irishman finally meets his birth mother in Spain. Infinite Landscapes sees an Irish-born granddaughter narrate the story of her Nigerian grandmother, Abeyomi.
The narrator’s voice creates distance from the stories of Abeyomi and her spirit daughter, Simidele O’Doherty, sounding authorial in parts when she reimagines entire conversations. Nigerian folklore – Simi is an abiku because of Abeyomi’s previous miscarriages – elevates the story, as does the spotlight that O’Donnell places on foreign cultures elsewhere.
In Kamikaze we learn of Japanese dating culture. Under the Jasmine Tree is a fascinating look at Franco’s Spain and how babies were stolen from mothers. When the Time Stretches sees an Irish man return to his childhood in Bali to revisit a tragedy that ended a friendship and a marriage.
O’Donnell brings readers on a global journey. She is a knowledgeable writer on various cultures, her research feeding a vivid imagination. She was born in Sheffield, with roots in Derry, and her stories have been anthologised in The Long Gaze Back, Fugue, Young Irelanders and Unthology. She has been shortlisted for several international prizes, including the Cúirt New Writing Prize, the Pushcart Prize, the Forward Prize and the Brighton Prize.
One of the strongest stories in the collection is On Cosmology, shortlisted for this year’s Hennessy Literary Awards. An Irish science student is possibly pregnant after hooking up with an obnoxious American at an exhibition at the Dublin Science Gallery, “sipping free Aldi chardonnay in the echoing glass-walled lobby”. Dublin is vividly rendered in the lovely details, with the woman’s voice believable and contemporary as she makes her fateful decision: “The evening had a thunderstorm inevitability about it”.
The immigrant plight is poignantly shown in How to Learn Irish in Seventeen Languages through the eyes of another young woman adrift. Luana, a Brazilian, marries an Irishman and undergoes a gruelling, Kafkaesque process to learn Irish in order to work as a primary teacher.
The second-person voice occasionally distracts from Luana’s predicament by the shifting tense, but the observations on immigrant life are spot on: “Gabriela studied linguistics in Rio de Janiero, but in Dublin she shovels French fries into cardboard boxes for the minimum wage”. Connemara, meanwhile, becomes “the hostile glare of this grey-green land in which you will forever be a foreigner”.
Elsewhere, the wry voice of a Nigerian immigrant schoolboy in How to Be a Billionaire doesn’t quite convince: “To be honest, I’m not totally sure what GovMent does, but I know it’s some old guys who like cutting things.” Still, his struggles at school and admiration for the only Irish girl in his class come through.
These characters are revisited in the collection’s final story, Crushed, which uses Irish titles (inné, inniu, amárach) to break up a day’s mitching that ends in tragedy.
Attention to language is evident throughout Wild Quiet, as in the titular story, which tells the moving tale of Ethiopian school girl Khadra. Her family has resettled in Donegal, but past traumas in Africa have left her unable to speak: “U-N-I-C-E-F. Those were the first English letters you learnt to read.”
As she wears her hijab to school in Ballymaglinty, Khadra represents a new Ireland, one that O’Donnell delights in portraying.