Mary Lavin's contemporaries found it hard to place or to contain her unsettling stories. Frank O'Connor, a close friend, said that "an Irishman reading the stories of Mary Lavin is actually more at a loss than a foreigner would be". Usefully, Augustine Martin called her stories "outrageously private"; other critics noted that she breaches taboos and creates new and jarring clashes within a vividly imagined middle- and lower-class world whose Irishness is not central, only ever implicit. As Colm Tóibín says of her, "The stories are set in Ireland but it is an Ireland as calm background rather than an alarming Ireland." The alarm lies elsewhere, in her ability to lead the story into unexpected ground and to make her endings unsettlingly unpredictable.
O'Connor's sense of something foreign in Lavin's work may come ultimately from her arrival in Ireland at the age of 10, having lived until then in Massachusetts. She retained a close relationship with the US, writing in particular for the New Yorker in the 1950s and 1960s. But it is also rooted in her distinctive fusion of an acute awareness of modernism – she embarked on a PhD on Virginia Woolf – with a faithfulness to ordinary Irish material and apparently traditional forms.
The Becker Wives, one of Lavin's strongest collections, consists of just four long stories: The Becker Wives, The Joy Ride, A Happy Death and Magenta. Each evokes a kind of stultification.
The title story makes no direct reference to Ireland but can nonetheless be read as a metaphor for the frustration of the artist in a society dominated by mercantile values. Theobald Becker, the lawyer son of a deceased corn merchant, brings his new wife, Flora, into a family where the other sons have married dull and dutiful women. Flora, poetic and imaginative, amuses the other women by imitating them, but gradually this imitation becomes a form of madness, as she usurps the persona of the pregnant youngest wife, Honoria. The artist, isolated and deranged, must be removed at the end of the story.
The Joy Ride has a similar trajectory of failed escape. Two butlers, minding a big house in Co Meath for their absent young master, raid the cellar, commandeer a pony and trap and abandon their duties for an excursion in search of female company. On the way home they stop at a pub and discover that the house they were supposed to be minding has burned down, because of the matches they lit in the straw-filled cellar to find the wine, and they flee.
In A Happy Death a woman who has neglected her sickly husband becomes determined that he repent his neglect of his former Catholic faith before he dies. She fails and is inconsolable.
In Magenta a young woman who does housework for two other woman who are caretakers of an empty big house leaves for the city. She returns six weeks later in spectacularly fancy clothes. When she misses her train home it emerges that she has borrowed her mistress's clothes without permission and faces the sack.
Together the stories capture a mood of people (especially women) struggling with confinement and seeking in vain some kind of outlet for their energies. The characters feel like they might be in a Chekhov play – itself a comment on the nature of the 20th-century society in which they live. Lavin views them with a cool and unjudgmental eye behind which lurks a deep human sympathy.
You can read more about Mary Lavin in the Royal Irish Academy's Dictionary of Irish Biography; ria.ie