shining the spotlight on short story collections
New Island 2012
“…He had opened his eyes to an upside-down world. A rushing sky of tarmac and hanging lights, an infinite ground of city-lit cloud. Gravity yanked the car back to earth and the road smashed into the car roof to crush it.”
From Yes, by Colm Keegan
The stories collected in Silver Threads of Hope have been brought together in aid of the Irish suicide prevention charity, Console. Ordered alphabetically by author, the book opens with Kevin Barry’s Supper Club (in which the host of a dinner party goes to elaborate lengths to upstage the exotic platters of previous parties) and ends with William Wall’s I Follow a Character From One of My Novels (in which a writer is prompted by a chance encounter with one of his old characters to ponder the limits of literary invention). In the Editor‘s Foreword, Sinead Gleeson writes that “these stories vary hugely thematically.” While the big themes cover ample terrain, from the stuff of stomachs to the stuff of souls, there’s no shortage of common ground when it comes to setting and character and experience.
There’s the winter, for example.
It is snowing in Trevor Byrne’s I’ve Hardy Slept At All. His central character gazes sadly across a breakfast bar and through the kitchen window to where “the tops of the Slieve Blooms were blurring with the low, heavy sky.” In Windows of Eyes by Christine Dwyer Hickey, it is raining. Every detail of a gloomy cycle ride through Dublin city by night is deftly described, from the “rain-stained walls” to a “damp coat slapping”. It’s a dull December morning in The Doorbell by Arlene Hunt, and in Yes by Colm Keegan, it is snowing again, and cold enough to freeze a waterfall. “Ice owned the river,” Keegan writes, “and so it stayed.” It’s yet to thaw by The Gloamen Man by Peter Murphy, a story which tracks the spooky goings-on of “a hoor of a night the wireless were forecasten minuses”.
Then there’s the sea.
Along with her lover, the narrator of Mary Costello’s The Hitchhiker, has “rented an island cottage at the edge of the Atlantic with the sharp white light and the waves and surf surrounding them.” When first we meet John Kelly’s lonely bachelor in Prisoner, he is sitting in a hotel bar in the town of “Farn” at some imaginary point along the west coast. Later, he goes for a night stroll parallel with the horizon and remarks to himself: “Next Parish Manhattan”. All the way across the North Atlantic, Sacred Heart by John MacKenna takes place on the American beach resort where a man has taken his young daughter to temporarily escape the disintegration of his marriage. Nowhere is the mystery of the sea more potent and more moving than here, in the “sand gulls” and “sea dragons” which the father concocts to nurture his small child’s boundless sense of wonderment.
The narrator of Nuala Ni Chonchuir’s Squidinky proudly declares herself a “shore dweller” and describes the odd charm of her seaside town in the off-season spring, with its “ghost hotel” and “tang of fish-rot.” What with “the sea spray and the scent of low tide rock”, Keith Ridgway’s Kissing could easily be set in the same place. “Yearning in a small town,” his narrator declares, “is as constant and as dangerous as the sea.” It’s a yearning which underscores many of the stories here, and while the grey weather and open water are but backdrops to the big themes, the big feelings would somehow clang hollow without them, and without the sense of restless potential they create.
“I wanted to die more often than I wanted a cigarette, and with violent intensity. I wanted it with a yearning that imitated romance, and with the longing of the traveller for home,” Anne Enright writes in the collection’s introduction. She is ruthlessly frank about her own history of depression and the suicidal tendencies to which it gave rise. On the topic of attitudes toward mental illness, she writes: “we don’t talk enough, perhaps, about how it makes other people feel…”
Many of the characters depicted in these stories are afflicted by exactly this inability to find the right words, or to find words at all. When the boy called Shane in Dermot Bolger’s Coming Home steps unannounced into his parents’ kitchen after three years away training with an English football club, his father says simply: “It’s yourself.” On meeting a former lover she hasn’t seen in twelve years, the woman called Deirdre in Belinda McKeon’s Something To Say To You can find no superior expression of emotion than: “So.” Even when characters do talk, it is done so in order to fill the crushing silence with meaningless sound rather than as an attempt to articulate something of suppressed yearning. “They talked of nothing but money and local deaths and shouted out laughter in a nearly insane manner,” writes Dermot Healy in Along the Lines. “Everything is so beautiful,” says Marion in Siobhn Mannion’s Looking for the Heart of Saturday Night, but Marion doesn’t mean it, not really.
Silver Threads of Hope is a timely collection. Most of the stories are set in modern Ireland and there’s an apt divide between those characters still struggling to preserve extravagant lifestyles of the past and those forced to confront the hardship of an austere present. There’s Frank in Declan Burke’s Samuel, Oh Samuel, who still believes he can mend his troubles with new banisters and hardwood floors and a refitted kitchen. Then there’s Colum McCann’s Jamie, who has lost his construction job because he was found with “smack” in his pocket, but also because there’s a queue of Romanian migrants willing to work the same hours for less pay. In As If There Were Trees, Jamie holds his baby girl in front of him on the bare back of a skinny piebald pony, and rides slowly over a field out from the shadow of a tower block.
Despite their differences, Frank and Jamie are both slogging against circumstances beyond their control. It’s a slog which crosses boundaries of class and place and time and gender, and which gives rise to a yearning as vast as a winter sky and depthless as an ocean.
Read an extract from a story from this collection in The Dublin Review of Books
About the reviewer: Sara Baume is a freelance writer based in southern Ireland. Her reviews, interviews, articles and stories have been published both online and in print, from HTMLGIANT to The Stinging Fly.