shining the spotlight on short story collections
New Island, 2012
“Mama, I need something from you.”
“Don’t I know it, son.”
(Queen of Tattoo)
How many truths and untruths are told in the name of the family? How many darkling secrets lie beneath the surface of a marriage?
The sombre thread of Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s songs of motherhood in all its pain, glory, horror and diversity, weaves its way boldly like a blood-red seam through the tapestry of her latest collection of short fiction set in Ireland, Paris, Rome and Mexico. It shocks: society’s rules are violated; frontiers, not only geographical but also those laid down for family life across the western world by cultures based on Catholic mores, are breached.
Though often unmistakably Irish, the voices of the unending chorus have a strong universal rhythm of nostalgia throbbing away within, like a muffled heart-beat, as failure and betrayal feature alongside unconditional love for long-lost sons and the glory of impending parenthood.
Ní Chonchúir’s themes spring from a broad cultural and historical horizon. Cri de Coeur, the fatal drama of Ted Hughes and his here unnamed mistress, Assia Wevill, recalls the short-lived peace their of sojourn in Ireland. In this cradle-song of motherhood and violent death Ní Chonchúir weaves together the common fates of Sylvia Plath, the ghost-mother, and Assia and her daughter, Shura. The potential of sexual infidelity for fracturing the protective bond between mother and child has never been so intertwined with the life of the artist as in the history of the poet laureate.
A powerful tale of the unexpected, Queen of Tattoo, is called up by Groucho Marx’s song of the tattooed lady, Lydia. The Egg Pyramid, a very short piece set in Mexico and inspired by the story of Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera, tells of the pain caused by her infertility and his infidelity with her sister, a grief soothed, if not healed, through art; a motif which recurs throughout the collection.
The theme of infidelity and the memory of fine times past continues in When I Go Down, Go Down With Me; here, a mother’s attempts to protect her grown children from their father’s peccadillos go awry and her final response to her situation is quite different from that of Ted Hughes’s women.
In Spelunker, informed by the Lascaux cave paintings in France, the childhood memory of a mother’s story is told in paint, signed with a hand-print, then sealed forever beneath the streets of Paris, whilst a son finds his freedom. Absent mothers are called upon and appear in spirit form, as on a battlefield, to comfort the dying in Triangle Boy, a love-tale inspired by a major fire in a clothing factory in the Asch Building, Manhattan, in 1911; a story which echoes the events on the streets of New York on 11thSeptember 2001.
Ní Chonchúir’s range is vast. From Peach, the story of a horrific and lonely miscarriage, set in Dublin, to the delight of a young couple in Manhattan at the sight of the first scan of their unborn baby in the very short Easter Snow, she looks at every aspect of the only virtually unbreachable relationship known to mankind. Unconditional maternal love and duty struggle to survive in the direst of circumstances; the Irish mother in Letters is abandoned by her favourite son in New York. A secret illiterate, unable to read his letters from the west coast, her homesickness for Ireland (‘now there’s no back yard, no potato pit’) is intensified by the din and verticality of the city, whilst her absent son remains at the centre of her daily life, his correspondence read to her by an acquaintance from a local diner.
Christ-made-man and the magical realism of Poisson d’avril, set in Paris, and the guardian angel of the title story, Mother America, set in Ireland, touch upon the spirituality and superstition of the ever-present Catholic background which runs through the whole collection.
Superstition has long been closely associated with motherhood. Moon Hill explores the subject of the supernatural, sortilège, magic cures for childhood illnesses and the taboo subject of in-law incest, (a reprise of the theme which occurs in The Egg Pyramid) with a light touch. In By Ballytrasna, The woman who can’t find the words to tell her son the truth or to apologise expresses herself in the perfection of her art. The desire for solitude in age and long-distant memories, a secret almost told, but finally kept, the apology for her failure to comprehend her own son’s inability to produce a child and the subsequent failure of his marriage are sublimated in a single painting.
Emotional dependence doesn’t always flow in one direction; From Jesus to the Moon, a mother returns to Rome and memories of an early, now defunct, marriage. Unintentional party to a traumatic event and full of guilt, surrounded by Catholic imagery, and with no husband to turn to, she calls her schoolgirl daughter, in class in Ireland.
A family reunited by the violent off-stage action of a madman in The Doora Spinster is a very short, intense explosion of a story which ends with a child’s report of her mother’s calm, dismissive words:
‘Mammy said it was a blessing in disguise.’
Two tales, my favourites, of motherhood lost and found, Scullion and My Name is William Clongallen, are both shocking and uplifting. With the help of the kindly cook, a 14-year-old ‘brazen strap’ of a kitchen-maid flees her master’s house with her infant son; nothing is known of her fate until a young man arrives in Ireland from the New World, looking for his origins. The social mores of the early twentieth century Irish gentry are sharply contrasted with the moral integrity a young man brings with him from his adopted country.
Ní Conchúir’s bravery in forcing her reader to plunge directly into dark waters of the unexpected, the taboo and the downright ugly aspects of motherhood and family, combined with the powerful intimacy of her prose, make hers a literary voice which should and will be heard.
Listen to an excerpt from the story Letters, read by the author, here
About the reviewer:
Susan Haigh recently returned to North-East Fife after seven years living in a cave house in France. She is a novelist, short-story writer and editor. Her short fiction has been published on-line and in print anthologies and journals. She is currently writing a biography of the beat poet Hugh Fox, founder of the Pushcart Prize.