Economic booms like the Celtic Tiger may come and go, but one thing Ireland never seems to suffer a shortage of is splendid writers of fiction. That plenty is on display in The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story, 31 fine stories by Irish writers born in the 20th century. Granta, the lively literary journal and publisher (granta.com), asked Irish writer Anne Enright, who won the Man Booker Prize in 2007 for her novel The Gathering, to select the stories. She also contributes an astute and acerbic introduction, calling short stories "the cats of literary form; beautiful, but a little too self-contained for some readers' tastes" and offering an insightful survey of literary theory about Irish fiction and of some of the themes that recur in these stories: loneliness, repression, loss, family, politics, religion.
Not that I would want to box these stories in with a tidy list. In subject and style, they vary richly, as you might expect of stories published over more than eight decades. In literary merit, they all stand tall.
A number of the stories focus on what Enright calls "the fundamental (perhaps the only) unit of Irish culture," the family. Both Frank O'Connor's witty The Mad Lowasneys and Mary Lavin's subtly claustrophobic Lilacs are tales of family life in the first half of the century. The Lowasneys are middle-class residents of Cork, the Mulloys in Lilacs working class and rural, but the daughters in both families learn hard truths about the economics of marriage in a time when women had little opportunity to be independent.
Often romanticized in popular fiction, country life on the isle gets a more realistic treatment in some of these stories, notably the poignant Music at Annahullion, by Eugene McCabe, about a farm woman's longing for a piano, and the brutal Meles Vulgaris, by Patrick Boyle, a tale about the "sport" of badger baiting that's reminiscent of George Orwell's Shooting an Elephant.
Stories of initiation into sexual knowledge take on extra urgency and complexity in a culture long noted for repression. First love for a forbidden person is at the hearts of Neil Jordan's Night in Tunisia and Edna O'Brien's Sister Imelda. Jordan, director of such films as The Crying Game, writes evocatively of a teenage boy discovering the truth about the girl he moons over at a summer resort, while O'Brien's tale of a convent-school student's crush on a teacher is a heartbreaker that rings true.
Mothers Were All the Same by Joseph O'Connor is the gritty story of a cocky young man who thinks he knows why a pretty girl picks him up while they're both visiting London — and ends up unable to answer her question: "Don't you understand anything?" Summer Voices, by the masterful John Banville, is as beautifully written and deeply creepy a story about a pair of young siblings as you'll find anywhere.
A number of these stories weave elements of folklore, ghost stories and fairy tales into modern settings. The Pram by Roddy Doyle brings a lonely Polish nanny into the household of a high-powered, ruthless Dublin lawyer, where the lawyer's unpleasant children thwart the nanny's romance, and her revenge — scaring them with a story about a haunted pram — has shocking results.
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne's Midwife to the Fairies punctuates a contemporary story narrated by a sharp-tongued nurse with quotations from a tale about the "wee folk" who, Irish legend has it, live underground and are not necessarily nice — certainly not in this instance. In The Dressmaker's Child, William Trevor recounts the dark story of a hapless mechanic, complete with a weeping Virgin statue, a missing child and a ruthless haunting of sorts.
Religion and politics are essential Irish subjects, and they reverberate through many of these stories. Enright mentions in the introduction that she avoided the entire genre of stories about priests, "all lonely, all sad as they survey the folly of their congregations, and ninety-nine percent of them celibate. I left most of them out for seeming untrue." But she did select two moving stories about the mothers of priests, one set long before the ongoing controversy about sexual predators, one after. Maeve Brennan's An Attack of Hunger centers on a woman in a miserable marriage whose only human companionship is lost to her son's vocation — her source of pride and, perhaps, her destruction. That sort of pride gets a savagely ironic twist in A Priest in the Family by Colm Tóibín when a modern mother discovers she is the last one to know about her son's transgressions.
A couple of the most powerful stories in this book — and that's saying something — deal with the impact of politics and war on the lives of Irish people. Everything in This Country Must by Colum McCann is narrated by a mentally disabled teenage girl as she and her father attempt to save a horse during a flood — an emergency that seems to be resolved when a squad of British soldiers appears and pitches in, with jolting results. Anne Devlin begins Naming the Names as a love story between a Belfast shopgirl and a visiting scholar and turns it, with breathtaking skill, into something devastatingly different.
Enright writes, "If this selection has anything to say about Irish writing, then it does so by accident." But it does show us, if nothing else, that Irish writing still shines.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.
The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story
Edited and with an introduction by Anne Enright
Granta, 442 pages, $27.95