Dermot Bolger's new short story collection deals imaginatively with themes such as the fallibility of memory and the explosive ramifications of long-held, deeply-buried secrets.

The Unremembered is the final tale in Secrets Never Told, in which his chosen themes, concerning the failure of memory and the withholding of baleful secrets have made themselves known from early on.

'Watching Da dying I've realised that everything in our past must eventually be confronted' are the words of a son on the eve of his father’s imminent demise in this remarkable concluding story. A writer is summoned to the grave of a dying rival who he has absolutely no recollection of ever knowing. The resulting tale is a bleak illustration of a devastating idea, that a relationship central to your own existence and identity could be completely meaningless to the other party.

This Bolger collection has an air of Joyce’s Dubliners about it in its snapshots of everyday Irish life, no doubt a deliberate doff of the cap from the Finglas man. In fact, the legacy of Joyce is explicitly referenced in Martha’s Streets, about a woman for whom a well-thumbed copy of Ulysses becomes a life-long companion.‘Ulysses had become her bible in those college years, proof that people could think and behave differently, that secret lives were running like a current beneath the facade of her native city.’ 

The transformative moments Bolger’s characters undergo, however, are less Joycean, and more Dickensian at times, something or someone from a past trauma that they’ve forgotten or repressed returns to haunt them in the present.

The Last Person makes for an interesting opener. Two aspiring writers become friends. One is effortlessly talented but squanders it. The other, deeply resentful of his friend’s genius, steals some of his material and becomes a successful writer as a result. Both are uncomfortably aware of how this fraudulent career was founded, but it’s never spoken of, just painfully felt at every encounter. Is this a story about the guilt and regret of the imposter? Or is it about one friend’s self-sacrifice for the benefit of the other?

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In One Seed of Doubt a newly-widowed woman makes an alarming discovery at her late husband's grave and comes to suspect he was leading a double life. Her grief for him morphs into grief for her state of ignorance before she found out - ‘she grew to resent the recently-widowed women who visited with fresh flowers and uncomplicated narratives of loss’. This story takes an unexpected turn, leading to an interesting encounter between two lonely, lost women and revelations about who they are, and were.

The Lover is narrated by Roger Casement’s former partner as he watches his funeral procession, recalling their passionate trysts and despairing that he can neither love nor grieve the great man openly. ‘I was his only nation back then, because we were equals and he was only free to be himself in my arms’. It’s an unusual and moving story about forbidden love and lust, a strange combination of erotic and tragic.

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Secrets Never Told is ultimately about the contradictions inherent in us as Irish people. Bolger hones in on the cultures of shame and secrecy that were cultivated by institutions such as the Catholic Church, and how such despicable actions continue to inform the national psyche. ‘People didn’t talk about schizophrenia or bi-polar disorder back then’, explains one character in The Keeper of Flanagan’s Hotel. ‘A hotel was about showing your best face to the world. Anything else you locked away behind high walls and silences.'

He also touches on the effect of our vast diaspora, in one case looking at how emigration can render the emigrant a ‘disaffected outsider’ with a strange dual identity, neither fully belonging to their home country or to their adopted one. Bolger’s ideas are wonderful and probing, but the stories formed around them often seem to be only hitting their stride when they come to a close.

From The Art of the Glimpse, an extensive collection edited by Sinead Gleeson, to Cork-writer Kevin Barry’s latest That Old Country Music, the short story seems to be enjoying a bit of a moment again, but why? Perhaps because these small slices of everyday existence give us a better understanding of wider society and our relationship with it, good and bad, and that has never been more important.

Read Dermot Bolger's account of 40 years of waiting to put out a collection of stories here