The best of Éilís Ní Dhuibhne's stories hold the shape and sense of the folk tale, often played out in a kind of dream landscape whose distinguishing features are rendered with intense clarity.
Some of the stories featuring in this new Selected Stories come from Ní Dhuibhne‘s highly appealing collection, The Pale Gold of Alaska, which was selected as a Notable Book of the year in 2000 by the New York Times. The fascinating titlular story concerns the clandestine affair between an Irish emigrant wife and a Blackfoot Indian man in 19th century Bute, Montana, as her uncouth and pietistic husband digs for silver in the nearby mountains.
Ní Dhuibhne's stories sometimes hold the shape and sense of the folk tale, often played out in a kind of dream landscape whose distinguishing features are rendered with intense clarity. In the opening story, Blood and Water, a woman recalls childhood holidays in Donegal spent with her aunt Annie Bonner, who, she says, was not `the full shilling,' or would have been more tactfully described as `delicate’ once upon a time. Annie could also be described as `mentally retarded,’ but given that her mother and sister were reared through Irish, that phrase would mean nothing to them, the narrator observes. The story ends with a wonderful turn in the road, as the young woman reveals her dawning realisation that she might be more like her aunt than she used to think.
More experimental and luxuriant in approach than the previous story, The Flowering is top-loaded with images from the past as the author traces in poetic short-cuts the history of the Lennie family and the fictional Irish village of Wavesend. It’s a kind of loose-limbed gambol back in time, best exemplified by the litany of repetitive chores and skills listed at one point: teasing and carding and spinning and weaving and knitting and sewing and washing and ironing. Young Sally Rua goes to a class where she learns how to crochet handkerchiefs of Carrickmacross lace for the Congested Districts Board. Her work is so good it is to be sent to the Irish stand at the World’s Fair.
In Summer Pudding, two sisters take up with a band of travellers in Wales, having fled hunger and fever after the death of all the members of their farming family in Kilkenny. Ní Dhuibhne is brilliant at evoking the period through unusually tactile observation. The younger of the two sisters narrates the story, remembering her days as a scullery maid in Wales. I let my nose into the heaps of white cloth, and let the sheets flap around me like clouds, she recalls.There are times reading Ní Dhuibhne that one feels she is a near-relation in prose to the poet Eiléan Ní Chuileanáin. The writer has a numinous quality which is akin to the great Cork poet’s vision. Water is heavier than it looks when it comes dancing out of the tap, light as stars - now there is another fine sentence, prose with the jam of poetry on it.
Coast of Wales is a lyrical yet piquant meditation on death and bereavement, as a widow waters the flowers on her husband's grave. The longest story in the book, The Day Elvis Presley Died, follows the progress of an insecure Irish girl on holidays in the Adironadack mountains in the US with her boyfriend and his rather staid family. The tensions seem to play on the waters of the idyllic lake of the piece. It is an appealing story, but perhaps it could have been shorter.
In Illumination, an Irish writer staying at an artist's retreat in the US wanders off through the woods and is invited into a house inhabited by mother, daughter and son, Marcus, a reclusive music composer. Marcus extols the peculiar magic of the house, in which he assures the writer that he will in time compose great music. The writer stays for dinner and returns for further visits, and they discuss art and life. She feels on the brink of some epiphany. But is it all a dream?
Literary Lunch satirises a weasly Dublin scene, which ends with a gun being fired by a disaffected writer who is sour because of repeated rejection. The violent conclusion is not beyond the bounds of possibility one concludes, but the story is light comedy, a harmless trifle.
The succeeding story, City of Literature, continues in the same vein, satirising the so-called Board for Artists' Money in a time of austerity. Somehow these are the least successful stories in the collection, and the author is better with serious treatments.
Make no mistake, however, Ní Dhuibhne is one of best writers of the short story at work in Ireland at present.
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne: Selected Stories, published by Dalkey Archive Press, is out now.