BOOK REVIEW / Written on the body: 'A Lazy Eye' - Mary Morrissy: Cape, 8.99

GRACE, protagonist of one of the stories in this pungent debut, has only the vaguest notion of how her body works, a hazy impression of 'oiled, livid organs performing languid, primitive rituals unquestioningly'. Not so Mary Morrissy, for whom anatomy supplies a potent if satisfyingly oblique iconography. Her characters are plagued by bodily betrayals. A father's heart disease, a sister's unwanted pregnancy, even a lost filling or routine menstruation can shed startling light on the dark corners of human experience.

In the title story, Bella, travelling alone across Europe, wakes in her sleeping compartment to find that her period has started and the sheets are soaked in blood. The embarrassment seems survivable, until the male attendant, finding the stained bedding and imagining who knows what perverse goings-on, angrily ejects her from the train: 'It was no different from all the other reversals on her travels - and in her life before that . . . The sum of all these small humiliations, these were what had marked her out . . . She felt as she did when the doctor had first taken the glasses with the eye patch off; her vision unobscured, her lazy eye finally cured.'

The tone, melancholy, resigned and wry, is characteristic. Mary Morrissy is a Dubliner, and these stories are laced with the kind of guilt only a Catholic upbringing can bequeath. In the story called 'Divided Attention', the narrator (all the main characters are women) is the victim of an obscene phone caller. She could simply hang up, but by listening stoically while the man noisily masturbates she is atoning for her own past weakness, when, hopelessly in love with a married man, she would phone his wife only to listen in silence to the enviably ordinary background noises of doors banging or children wailing - 'It was not you I wanted, but your world'.

Just occasionally, a character breaks free of the past. A woman newly deserted by her violent husband and terrified of the future learns that she has gum disease and may lose all her teeth. She is secretly exultant: her new dentures, unlike the strong but yellow teeth she has hated all her life, will at least be white.

In the sad, skewed world of Mary Morrissy's women, only the guilty feel blameless. One is an unrepentant shoplifter. Another, in a little masterpiece of controlled horror, disposes of her sister's unwanted half-caste newborn baby by dumping it in the manger of a life-size nativity scene in the department store where she works. She chooses closing time on Christmas Eve, so that the child's cries will go unheeded and it will die. Afterwards, the girls return to their taciturn father, go calmly to church, then eat ham and Christmas pudding.

Clues to the characters' behaviour are often encoded in little eloquent glimpses of the past: the family so numerous and undifferentiated that each child would grab a garment at random and own it for the day; the mother who would start games of hide-and-seek, then retreat to the kitchen while her daughter cowered in a dark cupboard, 'sweating with fearful anticipation'; the remembered scent of church candle grease, 'the smell of hair singeing in hell'.

But Mary Morrissy is no glib psychoanalyst; more a cool but gifted pathologist under whose microscope tiny slivers of unremarkable human tissue are shown to be teeming with microbial life and mysterious, mutant energy.

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