BOOK REVIEW / The women who are taken as red: Taking scarlet as a real colour by Evelyn Conlon, Blackstaff pounds 6.95

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The Independent Culture
A FIERCE and engagingly quirky feminist who deserves to be far better known, Evelyn Conlon writes short stories for people who wouldn't usually read them. Hers are those oh-so-Irish voices overheard in pubs, at bus queues, in cheap cafes, their Irishness captured in a narrative voice that laughs with a lump in its throat and punctures its flights of interior monologue with the matter- of-fact observations of a visiting Martian.

Unusually, Conlon both celebrates sex and condemns society's instruments for keeping women down - marriage, priests, poverty, newspapers. She is best on the hairline crack between women and men that widens to a chasm when people don't say what they think. And the women in her stories are always thinking: a married woman remembers a holiday waltz that turns into a 'cold curry' affair; a daughter travels to her uncle's funeral in London and has unsatisfactory sex with a man who never phones again; a teacher wins over a classful of loutish boys; a sister avenges the hypocrisy of the confessional by tricking priests into bed. This last is one of three stories 'told' by a man; a brother's unconditional love for his sister is put to the test when the bishop asks him to intervene: 'My wife said that it was one thing being a Catholic but quite another having the bishop ring you up every day, it put her off the normal business of living, she said. It certainly changed the atmosphere in our bedroom.'

Only in the title story does feminism thump the table: a pub monologue delivered by an 'ordinary woman' who remembers walking down a ditch in mucky wellingtons the day JFK was shot and who started to read books to 'lift the aching embarrassment of being no one from nowhere'. But books never say how it is; they paint women as plastic saints or scarlet whores, not a real colour, and like the 10 commandments they 'don't apply to us at all unless we're lesbians. Thou shall not covet thy neighbour's wife . . . See]'

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