BOOK REVIEW / Wild rover in a bar: 'Taking Scarlet as a Real Colour' - Evelyn Conlon: Blackstaff Press, 6.99

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The Independent Culture
THE longest of the 12 stories in this book is called 'Birth Certificates'. It is about a journalist who wants to find out about adopted babies. Her boyfriend is none too keen but she becomes obsessive. She loves the idea of uniting adults with their long-lost mothers and, although she is persuaded that the coy article she plans will never see publication, she can't stop. There's a casual warning near the beginning, when a friend remarks: 'People know so much about themselves these days, it takes the fun out of it.' It certainly does. The last page sees to that.

It would be wrong to go into more detail about that ending. As in nearly all these stories, the twist comes right out of the blue and has a dismissive topspin, like, to use Evelyn Conlon's image, a duck sliding into the Liffey and kicking the water away without a ripple. 'You don't seriously expect me to take on the pain of every fool that stares at me? I'd be dead long ago of worried duck disease if I did that.'

These are Irish stories, certainly, but they are never judgmental: instead, they are defiantly clearsighted, rigorously unsentimental. One character describes as unspeakably embarrassing the experience of sitting next to someone who begins singing 'The Wild Rover' in a bar; it's as bad, she says, as stripping when the doctor seems to ask you to and he turns round and says oh, I only meant your skirt. Their Irishness shows in their wit and in the enjoyable inconsequentiality of remarks. Time, for example, is manhandled. We can spend longer on a moment's thought than on the next 10 years of narrative: 'other things happened, but they weren't important'. There are quite simply no boring bits.

The subjects are often people looking for love in unlikely places - a London-Irish funeral or a seedy Dublin bar. Sometimes they find it and it slips away: 'after 10 years they burned out - not bad, some people burn out after 10 days'. My favourite is about a teacher, Rosaleen Raftery, who goes 'on a skimming spree across the minds of the pupils of Rosario's Tech for Boys'. Subversive and determined, she stands 'one teacher, five feet three against twenty-five boys, one hundred and thirty one feet six'. She defies them when she feels 'a leer gathering steam', wins their unwilling devotion and is sacked for her cunning originality.

Rosaleen is too defiant to be destroyed, unlike Lucy, the heroine of 'A Little Remote'. When her lover abandons her, her reaction is a definition of the atmosphere of this whole wry collection. 'She was devastated, which she shouldn't have been because she should have known better, but since when has shouldn't been isn't or wasn't?'