Granta, £25, 422pp, £22.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story, Edited by Anne Enright
Out with old Troubles, in with the new
From George Moore's The Untilled Field of 1903, the Irish story has shown a tendency to react against the standard conception of the Irish story. First Moore, and then Joyce, had no time for peasant romanticism. They are jointly credited with giving an impetus to a form of writing attuned to modern times, full of truth and complexity.
Inevitably, though, other stereotypes crept in – priests, sin, red petticoats, drowned fishermen, revolutionaries holed up in the hills – to be discarded in their turn. Avant-garde anthologists (and there were many) throughout the 20th century compiled their selections in accordance with a topical agenda, but also with a basic objective in mind: simply to put together the best of whatever was available at any given moment.
Anne Enright's The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story follows the same pattern, including the giants of the genre (everyone from Elizabeth Bowen to William Trevor, whose marvellous story, "The Dressmaker's Child", brings the book to a forceful conclusion). It includes these giants alongside the untried, undervalued and up-and-coming. Her selection is confined to writers born after 1900 – though Bowen, six months on the wrong side of the cut-off point, gets in nevertheless, with the subtle and lucid "adultery" story, "Summer Night".
Indeed, more than half of Enright's contributors have a date of birth after 1950, allowing scope for a good range of "contemporary" tones – not all of them making for compelling reading. Some of her choices seem pretty pointless or disagreeable, and a couple are oblique to the point of incomprehensibility. But most deserve their place in the book.
The non-chronological arrangement works well, with stories from different eras striking sparks off one another. Occasionally, to good effect, the editor opts for an unexpected inclusion: Sean O Faolain's charming piece about a trout, for example, rather than, say, "A Broken World" or "Midsummer Night Madness".
The earlier "Troubles" of the 20th century do not get a showing at all (consigned, perhaps, to the "old hat" category), and the later, Northern outbreak is represented chiefly by a single story, among the strongest in the book: Anne Devlin's resonant "Naming the Names". Non-traditional nuns and priests are here, in the entertaining story by Edna O'Brien, and in Colm Tóibín's restrained and cogent "A Priest in the Family". Among other things to relish are the bleak eloquence of Claire Keegan, Eilis Ni Dhuibhne's pungent "Midwife to the Fairies", and Joseph O'Connor's colloquial and striking "Mothers Were all the Same". Roddy Doyle contributes a touch of Dublin Grand Guignol, and for engaging irony and wryness we have Mary Lavin's "Lilacs", and Bernard MacLavery making a device for illumination out of a slight case of lockjaw.
But where, we might ask, are Benedict Kiely with all his exuberance and eccentricity, the urbane Julia O'Faolain, John Montague, John Morrow or Maurice Leitch (to take these examples)? You won't find them here. However, as Elizabeth Bowen said about Lord Dunsany, any anthologist's brief is to put together a volume to please himself (or herself) "and, please God, infuriate others".
Enright doesn't go quite so far in setting out her criteria in the introduction – incidentally, one of the highlights of The Granta Book. But she sticks to her guns while saying some pertinent things about the Irish story in general, with all its new departures and old inescapables, and about this selection in particular. Her introduction is framed in a style all its own: quirky, provocative and disarming.
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