The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story, Edited by Anne Enright


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The Independent Culture

According to Anne Enright, short stories are the cats among literary forms, "beautiful, but a little too self-contained for some readers' tastes." As this collection of Irish short fiction shows, the factors that make for a good story prove as many and varied as the writers themselves.

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For the short-story writer, Frank O'Connor, what distinguished a story from the novel was "an intense awareness of human loneliness". In his book The Lonely Voice (1963), he asked why the Irish in particular excelled at the form, concluding that loneliness was common to people on the margins of society and the defeated. "The short-story never has a hero", says O'Connor, and is by its nature "romantic, individualistic and intransigent."

In the end Enright, like any anthologist, has chosen the stories she likes best. There are over 30 entries, from established stars such as William Trevor, John Banville, Elizabeth Bowen and Edna O'Brien to Gerard Donovan, Val Mulkerns and Jennifer C Cornell. Unusually for an Irish collection, clerical tales are short on the ground. Enright writes in her introduction that she left aside the "sadness" of parish priests, curates and bishops and the "folly" of their congregations, offering in their places works by Maeve Brennan and Colm Tóibín , about the "more interesting loneliness of the priest's mother."

Eclipsing narratives of celibacy and frustration are several entries dealing with the bright arc of infidelity and desire. In the shrewdly observed story "Villa Marta" by Claire Boylan, a young girl on holiday in Palma finds herself in a bedroom with an American sailor - this young adventuress has "no notion how to treat or be treated by a man as an equal".

In Bernard MacLaverty's tongue-in-cheek story, "Language, Truth and Lockjaw", a stale marriage is rudely awakened by an inappropriate attack of nocturnal giggles. While in Roddy Doyle's"The Pram", a Polish au pair's lonely morning walk is improved when she meets a biochemist from Lithuania taking refuge in a sea-front shelter.

The glaring omission from the collection is Enright herself, whose own stories about failed love and sex that is "a bit too actual" are always such a pleasure to read. Despite this disappointment, the collection shines with personality, studiously avoiding what the editor describes as "charm", or "God save the mark", Irish charm.