The Hill Road by Patrick O'Keeffe

There was a young orphan of Limerick
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Each of the four novellas in this volume deals with death or abandonment deep in the Irish countryside. O'Keeffe strides with confidence through the Limerick he himself grew up in. Only the second tale, "Her Black Mantilla", threatens to overdose on sentimentality and abuse our suspension of disbelief. When Alice comes to clean and care for the aged Lena Tarpey and her housebound brother, she is met on the road by Davie Condon. He just happens to be the man, we discover, who got her older sister Margaret pregnant and abandoned her the night they were due to run away together. Margaret later died in childbirth, leaving Alice alone, to be brought up by nuns. The coincidences of his meeting with Alice and its outcome are just a little too neat.

No such worries mar the three remaining stories, however. "The Hill Road" shows Jack Carmody and his family at different stages in their lives - an early memory of them all at church begins the tale and the funeral of Jack's mother ends it. In between, we hear what happened on holiday at Jack's aunt Mary's, about Mary's sweetheart Albert Cagney who returned from the war physically and mentally damaged, and how she never forgave him for getting another girl in the village pregnant. Forgiveness crops up again in "The Postman's Cottage", where Kate Dillon must find a way to forgive the man she married for killing the man she did not marry, and it rears its head too in "That's Our Name". For all their Christian ways, the people in these tales struggle with forgiveness.

All four tales are of classic country village life, where everybody knows everybody else and their father before them, and everyone has their nose in everyone else's business. O'Keeffe capitalises on this gossipy world with a writing style that weaves in and out of dialogue, unvoiced thoughts and memories. He is not kind to his readers then, in spite of the verdant hedgerows and balmy summer days. This is vibrant, demanding, first-rate writing to keep you on your toes, not to while away the long hours of summer day.