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Where Have You Been?, By Joseph O'Connor. Harvill Secker, £16.99
Wednesday 07 November 2012
Where Have You Been? is acclaimed Irish writer Joseph O'Connor's first short story collection in over 20 years, and it's worth the wait. The seven short stories and one novella loosely chart Ireland's traumatic modern history; from the emigrant-filled tenements of 19th-century Manhattan to post-boom unemployment in modern Dublin.
"Two Little Clouds" reintroduces Eddie Virago, first encountered heading for London with his electric guitar in O'Connor's 1991 debut, Cowboys and Indians, now back in Dublin in 2007 "flogging flats for a living" with a wife and kids. In "Orchard Street, Dawn", set in New York in 1869, a husband and wife tell their children stories of their crossings to America from Ireland. They hark back to O'Connor's novels Star of the Sea – set on the famous famine ship of the same name – and the post-Civil War Redemption Falls.
As a nod to Ireland's relationship with the New World – once a beacon of hope during the Famine, then the disappointing reality that faced most immigrants, and again the destination of the current economic exodus – the most melancholy stories refer to America. In "Death of a Civil Servant", the protagonist recalls the year he and his wife spent in Manhattan before their marriage failed. "October-Coloured Weather" sees an American tour guide with a voice "as soft as a new dishcloth" spend the night with a dying woman in a hotel in Dublin.
Loss is a familiar presence. A grieving mother is described as "embrittled, scooped-out, she walks as in a dream, her eyes grown sore from tears". An abandoned husband is transformed into "a man of timetables, neurotically filled schedules": one of the many "fruits of his despair". O'Connor's pin-sharp descriptions are beautifully contrasted with the stark simplicity of the stories, but he teaches a masterclass in what's better left unspoken, whether the death of a child too raw to detail, or the story of a mother "too painful to tell here". Individually these stories are quietly unassuming gems; together, a powerful ode to modern Ireland.
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