What an unpretentious little book, and who would have dreamed it would be so full of first-rate short stories? Mr. O’Connor wrote from the 1930’s to the 1960’s, and may be one of the finest writers Ireland has produced, which is saying a great deal. Thank you and thank you again to Open Road Media and Net Galley for the ARC. It’s been a real joy to read!
O’Connor’s early life was marked by alcoholism and domestic violence, and he tosses these into the stewpot of his stories that is so congenial, so resonant, that we little know the pain he went through before he wrote them. The quality of the writing is consistent throughout, which is even more remarkable given its length, which clocks in at over 700 pages! At times poignant and wrenching, and at other times witty and a little naughty, though never breaching the bounds of good taste, Mr. O’Connor delivers.
His protagonists are ordinary people, all of them in Ireland. They live in small villages for the most part; some are wives and mothers, some are brave young lads; there are noble priests and those who are not as noble, but all of them are believable and create an instant bond with the reader. His overarching theme is to remind us, in his folksy, understated way, that all of us are human. He lets us know that whether we believe in God or whether we don’t, for the moment we are all each other has.
O’Connor lived through revolutionary times, and was no stranger to the Irish struggle, which is near and dear to my own heart. His famous opening story, Guest of the Nation, focuses on a card game that takes place between Republican soldiers and their prisoners. Its blend of the ordinary with the wrenching emotion that ran high at such a time makes it immortal. The soldiers’ ambivalence and humanity lends it much of its authenticity.
One of my own favorite quotes appears early in the collection in a story titled “The Luceys”, in which Charlie visits his uncle, a priest. Charlie thinks his uncle is eccentric and cannot fathom how the man thinks:
“One conversation in particular haunted him for years as showing the dangerous state of lunacy to which a man could be reduced by reading old books.”
May we all suffer similarly!
I loved the references he made to “a gang of women” outside of Mrs. Roche’s house in “The Drunkard”. I also laughed at his reference to “…the mood of disillusionment that follows Christmas”. And in “Darcy in the Land of Youth”, I liked how Mick traveled to work in England and “He found the English very queer as they were supposed to be, people with a great welcome for themselves and very little for anyone else.” Here I would hasten to add that I am descended of both Irish and English, though I tend to lay claim more to the former than the latter; Mr. O’Connor’s gift is in wryly touching upon the cultural nuances that sometimes lead to misunderstandings, and others to genuine disagreement, culture or no.
I could continue quoting marvelous passages, but I think it is better for you to ferret out some of your own, and let’s face it, if I haven’t sold you on this book right now, I never will.
Except for this one last bit, which is really a commentary on all strong short story collections: this time of year, many of us will have guests in our homes. If yours is a family that reads, you may choose to set something out in your guest room, and short stories are especially lovely for them to have, because whereas one may not finish a great thick book during a visit over the holidays, one can pick up a short story at bedtime and finish that story before turning out the light.
And the glorious thing is, guests don’t expect a book that is left for their perusal to be brand new; they can enjoy a well-thumbed book without worrying if they inadvertently crease a corner. Right now, you have the chance to get the book for yourself, finish it, and then leave it for company.
That’s a good thing to do, because in the end, all we have really is one another.