Book Review: The Glass Shore

The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Women Writers from the North of Ireland, edited by Sinéad Gleeson, brings together twenty-five female authors from the north of Ireland whose lives and works cover three centuries. It was commissioned following the success of The Long Gaze Back and is presented in a similar format – the stories included chronologically alongside a short introduction to each author.

The earlier tales in the collection demonstrate how writing style has changed over time. To this modern reader they lacked the succinct depth I admire in the short story form when done well. Plots were often predictable and slow to develop. There would then follow a rushed denouement that left a lingering dissatisfaction. The stories read as snapshots rather than complete works. Too many threads appeared unnecessary within a frame where brevity is strength. There are occasional nuggets and ideas to ponder but not enough to raise the bar.

Although I enjoyed occasional elements of the previous stories, Mary Beckett’s Flags and Emblems was the first to fully hold my attention. Like many of the tales here, it explores some of the problems caused by sectarianism, especially within families.

I was less impressed by the story that followed. Taft’s Wife by Caroline Blackwood felt bloated and paid scant attention to developing a central character. Framed by the idea of the lingering problems caused by a shameful pregnancy, it features a social worker whose cases include the resulting, unwanted children. Ireland’s attitude to the unmarried pregnant, and latterly to abortion, are recurring themes within this collection.

Several of the subsequent stories were pleasing enough. I will, however, skip past The Diary by Una Woods as I can’t pretend to know what the author was trying to convey.

Frances Molloy’s The Devil’s Gift offers a glimpse into a post-war convent and the effect religious vocation has on family and community. The personality of the protagonist remained largely two dimensional but her experiences provided interest. Nuns and priests are not portrayed with affection in any of these tales.

Disturbing Words by Evelyn Conlon looks at borders – their arbitrary assignment and the effect this can have on a local population. Set over the course of a lengthy wake, the writing flowed well and offered elements to ponder.

I was by now starting to enjoy the tales more. Characters became more rounded and nuanced; settings and plot progression more pleasingly woven together.

The stand out highlight of the twenty-five stories is Jan Carson’s Settling. The author’s use of language is pure joy to read. The plot is centred on a young couple moving from Belfast to London. They have been eagerly anticipating this new beginning. Baggage from the past is not, however, easily shed

After this there only remained Mayday by Lucy Caldwell and The Seventh Man by Róisín O’Donnell – both tightly constructed and well presented.

Clearly, I was more affected by the newer stories than the older ones. Indeed, I did not enjoy this collection as much as I did Being Various, the sixth volume of Faber’s long-running series of new Irish short stories.

The Ireland portrayed is recognisable along with its people and their prejudices. It is the contemporary writers who get under the skin and bring to life their fictions.

Being a fan of Irish writers this was a book I expected to enjoy much more than was the case. From a literary perspective it was interesting to consider how writing style has changed over time. As stories to entertain, only a handful impressed.

The Glass Shore is published by New Island Books.

Book Review: The Long Gaze Back

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The Long Gaze Back is an anthology of short stories written by Irish women whose collective work spans four centuries. They are presented in chronological order, thereby offering the reader the chance to observe how much, and how little, has changed in women’s lives.

The editor, Sinead Gleeson, comments in her introduction that, with a few notable exceptions, it is only in the past few decades that women writers, particularly Irish women writers, have been selected for inclusion in anthologies. In recent years there has been a new energy and enthusiasm for Irish writers of both genders, an increased visibility that has enabled new voices to be heard.

The short story is described as a form whose brevity belies the scale of thoughts and ideas within. The thirty tales included here offer:

“a triptych: deceased classic writers sit alongside the feted names of the last two decades and the next generation”

The collection opens with The Purple Jar by Maria Edgeworth, a story of a young girl whose mother allows her to make a choice, knowing it to be a foolish one, and then insists that she live with the consequences.

Frank’s Resolve, by Charlotte Riddell, is an observation of a marriage where both partners appear dissatisfied, each blaming the other. The reason for this lack of understanding becomes clear, although I felt little hope, given the way Frank inhabited his world, that a satisfactory resolution would be found.

The third story was amongst my favourites – Poisson d’Avril, by Somerville and Ross. It narrates a fraught train journey across Ireland as a man attempts to reach his family who are congregating for a wedding. He has been instructed to bring with him a salmon, caught whilst holidaying. The trials he encounters are presented with a dry humour and easy empathy.

Most of the stories revolve around family life and the associated day to day battles faced. There are tales of birth and death, of both the old and the young; the impact of collective decisions made without consultation; how expectations can lead to resentment, particularly across the generations. The authors highlight the discomfort felt when personal problems are disclosed. The small communities may wish to know everyone else’s business, but few wish to become involved when troubles they prefer not to acknowledge are aired.

There are stories of those who have left and those who have returned. The self proclaimed success stories expect to be feted whereas those who feel they have failed to live up to their former promise seek an anonymity that is often denied.

The Meaning of Missing, by Evelyn Conlon, explores the relationship of close siblings when one emigrates to Australia, fails to keep in touch, and then returns for a visit.

The Crossing, by Lia Mills, offers the reader the complexity of family dynamics when a middle aged couple take their teenage son to Egypt on the holiday of a lifetime. The husband’s assumptions about his wife resonated – that the brightly coloured top she bought for herself must be a gift for her more conspicuous sister, that she had somehow failed by paying too much for the item whereas the value to her was in the act of purchasing.

There are relationships – between a young girl and an older man, between a young man and an older women. There are the resentments of children who suffer their parents mistakes.

Frogs, by Molly McCloskey, looks at childhood friends, separated when parents move house, who meet again after more than thirty years. There is still a spark between them but they carry baggage that may prove too heavy for the other to bear.

A Fuss, by Bernie McGill, explores a theme that presents itself in many of these stories, that families prefer to keep their ideas of each other intact, retaining an aversion to any distasteful reality.

“she will remember the important lesson she learned from this, from him and from her mother, that it is more agreeable to be quiet than to make a fuss by telling the truth.”

Children return to the parental home to attend funerals. A surviving spouse must find a way to live alone. Reasons for leaving are unpicked alongside the pull of duty. Suppressed grudges resurface when challenged by familial guilt.

The writing is consistently impressive and varied making this a collection that effortlessly holds the reader’s attention. There is a strength to even the most broken of the characters, each are recognisable from everyday life.

An enjoyable read that offers a taster menu of authors deserving further attention. I will be watching the trajectory of those previously unpublished with interest.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, New Island Books.