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.