It’s a real treat to read a collection of short stories that presents totally engaging characters, genuinely interesting storylines, and subtle emotional insights – in English that is as correct as it is polished. Mary Morrissy’s use of language is exceptionally supple and imaginative. Her images and metaphors are original and apt. She can be hilariously amusing. Still, it’s not all about style, which can sometimes camouflage thin substance, or suggest that the writer lacks faith in her ideas and themes.
Morrissy is much too subtle a writer to feel the need to advertise her mastery of English. Indeed, in some ways she is hardly like an Irish writer at all – more like a Canadian (Alice Munro) or even an English one (Julian Barnes or Penelope Lively, for instance).
Her subject matter in Prosperity Drive is Ireland and the Irish – specifically the suburban middle classes. The 18 stories are mainly about people who live on, or were born on or otherwise connected to, Prosperity Drive, a typical south Dublin road. The cover of the book, showing one of the beautiful old green road signs, with the street name in English and in Irish in the old Cló Gaelach, is an absolute delight.
The device of the “linked collection” has been around for a long time, and enjoyed a recent resurgence (such as in Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge.)
But, in a sense, nearly all short story collections that don’t employ the device ostensibly are linked anyway, by the landscape of the author’s imagination and experience: Frank O’Connor’s Cork, Edna O’Brien’s Clare.
It is an almost obvious step from the unity of place that occurs spontaneously to deliberately set all short stories in a collection in one named place: a town, a parish or, as in this instance, a prim and proper road with front and back gardens, cars in the driveways, and secrets in the bedrooms.
This is the sort of place where most Irish writers have lived for 100 years but which has slowly emerged to take its place in the sun, or rain, of Irish fiction.
Any suburban road supplies a goodly quantity and variety of characters and dramatic incident, rich pickings for any writer.
Characters who recur frequently in this book belong to the Elworthy family: the opening story, The Scream, introduces us to Edel Elworthy, an elderly woman suffering from memory loss, being nursed on her deathbed by her daughter Norah. “Remember, remember, remember what?” is the last line in this story.
Over the course of Prosperity Drive, much is remembered – the inside stories of the Elworthys and their neighbours. The final story brings us right back to the beginning, and tells us how Edel met Victor, her husband and father of Trish and Norah, who figures in several of the stories.
“Edel has never told anyone how she and Victor had met. She was ashamed of it because it had not been a lucky accident. She had seen him and wanted him; the direct line between wanting and having had never been so clear to her. He had been sitting at the heel bar. It was the latest innovation in Roches Stores, an American idea.”
First love, middle-aged love, illicit love, divorce, bereavement, child- rearing, emigration, holidays. Illness, death. And work – in kitchens, offices, the classroom, the printing works and newspapers. All the “ordinary” things that make up our lives are described here. But there is nothing ordinary about the stories themselves.
Sensationalism not needed
Morrissy never resorts to the sensational to create a strong tale. Murder, incest, serious violence, rape – none of it affects Prosperity Drive very often, although they do occur from time to time. A young woman, the hired help, gases herself in one of the outstanding stories, Miss Ireland.
In one of several stories set abroad (Prosperity Drive folk travel) Anita manages to conceive a child with a man she meets in a cloakroom when the ship stops for a day in Aden. Is it a rape or consensual? The question is not answered.
Morrissy has an acute sense of how attitudes change, and Anita certainly doesn’t consider herself a victim. She unzips her dress herself. Later she feels a sense of triumph. “She had gone beyond [the other girls], left them behind with their useless and florid romantic speculations.” Yesterday’s romance is today’s rape. Morrissy tells us what happened, and allows us to make up our own mind about it.
In refraining from judgment, she is a true heir to Chekhov and the great writers.
In general, extremely interesting things happen in these stories without the intervention of guns, knives or psychopaths.
Apart from her seduction of her husband in the Heel Bar, Edel Elworthy brings another dark secret to her grave, and one which is more original but no less alarming than a murder.
Little dramas happen all time in our suburban lives. And little dramas are the best subject matter for short stories, which must reveal the world in a grain of sand.
In the hands of a master storyteller such as Morrissy, minor incidents are much more entertaining and revealing than sensational events.
Above all, it is the brilliantly acute observation of every sort of detail – of place and time, of the foibles and passions of people – that makes the work so impressive and so thoroughly enjoyable.
Seldom has Irish suburban life – especially the lives of girls and women been so sensitively and wittily, portrayed. Morrissy captures it all: the civil servants on the bus, the children out playing on the road, the mildewed old swimming baths at Sandymount or Blackrock. The office parties and the typing pools. The old taffeta ball gown in the wardrobe and the shiny crocked car on the drive.
Her clear-eyed vision and her deep compassion, along with her lovely sense of the comic and her exceptional literary articulacy, make this an outstanding collection.
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s latest stories appear in The Long Gaze Back and A Kind of Compass