Éilís Ní Dhuibhne is a shamefully under-rated writer. A true polymath, she writes in English and Irish, and across the genres – young adult, crime, and literary fiction in both the short story and the novel forms.
Her second Selected Stories volume, just published by Dalkey Archive Press, demonstrates the range and breadth of her work in the short story form, if proof were needed. It is historical in several senses of the word. It draws chronologically on her five collections of short stories starting in the 1980s, and the stories explore our relationship with history, real and invented.
The first story, “Blood And Water”, is a seminal story in Ní Dhuibhne’s oeuvre, not only on its own terms but because it served as a kind of a rising agent for her outstanding novel The Dancers Dancing ‑ one of the few, or only? – bildungsroman – exploring the Irish College experience.
Shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 1999, The Dancers Dancing follows thirteen-year-old Dubliner Orla of uncertain class as she negotiates the troubled waters of adolescence in the Donegal Gaeltacht of the 1970s. But this episodic, modernist work also embraces the major questions of the day ‑ national identity, the Troubles, the magnetic pull of landscape, Irish versus English, post-colonial cringe, the weight of “native” cultural and female heritage and how to get out from under it. For that reason, “Blood and Water” lacked, for me, the light allusiveness of its novel offspring.
In general, though, lightness is what marks out Ní Dhuibhne’s style; lightness coupled with serious intent. She is a deceptive writer. Deceptively light in tone, deceptively erudite in her references, deceptively irreverent in her treatment of form. Her literariness betrays itself in several stories here where she insists on pulling the narrative rug from under the reader, in “The Flowering” for example (a title that is a deliciously ambiguous word-play on the art of crochet), where Sally Rua, a “real” ancestor of Lennie, the narrator, is given a wholly fictional life as a housemaid and wizard lacemaker by her literary descendant. She is then driven mad by her employer’s refusal to let her practise her craft and is banished to a lunatic asylum. “Of course,” Lennie tells us airily towards the end of the story, “none of that is true. It’s a yarn, spun out of thin air.”
Ní Dhuibhne’s playful subversion extends beyond language and form; the idea of embroidery as a tool of female liberation is another irony that is casually woven into the story. Like The Dancers Dancing, the big themes are smuggled in, while Ní Dhuibhne is busy with the distracting decoration.
There are other stories here that draw attention to their making. Take “Illumination” ‑ spoiler alert – a dream narrative in the first person, featuring another literary type, who spends a week at a writer’s retreat in California and gets embroiled in the lives of a local couple who seem to take to her rather too fiercely.
“Well,” says the narrator just at the point of denouément, “There is only one ending as you who read stories know. The next day I woke, later than usual …” But the real meat of this story is not the trick of the dream and its weird unsettling logic but the notion that we are all haunted by the feeling that just beyond our ken a shimmering of wisdom beckons. “Every day, I believed I was on the brink of finding out something wonderful, something radically important about the meaning of life and the meaning of fiction …” the unnamed narrator writes, “a moment of illumination would come and … it would provide me with the answer I was seeking, the breakthrough I longed for, and needed.” The imminence of this sensation ‑ and its frustrating elusiveness ‑ somehow produces the dream, which could be seen as a stand-in for the glorious if flawed synthesis of fiction-making.
The same unease haunts the narrator of “The Banana Boat” – the mother of dissatisfied teenagers on a summer holiday in Ventry. Despite the perfect weather (“It is so beautiful, in this sunshine, that you would believe it was real.”) she cannot trust to happiness, though she gives the sensation a name.“Death hovers somewhere around, lurking in the corners like the mists that are always somewhere out there on the Atlantic, sweeping towards us on the wind.”
It is a premonition that turns out to be justified in this story, but the tragedy as the narrator sees it is not the near drowning of her son but the constant anxiety about the proximity of disaster even in a safely lived life.(In the midst of her son’s crisis, his mother ‑ another writer? ‑ is considering the “storyness” of the incident, pondering on alternative endings and citing Mary Lavin’s “The Widow’s Son” and Alice Munro’s “Miles City Montana” as templates.)
Despite this broodiness, Ní Dhuibhne’s lightness of tone is never far away and is further sustained by her frequent use of the present continuous, which lends an immediacy to the actions of the story, as if they’re just happening to both us and the characters. It’s almost as if she wishes to tiptoe across the page leaving only faint footprints yet the images and the atmosphere of these stories persist long after reading.
Tense is also crucial in “The Day Elvis Presley Died”, where the narrator, Pat, (who could be an inheritor of Orla’s uncertainty mantle from The Dancers Dancing) is on holiday with her American boyfriend and his parents at a lakeside resort in the US in 1977. Although it is set in the past, Ní Dhuibhne writes the story in the present and then pitches the reader forward to an unspecified future where all is changed though we’re not sure how. But through the tense shifts we see how “live” this seminal summer is in Pat’s memory.
Only an obviously historical story like “The Pale Gold of Alaska”, about an Irish gold rush emigrant’s wife who falls in love with a Blackfoot Indian with punishing consequences, is anchored firmly in the past tense, although even here the narrative tone is, if not light, then sardonically distant, as if history is just a more bizarre version of the present. Ní Dhuibhne’s technique here seems to channel her character Lennie, the narrator of “The Flowering”, who remarks that she does not see much difference between history and fiction.
No discussion of Ní Dhuibhne’s work would be complete without referring to her sense of place, her earthy grounding in the locale of her stories – be it Ireland, the US or Scandinavia – the “lonely tearful” swimming pools of north America, the saffron glow of the New York skyline, the “leonine haunches of sand roll” in the waters of a Donegal lough, the “flower-studded” ditches of Kerry. Although even in the pastoral, irony is never far away.
In “The Day Elvis Presley Died”, Pat finds herself defeated by the majesty of the American scenery and disabused of the landscape myths of recession-ridden home. “Ireland, in compensation for its economic and social failures was … a dumb, and virtuous blonde, among the smarter and uglier nations.”
It is such sly, artful humour that trumps the stories in this collection which announce themselves as satire. “Literary Lunch” and “City of Literature” are romps, poking fun at the expenses-claiming arts establishment, but they seem too declarative for a writer who delights in telling things slant. Still, their presence here testifies to Ní Dhuibhne’s range – her ability to shape-shift within the genre.
One drawback of any selection of Ní Dhuibhne’s short-form work is that those stories divorced from their context can seem robbed of a certain resonance. Her 1997 collection The Inland Ice (from which the stories “The Woman With the Fish” and “Summer Pudding” feature here) is a complex intertextual work, threaded through with a folk tale – invented, of course – that speaks back to the stories surrounding it, creating a symphonic effect. All the more reason for a Collected Ní Dhuibhne that could do justice to her inventiveness in and mastery of the form. Until that happens, this welcome volume from Dalkey Archive whets the appetite.
A version of this review appears in the October edition of the Dublin Review of Books.