Short form suits author’s spare, yet lyrical style

The Shelter of Neighbours

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne

Blackstaff Press, €17.65

Review: Sue Leonard

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne has written more than 20 books. There are several novels; there are plays, and children’s books — some in Irish. I’ve read two and adored The Dancer’s Dancing, and was amused by Fox, Swallow, Scarecrow.

I hadn’t read Ní Dhuibhne’s previous collections of short stories; but from the moment I began this new one, I was enthralled. The form suits the author’s wonderfully spare, yet lyrical style. And it highlights her rare ability to gradually reveal a character, drip feeding the reader.

In The Sugar Loaf, for example, we learn, fairly fast, that the schoolteacher, Audrey, is a spendthrift. Her hair dye, with the name of iced chocolate, soon resembles black clay. She’s always busy, yet her house, and her garden resemble a rubbish tip (especially where she throws her many bottles).

The picture of an embittered spinster — who cared, so snappishly, for her mother is gradually built up. And it’s not until the final paragraphs that we learn there was once another Audrey. Hopeful; carefree; but ultimately too scared to make a go of life.

Many of the stories are linked by the area of south County Dublin in which the characters live. We see the friendship between the neighbours. But also the rivalry, the bitchiness, and sometimes downright treachery. In Red Hot Poker, newly-widowed Linda, learns the hard way that, in the end, you’re on your own.

Several stories tell of love; and the heartbreak, or disillusion, that almost inevitably follows in its wake. Many of the protagonists are seeking change. They’re exploring their options, or regretting the choices they made in the past. Ní Dhuibhne doesn’t baulk at violence. There’s more than one murder recounted in this generally genteel collection. And they take the reader off kilter.

Great at getting into her character’s heads, Ní Dhuibhne is at her best when she gives us a glimpse into the writing life. In Illumination, a writer seeks inspiration at an artist’s retreat in America. It eludes her, until she becomes subsumed into the lives of an eccentric local family. And then she, almost, finds it.

The author can be mischievous. And never more so than in The Literary Lunch; a delicious satire on the pretentiousness of Dublin’s literary scene. The board meet to discuss which authors deserve a grant. As they scoff their way through a €1,200 lunch, it’s clear that few of the assembled know anything much about writing.

The Shelter of Neighbours is impressive.

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