The 19 stories in Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s new collection are thematically unified by their relentless consideration of the familial. Each story draws the reader to the brink: marriages that turn bad; love that breaks in tragic circumstances or that winds to its natural end; infertility; and death, robbing sons of mothers, and mothers of their unborn infants.
The characters who people these stories are lost, often within themselves, set adrift by circumstance. Some are seeking answers, or forgiveness, others want to leave their mark, but most are striving to endure.
The settings span the globe: Rome, Paris, Mexico, America and Ireland. The order of these stories, with regard to length, point of view, and shades of dark and light, encourages a straight reading.
Given the author’s poetry background, it is unsurprising that the prose is measured and graceful, rich with delectable turns of phrase and vivid descriptions that seem to paralyse time. Out of context, the flash pieces might seem little more than anecdotes, but interspersed with the longer, more developed stories they vary the collection’s pace and act as natural transitions. But the longer stories impact with the greatest force.
‘Triangle Boy’ is an affecting portrait of Sean, an early 20th century Dubliner who has left his home to work in a New York rag factory. He is befriended by an Italian girl, Gae, and over months of whispered conversations and shared ‘two-cent lunches’, the seeds of love are sown. The second-person narrative, so often a gimmick, here works surprisingly well and heightens the emotional effect of the explosive dénouement.
‘Scullion’, also historical, drops us into a County Limerick manor and confronts us with a 14-year-old servant made pregnant by the man of the house. When the child, a boy, is taken from her and raised as one of the family, she is faced with a heartrending and life-changing decision. Coupled with its companion piece, ‘My Name is William Clongallen’, it’s a picture of life, fate and the shift in social mores.
‘When I Go Down, Go Down with Me’ approaches infidelity from a different perspective, that of a woman fighting to keep her life and family together while her husband plays out an all-too-public love affair. In the award-winning ‘Peach’, which opens this collection, a recovering alcoholic slips into a volatile and doomed relationship with a woman who is acting as surrogate mother for her sister and brother in-law. Over the past decade, Miss Ní Chonchúir has proven herself a prolific and diverse talent. Author of a successful novel and four books of poetry, Mother America is her fourth short story collection.