Book review: New Irish Writing

GRANTA is a literary magazine published quarterly in the UK in book form, usually with a couple of photo essays to accompany its distinctive mix of new writing in the form of memoirs, travel writing poetry and fiction.

edited by Sigrid Rausing

Granta, €16

According to Sigrid Rausing, Granta’s publisher and the editor of this edition, 80 million people around the world are said to identify as Irish. 

I wonder what they will make of this selection, which ranges from the work of well-established names including Colm Tóibín and Roddy Doyle to mid-career authors like Emma Donoghue, Colin Barrett and Kevin Barry and relative newcomers, including Sally Rooney, who has yet to publish a novel.

Front and back covers feature specially commissioned black and white photographs of the authors by Eamonn Doyle, generally shot from unusual angles and featuring the writers in moody, dramatic lighting. 

The collection kicks off with Kevin Barry’s rosy-tinged memoir of his Cork years, ‘The Raingod’s Green, Dark as Passion’, describing a time when pubs were nearly full in daylight and Ecstasy was king, as featured recently in the Irish Examiner. 

This sets the bar high in terms of the legendary Irish wit and ‘way with words’; I wish I liked it more than I do: perhaps reality is not Barry’s forte: I missed the mad illogic and unruliness of his fiction.

To choose only three poets from the vast pool of interesting ones at work in Ireland at the moment must have been a challenge, and to be among that number akin to winning the lottery. 

The lucky ones, Tara Bergin, Leontia Flynn and Stephen Sexton all acquit themselves well. However, it would have been good to see at least twice as many poets represented and fewer stories, especially those that were rambling and unfocused.

The photo essays, Doug Dubois’s superb portraits of young people on a Cobh housing estate, German Birte Kaufmann’s stark traveller portraits, and French photographer Stephen Dock’s chilling evidence of the divide between loyalists and republicans in Northern Ireland taken in 2014, are each compelling. 

The last two, even though the subjects are curious and quaint, also provide depressing evidence of the persistence of poverty and prejudice in Irish society.

The decision to run a story well-crafted but set in Berlin by Colm Tóibín, seems odd, unless it is there to prove that Irish writers do not always write about Ireland. All the other stories to greater or lesser extent, interrogate the nature of Irishness.

The extract from Emma Donoghue’s forthcoming novel The Wonder, set in famine times and featuring a little girl who apparently lives on air, and her concerned English nurse, signals another riveting and highly original work from this extraordinary writer.

Roddy Doyle too is on top form with a school story, ‘Smile’, which shows how little it takes to wreck a young life. 

Siobhán Mannion’s ‘Through the Night’ is a mature and atmospheric piece based on a 44-year-old widow’s encounter with a stranger at a conference, while Sally Rooney’s ‘Mr Salary’ is a nicely upbeat kind of urban fairytale about the girl who gets the perfect man.

With these exceptions, the stories set in rural or suburban Ireland seemed to have the edge.

Colin Barrett’s dark but humorous story, ‘The Visitor’, ventures among the unemployed and into drug gangland, featuring some brilliantly oblique dialogue. 

Travellers feature in two of the stories: ‘All We Shall Know’ by Donal Ryan, a devastating dissection in a mere nine pages of a marriage gone wrong, and John O’Connell’s more leisurely and very touching tale ‘The Birds of June’, set in a rural nursing home and casualty hospital.

One story stood head and shoulders above the rest, for its unflinching confrontation with the dark side of rural Ireland (social ostracism, marital infidelity, suicide and infanticide) ‘The Mountain Road’ by William Wall, — one of Ireland’s most under-rated writers. Written in a terse, ironic first-person voice, it is from his recent collection, Hearing Voices, Seeing Things, which is well worth seeking out.


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