BABIES, be they stolen, dead, unexpected, or mysterious changelings, are the subject of four of the twelve stories in this promising debut.
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Another feature of this collection is its multicultural scope: There are immigrants making their sometimes tentative way in an Ireland that isn’t always acknowledged in contemporary Irish fiction.
‘Infinite Landscapes’ is narrated by Ife, the granddaughter of a Dublin-based Nigerian woman, Abeyomi, who, after several miscarriages, finally gave birth to a daughter.
However, Simidele was ‘abiku’, a cursed child of the spirits, unlucky “to take up residence in the belly of a woman who had lost so many children before”.
In ‘On Cosmology’, the narrator addresses ‘little zygote’ and how it evaded the 95% success rate of the morning-after pill.
The expectant mother, who lectures in cosmology at Trinity, had a fling with a pushy American guy who fooled her into thinking he was using a condom.
There is something sad about the narrator’s reflection that “even at our most intimate, the distance between people is as wide as the Periastron, the closest meeting point between any two stars”.
Giving the narrator the profession of cosmologist was worth it for this line alone, even if a little contrived.
‘Titanium Heart’ is about the corrosive effect of deeply felt personal loss on the wider environment. Sheffield, “city of knives, city of iron”, starts to melt to the extent that images resonant of the surrealist Salvador Dali come to mind.
There are galvanised starlings melting together on telephone lines. The owner of the titanium heart is Eva who lost a baby. Can she let go of her terrible grief?
Set in Spain, ‘Under the Jasmine Tree’ is about the ‘ghosts of Franco’, namely the Spanish babies illegally abducted for adoption up until the late 1980s.
It started as political retaliation against leftist families during the dictatorship of Franco and evolved into a global trafficking business involving doctors, nurses, and nuns.
A Spanish wife and mother of two daughters dreams that her son, taken from her at birth, is coming to see her. Their poignant encounter is well captured.
She remembers the “shame” of pregnancy outside of marriage. The father of the illegitimate child was, ironically, a priest.
There is intensity to these stories, rarely leavened with humour. But there is a welcome light touch in ‘How to Learn Irish in Seventeen Steps’.
The narrator, Luana, is a Brazilian woman trying to get work in Dublin as a primary school teacher. The main snag is she needs to pass an Irish language test. Luana goes to O’Donoghue’s pub for an Irish conversation exchange.
She meets a beer-bellied man “with veiny cheeks and rheumy eyes” and “oniony breath”. In a shadowy corner of the pub, he leans in and asks: “Tá tú singil?”
Some of the stories are written from a child’s perspective, or the memory of being a child in a confusing world. In ‘Ebenezer’s Memories’, the narrator recalls being very young, on visits from England to her grandfather in Derry.
She is able to accommodate as fact her grandfather’s wheeze about a monster called Ebenezer who lives in a cupboard under the stairs. Catherine’s grandfather feeds the monster with newspapers “and scary things” and his favourite snack is “wee wains from England”.
The story broadens out to include the Troubles. Ebenezer is a metaphor for a repository of misery in this tale that is universal.
O’Donnell has a keen eye, vividly describing images of the people, and places that populate her book. It’s never dull, just a little intense at times.
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