Town and Country – New Irish Short Stories Edited by Kevin Barry

Faber and Faber

In what other kind of book would you be presented with a small boy’s encounter with the devil, an aging amateur photographer and his increasingly erratic quest for the perfect subject, a computer nerd, his friend and the song they’ve designed to act as a drug, a woman holding tight to her late husband’s ashes and two teenagers’ musings over life in the modern town square that is Penneys? Not in any single novel that’s for sure, or even stranger-than-fiction non-fiction, but in a new collection of Irish short stories, tellingly named Town and Country – New Irish Short Stories.

The third in a series previously compiled by Joseph O’Connor and David Marcus, writer Kevin Barry, whose story ‘Beer Trip to Llandudno’ appeared in the 2011 collection, edits this volume.

In his introduction Barry observes, “What the short story at its very best can offer is an intensity difficult to match in the other prose forms… A great story can delineate the critical moments of a life – those moments of pregnant arrest – with a sense of shiver and glow, and for the reader those moments can linger within, and for years”. With this collection this remark rings true; by reading one after another, of varying length and personal appeal, the value of the short story becomes increasingly clear. town-and-country-faber-cover-kevin-barry

We Irish are renowned for liking a good yarn. The trouble is, the fact that we like a good yarn has become a bit of a cliché. It’s notable then, that the stories presented in this collection have evolved from the usual beginning, middle and end of a straightforward anecdotal story; these mix narrative styles, shift the focus from literal to metaphorical, give the reader not just a by-the-book tale, or indeed yarn, but asks the reader to think, and to remain thinking about them, figuring them out, for a long while afterwards.

Interestingly and progressively this anthology mixes established and accomplished storytellers with emerging talent, thus allowing a comparison and contrast between old and new styles, differing perspectives and approaches, the discovery of a new and exciting writer.

In Michael Harding’s Tiger, a weary man attends his son’s eighteenth birthday celebration at his estranged wife’s house, where he reminisces about the times before his marital break-up, his son’s innocent younger days, his comfortable, content life and the misery of having to leave behind his beloved cat Tiger. It’s a humorous tale tinged with bitterness and poignancy, one of a bereft man with little to hope for or live for but his replacement cat, Tiger 2, who lives in secret in his apartment complex that doesn’t allow pets. Harding is a playwright and author, with a weekly column in The Irish Times, and his is a contemporary story that will ring many bittersweet bells.

The Recital is written by Eimear Ryan, a young and precocious Tipperary native, who holds an M.Phil in Creative Writing from Trinity College at the age of 27. Her story follows a music composition graduate, who, like many other recent graduates, is working temporarily in a bar. The bar in question is known for attracting TDs, judges and bankers, and the bartenders are known for being discreet about their patrons little quirks that are unknown to the general public. Ryan’s Grace has that curious characterization often found in a short story, that of both observer and naïve lynch-pin, finding herself curiously attracted to charismatic, disgraced TD Liam, wondering if it’s because of a promise of a word in the ear of a conductor friend or his sad, appealing piercing blue eyes.

In Earworm Julian Gough conjures up a world that is all too possible, in which two bored hackers from either side of the Atlantic begin communicating over a shared fondness for Star Wars. Talk by Skype eventually rests on music, and how a song can get stuck in your head, what is commonly known as an earworm. Gough’s protagonist is a German whose brother is in prison and whose father is silent and dour, years after the death of his wife. The hacker remembers the better times, those in which his parents listened to old records, Stones’ songs with catchy hooks, 80s power ballads with an infectious base line, and a notion enters his head – can he create the world’s perfect song, and what effect would it have on people? The result is surprising and disturbing, and is an original and inventive take on the usual apocalyptic drama.

In Paul Murray’s “How I Beat the Devil” a ten-year-old boy is disenchanted by the annual summer holiday his geologist parents take him on to the Burren. He takes off on his own, on the pretense of illness, and encounters the devil for the first time of many throughout his life. Murray is known for his breakthrough novel “Skippy Dies” and a similar knowing, wily style is displayed here, in which the effect is of a story being told by your witty, clever, slightly disillusioned friend, a tale which is fantastical and impossible but nonetheless hard to tell if it’s tall or not.

At the beginning of the story the boy’s father asserts “Everything is interesting if you look at it long enough”. This is probably true enough, except if you’re a ten year old tired of observing rocks, but can also be applied to this collection – persevering with one which may not initially interest you will pay off in the end.

Both sexes are well represented and many genres, topics and trends are touched upon. Not every story will be to your taste, not every story will stand up against its neighbour, there will be a few that you will gloss over quicker than the rest. But the beauty of the collection is that there’s something for everyone – what might be a boring old rock to someone may be the finest example of pre-Cambrian lithology to someone else.

– Aoife B. Burke

First Published in The Tuam Herald on 11th July 2013

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