The Irish Quarter
A Tribute to the Irish Short Story
March 11 to July 1
Mother America by Nuala Ní Chonchúir is a collection of seventeen short stories. It has been listed for the Frank O'Connor International Prize for Short Stories for this year. I have previously posted on another of her collection of short stories, Nude, which everyone who has posted on it, including me for sure, loved as well as her very powerful collection of poetry Juno. I am very honored to have been given by the author, as far as I know, the first opportunity to post on this collection. My approach to posting on short story collections by one author is to select representative stories and talk about them one at a time. If I were pondering buying or investing my time in a short story collection this is what I would prefer to read and I think it shows more respect for the artist than just generalizing about the collection. This is just my personal opinion and, of course, I deviate from it sometimes in practice.
"You can sit in your studio and imagine them together. Him moving over her. Her on top of him. You can hear dark skin slap against honey skin; you can hear moans. But he is your toad and she is your mouse-your Diego and your Christina-so you drown those thoughts because they bring more tears than a blood letting".Frieda knows there is nothing she can do but accept what has happened and will happen again. Her passion is true strong. In just a few pages Chonchúir has perfectly depicted a hopeless love and a fight in which Frieda's reason loses to passion just as it always does for her. The only escape she has is her painting. It always has worked for her in the past. This is a wonderful story that goes deeply into the heart of a deep passion.
"Mother America"- This is a very different kind of story and helps to illustrate the breadth of the talents of the author. It is told in the first person by a man hitch hiking just outside of Cork City. He has just been picked up by a woman with a bumper sticker on her car that says "Powered by Jesus". She tells him she is from Mississippi. He asks her if is crazy and tells her she she really should not give rides to strange men. She tells him "Our Heavenly Father has already made my day..and He sent me to make yours". The story takes a strange turn when the hiker begins to tell him about her mother. The very interesting, maybe paranormal ending made me think about the reasons thinks happen. Just when the hiker begins to some how go under the spell of the driver, she orders him out of the car. The ending is the stuff urban legends are made from.
"Cri de Coeur" is about the relationship of Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and is told by a woman with whom Ted Hughes had a relationship. A woman who imagines she has the wildness that Ted Hughes needs in a woman, opens in the bedroom of the young daughter of Ted Hughes, I think. She wonders if she can smell whiskey on her. I wonder when children first learn to do this and know something is wrong when they do. The woman says Sylvia lost the wildness that Ted Hughes needs and that she can give him. It took a lot of daring to write a story like this and the author pulls if off perfectly. It is as if we are seeing Sylvia and Ted through several distorting mirrors and from this seeing deeper into them than a mere gaze would provide.
"My Name is William Clongallen" is a flat out wonderful story, I love it. I do not want to tell to much of the plot of the brilliant story. It is told by a Guillermo Dante, a man, now with grandchildren. The first line for sure got my attention. "My name is Guillermo Dante and the woman I called mama did not give birth to me". When his father dies his mother tells him that he is the child of a very young Irish woman he met on the ship who died before reaching America. He grows up, he marries a good woman who keeps telling him to
go to Ireland to find his roots. Once he becomes a grandfather he goes, leaving his afraid to fly wife behind. The description of Ireland upon first arrival is great and makes us feel we are there .What happens next is just a great story and I hope my readers can have the pleasure of reading it for themselves. This and the next story are companion pieces. There is a great movie in these two stories.
"Scullion" seems to be set in the not too distant past in Ireland. The central character is a 14 year old kitchen girl working in a family with several servants. She tells us her own story. It is a shocking one of terrible abuse, made all the sadder in that she seems hardly aware of the depth of the crimes perpetrated against her. As the story opens she is helping the lady of the house take a bath and she says she wishes she could tell her that her husband gets more pleasure from the time he spends with her, stolen time, than in long nights with her. We learn of the night time visits of the master of the house to her bed, and shockingly we learn all this before we learn she is fourteen. Both she and the mistress of the house become pregnant and give birth on the same day. The child of the lady dies. I will tell a bit of the plot, maybe to much. The man comes and takes her baby and installs it as his own child, the child of his wife. There is some hope in the ending of the story, but not much. "Scullion" is a companion to "My Name is William Clongallen".
"Letters" is the story of a woman, getting on in years who moved from the old country, which I am taking to be Ireland, to New York City. Mattie was her favorite among her sons, her best boy before he made the family move away from their home. She thinks back to times she has nostalgia for, before the emigrated. She remembers sending Mattie into the potato pit to fetch something for dinner. She recalls a strange episode where a frog got into the potato pit. Her life has changed so much.
"Now there is no back yard, no fireplace, no potato pit. There are seven stories below me and three above. I never imagined people lived in any way but our own, until Mattie brought me here and left me here, to go as far away again as to the other coast, to a place full of Mexicans".There is much in this story, some very startling developments happen. We can almost feel the woman's near hatred for New York City, she lives among the poor in the projects, along with her fascination for how different it is from her home place. She cannot quite bring herself to hate Mattie but she shows her feelings in another way.
"Peach" starts out this way. "There was a pregnant woman getting drunk in the back lounge; I could see her through the hatch, from where I sat at the bar. She was drinking and crying, sitting on the red velveteen couch alone". If you are thinking there is a woman with some serious pain coming her way you are right and the narrator of this story is for sure not above praying on, albeit in a solicitous fashion such an unfortunate lady. Chonchúir does a great job of bringing every one in this story to life and lets us see the effects of deep loneliness.
"Spelunker" opens by telling us about how a dog named robot let a group of boys to discoverer the cave paintings at Lascaux. Chonchuir does a very good job in just a few lines of letting us see how the boys must have felt when they saw these paintings and from this we jump to an really interesting story line about a number of painters working in a never to be opened, not sure why, subway station in Paris, painting the walls for some future explorer to perhaps find long after the glories of Paris are forgotten. There there is also a very good and erotic romantic subplot in the story. There is a lot of think about in this great story, from the nature of art to the connection between art and eroticism.
The last two stories I will post on both have a death as a central event. They are dark stories about people in pain. They are all wonderful works of art. I will post on each on briefly. There is a great sadness hanging over these stories. Maybe they are about hanging onto love no matter what, I am not sure.
"When the Hearse Goes By" is set in Paris, a place Nuala Ní Chonchúir goes to often in her stories. A man has traveled from London to sympathize with the widow of his brother. The brothers were never close as adults and you can see the man struggling to find a way to talk to the widow and his desire to understand more about his brother. This story is too powerful for me to tell much of the plot action.
"Tattoo Queen" is very sad story that makes us work to figure out how things have come to the place they have in the lives of the three central characters. The dominant figure in the story is a female tattoo artist who is also a living work of art. A kind of minor character is her lover. As the story reaches the point of drama, her grown son, who she has not seen in over two years shows up and tells her some men he met while in prison are looking for him and mean to do him harm. She asks if she is supposed to hide him. He tells her no I want you to tattoo me in such away that I will not be recognized. She says she normally does not tattoo those she loves but she does. We learn from the mother that he was in prison as a result of a rape he committed. I do not want to spoil anymore of of this story but the ending is really powerful and it is hard to decide if it is justice or not.
There are seven more excellent stories in Made in America.
Mother America is a very powerful marvelously written collection of short stories that I more than just enjoyed. The stories are very moving and go deeply into their characters. There are also, as I expected there would be, stimulating ideas about the nature of art, sex, and power in these stories.
I not long ago read a number of short stories by George Moore, who I now regard as among the truly great short story writers of the world, and I saw much the same power and great understanding of people found in the stories in Mother America.
Here is the official biography of Nuala Ní Chonchúir
BIO: Born in Dublin in 1970, Nuala Ní Chonchúir lives in Galway county. Her début novel You(New Island, 2010) was called ‘a heart-warmer’ by The Irish Times and ‘a gem’ by The Irish Examiner. Her third short story collection Nude (Salt, 2009)) was shortlisted for the UK’s Edge Hill Prize. Her second short story collection To The World of Men, Welcome has just been re-issued by Arlen House in an expanded paperback edition. The Juno Charm, her third full poetry collection, was launched in November.
You can follow Nuala Ní Chonchúir's very interesting blog, Irish Rule Writer.