March 1 to April 28
Irish Short Story Week is now extended until April 28. Still plenty of time for new participants and Q & A Sessions. If you are interested in participating, please E-Mail me.
"Some Sort of Beauty" is the lead story in Jamie O'Connell's collection of short stories of the same name. Told in the first person, it is the story of a man, in rural Ireland, who is part of a group of Jehovah's Witnesses who are going door to door trying to get people to accept their religious dictates. If you have ever had them knock on your door you know they can be annoying, especially if you are busy or are strongly committed to your own faith or lack of faith. This story takes us deeply into the mind of one of these people and helps us see him as a person, not just a pest, and see what does drive him to do as he does for little personal reward.
As the story opens, the man is nervously knocking on a farmhousedoor. He is nervous but he says to himself "this is life-saving work and you won't find me going against the Bible". He works in a team with a woman named Laura. Laura is so committed she spends sixty volunteer hours a month knocking on doors, many of which are slammed in her face. The witnesses are in a van of some sort and they talk about how people react to them. They have been schooled in how to deal with various attempts to get rid of them.
The man says he would be dead if were not for the Witnesses. In these brilliant lines the man goes form a pest knocking on a our door to someone we can respect and feel a strong empathy for:
"Sure, she'd run off and there was me with the three girls, raising them and trying to make a living at the same time. The sisters were great, minding the girls when I needed a bit of help, making dinners and all sorts of things". The Witnesses take a break and the man begins to talk about his life and his three daughters. (I have three daughters also and I thought how hard it would be for me to raise them alone.) He talks about how their mother leaving them has impacted the girls.
Of course by now I wanted to know more about his wife and the mother of the girls. One of his daughters is now married and no longer goes to the Witness meetings. I begin to wonder if it was the Witness ideology that drove her away. Now we begin to learn some shocking things. I will tell a bit of the plot but not too much. The story is beautifully told and I found myself shifting my perceptions as I read it. We learn that one of his daughters is dead. The man says with her life style he was really not surprised when he learned of her death. She had written a successful novel, Some Sort of Beauty, and left him the rights. One of the things I have spoken about a good bit during this year's Irish Short Story Month is the importance of the theme of the weak or missing Irish father to Irish literature. The man does not go to his daughter's funeral as he somehow felt her life style, she was it seems Gay, was a repudiation of the word of God. I began to wonder if the man just hides behind his religion. Maybe the work of his daughter expressed things deeper than he could cope with or understand. These lines are heartbreaking: "I remember the invite to Evelyn's first book launch coming in the post. Susan told me to ignore it and she was right, too, but Evelyn rang up anyhow. She was very abrupt, demanding that I come. I told her as clear as day that the way she and that girlfriend of hers were living was immoral". Her response was " 'There is a new world coming, Dad, and it is not the one you think', she roared. 'It's not the one your fucking Bible goes on about".
The daughter was quite successful. She was profiled in The Guardian. He read his daughter's novel and he felt much of it was immoral. She ended up writing four novels, one set in Australia and one in Berlin. It seems Evelyn's has left the family a good bit of money. The ending of the story begins to turn me away from the man, makes me think maybe he was a terrible father. You need to read it for yourself to decide.
"Some Sort of Beauty" is a really masterful story. O'Connell slowly unravels the character of the narrator. We wonder if he was the cause of all the misery. Is the cult of the Witnesses an ugly life defying entity? Did the terrible marriage of the man and his wife drive his daughter to become Gay so as not to repeat the patterns of her mother. There is a deep cruelty in the closing of this story and any positive feeling I had for the man is hard to find now.
I really liked this story and I will later in the year do a full post on the entire collection.
Jamie O'Connell has agreed to participate in a Q and A Session for Irish Short Story Month so please look for that soon.