Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Sunday, November 11, 2012

"April Snow" by Maeve O'Brien

"April Snow" by Maeve O'Brien (2012, 3 pages)
from 30 Under 30:  A Selection of Short Stories by Thirty Young Irish Writers edited by Elizabeth Reapy with a foreword by John Walsh

The Irish Quarter

"She thought about the people who had lived in these hills and their desperate hopes of crop fruition.   The history of death is etched in this land.    These deep-dug lines in the hills yield nothing except famine and the pungent memory of rotted growth.  Even the bodies in the graveyard can't get away:  their final resting place an accessory to future murder..."

There are thirty stories in 30 Under 30:  A Selection of Short Stories by Thirty Young Irish Writers.  (I totally endorse purchase of this very fairly priced collection and will provide a publisher's link at the end of this post.)   There is also a very interesting introduction  by the editor Elizabeth Reapy (I have posted on her very well done short story, "Statues") and a foreword  by John Walsh..   Agreeing with John Walsh, I think this book could well be a collector's item one day.  

Posting on collections of short stories that include the works of many different authors presents a big challenge, to me at least.    I do not personally care for reviews or posts on short story collections that simply have one or two lines on a few of the stories and then gush over the collection as a whole with standard book review quotes.   These could in fact easily be written without reading much of the collection and to me it is like going on about a forest without realizing it is made up of trees.   On the other hand, to post on all thirty of the stories would take a long time, an hour or so per post give or take, so I  will decide as I go how many of the stories to post on.

I was totally stunned by "April Snow" by Maeve O'Brien.   It is a shimmering story with a dark beauty, deeply rooted in Ireland and with a profound sense of the miasma of death that hangs over the landscape.   It fears and repudiates the political killings and the senseless death that political division has brought Ireland, anyone would do that, but in in much deeper vein in celebrates how our reaction to these deaths make us more alive by simply surviving to be a spectator on them.   The first thing that struck me about the story was the elegance and beauty of the prose.  There are many perfect epigraphic sentences in the story with tremendous wisdom in them.  The narrative mode flawlessly melds with the "meaning"  (I really do not like that term but I use it anyway.)   It is also about the Irish diaspora, the need of the young to get away from a failed economy that seems to offer few opportunities.  We know the woman in this story may realize her dream of leaving Ireland but we also know Ireland will never leave her and as she matures she will long to return.    I will tell enough of the story so you can get a good sense of what it about.   

"April Snow", told in the third person, a very good decision, is about a woman coming back from a wake for a school friend she was once kind of close with.   She is by herself in a back road from Draperstown to Gortin.  It has been a cold winter and snow is everywhere.   She cannot get anything on the car radio as she is too far out of town.   Instead of noticing the beauty of the snow-covered countryside, she fixes on the snow made dirty by road debris, animal waste, sludge and mud.   This snow is Ireland.  It should be a place of simple beauty but it has been transformed into a place of great ugliness, at least where nature and man meet.   I think having the central, and actually only character, in the story by herself in a car reinforces the sense of isolation of the woman.   

The woman and the late man, Colm (an archetypal Irish name, I think maybe this jumps out more to an outsider to Irish culture than the Irish but this is a guess) went to school together and as they shared the same surname they set next to each other in various classes.    They formed a not terribly strong after school relationship but upon graduation they each went their own way.  The woman feels a sense of nausea as she drives and I was shocked by the power with which O'Brien relays this.  It turned the woman into a flesh and blood person for me.  I do not want to tell to much of the storyline of this short work.  The woman begins to think of the dead buried everywhere along the road.  She thinks of how the IRA used to hide guns in graves. She thinks on the terrible pain the people who lived along the road had been through for generations.   

There is a deep sense of history in this story.  You can feel it in this amazing line.  

"She felt that this land, so riddled with the hard cold deaths of the seventies and eighties, had combined with the famine apparitions and taken him into their murky grip.

The last paragraph of the story is overpowering in its sadness.  The woman in the story knows she will never escape Ireland and maybe she does not know it yet but the pain she sees will make her stronger and wiser.  Maybe she will get her wish of living in Melbourne or some other imagined by the young to paradise place but paradise is lost to her now.    

I said some time ago that I see a love of death in the Irish short story, one I do not see in my other reading projects on short stories of the Philippines and those of the Indian subcontinent.   

"April Snow" alone is worth the price of the collection.   It is an amazing, beautiful, deeply felt story rooted in Ireland but one to which anyone with a sense of history of a troubled place can relate.  

You can find more information about the collection at the web page of  Doire Press

Author Biography  (from her blog)

My name is Maeve, I'm 27 and beginning my final year as a Ph.D. candidate at The University of Ulster, working on a thesis primarily discussing the poetry of Sylvia Plath. I hope that my blog will not only serve as a resource on this fascinating topic but more broadly on life as a graduate student as well.

My interest in Sylvia Plath, like many, began when I was in my mid-teens. I was completely entranced by Plath's fiery and vivid use of language and the emotions explored in her work. As a typical teenager, I found Plath's poetry instantly relatable: all my angsts, concerns and feelings seemed to be perfectly described in Ariel

From 2003-2006, I studied for a BA (Hons) degree in English Literature and Modern History at Queen's University Belfast where my final year dissertation looked at Plath's work in context with the twentieth-century American poetic vernacular. My experiences as an undergrad studying American poetry and fiction definitely shaped the way I consider literature in general. Completing my MLitt at the University of Glasgow in 2007, I wrote on Jorie Graham and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, which was an immensely satisfying experience. My masters study afforded me the opportunity to study weird and wacky fringe elements within American poetry, challenged me to think about literature in different ways and made me unafraid of the unknown!

Following on from my MLitt, I worked in University administration for three years and my love for Plath began to re-emerge distinctly at this point. Having put her work on the back-burner while at Glasgow, coming back to the novels, short stories and poems in my mid-twenties was so refreshing. Plath's writing took on brand new meanings for me. I became interested in the larger issues that surround her work, the Cold War, WW2, McCarthyism, the pre-second wave feminist era, motherhood, daughterhood, wifedom, psychoanalysis, the evolution in sound that the poems make... I could go on.

It became clear to me that should I ever go for a Ph.D., Plath had to be the poet I work on. And so I enrolled in my programme in 2010 and have never looked back! I am happy to discuss my dissertation topic in more detail with anyone interested. 

Aside from all things Sylvia Plath, I enjoy spending time with friends, eating out, live music (Ryan Adams in particular), swimming and being near the sea. I am a fervent New York-ophile and have been in love with North Carolina and Tennessee for many years. Prior to starting my Ph.D., I travelled solo across the United States and dream of living and working there before I'm 30! Like Plath, I am passionate and expect nothing but the best from myself.

I hope one day to have the honor of doing a post on a collection of short stories by Maeve O'Brien.  I read "April Snow" five times before I wrote this post and I liked it more on each occasion.   

I will be posting on other stories from the collection soon.  

Mel u


The Plath Diaries said...

Really overwhelmed by this review. Thank you so much for taking the time to go through the story in such an in-depth manner.

Jahan Ramazani -a literary critic I love - said that he thought the biggest achievement of Irish writers like Yeats etc was their individualisation of death - i.e. taking huge occurrences of death and making it personal, in order to process on it, or make a new kind of commentary. I think that was the main source of my inspiration for this story. To me Ireland seems to evolve through phases of death - the famine, the Troubles, the current epidemic of suicide. And all these deaths are imprinted on the land, on us very significantly.

Thank you so much again for this review - I look forward to reading more 30 Under 30 reviews and following your blog in the future! :)

@parridhlantern said...

This has a great deal of appeal & a writer that has a fascination for the poetry of Sylvia Plath, floats my boat would be interested in whether she also liked the poetry of Hughes.

The Plath Diaries said...

Hi Parrish - I do like the poetry of Hughes, very much! I don't hugely rate Birthday Letters but love The Hawk in the Rain and Lupercal very much. I really enjoy Hughes's literary criticism as well!

Mel u said...

The Plath Diaries. I have begun reading Transnational Poetics by Ramazani. I have been greatly influenced by Edward Said so his approach is of great interest to me. I have done post colonial posts on poetry by writers from the Philippines. I will attempt a post on this work upon completion. Thanks for the suggestion.

Mel u said...

Parrish and The Plath Diaries. I have posted on a short story by Hughes, "the horses". A very interesting work.

Mel u said...

The Plath Diaries. I was wondering if you have any short stories or poems online? I would like to read more/all of your creative work and I am sure Parrish would love to read your Poems.

Mel u said...

The Plath Diaries and Parrish Lantern. I posted on Ted Hughes story, "rain horse"

@parridhlantern said...

Hi, Plath diaries Crow is probably my favourite in fact, it's one of my all time favourite poetry collections.