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

Friday, March 1, 2013

Snow Shoes by Eileen Casey

Snow Shoes by Eileen Casey (2013, a collection of short stories)

March 1 to March 31

Eileen Casey
County Offaly

A Q and A with Eileen Casey-very informative and interesting

Event Resources

Posting on collections of short stories poses, for me at least, more of a challenge than posting on a novel or a work of non-fiction.   I do not especially like posts on anthologies of short stories that just rave on about them in general.  When I visit a forest I do not just like to see the trees, I like to examine the moss that grows on them, the vines that climb them and listen to the birds that make them their home.  I like to peel the bark from the trees to see the insects that bore into the trees, I like to study their roots. Sometimes I like to climb to the top of the trees and survey the environment,  once in a rare while I build a tree house and stay a while.  There are lots of different kind of story forests.  Some are scary and dark, some are full of ginger-bread houses and some are places where we feel we could live and grow old, this is the kind of forest I find in the wonderful stories of Eileen Casey.   This is an ancient forest, the trees are old and majestic, an ancient magic is still alive.  

As is my normal procedure on posting on collections of short stories, I will comment on enough of the stories to give you the feel for the work  then attempt an over all comment or two and give my advise to potential readers and buyers of the collection.  To those who want the bottom line now, I totally endorse this wonderful, very diverse, gently wise collection of stories to any lovers of the genre.  


"The Spear of Lugh, Sarah calls it, the image coming from the stories Aunt Rose liked to tell Sarah and her siblings when they were small.  Tales of ancient mythology and of times when gods and goddesses roamed the land, not ordinary folk, like themselves.  Rose especially liked the one about the Spear of Lugh and how, between battles, it had to be immersed in Dagda’s Cauldron to contain its powers.  There was always a big cauldron on the stove.  Thanks to Rose, they never went hungry."  

"Angels" is a beautiful story about the real meaning of love played out in a situation most of us hope we will never be in or impose on a loved one.   James and Sarah, living in Ireland, have been married many years.  As the story opens Gabriel is smearing ointment on the now very aged James.    He is from the Caribbean, and even though he has been in Ireland for a long time, Sarah still thinks of far away magic places when she hears his voice.   In the employ of the government, he is a home health care worker.    To Sarah he seems a visiting angel, even his name suggests this.   He also brings in the outside world to her, a world with a future.   Sarah thinks back on her younger days, not always good times but thanks to her Aunt Rose she and her siblings survived hard times.    She sits in the park sometimes and you can tell the sight of the empty liquor bottles makes her think of a time when people did not throw their trash in the park.   There is no feeling of resentment in her.   She loves James and she thinks sometimes of when they were young.   They never thought it would come to this but then who would?   I really liked it when Sarah ruminated on the stories of ancient Ireland her Aunt Rose once told her, we can see, or at least I think I do, them giving her strength now.   "Angels" is a first rate very moving perfectly developed story.    Casey does a brilliant job of letting us see how Sarah goes from the past to the future, we know she is really alone now with her memories and they are most of what she has left.

"Apres Bennie"

"‘Just imagine, those birds fly over ten thousand miles at the end of summer,’ Ruby said to him at the reception. ‘A lot of them don’t make it’ he’d replied then seeing her crestfallen expression he’d raised his glass of champagne, clinked it to hers and said,
     ‘Here’s to swallows, long may they fly south for the winter.’
‘Just imagine, those birds fly over ten thousand miles at the end of summer,’ Ruby said to him at the reception. ‘A lot of them don’t make it’ he’d replied then seeing her crestfallen expression he’d raised his glass of champagne, clinked it to hers and said,

     ‘Here’s to swallows, long may they fly south for the winter.’"

Like "Angels", "Apres Bennie" is about married love though from a far different place in life's timeline. "Angels" takes place at the denouement of a long marriage, "Apres Bennie", is also about an ending in a marriage, the ending of the first blush of romantic excitement when reality sets in and you understand marriage is not all romantic mornings in bed and delightful afternoons at Temple Bar with friends, especially after the kids come. If you once laid in bed with your wife or husband and talked about how much you loved each other and now you talk about how your kids are doing in school and everything revolves around them you will understand and appreciate this story. This does not mean love dies when this happens, passion might be part of love but it is far from the same thing as this marvelous story evokes for us. We also see lurking under this that the husband does resent the loss of morning romantic encounters they once had and we see the wife caught up with her son, maybe this foreshadows his becoming her primary love interest, only time will tell. I totally liked and was very moved by this work.

"Put your Shoes On, Susie, We’re Going Out Tonight"
"Yet Susie was always there, a goddess then with golden hair and eyes the colour of the green hedging at the back of the school in Kiltimagh.  And she kept her looks for a long time.  Even when I was drunk, blind as Raftery himself wandering through the hills and vales, she kept her looks.  Fresh and young as a chick, fluffed out in spring.  She slept with me at night too, and drowned out the fist fights and the retchings in the boarding house, and the smell of her cloaked the stench of piss and vomit and the scent of the wildflower that grew in the wetlands of Kiltimagh."

Has a song ever stuck in your head and gotten deep down inside you? Maybe it kept you going during dark times and brought you private joy during others. Maybe one that made you feel less alone? In 1949 a fourteen year old boy hears a butcher sing "Put your Shoes On, Susie, We're Going Out Tonight" and it sinks way down deep into his consciousness. He grows up and the song never leaves him. Susie, if no other woman, leaves her shoes under his bed. She goes with him when he leaves Ireland for New York. These lines tell us why:

"There was plenty others went from here in Cricklewood and in New York too, neighbours and friends, leaving behind the prospects of nothing but walking the streets and hanging around corners with fags hanging out of their mouths and their hands stuck deep into their pockets."

His life is not much better in New York City. Maybe it is worse. At ending of the story, he does return to Ireland. It is very sad with its suggestion of empty years to come. Suzie is left behind in New York City and we know she won't be coming back to Ireland. This a profound story of the emigrant experience. The life of every emigrant is their own, for every Irishman who became the president of a railroad, there were 100 who died alone of alcoholism, often brought on by loneliness. This is also a story about the extreme emotional reserve that seems built into the Irish character. (I owe my thanks to the author for given me some excellent insight into the background of this wonderful story.)

  "Dr Quirkey’s Good Time Emporium"

"Air Ticket, one way to Paris jumps out among the slips for second-hand cars or morning classes.  Not that she’d be going to Paris. Or morning classes either.  It’s ages since herself and Jim have gone anywhere nice.  The summer before, in a rare burst of nostalgia, they went back to the house where Jim’s mother had lived, right up until her death.  A right Tartar that one had been too she remembers – though Jim has placed her on a pedestal."  

Whenever Ann goes to the shopping center she stops and looks at the notices placed on the bulletin board. You know the ones, "Lose Weight", "Cheap Airplane Tickets", "flat to let". Ann stops to reflect on one that says he has a van and will do any kind of hauling. Right next to it is one that says "Have trouble reading or spelling?" Somehow she imagines these two blending into one, I thought this just brilliant on Casey's part and she visualizes this marvelous scenario I think a lot of us can relate to even if we do not want to admit it:

"It’s all there,’ she’ll reply,  ‘Six big black sacks of screaming matches, two bags full of yes sirs, no sirs,  six bags full sirs,’ all neatly tied with sticky tape  and all stickered. One stack alone crammed with curses she can’t bear to think of, especially the C word.  And what of the bags full of silences, bloated like helium balloons?   Jim could put a clamp on his mouth for days.  Brooding days.  Up late, then off out.  Not that he was a big boozer, ‘It passes the hours.’  She’d stopped trying to pin down an exact time for his return.  All those twenty minutes past maybe or ten minutes past ‘When I fucking feel like it,’ could go in the transit van as well."

Her husband, age forty which I guess is her age also, has recently been laid off from his job at a cigarette factory.  Now he gets up at noon and shaves when the spirit moves him which is not very often.  One thing you can learn from short stories and from life is that almost everyone sooner or later ends up with a tragedy in their life, something that changes them forever but they have to go on anyway whether they like it or not.  I will not tell more of the plot of this great story but I found it very knowing and indicative of a very refined highly emotionally intelligent author's sensibility.

"For Soon Ae Kang"

"You were eleven years old when your childhood ended.  Exchanged like so many others, some even younger, to become a military comfort woman.    Comfort for the arms of soldiers who, by day, lived in the horror of war, who, by night, tried to forget, burying themselves in the sweet flesh of children.  The oceans did not roar their disapproval.  Trees did not wave angry fists.  The birds of the air slid silent through their spaces.  In faraway lands, dust did not stir up clouds of doubt but settled in the dry air.  Such are the ways of war."

This is a deeply moving almost
Orphic story about a woman  who was taken during World War Two from her home in what is now North Korea at age eleven to be placed in a brothel for Japanese troops stationed in the Philippines.   These women were given the cruel name of "comfort women".    The topic of comfort women is still a controversial one in the regions of Asian the Japanese conquered.     Human rights groups have demanded that the Japanese government provide monetary help to those few comfort women still alive but the Japanese deny that there were ever any comfort women and say the claims are a fraud.  

This is a profoundly sad story of the end of childhood, the end of hope, the end of innocence in a setting of great savagery.   The story is structured in an interesting fashion.   The narrated has somehow become aware of the life of Soon Ae Kang. She begins to think of her own daughter about the same age as when Soon Ae Kang was captured and the boundless possibilities of her child versus the reality of the life of a woman from a culture far different from her own.  The woman cannot escape the terrible memories that keep flooding her consciousness. You can see this in the truly exquisite prose of Casey.

"Now you see soldiers’ trucks steaming in the village heat, hear their shouts of rage.  You turn to run, not on the scarf path but deep into scraping branches that would rip the thin cloth of your dress, bruise your tender body.  You would have run until your heart burst like the blossoms on the Spring trees.  I hear your breath, already rasping in your throat, struggling to find its rhythm.  This you could have borne.  You could have endured the deepest cuts, the weariest exhaustion. But then came the rustle of foliage, hands reaching out to grasp you to the ground, burying you into the hard, unforgiving earth.  A soldier grates against you, the brass of his uniform a dull leaden sheen, like spit, on your skin.   This is the last thing remembered before clouds of pain scud over the dark circle that blocks out the day." 

"Snow Shoes"

"No Rob my lad, you don’t understand.  The bloke was found in a fancy designer suit and wearing new shoes, not a mark on them, no scuff, nothing.  Here, read it yourself if you don’t believe me.  Frozen to death when they found him,’ Henry repeats. ‘The poor bastard.’
    Rob takes the paper from Henry’s outstretched hand and tucks it under his arm as the kettle starts to boil up. It pierces the air like a shrill whistle. He warms his mug and then pops in a teabag, leaving it to brew before finally shaking out the newspaper.  There’s a picture of an ice-capped peak in Mallnitz, Austria, and a large headline “Dressed to Chill” about a designer."

Rob has a job as a security guard in a big store, one that sells all kind of things. His job is to patrol the store and look for shoplifters. His work mate Henry calls him on his head set to warn him when his boss is coming his way. It is a boring job but Rob is still on six months trial and jobs are not easy to find so he is not complaining too much even though is really boring work. The weather this time of year is really bad. His wife is really into shoes and he wants to get her a special pair to cope with the dangerous walking the snow brings. Ordinary lives of ordinary people. Then his friend at work tells him a well dressed man has been found frozen to death in the snow in Austria. Rob at first says well it happens all the time but this is different as the man was found in a designer suit with no out door wear. They begin to speculate how he ended up there. His friend thinks maybe he was part of a drug deal and got dropped out of a plane. As part of the thread of the story we meed Rob's wife, she seems like a decent woman and they have a satisfactory relationship. There is a weird undercurrent here. Rob keeps imaging someone will come up behind her when she is alone and strangle her.

"Snow Shoes" is a very well done story about how people use fantasies and constructed stories to cope with the boredom of the their lives and the everyday petty degradations people face in their work places.

"Macaw" (2011 Winner of the Hennessey Emerging Fiction Award)

I admit with a bit of editing these words that start "Macaw" in which the 16 year old daughter in the family is trying to guilt trip some new clothes from her mother sound very familiar in our household of three teenage daughters.

"Mam, it’s Saturday and you promised...’ Lori looks even younger than her sixteen years.  Her hair is swept in an up style, loose silky tendrils brushing her shoulders.  Her fluffy dressing gown is pulled tight, revealing the curves of her slender body.
      ‘Dad’s been up ages and gone for bread, there’s mould on what’s left in the breadbin, yeuch!’  A slight frown steals some of her prettiness.
    ‘Sorry, I thought we had plenty,’ Louise says through a half yawn.  Her head throbs a little. She’s sorry now she’d had that third glass of wine and hates the lingering tang it leaves in her mouth.
     ‘Dad will get lovely fresh rolls, he’ll be back soon,  I’ll shower and get dressed and be down in a minute, okay?’
    ‘Okay.  But don’t forget your promise, it’s Jo-Anne’s sleepover next...’
     ‘Friday......I know, as if I needed reminding, it’s all you’ve been able to talk about....’
     ‘...And I don’t want to look like a skaaanger....’ Lori interrupts, drawing out the word as if holding her breath, enjoying the look on her mother’s face."

The conversations between the daughter and her parents are perfect. Lori's Mom sets the ground rules for the shopping exhibition, "forty euros, max". Lori already has her ear phones on and she doesn't hear a word. Going along on the shopping expedition was a lot of fun to read. I confess I have never volunteered to go along when one of our teenage daughters is taken on a shopping expedition but I know it can be a real test of patience. We also get a very good insight into the dynamics of their marriage.

Snow Shoes by Eileen Casey has 13 stories in all.   Each one is very much worth reading, beautifully written and explicated with a deep artistic sensibility.   You can feel the author's deep compassion for the trials and burdens of ordinary lives and extraordinary ones.   I find her work profoundly emphatic.  

I endorse these stories for any and all lovers of the form.  Several of the stories are about long term marriages and I think anyone in such a situation will find themselves reflecting on the state of their own relationship.   Her ability to write so movingly about a Korean comfort woman shows she can go outside the scope of her immediate world to project herself into psyches foreign to her immediate environment and shows the range of her imaginative power.    

Author Data

Eileen Casey is an Irish writer. Originally from the Midlands (Co. Offaly), she’s lived in South Dublin County for since the late 1970’s. She is a fiction writer, poet and journalist. Her many awards include a Katherine Kavanagh Fellowship (Poetry) and a Sunday Independent, Hennessy Literary Award (Fiction).

A debut short story collection ‘Snow Shoes’ was published by Arlen House, 2012.  She holds a B.A. in Humanities (Hons.) from DCU and completed an M.Phil in Creative Writing at Trinity College, Dublin in 2011 where she was awarded distinction.  

Her debut poetry collection Drinking the Colour Blue was published by New Island in 2008.  Collaborative works with Visual Artist Emma Barone  are Reading Hieroglyphs in Unexpected Places (2010) and From Bone to Blossom (2011) with an introduction by Grace Wells. has an excellent article in which Casey talks about the stories in Snow Shoes as well as a wide range of other topics.

There is more information on Snow Shoes on the webpage of her American distributor Syracuse University Press

You can order it from Amazon also

Eileen Casey has agreed to allow me to interview her so please look for this soon.   

She also will be sharing with us a talk she gave at Cork County Short Story Festival.

Mel u


valerie sirr said...

Great to see Eileen's book being reviewed here. I enjoyed the stories for the same reason - like the compassion towards her characters too.

Joan Power said...

Eileen Casey's writing shows that there is always something new under the sun. A book to read and re-read.
Joan Power