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, January 23, 2015

"To the Trade" by Aiden O'Reilly (2008)

The 2008 Michael McLaverty Prize Winning Story

March will once again be Irish Short Story Month on The Reading Life.

The Michael McLaverty Short Story Prize, named for one of Ulster's great writers and administrated by the Linen Hall Library, was won in 2008 by Aiden O'Reilly from Dublin, for his short story centering on a father and son doing construction work on the house of an upper class Dublin family.

As the story opens the father and his son are on a scaffold on the house.  The father is doing the skilled work, the son basically is his helper, handing him needed items.  "To the Trade" is a very subtle story.  One of the several evoked topics are Irish class markers.  We see that when the son peers into one of the rooms and is impacted by the obvious femininity of the contents, elements of softness and comfort not found in his life.  We learn, without being over instructed, that his mother is gone.  

One of the characteristics of the Irish short story is the portrayal of deep but unshown on the surface feelings.   You can feel both a love and a tension between father and son.  The work is very hard and the weather is brutal.  The lady of the house tells them to come down for lunch but the father does not want to rush down as if he is a starving tradesman being fed by the lady of the manor in the back kitchen.  I felt a lot of real emotion when the father told his son to go eat while the food is hot.

While they eat the father and the woman conversing about lamb.  The woman notices the roughness of the man's hands.  The lines below from the story shows to me how O'Reilly uses his hands for a. kind of near symphonic bringing to life of the struggles of the working class people of Ireland:

"The father reached out for another cut of bread. His thin hands were appallingly abused. The thread remains of a bandage clung to the middle finger. The skin on the sides of the knuckles was cracked in a radial pattern. Dark grey concrete stains lined the ancient cracks; one of them seeped blood, but as though welling up from a great depth. Veins and tendons interplayed on the back of his hand. The fingernails looked like worn saw teeth, or a cracked trowel. They were alive, but had the appearance of things, of abandoned tools. One nail was like a hoof — flesh and keratin intertwined to close over old wounds. Another was split in two from the quick to the fingertip, and a hard growth filled the space between. A bulbous texture like the organic growth of a tree bark over a rusty nail"

One can feel the depth of pain in these lines.  The woman offers to put a plaster on his hands but he says no need but we know it has been a very long time since anyone has shown him any tenderness.

We see in the boy a trapped young man, he hates school and his only way he sees out is to do work on the homes of the rich.  He and his father's relationship is both simple and complex.

I will leave the emotionally devasting close of this story untold.  "To the Trade", which I read three times is very much an award worthy story I commend to all lovers of the form.  I have read some of the novels and short stories of Michael McLaverty and I think he would be honored by the awarding of a prize in his name for this story about working class Irish.  It is a very Irish story but the truths it contains are universal and it counters the claims some, including me, have made about modern Irish literature centering on the weak or missing father.  There is much more that could be said about this story I just hope it gets a large readership.

You can read this story HERE

Be sure and visit Aiden's very interesting webpage

Bio From his publisher's webpage,

 Aiden O’Reilly was interested in puzzles from an early age and published papers on a QM dynamical system before abandoning a PhD in mathematics. He has worked variously as a translator, building-site worker, property magazine editor, and IT teacher. He lived in Eastern Europe for a time, but only met his wife after six years there. He is a 6-kyu go player, enjoys reading Karl Jaspers, and lives in Stoneybatter.

I will soon be posting on his highly received debut collection of short stories, Greetings, Hero.  Aiden has kindly agreed to do a question and answer session so look for that shortly.

Mel u

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