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Big Mouth

By Blanaid McKinney

This debut collection comprises eleven electrifying short stories, one of which - the longish, highly empathic ‘The Outfielder, the Indian-Giver’ - has already appeared in the anthology Phoenix: Irish Short Stories 1998, edited by that great champion of the Irish short story and tireless unearther of new talent, David Marcus, and subsequently in Dermot Bolger’s Picador Book of Contemporary Irish Fiction; and another of which, the mesmerisingly effective title story, was published by Ciaran Carty in ‘New Irish Writing’ in The Sunday Tribune, and nominated for last year’s Hennessy Award for Best Emerging Fiction. ‘Please’ was broadcast on RTE radio.

Her themes are the nature of love, and coping with lost love and bereavement; the nature of violence, its uses and abuses and often inexplicable arbitrariness; and the nature of loyalty, and difficult moral choices. In ‘Sub Aqua’, sixty-five year old Hazel finally decides to leave her mute, ex-underground train-driver husband Jim, who hasn’t spoken for three years, silenced by the horror of a leaper in front of the train he was driving. ‘I never thought of myself as cruel. I don’t know. There are few things as cold as loyalty. Perhaps I am dreadfully wrong, but I know that I cannot go on. I cannot continue with this agony. I can’t. Oh, God, Jim, I am sorry for this bloodless mutiny. I am so sorry. I am so sorry. I am so sorry...’ Diane and Vadim in ‘The Klondyker and The Silver Darlings’ must decide whether to embark on an affair or remain true to former or current relationships, she to an adulterous deep-sea fisherman husband, he to a wife who has left him and taken the kids, but whom he must go on believing he can still get back. ‘And in that moment of rejection she realised, dimly, that she might be in love with him. She had sought him out, to ease her betrayal, only to find that he could not betray, that in the diaspora of men abroad in the world a scrap of something like nobility existed.’ In ‘Among The Gadje’ gypsy Dolores wonders whether her granddaughter Clare’s marriage to estate agent James represents cowardly closure or true love, and ponders if her own choice of the settled life over life on the road was a betrayal of sorts. ‘Clare’s embrace of James’ world was like both a slap in the face and a reminder of her own weakness.’

To refer back briefly to that hoary old Head versus Heart debate, which I broached in my review of John Banville’s Eclipse in last month’s issue of this magazine, what we have with McKinney is someone who gets her facts straight, but this does not lead to any diminishment of feeling. This woman does her homework, and so there are detailed references scattered throughout the stories to different types of winds, cars, flowers, fish, Indian tribes and American baseball teams. This capacious knowledge provides her with an almost mythological backdrop, and proves that fierce intelligence does not necessarily function as a defence against genuine, indeed uncontrollable and uncontainable, feeling. Rather, it intensifies it. This is nowhere more apparent than in the title story, which is ostensibly about what we euphemistically call ‘The Northern Situation’, but is framed within an acute, and much broader, meditation on what happens when media become more important than messages, forms more important than feelings. For McKinney’s greatest fascination is with language itself, and it is the subject she collects most facts about, all the while knowing that facts only get you so far.

This boundless facility with words, coupled with her exploration of the deepest and most contradictory corners of the human heart, make her one of an increasingly rare breed: a writer who can actually write, i.e. use language to enhance and realise her purpose, rather than merely dole out drearily flaccid, badly expressed, descriptions of emotional states. Check out these wonderful, randomly chosen, phrases: ‘Diane had always been intimidated by their coltish invention, their energy, their swaggering tetch.’; ‘...but his energy and menacing optimism had just, somehow, magicked the fearlessness from her, leaving her solid and dependable and cautious.’; ‘...his persuasive breeziness...’; ‘...his bouncy independence...’; ‘All the lopsided ferocities of the past month fell away; the crushing, cavalier kindnesses of family and friends, their terrible gifts of sympathy, their breezy interference.’; ‘...the livid, cheerful threnody...’. It is unlikely that a more bracing and invigorating debut collection of short stories will be published in this, or indeed many another, year. More please, as soon as you’re ready.

First published in Books Ireland

 

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