“new ways of reading the silence”

Stuck for a last minute present? If Joseph O’Connor’s review is anything to go by, you could do worse than pick up this reworked collection of short stories, Creatures of the Earth: New and Selected Stories by John McGahern, who died earlier this year. The Guardian also has the title story online – part one and part two. Or you could just buy the collected stories anyway..From the review

The collection also serves as a form of farewell to the characters that McGahern made his own. They walk through these assiduously crafted miniatures like the archetypes of a modern folklore: the inarticulate lover, the distant, damaged father, the schoolteacher who doubts or despises his vocation. Several times we encounter the former student for the Catholic priesthood who abandoned that path on the verge of ordination, or the man who missed his cue when it was howled by the fates. These are lives marked by abrupt turnings, roads not taken, promises broken, the hopes of childhood crushed, but somehow a faith in the world survives, a notion that redemption is possible. This Chekhov of small town, pre-confident Ireland is brilliant on human weakness, on what it means to be powerless. His people have feelings of agonising complexity, but their language does not give them the power of expression. Like Beckett’s outcasts or Brian Friel’s lovers, they seem caught in a perpetual struggle between silence and speech, but the style McGahern developed, shifting subtly between scrupulous plainness and high lyricism, somehow gives voice to their condition.

The collection draws so skilfully from a well of Irish familial images, returning them reminted, infused with quiet force. In that way, the stories may be read as rehearsals for the novels, or as tributaries of one another, workings-out of implications. The father in most of them is a version of Amongst Women’s Moran, the disenchanted republican burnished hard by pain. The women, especially the elderly women, are so achingly recognisable that you forget they are products of an imagination. They talk about rain, about children and preparing food, and all the time something else is being discussed. The troubled couple in the masterful “Sierra Leone” cannot communicate except in evasions. Yet McGahern finds resonant beauty in such halting attempts at empathy, and his dialogue, so loving and carefully poised, crackles with the vividness of popular speech.

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