by John Boland

In the introduction to her 1996 Collected Stories, Mavis Gallant had some sound advice for readers. “Stories are not chapters of novels,” she pointed out. “They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.” A reviewer, of course, has no such luxury and is only too aware that reading nineteen stories one after another – and by the same writer – can be too much either of a good or a bad thing.

In the case of Anne Enright’s latest collection – her first since The Portable Virgin in 1991 – it turns out to be too much of a good thing, though the stories are so varied in theme, tone and point of view that they constantly surprise and thus there’s none of the fatigue one would feel if forced, under similar time constraints, to read nineteen stories by, say, Raymond Carver.

The book will be bracing, too, for those readers who were dismayed by the aggressive and intrusive coarseness of  Ms Enright’s Man Booker winner, The Gathering, and couldn’t understand the critical esteem it enjoyed. In these stories there’s a good deal of coarseness, too – the messiness of our physical selves is a recurrent subject – but the tone is so sure, the language so adroit and the observations so true to their situations that the often raw asides come across as integral to the characters and not as some authorial obsession with bodily parts and functions, which seemed to be the case in The Gathering. Perhaps the short form is Ms Enright’s true metier, just as it is with William Trevor.

There are few epiphanies in these stories and even fewer consolations, though that’s not to suggest that glumness prevails. Indeed, when the tone isn’t wry it’s often positively jaunty, as if the foolishness of human aspirations is best countered by sardonic sprightliness – the narratives may be recounted by mothers, wives and daughters at the end of their tether or by lovers doomed to disappointment’s dying fall, but that, the author persuades us, is the way life is, so intent on its cruel and mundane comedy that sometimes all you can do is laugh.

And there’s a lot of humour here, though so intricately related to – and revealing of – character that it’s difficult to quote out of context. There’s Tommy, who “at the mention of his wife’s name looks vague, as though he can’t remember exactly what she is supposed to be doing with her life just now.” There’s the dreary family campsite in the Vendee, “which was Co Louth, basically.” And there are the equally dubious charms of Sligo, “a place where it rained all day and the rent-boys hung out for the blokes down from Northern Ireland, and they called a housing estate after WB Yeats, and you could rot, or you could run, as he did, to somewhere far away.”

Certainly the rot has set in for many of the people here, from the woman’s nomadic lover in The Bad Sex Weekend, who finds one place so much like another that there’s “nowhere else to go,” to the daughter in Honey who’s burdened by “the mother thing, which is to say, too much complaining and too much love.”

Still, solace can be encountered by snatching out of time the passionate transitory, as in “the hangover ride” of The Bad Sex Weekend, “which was unexpectedly sweet,” or in “the sweet, nothing days” evoked by the student narrator of Pillow, or in the woman’s reflection that if her lover, with whom she’s holidaying abroad, “didn’t bother with the map, then they wouldn’t get lost, because it didn’t matter where they went, it was all beautiful and all the same.”

Reality, though, always intrudes on the reverie, as when the wife in Until the Girl Died observes of her  weak, philandering husband: “I was looking at a long future with a man who had forgotten what he was for.”

At the outset of all these stories you have no idea where they’re heading and indeed a few of them end up going nowhere, or at least nowhere compelling. But there are at least ten stories here as good as any short fiction written in this country or elsewhere in the last forty years. It’s a remarkable collection.

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