Over my winter holiday last year I read the anthology “The Long Gaze Back” and was enraptured by the quality of writing included. This book helped me discover writers such as Lisa McInerney, Maeve Brennan, Anakana Schofield and Lucy Caldwell whose books I’ve gone on to read and enjoy over the course of this year. But, as well as being a group of engaging stories in themselves, this anthology served as a self conscious attempt to give a necessary platform to Irish women writers in a canon dominated by male voices. Editor Sinéad Gleeson has now brought together a second volume “The Glass Shore” which only includes women writers from the North of Ireland. It’s a diverse array of fascinating short stories from over two centuries of writing that represent a plethora of authors from this region. It was wonderful reading this anthology from start to finish as I was treated to a wide variety of excellent stories with varying styles and subject matter. But I also gained a sense of the progressing ideas and issues female writers from Northern Ireland have dealt with in their fiction over time. The act of reading the stories in “The Glass Shore” together builds a cumulative mental portrait of this country from a variety of strong female points of view.

A beautiful arch is created from the first story to the last. The book begins with a fable-like story 'The Mystery of Ora' by Rosa Mulholland where a traveller comes upon a remote house with an astronomer who keeps a beautiful woman confined there. In the exuberantly enjoyable final story of the collection by Roisín O'Donnell there is also a spark of the supernatural; 'The Seventh Man' is about a woman who weds men over the centuries to sap them of their energy to keep herself alive. It’s a fitting way to end this collection which includes many female characters that demonstration inventive ways of eluding society’s conventional expectations for how women should live. In ‘An Idealist’ by Erminda Renoult Esler a woman recalls an incident in her life when she was sharply belittled by her sister only to grow to become a respected writer. Margaret Barrington’s majestic story ‘Village without Men…’ is a complex depiction of a community of women who have lost all their men to a ship wreck leading them to carry on entirely independently. Whereas 'The Devil's Gift' by Frances Molloy presents a girl from a large family who tries to join a nunnery but finds this community of women far from welcoming. By contrast, Lucy Caldwell’s heart-wrenching story ‘Mayday’ is told from the point of view of a girl at university trying to illegally deal with an unwanted pregnancy. When she contemplates the responsibility of the man who got her pregnant she reasons “It should be his problem too, but it just isn't, the world doesn't work like that.” Considering that the issue of abortion in Northern Ireland has been hotly debated in recent times, the story of this young woman’s precarious state feels especially relevant.

There are a large amount of vivid female characters in the stories, but there are also several stories narrated by male characters and consider many different aspects of masculinity. Ethna Carbery’s creepy and emotionally-compelling ‘The Coming of Maire Ban’ shows a man on All Soul’s Night hoping for a visit from his wife who died in childbirth. He’s accompanied by a friend who also loved his wife and through the night he comes to a realization about the reality of their relationship. Caroline Blackwood’s alternately hilarious and tragic story ‘Taft’s Wife’ is written from the point of view of a male social worker reuniting society woman Mrs Ripstone with the boy who she gave up for adoption. He remarks that “She had an unpleasantly over-ladylike accent that masked some coarser, underlying accent with unmelodious results.” Mrs Ripstone's increasingly flirtatious/superficial manner with him and dismissal of her son conceals the way she’s felt compelled to construct an identity and life which doesn’t include the reality of her child. ‘The Girls’ by Janet McNeill focuses on the views of a man taken to a tedious dinner reuniting his wife with her old friends and the way this forms a communion with our past and present selves. Sheila Llewellyn’s 'Capering Penguins' sees its male narrator return from war to visit the bookshop whose titles have an entirely different meaning for him now that he’s experienced the bitter consequences of battle. This creates a crisis within him which drives him to take shocking action.

Political conflict enters into the narratives much more as the stories progress through time and the bitter consequences of The Troubles affect the writers and their characters. Mary Beckett’s enigmatic story ‘Flags and Emblems’ shows the power of symbols in a community with sharp Unionist/Loyalist divides. The tense mood is so pervasive it feels like it influences the physical environment itself as in this poetic line: “The distant, lipping whisper on the sand and the sucking puffs of little breezes from the hills taunted her with their lack of violence.” There is a different slant taken on symbols in 'Cornucopia' by Anne Devlin where her narrator becomes a scholar working in Germany far from her Irish roots. The main character of Linda Anderson’s evocative story 'The Turn' has also left her homeland and is now confined in a Cambridge hospital. She thinks bitterly of Northern Ireland that it is “A fragment of a country, a blood-soaked tatter of a place with its 'peace walls' still standing, more than fifteen years after the ceasefires.” The couple in Jan Carson’s ‘Settling’ feel similarly disillusioned with available opportunities in Belfast and move to England, but the narrator eerily finds that the presence of her deceased grandmother has travelled with her.

Evelyn Conlon’s powerful 'Disturbing Words' gives an impression of the practical reality of new physical borders and individual resistance to regimental change. This is something which will no doubt be newly felt in Northern Ireland over the coming years as the government sorts out the mess of Brexit with its new borders. An act of individual protest also occurs in ‘The Mural Painter’ by Rosemary Jenkinson where a man commissioned to spray paint a mural for Armistice Day creates something entirely different from what his paramilitary employers want. Annemarie Neary presents social/political clashes abroad in her story ‘The Negotiators’ where a woman seeks capitalist opportunities in Algiers but isn’t prepared for the realities of the rapidly transforming playing field. An example of the more subtle long-lasting consequences of political conflict is shown in ‘No Other Place’ by Martina Devlin where an aging poet’s opinions clash with a police constable. Here you can feel a writer’s frustration with her work not being read, but she comes to the practical conclusion that “Perhaps it’s irrelevant if they listen or not – maybe what matters is the act of writing.” Luckily this anthology brings together this rich variety of writing to give a complex personal understanding of political turbulence within Northern Ireland.

While there are many interesting issues explored, I also highly admire the technical innovation and experimentation of form demonstrated in many of these stories as well. Polly Devlin gives a realistic take on a mythological story in her ‘The Countess & Icarus’ with tragic-comic results and some cracking lines such as “Martine’s crust now remained intact as far as Dora knew, but presumably had, once upon a time, yielded and oozed nicely for Victor.” Una Woods shows absurdist flair in her fascinating story 'The Diary: An Everyday Fable' which includes intense conversations about the purpose for being between metal objects. ‘The Cure for Too Much Feeling’ by Bernie McGill makes a woman’s lack of empathy into a medical condition where “She was laid low by other people’s misery, it sapped her energy, brought her out in a rash.” It forces her to become increasingly confined and cut off from society until she’s entirely isolated. The emotionally devastating story ‘The Speaking and the Dead’ by Tara West plays upon popular emotional and financial investments people make in the supernatural to deal with un-reconciled feelings of loss and grief. Many stories in the collection show highly creative ways for conveying complex ideas and emotions through forms of writing uniquely tailored to suit their subject matter.

I’m excited to read more from many writers included in “The Glass Shore”. Many of the contemporary writers included have novels and collections of stories published. It will also be thrilling to track down the books of some of the lesser known deceased writers in this book. I currently have on my shelves book published this year by Roisín O'Donnell and Annemarie Neary and I’ve been browsing through books by many more of the authors included. This anthology certainly stands on its own, but makes the most wonderful starting point for discovering writers I haven’t encountered before. While each story stands on its own, there is an intelligent flow from story to story which touch upon connected ideas, concepts or themes. The care and passion Sinéad Gleeson has shown in compiling this collection and the previous anthology is commendable. “The Glass Shore” is a necessary celebration of great women writers.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSinead Gleeson
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Lonely-Sea-and-Sky-.jpg

When reading novels about WWII you are usually shown the perspective of women and men from countries involved in fighting the conflict. However, I haven’t come across many representations of countries that maintained neutrality. So I’ve found it fascinating reading two recent novels which do this: Rose Tremain’s novel “The Gustav Sonata” which portrays the long term consequences for a Swiss officer and his family drawn into a serious moral conflict and Dermot Bolger’s new novel “The Lonely Sea and Sky” which is based on a historical incident where a small Irish ship chose to save 168 shipwrecked German sailors in 1943. The question of whether to save these men from drowning is more difficult than it first appears: some German forces sank Irish vessels (frequently as target practice) despite their nation's neutrality and there was also the risk that the Germans might take control of the Irish ship once they had boarded and outnumbered the seamen. Their country might have been neutral, but they lived in a world at war. The novel is narrated from the perspective of a 14 year old Irish boy named Jack who joins the crew of a shipping vessel called the Kerlogue. He needs to mature quickly for a hard life at sea and he's confronted with many moral dilemmas posed in this dramatic journey. Bolger creates a personal, heartrending and atmospheric tale of the lives of these Irish sailors during a period of great international conflict.

Jack recently lost his father who was also a sailor; he never returned from his last ill-fated expedition. It’s left his mother and multiple siblings on the brink of starvation. Even though he is technically underage, he finagles his way into joining this shipping vessel’s crew. Jack’s discovery process along his first voyage at sea has many layers. The difficulty of sailing is vividly created as Jack becomes accustomed to seasickness, hard duties and navigating the social structure of a tightly compressed group of men. There is a hierarchy of rank which must be respected and sailors must tread carefully to not enquire too much about any sailor’s problems – such as a particularly troubled man named Mr Walton. Rather than neglecting each other’s emotional wellbeing this is seen as a sign of respect. Since some of the crew sailed with his father, it’s touching how Jack discovers parts of what was his father’s daily life and character which were previously unknown to him.

Jack is also introduced to foreign cultures and attitudes in the Welsh and Portuguese ports where they stop for cargo or customs inspections. He’s led a very sheltered existence up until this point in his small Irish town of Wexford which was “dominated not by fear of an all-seeing God but by a terror that neighbours might think you lacked respectability.” Out in the world he’s free to make his own choices away from the prying eyes of familiars. He has a particularly striking encounter in Lisbon with a Czechoslovakian Jewish woman named Katerina who has eluded capture and has improvised a difficult new life for herself. Bolger writes with great sensitivity and detail about Katerina’s complex psychology and the conflict and hardship she faces. Her presence in Jack's mind also gives Jack more complex opinions when faced with the moral challenges ahead.

"The Fastnet Lighthouse, though crews on cargo ships call it the Lonely Rock... This is the last bit of Ireland emigrants glimpse when they're America bound."

"The Fastnet Lighthouse, though crews on cargo ships call it the Lonely Rock... This is the last bit of Ireland emigrants glimpse when they're America bound."

The novel shows that rather than existing wholly outside the conflict, “neutral” nations were forced to make compromises or concede in certain respects to German or Allied forces. The cook who Jack works for on the ship remarks at one point “Ireland is the only neutral country gaining nothing from this war,’ he said. ‘The Portuguese happily trade with the British and, at the same time, they flog tungsten to the Nazis to armour-plate their tanks. The Swedes supply the Germans with iron ore and Swiss banks can barely close their vaults, they’re so crammed with looted Nazi gold.” Although these other nations clearly suffered hardships and strains during the war which was detrimental to their economies and people, it's interesting to think about the precarious position of neutrality and how some people might have used the war to their benefit. It's also interesting to learn how the IRA briefly considered siding with Hitler's Germany in the hopes of creating a re-united Irish nation with the north.

More than any political arguments or issues of allegiance, what comes through in the novel is the sailors' essential humanity. They see themselves in a kind of brotherhood with any man who sails at sea because the living is so difficult and fraught with danger. Faced with drowning men, they couldn't allow sailors to perish whether they were soldiers that posed a threat to them or not. The consequences of rescuing them may have impacted the crew of the Kerlogue negatively: it ostracised them from the British as their priority was getting them to the nearest port in Ireland for medical attention and from the Germans for not returning their men. It also led the crew to losing their cargo and any profit they'd make from their long journey – something they could ill afford to do while living on the brink of poverty. However, their action has assured these brave sailors a heroic place in history as having done the right thing in an extremely difficult time. Dermot Bolger has done them justice in producing such a finely crafted and extremely readable tale which brings their story to life.

What a thrill that a new anthology has been published that is entirely dedicated to Irish women writers! Over the past two years I've become particularly enthralled by Irish writing and much of it has been written by women such as Anne Enright, Mary Costello, Edna O'Brien, Eimear McBride, Audrey Magee, Sara Baume, Belinda McKeon and Liz Nugent (some of these authors are included in this anthology). While I've also read many fantastic books written by Irish men it's sadly unsurprising that looking over many anthologies of short stories from Ireland (and around the world) that the authors included are “heavily weighted towards male writers” - as editor Sinéad Gleeson notes in her introduction. “The Long Gaze Back” is a necessary correction giving a platform to the huge diversity of writing by Irish women over time. Even if the literary cannon hasn't always included them and some of these authors' books have gone out of print, this anthology proves that these voices have always been there.

As the title suggests, it's an anthology focused on looking back at a rich and varied literary history giving a sampling of stories that encompass a range of themes and writing styles. The first writer included was born in 1786 and the last story is by a writer born in 1986. This offers a fascinating oversight to how the tone and subject matter of fiction has changed over two centuries. Although the language and themes have evolved radically over this time, the emphatic sense each story gives that the author has something important to say has not.

There are also surprising parallels that can be drawn. For instance, a parable by Maria Edgeworth written in the early 1800s about the way appearances can be deceiving when impulsively buying something is echoed in contemporary writer Belinda McKeon's sentiment about online behaviour and internet purchases: “There is always, sunk into those pages, the feeling that an ordered, layered, perfectly furnished life is within reach; that the clicks will bring into being a settling experience, a fitting of everything needed and everything already, awkwardly in possession into their rightful slots.” Another story by Mary Lavin shows how a widowed woman maintains her independence fending off the advances of a man who comes calling while Eimear Ryan tells a story of a widow who deals with her grief by actively seeking men out. The farcical and hilarious story of a man's extended train journey with a salmon by writing-team cousins Somerville and Ross is echoed in Lisa McInerney's tragicomic and explicit tale of a man's drug-fuelled night out. The intense feeling for the loss of an infant child in Maeve Brennan's brilliant story is given a different slant in Lucy Caldwell's beautifully-descriptive and cleverly-structured story of the tense and precarious early days in the life of a newborn. Viewing this wide range of short stories as a group gives a special insight into how similar ideas can be approached from different ways that are more meaningful for the time in which they are written.

Some of the stories deliver suspense and tremendously climactic scenes such as a tale by Elizabeth Bowen about the return of an old lover or Nuala Ní Chonchúir's story of sisterhood between women at odds with each other in a time of great need. Other stories focus on quiet moments of reflection as in Siobhán Mannion's story of a woman stealing privacy in a morning swim or Evelyn Conlon's story of a sister she believes to be lost in Australia. Some of this fiction such as the urgent and impactful 'Beneath the Taps: A Testimonial' by Anakana Schofield shows a tremendously inventive style of writing that breaks boundaries for how a story can be related. There are fantastic moments of quiet transgression in stories by Mary Costello about a woman who steals her neighbour's dog that is being abused and Kate O'Brien about a woman touring Italy who receives an emphatic and spontaneous proposition for an alternative life from a stranger. Stories by Roisín O'Donnell and E.M. Reapy hint at the process of change in Ireland, the coming and going from other countires creating national and racial diversity in the country's culture. And this wouldn't be a proper Irish book without a good deal of mulling over death such as the story by Eilis Ni Dhuibhne where a woman tends a grave or Bernie McGill's tale of how a family emotionally deals with a funeral or Niamh Boyce who invokes a voice from beyond.

I really enjoyed taking my time reading this entire anthology over a long period of time and I'd suggest you do the same. These are stories to be savoured and enjoyed. They invite you to seek out more work by these talented authors as each story is proceeded by a biographical brief that lists the authors' other publications. And I do now feel compelled to read much more by these writers. It's somehow reassuring that the voices in stories by authors I've read before like Eimear McBride and Anne Enright are most assuredly from those writers, but their technique and subject range prove to be dramatically different in this new work. Other stories by authors I haven't read before like Maeve Brennan and Christine Dwyer Hickey hit me like a slap making me wonder why I've never encountered their writing before. This is an anthology with many different points that you can spring off from, but it's also an important book with tremendous scope to be savoured by itself.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSinead Gleeson
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