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.