Magazine article The Spectator

'Under the Rose: Selected Stories', by Julia O'Faolain - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Under the Rose: Selected Stories', by Julia O'Faolain - Review

Article excerpt

How many debut collections does it take to stand up to one of the most accomplished short-story writers of the past half-century? In this case, it's three against one. Under the Rose is Julia O'Faolain's first short-story collection in over 20 years, bringing together stories published between 1968 and 2006. Danielle McLaughlin follows in her wake, picking up the pieces of post-crash Ireland in her debut Dinosaurs on Other Planets . Greg Jackson is the latest virtuoso on the US literary scene, writing stylistically self-conscious stories with titles like 'Wagner in the Desert' and 'Metanarrative Breakdown'. As a practising psychiatrist in New York City, Arlene Heyman has no shortage of material. Her first book, Scary Old Sex , dares to broach the subject of lust in later life.

Julia O'Faolain is the author of seven novels, but her earliest fiction took the form of short stories. Her father, Sean O'Faolain, won acclaim for his politically charged stories of Irish life, and Julia's Ireland is a country of complex social codes, defined by the 'trip wires of class and cruelty'. Other stories reflect her life in Paris, Rome, Los Angeles and London, and she is at her most incisive when using the first-person voice. Readers should be warned that there's no hand-holding in these stories: you are plunged straight into a character's psyche, far beyond the logic of linear narrative. This is particularly exhilarating when the characters themselves have erratic tendencies, as demonstrated in 'Man in the Cellar' -- a lengthy letter from a wife to her mother-in-law, cheerfully describing the revenge she has taken on her abusive husband. Gossip, pride and social assumptions all play a part in skewing the truth.

Danielle McLaughlin's stories have none of the psychological nuance of O'Faolain's, but she writes with a meditative intensity which gives her subject matter (domestic friction and failing affections) a certain gravitas. The prevailing mood is portentous sincerity with occasional forays into the absurd. In 'The Act of Falling' an avian apocalypse (birds dropping from the sky) is an eerie equivalent to a family's plummeting finan-ces; when the protagonist witnesses a flurry of new ducks being secretly released into a park lake, she interprets the scene as an allegory of society's willingness to be deceived. In this case, the misplaced poignancy is not without humour. However, all too often the stories end on a note of melodramatic lyricism, as the characters cast their gaze plaintively towards the sky, the stars or the sea. …

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