BOOK REVIEW: The Long Gaze Back: An Anthology of Irish Women Writers


No place I have ever visited celebrates the authors it has produced with quite so much gusto as Ireland. The English habit is to adduce Wordsworth and Shakespearewith the same smugness with which you then profess never to have read them, while in the U.S. the title of any major novel is rarely mentioned without being followed by the words “they made a movie out of it with”. In Ireland, on the other hand, it is not unusual to see a portrait of James Joyce as a young man staring back at you from above a pub urinal, or Beckett’s by the basin. It is an odd compliment and, though not the only kind that can be paid via a bathroom wall, it is probably the only one that you would really want to discover you had received. Among those I saw so honoured, I never noticed that there existed a gender disparity among them. The facilities were, after all, themselves gendered, and on the occasions I ended up in the women’s, I had been too blind to see the sign on the door, let along make out the pictures inside. In retrospect, I suppose women were underrepresented. As editor Sinéad Gleeson notes in her introduction to The Long Gaze Back, women writers have tended to be as underrepresented within anthologies of Irish literature. This volume aims to redress that imbalance.

The contemporary Irish women writers Gleeson has included take diverse approaches to the short story, hail from all over both the north and the south, and range from veterans of the form such as Anne Devlin, who has been publishing since the mid-seventies, to thirty-year-old newcomer Eimear Ryan, who has the final word with her unsettling piece “Lane In Stay”. To these, Gleeson makes the curious choice of prepending a much smaller selection from the last two hundred years.Her purpose and parameters are described in fairly nebulous terms. Other than her admiration for the pieces and their relative obscurity, she speaks of “trac[ing] a line to the past” and looking back along a “long arc” to the “flag bearers”. All this becomes hazier still when one considers the book’s academic-sounding subtitle, “An Anthology of Irish Women Writers”,seeming to promise epic verses in heroic couplets from Swift’s Dublin, and Gaelic mystery plays that saw St Patrick attended opening night. In fact, the book contains short fiction solely, with only eight piecesto span the period 1796-1968, compared to the 22 contemporary stories that make their debut in this volume, and even among the historical eight, all bar the earliest two cluster around the early to mid twentieth century.

The result is that The Long Gaze Back is neither really fish nor flesh.With such extreme brevity, its first part is nowhere near comprehensive enough to work as a survey. The focus is intended to be the contemporary stories, as the introduction makes clear. It is meant less to be an anthology of Irish women writers than a snapshot of the state of short fiction as practiced by women in Ireland in 2015. This is no bad thing. I admit I initially recoiled a little at the subtitle, not eager to endure whatever Ireland’s answer to Margery Kempe might have been. My relief notwithstanding, it is not what it says on the tin.Nor do the contemporary stories sit entirely comfortably alongside the historical picks. The new material is of a piece with itself, comprising exclusively (or feeling as if it does) productions coeval over the last year or two. It is a big jump, rather than a long arc, from those back to the latest of the first eight stories, Maeve Brennan’s “The Eldest Child”. Gleeson draws some thematic comparisons between the old and the new, seeing in Kate O’Brien’s “A Bus from Tivoli”, one of the highlights of the archival selection, connections to Molly McCloskey’s excellent “Frogs”. Both leave Ireland behind as a setting and both eerily and skilfully subvert the reader’s expectations of the story. To this, one could add a sense of consonance between “The Eldest Child” and SiobhanMannion’s “Somewhere To Be”, both of which explore the trauma attendant upon a miscarriage.For all that, though, one does not sense the tradition that the format implies. Echoes of other voices can be heard in the work of the contemporary authors:echoes of other female writers and other Irish writers, but the only other female Irish writer I could confidently point to as an influence on any of the new stories (several, actually) is Edna O’Brien, absent from both the initial eight and the subsequent 22, despite being mentioned in the introduction in the same breath as canonical figures Elizabeth Bowen, Mary Lavin, and Somerville and Ross. Given O’Brien’s stature, the omission is conspicuous and ought to have been accounted for, especially as it could have helped bridge the gap between Brennan and Devlin.

Leaving the editorial quibbling to one side, Gleeson’s achievement rests on the calibre of the contemporary contributions,and itis of the very highest, as the numerous gongs on the collective CV testify. There is a Booker, a couple of Goldsmithers, the odd Orange, enough Costas to keep you up half the night.Several of the younger authors have become more richly decorated in the time between the signing off of the galley proofs and the release of the paperback edition. Theseheavy-hitters acquit themselves well. Anne Enright treats us to a triptych of brief epiphanic variations on the theme of the forms of love. Eimear McBride, whose mantelpiece must be getting very crowded these days, delivers “Through the Wall”, which, elegantly navigating the poles of birth and death, unfurls a keenly observed psychological portrait of a new mother.Her struggles with her loss of independence and sense of self are thrown into sharper relief by the death of her neighbour.Anakana Schofield’s “Beneath the Taps” riffs neatly on bathing rituals and obsessive compulsion.

There are outstanding pieces throughout the book. June Caldwell’s Modernist cred is on bold display in “SOMAT”, which explores right to life ethics through interior monologue. In “Shut Your Mouth, Hélène”, Nuala NíChonchúir cleverly references her frontier tale’s inspiration (a McGarrigle sisters song) by the using a refrain as a prominent formal device. Perhaps the collection’s most pleasing surprises come towards the end, however. Gleesonhere shows herself as adept at recognising new talentas she is at attracting established figures to her projects. Aside from the aforementioned Ryan, Lisa McInerney offers a grimly comedic character study that evokes all the tawdry seediness of the provincial city’s club scene. Her protagonist, seething with the resentment and rage he lacks the intelligence or emotional maturity to process, is masterfully rendered. Lastly, Roisín O’Donnell, whose debut story collection, Wild Quiet, has since also come outwith New Island, is featured here with the stunning “Infinite Landscapes”, shortlisted for the Wasafiri New Writing Prize. O’Donnell invents a style of Afro-Hibernian fabulism that draws on her background working with immigrant communities in Dublin. Itis deployed with humour and verve. When she shoots a knowing wink to the magical realists, she keeps the other eye fixed resolutely on the present moment.So we see African medicine women conferring via Skype about the cursed conception of Simidele, mother of O’Donnell’s protagonist, from whose adult perspective the story of Simidele’s life is nonlinearly told. It is an extremely artful piece of work.

If The Long Gaze Back does not quite succeed in being two different things at once, taken independently, it performs well as either. The historical selections, while small in number, are made with great aesthetic discernment. Were there demand for a full-scale scholarly anthology, Gleeson’s taste and evident knowledge of the field would make her a good choice for the editorial team. The wine of the volume, the contemporary stories, provides a platform for recent work by some prominent literary figures while bringing much deserved attention to a number of compelling new voices in Irish writing.

The Long Gaze Back: An Anthology of Irish Women Writers was published by New Island Books on the 10th September 2015.

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Review by Gareth Dickson

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