It was one of my books for Christmas. The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story. And it was my recommended read for our book club this month.
But they’re a stubborn crowd, my book club lot. They know their own minds. What did they think of the book?
Took a long while to get into.
Some of the stories were lousy.
There are writers here I like, but they have better stories than what we got in this collection.
Some of the stories had no beginning or middle or end.
These can’t be the best Irish short stories of the last century!
It was time to turn the discussion around, get it working on a more positive vein.
Well, can we talk about the stories we DID like. Let’s see if we can select a half-dozen.
This did the trick. Lots of stories were enjoyed. We got a consensus on the top half-dozen Irish short stories from the Granta selection:
Claire Keegan’s ‘Men and Women’
From the 1999 collection Antartica, this story gets going with the great opening lines, ‘My father took me places. He had artificial hips, so he needs me to open gates.’ For our discerning lot, Claire Keegan’s stories, set in her rural mythic landscapes, are a triumph of writing.
Colm Tobin’s ‘A Priest in the Family’
We admired the grit, the dignity, the self-possession of Molly, mother of the child-abuser priest. After informing her of the devastating news, Father Greenwood adds, ‘I’d say people will be very kind.’ Molly replies knowingly: ‘Well, you don’t know them, then.’
Edna O’Brien’s, Sister Imelda
It’s almost 30 years since this story first appeared and it captures the boarding school world of bacon and cabbage, tapioca pudding, ‘fairly green rhubarb jam’ and the nuns’ ‘monotonous Latin chanting, long before the birds began’.
Eugene McCabe’s ‘Music at Annahullion’
Three siblings share a home on ‘thirty wet sour acres’ and their wretched lives are captured in words spoken in Annie’s dream: ‘I wish to God we were never born.’
Mary Lavin’s ‘Lilacs’
This piece goes back almost six decades to Mary Lavin’s collection Tales from Bective Bridge. The images of dung and lilac counterpoint the worlds of gritty reality and class aspiration with astute precision.
William Trevor’s ‘The Dressmaker’s Child’
The last story in the Granta selection and the master does not disappoint with this world of the greasy garage, the wayside weeping statue and the strange dressmaker.
We all agreed there were enough good stories in this collection to be getting along with – even if each of us had our hate list.
This is the first sentence of a new short story: ‘Her eyes were not exactly blue or grey.’ Alisa Cox – she who wrote the writer guide Writing Short Stories – has recently posted this (and three more sentences) of a new story on her blog. It whets the appetite and leaves me frustrated since I’ll have to buy the journal where the complete story is published if I want to know what happened next.
It got me thinking about opening lines in short stories and how they can entice, tease, coax, plunge you in until you are propelled into the yarn. So I thought I’d have a bit of fun with story first lines. I gathered a bundle of my favourite short story collections, flicked through each and picked the opening line that grabbed me most. Here they are …
‘At seventeen, Jack Snyder’s daughter is slender-faced and long of limb and still able to startle her father with her seeming certainty about everything she thinks.’ (First sentence in the first story of Robin Black’s if i loved you, i would tell you this.)
‘Hollis was in the back at a table piled with books and a space among them where he was writing when Carol came in.’ James Salter, ‘Bangkok’ in Last Night.
‘Deegan, the forester, is not the type of man to remember his children’s birthdays, least likely that of his youngest, who bears a strong, witch-like resemblance to her mother.’ Claire Keegan, ‘The Forester’s Daughter’ in Walk the Blue Fields.
”The story I want to tell you has no particular point to it, maybe it isn’t really a story at all, but I must tell you about it.’ Heinrich Boll, ‘Across the Bridge’ in Children are Civilians Too.
‘It was among the last bucolic fantasies of the village that Mr Delahunty, the blind shopkeeper, was secure against chancers and thieves.’ Kevin Barry, ‘Ideal Homes’ in There ae Little Kingdoms.
‘About half-past five one afternoon at the end of June when the sun was shining warm and bright into the large courtyard, an elegant victoria with two beautiful horses drew up in front of the mansion.’ Guy de Maupassant, ‘Useless Beauty’ in The Best Short Stories.
They do not disappoint, these opening lines. I still have the problem of the woman whose eyes are not exactly blue or grey, a line that is followed by ‘They were the colour of the sea, the sea on a dull morning without sunlight.’ Where is it all leading? What’s going on? Maybe I should just go and write my own story using this great first line?