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Success Stories

by Michael McLaverty

 

The main difference between this book and the others I've read about Ireland is that it doesn't look back. It doesn't need to - Michael McLaverty died in 1992, and many of these stories appear to have been written during the first half of the twentieth century, a time when hardship and poverty were nothing to be remarked upon. Pity, whether self-pity or any other kind, is conspicuously lacking. As retired teacher, John, tells his wife in the course of a rail journey, "Pity can be dangerous". He doesn't realise how right he is. The other thing noticeably missing from the lives of McLaverty's characters is joy.

The grey and white cover of this neat little hardback (a picture I at first took for an abstract design, but later realised was an illustration of the inside of John's railway carriage) is eye-catching, yet conveys something of the bleakness of its contents. The majority of today's readers will, I fear, draw blank when attempting to relate these stories to anything in their own experience, unless they have grown up in Northern Ireland.

This prompts me to ask: why has Blackstaff Press chosen this moment to reprint Michael McLaverty's uniquely old-fashioned stories in a new edition, with a foreword by Seamus Heaney (who knew the author personally)? Perhaps they feel the time is right to resurrect the country as it was before "the Troubles". Or perhaps they simply feel that, ten years after his death, McLaverty's writing deserves a revival. The woodcuts that adorn the title page of each story, the work of Barbara Childs, somehow add to this impression of a reverential attitude on the publisher's part. I'm guessing, however, that this edition is destined to end up on library shelves rather than in private houses.

I can't exactly say that I enjoyed the stories - there was something alien about them. It seems that, despite being irritated by the spate of "growing up poor in Ireland" books, I need an interpreter to help me through this strange culture, not at all reminiscent of the cosmopolitan country I saw on my last holidays. Nor can I claim that I am particularly fond of McLaverty's style, which to me appears to skate over the surface of real lives and emotions.

For all that, it is a book worth publishing, if only for the physical attractiveness of the volume. But the real beauty of a book of short stories is that you can dip into it, feel entertained yet frustrated by tales like that of the priest's housekeeper who wouldn't go away, or alcoholic Auntie Sue with her peg leg; then you can put it down and go and read something less worthy, but more fun.

shortstories.jpg

ISBN 0 85640 727 5  
Published by Blackstaff Press
312pp, hardback         
Retail price 14.99

Open Book

Review by Deborah Fisher

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