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Solomon’s Seal And Other Stories

By Molly McCloskey

My chief motivation in wanting to read this debut collection of short stories was to find out what kind of short story is winning all these competitions. Molly McCloskey was given the RTE/Francis MacManus Award in 1995, won the prestigious Fish Short Story Prize in 1996, and work from this volume has previously appeared in Phoenix Irish Short Stories 1996 and London Magazine. The answer is that work which is well-crafted to the point of being formulaic, which obeys the ‘write-what-you-know’ advice beloved of creative writing class instructors everywhere, and which is Californian touchy-feely about one’s family and friends, is almost always guaranteed to do well.

T. S. Eliot wrote of Henry James that, ‘He had a mind so fine no idea could corrupt it.’, and this ‘idea’ was taken up and explored in depth some years ago by the esteemed scholar and critic Denis Donoghue, in an essay entitled ‘Ideas And How To Avoid Them’. While ever conscious of the perils for the writer of fiction of over-indulging in intellectualisation, it would be nice if one felt that the author was at least aware that ideas existed, if only to be avoided. The sixteen stories in Solomon’s Seal are sensitive, confessional, with a subtle and exact use of imagery, and read as though they would sit well in the better class of women’s magazine. They are also generally too similar, with a monotony of narrative voice, theme and tone, and lack the thrust of any kind of controlling intelligence behind them.

Ms McCloskey is an expatriate American living in Co Sligo, and all the stories here are set in the States, if they are set anywhere, with homely, native locutions littering her prose, like ‘Funny thing is...’ and ‘Used to be...’ (both from ‘The Stranger’). Two succeeding paragraphs, from ‘The Wedding Day’, neatly point up all that is best and worst about her writing. The slyly self-conscious humour of: ‘Father is carefully inspecting his shoes as the ceremony continues. I suspect it is because he feels moved or sad or elated. But then I always was a romantic - attributing tender, tragic emotions to people when what they’re really thinking about is dinner or the new secretary with the nice breasts or the mounting pressure in their bladders.’, is undercut when followed by the mawkish sentimentality of: ‘But this time I am right. When he looks up the struggle is apparent. He is of the old school - which, it seems, is still pumping out graduates - where they teach men not to cry. He surveys his family one by one, beginning with Sabina, his pride and joy. The girl he drove to piano lessons. The girl he took shopping for her first bikini. The girl he is giving away.’

‘Mythology’ contains some of the most beautiful phrases in the collection, and is the best single story. There is something of a harder edge than usual evident in ‘Diamonds’, ‘Death Of A Salesman’s Wife’ and ‘Losing Claire’, and if McCloskey could manage to temper the touchy-feeliness with this more dispassionate approach, she could well become a very considerable writer indeed. In the meantime, my advice to any reader approaching her work would be to slow your reading right down, as though you were reading poetry, so that you will be attuned to the inklings and nuances (two of McCloskey’s favourite words) of the prose, which will otherwise float right by. And McCloskey would do well to remember that there is more behind the white picket fence than the claustrophobic Updikean world of suburban adultery, marital breakdown, divorce and broken families. Ask David Lynch. Or David Leavitt. Maybe this collection is really very deep and moving, and I’m missing it all because of my inherent boorishness, but I don’t think so.

First published in Books Ireland


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