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The Inland Ice And Other Stories

By Eilis Ni Dhuibhne
Published by Blackstaff

Eilis Ni Dhuibhne is a wonderful writer, and this is a marvellous bunch of stories. There are fourteen of them in all, one of which, the quasi-folktale ‘The search for the lost husband’, provides a thematic touchstone which links the other thirteen together, appearing, as it does, at the beginning, then between each story, and again at the end. All the pieces deal with, in some shape or form, love triangles, lost love, and the impossibility of reconciling Eros and Agape, love and friendship, passionate feelings with domestic, quotidian, day to day existence, and are generally told from a woman’s point of view.
‘Gweedore Girl’ is a deft depiction, in a deadpan, dispassionate, first person voice, of the sexual awakening of an adolescent who is sent into service with a family in Derry in the 1920s. It ends with a reflection characteristic of the whole book, throughout which it will resonate: ‘I’d even got a new boy...His name is Seamus and he is a good boy, kind, and funnier than Elliot, and earning much more money. I know I can marry him any time I want to. It is amazing that I know that Seamus is good and kind and honest and will never mistreat me; also I will never love him. Or maybe that is not amazing at all. Maybe those two knowings are the same, two different knowings in the same shell, or one and the same knowing, bright as an egg with the sun dancing on it.’




The heroine of ‘Love, Hate and Friendship’, thinking of her relationship with a married man, asks herself: ‘Why should it be so hard to forget all this romantic stuff, and simply accept his friendship?’ ‘Bill’s New Wife’ is a very funny fantasy of marital role reversal, highlighting real inequalities.
In ‘Lily Marlene’ a middle-aged woman and a man who were lovers in their teens meet up again many years later, when they are both married to other people, and rekindle their affair, but it doesn’t last. This heroine speculates: ‘What I think is that life is like Doctor Zhivago up to a point - more like it than some would admit. People can have a great, passionate love. I have. Probably you have. But it doesn’t seem to survive. One way or another it gets done in, either because you stay together or you don’t. That’s what I think. If I were more loyal, or brave, or generous, perhaps it would be different. But how do you know if you are brave or just an eejit?’
‘Hot Earth’, set in Italy, features another middle-aged woman who is, or was, involved in an extra-martial affair, an even more unsatisfactory one than in the previous stories. Still, she leaves her husband anyway, not to be with her lover, but to be by herself, returning to Italy to teach English. There is an apt invocation of the image of a statue of an elderly Etruscan couple in a museum the heroine visits with her husband, a man of whom she thinks, ‘His love was loyal and enduring, if not very passionate. Probably it is loyal and enduring for that reason.’
‘Estonia’ gracefully interweaves the narrative of a librarian-poetess and her affair with a Swedish writer she met at a conference, with that of the Estonia ferry disaster. The story also contains some apposite meditations on literary art and literary politics, like: ‘As a compensation for career mistakes, her choice of pastime was good - better, probably, than golf or drink. Poetry consoles her in more ways than one, as it has consoled people in hospitals and in labour camps and in death camps. And she is in none of these things, but in a large, rich, gracious library.’; and, ‘You could never tell with writers from other countries. You could not distinguish between the successful and the maybes and the ones who would be very lucky to get a review, the way you could at home, where everyone in the literary community could place everyone else in the pecking order as soon as they heard their name.’
Oddities in the collection include ‘Summer Pudding’, about a group of Irish people who go to Wales during the famine; ‘Spool of Thread’, an extremely well-written venture into the mind and methodology of your better class of serial killer; and ‘My Pet’, which is questionable in that it features the only character in the book with suicidal tendencies, who also happens to be homosexual.
One criticism of the collection is that towards the end the pace seems to flag, and some of the stories are too close for comfort in their repetition of the themes and tones of previous ones. ‘Greenland’ and ‘How Lovely The Slopes Are’, in particular, read like thinly veiled rewrites of ‘Estonia’. But there is enough here to be going on with, enough to save the suite from becoming too claustrophobic. Ni Dhuibhne does several things well. She is good on employing a folkloric underpin and an historical perspective (‘The search for the lost husband’ ‘Summer Pudding’, ‘Gweedore Girl’). She is good on social satire, putting the mores of contemporary Dublin under her microscope (the attitude of the woman in ‘Swiss Cheese’ to the North, the reference to how easy it is to get development money from the Film Board in ‘My Pet’). She is good in her healthy criticism and mistrust of male feminists (Kevin in ‘Hot Earth’, Paddy in ‘Swiss Cheese’, Michael in ‘The Woman With The Fish’).
‘What matters but the good of the story?’ says the narrator at the end of ‘The search for the lost husband’, which is the end of the book. Most of the stories here deal with well-educated and well-travelled people, although poverty has lurked in the early lives of some of them. Although so many stories about marital infidelity could become a bore, here the treatment is subtle, witty, wry. Ni Dhuibhne has a great way of mixing and merging the realistic with something otherworldly, like crossing an Alice Munro or an Anne Tyler with an Angela Carter or a Jeanette Winterson. As I said, Eilis Ni Dhuibhne is a wonderful writer, and this is a marvellous bunch of stories.

First published in The World of Hibernia













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