Country of the Grand
Country of the Grand

 

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UK Publication Date 7.08.2008 / Publisher Faber and Faber / ISBN 978-0571235544

I am really enjoying the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.  I’ve “snagged” four books from them this year, only one of which was unfinishable.  The two novels, Pandora in The Congo and The Story of A Marriage, are among the best reads of the year.  This fourth catch is a short story collection by Irish writer, Gerard Donovan.

Short stories are not my forte although it is a form that is growing on me.  According to my limited knowledge, the first rule of reading af short story collection is to pick it up and put it back down again until the next time there is only half-an-hour available for a quick read.  If that’s the case, I broke it well and truly with this volume, often electing to read 3 or 4 stories in one sitting.

The collection centres around feelings of disconnection, fractured relationships, broken marriages, death, betrayal, loss.  The first story is a strong beginning as a man in a changing room overhears two friends discussing his wife’s infidelity.  The irony Jim feels at the beginning of the overheard conversation “Jim smiled.  They were talking about him behind his back, and he was listening behind theirs.”  soon changing to something else entirely.  “His breath left his body and his heart seemed locked in another chest, a strange chest, where it beat instead.”  Never mind the marriage, can the friendship survive?

Other memorable highlights include “Archaeologists” in which the prickliness of a woman about to break off her engagement is palpable.  Her body language at times almost 3D in effect.  Donovan’s lyrical skills most evident also in “By Irish Nights” which describes the troubled nights of those mourning for dead sons and daughters.

Most of the stories are set in Galway but I don’t feel that they are particularly Irish.  They depict moments of fracture such as the thoughtless question from husband to wife in How Long Until.  These are situations that could happen anywhere, anytime, to anyone.

Some stories are not as strong as those mentioned above but they are all enjoyable.  One of the reasons I’ve taken so long to warm to the short story format is that erstwhile feeling of incompletion.  There’s only one obvious example here.  Ironically it was the longest story, Harry Dietz.  I had obviously invested in poor Harry’s story and so was discontented when forced to leave him wandering through a strange city,  penniless, dressed in his pyjamas and housecoat.  A more experienced short story reader needs to tell me how to appreciate an ending that has left me feeling slightly cheated.

Donovan is the author of two acclaimed novels – Julius Winsome and the Booker longlisted Schopenhauer’s Telescope  and these stories have served as an appetising hors d’oeuvre.  But which novel should form the next course?  Answers invited in comments.

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