Davy Byrnes Stories: The Six Prize- Winning Stories from the Davy Byrnes Irish Writing award as selected by Richard Ford.

DavyByrnesaward.org

Stinging Fly Press, 2009
Paperback

Authors:

Claire Keegan's stories have won many awards: Antarctica, was a Los Angeles Times Book of the Year and earned her the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. Walk the Blue Fields won the Edge Hill Prize.

Mary Leland is a Cork-born journalist. She has published two novels and a book of short stories.

Molly McCloskey is the author of two collections of short stories and a novel, Protection. She has won several awards for her short stories, including the RTE Francis MacManus Award.

Eoin McNamee's first book, the novella was shortlisted for the Irish Times Literature Prize. His novels include Resurrection Man (1996), The Blue Tango (2001), The Ultras (2004) and 12:23 (2007).

Kathleen Murray's stories have appeared in the anthologies The Incredible Hides in Every House and These Are Our Lives and in The Stinging Fly. She was the winner of the Fish Short Story Prize 2006/07 and is working on her first collection of short stories.

Susan Stairs
lives in Dublin and is a student on the MA in Creative Writing programme in UCD. She is a graduate of NCAD and has written extensively about Irish art.



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"Kinsella takes my hand in his. As soon as he takes it, I realise my father has never once held my hand, and some part of me wants Kinsella to let me go so I won't have to feel this. It's a hard feeling, but as we walk along i begin to settle and let the difference between my life at home and the one I have here be."

Reviewed by Tania Hershman


It is a rare thing for me to find half the stories in an anthology astonishingly good. But then this slim volume of the prize-winning stories from the 2009 Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award only contains six and they have all been judged "winners" so perhaps the odds were higher.

However, reading an anthology of "winners" can colour the reading process. These stories have already been set at the top of a pile by someone. Part of me wants them to be truly exceptional - and another part of me says, Well, just because someone thinks you're great, doesn't mean I have to. So, this book already has a great deal to contend with before it's even opened

I began reading without looking at the judge's comments on each story, for that would have made the situation even more difficult. I wanted to come at it with as little baggage as possible, apart from the unavoidable "winner" label. I started with the first prize winner, Foster, by Claire Keegan, about whose writing I had heard so much, but whose stories I had yet to read. So there was more baggage already. I like to note how long a story is before I begin, and the third item of "baggage" came in the form of its 54 pages. I have been reading mostly very short stories and tend to balk at the lengthy ones.

This makes it sound as if I had set myself up for disappointment, and perhaps I had, but let me not waste more space without saying this: I read this story on the train and when I finished, I had to stop myself from crying. Weeping on public transport is not my style. This is a very quiet story, told with unbelievable control and immaculate pacing, and it was only when I reached the last page did I understand just how powerful it was. A second read confirmed this. I don't say this lightly, but Foster - the story of a girl whose overwhelmed parents pass her
for a summer to a grieving, childless couple while they prepare for the arrival of yet another baby - is as close to a perfect story as I have read, and I read a great deal.

Foster - from which the quote at the top of the page is taken - is a story that ressembles a set of Russian dollls, so much is contained within: childhood, families, Irish life and culture, bereavement, dysfunction, tenderness, belonging and identity. it does not use flashy devices or overwrought language to surprise and move, because Keegan has no need to. I will be re-reading this story often, trying to examine how she does what she does so astonishingly well.

The five shortlisted stories are very different from one another. Kathleen Murray's beautiful Storm Glass weaves together present and past tragedies, storms both real and metaphorical that a family must weather. Using a first person narrator who knows things she couldn't know about events that happened before she was born, this is an eerie yet wholly convincing tale. She is as precise in her language as Keegan, never wasting words:
"I think they never put these scenes together, my mother and father in all their years of talk. It's a shame. It would have made her laugh: the thought of him sweeping eels up the main street while she was counting lambs."
Murray's story involves ageing parents, broken families, and death, as does
Mary Leland's Living in Unknown, but in a very different vein. Leland's main character, Ursula, has an 80-year-old father on the edge of dementia who recites poetry and sings to her, and it seems as though what he sings is not random:
"As she left she heard her father open a upstairs window. He shouted after her, as if in farewell: 'Will the glory of your nearness fade as the moonlight fades in a veil of rain? Can I forget you or will my heart remind me how much I want you back again?'"
This is a story that mixes a hint of the magical and the mundane, as does Eoin McNamee's The Road Wife, which takes the reader into the world of long-distance truck drivers. A chance encounter with a Russian girl who offers "services" to the truckers spurs Coyle on to theft and then obsession with Nadia, who is not what she seems.

Molly McClosky's narrator in her Kenya-based story This isn't Heaven also finds that the woman he is obssessed with is not how he had imagined her:
"Marie had that kind of awe. She had grown up in a house where on the mantel...was a grainy photo taken in Yola, in northern Nigeria, in the late sixties. It was of her aunt, a Sister of Mercy... What impressed her was the paradox of this small, gentle woman who was unafraid of deprivation, or the smell of rotting flesh, or the superstitions that surrounded her."
The narrator imagines Marie to be a similar kind of saint, but finds that she is only too human in the end.

I enjoyed the last story in the book, Susan Stairs' The Rescue, immensely. Where Keegan doesn't employ mystery to ensnare her reader, Stairs uses this to great effect with an opening paragraph that is wilfully and wonderfully open to misinterpretation:
"He's in. The push was easy. Though it's the first time, it's familiar. The smell excites. Like birth or death, cut and cure. The good and bad of everything in equal measure. How it should be. He pants like a beast in the black, insides heaving with dread and command. And her."
This is a tale of adolescent love and angst, which could have been cliched, but Stairs weaves it skilfully, moving between her two protagonists as we slowly discover what is going on. The ending is both shocking and affecting.

Although Molly McCloskey's This isn't Heaven takes place in Kenya and Eoin McNamee's The Road Wife is set around Europe, I felt that The Rescue is the least "Irish" of these stories, with a more universal feel to it. However, all of the six stories are thrilling in their transfer onto the page of the linguistic Irish musicality.

Says the judge, Richard Ford:
"I wasn't trying to find the most Irish story in the bunch but rather to find what seemed to be the most excellent one....But I must say that reading these thirty stories leaves me with the unexpected impression that your regulation-grade Irish man or woman might just be able to write a pretty decent short story in his or her sleep."
I can only concur, and add that Claire Keegan is clearly already in a league of her own. For once, I agree whole-heartedly with the judge. These are prize-winning stories that do not disappoint.


Read Clare Keegan's winning story in The New Yorker



Tania Hershman is editor of The Short Review. Her collection, The White Road and Other Stories, is published by Salt Modern Fiction.
Tania's other Short Reviews: Etgar Keret & Samir el-Youssef "Gaza Blues"

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Kelley Eskridge "Dangerous Space"

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Aimee Bender "Wilful Creatures"

Paddy O'Reilly "The End of the World"

Annie Clarkson "Winter Hands"

Yannick Murphy "In a Bear's Eye"

Declan Meade (ed) "Let's Be Alone Together"

Lise Erdrich "Night Train"

Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing

Alexandra Chasin "Kissed By"

Tamar Yellin "Kafka in Bronteland"

Mary Miller "Big World"

Ali Smith "The First Person and Other Stories"

Chris Beckett "The Turing Test"

Petina Gappah "An Elegy for Easterly"

Sean Lovelace "How Some People Like Their Eggs"

Amnesty International "Freedom: An Anthology of Short Stories Celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights"

A L Kennedy "What Becomes"
                     
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If you liked this book you might also like....

Claire Keegan "Walk the Blue Fields"

Kevin Barry "There Are Little Kingdoms"

Declan Meade (ed) "Let's Be Alone Together"

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