The Shelter Of Neighbours
 by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne

Blackstaff Press
Sixth Collection

"As I lay in my bed I heard the noises of the night – barks and howls and hoots and screams. It was comforting to lie tucked up under the patchwork quilt, watching the moon gleam coldly over the branch of the fir tree outside my window, and listen to the nocturnal symphony."

Reviewed by Nuala Ní Chonchúir

There is a misconception that writers write short stories as something to fill the gap between the real business of writing the novel. In fact, many writers are devoted to the short story in a way that eclipses their "need" to write novels. Though I can only guess, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne strikes me as one of these writers. She writes short stories and novels; she writes them in both English and Irish, under several names, and she publishes work for both the adult and young adult market. But short story collections dominate her oeuvre: The Shelter of Neighbours is her sixth short fiction collection; she has published four novels as Éilís Ní Dhuibhne.

In an interview with Dalkey Archive Press, about the short story, Ní Dhuibhne states: "I belong to the tradition that prizes language, imagery, form and psychology, and resists plot, larger-than-life events and characters, all that is sensational or exaggerated. Big dramatic events seem false to me, and alien to the short story genre." This stance is apparent (mostly) in The Shelter of Neighbours which deals with the lives of ordinary individuals who, often, come into contact with other individuals who challenge their way of being in the world. The small ripples that result from those encounters rarely create big waves in these stories, but therein lies their beauty. Ní Dhuibhne is masterful at pinpointing a moment in someone’s life where he or she begins to see things differently. Having said that some "big, dramatic events" do occur in these stories, not least in the form of two murders.

Interestingly, some of these stories concern writers: successful ones as well as aspirational ones; trudging ones and ones who are bitter. Ní Dhuibhne has a lot of fun poking at the soft underbellies of authors and exposing their vanities and insecurities. In The Man Who Had No Story Finn O’Keeffe plans to write a book called Bella Kerry, in the vein of Bella Tuscany. "... you could include some bad stuff in that sort of book, as long as it had a bit of eccentricity, and as long as you kept it to a minimum. One flat tyre, say, to ten examples of rural bliss. One bad back to ten gastronomic orgasms: food was the fuel of the genre." It’s all plans with Finn, however, and he allows domestic "disasters" to eat away at his writing time.

In A Literary Lunch the members of a board (perhaps the Arts Council) meet in a fictitious Dublin bistro called Gabriel’s, which is next door to the house where James Joyce set his renowned story The Dead. Alan, the chairman, is a conceited misogynist, who expects everyone to kow-tow to him. This story highlights the jealousies, put-downs and come-ons the female board members endure at the hands of Alan et al. Pam, a writer and new to the board, tries to champion Francie, an author she knows, for a Literary Bursary. Alan proclaims that Francie writes "Rubbish, absolute rubbish" and allows himself a smile which is something "he very occasionally permitted himself at the expense of minor writers". Later in the bistro, Pam is feeling guilty that she didn’t shout louder for Francie. We then move into Alan’s head: "Stupid bitch, thought Alan, although he smiled cheerily. Defiant. Questioning. Well, we know how to deal with them. Woman or no woman, she would never sit on another board. This was her first and last supper. 'I feel so responsible somehow.' Who did she think she was?"

A standout story in this collection is Illumination – another story about a writer, this time one who is spending the summer at an artists’ retreat on the west coast of America. Ní Dhuibhne has a PhD in Irish Folklore and while this story does not draw directly on that knowledge, as previous stories have, she uses all her skills to create a fairytale-like menace in this story. There is an unseen mountain lion and a path through dim, thick woods that leads to a beautiful house whose three occupants are welcoming but reticent. They serve beautiful food and their eyes sparkle but there is something otherworldly about this trio. Illumination comes on the reader like a spell and there are shades of dark and light in it that create a fabulous yet chilling atmosphere.

Having stayed for dinner at the house, the narrator is reluctant to walk back to the retreat though the dark woods. No one offers to walk her so she asks if she might call a taxi. She is told she can call, but it won’t come. "They never come out here. They get lost, and if they do promise to come, it costs not a small fortune but a large fortune." Eventually she is reluctantly driven home. "I was relieved to enter the safe ordinariness of the lodge, with its smell of herbs and garlic...Relieved. Also subtly disappointed."

This type of subtle disappointment is what many of Ní Dhuibhne’s characters feel: loves are lost or given up; parents are appreciated too late; children are a mystery. A clutch of stories centres around the residents of a road in a Dublin housing estate, Dunroon Crescent. The name Dunroon is the anglicized version of the Irish "Dún Rún", which translates as "Fort of Secrets". Not a bad name for a place where people make a habit of hiding their best and worst selves. It’s a subtle play on words that is one of the hallmarks of Ní Dhuibhne’s prose. She pours much of her knowledge of language and folklore, as well as sharp observations about 21st century Ireland, into her short fiction. As a postmodern, feminist writer, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne is expert at portraying the modern woman as quiet maverick; she does it with charm and a great dose of magical storytelling.

Read a story by this author on ÉilísNí

Nuala Ní Chonchúir is an award-winning Irish short story writer, novelist and poet. Her third poetry collection The Juno Charm is just out from Salmon Poetry. Her fourth short story collection Mother America will be published by New Island in May 2012. She has just won the Jane Geske Award for her story Peach which featured in the US magazine Prairie Schooner. The same story is nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Nuala's other Short Reviews: Sarah Salway "Leading the Dance"   

Patrick Chapman "The Wow Signal"

Kuzhali Manickavel "Insects are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings"

Moira Crone "What Gets Into Us"

Michael J. Farrell "Life in the Universe"

Simon van Booy "Love Begins in Winter"

Teresa Svoboda "Trailer Girl"

Edna O'Brien "Saints and Sinners"

Aleksander Hemon (ed) "Best European Fiction 2010"

Caitlin Horrocks "This Is Not Your City"
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Éilís Ní Dhuibhne was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1954 and lives in Wicklow. She has published four collections of short stories: Blood & Water (The Attic Press, 1988); Eating Women is Not Recommended (The Attic Press); The Inland Ice and other stories (Blackstaff Press, 1997);  Pale Gold of Alaska and Other Stories (London, Headline Review, 2001) and Midwife to the Fairies: New and Selected Stories. Her novels are The Bray House, The Dancers Dancing, Fox, Swallow, Scarecrow and Dún an Airgid. She also writes as Elizabeth O’Hara, for children.

Read an interview with Éilís Ní Dhuibhne