by Nuala Ní Chonchúir
in the Universe could easily be dubbed Life in the New Ireland:
there is immigration and assault, priests who don’t dress like priests,
and a librarian who formerly "did not go gaga over books" who is newly
awakened to their value. In the story Self-portrait,
Farrell mentions "…the astonishing matters that go on behind closed
doors" and much of this collection is concerned with just that. Farrell
– a returned emigrant and former priest – shines a piercing and
absurdist light onto 21st century Ireland and its peculiarities and
In the first story, The Rift Valley,
Dalia arrives in a small Sligo town from Kenya, ruffling the locals who resent
her skin colour and her audacity in seeking work. The solid and
personable Packy Bannon defends her and ends up in a fistfight over
her. Rather suddenly, Packy then departs for Kenya to explore Dalia’s
homeplace and the reader is treated to an expository lump on the
physicality of that country that simply does not gel with the story.
Packy’s interest in Dalia stems from his hope for romance with her –
and indeed he’s not the only one. Dalia, however, seems unmeltable.
This is a sad and humorous story of small town concerns: the pub,
elections, cycling, fighting, and men who lust after unavailable women.
Farrell recreates that small town-ness perfectly and the story is at
once atmospheric, witty and intriguing.
is a surreal story – something that Farrell excels at – in which
Fogarty's self-portrait talks to him in his solitary room. He had
painted it to test a theory – so many of his subjects died after he
painted them, he wondered if the same thing would happen to him.
Fogarty's painting, and meditative banana-eating, is interrupted by
three thugs who want to kill him but seem to lack the will to do it.
The menace in this story is very real and it is another sad comment on
the state of modern Ireland where the elderly are unsafest, it seems,
in their own homes.
The tales in Life in the Universe
are peopled with shy men who long for the company of women but can't
seem to get past themselves to make the appropriate moves. The wary
male characters are very well drawn and the clash of the old and more
modern concerns in Ireland works brilliantly.
In an interview on RTÉ Radio 1’s
The Arts Show in May, Farrell stated that he is not much of a reader
and, in a way, this shows in his writing. It slows down in parts and he
has a tendency to summarise where scene-making might be more
appropriate. This is a pity because when the author does dialogue, he
does it very well. Having said that, Farrell tells his stories with an
odd humour, in a slightly old-fashioned style that, because of its
wryness, has a fresh feel to it.
The book is a lovely production –
as always from The Stinging Fly Press – and the French flaps on this
collection add to the feeling of luxury of the book. The cover image by
Kelvin Mann also hits the right note.
Ní Chonchúir lives in Galway, Ireland. Her
third short fiction collection, Nude, will appear from Salt in
September 2009 and will be launched at the Frank O’Connor International
Short Story Festival in Cork, Ireland, the same month. Her poetry
pamphlet Portrait of the Artist with a Red Car will be published by
Templar Poetry in October 2009. She blogs at womenrulewriter.blogspot.com/
Publisher: The Stinging Fly Press
2009 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award
bio: Michael J Farrell
grew up in County Longford, Ireland. He was a priest for some
years, during which time he edited the annual literary reviews, Everyman and Aquarius; he was an
editor at the National
Catholic Reporter in the US. His novel Papabile won the
Thorpe Menn Award in 1998. His stories have appeared in Let's Be Alone Together
(The Stinging Fly Press, 2008) and The
Faber Book of Best New Irish Short Stories, 2006-2007,
while another was runner-up for the RTE Francis McManus Award in 2006.
with Michael J Farrell
this book (used or
Publisher's Website: Stinging Fly
The Author's Recommended
Bookseller: Eason Ireland
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