Complete Stories
 by Flannery O'Connor

Faber 2009, Paperback

Flannery O'Connor was born in 1925. She was a devout Catholic in the bible belt of the Protestant South. She wrote two novels Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, and two books of short stories: A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories and Everything That Rises Must Converge.

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"Her name was really Joy but as soon as she was twenty-one and away from home, she had it legally changed. Mrs Hopewell was certain that she had thought and thought until she hit upon the ugliest name in any language. Then she had gone and had the beautiful name, Joy, changed without telling her mother until after she had done it. Her legal name was Hulga."

Reviewed by Angela Readman

Do we need to review Flannery O'Connor? For readers her work speaks for itself. Yet I admit to having heard of O'Connor, but until recently not getting round to reading her work. There is always a list in the back of our heads entitled "must get round to reading sometime." There's no hurry, making the choice to buy something older doesn't always have the same urgency as something that came out last week.

Flannery O'Connor's stories are worth putting to the top of that list. The power of the writing and vividness of location gives us the joy of transporting ourselves to another place and time, but more importantly the stories are remarkably still relevant today. The writer grew up in the South and was a devout Catholic, yet the searching for redemption and sense of belonging is poignant to the any reader. O'Connor's work has been described as being of the Southern gothic tradition, at times grotesque. The use of racial slurs we cringe at reading now, issues of racial integration indicative of the time they were written, and the quest for belief is not cosy. There is nothing quaint about this work written in the fifties; the stories are as edgy as ever today.

The worlds are those of bible salesmen, baptisms, immigrant workers, partridge festival's and small Southern towns. If you've never read O'Connor before, for an easy feel of place think True Blood without for the vampires, but rather the concerns of the peripheral characters (the mother looking for spiritual healing and faith could almost be a scene from O'Connor's story The River, in which a young boy seeks a re-birth from his parents.) The churchgoing communities in O'Connor are full of golden calves, that which a character places their faith in may be flawed but the individual's battle for something to redeem their daily lives battles on.

The fragility of the ideas we form to construct our sense of self take many forms in O'Connor's stories and are exposed in breathtaking ways. In Good Country People it is not eroticism that is the issue, nor mere circumstance of a woman with the wooden leg in the precarious place of the hayloft, but more crucially her beliefs. The characters in the work hold a tentative grip on their lives and beliefs, the foundation of their selves is a rug the author is quick to pull out from under their feet. Belief and the lack of faith are questioned equally. The characters seek hope and identity in the most surprising places with disquieting results. In Everything that Rises Must Converge something as simple as a hat in transformed from an object of pride and public appearance into something that exposes a much more complex private prejudice. At the end of this story the cynical son softens towards his mother, though he has previously shown little love.

Hand in hand with the concept of love in the stories is the presence of mortality. O'Connor is not a horror writer in the way we perceive the term, yet her stories are often violent and the actions of her characters startling. The true brutality in her work lies not in actions but in the exposure of the human psyche and the lack of easy answers. There is compassion here, whether or not it is earned by her characters. In The Partridge Festival a man the town may have made an outsider kills six people, yet the emphasis is not gore, but the question of two young people's idealism.

The stories never fail to ask questions, but the answers are not as black and white as we'd hope. Neither the spiritual nor the physical world are taken for granted in her stories, yet if her characters with physical disabilities explore our vulnerability, fears and prejudice the same can be said of the role of pride and social status in many of her able-bodied characters. The characters seek meaning and light in the dark: in A Good Man is Hard to Find, astoundingly a grandmother searches for the humanity in the man holding her at gunpoint. In A View of the Woods even something as simple as a grandfather's love of his granddaughter is complex, since it is based on his own false perception of her identity.

Children are often not innocents in O'Connor's work, and yet often adults are, with tragic consequence. Innocence is often the product of a blindness of the characters to the world and themselves. The writing is of such quality that it provides the luxury of a whole other world for a reader - yet the writer never permits us to kick off our boots and get our feet under the table. We're not sure we want to. The characters are never entirely likeable, but unflinchingly believable. Amidst the home cooking of the 50's South there is tension, a fine line tread between the private and public self, between faith and reality. There are no sinners or saints in these stories, but a continual flux between right and wrong, a muddy morality.

These concerns are as relevant as ever for a contemporary, increasingly agnostic reader; we can relate to the uneasy space of characters trying to figuring it out as they go along. I can't think of a writer quite like O'Connor, yet the stories have all the punch of Joyce Carrol Oates stories, and a sense of characters you can believe have always just been there as strong as those of Alice Munro. The stories make the incredible credible and all that is taken for granted hard to believe. This is rare work, writing full of a savage beauty which feels like a gift. At 12.99 for 550 pages it feels like a bargain for stories I know I'll want to read again and again. I'm sorry I didn't buy this book sooner. Evelyn Waugh once said of O'Connor's work that if a woman had wrote these stories they were remarkable, but male writer, female writer, fifties writer or current, this is simply the best book I've read for years.

Angela Readman completed an MA in Creative Writing. Her poetry has been published in Ambit, Staple, Mslexia and The Times and has won the Biscuit Competition and Ragged Raven Competition. Her poetry collection Strip, a collection about female sexuality is published by Salt Publishing.

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