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Life in the Universe

Michael J Farrell

" At the end of the day, bombarded by a constant mix of wisdom and nonsense, Winnie was usually an emotional basket case."

Reviewed by Nuala Ní Chonchúir

Life 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 passions. 

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. 

Self-portrait 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.

 Nuala 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/

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"


Publisher: The Stinging Fly Press

Publication Date: 2009

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?Yes

Awards: Longlisted, 2009 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award

Author 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.

Read an interview with Michael J Farrell

Buy this book (used or new) from:

The Publisher's Website: Stinging Fly


The Author's Recommended Bookseller: Eason Ireland


Book Depository


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Anything by Flann O'Brien 

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

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What other reviewers thought:

Irish Times

The Post.ie