A stylish short story writer of the old school

The prose is a feast af­ter a famine. These sto­ries are more like sonatas hard rock. There is lit­tle hu­mour but great depth and style

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOK REVIEWS -

Billy O’Cal­laghan writes beau­ti­fully. His prose is rich and flu­ent and he has a pow­er­ful mas­tery of de­scrip­tive English – sump­tu­ous im­ages of fields and cliffs and sea, of sky and wind and weather en­hance his fic­tion. In evok­ing at­mos­phere, such a key el­e­ment in the short story, he is match­less.

By con­trast with the tough prose of many young Ir­ish writ­ers, re­flect­ing the dark side of the land of youth, or the thin lan­guage which mir­rors too faith­fully the reg­is­ter of the dig­i­tal age, his prose is a feast af­ter a famine.

What it lacks in hu­mour (there is very lit­tle) is more than com­pen­sated for by the lux­u­ri­ance of the lan­guage, the agility of the sen­tences, and the depth of the re­flec­tions. These sto­ries are more like clas­si­cal sonatas than hard rock.

So much for style. As to form and con­tent, in the 12 pieces of the col­lec­tion, he demon­strates that he is a real short story writer. Loss is the stock in trade of the tra­di­tional short story, and most of these deal with ei­ther grief or long­ing. The ti­tle story, The Boat­man – one of the finest – is a tale about a man mourn­ing the death of his daugh­ter, in a rugged coastal set­ting. Fine Feath­ers and Last Christ­mas are sim­ple ac­counts of the sub­tle com­plex­i­ties of mar­riage. Each is set in a room, span­ning an hour or less of time – clas­sic short story tech­nique, the world in a grain of sand.

Oth­ers are more ad­ven­tur­ous. Begin­ish is about a cou­ple who ro­man­ti­cally, and crazily, go on a six-week camp­ing hol­i­day on Begin­ish, the small­est of the Blas­ket Is­lands. (They em­bark from a beach which sounds like Coumi­noole. Would any­one in their right mind do this?) The story fo­cuses on their re­la­tion­ship and on what be­falls them on the is­land – pre­dictably, noth­ing good.

While the writ­ing is in­vari­ably de­light­ful, the ob­ser­va­tions can some­times feel out of step with our times. A blurb on the back of the book pro­claims “For fans of John McGa­h­ern, Se­bas­tian Barry, and Bernard MacLaverty”. Two of those fine writ­ers, at least, are old enough to be Billy O’Cal­laghan’s fa­ther, or grand­fa­ther even.

Some­times you feel he has swal­lowed McGa­h­ern whole and turned into him ...

“It’s still like yes­ter­day in my mind, the Car­ri­ga­line Road of a bright early evening, un­ex­pect­edly for so deep into au­tumn with lit­tle more than the mem­ory of a sun re­main­ing in the sky, and she in a navy-blue skirt to her knees, tight-fit­ting yel­low cardi­gan with the top but­ton un­done and her sleeves pushed up to her fore­arms, and her wheaten hair in a swept-back shoul­der length wave that, to my eyes, made her look just like Grace Kelly.” (Love is Strange)

And some of his ob­ser­va­tions could be con­tenders for the Bad Sex Award:

“When she leaned over her breasts hung with ex­ag­ger­ated heft, and when she ad­justed the elas­tic of her un­der­wear be­tween her leg I nearly reached out for her.” (A Sense of Rain)


What it lacks in hu­mour (there is very lit­tle) is more than com­pen­sated for by the lux­u­ri­ance of the lan­guage, the agility of the sen­tences, and the depth of the re­flec­tions

In the book, women are al­most al­ways dressed in some form of dé­col­leté top, short skirts or skirts to the knee. High heels are de rigueur. Hardly any­one, if fe­male, wears jeans and a jumper. Even a six-year-old girl, be­ing carted out of a crashed car to an am­bu­lance, has a low-necked frock.

You can’t have ev­ery­thing. On the plus side, as far as I am con­cerned, there is lit­tle or no curs­ing and swear­ing. No­body takes drugs, stabs or mur­ders any­one. And there is no Tin­der, ghost­ing or dis­pos­able ro­mance – the char­ac­ters fall in (and out) of love like real peo­ple used to do in, say, McGa­h­ern’s day. In fact, they be­have like most of the peo­ple I know, young or old. They’re just dif­fer­ent from char­ac­ters I’ve en­coun­tered in re­cent fic­tion.

Nicer. Gen­tler.

Nor­mal peo­ple?

Éilís Ní Dhuib­hne’s most re­cent book is Twelve Thou­sand Days: A Mem­oir of Grief and Loss (Black­staff Press, 2018).

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