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