The Art of the Glimpse edited by Sinead Gleeson review – 100 Irish short stories

A gloriously varied collection that gives voice to the forgotten and overlooked as well as the famous and familiar

There’s a story for every mood and shade of weather in this epic collection. Arranged alphabetically by author, and reaching back to the mid 19th century, it heads into the present day giving voice to the forgotten and overlooked alongside the famous and familiar. There are stories from literary giants; tales celebrating Traveller heritage; and work from the first wave of “new Irish” writers who have come from elsewhere and are making Ireland their home. There is a lovely sense of the canon being revitalised and reimagined with stories that surprise and delight. Although each voice is distinct, patterns and preoccupations echo across the years as characters search for love, behave reprehensibly, carry the consequences of history, mourn the past, look to the future.

Throughout Irish fiction, the Big House has represented a colonial past and a cultural divide. Clare Boylan’s sublime “Concerning Virgins” cunningly subverts the genre, as two sisters devise an elegant payback for their abusive brute of a father. Maeve Binchy’s story, by contrast, is full of a kind of rambunctious glee, stuffed with food, flirtation, bitchiness and ultimately revelation.

Both Kevin Barry and Blindboy Boatclub (one half of Limerick hiphop duo Rubberbandits) head into weirdly sinister territory. Barry revisits an idea from the old oral tradition of meeting the devil in unexpected places. In “The Girls and the Dogs”, the narrator is living in a caravan in modern Galway, but the sense of ancient evil is scarily present. Blindboy Boatclub’s “Scaphism” is a barbaric tale of revenge with an 1980s soundtrack, but an older take on settling romantic scores. “Don’t blame me, lads – blame the ancient Persians for inventing the slowest and cruellest method of death known to humanity.” Turn from that gorefest to Donal Ryan’s quietly moving “Physiotherapy”, which details how a marriage can go wrong, but how the wrongs can be tenderly put right.

That’s the impressive thing about this comprehensive collection; there’s wound and antidote, with abject hopelessness tempered by hope. In Kit de Waal’s “The Beautiful Thing”, a father tells his child of the racism he endured when he arrived from Antigua, and of his determined refusal to give in to ugliness. “And don’t be angry. If you look, you will always find a beautiful thing.”

• The Art of the Glimpse: 100 Irish Short Stories is published by Head of Zeus (£25). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

Eithne Farry

The GuardianTramp

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