Review: Saints and Sinners, by Edna O’Brien

saintsandsinnersEdna O’Brien is an award-winning Irish writer of novels, plays, poetry, short stories, and biographies. Saints and Sinners is her 8th short story collection, and after it’s release in 2011, it won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. It contains 11 stories, of about 10-30 pages each.

O’Brien is a versatile writer: she utilises a number of different styles, and she effortlessly adopts the narrative voice of a variety of characters. Her protagonists are young, old; male, female; rich, poor. Their stories are told as a series of diary entries as in “Green Georgette”, or as a rambling monologue as in “Madame Cassandra”. She uses first- and third-person views with equal skill. “Shovel Kings” uses a nice trick of a shifting first-person point-of-view, starting with the unnamed narrator’s, then slowly changing to Rafferty’s as he tells his life’s story.

There’s a certain timelessness to these stories. Except for the odd mention of a mobile phone, they could exist anywhere between the mid 20th century and our current age. The primary form of long-distance communication is still the letter. Contrasted with a vagueness of the time, the place is concrete: unless stated otherwise, it is rural Ireland. (Other settings are London and New York, two cities with large a Irish diaspora.) This is the Ireland of O’Brien’s childhood, most likely: slow to change, lacking any sort of novelty, and with an undercurrent of repression. Oddly enough, there are almost no explicit explorations of religion. Perhaps it was simply before many of the churches practices began to be questioned. Though it’s not clear what her opinions of Ireland then and now are, it is clear that she has a complex relationship with her place of birth.

Reading the title, we might be tempted to label the characters as either saints or sinners. But of course, people, morals, and life itself are a bit more complicated than that. Other than the plundering soldiers and maybe the greedy McSorley, there are no villains in these stories. Nor are there heroes, really. Like real people, they are mix of the good and the bad, and they endure life as best they can. The almost-eponymous story “Sinners” is an interesting take on a morally grey area. I won’t spoil it, but I will say that, by the end of it, we are left wondering if Delia’s reaction to what the other characters did was because of her firm morals, or because of her own suppressed desires:

She had forgotten the little things, the little pleasures, the give and take that is life. She had even forgotten her own sins.

There is a deep loneliness in many of the characters. They have lived lives of struggle and want, or they’ve lost love, or been left behind. In reaction to their trials, they’ve hardened their hearts to others to protect themselves. We feel deeply for them all because of O’Brien’s ability to create characters so effectively in so few words. The beautiful “Manhattan Melody” tells the story of an “other woman”, who wanders the streets of New York after being abandoned by her lover, who has returned to his wife. While she walks, she remembers all the little encounters they had, the glances across the room, the post-party embraces, and wonders if she was nothing more than a fling to him, him who she loves. “Old Wounds” is about two estranged cousins who become reacquainted after many years. They come to value each other deeply, until a minor, almost inconsequential incident causes a rift to form once again. Relationships are difficult to make, and even more difficult to keep.

Recommended for people who enjoy: slow/melancholy stories, lovely prose, wistfulness, introspection.


Review: A Dreamer’s Tales, by Lord Dunsany


Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany, more succinctly known as Lord Dunsany,  was a prolific Anglo-Irish author, who wrote novels, plays, essays, and many collections of stories and poems. “A Dreamer’s Tales” was his fourth collection of stories, published in 1910. It is in the public domain and can be downloaded for free from Project Gutenberg.

Most of the stories in this collection fall into the fantasy genre. However, they were written before the fantasy genre was a recognisable thing, so they don’t fit many of the tropes of the genre. Instead, they read more like a mixture of fireside fairy tales and Biblical stories (Dunsany said that the King James Bible was a major influence on his style). Not all the tales are set in exotic fantasy lands, though; some are set in our own world. The fantasy world acts as a contrast to our world: where one is magical, dreamy, and full of endless wonder, the other is drab and dirty and stifles one’s sense of adventure.

There is an escape from everyday life. For Dunsany, dreams are a real and powerful force, and they act as a way of accessing the fantastic world that his tales take place in. In “Idle Days on the Yann”, the narrator tells some sailors that he is from Ireland, in Europe. They laugh and say that these places do not exist in the land of dreams. The narrator goes on to tell them of “the abode of [his] fancy”–the place where he dwells when dreaming. Sleep is presumably the way of entering these lands, but it is not the only way. Writing is another, as is hashish (according to a maybe unreliable storyteller).

The existence of this land is not possible without the gods of the dream:

For when the people of this city wake, the gods will die. And when gods die men may dream no more.

There is a symbiotic, yet cyclical, relationship between men and gods. The people will not be able to live in the dream world without the gods, but the gods cannot exist without the dreaming of the people. This seems to mirror the fact that the stories themselves cannot exist without Dunsany as the dreamer.

In Dunsany’s world, the body and soul are two separate conscious entities, for the most part together until death. The body is material and is stuck in our world. The soul is in charge, and as we see in “The Unhappy Body”, it can be a cruel master, forcing the body to write its dreams down for posterity. The soul has little concern for material things. It is a dreamer or idealist. It always searches for something more than this, some sort of spiritual fulfilment that might just be found in the land of dreams.

Recommended for those who enjoy: short stories, dreamy atmospheres, exotic fantasy lands, mythology.