Review: Irish Short Story Collections

In the hands of a talented writer, the short story can illuminate the human condition with remarkable economy. It can leave you devastated — or elated — in a matter of minutes.

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In the hands of a talented writer, the short story can illuminate the human condition with remarkable economy. It can leave you devastated or elated in a matter of minutes. Reviewer Alan Cheuse has found three story collections from English and Irish writers that all show a mastery of the form.

ALAN CHEUSE: The first of these new books, "A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman," gathers together all of the short fiction by the well-regarded English novelist Margaret Drabble. Drabble's stories are exceedingly discursive, giving us a lot more talk about matters of life and love than drama, but they're sometimes brilliantly dramatic, as when the ailing main character of the title story goes through a TV interview while bleeding down her thigh, and into her boot. Prick these moody and introspective characters and they do bleed.

Another new collection out of England, "Pulse," the latest collection from Julian Barnes. Barnes writes convincingly of the manners, mores, and deeply felt, if only momentarily glimpsed, emotions of mostly befuddled middle-class English folks.

His story "Sleeping with Updike", tells about two middle-brow English writers who have become friends over the years. One of the women talks about a night at a raucous drunken party when she sat on the lap of John Updike. Did you sleep with him, her friend asks. He only twinkled at me, the other writer says. Barnes' stories, so well-delivered, line by line, each of them beating with a strong pulse, makes you think that perhaps Updike may have twinkled at Barnes.

Moving to Ireland now with novelist Edna O'Brien's new story collection, and the twinkles disappear and the landscape, whether Ireland or London or New York, darkens. Dark is almost everything in these eleven stories on the matters of sex, love, home, and death. The reason that love is so painful, O'Brien has one of her characters say, is that it always amounts to two people wanting more than two people can give.

NORRIS: That's an excerpt from Edna O'Brien's story collection "Saints and Sinners." We also heard about "A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman" by Margaret Drabble and "Pulse" from Julian Barnes. Our reviewer, Alan Cheuse, teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. His latest novel is "Song of Slaves in the Desert."

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