Country of the Grand by Gerard Donovan
Published 7 August 2008 by Faber and Faber
I knew nothing of Gerard Donovan or his work when I opened this collection of short stories but I could tell immediately that he was an Irish poet. The language is beautifully lyrical and there is a meditative, sometimes mystical element in his descriptions of ordinary situations and events. There is also a measure of obscurity of meaning which one expects and accepts in poetry but not perhaps in the story form.
Most of the stories in Country of the Grand are set in Galway. They show people dealing with change in their lives against the background of a changing Ireland. Relationships, bereavement, infidelity, abandonment and betrayal are themes running through the stories. Potentially gripping stuff and yet my first reading left me disappointed; I found the characters unconvincing, I was unable to imagine them existing outside of the given scenario. Yet I felt there was something I was missing and realised that these were little snapshots of lives, like the dreams and imaginings of the characters in Under Milk Wood. I read the book again, this time hearing, rather than seeing the text and found it far more satisfying.
In Morning Swimmers we watch and listen with Jim as his friends talk about him, not realising that he is there; through this overheard conversation we learn a little about Jim's wife and are left wondering about Jim's relationship with her, what kind of man he is and what he really means to his friends. Loyalty and infidelity are recurring themes in this and several other stories: How long until, Country of the Grand and Another Life.
Loss and bereavement form the basis of several stories. In Glass, fourteen year old Paul has to come to terms with the sudden death of his father and to establish a new relationship with his mother. In The Summer of Birds it is a daughter who is left with her father when her mother leaves home. Another Life shows a grieving widow and The Receptionist a man unable to come to terms with his divorce.
The collection is a mixed bag, some stories I did not like at all but there are a few gems, my favourites being By Irish Nights, which is as mystical as Irish storytelling can be, and The Visit, a moving encounter between a son and his dying mother.
(Unusually, friend D and I received copies of the same book to review. We both felt it lacked something. You can read D's review, along with her comments on the genre and writing of short stories here. She has a great illustration up, too)