Book Review: Stinging Fly Stories – Eds. Sarah Gilmartin & Declan Meade

Posted 11 months ago in Print

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Stinging Fly Stories

Edited by Sarah Gilmartin and Declan Meade

Stinging Fly Press

The Stinging Fly has become, for fledgling Irish writers, a climacteric of sorts.”

Having catalyzed many a career, it’s easy to see why publication in The Stinging Fly has become, for fledgling Irish writers, a climacteric of sorts. Perusing the contents of its new anthology, now-feted figures like Kevin Barry, Sara Baume, and Claire-Louise Bennett jump out, these having all received its imprimatur at the start of their careers. This edition, which takes the form of a retrospective, celebrates the magazine’s 20th anniversary, crowning two decades across which it has published new fiction both thematically capacious, and formally experimental. Unsurprisingly, The Stinging Fly’s genre of choice is the short story, a medium which has offered preludes aplenty to the ‘loose, baggy monsters’ of later years. Most, mercifully, don’t go from Dubliners to Finnegan’s Wake.

The first story, Colin Barrett’s ‘Let’s Go Kill Ourselves’, establishes one of the collection’s primary themes: the tension between rural and urban. Unfortunately, Barrett’s offering is a comparatively weak start to an otherwise superb anthology. Pleonastic (dogs don’t merely have slumbers, but ‘canine’ ones), lexically awkward, and prone to sibilance–––the cheapest variety of alliteration–––Barrett’s story is the kind of juvenilia that might elicit a cringe in his more mature, and deservedly successful, self. An early highlight, though, is Kevin Barry’s ‘Last Days of the Buffalo’: there are few more gifted at rendering, with hilarious effect, the rhythms and inflections of West coast kibitzing. More impressive still is Barry’s ability to purloin idioms that, in ordinary dialogue, might smack of Hiberno-English cliché, yet which, when redeployed descriptively, acquire poetic tenor: ‘there’s a lethal amount of growth.’

Sara Baume’s ‘Fifty Day Winter’ counterpoints Barry’s dark comedy with tenebrous lyricism–––a frozen birdbath is a ‘toytown of twinkling tower blocks’–––in a story whose leitmotif, ‘it’s the worst winter in fifty years […]’, punctuates with the weight of a tolling bell. Claire-Louise Bennett’s ‘Finishing Touch’ is endearingly weird, if heavy with sub-Beckettian prolixity. Another favourite is Lucy Sweeney Byrne’s ‘Danny’, a Foster-Wallace-esque vivisection of generational divide, the source of which is sensibility: the stoical parent versus the intellectually-open, emotionally-attuned youth, archetypes which, to some degree, tally with Ireland’s geographical, urban-rural schism. Central to Byrne’s narrative is how what her protagonist calls ‘those things heartfelt and hifalutin’–––‘the wishy-washy world of art and the expression of feelings’, things repugnant to her dad––offer a language with which to articulate emotion, but not access to emotion per se.

This tracks with a wider theme that the stories collectively convey. We Irish might like to think that we’ve left behind our erstwhile impulse to repress, our faux ‘get-on-with-it’ stoicism, and yet, perhaps we’ve merely acquired more sophisticated ways with which to obscure uncomfortable presences–––a means, as James Wood put it, ‘of shrouding, in majesty, a lack.’ Closer to Byrne’s intention, maybe, is to show the extent to which the evasive tendencies that we associate with an older Ireland have been internalized, and so, problematically, might still lie latent in us moderns.

Such is the Ireland, a nation of change and stasis, whose course The Stinging Fly has helped chart. Long may that continue.

Words: Luke Warde

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