Twelve Thousand Days: A Memoir of Love and Loss by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne uses all her lyricism to pay tribute to the relationship that defined her being
It would be too easy to assume this poignant memoir is merely a charming account of the connection between a young student and her professor which evolved from mutual respect to a long marriage of minds.
there are initial traces of a Jane Eyre-like heroine meeting a more likeable Mr Rochester. Éilís Ní Dhuibhne does not shirk from describing herself as hard-working and intense, a warily tenacious girl with an iron work ethic. Her beloved
— the folklorist Bo Almqvist — represents that always intoxicating mixture of a wise and sardonic mature man; handsome, humorous and hurt; recovering from a painful divorce and willing to love again. Almqvist, 23 years her senior, was Swedish,
which must have made him appear something of an open-minded exotic, at least in the repressed Ireland of the late 1970s.
Ní Dhuibhne, a gifted short-story writer and novelist, is a serious, even formidable, intellectual, and not given to
sharing her grief easily. There is no disputing her desperate pain at losing her life’s companion, yet this modest, restrained work — few fiction writers would have approached an intimate memorial in such a deceptively low-key, conversational tone
— possesses the capacity for giving voice to countless people in a narrative which exposes shortcomings in the Irish medical system.
Ní Dhuibhne with her beloved, the folklorist Bo Almqvist
Enter a public hospital at
your peril, she appears to be saying. Using her novelist’s flair for evoking mood and atmosphere, she gives a painfully exact account of the horrific death that Almqvist suffered in 2013. Even before she is informed by the doctor that a medical team
will attempt hydration for 48 hours “or so” while being warned her husband is “old”, she had seen two medics forcing Almqvist, obviously in a state of collapse, to stagger down the path to an ambulance. The GP had expected the patient
would be moved on a trolley. Less exacting people might have settled for a wheelchair. It is the first of many shocks.
“Old? An alarm bell rang in my head. Bo was 82. His sister was 93. His brother lived to be 99, and died one month short of his
100th birthday. But that was in Sweden, where they have a very good health service . . . But now because we had come to the local hospital, and the possibilities for treatment were more limited — he was ‘old’. Is that, in fact, a translation
As she recalls her husband’s final days, Ní Dhuibhne regrets not being more vocal. It is not surprising that she was often stunned into silence by the misinformation and indecisiveness. She listens as
a doctor blames her husband’s critical state partly on his diabetes: “Bo didn’t have diabetes but I didn’t contradict him.” A nurse complains that the unconscious patient “keeps pulling out” the primitive drip. He
didn’t; the IV was set up so clumsily that it just fell out — constantly. At one point she realises that the doctor is making medical judgments while consulting the wrong file.
It is a shocking story and one which she pieces together by
skilfully juxtaposing Almqvist’s final hours on earth with the early stages of their forbidden romance. The flashbacks help to buffer the hospital sequences. When beginning her doctorate, she was engaged to a boyfriend who suddenly decided to end their
three-year association. By then she was unhappily working in a lowly position in the National Library. His rejection gave her the impetus to apply for a scholarship in Denmark.
Ní Dhuibhne reveals how the pursuit of stories and folklore made
her feel she was following in the footsteps of the Brothers Grimm — two of my heroes. All of these asides create a sense of the lives that are led, the interests and honours pursued by all of us, until age, illness and death intervene.
Irish writer has written a very Irish book which is also vivid social history and will resonate with people from many countries.
Almqvist was wonderful. Their life, however, was not easy. He insisted they would not marry until she had completed her
doctorate. Within nine months of their wedding day in Sweden in 1982, she was giving birth to the first of their two sons, while Almqvist, then 52, was also in hospital, having a triple bypass. There was no honeymoon.
Of their many trips taken together,
she commemorates the final one, an often-discussed plan to visit the Danish island of Bornholm. When they finally arrive, Bo is exhausted. While she sets off on a bike, he remains in the hotel room, translating an Icelandic saga into Swedish. He dedicates
it to her as a present. Later she grasps his intent: a farewell gift to her.
Twelve Thousand Days is approachable, direct, understandably touched by regret, and motivated by a very human fury.
In honouring Almqvist, a rare individual of learning
and passion, NÍ Dhuibhne has courageously exposed the scandal of his death as a way of helping other people, while shaming our health system.
Written with love and the relentlessness of memory, it should comfort and inspire, while provoking,
even embarrassing, the people in power into trying harder, and doing better for everyone.
Blackstaff Press £9.99 pp217
THE IRISH TIMES
Twelve Thousand Days:
A memoir nobody would want to write
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s moving story of grief will chime with those who know the double-edged price of love
The death of a partner –
or any loved one – is such a cataclysmic physical and emotional experience that it renders most people numb with shock in its immediate aftermath. While every loss is unique, it is often the case that, during the few first days, the grieving person is
swept up in such a frenzy of activity – with a funeral to arrange and kindly neighbours descending, bestowing sympathy and casserole, there can be barely time to think. Almost unwittingly, while being buoyed forward by this wave of compassion, you somehow
find the energy to make the urgent decisions any unexpected death brings.
But in this moving memoir – a meditation not just on the death but, equally importantly, on the fullness of the life of her late husband, the distinguished academic and
folklorist, Bo Almqvist – Éilís Ní Dhuibhne speaks for many bereaved people when describing how, when this bulwark of kindness retreats as other people need to return to living their own lives, “grief dissolves you” as
you confront the actuality that you are now essentially alone. Ní Dhuibhne writes: “my sense of transparency and hollowness increased. I felt as if I was made of paper, moving through the rooms like a shadow”. It takes her a year to stop
obsessively reliving every detail of the final terrible week in her husband’s life and fixating on how she might have better stood up to the medical professionals charged with his care in a Dublin hospital – a shabby institution which must have
reminded him of a 1940s hospital in his native Sweden. At times his treatment there would seem blackly comic – if it were not utterly tragic – in that public hospital which did not even possess a dialysis machine and where an argument between doctors
over his deteriorating condition was exacerbated by the fact that one of them was studying the wrong case file.
I wish that her experience was an extreme exception but too many of us know of similar cases. As someone who was brusquely told by
a senior doctor in an emergency department that I was only in his way and to stop bothering him, half an hour before my wife died undiagnosed on a trolley, I can concur with the questions that later torment Ní Dhuibhne and also echo her justifiable
praise of the kindness of junior doctors and nurses forced to work in such conditions.
But while unafraid to address the inadequacies of Ireland’s health service, Ní Dhuibhne is wise enough to stalk her own life sideways.
By this I mean that her memoir is also a work of loving reclamation, taking back possession of the totality of Almqvist’s life. Her great achievement in this affecting, intimate memoir is that she allows us myriad glimpses not just into their years of
marriage but right back to her first impressions of him when she was a young UCD student, briefly engaged to be married to a c fellow student, and he was a quiet-spoken professor, more than 20 years her senior.
To read a memoir by someone such as Frank
McCourt is to feel immersed in the recollections of a writer fully at ease with a public retelling of his past. In contrast Ní Dhuibhne comes across as a private person who – but for the circumstances of her husband’s death – might
have remained content to stay cloaked behind her impressive oeuvre of novels and stories.
To read a memoir by someone such as Frank McCourt is to feel immersed in the recollections of a writer fully at ease with a public retelling of his past. In contrast Ní Dhuibhne comes across as a private person who
– but for the circumstances of her husband’s death – might have remained content to stay cloaked behind her impressive oeuvre of novels and stories.
But here she reveals a love story in all its human complications and shared moments
of quiet. It is a love affair that almost never got started as her memoir deftly conjures up the Dublin in which she was raised, with its subtle and unsubtle pressures on young women to conform. One evocative passage recalls her first date with Almqvist and
how she stood paralysed by indecision outside his flat, struggling to overcome her inhibitions about how people would view their age difference, until her sense of his essential goodness and his love for her allowed her to overcome these social conventions
and take that first step forward into what became a new life for them both
It is a life in many ways ordinary and yet rendered extraordinary here by this lyrical and tender account of the complexities of a life richly lived, a domestic
world that might have remained hidden had her husband not been taken from her in circumstances that give rise to quiet fury. This is a memoir nobody would wish to ever have to write but the journey of loss it charts that will chime with readers who know the
double-edged price of love: where one partner is always left behind to try to make sense of it all.
iRISH TIMES. 1 DECEMEMBER 2018
Books of the
The poems in Derek Mahon’s Against
the Clock have his signature elegance, irony and melancholy; they also display a new lightness, as though he has come to accept the world in terms that are rooted and visionary, open to suggestion and rich with memory and knowledge.
Over the past decade, a number of groundbreaking books have appeared on Oscar Wilde. These include an annotated Oxford edition, with two volumes of Wilde’s journalism, Franny Moyle’s Constance, Emer O’Sullivan’s The
Fall of the House of Wilde, and this year Matthew Sturgis’s Oscar: A Life, which is astute
in its judgments and offers a sharp and detailed grasp of the period and an appreciation of Wilde’s ambiguities. Éilis Ní Dhuibhne’s Twelve
Thousand Days: A Memoir of Love and Loss is the story of her marriage to the folklorist Bo Almqvist and an exploration of her grief after his death. It is a precise and honest self-portrait, carefully crafted, reticent and then revealing,
but also absorbing and moving.
Selected Stories. Dalkey Archive Press, 2017.
Review by Martina Evans, Irish Times
narrator of Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s Illumination is on a writers’ retreat in California. Walking in the local redwood forest, she comes upon an old gate covered with Spanish moss and follows the path. She soon
finds a beautiful white house in a clearing and is invited inside by its charming family. This is an old trope but one of Ní Dhuibhne’s many gifts is her ability to make the old stories new and fresh.
to the Fairies was my first experience of the Ní Dhuibhne magic, an Irish folk tale is woven ingeniously into an 1980s story of possible incest and child murder. This delicious interweaving of old and new continued throughout her groundbreaking The
Inland Ice and the story Summer Puddingincluded here is from that earlier collection.
The narrator of Illumination wonders: “if it was possible to make new fiction,
by which I meant find a new template, a new mould…Postmodernism…Had failed because a fractured narrative is not enjoyable – it just doesn’t work. But what is the point of using the pre-modern template?... Traditionally stories were
about the conflict between the desire of individuals and the rules of society…But…Nobody is forced to marry for money or to please their parents. There are taboos, but not so many, and there must be a limit to the number of explorations of paedophilia
or psychopathic crime that the world can endure. So one is forced to write only what has been written, in a slightly different way, a million times already.”
This calls to mind Laurence Sterne – so beloved
of the postmodernists – speaking of the same dilemma three centuries ago: “Shall we forever make new books, as apothecaries make new mixtures, by pouring only out of one vessel into another?”
Sterne, Ní Dhuibhne is funny but much quieter; she steals up on you. Her relaxed lengthy stories are reminiscent of Alice Munro, spinning long threads that join up in a gratifying way. The Flowering about a 19th century Donegal lacemaker,
who goes mad when she has to go into service and give up her “flowering”, asks many artful questions. Convincing historical settings are difficult but somehow – maybe because of her long apprenticeship as archivist – Ní Dhuibhne
makes them real or perhaps true is the better word. She is a natural tale teller, a virtuoso. In The Pale Gold of Alaska set during the gold rush, another Donegal woman goes mad yet the tragedy is balanced against a fine sinewy wryness.
The funniest stories in the book, Literary Lunch and City of Literature, feature two consecutive arts council meetings, the first one set
during the reign of the Celtic Tiger, the second in the aftermath. These are hilarious eye-openers and warnings for anyone contemplating the literary life. The fine details like toothpicks, skewer the vagaries of power, greed and sexual relations as the women
miss out on starters, waiting to see what the dominant men are ordering.
Writers haunt these pages, such as Chekhov (whose Lady with the Dog is reflected in The
Woman with the Fish), Alice Munro, James Joyce and more. The narrator of Illumination, reading a slew of biographies – Karen Blixen, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton etc – asks “if any ordinary sane person, lacking any
stunning eccentricity could be a writer at all?”
A snippet synopsis of Mary Lavin’s A Likely Story is skilfully placed in The Banana Boat where for a short period,
the narrator fears she has lost her child to the sea. Ní Dhuibhne is a master at the story within the story: The Banana Boat is set against a beautifully rendered Kerry landscape, seamlessly weaving in local writers like Peig Sayers,
Tomás Ó Criomhthain so that Irish and English language stories are part of the same complex tapestry.
Ní Dhuibhne’s sense of place is strong – whether it’s the Dingle peninsula
or a 1970s American temperance camp – she takes you there but the mother lode is Donegal. Her breakthrough story Blood and Water nails the universal sticky shame and fascination which the young feel for their family roots.
I’d read almost all of these stories before, most recently her heart-tugging story of widowhood The Coast of Wales, yet each story was an exciting renewal for me, like the narrator of Blood and Water who
is refreshed by the “crystal clarity” of Lough Swilly which could be a metaphor for Ní Dhuibhne’s writing:
“It was greenish… Or … a brilliant turquoise colour…a great
jewel, set in the hills. But when you were in that water, bathing, it was as clear as glass.”
Martina Evans is a poet and novelist. Her latest book The Windows of Graceland: New and Selected Poems is published
FOX SWALLOW SCARECROW is a comic novel set in contemporary Dublin. Using as its model Anna Karenina, it takes a satirical look at the Irish literary scene during the affluent first decade
of the 21st century, focusing on the story of a writer of children’s fiction: Anna Kelly Sweeney.
Extracts from reviews of
From The Irish Times, 10 November 2007
‘In Eilis Ni Dhuibhne’s new novel, her familiar strengths are well in evidence: the linguistic precision
conveying the social observations of her cool eye, and the unsettling way compassion emerges from behind the satirical edge. The opening chapters manifest a sweeping breeziness about the new Ireland that make you think of Flann O’Brien....Ni Dhuibhne’s
pre-eminent technical gift – to evoke a character or mood unmistakably in three words – is dazzling. It is what enables her to develop this book from a social satire about literary Dublin into a serious, angry novel which is an emotional roller
coaster...An Irish woman novelist has just won the Man Booker Prize; there is a very credible candidate here to etain the title.
The Sunday Tribune (11 November 2007)
at literary publicity in 21st century Dublin is wonderfully packed with satirical potential and Ni Dhuibhne holds it up to savage scrutiny; she truly puts the ‘ire’ into satire.’
The Times Literary Supplement, December 2007
It’s a very good novel (OR WORDS TO THAT EFFECT)
From The Irish Independent, 6th October 2007
Fox Swallow Scarecrow is a novel of contemporary manners. It describes a burgeoning subset of the native population: Secondary Arts Persons. To be a SAP you need to have a job in an arts-related body or in publishing, to be almost a writer (with an
agent) and to spend your leisure time going to book launches... Cultural historians of the future will regard Fox Swallow Scarecrow as a goldmine of information about Celtic Tiger Ireland... Present day readers will find it an astute and acute novel.
From Dublin Confessions
A modern Irish take on Anna Karenina seems a major undertaking and comes with the possibility of spectacular failure. Eilis Ni Dhuibhne does a beautiful job...What
we have here is an intricate portrait of elitist Dublin society, written with both grace and precision.
Dún an Airgid (Cois Life 2008)
Dún an Airgid is
a mystery novel, a whodunit. Set in an invented town, Dún an Airgid, a Utopian experiment, it takes an affectionate but satirical look at modern Irish life and mores, while exploring the adventures of Saoirse, the optimistic artist from South Dublin,
and her partner, an Sáirsint Máirtín Ó Flaithearta, the stoical policeman from South Munster. A sequel to the prize winning best seller, Dúmharú sa Daingean, Dún an Airgid has also won an Oireachtas
prize for light fiction.
Irish Times, 15 November 2008
(Micheál O Croinín)
A published author in both English and Irish, Éilís
Ní Dhuibhne has already ventured into detective fiction with Dunmharú sa Daingean (2000) in which Saoirse makes her first appearance. The tale in Dún an Airgid is briskly told in a style that is eminently accessible to young adult or adult
learners of Irish. Connoisseurs of the whodunit may feel that more needed to be said about the circumstances of the murders and that some plot lines (the sale of artworks, for example) needed more development but Ní Dhuibhne excels in the art of persuasive
storytelling. As an account of what goes wrong when the Celtic Cockaigne turns dark, it is very much a tale for our times.
SOME COMMENTS ON EARLIER WORKS
Blood and Water
“Here is a heightened world of sensual observation, delivered in a calm and credible tone, the voice of the storyteller being capable of attaining marvellous heights, never faltering through fear of the dark beneath
the surface of these stories. The accuracy with which the surface is delineated allows the reader to probe with confidence the complications, both personal and political, that motivate these characters, for Ni Dhuibhne’s subject is contemporary Ireland,
and that is a dark, complicated place. The strength of the collection lies in its humour…” (Frank McGuinness, Irish Literary Supplement, Fall 1990)
“Perhaps it needs a certain zaniness to
express the situation of women in Ireland at the moment, and the less outwardly realistic Eilis Ni Dhuibhne stories are, the more real seems their sense of increasingly unquiet desperation… In these stories there is a voice that is all Eilis Ni Dhuibhne’sown,
one that is well worth listening to.”(Fintan O’Toole, Sunday Tribune, May 1990.) “Two stories by Eilis Ni Dhuibhne are eerie and impeccably constructed”(Hilary Mantel, Telegraph, 29.10. 1995Review of The Blackstaff Book of Short
The Pale Gold of Alaska
‘Eilis Ni Dhuibhne’s The Pale Gold of Alaska and other Stories is proof, if proof were needed, that the Irish short story is on the crest of
an exciting new wave. Stories like “The Day Elvis Presley died show her mastery of the genre. Whether it’s the tale of an emigrant Irish girl in love with a Blackfoot Indian in the wilds of Montana or a mother on a Kerry beach convinced her son
has drowned, there is in these stories the rare perfection of completeness.”(Caroline Walsh, Irish Times, 9 December 2000.)
“The shortlisting of Eilis Ni Dhuibhne’s novel The Dancers Dancing for this year’s Orange Prize
brought international recognition to an author who, over the past twelve years, has quietly published a sizeable body of writing in Ireland. While her earlier novel, The Bray House, received attention for its singular eco-critical and futuristic aspects, she
has worked most consistently and successfully with short fiction. The Pale Gold of Alaska is her fourth volume of stories, and it continues, though with more stylistic calculation, her favoured demotic examination of commonplace lives and especially loves.”(John
Kenny, Times Literary Supplement. 20 October 2000.)
Eilis Ni Dhuibhne is the most gifted young Irish writer. In The Pale Gold of Alaska her prose shimmers like poetry.(Edna O Brien, The Observer, 26 November 2000.)
“Beautifully written and full of humour, these are stories whose insights are never forced. The author’s last novel, The Dancers Dancing, has been shortlisted for this year’s Orange Prize, and on the strength of these stories it is not
hard to see why.”(Christina Konig, The Times, Oct 18, 2000.)
The Dancers Dancing
“This novel, like other recent irish writing, turns west to explore sexual and Irish identities.
But rather than being a search for essential origins, Ni Dhuibhne’s narrative reveals the contingency of a historical moment. Language and landscape are layered but thye cannot fix what is preserved, only muddy it. As the narrator puts it, “you
dig and dig and sometimes you do not recognize what you find… Orla too momentarily encounters a poetic otherworld romanticism, inevitably of a dark and savage, rather than a sentimental, tone. She recognizes that a trace of the unspeakable past
is part of her personal history, but the fleeting knowledge is a narrative remnant to an ending that repudiates false cohesions. Ni Dhuibhne’s writing is marvellous, building layers of impression until a complex, vital and true-false picture of liberation
is revealed.(Kathy Cremin, Irish Times, 7 August 1999).
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne
Cois Life, €10
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s Dordán (meaning Buzz) is, technically, a novel for teenagers about a brother, Craobh, and his sister, Natasha, as they prepare for the
Junior and Leaving Certs respectively. However, it is a book that anyone interested in a good read could happily take up and enjoy. Ní Dhuibhne’s many qualities as a writer are evident throughout: the story moves well, the characters are clear
and credible, and the language is perfectly distilled, atmospheric and contemporary. Reading Dordán is akin to watching well-trained dancers perform The Fruits of May: everyone is in the right place, at the right time, dancing to the right beat –
and that excellence gives us more than people going through the motions: it gives us something more elemental and more, well, fruitful. As well as the angst over exams and debs, Ní Dhuibhne confronts the darker side of teenage life and the life-and-death
choices that it sometimes, sadly, involves. Pól Ó Muiri
Irish Times, June 2011
By LORRAINE COURTNEY
Sunday May 06 2012
recently said that, in the perfect short story: "Nothing much needs to happen. But the nothing much has to be completely fascinating." He might have been talking about Eilis Ni Dhuibhne's sixth collection, which is full of people on the brink of extraordinary
insight into otherwise ordinary lives.
There is always something rapturous about Ni Dhuibhne's work: through her acute eye and cool, appraising descriptions, she is able to evoke life in all its messy, mundane, exhausting and exhilarating everyday detail.
She has the power to condense the apparently inconsequential into frozen moments laden with significance. The insights are never forced and as ever, she displays her glorious grasp of people, their deepest desires and contradictions. The title comes from the
Irish proverb, "Ar Scath a Cheile a Mhaireann na Daoine" or people live in one another's shelter, and these stories paint a vivid picture of communities and the way people interact.
The theme of writing runs through the book. In the opening story, we
meet Finn O'Keefe, a school teacher, who plans to spend his summer holidays writing, but is paralysed by writer's block. Illumination is about a writer on a retreat.
In A Literary Lunch, a board has met to consider the handing out of bursaries to writers.
The board's newest member thinks about how she has failed to win a bursary for an old friend. This friend, the terminally unsuccessful Francie Briody, eats a tuna-filled baguette in a nearby cafe as he plots deadly revenge. It is a wickedly compelling and
clever satire, unmistakably modelled on the Arts Council, about how such groups chose which artists to support.
Accounts of youthful unrequited love and thwarted middle-aged desire pervade the collection, too, with Ni Dhuibhne digging deep to uncover
the passions and desires that rumble beneath the surface of everyday life.
A Swedish immigrant visits Ikea in Belfast.
Inside, amid the flatpack furniture, memories are awakened of a life and love she wanted to forget. It's a feeling reiterated in Bikes I Have Lost, a story about a young girl who stops eating after her first love abandons her. Almost autobiographical, Ni Dhuibhne
is writing about a college undergrad who stops eating, parallelling her own experience of anorexia, when her weight fell to six stone and she suffered temporary sight loss.
Again and again, she knits folklore into tales of contemporary reality and it
is this unique fusion that is Ni Dhuibhne's signature style. In It is a Miracle, Sara meets a man she imagines to have stepped out of a fairytale. "He was like a woodcutter in a fairytale; he reminded her of Red Riding Hood's father. This country was rich
in fairytales, forests and wild animals, abandoned children. Looking at him, sipping his glass of white wine, you could see where those characters had come from." Odysseus, some Irish lore and a sprinkling of Old Norse legends creep into everyday life and
it's the deft insertion of these that makes Ni Dhuibhne's stories kind of epic sagas distilled into sparkling miniature.
This year seems to be the year of the short story.
Heavyweights such as Joseph O'
Connor and Kevin Barry have collections out. Arlen House is publishing three debut collections. In Taboo, Ni Dhuibhne writes that a short story is, "I don't know, sort of in and out
before you've really got used to it". You certainly tumble into these beautiful, spellbinding stories and each one climbs close to perfection.
- LORRAINE COURTNEY
STORIES: The Shelter of Neighbours By Éilís Ní Dhuibhne The Blackstaff Press, 265pp. £12.99
IN THE OPENING story of Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s new collection, a man attempts, with Godotesque
farce and distraction, to escape to the country to write. His troubled son, a sick cat and his wife’s spinal issues all thwart the would-be writer, who hears a story on the radio about a seanchaí of old. In it, a man who knows no stories with
which to entertain his neighbours is looked down on. It’s not until he is transported away by fairies that he finds a narrative, born of his experience. It reflects Ní Dhuibhne’s penchant for imbuing a folkloric tradition with modern relevance
and showing how a life is a mass of threaded chronicles. Within this tale, hidden amid the dark humour and sentences that unfurl fluidly, is the narrator’s real concern – for his son Mattie, “whose blue eyes had darkened since childhood .
. . they didn’t sparkle anymore”.
This story also introduces a recurring figure in the book: the writer. In Illumination, an Irish author attending a creative retreat in the US meets a mysterious family who live in the woods. She is repelled
and attracted by their sub-Freudian bond, their ease with their isolation – the ultimate pursuit of the writer. Ní Dhuibhne uses this character as a mouthpiece for an intriguing discussion on new fictional forms. “What subject can the new
novel deal with? One is left to write only what has been written – in a slightly different way – a million times already.”
But though Ní Dhuibhne acknowledges that fiction’s thematic furrows have been well trampled, she
explores them with flair and not a scrap of sentimentality.
The stereotype of a writer’s life – a delicate equipoise of self-regard and necessary solitude – is humorously expanded in A Literary Lunch. In satirising funding decisions
and bursary awards – and referencing esteemed book critics from this newspaper – Francie, a writer, embraces failure and turns his vengeance on those who don’t support him. His anger trumps every emotion that percolates in these subtle but
The collection is set in the fictional south Co Dublin estate of Dunroon Crescent, and disconnection and rejection are its backbone. The ensemble cast of neighbours are as geographically proximate as they are emotionally distant.
They drift in and out of overlapping stories, in a manner reminiscent of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, a story collection about a town that focuses on the loneliness of its inhabitants. Ní Dhuibhne examines the ennui of suburban life, which
represents an unavoidable reality. Love, creativity and sex offer solace from duty and loneliness, and though the female characters in the main bear these burdens, they resist total passivity. Better yet, they survive, unlike numerous male characters who die
young – by drowning, of leukaemia, in a motorbike accident – crystallised in amber, like heroes in a folk tale.
While several stories comment on an Ireland of the past, of overly familiar priests and no contraception, there are striking
footnotes about the country’s recent metamorphosis. Social and economic markers, from the presence of Ikea to an obsession with the price of petrol, are often larded with elements of fable.
In the fairy reverie of The Man With No Story the main
character becomes “a millionaire surgeon in the Blackrock Clinic”. In The Yeats, “the country, which had been so rich, descended into poverty, like a hiker who had been striding blithely along, stumbling without warning into an ancient well”.
The Celtic past – the historical, authentic one untainted by present-day pastiche – reverberates, as it frequently does in Ní Dhuibhne’s work: the book’s title is rooted in the Irish proverb “Ar scáth a chéile
a mhaireann na daoine”.
Ní Dhuibhne’s skill at writing in Irish, as much as in English, is mirrored by the fact that she is as comfortable with the shorter form as the novel. This is most evident in the book’s strongest piece,
Bikes I Have Lost. Bordering on a novella (and of a similar length to Joyce’s The Dead), it telescopes a novel’s worth of experience into one story.
Helen, the protagonist, takes us through her life in bicycles – from the one that
represented her mother’s premarriage freedom to the one that kills the love of her life. It’s a tremendous piece of writing that, when opened, contains, like an inverted Russian doll, something much bigger.
Recurring motifs tend occasionally
towards repetition, but this is a minor fault when compared with Ní Dhuibhne’s skill at imbuing small moments and chance encounters with an anchor’s worth of weight. Richard Ford says that short stories are daring little instruments, and
in this writer’s hands they shock and jolt with recognition.
SHELTER OF NEIGHBOURS
Review by Giovanna Tallone, in
A Journal of Irish
Studies, Firenze, 2012
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, The Shelter of Neighbours, The Blackstaff Press, Belfast
2012, pp. 265. £12,99. ISBN 978-0-85640-886-1
ten years separate Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s latest collection of short
stories, The Shelter of Neighbours (2012)1, from her previous volume, The Pale
Gold of Alaska (2000)2. In this lapse of time
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne published
stories from her early collections in Midwife to the Fairies3 in 2003, a book for
young readers, The Sparkling Rain4, in 2004, and notably her novel on Celtic
Fox, Swallow, Scarecrow5, in 2007. She has written extensively in
Irish and on the Irish language, and among her novels in Irish feature Cailíní
Beaga Ghleann na mBláth (2003)6 and Dún
an Airgid (2008)7. She has also
continued writing stories, published in miscellaneous collections and reviews
over the years. Her sixth volume of stories, The Shelter of Neighbours, contains
some of these stories as well
as new ones, and displays forms of continuity and
development in the variety of her production. Her awareness of the Ireland
of the past interlaces with concern with contemporary Ireland, which comes
openly to the fore with a Swedish immigrant’s
visit to Ikea in Belfast in The
Shortcut through IKEA and with references to the country’s recent economic
crisis, a «rapid slide into recession» (59) in The Yeats, in Red-Hot Poker and in
the title story The Shelter of Neighbours, where a commonplace observation
496 recensioni / reviews
about public servants leads to misunderstanding and miscommunication
The title of the volume comes
from an Irish proverb – ‘Ar Scáth a
Chéile a Mhateireann na Daoine’, people live in one another’s shelter – yet
in the fictional estate of Dunroon Crescent in South County Dublin the
community in the neighbourhood has deteriorated, and danger
may come from your neighbours as well as from outside, as in the title story
and in Red-Hot Poker. In Trespasses the boredom of suburban life merges
place’s lack of identity, as it is «miles from anywhere that makes
sense. Miles from the city and miles from the river and the sea» (97). The
suburban context provides a background for the gradual emotional distance
interpersonal relationships, the problematic confrontation with the past,
the obsession of memories, the persecution of episodes from childhood
and adolescence.The obscure menace from the adult world emerges in the
charity activity of
teenage memories in The Blind, and the pain of young
love comes back to life in Taboo, The Moon Shines Clear, the Horseman’s Here
and Bikes I have Lost. A variety of motifs and themes intertwines
main plot, drug addiction in The Shelter of Neighbours, anorexia in Bikes I
have Lost, the difficulty of communication between generations and sexes
in The Man who had no Story and It is
a Miracle. In The Sugar Loaf Audrey
tries to reconstruct her emotional life treasuring the few happy memories
of her past in the routine and disorder of her lonely existence. Characters
occasionally migrate from story to
story, like Audrey who returns fleetingly
in Red-Hot Poker as someone who «suffers from the depression» (192), and
Finn O’Keefe, the writer of The Man who had no Story who reappears also
in The Shelter
of Neighbours. Story organization is often based on Ní Dhuibhne’s
usual alternation of past and present, which highlights the obsessive
presence of the past with which it is not easy to come to terms.
A novelty in form
may be represented by the story Bikes I have Lost,
which is longer than the standard Ní Dhuibhne story and is similar to a
novella. The story is literally a journey in the past as it recounts Helen’s life
the stories of her bikes, starting with the theft of a three-wheeler,
and developing with the tragic death of her first boyfriend in a motorcycle
accident. Its organization in single episodes, each bearing a different subtitle,
is an interesting
insight into the fragmentation of the protagonist’s memories,
at the same time keeping the unity of the fictional autobiography intact.
However, a fil rouge develops from the stories in The Inland Ice (1997)8
the novel Fox, Swallow, Scarecrow to The Shelter of Neighbours, as
Ní Dhuibhne increasingly focuses her attention on the act of storytelling,
on writing and on the character of a writer. Characters in The Inland Ice
public relation people, teachers and librarians who occasionally are also poets.
This is magnified and scanned in Fox, Swallow, Scarecrow, where novelists,
poets, publishers, literary agents dominate and draw attention
to the life
studi irlandesi. a journal of irish studies 497
of literary Dublin, its obsessions and contradictions. Some stories in The
Shelter of Neighbours continue and expand the theme of writing in a variety
ways, occasionally indulging on the essence and meaning of writing, so
that writing is consciously at the centre of the volume.
In the opening story The Man who had no Story the protagonist is a
teacher who travels to Kerry to
devote his whole summer to writing. His
search for peace, isolation and concentration is frustrated by everyday
distractions interfering with his plans, from a sick cat to a broken fridge,
so that writing seems to be a nearly impossible
achievement, a vain and
trivial pursuit. This is exemplified by his writer’s notebook «full of useless
items» (2) he may never be able to use. On the other hand, the reader follows
his reflection on the act of writing,
which is a journey into lost tracks,
as «writing is an excuse for not writing something else» (5). The setting of
contemporary Ireland marked by recent road construction is interlinked
with the conscious life of the past, starting
with the protagonists’ mythological
names, Finn and Grainne (their cat is called Pangur), and attention
is cast on traditional storytelling in the form of a story Finn hears on the
radio. In a pattern of Chinese boxes, the story,
significantly called The Man
who had no Story, recounts Finn’s own story: Finn has no story to tell, no
words to write, like the protagonist of the story-within-the-story, unable to
entertain his neighbours with
a story until he is taken away by the fairies. In
an interplay of tradition and modernity, Ní Dhuibhne juxtaposes the voice
of an old seanchai to Finn’s abortive attempt to write his work in progress.
Lunch has a completely contemporary setting and set of references.
An expensive lunch in a fashionable bistro provides a background for a
board, modelled on the Arts Council, meeting to assign funds and bursaries
to writers. Patterns
of authority and power contend with the bitterness of
failure, as FrancieBriody, «a writer whom nobody read» (19), already in his
fifties, is refused financial support for the nth time. While the story has a
of revenge and murder, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne makes fun of
the fashionable jargon of literary criticism describing Francie’s latest novel
as «a heteroglossial polyphonic postmodern examination of postmodern
with special insight into political corruption and globalisation,
beautifully written in dark masculinist ironic prose with shadows of l’écriture
féminine» (19). The story predates the publication of
Fox, Swallow, Scarecrow
and represents an interesting insight into the world of Dublin’s literary life,
later to be developed in the novel.
A writer is at the centre also of the story Illumination, where an artists’
retreat provides the context to develop reflections on writing alongside motifs
from folklore and fairytales. The atmosphere of a fairytale characterises
also It is a Miracle, where Sara meets a man that might have come out of a
fairy tale: «He was like a woodcutter in a fairytale; he reminded her of Red
Riding Hood’s father» (80). Loosely based on Ní Dhuibhne’s own experi498
recensioni / reviews
ence in a writers’ retreat
in California a couple of years ago, Illumination
provides a variation of Ní Dhuibhne’s trend to rewrite traditional stories in
a contemporary context and here she recalls her background in folklore to
create a fairytale
atmosphere. Fond of taking walks near the residence where
she spends the summer, the nameless first-person narrator finds herself in the
foreign territory familiar in fairytales, where gates open onto unknown tracks
in the woods. And as
in a fairytale she finds herself in a mysterious house in
the forest whose lawn has the magic colour of «emerald silk» (32) and which
is inhabited by three mysterious people, hospitable but reticent. The seductive
pleasant manners of the woman of the house do not hide the
unusual hazel colour of her penetrating eyes, later described as «yellowish»
(44). Half-way between a witch and a fairy, the woman offers delicious food
to appear out of nowhere and dominates the small community
that lives with her, and the growing mystery and contradictory information
about the different members increase the sombreness of the house and its surroundings,
an unseen mountain lion, by the bark of coyotes
and the scream of bobcats, alter egos of wolves in fairytales. Focussing on
the character of a writer, the story also discusses the purpose and meaning of
writing, as the protagonist is looking
for «some answer about writing» (43)
and wonders if it is «possible to make new fiction» (38). «What is it for? Not
just to entertain people with stories about other people like themselves. It
must have some
more profound and important purpose» (43).
Storytelling is the object of a series of stories in the collection, for example,
Taboo opens with a child’s obsessive request to her au pair to tell her
the same story night
after night, which introduces the au pair’s first-person
narration of her own story, thus creating an ideal connection with The Man
who had no Story realizing her own fabulistic attempt. In a more complex
The Moon Shines Clear, the Horseman’s Here, memory and invention
provide a text for the story Polly’s mother tells herself without being able
to reach a conclusion. «That is what she does all day. She tells
stories … she
is engaged in a long monologue … not monotonous, but unbroken, fluent
as a river» (p. 178). Telling stories is a form of therapy and reconciliation,
which allows Polly and her mother to come to terms with
their own past,
marked by unwanted pregnancy and the tragic death of Polly’s boyfriend.
The Shelter of Neighbours is made of two groups or sets of stories easily
identifiable in the volume, stories about writing and stories
neighbourhood of Dunroon Crescent. They frequently intermingle in crosssections
as the volume highlights the small moments in everyday life when
change or crisis are on the brink of being disclosed. Following the steps of
her concern with the secret of storytelling, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne gives us a
precious glimpse into the mysterious patterns and paths of creativity in a
new collection of stories dealing with ordinary people and ordinary days,
where reality and magic often meet and interact.
studi irlandesi. a journal of irish studies 499
1 É. NíDhuibhne, The Shelter of Neighbours, The Blackstaff Press, Belfast 2012.
NíDhuibhne, ‘The Pale Gold of Alaska’ and Other Stories, The Blackstaff Press,
3 É. NíDhuibhne, ‘Midwife to the Fairies’: New and Selected Stories, Attic Press, Cork
4 É. NíDhuibhne, The SparklingRain, Poolbeg, Dublin 2003.
5 É. NíDhuibhne, Fox, Swallow, Scarecrow, The Blackstaff Press, Belfast 2007.
6 É. NíDhuibhne, Cailíní
Beaga Ghleann na mBláth, Cois Life, Baile Átha Cliath 2003.
7 É. NíDhuibhne, Dún an Airgid, Cois Life, Baile Átha Cliath 2008.
8 É. NíDhuibhne,‘The InlandIce’
and Other Stories, Blackstaff Press, Belfast 1997.