The Collected Stories Paperback – 1994
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The stories take place in an Ireland in flux - torn between its spirited yet peaceful, more agrarian past, and the `new' world that encompasses industry and the so-called luxuries of modern life. It's a change that has obviously ripped the very heart and soul out of many of these characters - even the ones whose stories are clearly taking place, more or less, in the present. They inwardly and silently bemoan their state, yet they do nothing about it - and many of them use this dissatisfaction to justify the shallowness and dishonesty of the lives they lead.
All that being said, I did find a good deal of fine reading in this collection - especially the stories `The wine breath' and `Swallows'. For me, these two stand head and shoulders above the rest - but different ones will no doubt appeal to different readers. McGahern's writing is clear and powerful - I certainly wouldn't recommend any reader passing him by. At the same time, I don't think I'd put him on a level with the short stories of James Joyce. For modern Irish stories, I'll take the work of William Trevor any time.
I have McGahern's novel BY THE LAKE - I've read many good things about it, and I look forward very much to reading it. Some things I've read about another novel of his, THE DARK, are intriguing as well.
One of the promos on the cover refers to McGahern as the best Irish short story writer since Joyce. Hmmmm.... not so sure about that for several reasons. I understand that the statement isn't intended to be direct comparison between the two, but it's unfair to both writers and to the reader. I would compare McGahern to the often over-looked Frank O'Connor instead.
While some of the stories included in this collection are set in Dublin, it's the stories set in the country where McGahern's characters, themes, and prose really work best. Like O'Connor, McGahern's best stories allow the reader to "see" what isn't said or what isn't done. It's the absences and the mis-fires between everyday people doing everyday things that resonate so achingly in the best stories in this collection.
I do like that the stories are arranged in such a way so that when a character or set of characters appear in multiple pieces, the reader finds herself pleasantly surprised to encounter someone again after having read about someone or something completely different. This organisation of recurrent characters or settings allowed me to create a mini-novel in my head and to think about the various conflicts, relationships, and absences even after I'd put the book down.