Sunday, 20 July 2008

Country of the Grand by Gerard Donovan

Gerard Donovan is that cliché, an Irish writer with a poet’s sensibility. His 2003 debut novel was Schopenhauer's Telescope: trucks arrive with frighten, crying villagers, one man digs a hole, one watches. The result is a stunning and moving discussion that covers everything from the life of Genghis Khan to what exactly, is a hole.

In contrast, his recently published collection of short stories, Country of the Grand, uses musical and witty language to convey the lives of ordinary people in a changing Ireland. Morning swimmers, it’s about the loss of old school friends becoming strangers but it’s also about the compromises we make in marriage to keep the hope of love alive. A theme picked up in How long until when a man driving seeing a Life Assurance advert is prompted to ask, how long would you wait before you slept with someone so revealing marriage fault-lines. In other stories such as Shop lifting in the USA we discover the awful lie that the relationship is founded on or in Archaeologists see a relationship in its dying moments. In the Country of the Grand we follow, the events of one evening in the successful and empty live of a lawyer as he acts on the impulse of trying to find the landscape of his childhood. Many of the stories move from the thoughts and actions of the moment to a reflection of the past or as in Glass looking at the pain of a widow through the eyes of her accusing teenage son.

Gerard Donovan is clearly a writer worth reading if you like poetic prose and imaginative stories based on intelligent thought. But the collection of stories suffer as any collection of short stories does by being a random collection of writing enjoyed in the moment of the train journey but once collected together the signature of the writer becomes that much more obvious so less startling or stimulating.

Gerard Donovan use of language and imagery, hover between poems and prose,an good example of this is By Irish Nights . You circle over Ireland following road travellers over one night including those who won’t return as this extract illustrates.

...But those three children. A small breath of water makes a sea of the lungs and sinks the breath.

They found themselves after in languid palms that rested upright in the still water, and they hadn’t drowned. They found themselves in hands sometimes covered in swans that floated, shaped in rain drops that shook the surface of the sky where it rested in the water, in the hold of a father as he taught them to walk, in a mother’s patience as she fed them from spoons and dressed them for the morning. And then they found themselves at last, carved into the endless hearts that lost them, waking every night to sleep.

Its an interesting paradox of our time that in the panic that we can only cope with flash-card writing, short stories are in long decline as we prefer the narrative depth of novels. However, these facts may not be in contradiction, as short stories as poetry require good writing and good reading (close attention to language and structure) to work. Read this collection and decide if its bad writing or poor reading that shapes its future.

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