THE IRISH writer Mary Byrne has gained her many accolades for her writing, including a Hennessy Award and inclusion in widely read anthologies such as the Faber Book of Best New Irish Short Stories.
A native of Louth, she has has been living in France for more than 30 years, and her latest collection of stories, Plugging The Causal Breach, has just been published . The opening story, ‘Au Pair Girls Wanted In France’, is set entirely in Ireland in one of the small, deceased, towns dotted all around our thriving little country. Byrne’s emigrating narrator wittily evokes the emptiness at the heart of many lives, an emptiness that screeches all the louder in those nowhere places young people just want to get out of:
“‘It’s dead’...He was not speaking to anyone in particular. He looked down the main street: ‘These places are dead. But then Dublin is no great shakes either.’ And finally the bus came, and no word was spoken as we all mounted the vehicle which was lined with carpet...We moved off...Every peak was a ring fort in which were hiding na Tuatha de Danann and na Sidhe, waiting for better times...RTÉ Radio 2 rattled overhead, neither soft enough to be ignored nor loud enough to be heard properly. Wrong answers to a quiz filtered through. ‘What’s a marsupial?’ the presenter asked. ‘A squid’, replied the caller. ‘Who built Hadrian’s Wall?’ ‘The Chinese.’
'These stories are perfectly composed by a writer who knows how to write but, crucially, knows other things too'
There is a quiet absurdism running through many of Byrne’s stories, most of which are set in the less fashionable parts of France. A couple of her most striking characters are introduced to the reader by way of their somewhat peculiar hairdos. In ‘It’s Not All About The Money’, Chantelle is said to have "a voice like a drag queen, and one those blonde bouffant hairstyles that went with it.”
In the title story, a couple move into a Paris apartment building where their neighbour has “big fuzzy hair that was obviously dyed and glowed purple against the light. She had a gummy smile, the rare time we saw it...” This woman’s ex, whom the couple meet in a most memorable scene, is a conspiracy theorist who, in the course of one conversation, reveals that he thinks 9/11 was an inside job and that an ethnically pure Greater Serbia would be a good thing. He then jabbers on at length about how Lenin went wrong by not taking a more gradualist approach which, according to this genius, Marx and Engels favoured. He then glances at his expensive looking watch and pretty much runs out the door.
Plugging The Causal Breach is one of the best short story collections I’ve read in a long while. These stories are perfectly composed by a writer who knows how to write but, crucially, knows other things too.