Dick Edelstien reviews- Empire by Mary O’Donnell

Reviewed ByDick Edelstien


by Mary O’Donnell, Arlen House 2018,
200 pp,
ISBN 978-1-85132-175-9

A number of books recently published in Ireland relate to the centenaries of the First World War and the fight for Irish independence. Apart from being a good excuse to sell books, the conjuncture affords a timely opportunity for reflection and for delving into a receding page of history. But, the historical tie-in notwithstanding, the raison d´être of this book is the pleasure of reading.

The stories in this collection are eminently readable, as clearly seen in “Empire”, the title piece that opens the book, a novella-length narrative making up a third of the volume. During the First World War, an Irish newlywed couple travel to Burma, where the husband has accepted an engineering job with a British company on a three-year contract. They both find themselves unable to accept the prevailing colonialist attitude towards the local population and, in quite different ways, are compelled to reflect on their own sense of identity.

The spare writing vibrates with unstated meaning as the narrator’s tone mirrors the characters’ circumspect manner of speech. At times we can almost hear their inner dialogue as they delicately choose what to communicate to each other and what to leave unsaid. Gaps left by unstated thoughts cast shadows of social norms and propriety, and of the contrasting postures of men and women imposed by the roles they feel obliged to enact. Whether the characters’ modulated diction is informed by historical research or by the author’s poetic sensitivity to language, the verisimilitude of the portrayal is palpable, reinforced by a carefully created atmosphere. Craft is concealed by art, as when viewing  a finely painted image whose effect we perceive immediately without discerning the brush strokes.

The treatment of this story is novelistic, particularly in terms of character development, setting, atmosphere and storyline. Once comfortably engaged in the unfolding of the tale, some readers are likely to wonder why the story will not be a full-length novel. Only at the end will they find an answer. Once back in Dublin, Margaret Wheeler has clarified some of her thoughts about acceptable roles for women and her own future plans. The author has posed a conflict in such a way that a denouement of any sort might blur the clarity with which it has been set up.

This book is more than merely a collection of stories. The stories are interrelated by means of characters that occasionally link them. This device reinforces the sensation that the conjunction of fragmentary portrayals gives rise to a clearer vision of the confluence of historical and political currents and how these affected people’s lives in different ways.

The Irish Uprising and the Civil War in its aftermath were fought again in 2016, this time with no real casualties. In view of  the centenary celebration of nationhood, the national myths required some polishing before being held up to a 21st century world but it proved impossible to get everyone singing from the same hymn sheet. If dustups in side streets were generally avoided, there was little restraint on bullying by ideological hardliners. In this scenario, Mary O’Donnell finds a useful role for literature: not placard waving, but a nuanced portrayal of the ways in which a complex historical situation affects a number of people of different stations and social classes in diverse situations. The author avoids polemic, aiming to shed light on past events laden with ambiguity.

Through the lives and experiences portrayed in these stories, readers are able to view the events of the revolutionary period from several viewpoints, a useful exercise in itself. Without needing to look further afield, it is clear that the force of demographics in Northern Ireland leading implacably towards a shifting majority and a new balance of power represents a situation fraught with potential dangers. This is just one example of how the ability to view political situations from multiple viewpoints is critically important in today’s world.

In a story entitled “Fortune on a Fair Day”, we see a young man in love, probably for the first time.  He makes a decision to join the British army just after the execution of the leaders of the Easter Rising. Family and friends are divided over his decision. Some see it as folly or even treason. Folly it may be, but the young man’s decision is a faithful and even typical illustration of the kinds of situations that really occurred in the midst of the political currents of the time.

Empire is the third collection of short stories published by Mary O’Donnell. These are accompanied by seven poetry collections and four novels, along with a considerable body of critical writing and journalism. This new collection is an engaging, highly readable and worthy addition to an already impressive body of work.