Ireland is once more the source of great, and disturbing, fiction. Most of us will not have heard of Maeve Brennan before opening this volume, yet the quality of her stories is cause for wonder. The first several are autobiographical sketches of her childhood in 1920s Dublin. In one, she takes her brother with her to the Poor Clare nuns, a closed order. Because the little boy is only 2, he gets to see the hidden lives about which his older sister is so curious: "I imagined them, silent and swift, of all ages, descending upon Robert from every part of the convent." In another, following the treaty that turned Ireland into a free state, "some unfriendly men" twice come looking for her father, a Republican. One raider even thrusts his head up the fireplace, only to cover himself and the living room in soot. Despite the disarray, her mother rejoices. "And with us chattering a delighted, incredulous accompaniment, she laughed as though her heart might break."
In Brennan's acute hands, this proverbial phrase has more sorrow than joy about it, and in the collection's two other sequences, the emotions are far more raw. Husbands and wives are deadlocked in loveless marriages--the men longing for escape, the women desperate for contact. These are visions of powerful feelings, powerfully quelled, and there are some heart-freezing juxtapositions. One story ends with a young couple coming together; in the very next, 27 years later, ill will is everywhere.
But Brennan, whose life seems to have been even more tragic than that of any of her characters, can also anatomize peace, or at least respite. In "The Carpet with the Big Pink Roses on It," Mrs. Bagot and her child and pets (also on the shakiest of ground with Mr. Bagot) fall into an afternoon slumber. "They all slept safely. There wasn't a sound in the house. Nobody came to the door. Nobody saw them. There on the bed they might all have been invisible, or enchanted, or, as they were for that time, forgotten." Alas, such states of grace are momentary in Brennan's houses. According to William Maxwell, the title novella--a brilliant anatomy of envy and hate--"belongs with the great short stories of this century." So do several other pieces in The Springs of Affection. [via]