What We’re Reading This Week… Mother America

On June 7th, Nuala Ní Chonchúir launched her fourth short story collection, Mother America, in the Winding Stair Bookshop in Dublin. As soon as I got the book, I avidly read all 19 stories — which jump between historical fiction and contemporary realism with ease — and had a very informative interview with the lovely Nuala herself, posted in full here.

The first story in the collection, ‘Peach’, was nominated for a 2012 Pushcart Prize and won the Jane Geske Award, and rightly so. The precision of detail in this story is wonderful. Ní Chonchúir has a penchant for description, and her opening lines are always perfect introductions to the story itself: “There was a pregnant woman getting drunk in the back lounge; I could see her through the hatch, from where I sat at the bar.” The narrator, Dominic, soon becomes involved with the frail woman, Maud, whom the reader learns has recently had a miscarriage. What astounded me about this story was the way in which the descriptions of the characters’ actions and surroundings so precisely outlined their own personalities:

At Maud’s front door a smoke-coloured cat with white feet brushed around my legs and pushed its torso into my shins. I half-kicked it away, being careful not to hurt it.
‘Your cat?’ I asked, while Maud unlocked the door.
‘No, that’s Chicago; he belongs to the neighbour.’ She shook her foot at him. ‘Psst, Chicago, psst. Get lost.’ Chicago ran through Maud’s legs into the hall; he looked up at us.
[…]
There was a Kahlo-bright oilcloth on her table: it was yellow with cerise hibiscus flowers. An orchid, propped in a milk bottle, spilled orange dust from its stamen onto the tablecloth; the orchid seemed to spray its hot smell into the room. A birdcage on a stand was parked in one corner. I looked in at a budgie; he was a startling, fake-looking blue.
[…]
Maud’s house had a stillness that I found almost unbearable, a sense of time being immoveable; I needed noise.

The themes of loneliness and consolation reemerge in many of the stories in the collection, none more so than “When the Hearse Goes By”, a powerful examination of grief and succour. Another male narrator, Fergus, goes to Paris after the funeral of his brother, and meets his sister-in-law, Ivy, “a stumpy woman with a man’s haircut.” The two attempt to downplay the loss of their mutual friend, but inevitably find it’s the only thing that can connect them. At a restaurant in the eighth arrondissement, Fergus says, “You miss him, I suppose.” “Like air,” Ivy answered. The two discuss the odd dreams they have had recently — Fergus dreaming about insects and waking up to a loud chorus of birds, Ivy dreaming that her husband is still sitting in the chair in their bedroom. The conclusion of their relationship is both understandable and shocking, and all the while I couldn’t help but feel that the ominous end was hinted at from the beginning: “it was safely in the past that Ivy most wanted to be.”

Complex familial relations are a regular concern in Mother America and in the final story, “Queen of Tattoo”, a mother, Lydia, is confronted by her son, Clyde, who does not realise that raping another woman in the town is any cause for concern. After spending time in jail for his crime, he returns to Cherry Street to ask his mother to tattoo him in order to hide from any jailmates who might be looking for him.

‘Clyde’, she says, ‘the first thing we need to give you is a heart.’

She tattoos a heart on his chest with two daggers in it, then a wolf on his back, then serpents from his wrists to his armpits. Clyde complains that she’s hurting him, that he never meant that girl Rosary any harm, that they have an understanding. He produces a bundle of letters signed ‘Rosarie’ that profess her undying love for him, but,

Lydia knows the child’s way Clyde uses language; she recognises the particular slant of his vowels, the back and forth mess of all his words. She also knows how Rosary spells her name.

The tensions built up in this story between love and delusion made me wish it was a novel, and not a short story, just so I could keep reading. On a less selfish note, the skill with which Ní Chonchúir writes attests to her proficiency as a storyteller and her talent as a poet.

I have been trying to focus on a less fanatical point of critique for Mother America, but everything that I could find to criticise is merely my own subjective pet peeves, which are neither constructive or important. This has led me to question if I would rate this book as highly as classics such as Katherine Mansfield’s Bliss and Other Stories or Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard To Find and Other Stories, and I have to admit, I would. This collection is a neat and rigorous examination of character, and while it may not be as overwhelmingly groundbreaking as Mansfield or O’Connor, the detail and skill evident in each story merits as much acclaim.

If I have convinced you that this collection is worth a read, then pop over to Nuala’s blog here, read her story ‘Poisson d’Avril’ here or buy it in any good bookshop!

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