In the eloquent and complex anthology of Irish short-stories, Being Various, edited by Lucy Caldwell, there is a beautiful and mesmerising display of Irishness. In my re-reading of the selection of earth-shattering stories of miscommunication, misreading, and of the glimpses of hope that can be found in the most banal and empty of places, the second reading of this unique anthology, has proven more instrumental to me, than the first. I say “unique,” because it was a kind professor of mine, Dr. Patrick Lonergan at NUI Galway, who introduced us students to this piece of fiction: a short story anthology whose foreword is perhaps a story in itself. Lucy Caldwell, an important figure in Irish and Northern Irish fiction and playwriting today, presents a beautiful foreword explaining her sensation of “being various” in a place such as Ireland that is a dual place. I think to be Irish is to be almost anything all at once, and writers such as Caldwell do this excellently. This book appears to be an entity and a sort-of ideology that I just cannot seem to forget. I think it will always have a space in my home, because the stories within it now make up my lifeblood. This wonderful book by Faber & Faber gives me great pride in being Irish, as fluid and at times, nonsensical that definition comes across as.
Caldwell’s collected anthology is certainly not restricted to Irish audiences, for stories by authors as genre-defying as Sally Rooney, Kevin Barry, and Stuart Neville, who are hardly restricted to the Irish canon, are present here. Stories which never seem to fail in leaving a defiantly catastrophic mark on their readers. Even just a fraction of the stories that appear here, feature characters that seem to be caught in a whole bundle of catastrophes, and levels of inner turmoil. What could be more resonant today, to the absolute unorganised chaos of human experience that we each find ourselves in right now, in these COVID times, than literature that connects our pain to the pain of others? In these stories, we stumble upon characters that are just as tired, confused, and lost as some of us might identify as in these current times; whether you are situated in America, Antarctica, or Ireland, even.
What could be more resonant today, to the absolute unorganised chaos of human experience that we each find ourselves in right now, in these COVID times, than literature that connects our pain to the pain of others?
The stories as chosen by Caldwell here, an incredibly recognised name in modern Irish fiction currently, are wondrous. They are life-saving and they are confounding, taking me from the strangely familiar, small Irish town in Louise O’Neill’s “Legends,” a story which, I might add, contains a female character as suffocated as I once felt when I began my university studies in the same city as she: Galway, Ireland. Then, our editor of the anthology, Caldwell, takes us to a uniquely mesmerising, almost psychedelic place in Stuart Neville’s “Echo,” a quiet, yet ghostly tale of a young boy who spends a great deal of time with his sister who has already died.
Like the Irish son that people either claim to understand, or dramatically fail to, James Joyce, who compiled a sort of emotional journey from birth to indeed, death in his short story collection, Dubliners (1916), a whole myriad of experiences from early age to late age, is gathered here. Experiences collected both in the beginnings, and the very endings of life, are lived in Irish life: both in reality, and in fiction. Of course, it is easy to understand such facts without reading stories about life, but reading tends to help. Especially in a pandemic in which none of us know its duration, or indeed, purpose. Reading continues to help, and to aid in a magical way like none other. One could argue that reading is the narcotics for the sensibly deranged: ink-drinkers, bookworms, professors and writers alike.
Being Various encourages us to look for the strange, and the unpredictable in ordinary life, be it when stuck at hospital like Sheila Purdy’s character, Paddy, in “Transactions,” or the dragging of one’s feet, such as Kevin Barry’s Con McCarthy on O’Connell Street in Limerick City, as displayed in his story “Who’s Dead McCarthy.”
Surprisingly, this book has done a great deal for me in recent months. The book served a testing ground, but also a place that provided serenity and hope, as I managed to endure a very tough period over Easter—unsure what home had come to mean for me, and unsure if I was going to graduate from my degree at all.
There was a sense of solitude and being at ease, in the stories in this collection. For this I remain indebted to Caldwell and the wonderful writers, who through reading their stories here, accept us, the readership, to understand their world. Caldwell has displayed that this is a pocket-sized, if you will, anthology to accompany on all travels, pandemic inclined or not, and this is an anthology of moments and dreams that will carry you through. It will soften and carve you. It will teach you that there is a sense of the sublime, and the imaginary in fact, in the act of being various. Being Irish, we hardly know one foot from the other. But we are getting better at it.
Grace Sampson is a young writer from the Republic of Ireland, born in 1999. She studies English and Italian, at the National University of Ireland, Galway, and is in her final year. She will graduate in the autumn of 2021. She intends to follow this up with a MA in Creative Writing. She has had poetry published in The Galway Review, The Lothlorien Poetry Journal, and forthcoming from the Bealtaine literary journal. She was granted a place on the Tentacular Magazine Poetry Workshop in the UK, and will feature as a Poet of The Month on Elizabeth M. Castillo’s Blog, along with an author’s interview (@EMCWritesPoetry). She will appear on the ‘collectivefeature’ page on Instagram, where she will take over the account for a week to display her writing practices, and processes. She is a contributor to a forthcoming book on the poetry of Thom Gunn. You can follow her on Instagram, (@graceksampson7), where she posts her poetry, images from her backyard, and the writers that she simply cannot live without. She lives in Ireland.