A career’s selection of stories to savor.
These 31 stories by O’Brien (The Country Girls Trilogy, 1986, etc.), spanning some four decades, are brought together in the sort of volume meant to establish a legacy and win prizes. The Irish-raised, London-based author hasn’t been praised for her short stories with the same reverence as William Trevor or Alice Munro (the Nobel Prize winner who provides a rapturous blurb here, proclaiming that O'Brien writes “the most beautiful, aching stories of any writer, anywhere”). Perhaps her novels, memoir, and persona have distracted attention from her mastery of short fiction, which reveals itself over the course of this generous selection as the focus moves from Irish girlhood to the literary life in large, cosmopolitan cities. Not that these stories are necessarily autobiographical or that it even matters if they are. The power of the first-person narrative in a perfect, and perfectly wrenching, story such as “My Two Mothers” rings truer than a memoir might, as O'Brien describes a relationship with a mother who is somehow both lover and enemy, the breach caused when “I began to write,” the story itself a meditation on life, literature, and “being plunged into the moiling seas of memory.” Hers is not the sort of writing that indulges in what one story dismisses as “clever words and hollow feelings”; her stories ask impossibly difficult questions about the nature of love and the possibility of happiness, and they refuse to settle for easy answers. As she writes in “Manhattan Medley,” a tale of infidelity in a city and a world filled with it, “the reason that love is so painful is that it always amounts to two people wanting more than two people can give.” Beneath the veneer of sophistication in a story such as “Lantern Slides,” the emotional ravages are as deep as in the hardscrabble stories of rural Ireland.
With an introduction by John Banville and a dedication to Philip Roth, this collection positions O’Brien among the literary heavyweights, where it confirms she belongs.