Twelve stories, all set in rural Ireland in the 19th and 20th centuries.
McCabe (Death and Nightingales, 2002) has a deep sense of history and a dead-on eye for the long shadows that ancient griefs cast across the years. All of the characters here, in the author’s first collection to appear in the US, suffer to some degree for the sins of their ancestors, but McCabe shows them as something less than victims, insofar as most of them intensify their sufferings with transgressions of their own making. The priggish mother of the title piece, for example, justifies her provincial snobbery as the birthright of a dispossessed Catholic who has finally regained her place in society, only to discover a monstrous secret about her beloved son that destroys the family. Similarly, the deranged vagrant of “Roma,” who becomes obsessed with an innocent schoolgirl, is scandalized in the end to find that she is far more corrupt than he. In “Victorian Fields,” a sort of Rashomon transcript of 19th-century court proceedings, an abused woman swears out a complaint against her brother-in-law and husband—who, in turn, offer blood-curdling evidence of the woman’s own depravity. In “Truth,” a young boy is introduced to the grown-up world of misery and sin when his mother’s housemaid takes him to visit her sister in the slums of Glasgow. The finest stories are the last four—“The Orphan,” “The Master,” “The Landlord,” and “The Mother”—about the sufferings of the Great Famine as they are doled out (more equitably than you might have imagined) to the poor and the great who own, manage, and live in a poorhouse in Ulster: Reminiscent of William’s Trevor’s The News From Ireland in providing a deeply nuanced glimpse of misery in a history gone awry.
Heart-rending without a trace of sentimentality. McCabe’s eye is as sharp as his tongue, which has an edge that could cut glass.