Young Irelanders — Irenosen Okojie

This exciting, celebratory collection featuring emerging and established writers edited by poet Dave Lordan encompasses subjects as wide as bullying, the joys and perils of social media, death, sexuality and grief, some familiar subject matters that have reverberated throughout literature and indeed an Ireland not unknown for shirking morose themes. It highlights a short form continuing to thrive in an Ireland invigorated by new voices using various techniques and perspectives. Kevin Curran’s opening story Saving Tanya convincingly sets the tone with a well crafted tale of bullying on social media which spirals out of control. The first person voice of the teenage protagonist bolsters this dark, tragic piece with shots of humour and insight into the uncertain, often anguish inducing terrain of teen life.

There’s a shift in pace from Roisin O’ Donnell’s How to Learn Irish in Seventeen Steps. The second person narration captures the trials of a Brazilian woman adjusting to life in Ireland after leaving her homeland for love and having to learn Irish for a teaching career. O’ Donnell uses an instructional, clinical hand to draw a character traversing that awkward transition of being a foreigner in a new land, in tumultuous flight, having no real connection to a country other than a seemingly tenuous relationship mutating subtly as the story progresses. O’Donnell’s assured writing mixes shifts in pace and tense seamlessly. While Cathy Sweeney’s surreal Three Stories on a Theme ensnares the reader with an intriguing opening line, “I was drinking schapps in a bar with a woman who used iodine instead of lipstick to redden her mouth.” The tale is summed up with these marvellous lines: “My story concerns my late wife, and took place in the summer of the great heat when weeds grew totalitarian and trees oozed sap in an endless dream.” What follows is an unusual, imaginative story exploring the versions of love. Sweeney is an adventurous writer with an ability to make the incongruous seem real, to find magic in the everyday. The resounding image from this story is that of a wife entangled in a web.

Oisin Fagan’s experimental and ambitious Subject is one of the stand out pieces in this collection. Her depiction of a damaged, numbed misanthropist unfolds in the form of a single sentence, rattling along at such speed, you have to pause and come up for air sometimes in order to process some of the terrible occurrences her protagonist experiences yet dismisses in such glib tones. One wonders whether there is any hope for this character or indeed any light. Fagan’s lack of sentimentality tackling difficult issues is admirable, it adds to the overall kaleidoscopic yet sharp feeling of the piece. A clever feat despite the limitations of a single sentence style that doesn’t allow for elaborate descriptions or changes in pace. What’s presented is a fascinating character study on a subject who asserts that boredom is worse than loneliness, cannot hold down a job because there are no jobs for fuck ups like him and after watching three Ken Loach films decides that if he visits England, he’ll be dead from sadness within three months.

Some influential canonical works of fiction emerged from Ireland in the twentieth century. Modernist Flann O’ Brien’s masterpieces At Swim-Two Birds and The Third Policeman have extended way beyond Irish shores. His exuberant, complex, labyrinth like tales incorporating parody, tragedy and a demented lunacy resonate till this day. One cannot think of Irish fiction without mentioning Joyce’s Dubliners or Ulysses. The deceptively simple short stories in Dubliners captures a period in Dublin following the potato famine of the 1840’s and shows an Ireland in conflict with itself, Britain, its sense of identity and the many ideas and influences of the time jostling for position. Writer Samuel Beckett completes the holy trinity of modernist Irish greats. Heavily influenced by Joyce, the avant-garde novelist, playwright and poet is most known for his play Waiting for Godot which continues to have adaptations run all over the world. Having inherited such a legacy, Young Irelanders fares well in that there is much more diversity of voice and styles.

Young Irelanders is a mixed bag of lonely, cacophonous voices mired in bleakness often on the edges of discovery or grappling with the very human experience of reconciling personal tragedies, not dissimilar to some of the characters in Joyce’s Dubliners who reach moments of epiphany connected by the city itself. Whilst the Young Irelanders stories are more disparate they do share some common threads with their literary forefathers; melancholic tones, the comedy of tragedy. There are spots of light. Inevitably, as with most short story collections, some are more engaging than others. But this is a strong anthology, showcasing uniquely positioned new voices, playing with form and subject matter in equal measure. Ireland is enamoured with the short form and rightly so from this collection.

Irenosen Okojie is a writer and author of the forthcoming novel Butterfly Fish (Jacaranda). She has worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Southbank Centre, and the Caine Prize. Her writing has also been featured in the Guardian and the Observer. @irenosenokojie