- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 9, 2003

Sometimes wildly funny and frequently disturbing in their morbid suspense, the short fiction in "The Collected Stories" by Clare Boylan (Counterpoint Press, $16.00, 434 pages), is the literary equivalent of a painter's retrospective. Ms. Boylan is a respected Irish writer of six novels; her latest, "Beloved Stranger," was recently released in paperback. The 38 tales in this collection, which span two decades in her career, on the surface are a fascinating and sometimes repulsive peek into the lives and mores of rural and urban Irish (and a few Brits) from the dangerously repressed "old days" to contemporary times.
But this is not what makes her stories, which the author calls "serious comedy," such engrossing page-turners. Things are not what they appear to be. In virtually each piece mind you, the writer has only a few pages to work with each time she dares readers to figure out what is going on and what will happen next. We know she is playing a game with us, and yet, time and again she outsmarts us, and in the process, exposes our narrow conventionalism, perverse imaginations, and innocent naivete about human motivations.
Some of Ms. Boylan's stories are violent and horrific, not in the scary movie sense, but in terms of real-life situations and misperceptions gone terribly wrong. "My Son The Hero," "The Picture House," and "Mama" are particularly shocking. To reveal more will spoil the surprise.
As for humor, it's richly present in hilarious dialogue, amusingly bizarre situations and witty irony. Three stories in particular had this reader giggling uncontrollably on a train one evening, so much so that a fellow passenger said, "I don't know what you're reading but just listening to you makes me want to laugh!"
"Technical Difficulties and the Plague" pits a caustic-witted, middle-aged married woman against an experienced Italian seducer in Siena, with whom she remembers having had an affair many years ago.
In "L'Amour," an animal-loving boy and his widowed father are both enraptured with Marie, a dazzling French "fairy princess." The only problem is that young Nicholas, who has a collection of pet birds, snails and frogs, is horrified by his introduction to traditional French cuisine, which of course consists of little birds, snails and frogs. If that is not enough, Nicholas is stuck passing time with Marie's grouchy mother. But they soon conspire against their smitten relations by filching wine right from under the lovebirds' noses. Tipsy, they begin regaling each other with all the swear words they know.
"The Secret Diaries of Mrs. Rochester" is a cynically funny postscript to the classic "Jane Eyre." With prose rendered faithfully in the style of the original novel, it tells what happens after Jane is reunited with her now-blind love, Mr. Rochester. Finding herself in a position where she must again choose between him and St. John Rivers, she deliberates:
"In the time of my seclusion I had given much thought to St. John and even more to Mr. Rochester and arrived at the conclusion that dissolute men, while unreliable and unworthy, have about them an air of tumult that is stimulating to the female sex, and that a woman of virtue has no need of a moral partner, since by her own rectitude is her salvation ensured. Reader, I missed the dear flesh that housed the dark soul."
Ms. Boylan's other treats include acute observations about male-female relationships.
In "L'Amour," Nicholas tells us: "She turned to point out the whiskery old peasant at whom she had earlier been staring. 'That is the richest woman in France. Her husband still loves her.' … 'Then Marie and my father must be very rich,' I said. The old woman shrugged. 'They are gamblers. Their fortune depends on the turn of a card. Marie is very young. When she looks at him she sees in his eyes a mirror of her own perfection. Wait until they discover that the other is not perfect! Quelle barbe!'"
Equally refreshing are the views of children. The unnamed heroine of "Appearances" has this to say about us older folk.
"If the adults saw me at all they saw a nice quiet child in a yellow dress. If I saw them, I saw them as aspects of my scenery, of no more individual significance than cows or ducks. Grown ups were parents and teachers and people behind the shop counters. I did not think of them as part of my future any more than I thought of death. To me it was a children's world. Adults were people who were too old to be children."
Last but not least, Ms. Boylan vividly conjures up scenes with prose that borders on poetry. For instance, in "Some Retired Ladies on a Tour," one is indulged with the following description: "The younger ones marched across the road with loud complaints and laughter, purposefully heading for the bar. The older ones shuffled and scuttled and snuffled and grumbled."
In a personable introduction, Ms. Boylan tells us that, "It seems strange to me as nothing in my life has made me so happy as writing short stories." From this collection, it's obvious.

Shaazka Beyerle is a Washington writer.

By Clare Boylan
Counterpoint, $16,434 pages

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