Introduction

In putting this together, I picked twelve of my favourites, then had a look to see if there was a theme hiding in there that might create some kind of order. Unsurprisingly, there was (in stories, as in life and love, we often have a type). Broadly speaking, my favourites deal in daily life, in people putting one foot in front of the other. These stories give no quarter to the extraordinary, full as they are of the ordinary, of people doing their best in difficult circumstances or having already done their worst. My type is characters who are ordinary and layered, whose complexity makes me work a little to understand them and whose honesty means I am happy to do the work. 

Family – which features heavily here – has always struck me as a fascinating, slightly doomed experiment. The sheer weight of expectation we expect it to carry with grace: that we will be loved no matter what, that we will be forgiven, the permanent benefit of the doubt we expect for ourselves (and often withhold from others). In some cases that faith is justified and in others it is not, and both are here, because eavesdropping while families unfold their loyalties and limitations is about as absorbingly human as it gets. 

Twelve wasn’t quite the Mary Poppins bag I imagined it would be and I’ve had to leave many others out. That said, here are the ten stories and two essays I carry with me. The ones that often cross my mind, that raise questions that interest me and, sometimes, answers that comfort me. 

(Any misinterpretations of these writers’ intentions are entirely well-meaning and duly mortifying.)

‘Codas’ by Carys Bray

Music teacher Louise is “at the age of unwelcome surprises” and, throughout the story, must navigate a new world in which her father struggles to recover from a stroke. A football coach, he has always directed things, yet cannot now find his way to the end of a sentence, “She waited for him to expound on the problem, unsure whether she should ignore the loose end of the sentence or attempt to tie it for him.” Resilience and helplessness are tangled together, like the map of blood vessels Louise looks at to picture her father’s surgery. 

“Parenthood was a series of codas,” Louise thinks. While parents are familiar with the pinpricks that accompany a child’s shift into a new stage, Bray uses the idea of a coda [the concluding passage of a piece of music, connected to but often quite different to what has gone before] to draw delicate sketches of the reversal that sees ageing children make wishes for their parents. There is a dizzying circularity in the endless shifting of need: who will care for our parents, for us, for our children? The best Louise can do – the best any of us can do – is to hope that here will be someone kind to do it when the time comes.  

‘Codas’ is the bittersweet standout in a powerful little collection on seven different kinds of love. 

First published in How Much the Heart Can Hold, Sceptre, 2016

‘Sky’ by Donal Ryan

William has lived in the same house all his life, which he sees as normal and others see as suspicious: “Did you never want to have a look at the world? No, faith, I did not,” he says. “This road is as good as any, or as bad.”

(I think I might have picked this story for that punctuating “faith” alone, for the rural life it conjures.) 

William tries to reach out, phoning a helpline, taking computer lessons, but his efforts fail at the last – while he can look with wonder at the vastness of the world, he cannot engage in cutting it down to fit himself. For William, the world is real and tangible – the road, the crows, the sky. Everything else is, he says, “a world of knowledge and nonsense”. The beauty of the story is that William might be absolutely right or he might just be bound by fear. His invisibility is at its most heartbreaking when his sister moves away, taking his beloved nephew Billy with her. “I’m only a ghost to him now, and he to me,” William says. 

Ryan is at his best among the broken and the wistful, and here he writes with just enough sentimentality to tighten the cord between your brain and your heart, but without leaving you feeling cheap afterwards.

First published in A Slanting of the Sun, Doubleday Ireland, 2015. Also published in Irish American and available to read online here

‘The Moons of Jupiter’ by Alice Munro

Another hospital bedside, another father and daughter. (Like I said, a type.) Older this time, and thus with their beliefs and biases about one another more firmly entrenched. Janet says, “I used to tell people that he never spoke regretfully about his life, but that was not true. It was just that I didn’t listen to it.” This story has all the truth and regret that bind families together, the nursing of slanted memories and misremembered grievances. It is a relief to read these things written down, to recognise our ordinary monstrous self-centredness and to acknowledge, as Janet does, the relief that others will make their choices without us and we need simply live alongside them. 

Munro’s single-sentence encapsulation of a character is a thing of wonder and this story has one of my favourites: a character seen only in passing in a planetarium is described as “a man with a red face and puffy eyes, who looked as if he might be here to keep himself from going to a bar.”

First published in published in The New Yorker in May, 1978, and available online for subscribers to read here. Collected in The Moons of Jupiter, Alfred A. Knopf, 1982, and then in Selected Stories, Vintage, 1996 and Vintage Munro, Vintage, 2005

‘The Translator’s Funeral’ by Rónán Hession

The writer and her wife, the translator, are found dead in their garden by the postman, one having died of natural causes and the other of a broken heart. The story catalogues a series of misunderstandings that can arise from interpreting others’ words and intentions, yet, crucially, how kindness can ensure that those mistakes are never devastating. 

Hession’s respect for the art of translation shines through in the carefulness of his sentences. When the two funerals are accidentally double-booked, the people of the town worry about which to attend: some say the writer’s work will bring people to the town, and “the guide dog trainer said yes, but it was the translator’s words they had all read.” The difficulty – and indeed the wisdom or necessity − of separating things into their component parts, whether people and the jobs they do or the entwined lives they lead, is beautifully described here. Full of Hession’s trademark gentle yet incisive observations on the world and how we can live well in it. 

First published online in the Irish Times on 13 August 2020

‘The Starlight on Idaho’ by Denis Johnson

Johnson writes shambolic characters with a sort of grubby, gleeful honesty. Here, Mark ‘Cass’ Cassandra is a recovering addict, in the early days of yet another rehab stint and writing imaginary letters to everybody to whom he is bound by blood or hurt: “I’ve got about a dozen hooks in my heart, I’m following the lines back to where they go.”

Every time I read this story, I think that the concerns of men and women writers are often very different, with men writing men externalising their pain and distributing it among the various people (often women) in their lives, while women write women swallowing their words and internalising it all. If writing about shambles is male territory, nobody goes for it like Johnson, with Cass describing his life in recent years as a serious of disasters – broke, lost, homeless, detox, shot. Yet underneath the bravado, Cass seeks to make amends for his mistakes, not wanting to end up where his grandmother has darkly prophesied, “buried in a strange town with your name spelled wrong on your grave.”

Of others’ pain, he says, “That’s what we gotta do is get down to just one story, the true person we are, and live it all the way out.” The hope in that one line will follow you. 

First published in Playboy, 2007. Collected in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, Jonathan Cape, 2018

‘Until the Girl Died’ by Anne Enright

Anne Enright is unmatched when it comes to writing anger and forgiveness and getting on with things and the triumph of the everyday. In this story, a woman’s husband has been having an affair, as he has done several times before, each time returning home contrite and armed with suggestions for a weekend away. This time, however, the girl in question died in a car accident. The man is stunned, chiefly by his own ageing, while his wife is left to reassure the girl’s grave that she mattered to him.

The story shows how complicated ordinary life is. How savage, how careless we are with one another when we think we are invincible. How much we can hurt others in the pursuit of what we think we deserve. With typical Enright acerbity, the woman says, “It’s the great mystery, isn’t it? What men ‘want’. And the damage they might do to get it.”

It is possible to live and to love someone from within that crack between generosity and vengeance, the story tells us. Time may not heal, exactly, but it passes and we run out of steam, which can amount to the same thing. “How did we get through the next week?” the woman asks. “Normally, at a guess. We got through the week in a completely normal way.”

First published in Taking Pictures, Jonathan Cape, 2008. Also available in Yesterday’s Weather, Vintage, 2009

‘Under the Awning’ by Melatu Uche Okorie

Family reunification brought Didi from Africa to Ireland to join her mother and siblings. She feels alienated from her environment, from her family, from her own expectations. Everything tells her she does not fit. Her aunt describes how, in her daughter’s school, “all the children’s pictures were put up on the wall with their countries of origin written above it and how the children with non-national parents had their parents’ countries of origin.”

Didi buys a diary, begins to write, joins a writing class, where, when it is her turn to read, her words do not fit either. Her classmates critique her writing from their perspectives of discomfort: she is told that writing in the second person makes the character “hard to care about”, that the story is “bleak and negative” and told by someone “full of hatred and self-loathing.” 

Irish people are used to being hailed for their welcomes, and Okorie’s story superbly skewers that accepted wisdom. It is a necessary reminder that it is high time we stopped clinging to our smug old ideas of ourselves and recognised that, too often, those outstretched hands are designed to keep people at a remove – you are welcome, yes, but only ever as an outsider. 

First published in This Hostel Life, Skein Press, 2018. Anthologised in The Art of the Glimpse, Head of Zeus, 2020)

‘Only Orange’ by Camille Bordas

On a family holiday, resentful Jeanne discovers that her brother Lino’s girlfriend is colour-blind. Jeanne orders colour-blindness correction glasses as a surprise for Audrey, hoping to catch her out in a lie. Underneath is the fact that Jeanne resents Lino for choosing to be an artist, a life that she wasn’t aware was a possibility, “[I] couldn’t have taken advantage of the gate if I’d wanted to, but still, I felt like an idiot for not having seen it.’” 
The story echoes the common childhood fantasy that your family is not your family. That, faced with disappointing yourself, the easiest way to change is to wish that your family was different so that you yourself would be effortlessly different too. I read the orange of the title as warning light, the breath-holding, not-quite-relaxed, not-quite-angry state that characterises much of a family’s interaction. Jeanne’s father tells Audrey that “maybe orange was the only colour there was, in the end” and that is easily applied to family too. 

First published in The New Yorker in December 2019 and available to subscribers to read online here

‘Who’s-Dead McCarthy’ by Kevin Barry

A friend told me recently that whenever her mother phones, her small child pipes up, “Who’s dead?” and it’s true that the litany of the dead and the dying is increasingly the subject of conversation. Our deeply Irish interest in the details of others’ deaths (what I like to think of as the Who-By-Fire of it all) is brought to bold and brilliant life here, reminding us that this is neither nostalgia nor maudlin, but a noticing of people, a marking of who they were and the lives they led.  

Con McCarthy is the local “connoisseur of death”, a figure of dread and fun, in his “enormous, suffering overcoat”. When pressed, Con says he finds death impressive – it is the one question we will all be asked yet to which “not one of us can make the report after”. The story shines in the darkly funny specifics of the deaths described, which put us on the side of the narrator, leaving poor Con alone carries the burden of ridicule and remembering. 

When we are gone from memory, the story insists, then we are really gone. 

The story appeared online in the Irish Times on 1 January 2020 and is collected in That Old Country Music, Canongate, 2020

‘Now More Than Ever’ by Zadie Smith

Looking at the wider world, there is no shortage of things to be worried about. Real, incontrovertible things, murder, cruelty, abuse of many kinds, each uglier than the last. Yet we are increasingly caught up with how we are seen in relation to our response to symbolic issues. “There is an urge to be good,” the narrator begins. “To be seen to be good.”

It is a disturbing possibility that we worry about the wrong things, or worry about the right things in the wrong way, with an eye to self-congratulation and branding rather than justice or fairness. Sometimes, resilience requires finding a place to put those anxieties: having something to pin uneasiness on is a great gift that a story can give (that and making you feel smarter for having read it). This is one such story. 

First published in The New Yorker in July 2018 and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Grand Union, Hamish Hamilton, 2019

‘Economy and Pleasure’ by Wendell Berry

Written in 1988, almost every word of this essay applies equally – if not more – today. Berry is chiefly concerned with the importance of everyday lives in small communities. Here, he rails against the artificial distinction between work and pleasure that we have been sold in order to drive economic growth and how that distinction, in turn, has created a situation where we must wait for evenings or weekends or holidays or retirement for pleasure or entertainment. He doesn’t use the expression “TGIF mentality” but it’s there in every paragraph. 

On what he calls “the cult of competition”, he highlights the dissonance in believing that competition is inevitably good for everybody, “that altruistic ends may be met by a system without altruistic motives or altruistic means.”

The solution – he is good on solutions, which is one reason I find his essays comforting – is for people to foster a greater connection to their community, to their locality, to find greater pleasure in their work. To borrow some of my favourite lines from a poem of his (the closest thing I have to a philosophy of living and which I try to sneak in wherever I can), “Expect the end of the world. Laugh/ Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful/ Though you have considered all the facts.”

Published in What Are People For? Counterpoint, 1990

‘Notes on Grief’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I waited for this essay – Adichie’s response to the sudden death of her father during lockdown in 2020. When it finally arrived, I read it and I read it again and again and I wished I had read it sooner, that it had always existed, a hand held out when I needed it. (What could be closer to grief than wishing things to be other than they are?) 

Love and death are the places where family and resilience intersect most keenly. “Never has come to stay,” Adichie says. “Never feels so unfairly punitive. For the rest of my life, I will live with my hands outstretched for things that are no longer there.”

For anyone who has lost a beloved, there are sentences here that you can reach for when those around you are saying the wrong thing or, worse, silent. Here are the right things, beautifully, permanently, said.

Published by 4th Estate, 2021