Bibliophiliac is the space where one passionate, voracious reader reflects on books and the reading life. You will find reviews, analysis, links, and reflections on poetry and prose both in and out of the mainstream.

A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. Franz Kafka

Friday, March 16, 2012

Irish Writer Mary Lavin: Into the Irish Heart

"The Will" from In a Cafe: Selected Stories
Mary Lavin
Penguin, paperback, 312 pages

Irish Short Story Week: March 12-22
hosted by Mel U at The Reading Life

I first heard of Irish short story writer Mary Lavin in a book. I ran across her name in a story by Edward P. Jones, a writer I greatly admire--that one mention was enough for me to seek out this Irish writer, and I'm so glad I did. V.S. Pritchett said of Lavin: "I cannot think of any Irish writer who has gone so profoundly without fear into the Irish heart."

In "The Will," Lavin opens her story immediately after the reading of a will. The prosperous Conroy family has just buried their matriarch, and the brothers and sisters reveal themselves swiftly. Lavin uses diaglogue and gesture to give the reader an incisive glimpse into the heart of this family.

One sister, Lally, has been left out of her mother's will. Her sisters and brother make a pretense of compassion:
"I cannot tell you how shocked I am, Lally. We had no idea that she felt so bitter against you as all that. Had we?" She turned and appealed to the other members of the family who stood around the large red mahogany table, in their stiff black mourning clothes.
"The Will" is so simple and direct, and yet so stirring. In this elemental situation--the grown children gathered after the death of their mother--Lavin lays bare the resentments, the grudges, the venom of many years. The reader sees swiftly, almost in a glance, what many a novelist would take hundreds of pages to say: that Lolly is the sole kind heart in this nest of bitterness and resentment, that running away to be married saved her, even as it aged and wore at her. Lolly's privations and hardships are revealed in her rotted teeth, her broken nails, her lined hands. And yet Lavin allows the reader to see the purity of Lally's heart, her simplicity and gentle compassion for her well-off yet bitter family.
"I begin to see," said Matthew, "that Mother was right when she said you were obstinate as a tree."
"Did she say that?" said Lally, and her face lit up for a moment, as her mind was filled by a wilful vision of tall trees, leafy and glossy with sunlight, against a sky as blue as the feathers in a young girl's hat.
The story ends with Lally running to the priest, urgently requesting that he say a Mass for her deceased mother, knowing the bitter and unforgiving state in which her mother died. "The Will" covers a brief span of time--perhaps as little as an hour--but tells the reader so much about the characters.

Mary Lavin's stories deserve to be better known. Many of her stories focus on brief episodes, often in the lives of women who are somehow rebellious or just outside the safe circle of the family hearth becuase they have been widowed, or fallen in love with the wrong young man. Lavin's stories are a moment of clarity, a quick glimpse of pure insight, and if you read just one of her stories you will want to read more.

Thanks to Mel U of The Reading Life for hosting Irish Story Week!


Mel u said...

Frank O'Connor included this story in his Classic Irish Short Stories-he said it was her best short story. I will be posting on her "A Wet Day Shortly"-thanks so much for joining the event-Lavin is a brilliant writer-I would hope one day to read most of her work-

Kerry M said...

I read a lot of Irish lit in college, even minored in Irish Studies, and have never read Lavin. Thanks for featuring her here... I'll be adding to my Irish bookshelves shortly, no doubt.

bibliophiliac said...

@Mel U-I guess I picked a good story then! I'll have to look up O'Connor's anthology. He is another Irish writer whose stories I love. Thanks for hosting Irish Short Story week!

bibliophiliac said...

@Kerry-Lavin is quite a find! Her story collection is still in print. I've been reading a few at a time, and think they are stunning.

Mel u said...

Just stopping by to let you know a well known Irish Short Story writer has done a fascinating guest post in which she tells us how a chance meeting with Mary Lavin inspired her to become an author. Irish Short Story Week will now extend until april 11

Kerry, please consider joining in

hilaryje said...

Currently studying Irish Literature in Australia and very pleased to have discovered Mary Lavin. We are studying three of her stories, the Will, Happiness and the The Wet of the day. What a treasure