Book review: Where Have You Been? by Joseph O’Connor

JOSEPH O’Connor’s first collection of short fiction for 20 years consists of seven stories and a novella. They are all written with assurance and tenderness.

Where Have You Been?

By Joseph O’Connor

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Harvill Secker, 321pp, £16.99

Most of the characters are failures, one way or another, even when they are claiming to be successes, perhaps especially when they are claiming that. One is set in 19th-century New York, others have scenes in London, but the setting is mostly Irish, and the mood always.

Ireland in the last half-century offers rich material. It has gone from being a poor, priest-ridden country, a backwater from which the young and enterprising went away, to being a rich and confident one, attracting immigrants rather than exporting its sons and daughters; and then it suffered the financial crash. There is nostalgia for the old impoverished Ireland here, respect for those whose lives were hard and harsh, but who came through. And there is uncertainty about the roar of the Celtic Tiger, even perhaps some relief when the bubble burst.

They are great talkers in these stories, and this is perhaps why Irish writers are often so good at the kind of stories which offer you a slice of life, rather than a plot. O’Connor’s characters are never inarticulate; even when they want to hide their true feelings, words pour out. They throw off sentences as if by doing so they might throw a bridge over a gulf and reach understanding. This is exhilarating. Often, however, one senses that the characters are conducting soliloquies rather than seeking to communicate with another. This is Dickensian, in the true sense of that word. The characters – especially the fathers – are theatricals who are their own audience, even when giving way to grief.

All the stories are good, but the novella is very good. It convinces from its first sentence: “Several years after his divorce, as his thirties came to a close, Cian Hanahoe spent five weeks in hospital.” This is as flat and persuasive as the opening of a Chekhov story. He is a banker who has had a nervous breakdown. Released from hospital, he return to work, then leaves, thinking he might turn to teaching. He meets an Englishwoman, working on the production side of a film. They form an edgy friendship. They drift into an affair, which becomes unsatisfactory to both just when it seems about to take off. The reticent sympathy of their first conversations gives way to recriminations.

O’Connor treats the ebb and flow of their relationship, the inability of Cian to shake free from his past, the uncertainly both have about the future, with a lively and penetrating intelligence. You think you would like them to overcome their inadequacies. But you know the author has got them right. You know it more completely when in the last chapter, Cian recalls his father’s life in a funeral speech. You realise that the old man, brought up in grim poverty, whose own marriage was damaged by his wife’s mental instability, was rooted and therefore sure of himself as Cian isn’t. Like other fathers in these stories he was also full, and fond, of bad jokes. Jokes in these stories are a way of accommodating yourself to a life that is less than you hoped it might be. One man downing drinks in a pub tells an old friend, not seen for years, that his marriage has broken up. Leaving the bar the friend meets the wife on her way to join her husband. In the novella, Cian takes his English girl to see The Playboy of the Western World, JM Synge’s play about the boy who seeks admiration by pretending he has killed his father. There are other correspondences with earlier Irish literature; Yeats hovers over several of the stories.

In one of them a woman, having received a death sentence from a consultant, decides to stay the night in a hotel in Dublin rather than taking the train home to Galway, where she knows her husband is having an affair with a girl who was one of her pupils – she teaches English literature. In the hotel restaurant she falls into conversation with an American man, a tour guide of Irish-Jewish extraction. He tells her “‘Judaism is the only religion I ever heard of where you’re actually licensed to have a good time. On pain of death.’ ‘Catholicism isn’t like that, I can tell you,’ she said.” Later, after he has refused a drink, telling her he is an alcoholic in recovery and that his wife was killed in a car accident, she asks him if he is religious. He tells her of how he once went to a revivalist prayer meeting and concluded there and then “that there’s nothing out there, never was, never will be … to live once, that’s miracle enough.” Later she thanks him for making her laugh. “I needed a good laugh more than you did.”

Lovely stuff, but the book is full of lovely, delicate perceptive stuff. Joseph O’Connor is in the tradition of masterly Irish writers of short fiction.