Donovan's Dirty Dozen.
Although born in Galway, Gerard Donovan's first three novels were quintessentially, if loosely, European. The theme of these books is the Human Experience in all its vicissitudes and the prose was introspective, painstakingly deliberate, and lyrical. Living in New York, Donovan had all the marks of the cosmopolitan writer par excellence with no nationalist or partisan baggage.
His fourth book - a first collection of short stories - puts all these speculations to bed with a vengeance. Published by Faber and Faber the cover itself - an extraordinarily evocative photograph by Christopher Tierney featuring the now famous diving tower in Blackrock, Salthill, Galway, and the location for the opening story - places the book firmly in the West of Ireland, more particularly in Galway city.
From the first story there is an immediate realisation that Donovan's use of language and the tenor of the phrase has the vocabulary, rhythm and cadences of the Galway accent and his evocation of place is so powerful that anyone, who has enjoyed an early morning swim in Blackrock, will not only feel the concrete of these cold steps leading down to the freezing water, but also the exhilaration afterwards as the effect of the sea emanates through the body for the rest of the day.
Even more remarkable is Donovan's ability to change the accent and tenor when required as in "The New Dead," a story of casual violence and revenge set in the North of Ireland after the Troubles have ceased, and the heartfelt story of the Alzheimer's victim Henry Dietz set in the American Mid-West. Despite those subtle changes the pace of the stories is even, and they never lose the sense of discovery and compassion that defines them. It is difficult to believe, as the author asserts in his acknowledgements that the collection was written over a fifteen year period.
In fact, it is even more difficult to accept that this collection doesn't leave a unifying structure, a structure that is curiously underlined in the story "By Irish Nights" which serves as an abstraction of the dominant themes present in the stories, stories of loss and regeneration, of immaturity and endurance of love and forgiveness, of loss and compassion, above all, stories of the human experience.
This sense of unity is further suggested that the first story begins with an early morning swim in Salthill and the last story ends with the following peaceful complete image:
"My mother faced west where the sky breached the uneven rooftops and the early evening light pressed the orange doors of the houses. She was smiling. Her eyes were closed and her face was calmed, turned to the sun."
Country of the Grand not only establishes Gerard Donovan as a master of the short story but also a major writer with a deep understanding of the human condition. It is not to be missed.
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