Clemency Browne Dreams of Gin
Órfhlaith Foyle (Arlen House 2014, trade paperback) 128 pages, cover price n/a
We need darkness you know. Without it, if the orbit of Earth relative to Sun was that of Moon to Earth, always the same face shown and lit up by a constant celestial beat cop's torch, I wonder how long it would take for the dark side to become inhabited, or would the edges be the preferred living location where one could look out one window to light and the other to the darkness? Órfhlaith Foyle's work is the record of life in that antumbra.
Eighteen stories and as you'll know by doing quick mental division of eighteen into 128, for the most part they are quite short, a few barely more than flash fiction. Yet the experience of reading them is almost like a viewing of the exhibits in a wax museum's chamber of crimes where some you glance at and others you linger over, yet all combine into a pointillist landscape of the darkness of human nature. I placed that 'almost' there because wax is wax and flesh is flesh, and Órfhlaith Foyle's characters are all writ real.
She is at her best when she writes of scenes and places she has imagined during a life spent living in Africa, Australia and her homeland of Ireland. Particularly where those cultures meet and collide, as in The Mercenary's Story there is the vividness of an explorer reporting back on new territory.
Except, and this is quite remarkable really, Foyle has the well-developed rare skill of writing from the unsafe perspective. In Alice Grows Up, a story reminiscent of the film Crash, two lovers visit a crime scene for sex. He is an aging psychology professor and Alice is her student. Foyle is unafraid to write from inside Alice's head and not just in the plain and plodding manner of a juvenile writer who would still stand back from the character and write from the view of blinkered eyes. No, Órfhlaith Foyle includes those random flash dreams of speculation and escape we all have when we are in uncomfortable circumstances. That, to put it simply, is what real writers do. There is no point in inventing a character and then rush past pretending you don't know her. If you are going to open the dark window of the antumbra you may as well enjoy the view.
Yes, Órfhlaith Foyle treats her readers like adults and that is more refreshing than it really should be. Fiction writers – including virtually every single one on the bestseller list – treat readers as though they are children invited to stay a weekend at an overly-attentive auntie's cottage. One barely opens the door before being plopped on a couch and shown every scrapbook and photo album with the entire family history explained before anyone gets around to asking if you might like to have a cup of tea, take a piss, or both. I hate exposition. Those neat packages of precision don't occur in real life so why must we insist on belching them out in first chapters, first pages or first paragraphs. If I read one more story that begins with, 'Mr. Addington, a lonely middle-aged accountant woke one morning in his Birmingham flat expecting this to be another dull weekend spent alone with his cat and the Times crossword puzzle' I shall give up reviewing and take up an honest profession. Cutting turf perhaps. Or sketching the bodies of the recently hung.
Speaking of the latter (I hope you knew I'd get back to the point), that is the occupation of the narrator in Elsje Christiaens Hanging on a Gibbet. Foyle holds back on informing us the artist is Rembrandt until we feel the scene. Good! Only in fiction and stage plays do people run around introducing themselves to every random person they meet. 'And you are?' Similarly, in the American-set Husk, Foyle does not bother telling us the year the story is set in (1887 if you must know) until the closing stages.
There are themes that run through these stories which combine them into a satisfying whole rather than a randomly assembled collection rushed out into the market. Conspiracy of silence between friends, family or between spouses is one. There is also a thread illuminating the role of 'wife' particularly second wives and whether they are ever truly accepted or can achieve primacy within a marriage.
Having now written at length, I hope it is obvious that I recommend to you Clemency Browne Dreams of Gin. I am only sorry that it came to me too late in order to get this review into one of the publications I write for, which alas have policies of 'if it's older than 90 days, it's toast.' Pity. Well I say the hell with what's hot, new and sexy. I prefer to recommend art and the shelves in bookstores that wait beyond the Feature table. Order a copy. Real writers like Órfhlaith Foyle deserve an audience and respect.
Be seeing you.