Contemporary Anglo-Irish Narrative and the Dream

In an essay titled “Fiction and the Dream”, the Irish writer John Banville claims that “the novelist’s aim is to make the reader have the dream ––not just to read about it, but actually to experience it: to have the dream; to write the novel”. This statement poses several challenges for both artists and readers, and in relation to contemporary Anglo-Irish narrative, it makes one wonder what kinds of dreams we have been invited to experience and even co-write when we read the novels and short-stories published, in the last fifty years or so, by Irish writers both in the island and abroad. The recent works by Irish writers have not only reshaped given notions on story telling but also on reading practices, as well as the themes of selfhood or ethnic and gender identities. The literary landscape of contemporary Irish narrative is an extraordinary one; it is vital, multifarious and difficult to label.

As an example of the multiplicity that characterises this narrative universe, we may select three provisional strands that provide us with a map to tread on this territory. The first group might be that of works where life in rural Ireland is explored, and which deal with the themes of memory, the past, a recurrent analysis of family relationships and the roles of, for example, female characters in this context. An indispensable reference here is the writings by Edna O’Brien, which started with her first novel, The Country Girls (1960), and where the author depicts the transit of two young women from rural life to an urban context, as well as from innocence into the country of adulthood, and their inevitable clash with a conservative upbringing. Several decades later, this novel would prove to be the initial trace in the drawing of a circle that has been rounded up with the publication, in 2012, of Country Girl, a memoir where O’Brien describes her own personal journey from a suffocating juvenile world towards creative freedom. Within a similar thematic orbit, though imbued by elements from the Gothic and fairy tale traditions, the short stories by Claire Keegan explore the many social and psychological adversities vulnerable characters face when negotiating either survival or the possibility of expanding the narrow emotional spectrum they have been given an access to. The same could be said of characters in the Sligo novels by Sebastian Barry, where Roseanne McNulty, as an instance, struggles to articulate a written account of her life, at the same time that her psychiatrist is faced with the dilemma of either releasing her back into community life or extending her incarceration in just one more mental hospital. In all the examples mentioned above, individual and collective pathologies are presented against the background of an assumed idyllic countryside life.

A second group of novels might be called upon when Dublin is adopted as the main scenario for stories to unravel. In this case, the challenge proves to be a particularly hard one, as Joyce’s Dublin lurks behind contemporary attempts at appropriation of a literary geography that has been long associated to one of the most canonical writers in this tradition. However, the noir fiction by Benjamin Black (also John Banville), The Barrytown Trilogy by Roddy Doyle, and several novels by Anne Enright show there is more to Dublin than meets the eye, as they rewrite urban space and denounce double-moral and political discourses in the dark alleys of Dublin during the fifties, the fortunes and misfortunes of a working-class family in Northern Dublin or provide readers with an ironic rendering of the comforts of Celtic Tiger suburban Dublin life, respectively. And there is also the other capital city, Belfast, depicted in several contemporary novels, among which Milkman, by Anna Burns, stands as a recent example of a coming of age story of a woman during The Troubles.

And a third group of writings might be gathered around the idea of metanarrative texts where language and art creation stand as the central themes and where a specific geography or the actual telling of a story are dealt with in a more oblique fashion. Here, again, the novels by John Banville, where melancholic atmospheres meet elegant prose, or the unsettling Solar Bones (2018) by Mike McCormack prove the vitality of a highly philosophical narrative strand within a literary landscape we explore “to have the dream; to write the novel”. Be it from the island, or from an Irish diaspora somewhere else (as is the case of Emma Donoghue), contemporary narrative in the English language finds one of its most thriving examples in the productions of Irish writers all over the world.

Aurora Piñeiro