Thursday, March 17, 2011

Irish Short Story Week

Mel U of the blog The Reading Life has proclaimed this week to be Irish Short Story Week.  I've been enjoying all the posts over at The Reading Life over the last few days.  Mel's recent posts have whetted my appetite to try some works by Dublin-born Elizabeth Bowen--the author of such novels as The Heat of the Day and The House in Paris. Although her novels are extremely well known, she is equally highly regarded for her shorter works.  As Newsweek said, Bowen is "quite simply one of the best short story writers who ever lived."

Until today, I had not read any of Bowen's stories or novels--though I have some battered volumes on my shelves which I picked up at a library discards sale a few years ago.  Her collection of stories has called to me for some time.  I'm looking forward to reading through the entire volume, inhaling her stories about life in England during the 1920s and 30s, through the war years, and beyond.

Mel's comments about one particular short story, "Oh, Madam..." really caught my eye.  Like Mel, I find this story to be immensely powerful.  The story takes place in London during World War II--specifically on the morning after a fine house has been damaged by a bomb.   The narrator of the story, a housemaid who has lived and worked in a home for many years, leads the mistress of the house through the damage, keeping a monologue as the two women survey the damage all around them.

I'm fascinated by the voice in this story.  In some ways, reading it feels like listening to a one-sided telephone conversation where the other part of the dialogue is obscured.   In addition, the protocol of servant-master manners limits what the maid can say aloud to her mistress.  The words seem immediate and disjointed, just as in need of a reader to sort the meanings all out just as the house is in need of the housekeeper to clean up the fallen plaster.  By focusing only on the maid's words and thoughts, Bowen is able to highlight her emotional response to the devastation rather than muddling it with the response by her well-heeled mistress.  What shines through the rubble of broken house and the broken lives is the maid's deep and complex connections to the house and to the family.

Have any of you read this story?  What did you think?  Any other favorite Bowen stories?


  1. I haven't read any Elizabeth Bowen yet, but now that we've been introduced (thank you) I'm sure that I will. I'm disappointed that I didn't discover the Irish Short Story reading week until this morning. .

    I'd recommend William Trevor to anyone looking for a good Irish short story writer. He was a new "discovery" for me since joining the book blogging ranks and has become one of my favorites.


  2. I have an odd relationship with Bowen - there are some aspects of her writing that I absolutely LOVE, but there are others that get in the way of my enjoyment, at least with novels. Her characterization is very "cold" somehow; her characters never feel very emotionally real to me...or they only feel that way when they're alone, not in how they relate to each other. But The Heat of the Day has AMAZING evocations of living in London during the Blitz, which your description of this story calls to mind.

  3. I am so glad you like this story-your comments on it increased my appreciation of the story-you might like "The Jungle"-you can listen to it at the literary podcast section of the Manchester Guardian-thanks so much for participating in Irish Short Story Week

    Emily-I also love The Heat of the Day-I really felt like I was in London during the Blitz


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