The Apparitions, by Anne Devlin, Arlen House, 142 pp, €15, ISBN: 978-1851322756
“If there is a difference between the mad and the sane it seems to me it is this: the sane have a variety of stories to tell, whereas the mad have only one,” says the narrator in the final story of Anne Devlin’s appositely named collection of short stories The Apparitions. No one could accuse Devlin of only having one tale to tell in this dazzlingly adventurous fusion of fiction and memoir – or should that be fictoir?
These eight stories are bound together by a similar female perspective in contravention of the traditional collection with its array of voices. Recurrent scenes are unsettling at first before blending into a cohesive whole. Devlin displays her screenwriting credentials here with more rewinds, jump cuts and flashbacks than I’ve ever read in any collection. Impressively, she avoids spoonfeeding the reader, eschewing naturalism for experimentalism. Mary Lavin wrote, “there is a large deal of detection in a short story”, and Devlin exemplifies this precept.
The first story, “Winter Journey” is a statement of intent if ever there was one in terms of impressionism. The nameless narrator/protagonist is shuttling between Germany, Belfast and Venice, and is obsessed by images of her dead cousin Vera who “was there like softly falling snow adding up to something and then dissolving”. Vera, she explains, is not a ghost in the conventional sense but a visitation from “an awareness so vast it had to be expressed”. It’s clear that in Devlin’s world, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past”, as Faulkner famously expressed it.
This sense of evanescence moves into more tonally realistic stories such as “Transit of Mercury”, which centres on a chest of drawers containing a writing case. One of the biggest themes of the collection is the writerly struggle, veering into the darkly comedic in “Lamp”:
She became afraid when she wrote down the words. So she tore the pages up into small pieces and buried them in the flower pots in the garden. But the birds flew down and pulled the paper out of the soil … so she gathered up the pieces of her torn mind and took them indoors to burn. The burning of the paper pieces set off smoke alarms which she could not turn off. Hours later this brought social workers to her door. Her mind had received a shock.
Here Devlin highlights how graphomania can cause rifts within a family. When the narrator tells her son that all she ever wanted was to be pregnant with him, he retorts: “All you ever wanted was to be a writer.” While “economic eviction” due to an unlucrative writing career may have prompted her return to Belfast, she still justifies her pursuit of the literary dream: “What we learned was that Bohemia is a place you fall into; it’s not one you aspire to. But we wouldn’t have learnt that if we hadn’t taken the chance.”
“When in ’63 it Snowed” is an undoubted highlight of the collection, featuring a road trip where the narrator drives her son back to university in England. Amusing scenes ensue when she stalls her car on the ferry ramp only to be advised by the Polish worker to “apply more power” which strikes her as symptomatic of “what is wrong with her life”. The inadequacy she feels with her son is touchingly explored: “How stressful a parent, I am, she thinks”. The awkwardness of sharing a cabin with him is pinpointed when “she pulls her jeans on under her nightdress, like she’s at the beach”.
Travel is mostly presented as an escape, even though the shortest story in the collection, “Under the Westway”, demonstrates how journeys are characterised more by fear than a sense of freedom. At first, the collection seems to reflect the deracinated melancholy of the self-imposed exile who “had never been at home in the place where she was born”, but gradually, it peels back to reveal the true source of the narrator’s personal troubles – the Troubles themselves. In the wonderfully tense “Lamp”, the Troubles are interlinked with other major wars through a man whose son has gone to Bosnia to fight as a mercenary. He tells her: “I don’t know what will satisfy them when they come back. But they’ll never be bricklayers again.” The implication is that war makes a misfit of everyone.
In “Lamp”, the narrative moves tantalisingly close to memoir. It’s well documented that Anne Devlin joined the civil rights march from Belfast to Derry in 1969 and the story lingers on these four days in 1969 and their traumatic culmination when the narrator is chased by men with cudgels into a river. Suddenly, the reason for “mother clinging to the banisters crying” is illuminated. Aunt Maud’s republican sympathies add to the growing tension.
Images of the Troubles follow the narrator to ’80s England, where someone is wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “The Long March from Belfast to Londonderry” and men are chanting in the street “No Surrender to the IRA”. A Union Jack mysteriously appears in the window of her previous home, as if attempting to reclaim British territory from Northern Irish Catholics. This paranoia over the past is a portent of her breakdown. Her erratic behaviour affectingly impacts on her young son, Dan, who is in danger of being taken into care.
The state of mental confusion is beautifully evoked throughout the collection with recurrent images of mirrors and waves. This is not to say that the writing is overly figurative; the theme of the cheating husband anchors the stories in the real world, lending a powerful universality. But there are elliptical extremes in the weatherscape of The Apparitions from heat to ice and it’s refreshing to forego the drear rainy drabness that seeps into most Irish fiction.
There are innumerable visual delights to be encountered. A lover “unzips his face and cries”, while a student erotically strokes his girlfriend, drawing “our attention to the honey gauze halo that sits on her limbs”. Of pregnancy, “there was a rushy flow inside her, as if a fish had turned over in a bath”. So many lines are divinely quotable: “Her husband looked like a man who had parried a rockfall” and “the fear is making an orphan of my thoughts”. There is palpable wit in the description of the mother ensconced in her hospital-supplied bed, “throwing her legs over the sides like a gymnast who has failed to clear the bar”. My favourite metaphor of all comes from “Cornucopia”, where the title object is wielded by a statuette goddess only to break in an accident, looking “for all the world, like a reminder to give someone a hand job”.
Belfast is the star of the final story, “The Adoption Feast”, where the narrator’s cousin arrives from Australia and proudly furnishes her relatives with a “protestant cake”. Outside, the Falls peace gates divide two sets of political murals “as if it is the images that must be kept apart” rather than the people. Devlin shows deep empathy for the plight of the enforced Irish exile and the “unspoken anger in every leave-taking”. It is the ultimate irony that a narrator who is full of unresolved memories feels she must return to look after her mother, who is now losing her own memories.
The writing is so fluent, it comes as a surprise to discover a thirty-six-year gap between The Apparitions and Devlin’s first collection of stories, The Waypaver, although it should be remembered that she has had many other careers. Most recently, she was literary editor of Fortnight, boldly re-establishing its reputation for forthright opinion, and she has also been a writer for theatre and screen. This background in dialogue is evident through a punchy style that resembles a playscript in its absence of speech marks. There are allusions to plays and TV shows throughout.
The Apparitions is not only about writers but about obsessiveness over language. A conversation takes place at cross-purposes at the school governor’s house in “Lamp”: “They haven’t been talking about the theatre at all; they have been talking about the school.” The protagonist explains her symptoms to her counsellor with this superb spoonerism “I have Spain in my pine”. Words in Devlin’s conception can be tricky and, yet, books are strikingly designated as “prosthetic limbs”.
“A Place Called Dam” focuses on the poignant disintegration of a marriage in Amsterdam, mirrored by a husband’s physical disintegration. The protagonist keeps losing him on the tram at Dam intersection, signifying a wider existential loss: “The moment at Dam is not fleeting; it is permanent, she realises. I have sat there all my life”, and she finally understands that “it’s the looking back that kills the traveller”. The madness of Van Gogh achingly pervades the streets. She is again haunted by her cousin Vera, but on this occasion her husband castigates her for being a primitive who “mistakes manifestations for messages”. She later speculates that “maybe one part of her brain is very old, savage, and the other is that of civilization, history’s auscultation”. Whatever the case, she feels increasingly out of synch with her husband, who can no longer match the speed of her step through Amsterdam.
One of the most obvious questions arising from the collection is this: why is it that certain playwrights like Anne Devlin are drawn to the short story form? There are a number of Irish exponents of both forms, from Jaki McCarrick, Billy Roche, Paul McVeigh and myself to former greats like Brian Friel and Oscar Wilde. I believe it relates to an affinity for linguistic brevity, a love of humorous wordplay and the possession of a deeply metaphorical mind. Short stories are gnomic in essence, just like plays. Internationally, Chekhov is purported to be the unparalleled master of both, but to my mind, Gogol surpasses him.
In The Apparitions, the fluid time frame and the multilayering story-within-a-story style is designed to be as unresolved as life itself, but the stories achieve a unique unity in concerning themselves with “the blur at the centre of things”. The narrator recalls being beaten at school for writing compositions in which “she always thought of something later, and she’d write a new sentence in the margin”. It is ironic that Devlin’s tangential style of writing was formerly punished but has led to the delivery of one of the most intellectually intriguing short story collections in Irish literature this century.
Anne Devlin has transcended the quotidian and cast her surreal dreamcatcher vision over human existence. The effect is akin to having a series of luculent memories inveigled into our consciousness. Ultimately, The Apparitions suggests that in spite of trying to escape our past we are all products of our city and era. Those of us who left Belfast during the Troubles will forever have our sense of self shaped by them:
“Perhaps she wanted to live an unhistorical life, and she hadn’t been allowed to.
Eva laughs: No one can live an unhistorical life! Call yourself an Irish woman.”
Rosemary Jenkinson is a short story writer and playwright from Belfast. Her current collection is Marching Season, published by Arlen House.