Book Reviews · 10/17/2011

the stinging fly: issue 18

Edited by Declan Meade

the stinging fly, 2011

the stinging fly is an Irish journal of fiction, poetry and critical reviews. As expected, much of the writing gathered here has a distinctly Irish flair—that incredible storytelling, that graceful movement through words and ideas. It is not exclusively Irish, however, neither by theme or by writer. This is a journal that fits easily on a shelf next to journals from other international but larger urban centers.

Issue 18, from spring 2011, is loaded with poetry; there are almost as many pages devoted to poetry as there are to fiction. Thoughts on the issue’s fiction will take up most of this review, but I can’t stop myself from mentioning Ted Deppe’s poem, “Bela Rada,” because it is a poem I am certain I will never forget. Its story—told in gentle ellipses of tangential, arcing scene and comment—has come back to me several nights in a row. A literary haunting. The best kind. I give you the beginning in the hopes you will seek out the rest:

During my youth, on a thousand-mile walk around Ireland,
my dreams grew strange and bright as planets, and I woke once,
laughing, having witnessed my own birth: a young woman

holding her newborn, stepped from rows of tasseling corn
as a voice-over intoned, And they named him Bela Rada.
Bela, Beautiful, Rada, Wheel: that’s how I translated it,

recalling a Serbian circle dance, though later I found
it meant Beautiful Rada—Rada is a woman’s name.
No matter, she’s part of me now: Bela Rada

There are eight fiction pieces in Issue 18. These are stories of family dispute, personal isolation, madness, wayward hearts, destructive imaginations, near marital disasters, unshortenable distances and the tension between want and need and desire and sympathy. For my own pleasure, I wrote out the first lines of each story into a single paragraph:

When the father came in late that evening and was halfway through his dinner I told him that someone had shot a bullet through Joejoe’s front window. For days now there have been rumours that a truck will be coming from Mutare. Miss said he bled through seven bandages before the doctor came. I bought a heart. It is Saturday evening and below his window Andrew hears his two daughters playing with their friends. It is a good day to buy a bed because it’s Tuesday and the shops are quiet. Valentine Neary, senior bouncer at the Peacock Bar and Niteclub, had something in his teeth. The Ffrench’s door is always cleaner than ours.

Despite the point-of-view shifting and obvious topical differences, there is a lovely consistency here. Whether slow-burning or urgent, these are all stories of personal emergency. Not disaster or tragedy, but the panic that follows a startling emergence. The unexpected appearance of an emotion, understanding or action. This is fiction that takes up with specific personal reactions to the unforeseen.

A first example comes from “Grace,” by Susan Millar DuMars. In this powerful side note to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, DuMars takes Ms. Poole, Mrs. Rochester’s attendant in that small attic prison and gives her an unsettling and compelling voice of her own. Grace Poole is quite intimate with madness and murder and although she pretends to great strength in her dealings with Mrs. Rochester, she is aware of the impossibility of caging someone so hell bent on freedom:

Of course I’m only teasing her when I say she has no chance. She has every chance, for she is mad, and has a monstrous strength. She will best me one day, I have no doubt, kill me… it makes me laugh to think of it. It’s not that I wish to die, especially. It is that we are, both of us, dead already—good as, anyway—kept away from ‘gentle folk’ by a set of stairs and a locked door. For ones who live as we do, what is it to die?

Mary Costello’s brutal “Insomniac” engages with this idea of emergency by creating parallel swells of revelation—first in the reader and then inside the story. It is the middle of the night and insomniac Andrew drifts quietly about his home, lost in a mute, stifled crisis. Eventually his wife joins him and without thinking, without caring, he quickly and cleanly brings her into his crisis, thus creating a wholly new disaster. It is beautifully done.

With an altogether different emotional texture and prose, Colin Barrett’s “The Moon” highlights a similar kind of emergence, that of swift and painful understanding. The story’s protagonist Valentine is a club bouncer and imperturbable ladies’ man who’s been knocking the boss’s daughter since summer began. But summer is now coming to an end. This deceptively simple story speaks to felt differences and the sudden surprise of real longing.

Finally, Hugo Kelly’s “Waiting to Happen”—a story about the youthful hunger for life to begin, about wanting to be free from what feels too familiar:

I sense the anger in him. Sometimes I like his anger. Like when he put a hook in a piece of bread and caught a seagull by the mouth. He pulled the bird behind him like it was a kite and I followed him laughing at the sight of the creature flapping stupidly. It was an empty Sunday afternoon. We had no money: my three pounds from Mr. French long used up. But it felt like we were doing something.

The emergency in “Waiting to Happen” occurs when Orla, the narrator, realizes that she is not truly at the mercy of those around her. This sudden power, empowerment in fact, carries with it a frightening truth—that a single person has the power to detonate something dangerous within an another. This isn’t the freedom she was expecting.

This 18th issue of the stinging fly gathers together a really lovely collection of experienced and novice literary voices. Luckily, issues 19 and 20 are already available and I definitely look forward to reading on…