Secrets Never Told.
Dermot Bolger | New Island | pb €14.95 | 9781848407701 | 256pp
Review by Sue Leonard
In 2000, when I read Dermot Bolger’s seventh novel, Temptation, I was, quite simply, blown away. It was his ability to get into the mind of a woman so well that impressed me. His writing reminded me of the late Brian Moore, and especially of his novel, I am Mary Dunne. I became an instant Bolger fan and have loved his work ever since.
That ability—to read a woman’s mind—hasn’t left him. In Secrets Never Told, a new collection of Bolger’s short stories, three are told exclusively from a woman’s point of view. And, just as in that earlier novel, he gets the tone absolutely right.
In ‘Supermarket Flowers’, a child is run over at a bus-stop outside a grieving widow’s house. The widow empathises, is heartbroken for the child’s mother, and does what she can to help, but is anxious not to intrude on the other woman’s grief. The child’s mother, however, spends her days at the accident spot, leaving an abundance of cheap, wilting flowers, and this upsets the widow’s young granddaughters on their thrice weekly visits, and strains their grandmother’s patience. Grief, she feels, should be private—and should not inconvenience those, like her, who are only accidentally involved. She voices her complaints, and before long, it’s all-out war! Can the issue be resolved?
Evelyn, the widow portrayed in ‘One Seed of Doubt’, would doubtless echo that widow’s sentiment. When she first visits her husband David’s grave, after months of grieving quietly at home, she’s annoyed to be accosted by a man who, visiting most days, considers himself an expert on graveyard etiquette and maintenance. Annoyance turns to alarm when he asks her how she knew the deceased, and whether she was acquainted with David’s wife. Hearing of the strange woman who has been visiting her husband’s grave so regularly makes Evelyn question the veracity of the marriage she’d always considered so happy.
Grief, loneliness and remembered abuse infuse this excellent collection. Bolger also examines father–son relationships, touching on this in ‘Coming Home’, about a teenager, dismissed by a Premier English football team, who, at 15, feels his life is over. It’s explored in many guises in the longest story, ‘The Keeper of Flanagan’s Hotel’. This story—a wonderful study of character—shows the rise and gradual demise of a once great hotel and, in doing so, gives us a glimpse of the history and the hypocrisies of Irish political clerical life.
Bolger is at his best when he touches on the lives, successes and failures of Ireland’s literary figures. ‘The Lover’ tells of Casement’s secret liaisons through the eyes of his male lover; ‘Martha’s Streets’ revolves around a woman’s love of Joyce and Ulysses, and ‘What Then?’ tells of a young poet’s excitement when he encounters a man who once had tea with Yeats. But the two stories that really stood out for me, were ‘The Last Person’ and ‘The Rivals’.
‘The Last Person’ is set at a Dublin book launch. A writer who, having found the greatest success with his first novel, was unable for years to produce a credible follow-up. Finally, he does so, but why, when his publishers are happy and the reviews excellent, is he so perturbed when Cillian, a fellow writer and long-lost friend, turns up at the launch? The reason, revealed in a clever twist, makes perfect, uneasy, sense.
‘The Rivals’ also centres on a successful writer’s encounter with a past friend; except, this time, the writer, called to James J. Hennessy’s deathbed to rectify a past row, had absolutely no memory of the man, or of the rivalry the other man has spent his life obsessing on. This wonderfully tongue-in-cheek contribution had me laughing out loud in recognition.
Review by Sue Leonard