This is a collection of short stories set either in the author's native Ireland, or else in England, his later home, with one set in France. He is regarded as a master of the short story, and it's true that each is a little masterpiece of prose, with a skillfully drawn set of characters, an intriguing scenario gradually revealed and a little twist at the end. Each one is a perfect vignette of lives at a moment in time. The stories themselves are often full of pathos, with enough subtleties and undercurrents to intrigue. Some are quite hauntingly memorable, and the Irish ones in particularly have a wonderful resonance of time and place.
And yet... It's not that I disliked these stories, I didn't at all. But a short story is, somehow, a peculiarly artificial form of prose. The twist at the end is, after all, the whole point, so the story is entirely constructed around it, with the aim being to deceive and then, triumphantly, reveal it. It's intended to be clever rather than to tell a story, and personally I would rather have had more depth and development and less cleverness. I can't help feeling: if the author didn't care enough about these characters to give them the space to grow, why should I care about them either?
It's all too easy to see them as disposable products - read, enjoy in the moment and then throw away. But some of them really deserved a broader canvas. 'The Virgin's Gift', for instance, raised more questions than it answered. Readers will have their own views on the nature of the visions of the Virgin Mary, but what exactly was the gift? Was it simply the obvious one, of returning a son to his home? Or did the author intend the more subtle irony of giving back something which had been taken away in the first place? And what would become of the main character after that? And 'The Hill Bachelors' could easily have made a full length novel, or a film. It seems a shame to criticise a short story for being too short, yet several of them felt that way - too much detail crammed in, cluttering up the simplicity of the picture. And occasionally it felt clunky, as if the author was determined to shoehorn in a particular piece of information, relevant or not. Nevertheless, these are superb examples of the art of the short story, for those who enjoy the genre. Four stars.