William Wall’s collection of loosely linked short stories is aptly titled The Islands since no title could better reflect Wall’s prevalent theme of the quintessential isolation of individual human existence within groups and tribes, a sort of American Transcendentalism turned on its head. Wall examines the darker alleys of human existence and the more questionable seams of Irish culture, politics, and social life, with tough-mindedness and compassion ironically well matched. He is rightly described as an insufficiently known Irish master whose work is astonishingly tender, eerie and, yet, full of human anguish and promise. Wall has published four novels, three collections of poetry, and three volumes of short stories including The Islands. He has won the Patrick Kavanagh Award, the Listowel Writers’ Week Prize, The Virginia Faulkner Award and The Seán Ó Faoláin Prize, and has also been nominated for many more, including the Man Booker Prize and the Raymond Carver Prize. The Islands is the 2017 winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize.
In The Islands, Wall tells us six stories loosely built around the disintegration of a family that comes undone from the combined effects of abandonment, betrayal, grief, and the cruel indifference of its members to one another. The first story, “Grace’s Day,” is told by Grace, one of the daughters, who grows up on a remote island with her mother, her two sisters—one of whom dies young in an accident—and her mother’s lover. Last but not least, she grows up under the weight of the “responsibility for acting out a life” that her absent father “felt bound to follow.” In all of the stories, and drifting in the air and the water, is a haunting, evocative and gripping chronicle of grief. The stories often circle in on the topic of death, often of the young and innocent, and of children being gripped in and by the drama of adult lives surrounding them.
“Grace’s Story” makes a faint but unmistakable allusion to Homer’s Penelope: here Penelope is Jane, Grace’s unconventional and free-spirited mother, who waits in an ongoing vigil for a man who will stay with her. As Grace says of her mother’s lover, “Richard Wood came in the Iliad, his wooden yawl, always it seemed when a gale of wind threatened.” However, the story reknits the elements of the Odyssey myth into a modern version. Here, Jane as Penelope is, in fact, unfaithful to her husband, Grace’s father—“the world traveler bringing stones from Italy, California, India”—an Odysseus seeking literary fame and ending up, finally, on a different remote island in Italy. Framed this way, the father’s story further rewrites the Odyssey by having the older Grace visit him there to find him melancholy in ways not unlike what his wife endured during her married life. Here, his audacious attempt at memorializing his wife and family life in terms that still make him heroic is sabotaged by Grace.
In the second story, “Sisters,” an all too recognizable moment of sublime cruelty and betrayal between the closest of kin occurs in the register of the banal, between Grace and her sister Jeannie: “We’re still sisters, she said. Then she stepped away and turned her back on me.” The strain of abandonment and betrayal continues in the story of Grace’s own failed marriage in “Lovers,” “The Honeymoon Photograph,” and finally again in “The Last Island.”
In the final story, Grace and her chronically unfaithful husband Bill, a filmmaker, express their hatred for each other “in metaphor,” according to Grace. This is altogether fitting because as taut as Wall’s prose is with the tactile texture of the world, the characters in the stories are all in different ways living in languages and grammars. In “Grace’s Day,” Grace reflects that “Words have that way of traveling memory: the stories they tell us become our stories.” And again, she says, “So, we grew up on an island that was, in memory and in fact, more like a film set of my father’s devising than a real place.” In “The Mountain Road,” songs finish with people rather than the other way around. The death of a child is imagined as language too, as in, “The child is dead. There are few worse sentences in the English language.” “The unconscious is a language without a grammar” is not only a quotation from Freud, but a theory that holds up Grace’s conviction that in her childhood her father “was the one who put us in words.” Perhaps that’s why Grace is a psychoanalyst repeating in reverse the story of her parents’ traumatic marriage.
You can almost touch, walk on, and wade into Wall’s landscapes and seascapes. He captures the beauty and the bleakness of the land that is Ireland and the “vast intolerant ocean” until you hear the waves lap and the winds murmur in the rising storm. But Wall’s metaphors are tantalizingly tactile too, as in “Flakes of memory from a nugget of malachite that is the unknowable past.” The six stories in The Islands are pieces of an intricate, heartbreaking and unforgettable materialization of the language of the glimpsed unconscious that tells our stories.
About the Reviewer
Nandini Bhattacharya is a University Professor of English who has completed a novel about a nineteenth-century Indian widow hiding an unforgivable act she committed to save herself from interfamilial rape, and whose trauma passes down her family line until her descendants discover the truth and can heal themselves. She is currently at work on another novel.