Mary Lavin, one of Frank O’Connor’s favorite short story writers, was American by birth but Irish bred. She lived the bulk of her life, from age nine until her death, in Ireland. Winner of the Mansfield prize and a Guggenheim fellowship, Mary Lavin died in Dublin in 1996. Her short stories were published in the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly in the mid-Twentieth Century.
I read her story, Lilacs, in the Granta Book of the Irish Short Story. Lilacs was first published in 1942 as one of the stories in her collection, Tales from the Bective Bridge. Like many of Lavin’s stories, it is short on plot. Instead, Lilacs illustrates the emotional pull within a family, as alliances form, crumble, and reform.
Dissatisfaction is a recurring theme in Lavin’s tales, drawn from small-town and middle class Irish life – penury by American standards. She shows us in Lilacs a livelihood in Ireland that has nearly vanished. Her descriptions are evocative, balancing the beauty we readers associate with Ireland’s countryside with its less appealing realities. Her younger, gentrified characters wrestle with shame, as their boarding school education has separated them from their parents’ humble origins, and between themselves as the responsibilities of the household shift.
Lavin carefully crafts her characters. Her stories are also remarkable for the lyricism of their opening and closing lines. But Lilacs breaks that rule. Here’s the opening line: “That dunghill isn’t doing anyone any harm, and its not going out of where it is as long as I’m in this house,” Phelim Mulloy said to his wife, Ros, but he threw an angry look at his elder daughter Kate who was standing by the kitchen window with her back turned to them both.” Not so very poetic.
I cannot tell the closing line as it is the key to one of the most puzzling relationships in the story.
At just 25 pages, this long form story proves itself a satisfying read.