This is my third installment for Ireland Reading Challenge at Books and Movies. And just recently, I’ve come across another interesting reading event, so I’m using this review as well to participate in the Irish Short Story Week Year Two at The Reading Life.
A book compiling two short stories and a novella, Everything in this Country Must reaffirms my admiration for Colum McCann’s spare and powerful writing.
McCann is the author of the 2009 National Book Award winner Let The Great World Spin. In my review of that book, I noted how he’d intricately woven together seemingly unrelated stories against the backdrop of the Twin Towers, crafting a moving tribute to NYC.
Before NYC, McCann had written about his home country Ireland. Everything In This Country Must (2000) is a poignant portrayal of how the political turmoils in Northern Ireland during the 80’s affect the three young protagonists in each of these stories. All the short pieces in the book are masterfully rendered, immediate, sharply focused, intense, minimal yet deeply charged. Above all, I’ve appreciated, as with Great World, McCann’s insightful metaphors.
Everything In This Country Must: Short Story
Nightfall, cold and raining. A man’s favorite work horse is near drowning with its forelegs caught in some rocks at the bottom of a flooding river. He gets his 15 year-old daughter to help him hold the horse’s head above water with a rope while he frantically dives into the water to get its legs out, but to no avail. He desperately needs help.
Soon enough, an army truck passes by. A few British soldiers quickly jump out to help. O what plight! The wrong people coming to the man’s aid. These soldiers remind him of the loss of his beloved. Despite his protest, they save the horse. The daughter now is torn between her gratitude towards the soldiers and her father’s anger.
Of course I will not tell you everything about this story. You must experience it yourself. Then you’ll be amazed how in just fourteen pages, McCann can depict a human flood of hatred and rage that can drown any living soul, and slap you with a haunting end that leaves you cold like night.
Wood: Short Story
With his father stricken ill in bed, a young boy helps his mother to secretly work in the family mill to earn some money, cutting logs and refining them to make poles which will then be used to hold political banners for the Protestant marches. The boy knows that his father, despite being Protestant, disapproves of these marches. That’s why he knows he has to do this stealthily, yes, to protect the pride of his father who now lays in bed unable to work, but maybe even more importantly, so not to betray his political stance. Mother and son toil in secret, turning raw wood into polished poles. The boy loves both parents, his loyalty a dilemma between reality and ideal.
And all this time the wind blows obliviously, swaying the oak trees behind the mill. “The trunks were big and solid and fat, but the branches were slapping around like people.”
Hunger Strike: Novella
Kevin is a new arrival to a Southern seaside town, living with his mother in a caravan by the shore. The move apparently is an attempt of his mother to get away from the political conflicts in the North. Kevin’s father had been killed in an accident some years ago. Currently his uncle, an IRA member imprisoned in Northern Ireland, is one of a group of inmates holding a hunger strike. Some have already died.
The uncle’s ordeal disturbs 13 year-old Kevin deeply. While his mother wants to give him a better life away from the turmoil, Kevin is emotionally entwined with his uncle’s struggle. The boy vicariously partakes in the hunger strike, counting the days, noting closely the deterioration of his uncle’s health, and even secretly dumps his own food away.
An older couple with a yellow kayak live close by. Kevin observes that they paddle in sync, they move and rest in perfect harmony. Their calm and quiet life is a huge contrast to his. Later, the couple befriend him. The old man teaches him how to paddle:
The blade should never go too deep into the water or else too much energy would be used. And there should never be too much of a splash when the paddle came out — it should look as if the sea had hardly been disturbed.
A hopeful new beginning for Kevin seems to ensue, but the situation continues to deteriorate in his hometown in the North, and with the plight of his uncle. The waves inside Kevin is just too rough for smooth and quiet paddling. A sea undisturbed belongs to the apathetic, and sometimes splashes are called for. McCann’s description of a tormented young life is both visual and haunting, and propels us to a poignant and heart-wrenching end.
(yes, exactly my point)
Everything in This Country Must by Colum McCann, A Novella And Two Stories, Picador U.S.A., 2000, 150 pages.
For my other Ireland Reading Challenge posts: