While some entertainment these days feels like little more than a merciless series of traumas, Louise Kennedy's approach to the roots of suffering offers a refreshing change.
The protagonists in her lived-in collection "The End of the World Is a Cul de Sac" are all distressed but, with few exceptions, nothing terribly exceptional has befallen them. That's not to discount the genuine pain or the (sometimes aggressive) forces arrayed against these women and girls. It's merely to observe that what they cope with, react to and are worn down by is nothing more exotic than disease, aging, relationships, parenting or mental health issues — in a word, life.
Through 15 stories set in small towns or rural developments across the north of Ireland, Kennedy trains a suffocating scrutiny on her subjects — in their homes, in their communities and in their skins. These are lives in progress, bolstered by richly imagined back stories, that we dip into for a critical moment or stage.
In the title story, Sarah's husband has fled, leaving her saddled with debt. When a rogue donkey wreaks further havoc, she gets assistance from a neighbor whose motives are far from altruistic. In "Imbolc," Elaine also navigates the fallout from her husband's misdeeds, while simultaneously watching as her body, still not recovered from giving birth to a daughter, again becomes "colossal," striated by new stretch marks that "made a violet lacy pattern on either side of her diaphragm."
Husbands are but one potential source of peril. After Eithne's American boyfriend Ethan dies, in "Powder," she is quickly "cast as the tragic young fiancée," enlisted to lead his grieving mother around the Irish countryside to scatter his ashes. Except that Ethan never actually got around to proposing, despite telling his parents he planned to. Eithne misses her chance to come clean, ending up complicit in "the secrets people kept, the lies they told," a couplet that could act as an epigraph for this collection.
Teenaged Róisín, in "Belladonna," worries that Oliver harbors a secret that could jeopardize not only time spent helping his wife Anna run their herbal clinic, but Anna herself. And in the yearningly hopeful "Brittle Things," Ciara is taking her 5-year-old son — who has never spoken, hugged or kissed his parents — to speech therapy. But she hasn't told her husband, whose attentiveness at home is secondary to his focus on work.
Kennedy shows an ear for the felicities of language, as in the metrically pristine, "Anna is patting primroses into a pot on her doorstep." And she pays keen attention to the nuances of her characters' regional accents and rhythms, even spelling them out on occasion: "Not at all, he says — he says it like you do, not a tall."
Many of the women suffer in silence, out of exhaustion or resignation more than weakness. But not Mairead in "Sparing the Heather." She's had her fill of both her husband and her lover, a man renting on their property, which leads to a subtly electric conclusion. Kennedy packs these stories with life, but I'd welcome an entire novel about the future of Mairead and several others she introduces in these entrancing tales.
Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer.
The End of the World Is a Cul de Sac
By: Louise Kennedy.
Publisher: Riverhead Books, 289 pages, $27.