Verbal Reading Rooms volunteer Carla Rowney reviews The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Woman Writers from the North of Ireland, edited by Sinead Gleeson (New Island Books, 2016)
In a place as in tune with its history as the North of Ireland, it is no small task to find refreshing perspectives on the political and social issues that have both shaped history and guided discussion about the future. More and more in recent years, however, such a response has emerged through fiction – particularly fiction from a female gaze, the ‘her-story’ previously hidden behind the region’s history. The Glass Shore is a kind of patchwork quilt of feminine voices wherein the mythical, the political and the personal are interwoven and stretched out to cover a specific space still largely uncharted in terms of the Northern female narrative. With stories placed chronologically, we can chart the progression of the Northern female identity as it wrestles simultaneously against both patriarchy and politics and emerges all the stronger for it.
The writers of The Glass Shore confront the difficulties of the North’s problematic past and present head-on, braving ‘sore’ subjects in a way that is not always entirely flattering, but always very real. Linda Anderson’s ‘The Turn’, a story about Anna, middle-aged woman in the midst of a cancer scare, triggered by a familiar northern accent as she awaits testing in an English hospital to examine her own personal struggle with the country she left behind years previously. Despite tackling the generational burden of the daughters raised under clouds of uncertainty and fear as a result of sectarian strife – something many of us from the North can relate to – Anderson affords both Anna and the ‘fragment of a country, a blood-soaked tatter of a place’ hope for the future with a promise of an upcoming ‘turn.’
Jan Carson’s ‘Settling’ similarly explores how the Northern identity has such an influence on the everyday lives and experiences of its people – even those who have left, or attempted to leave it behind. With humour and poignancy, Carson captures the conflict of missing all the hallmarks of the place we call ‘home’- from family, manifested by the granny in the wardrobe, to tea from a teapot and even ‘bloody James Nesbitt, every single time you turn the television on’ – whilst also craving a life of ‘anonymity’, free from the claustrophobia of East Belfast; a life rich with opportunity, ‘where the future is.’
Another writer, Martina Devlin focuses on re-working the North’s narrative to include the women an androcentric recollection of history has excluded, such as Alice Milligan, the Irish nationalist poet and writer, who is herself included in the collection. In ‘No Other Place’ and ‘The Harp That Once -!’ The Glass Shore not only gives a voice to one of the many women history has silenced, but also memorialises the great cultural activist, emphasising her unfaltering loyalty to both Ireland and her departed friends.
In ‘Mayday,’ Lucy Caldwell tackles abortion – one of Ireland’s, and particularly the North’s, most divisive issues of the modern day. While the story, and indeed the collection itself, does not overtly lend itself to a political agenda, Caldwell portrays the gritty realities of the experiences of many Northern Irish women. Told from the prospective of a university student who, living in the North and thus lacking a legitimate means to end her unwanted pregnancy, turns to the illegal purchase of online drugs sourced from the Netherlands. The fear of Caldwell’s character is palpable – she fears medical complications, she fears punishment if she does indeed have to seek medical help, she fears the response of the people around her, and most of all she fears the drugs will not work. Regardless of where one stands on the issue of abortion, the implication ‘Mayday’ leaves us with is that the current system in Northern Ireland fails to protect women, serving only to vilify the most desperate.
While literature for and about women was once afforded only enough space for stories of glass slippers, contained by a glass ceiling, it has been shaped and changed by narratives such as those in this collection: narratives that reflect the unique and ongoing struggle of women in the North of Ireland for equality in all areas of their lives, but also narratives that celebrate the lives of these remarkable women and the ‘glass shore’ that surrounds and unites them.
Carla is currently in her second year of an English Literature degree at the University of Ulster, and has volunteers with the Well Women: Young At Heart Reading Rooms group.