13 February 2010


Reading Diary: Great Short Stories of the World

How does one review a short story? Such condensed pools of character, setting, plot and theme seem to dribble through a would-be reviewer's suddenly clumsy fingers--and that's probably as it should be.

If a novel is a drawn-out and intense chess match as worthy of good sport reporting as any of the more athletic competitions, then a short story is a kind of solitary game of arranging the chessmen in pleasing tableaux. Sometimes reviewing a novel is already like telling a short story, so I'm not really clear on how one should review an actual short story. Nonetheless, I plunge in . . .

A Priest in the Family
by Leo Kennedy

In this story, we have three very different queens having at it on the chessboard of their parish church.

There is Miss Brown, the sparrow-like old spinster with an infatuation for the kind Father Hoffman: "The one comfort of her arid virginity was the occasional nearness of this honest and holy man."

Then there is bountiful Mrs. Castelano, who steps into the plot when she shows up at the church one morning "with a tale of woe about her husband going to jail again and no money in the house."

Before this point, she is merely a foil to another character, the undisputed STAR of this short story. That leading lady would be the horrible Mrs. Halloran, who never lets anyone forget she has a nephew in the priesthood . . .

She always breathed strongly of gin when she talked about religion. The drink provoked her to thoughts of heavenly ecstasy; the tin crucifix on her chest heaved and bobbed with the fervour of her devotion. But liquor also brought out a violent distaste for foreign devils. For instance, when she passed her large Italian neighbour, Mrs. Castelano, on the tenement stairs, she would sneer disparagement of all Neapolitan womanhood. She would say in a thin voice to the stairs: "May Jesus, Mary and Holy Joseph put boils on her neck."

Now, I love the symbol of the tin crucifix, and how well it goes with an earlier description of Mrs. Halloran's concave chest. It is clear that her piety is cheap her devotion is spindly . . . and yet she doesn't seem irredeemable. She may pray for the wrong things, but at least she is invoking the right names.

It is also worth noting that Mrs. Halloran is also, in a way, also a "foreign devil": the story is set not in Ireland, but in Canada, one of the world's melting pots of immigrants. Accordingly, the story finds its conflict in the tight weave of ethnic tensions and parish politics. Even if the three women had come over from the same "Old Country," they would find other reasons to resent each other, as have millions of real women brushing shoulders in the service of real parishes all over Christendom. Of course, the real women don't always get into wild, wet catfights in the sanctuary of their respective parish churches: that is a gift from Leo Kennedy's Catholic imagination.

This is where the priests come in: both the priest in Mrs. Halloran's family and the parish priest Father Hoffman. Sometimes the only solution to a madly flailing, six-legged problem like Miss Brown, Mrs. Castelano and Mrs. Halloran is the priestly solution. But to say more than this would be to give away too much . . .

(And that was my review! I hope I didn't do too badly!)

This week's Short Story Saturday was hosted by Alpha Heroes.

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