Book of the Day, The Irish Times by Robert Dunbar

Ecstasy and other stories
(Early to Mid-Teens)

Ré Ó Laighléis

Pb. 104 pages
ISBN 0-9532777-9-8;

Price €10


Realistic Rites of Passage

‘It deserves the widest possible audience’

The greatest disservice to the ten stories in this excellent collection would be to suggest that their primary interest lies in their choice of themes. Certainly, it is good that we now have Irish fiction for the young adult which does not shrink from confronting aspects of contemporary life such as drugs, teenage pregnancy, homelessness, domestic violence and AIDS, But in taking on such matters, especially in the “realistic” mode, the writer runs the risk of sacrificing narrative to issue: the book becomes of sociological rather than literary significance.

It is a great tribute to Ó Laighléis that his priorities do not become confused. Two factors in particular contribute to this.

Firstly, he writes in a style which in its sparseness and precision makes an oblique, rather than an explicit, statement. We want to know how, if at all, his creations are going to disentangle themselves from the “vicious circles” – to quote the title story – of their existences: but we frequently have to come to our own conclusions. Does the ex-gambler of Resolve manage to avoid succumbing to his old addiction? Does the disgraced teacher of Vanquished find refuge in the waters of the canal?

Secondly, Ó Laighléis chooses – appropriately – to match this obliqueness with a tone of voice which skilfully avoids the twin dangers of sentimentality and condescension. He pays his creations (and, by extension, his readers) the compliment of allowing them to live with the consequences of their own choices. Complex circumstances defy easy outcomes, as is brilliantly shown in Umbilical, where a teenage mother who has abandoned her baby re-examines, with each passing television news bulletin, the consequences of her action. Nowhere is there any moralising, any condemnation or endorsement of Ursula’s behaviour.

This combination of style and tone provides a maturity which rarely characterises writing targeted mainly at a teenage readership. It may not quite be, in Beckett’s phrase, that “that’s how it is on this bitch of an earth”: but an underlying bleakness unquestionably haunts the vision here. There is – again to quote the title story – “an illumination of sorts”, but it is the kind of illumination which, rather than scattering false notions of cheerfulness, shines in the intensity of its honest scrutiny of human motivation and response.

We are not, in fact, far into the collection before we begin to appreciate the irony of its title. These are worlds where, if any fulfilment is attained at all, it is attained only at the cost of lengthy trial and long moments of self-doubt. Even in Awkward, where Dara (at 15) does manage to seize his first two kisses and where we leave him “so happy that he wants to roar and shout”, the victory is gained more by accidental than concentrated effort. (It would be fascinating to know what the ‘real’ male adolescent makes of the fumbling Dara: will he laugh or cry?).

While each of the stories makes a very strong impact, it is, perhaps, the final one - Heredity – which leaves the most lasting and most disturbing impression. In only a few pages Ó Laighléis portrays the claustrophobic intensity of a family cracking under severe pressure, triggered initially by the father’s alcoholism and, subsequently, by his verbal and physical abuse of the mother. Caught between is Paul, three weeks away from his Leaving Certificate, gradually steeling himself into some kind of protest against his father’s brutality. When the showdown comes it is for both father and son a moment of remarkable discovery.

First published in the Irish language – when it justifiably won a Bisto award – this book now makes a most welcome appearance in English. It deserves the widest possible audience.

Robert Dunbar

Review from ‘The Big Issues’ by Geraldine Molloy

‘The stories are written with great understanding and sensitivity…
Ré Ó Laighléis is a master of his craft.’

What a service Ré Ó Laighléis did for those of us who do not read books in our own language. Ecstasy and other stories is a collection of short stories translated from Irish into English. The themes of the stories are prevalent to modern Irish society, dealing with topics such as Aids, unemployment, drugs, homelessness, alcoholism and gambling. Characters come to life on the open page to reach out and touch the reader. These are real people with real problems.
The stories are written with great understanding and sensitivity – one can feel the human pain, hurt, hopelessness, despair, anger, confusion and emptiness. This is like standing outside a house and taking a glimpse through the window into someone else’s life. The book can be sad, depressing and lonely, but it can also make you smile and it certainly deserved to win the Bisto Book of the Year Merit Award.
Ecstasy and other stories is brilliantly written and an eye opener for us all as to what could happen if life takes that one wrong turn. Ré Ó Laighléis is a master of his craft.

Geraldine Molloy

Review from 'VILLAGE' by Tony Hickey

'Always there is an appropriate honed-down style that presents the narratives in crystal clear detail.'

Greatly acclaimed when first published in 1994, a new edition of this collection of short stories is most welcome. It will find a throng of new readers who may have been too young for it first time around.

The title story Ecstasy tells of Úna's run-in with Hilda, the school drug pusher and bully, and the truly savage treatment she receives at her hands. What's to be done? Not an easy decision, as many children of Úna's age know in real life. But then all the stories in this collection are based on what might be termed 'real life'.
There is the teacher provoked beyond endurance by a pupil whom he hits. There is the teenage girl who has abandoned her baby and is now lying in bed listening to repeated radio reports of the finding of the child.There is the compulsive gambler, the kidnapped girl, a whole range of characters facing traumatic and often tragic situations. Sometimes there is a glimmer of hope, sometimes not. Always there is an appropriate, honed down style that presents the narratives in crystal clear detail. The impression left in my mind is of portraits looking straight out at me from a landscape that explains the expressions on their faces. Not just a book for teenagers but for everyone who appreciates first class writing.

Tony Hickey