Short story writers often find it irksome to be asked when the novel is coming out, as though their work was just rookie preparation for something more substantial. (That said, many do go on to write that novel.) The Dear Departed is, amazingly, the first selection of Brian Moore’s short stories to be published. Written between 1953 and 1961, they prefigure most of Moore’s 20 highly acclaimed novels, three of which were shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
One can certainly appreciate how the stories of this collection display the concerns that would preoccupy the Belfast-born Moore throughout his career — those attempts to abandon the values and constraints of the past, to escape conservative, authoritarian homes. ‘No other postmark can compete in authority with the place of one’s birth. It is what we fled: it may, at any time, reach up to reclaim us,’ observes the wannabe Rimbaud of the final story, ‘Preliminary Pages for a Work of Revenge’.
But leaving aside any relationship to future output, these are, simply, great stories. In ‘Uncle T’, a young Irish emigrant and his bride find that the ‘publishing’ job offered by a relative and his wife in New York is not all it seems. The story is deft, nuanced and notable in the way it elicits sympathy for all four main characters. And the feelings of a woman torn between her departed son and dead husband are handled with great delicacy in the quietly compelling ‘Grief for the Dear Departed’.
In ‘Off the Track’ a sociologist and his wife on a trip to Haiti are disappointed by the American-style hotel and its tourist voodoo show. They want to photograph the ‘real’ country, but Moore has them end up morally uncomfortable, reluctant voyeurs. ‘Hearts and Flowers’ is an upbeat companion piece. A journalist and photographer head to a Christian mission in Montreal to get a feel-good story involving unemployed miners, lumberjacks and winos having a Christmas dinner. Anarchy in the dining-hall means they don’t get the photo they anticipated but something more spontaneous, celebratory — and, yes, real.
There is delightful variety. A super-natural tale of Sicilian bandits has shades of Hammer House of Horror, and is no less enjoyable for that. ‘Lion of the Afternoon’ presents a variety show performed for children with disabilities. Written in 1957, its language is undeniably of the time, but it’s a beautiful, sad and compassionate story of difference and identification.
Perhaps most autobiographical is that final story, which draws on Moore’s school days and hints at the wounds that led him to return to Belfast only rarely. An American interviewer noted that in the novel Lives of Silence, Moore had come back full circle to the place of his birth. Moore replied: ‘Yeah, but I’m going to leave instantly.’ This Irishman with Canadian citizenship lived in Malibu for more than 30 years.
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