Country of the Grand by Gerard Donovan

10/08/08, Scotland on Sunday

Gerard Donovan garnered significant attention for his first novel, Schopenhauer’s Telescope. Described variously as Kafkaesque and Beckettian, the Booker-longlisted novel was original, if slightly pretentious, but lacked a unifying principle, an aesthetic cohesion shoring up everything. Since that book, Donovan has been busy. There have been two more novels in the intervening four years and now his first collection of short stories, Country of the Grand.

Schopenhauer’s Telescope was set in an unnamed, war-torn country, possibly Eastern Europe, Doctor Salt in Salt Lake City, Julius Winsome in a wintry Maine. For the first time, the Irish writer, who lives in New York, visits the country of his birth, Ireland. In thirteen stories, Donovan portrays not so much Ireland, or the contemporary Irish, as the rocky, treacherous terrain of the human heart and relationships, something common to general humankind itself. The book starts off slowly and then gets into its stride only with the sixth story, ‘Archaeologists’, the best in the collection. Two young archaeologists, Robert and Emma, who are also lovers, find themselves under enormous pressure to finish a dig in an area that is going to be flattened over to make way for a motorway and a parking lot. A different kind of pressure altogether is being inflicted on Emma in this relationship that is slowly but inexorably curdling for her. Donovan distils the tension with real skill and navigates his way through the problems, right up to the emotionally powerful ending, with immense empathy in beautifully spare prose. The metaphorical heft of the excavation remains unobtrusive, unlaboured, manifold.

In ‘Morning Swimmers’, marred by unconvincing dialogue and a clunky ending, Jim inadvertently eavesdrops on his friends, John and Eric, talking about his wife’s unfaithfulness, while he is trapped inside the changing room by the sea in Salthill. More successful is ‘How long until’, in which Peter’s question to his wife, Brenda, about how long she’d wait after his death before she slept with someone else, shines an unwelcome light on the unarticulated thoughts that underpin every relationship. ‘Shoplifting in the USA’ ends with Heather revealing something crucial about herself to her husband, John, that sets their whole relationship ticking like a time-bomb. Admirably, Donovan chooses to end the story at the end of the revelation and leaves the reader to assume the future. ‘Glass’ features a teenage boy, Paul, who becomes mute after his father’s death, while his mother’s survival strategy is to throw herself into a desperate liaison with a ne’er-do-well, John Higgins. In an unexpectedly joyous ending, Paul finds his voice and his mother, a renewed energy for life. At points in the collection, Donovan’s austerity and restraint result in damaging lacunae, but overall it is a book of great sympathetic depth.