Treading the Uneven Road is one of those books I was in two minds about. The author approached me directly which always feels very personal; there’s the worry that an appealing sounding book won’t live up to its promise and might not even get finished let alone reviewed. Given that you’re reading this, it’s clear that I did both. The title of L. M. Brown’s book is a nod to W. B. Yeats’ poem ‘The Phases of the Moon’, a quote from which prefaces this collection of linked short stories set in a small Irish village which explores the interlocking histories of its inhabitants.
It begins with ‘The Lady on the Bridge’ which sees Bernadette, lonely in her marriage and convinced her husband is having an affair, calling a number in his address book and finding herself confiding in the man who answers her. Later in ‘The Shape of Longing’ Bernadette’s uncle castigates her mother for neglecting her and we learn the darkness that lies behind both Ann’s departure and her daughter’s isolation. Two lots of people make a bid for escape. In ‘The Sacred Heart’ brothers Dick and Enda announce their plans to find work in London but events conspire to keep them in their place until a coin is tossed, leaving Enda to shoulder family responsibilities. Ester and Moire cross the Irish Sea but find their lifelong friendship strained to breaking point when Moire moves in with a man Ester both detests and mistrusts in ‘The Wrong Man’. ‘A Taste of Salt’ sees a young man longing to be punished for his friend’s accidental death for which he feels overwhelming guilt. His story is reprised in ‘Blackbirds’ when his urge to wreak revenge on his old teacher is thwarted by a realisation of her own tragedy.
Villagers’ lives are tightly interwoven, sometimes uncomfortably so, in these stories which crisscross the ‘80s and ‘90s. Loneliness, loss and isolation are common themes in the lives of this place whose bypass has rid the villagers of the roar of the traffic but left them feeling cut off from the world. It’s a small, self-contained stage on which to set a collection: Brown’s keenly observed characters went to school together, loved each other, hated each other, married, had children and affairs with each other, and judged each other. These are carefully crafted stories, quietly understated although often bleak. A few quotes will give you a flavour:
I thought we would always be together, but we were only children gasping at each other
From the moment my daughter was born, she made me feel like running away
A space existed in Moire where a mother had once been
An impressive collection, then. I’m glad I agreed to review it although I did long for a flash of joy now and then. I’m pleased to report there’s a wee bit of hope at the end of the final piece, not to mention cake and lots of it.