The Shelter of Neighbours

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The Shelter of Neighbours
Eilis Ni Dhuibhne
Blackstaff Press, September 2012
288 pages
$27.95

One page into Eilis Ni Dhuibhne’s The Shelter of Neighbours I laughed out loud. And then, two stories later, with a carload of train passengers glancing my way, another audible chuckle. My laughing and grinning continued throughout the collection, but each time I was asked to describe what was so funny, I grew silent. Ni Dhuibhne’s stories at their core are about uncomfortable and painful struggles of our everyday, mundane lives—inadequacy, marital strife, ennui, fear of change, rejection. Even their tone is, for the most part, a matter-of-fact, nonsentimental one, at times gentle, but not really funny. For some reason, though, The Shelter of Neighbours is genuinely entertaining.

Ni Dhuibhne’s prose brims with well-timed surprise, building to moments that delight in their unexpectedness. In one story, the reader’s attention is intently focused on an unusual, reclusive family in the woods. Yet on his way to these people, the narrator’s focus meanders to rabbits and hummingbirds and “two small deer chomp[ing] doggedly at a hydrangea shrub, systematically denuding it of all its flowers and leaves.” This insistence on detail and subtle, unexpected shifts in pacing makes these stories colorful and simply pleasurable to read.

But Ni Dhuibne also defies expectations on a more macro-level. Many of the stories are lightly peppered with red herrings. The mountain lion introduced repeatedly at the beginning of the story never shows up later; in another story, the gun, never introduced, goes off at the end. Nonetheless, through all the misdirection and twists, the stories are so well-crafted that it’s easy to stay in them and feel in good hands.

Ni Dhuibne’s craft also shows in the sheer diversity of narrators. We encounter first person narrations from both male and female perspectives, old and young. There are close third person narrators. Third person limited. Third person omniscient. And in each  approach Ni Dhuibhne keeps the reader engaged and rooted in the subtle restlessness of her characters, who in  turn are rooted in a strong sense of place.

While there are a few stories set in other countries, like the USA or Sweden, most of The Shelter of Neighbours takes place in Ireland with a largely Irish cast. But more than just a series of evocatively rendered landscapes, Ni Dhuibhne’s stories feature characters who have a deep sense of their origins. Their individual personalities give rise to their yearnings, and make them compulsively relateable. And like the surprises, these yearnings are subtle and simple: the want for a new stove, a summer-job crush. Through this deceptive simplicity, sentence by sentence, Ni Dhuibhne reveals and explores  the complexities and conflicted desires of our everyday lives, so that at the end of each story—after a few laughs and sighs—the reader herself feels a little more exposed and restless, and wanting to read one more story.