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The Silence RoomReview - The Silence Room
Short Stories
by Sean O'Brien
Comma Press, 2008
Review by Tony O'Brien
Dec 14th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 50)

I've read a lot of short stories this year and these are among the best. The book gets its title from a mysterious room in the 'Lit and Phil Library', a venerable institution beloved of poets, readers, smokers and drinkers. Frequently they are all the same person, mostly male, sometimes a little misanthropic, but always full of intrigue and immersed in a world of words and wordsmiths. Not all the stories are set in the Silence Room, or even in the library, but in most there is a connection, even if it is just that the characters are literary types. That doesn't mean 'high brow'. Far from it. These are earthy, sometimes cynical characters, most of them thoroughly working class. The Lit & Phil is in the north of England and the stories feature docklands, canals, wet concrete and air heavy with industrial and hotel fumes. The characters speak in a patois of coarse vernacular laced with literary references. Many protagonists look back to a time of greater respect for poetic values, but resigned to literary recognition that extends no further than the nearest bridge.

The book opens with I cannot cross over, in which a man, through a series of coincidences, is directed to the quayside, apparently in search of the mysterious Zsa Zsa Maeterlinck, to an encounter with his dead father, seen in the waters of the river. After an enigmatic exchange the man approaches the bridge, only to observe that the river has just one side. The story sets up the atmosphere of the book, and the remaining fourteen stories, equally absorbing and inscrutable, explore this nether region between poetic images and an everyday world of plain spoken people and the solid, uncompromising, world they live in.

The Cricket Match at Green Lock uses the occasion of an excursion the local cricket team to an away match at Green Lock. The story is as much a piece of social history as a sporting tale. Green Lock is described as "...one of those blessedly neglected parts of England, a half-hidden place of ponds and canals where railways met and left for either coast, running between the brick warehouses and absent minded ditches of slowly vanishing industries." The writing is infused with nostalgia, not sentimental, but evocative. As with social sports teams everywhere, the individual game is secondary to the devotion to cricket, and to the social rituals that unite the team. Not that the visitors are giving anything away: '...we were a Yorkshire side, grudging and unyielding, bred to compete for a bent penny as fiercely as for a cup." Geoff Boycott would fit right in with a team like this. The game is abandoned to a rainstorm, and the team returns home without Will, their twelfth man, a young chap who was dispatched to find the locals and to bring back beer to his seniors. One member of the team, a historian, knows what became of Will, and later, of the synchronicity between his disappearance and the fate of a company of Green Lock infantrymen in 1916. When the story concludes with the message that you can't go back, but you also can't escape, readers understand.

Some of O'Brien's stories are inflected with magical realism, others with gothic themes, but always there is poetry and language at their heart. O'Brien's writing is a reading pleasure. He has the ability to employ multiple references within a single sentence, so that they seem natural, and to be the only way that sentence could have been written. The Silence Room is a book that will repay re-reading, just as you would visit a library time and gain, knowing what it contains, content with its comfortable familiarity but hoping to experience some new, previously hidden aspect. There is a good chance you will be rewarded.

 

© 2010 Tony O'Brien

 

Tony O'Brien is a short story writer, and lecturer in mental health nursing at the University of Auckland, New Zealand: a.obrien@auckland.ac.nz


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