Are women nicer than men?

Michael Wood

  • The Dark Hole Days by Una Woods
    Blackstaff, 127 pp, £3.50, December 1984, ISBN 0 85640 316 4
  • Superior Women by Alice Adams
    Heinemann, 374 pp, £8.95, January 1985, ISBN 0 434 00631 9
  • The Collected Stories by Frank Tuohy
    Macmillan, 410 pp, £12.95, December 1984, ISBN 0 333 38534 9
  • The Apple in the Dark by Clarice Lispector, translated by Gregory Rabassa
    Virago, 361 pp, £10.95, January 1985, ISBN 0 86068 605 1
  • Family Ties by Clarice Lispector and Giovanni Pontiero
    Carcanet, 140 pp, £8.95, January 1985, ISBN 0 85636 569 6

Places in fiction often have a curious dual nationality. They are entangled in historical events, marked on a solid social map. ‘It’s not exactly the moon I’m asking for,’ a girl thinks in The Dark Hole Days, ‘but surely all my dreams don’t end here: me in a duffle coat signing on the dole and walking in the debris of Belfast.’ Later she adds: ‘Belfast would fit into a corner of London. Not that it would fit in.’ On the other hand, places are used as pieces of an invention, elements of an intended meaning, and they come trailing all kinds of associations which may not have much to do with their material locations out there in the world. The ‘brilliant’, the ‘deep blue’ New England air and the irremediable Californian innocence that crop up so frequently in Superior Women really belong to literature or mythology rather than to the weather or any particular living Americans. Of course people and even the weather, as Wilde knew, do at times dutifully imitate literature, and that complicates the issue.

Belfast in The Dark Hole Days is the place of the troubles, but it retains the drab charm of an insistent ordinariness. It is a place where young people worry about boyfriends and clothes (‘I was looking at a suit the other day. It was made up of lovely autumny shades’) and jobs and getting away, as they would in any other stifling province that was also home. Men snap and demand service; women scurry and provide it. Even the violence is an abstraction, a matter for remote politicians and chattering parlour sages.

I came in and asked Ma. She likes the news. Och, she said, another one of them what-do-you-call-thems. What, I said. Och you know, she said, it begins with ‘in’. After a while I guessed – initiatives.

Except of course when the violence strikes you or someone near you.

This volume, a first book, contains a novella, which is the title-piece, and four short stories. There is a terse, almost jaunty precision to much of the writing, and a remarkable patience with the unresolved quality of the lives depicted.

Dad doesn’t say much ... Where’s the dignity of the past, he asked me. I couldn’t tell him. The only person he really likes listening to is Mam. You wouldn’t think she was from Belfast at all, Aunt Sadie used to say. Aunt Sadie’s dead.

In the novella we follow most of the action through two diaries: those of a bright, imaginative girl who likes her family and her boyfriend but also wants to be free of them, and of a boy who joins what seems to be a chapter of the Provisional IRA, and finds in his clandestine training a new dignity. ‘I hated history in school,’ he confides to his diary. ‘Now I’m in it.’ This is a fantasy, though, a dream of what he calls his ‘quiet importance’, and it collapses when his group is involved in a murder. The boy hides from his complicity by burying himself like a rat under the floorboards of his bedroom. His mother feeds him and tells all callers that ‘Joe has gone to England for a job.’ ‘What keeps me going?’ he asks at the end of the work. ‘That I didn’t kill the man, that it will all be over some day.’ The murdered man is the innocent father of the girl writing the other diary: a person we know but Joe doesn’t.

The story called ‘Homecoming’ similarly makes two separate narratives intersect in violence. A city girl finds herself in the country, in the midst of some sort of emotional breakdown, and is taken home and comforted by the family of a boy she once knew. She has no idea that the boy is now a fugitive – why or from which side we are not told – and that to step outside his house is a serious risk. He takes her to the bus which will return her to normality and her family, and is shot. The point, I take it, is that no story is an island, that her psychological troubles and his political ones do not inhabit separate countries. But it is a little forced, as if the writer’s patience with the unresolved had run out, and she had to tie off at least some of those maddening endless threads. Belfast lurches towards symbolism in the process, and begins to look like a writerly city.

No such difficulties beset Alice Adams, whose world is writerly from the start. Superior Women is a kind of compendium not so much of American attitudes or American history as of attitudes to attitudes, so to speak – the hearsay version of contemporary life. Much is mentioned, almost nothing is shown, and forty years of Americana flicker by like riffled pages. World War Two; the lure of Communism the emergence of Senator McCarthy; the Civil Rights movement; Vietnam; the return of Richard Nixon; Watergate – it is all there, introduced with a swift and studied casualness. ‘Meanwhile, the war in Europe ends, the bomb is dropped on Hiroshima, then Nagasaki ... ’ Meanwhile?

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