Demise of the Undertaker’s Wife by Anne Walsh Donnelly

–Reviewed by Sally Shaw–

Demise of the Undertaker’s Wife (The Blue Nib, 2019) is a collection of twelve short stories by Irish fiction-writer and poet Anne Walsh Donnelly. The first part of the book has ten stories that end with a story titled ‘Billy’s Rosebush’ before moving into the second part of the book. In the contents page this section reads: ‘You Want It Darker’. This has the last two stories, ‘Iscariot’ and ‘Inside’. These two stories are indeed darker and their subjects include prison and murder. It felt as though this part of the book was the start of another collection, of which I wished to read more stories.

The collection tells the stories of people that exist in society but for whatever reason their voices are either not heard, ignored or hidden. Donnelly explores and seeks out these voices and finds them within all forms of human relationships. The stories are about individuals and their place in the world. They explore the impact of life experiences such as grief, sexuality, divorce, revenge, religion, abuse, family, loyalty and self-worth.

In ‘Goodbye, Mr Fox,’ Donnelly creates a character that at first sight appears to be a tough farmer, whose name is Luke.

“The kitchen window creaks as Luke pushes it open. He sticks his head out, sucks in the morning air. It’s laced with the smell of the wretched fox that won’t leave his hens alone.”

Then there is a realisation that he is bitter and hurt. He is waging a war against the fox and he is fighting his deceased partner’s nephew Damien. Damien has put the farm where Luke lives up for sale.

“Luke grabs the shotgun from the top of the kitchen dresser, pushes the back door open and steps onto the dirty flagstones. The weapon is primed and ready. He strides through the farmyard and into the field. As if sensing his presence, Damien turns.”

As the story unfolds, the reader discovers Luke’s emotions and the shock waves caused by the death of his partner. Damien’s reasons for his actions become clearer and Luke comes to terms with the inactions of his partner and his own weakness. A story of different losses and findings.

Half-a-Boy’ is written in the first person and I felt this gave it a gentle voice. The voice is tender as it is that of Mattie, an 18-year-old who will never grow up.

His viewpoint is innocent and yet is wiser than any of the adults around him. For me, this made the story incredibly poignant. The story is about the love between two brothers, Mattie and Joe.

Joe cared for Mattie when their mother failed. Joe is critically injured after falling from a horse.

“Joe’s in hospital now. The grey brick one on the edge of Castletown. St Bridget’s. That’s why I’m walking through the bog today. I’m going to see him and it’s much quicker to go the bogway. I want him to come home before everything falls apart.”

Father Constantine is quick to pass the blame onto Mattie for Joe’s fall. Mattie knows the truth and he recalls other times when Father Constantine was unkind to him when he was a boy. Mattie wants to get Joe home but when he goes to see him he thinks;

“The worst thing of all is I don’t think Joe knows me. He won’t even smile when he sees me coming and if he doesn’t know me, how can I get him to come home with me?”

Mattie recollects times they spent together at the quarry that he passes on the way to the hospital and where Joe threw a penny that Father Constantine had given him. It is by the quarry that Mattie thinks he has found a way to be with his brother.

In ‘Billy’s Rosebush’ Donnelly uses grief in its many forms to tell the story of a female character who isn’t named. Written in the first person, the protagonist returns to her childhood home following a fire. Both her parents are dead. Mr Griffin the builder is assessing the damage to the house and she leaves him to it and goes down to the orchard.

“I take a deep breath when I reach the far corner of the orchard. It’s carpeted with the deep pile of a season’s growth. But the rosebush is still standing.”

As she stands looking at the rosebush she recollects how much she had closed off in her mind. She recalls the day her mother died and the words her mother spoke.

“You know that Billy wasn’t really your brother,” she said, her voice no more than a whisper, like a cat purring.”

These words open a memory box for the protagonist of her lost childhood. A childhood of horror, lost relationships and a realisation of grief and blame. Triggered memories cause the protagonist to take her revenge. The rosebush will forever hold her at her childhood home.

Reading this collection has compelled me to contemplate human relationships, self-identity and worth and how memories can be unlocked. The Irish accent was also a joy to read.

Find out more about Demise of the Undertaker’s Wife on the Blue Nib website.

Reviewed by Sally Shaw — Sally has an MA Creative Writing from the University of Leicester. She writes short stories and poetry. She gains inspiration from old photographs, history, and she is inspired by writers Sandra Cisneros, Deborah Morgan and Liz Berry. Her short prose has been published by NEWMAG, Ink Pantry, and Comma Press, and her poetry by AnotherNorth. In 2019 she was longlisted for the Sunderland Short Story Award. She writes reviews for Sabotage and Everybody’s Reviewing. Originally from the North West, Sally worked as a nurse for 33 years and now lives in Warwickshire with her partner and three pekin bantams.   

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