John O'Donnell

John O'Donnell, Barrister, Poet and Author


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‘His prose is elegant, frictionless and pleasingly direct…While langorous anatomisations of the dating scene command much of the attention these days,  O’Donnell’s stories show that there is still room for others to articulate what William Faulkner called the “eternal verities” of the human heart.’  Sunday Times

John O’Donnell’s gifts as a lyric poet are widely celebrated in Ireland. His talents in the short-story format may be less so but that could change with Almost the Same Blue, his first collection.

As you would expect, his prose is elegant, frictionless, and pleasingly direct. There is no conscious striving for big effects, and little truck with the postmodern tricksiness that characterises so much contemporary short fiction. Instead, there is a plain-spoken, slightly old-fashioned allegiance to the beginning-middle-end cohesion that typifies great short-story writers such as William Trevor and John McGahern.

Trevor famously defined the short story as “the art of the glimpse”. O’Donnell tends to offer the whole picture. Some of his stories are more like mini novellas, with a broad cast of characters, complex plots, and quirky twist-in-the-tale resolutions.

Thematically, the stories could hardly be more diverse, encompassing meaty subjects that might test the unwary writer’s susceptibility to easy melodrama. O’Donnell, who is a practising barrister, resists the temptation admirably.

In Away Game, two lovers find their cover blown when the pretext for their secret trip to Paris goes up in flames. The plane he was supposed to catch crashes, and with his family frantically texting for news he wonders how he will explain his survival, while his abandoned lover languishes in their hotel suite.

Promise portrays a rugby player disabled through injury who decides the “keep fighting” platitudes will never be enough and opts for assisted suicide. As he is “carried from the chair for the last time t the pristine-sheeted bed”, the profound moral dilemma facing the friend he has conscripted to help is achingly portrayed.

The standout story is Kane, in which a middle-aged man reads an obituary of his former schoolmaster, a priest, which triggers bittersweet memories of his adolescent passion for an older woman. We discover the passion was shared by the teacher. Here, O’Donnell undercuts the old expectations of brutish priests in a story full of poignant epiphanies.

In short-story mode, O’Donnell seems to hold in check the exuberance of the poet but in places it bursts through: lawyers in court are all “standing around like great black birds”; a full ashtray contains “a cairn of butts”; as a car passes, we hear “the slish of tyres going by in the rain”. His way with telling details holds our attention through what are often quite dense and convoluted stories.

What is really striking is how the author seems to swim upstream against the current of the contemporary Irish short story. Even the notion of a middle-class author writing about middle-class subjects will seem deeply suspect in some quarters. Throw in the equally suspect question of the “male gaze” exemplified in Martin’s Mrs Robinson-style desire for Mrs Rock in Kane and all kinds of red lights start flashing. Some of the stories have first-person female narrators, a further heresy. While languorous anatomisations of the dating scene command most of the attention these days, O’Donnell’s stories show that there is still room for others to articulate what William Faulkner called “the eternal verities” of the human heart.

Bert Wright

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