The stories found in this enchanting collection by Seán Virgo are almost fairytales, familiar and fascinatingly fresh at the same time. The collection starts simply, with “Before Ago”, a story that sounds like a poem or a song. Its rhythmic and repetitive phrases gave me the feeling I was listening to the story being told rather than reading it from a page. These opening tales are short and cryptic, full of symbolism and meaning. The characters are unnamed-‘a man’, ‘a stranger’ or ‘a priest’-and contain elements of folktales-three eggs found in a field, talking animals, dreams and transformations. As the stories progress, however, new ideas are introduced. A priest struggles to find the best way to live his faith, a soldier finds it difficult to return to his old life after the war. All the stories are neatly linked, some seeming to pick up where the last one left off. They build on each other, gradually gaining length and complexity, moving forward in time to a world more like our own.
The last three stories-“Gramarye,” “The Likeness,” and “Dibidalen”-are the longest, making up most of the book. In “Gramarye,” a girl visits her grandmother, who has suffered a stroke, and encounters the ‘witch’ who lives nearby. Here the fairytale elements are intentionally invoked and poked fun at by the characters, but even so there are real instances of magic as the girl learns about her grandmother and about the realities of aging. “The Likeness” follows an artist trying to find inspiration again, and his relationships with two different women. “Dibidalen” comes last, and begins with a Nazi soldier’s interest in the secret language spoken among the women of the occupied country. The story stretches backwards to a time of myth, as well as forwards to a man and a woman living in present times. In Dibidalen, Virgo uses beautiful language to evoke folktales and oral story-telling even in these later pieces, showing that the original myths are still here, buried in the heart of every story.
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