Julia O’Faolain’s powerful short stories should be more widely read and more warmly appreciated. They offer the traditional pleasures of the genre in scene-setting and characterisation but are spiked with an eccentric humour that is particularly her own. Under the Rose, which brings together twenty stories selected by O’Faolain from four collections published between 1968 and 2006, demonstrates both her practised skill and her desire to disturb the complacent.
The shocks she contrives, embedded in casual narratives, are darkly funny and often grotesque. In the Angela Carter-like ‘Legend for a Painting’, which is just four pages long, the knight, whose shield bears the motto ‘Deeds not words’, ignores the lady’s pleas and plunges his lance into the gentle dragon’s side. Elsewhere, acts of violence with mythic elements take place in domestic settings. In ‘Diego’, a faithless husband’s love for his small daughter leads to a distressing episode involving a dog, whiskey and knives: ‘But let a scene start and you’d think you were dealing with members of the House of Atreus’, comments his wife. In ‘Man of Aran’, the leftish magazine publisher Paul tells of how, at the age of six, he emerged from a closet in which he had been hiding to see his famous father ‘doing something dreadful to a groaning lady’. In ‘Man in the Cellar’, Una lovingly describes the iron fetters she bought from an antiques dealer to chain her abusive husband