This is a short volume of nine linked stories set in an unnamed village near Sligo, in Ireland. It has much to say about the workings of the human heart and mind: how what we do not say shapes us as much as what we are able to express. In such a community it is, perhaps, tempting to assume that the inhabitants experience few excitements – but Treading the Uneven Road demonstrates that this is far from the case. This unnamed village may stand for any village. For every one contains the complexities engendered by people living close together and knowing each others’ business before they are even told about it. A falling out has repercussions. Loving the wrong person does too. Finding love and fulfilment in such a community can be fraught with complications.
We all ‘tread the uneven road’, then – whether we live in village, town or city. We try to relate to those around us. Whether we do it well or ill, overdo it or refuse to do it at all will affect a number of lives. The sum of each of our experiences forms the life of our community. There are universal truths in this short book. They are well observed and skilfully put on the page. We can all learn something here.
The stories swirl around a couple of generations of the village. Some protagonists take centre stage when young, then they may have supporting roles in the stories of others, then we may return to episodes later in their lives. Other protagonists are introduced when already adult, and their story is more about the effect they have on the youngsters. Behaviour which is inexplicable in one story may be explained elsewhere.
The titles of the nine stories give a good earnest of what they’re about: ‘The Lady on the Bridge’ – The Lady is a statue of the Virgin, her arms raised to Heaven, passed and repassed by the inhabitants who sometimes notice her and sometimes don’t, who sometimes pray to her and sometimes wonder about faith; ‘the Sacred Heart’ in which a frail mother has two sons, who are everything to each other – until life drives them apart; ‘The Taste of Salt’ is about how easy it is to make a bitter place in a heart, and how hard to heal it; ‘The Shape of Longing’ is eloquent about how your life should be something you control, but is instead something you dread every day of, until one day you have to strike out and make a change; ‘The Wrong Man’ – two girls move to London for work. One is practical, the other clever and makes up stories – but the story she ends up in frightens her sensible friend; in ‘Blackbirds’ a boy carries his hatred of his first teacher into adulthood; in ‘The Man on the Sea Road’ a man takes a cottage far from home, leaving his old life behind; ‘Amends’ the spectre of homophobia hangs over a family; ‘White Trout’ an uncle tries to draw out his nephew with old Irish stories and in doing so attracts the attention of a different audience.
I would have found navigation of the stories easier if the author had been less shy of naming her protagonists and locations. Nevertheless, this is how we experience life – understanding is sometimes delayed. So this method of story telling has its own validity, if it is occasionally a little frustrating for the reader.