The Coffin Master and Other Stories

John F. Deane, Author
John F. Deane, Author Blackstaff Press $17.95 (188p) ISBN 978-0-85640-664-5
Reviewed on: 09/04/2000
Release date: 09/01/2000
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The storytelling traditions of Ireland are well honored in Deane's second, lyrical short story collection. At times funny, often bordering on the mystical, and always Irish, these 14 tales treat classic Catholic themes--mortality, guilt, sexuality and the afterlife--in surprising ways. In the title story, a golden youth is the envy of his fellow inhabitants on a small island. When he is horribly mutilated in a hunting accident, the villagers consider it his comeuppance and relegate him to a life as village coffin master, dealer in dead bodies, isolated and feared. Only a small boy and Julia Wrynne, a solitary old woman who ""had lived always among the dead,"" befriend him in his disfigured state. Later wrongfully accused of a random act of violence committed against Julia by two off-islanders, the coffin master takes a disturbing revenge on both the criminals and his own neighbors. Most of Deane's characters hail from recognizable fairy tale stock--the wicked witch, the kindly hunchback, the young innocent--but throughout, they are wonderfully translated into present-day beings. Each walks a line between the real and the fantastic, the modern and the timeless, but with more cynicism and more desperation than their traditional counterparts. In ""Post Restante"" and ""The Experience of What Is Beautiful,"" innate folk wisdom and Catholic faith are pushed aside by suicide and meaningless violence; in ""Nighthawk"" and ""A Migrant Bird,"" Ireland's rural innocence is bulldozed, both literally and figuratively. But it's hard to say whether the old ways are slipping away or simply slipping in deeper, moving in closer to the country's soul. In chronicling the fugitive grace of traditional rituals, this prize-winning poet and novelist also celebrates the power of language. (Sept.)
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