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An Occasion of Sin.

Nine of the eleven short stories contained in this volume originally appeared in John Montague's only collection of short fiction, Death of a Chieftain and Other Stories, which was published in 1964. Of the two remaining stories: one appeared in the Oberlin Review in 1964, while another was published in memoir form in 1991 in a book Montague wrote about America. One will be tempted while reading these stories (since Montague is primarily known as one of Ireland's most important living poets) to draw parallels between the themes and landscapes to be found here and similar themes and landscapes to be found in Montague's poetry, and to see the stories as mere extensions of such poetry collections as Poisoned Lands and The Dead Kingdom. But, even though parallels abound, it becomes clear from reading this collection that Montague is one of the best, and certainly the most underrated, Irish story writers of his generation.

Ignorance and small-mindedness appear in many stories and are a feature of both rural and city life. In "An Obsession of Sin" a young Frenchwoman is berated by a local man at a beach on the Southside of Dublin for spending her

afternoons bathing and sunbathing with a group of young clerical students. Ironically, the Dean of the seminary where the young men are students feels that no harm will come of this innocent contact between his students and the woman. The ignorance can also be political and sectarian as is clearly the case in "The Cry" when the Special Police beat up a young man they suspect of being involved with the I.R.A. When one reads these stories one is reminded of Joyce's Dubliners. Like Joyce, Montague probes places and inhabitants with a mixture of cold objectivity and warm sympathy. What we find when we read the results of these probings is a world inhabited primarily by two varieties of people: there are those attractive and intelligent individuals such as the Frenchwoman in the title story, and then the teeming and ugly, but very much alive, mob of ordinary Irish. In all the stories in this collection, Montague, following Joyce, exercises a tight control of language and pacing: nothing is ever out of place.

Obviously, the short story remains Montague's road not taken: since the majority of these stories were published in 1964, he has written few stories. Instead, he has devoted himself, with very impressive results, to his poetry. But An Occasion of Sin does reveal that Montague, in a youthful foray, produced a collection of short fiction that was then and still remains way ahead of its time. Certainly, few Irish collections published in the last thirty years can match the quality of this one.
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Author:Wall, Eamonn
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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