By Ed Meek
L. M. Brown writes with a sure hand about men and women beset with dreams and longings, who fall in and out of love with each other, and who harbor secrets that shape their lives in unpredictable ways.
Treading the Uneven Road by L.M. Brown Fomite Publishing, 2019, 190 pages, $15.
“Follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly,” Franz Kafka advised. L.M. Brown is obsessed with the people in a small Irish town in the ’80s and ’90s. This is her second book, an interconnected collection of short stories that reads like a novel. (Arts Fuse review of her first book, the novel Debris.) Brown, who grew up in Ireland, writes with a sure hand about men and women beset with dreams and longings, who fall in and out of love with each other, and who harbor secrets that shape their lives in unpredictable ways. The Irish are known for oppression and suppression; Brown focuses on the latter.
In our ever-changing multi-media world, culture offers escalating entertainment options. Fiction, though limited to words on the page, still manages to captivate us through the writer’s ability to create a deep sense of character that can’t be duplicated on film or television. Brown is particularly adept at bringing a small community of characters to life. She also works adeptly within the confines of short fiction, returning again and again to a handful of themes from the point of view of different figures. Thus a minor character in one yarn will be the main character in another. Although Treading the Uneven Road may be a collection in which all the stories are related, the reader comes away with the kind of satisfying feeling that usually only occurs when reading novels. In this sense, and in its obsession with the Irish and their complex domestic relationships, her work here reminds me of Colm Tóibín in his great collection Mothers and Sons.
The uneven road (from a line by Yeats) refers to the emotional ups and downs of Brown’s characters. In one story a young wife, estranged from her husband, slowly discovers that he is not the person she thought he was. In another, two brothers, who dream of going to London to create a business together, are separated when family illness keeps one of them at home. There are resonances in this story (and others) with Jimmy Stewart’s experience in It’s a Wonderful Life; complications ensue and the narrative serves up unexpected twists and turns. Unlike the Frank Capra movie, these tales are often heartbreaking, even as the characters stubbornly endure their trials and tribulations. The Irish, as Tom Wolfe wrote in Bonfire of the Vanities, are a stubborn lot. They don’t give up. Eventually, secrets are divulged and the characters in these stories make amends or come to understand why their friends and lovers acted the way they did.
Brown is also not afraid to tackle actions that perplex us. Why does a mother leave her family? Why is a teacher cruel to children? Can she be forgiven by a child to whom she was cruel? Why would someone leave her best friend to go and live with an older man who seems completely wrong for her? Why would someone choose to live alone in a strange town?
Some of the difficulties faced by the characters have to do with how their culture is changing. Young people move away from their friends and families, a father has a hard time dealing with a gay son, a teacher assumes a student with a learning disability is stupid. All of the characters are sympathetic and what they hide function like tantalizing mysteries. In addition, the author’s strong, clean prose keeps returning to characters in ways that reflect back on earlier stories in the book.
Today, it sometimes seems as if people are living their lives via their iPhones and staring at screens. In gyms and department stores and even gas stations, televisions flicker for our attention. What takes place when we are not staring at screens seem to be pauses: when we actually talk to people or take a walk in the woods or put down our electronic devices and pick up a fork. People seem to be waking slowly up to the notion that today’s media onslaught is both addictive and unhealthy. One way out of this box is to embrace art, poetry, theater, and fiction. In Treading the Uneven Road, L.M. Brown brings us on an imaginative journey to a village in Ireland and introduces us to characters who, like us, follow an uneven road toward discovery and understanding.
Ed Meek is the author of Spy Pond and What We Love. A collection of his short stories, Luck, came out in May. WBUR’s Cognoscenti featured his poems during poetry month this year.