Francesca Peacock

A small house in Dublin: The Springs of Affection, by Maeve Brennan, reviewed

Characters ruminate, doors are shut and relationships falter as one person’s thoughts grate on another’s in these subtle, tightly-knit stories

Maeve Brennan. [Karl Bissinger papers, University of Delaware Library, Newark, DE, USA]

A man ignores his wedding anniversary and is so sickened by the bowl of flowers his wife has placed by his bed that he drops them and breaks the precious cut glass. Another man is so enraged by seeing his wife close the kitchen door when he comes in from work that he enters a state of fevered reverie where he concludes ‘nothing in his life made sense’. In a different story, the mess and argument caused by an improperly laid fire makes Mrs Derdon leave the house, sure that she ‘was not coming back’.

The stories in Maeve Brennan’s The Springs of Affection (first published in the New Yorker, and, after her death in 1993, as a collected edition in 1997) are not about dramatic flights of fancy or the memorable red-letter days of a life. Set in a ‘small house’ in a suburb of Dublin – the house where Brennan grew up, before she moved to New York – these stories are precise, honest records of the less-than-glamorous aspects of existence: tea trays that need laying, carpets that need beating and children that need watching.

Writing over a period of 20 years, Brennan describes the lives of three families: Maeve as a child and her family (including a republican father who was in hiding when the Irish Free State was declared); Hubert and Rose Derdon and their son John, who has left them for the priesthood; and Martin and Delia Bagot and their daughters Lily and Margaret. If short stories are normally limited to a moment in the span of a larger life, Brennan turns this convention on its head. Through repeatedly describing the same characters – and placing them all in the same, meticulously described house with its yellow roses in the garden and three steps down to the kitchen – she offers her readers a ‘novel-in-parts’.

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