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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL

Tragic Irish Stories Blended With a Dash of Sly Humor : A LAZY EYE by Mary Morrissy; Scribner $21, 256 pages

July 15, 1996|BY MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Those who read Mary Morrissy's first novel, "Mother of Pearl," and saw that Ireland had produced yet another powerful voice--tragic and lyrical and slyly humorous in the Irish tradition, yet completely original--will be disappointed a little by these 15 stories.

For some reason, the weakest tales seem to come first. They begin with a novelistic amplitude and abruptly peter out, or they conclude shockingly but flatly. In "Bookworm," the narrator steals and shreds books; in "Possibilities," a woman catches a venereal disease from her lover; in "Rosa," the narrator's sister leaves an unwanted baby to die in a Christmas creche.

We miss how, in "Mother of Pearl," one fully realized world gave onto another. The very title suggested this depth and luminescence, as well as being a literal description of the heroine--a girl who grows up in a sanitarium when tuberculosis ravaged Ireland, longs for a normal family life and, when released, seizes her chance to steal a baby, whom she renames Pearl. That girl, returned by the authorities to her real parents, grows up in turn with a mysterious sense of having once been somebody else.

"A Lazy Eye" wins us over, however--in part because the worlds of the different stories serve as the sections of the novel did: as variously colored decanters for Morrissy's sensibility.

Then, too, the stories get better. The turning point is the title story, about Bella Carmichael, one of 11 siblings in a poor Dublin household, whose only distinction has been a childhood case of "lazy eye," soon corrected. Traveling alone in Europe in vain hopes of adventure, she is thrown off a train for "bleeding in public"--she has run out of tampons.

"She was determined to be dignified. She had, after all, been waiting for this moment all of her life." But as the train pulls away, Bella's exhilaration fades: "She thought about home--the ramshackle house . . . the crowded bedrooms, the lack of privacy and space, the pans of white bread and the cheap cuts of meat . . . these were what had marked her out. There would be no large, singular event to validate her existence. There would only be more of this--official retribution. . . . She felt as she did when the doctor had first taken the glasses with the eye patch off; her vision unobscured."

A constricted life, a warped attempt to break out of it, a residue of essential innocence, the inevitable punishment--this is Morrissy's territory indeed.

It's no accident that babies figure so prominently in these stories. Stolen babies, sick babies, drowned babies, yet-unborn babies arousing jealousy in their parents and siblings. The critic Edwin Muir once said of Dostoevsky that he wrote "as if the unconscious were conscious." Morrissy writes as if the primitive passions that lie coiled even in civilization's innermost redoubt, the nursery--snakes among the teddy bears--are hardly disguised at all.

In "Invisible Mending" a man who was abused as a child uses his knowledge of fear to extract false confessions from immigrants detained by the police. In "A Marriage of Convenience," an English-speaking tourist marries a waiter, to help him flee the war-torn Central American country of El Quistador. Later, the waiter narrating his version of things, tells us that he truly loves her. Just as we begin to sympathize with his plight, Morrissy wickedly turns the tables with the story's last two lines:

"I sometimes fear that Judith will never recognize my love and that in the end I shall have to force it on her. I am, after all, her husband."

The best story here is probably the last, "A Curse." Clara, a girl from a poor Dublin family, baby-sits for an affluent one and falls in love with its whole lifestyle. While the wife is having a new baby, the teenager's love focuses on the husband, who has stayed at home. When the wife returns, he makes light of the girl's declaration of love for him; she interprets his jocularity as ridicule. Before leaving her job for good, she sticks a pin in the newborn child. "Clara had drawn blood." And, since this is a Mary Morrissy story, that, too, has its consequences.

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