THE SUNDAY INDEPENDENT by Anne Marie Scanlon
If you want a light read, a laugh, a bit of insight and a few touching moments then 40 Fights between Husbands and Wives is exactly what you're looking for. The only quibble I have with this highly entertaining collection of vignettes is the title. This book isn't simply about fights between spouses (although it does include plenty of them), it is mainly about the age-old battle of the sexes and includes tales of love, lust, anger, hope, joy, sadness, infidelity, devotion, pregnancy, birth, death, major quarrels, petty arguments and revenge. (There's actually quite a bit of revenge.)
Liddy's set pieces, which encompass different times, different places, different styles and different narrators, all illustrate one thing very clearly: men and women are very, very different, whether it be their respective definitions of cleaning or their attitudes to previous partners. In Eleven ex-boyfriends have yet to be identified, a man becomes obsessed with Eric, an old boyfriend of his wife's, after running into him twice in one week.
His wife tells him that she probably slept with Eric no more than 10 times, which instead of reassuring him deepens his fixation. "'Feck,' I thought. You could fit a lot into 10 times. You'd be way past the missionary position. This Eric had probably had my wife every which way."
Liddy accurately captures the voices of the various narrators, who are all different from each other.
In Twenty-three days before the crunch, a Sligo teen studying for his Leaving Cert finds himself in the unenviable position of hearing his father having sex with an unknown woman in the next room. He already despises both parents, "They are a typical pair of lower-middle-class (but snobby), mass-going (but essentially godless), FF-voting, Winning Streak-watching, Sunday Independent-reading, Eagles and Bee Gees-listening idiots." Yet he's still shocked by the idea of either of them being unfaithful.
Our last night alone, lying in bed together is the touching account of a woman with a terminal illness who is frustrated with her husband's inability to face up to her imminent demise. She tries to get him to see the reality of the situation, while he makes plans for a future she knows with certainty they don't have.
Liddy's ability to shift gears and styles is remarkable, and particularly evident in The Third Passenger, a pastiche of the gothic horror genre, which is entertaining and disturbing in equal parts.
Above all, this is a fun book; Liddy embraces different writing styles and, in places, abandons the traditional narrative form to use other styles, such as cartoon speech balloons and an antiquated advert from the Thirties entitled "Ladies! Does your husband spend every evening stuck in a newspaper?"
I particularly loved the hilarious My ex-wife a users manual, which is laid out like a bona fide computer guide and the brilliant Cross word, which uses 12 crossword clues to succinctly and amusingly tell a story of adultery and revenge -- and there's even a blank crossword to fill in.
The final piece, My first full day of Married Life, revolves around a man who spends the day after his wedding trying to consummate his marriage.
Frustrated with his inability to have sex with his new wife he finally realises, "Complete honesty is overrated, and ... it's not always helpful to tell your spouse exactly what you're thinking."
Words of wisdom that you may or may not find on the self-help shelves, but at least with this book you're guaranteed enjoyment while you enlighten yourself about the opposite sex.
- Anne Marie Scanlon
THE IRISH EXAMINER, a review/profile by Sue Leonard
...a wonderfully diverse collection of stories, vignettes and ideas told with humour, but with enormous insight too.
“It’s based on the idea that marriage is a good thing. That most people aspire to be with someone, but that, despite all the hundreds of things a couple agrees on, there are going to be two, or ten things that are wrong.”
The stories with a twist in the tale are particularly engaging. Stories like 'The Flatmate who knew too much'; and 'When you’re in love with a pregnant woman, it’s hard'. If I’d thrown the baby half a second earlier had resonance for me, too.
“Has it ever happened? Certainly something similar has,” laughs Colm. “You have to be lucky, as parents to get children through childhood at all. There are bound to be times when the terrible could have happened. You have to have been lucky that it didn’t.”
Colm’s favourite story is a poignant one. Our Last Night Alone, lying in bed together tells of a farmer’s wife who is soon to be admitted to a hospice. Her husband is in denial, and she can’t bring herself to ask him for what she craves.
Many of the stories explore jealousy. And focus on how much couples should, or should not tell each other.
“One of the modern delusions is that honesty is an ultimate good,” muses Colm. “But A lot of things are better left unsaid. You would drive yourself mad if you thought about everything that has happened in the past. It’s unbearable. You just can’t dwell on it. You want to be honest, but within reason.”
EVENING HERALD by Lucille Redmond
A BITTER man writes a user’s manual for his (former) wife. In a row of toilets at a wedding, a bride wrestles to free herself of the hoops on her dress, knowing that the groom and the bridesmaid her mother foisted on her are having sex in the end cubicle.
Colm Liddy recently told a radio interviewer that when he goes out for a few drinks with a friend in Clare, he’s likely to end up in the toilet himself, rapidly taking notes for one of these stories.
His fights between husbands and wives track marital annoyance through the ages and across countries.
Edgar Allen Poe makes his appearance as a chance-met passenger on a train, who tells his fellow-travellers a horrible story. A Virginia cotton magnate’s son crashes from the balcony of his home. The parents try everything to mend his broken body.
Their failure drives the magnate to drink and bankruptcy, and he returns at last to find that his child has been suspended in childhood by a mesmerist. Breaking the child’s trance, the father watches in horror as his body transforms in moments into an adolescent’s, and he dies.
You’d have to wonder what kind of drinks they’re serving in Clare.
Unmissable stores, the products of a wonderfully creative storyteller.
IRISH TIMES REVIEW
Ian Sansom reviews 40 Fights Between Husbands and Wives By Colm Liddy Penguin Ireland. 397pp, €14.99
EVERYTHING IS DOMESTIC. And the domestic is epic: just read the Bible, or the Greek myths, or the papers, or Joyce, or Homer. Feuding gods, warring tribes, tragedies, infidelities – the endless dissolution of hearth and home. Colm Liddy’s 40 Fights Between Husbands and Wives , a book of short stories whose title more than fairly indicates its subject, content, and form, makes a noteworthy contribution to literature’s long catalogue of marital disappointments, betrayals, and reconciliations.
This is Liddy’s first book, and it possesses all of the oomph, and the pizzazz and the imagined omnipotence of the form – because of course the first book is a form, with its own recognisable tropes and characteristics. There is the unashamed offering of wisdom: we should be patient, kind, and forgiving, Liddy seems continually to be suggesting, as though he has recently trekked down from the Himalayas with such insights from some long-bearded sadhu, packed fresh and on scrolls in his rucksack. There is whimsy: each story is prefaced with a cute little indicator of its setting (“Roscommon, Ireland, 2006”). And there is wackiness: the story My ex-wife: a user’s manual (excerpt) is done up typographically to look like the troubleshooting section from a technical manual. Ladies! Does your husband spend every evening stuck in a newspaper? is styled as a newspaper ad. The fate of all romance consists of just four cartoon-style speech bubbles. Cross word is a crossword. A hug will be permitted is a poem.
Liddy’s real skill lies not so much in his technical daring, however, as in his simple willingness and ability to sketch in great detail those little incidents between husbands and wives that might otherwise be overlooked . In what is undoubtedly the most successful story in the collection, Our last night alone, lying in bed together, a woman lies in bed with her husband, waiting to go into a hospice. She feels isolated: all she wants is a cuddle. Liddy’s imagination thrives in the shady regions of such small hopes and misunderstandings.
The temptation, of course, which Liddy does not always resist, is to light out for other, brighter, more glamorous territories. Almost half of the book consists of stories set in distant pasts and places: Babylonia, 2390 BC, Kerala, India, AD 960, Siberia, 13,000 BC, and Nazareth, Judea, 1 BC . These stories seem deliberately underwritten, as though suggesting that all of the marital squabbles and disagreements they recall might just as well have happened a moment ago, in Leitrim, say, 2009.
Several other stories seem also deliberately to renounce their power. There must be fifty ways to annoy my husband , for example, is a promising little piece about a man who fantasies about having sex with Marilyn Monroe. Alas, it’s almost over before its begun. Piddle faster !, set on a couple’s honeymoon in Rome in 1958, is little more than a snapshot. In the end the reader may come away from the book feeling like the narrator of the story Thwack!, a man who has everything and still wants more. “She was a caring, capable mother of our two young children while still holding down a part-time position at Ernst Young. Her work clothes were chic; her figure still trim [ . . . ] But was I impressed by any of it? Was I lucky to have her? Was I satisfied? Was I f-.” Perhaps it’s not the wife’s fault. Perhaps the fault lies with the man. And perhaps first-time writers never disappoint: perhaps readers, like spouses, are just too quick to judge. Liddy has found his form and his subject. What he needs now is a style to match.
Ian Sansom is the author of the Mobile Library series of novels.
This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times