Joyce Carol Oates called her one of the finest short-story writers of the twentieth century, and there’s much to love about the work of Mary Lavin, whose centenary falls this week; there’s the brilliance with which her fiction gets at the stuff of human interaction, in all its awkwardness, in all the ways in which, muddled and mortified, this interaction will have to do us, because it’s all we’ve got. There’s the immense power with which she depicts the inner lives of women, particularly mothers and widows, women who have no reason to be anything other than honest with themselves about the realities of their situation. Lavin evokes those situations with sympathy and with candor and with, in many cases, a frank and delicious comedy.
Lavin was an Irish writer of the mid-twentieth century, so it’s no surprise that Catholic Ireland is present in her work, but there’s nothing predictable about her portraits of the people who lived in its grip, because what her fiction always looks to are the marvels and the strangeness of individual lives, individual territories carved out regardless of the directives handed down from on high. These lives, mostly rural, could be described as small; they could be described as provincial. Mary Lavin would never stoop to either of those descriptions. They were lives rich and secretive and complicated and contradictory, and for her there was no form suited to them more perfectly than that of the short story, the form she described as being like “an arrow in flight, or a flash of forked lightning: you know the way a flash of lightning appears to be there all in the sky at once? Beginning, middle and end, all there at once.”