Chestnut Street by Maeve Binchy
Random House Audio Publishing.
15 September 2019
I’ve enjoyed my first Maeve Binchy. It was twelve hours of audio tapes; an unabridged version of Chestnut Street read by Sile Bermingham. Binchy imagined a Dublin street and the comings and goings of its residents. When a theme or person occurred to her, she’d write a story and put it away. When she’d written enough stories to fill ten compact discs, her project was finished.
These are simple everyday life tales. Nothing outstanding in the narratives themselves, just ordinary people going about their daily business. But what is outstanding is Binchy’s ability to make the minutiae of life sound interesting and significant. She conveys the conversations, desires, anxieties and apprehensions, beliefs and emotions that are in the hearts and minds of Chestnut Street’s ordinary folk. The reader can easily relate, sympathise, be touched or angered by the attitudes and actions of the characters. The consequence of Chestnut Street being in Dublin is that the reader’s knowledge of Ireland’s people and their attitudes grow as the stories progress. The narratives cover the Ireland of adherence to the belief that the first experience of lovemaking should be the first night of marriage, (1950s), the Ireland of wearing short skirts to shock your friends when you return to Dublin after years away, (1960s). It is the Ireland of Dublin’s blue and white telephone boxes, (1980s), the Ireland before the removal of the constitutional prohibition on divorce (1990s) and the Ireland of mobile phones.
It’s the world of Dolly who delivers newspapers and learns more about her mother than she ever wants to know, of Moira, Mary and Deidra who dream of being in love because being in love is what you do and then you get married and the marriage turns out okay because if it doesn’t it’s not worth doing in the first place. It’s a world in which Bucket Maguire earns an honest living from window cleaning but can’t trust his only son, the Ireland of four souls that the world seems to have wronged who end up in Gianni’s Fish ‘n Chip shop one New Year’s eve, and who continue to meet at the same location on December 31 for the next ten years, of Kevin who knows more about the people he transports in his taxi than they realise about themselves, despite some of those passengers being married to each other. And it’s a world where Melly gossips about the neighbours and unwittingly helps a self-styled fortune-teller ‘sort out’ the local community. It’s the harbouring of thieves, the plotting of the ruination of people who’ve wronged you, the infidelities and betrayals, the longing for love from a distant parent, the speculation about what it will be like when you’re married, of what one does before and after intimacy and of the joy of coming and going as you please in a judgemental patriarchal Ireland. And it’s a world where Katy gets married sooner than anyone expects and gives birth to a strapping lad six months later – but at least she’s married. And a world where Katy’s husband meets with the lads in the local and drinks away his income – but at least he’s married Katy.
These stories are written simply but beautifully, with wit, wisdom, and empathy. They’re written by a woman who knows the Irish psyche intimately. I’ve loved listening to them.
My only criticism of this production is that actress Sile Bermingham doesn’t do accents well. Except the different Irish ones, of course. She does those superbly. But the Australian, Pakistani and American accents are woeful – she might’ve passed with a push with the Italian one. Otherwise, her reading is pretty good. I can acknowledge it’s hard to swap ‘voices’ when reading from line to line. I can see how easy it is to continue a voice when that voice’s words are finished.
A thoroughly entertaining production and I’ve no doubt I’ll be reading/listening to more Maeve Binchy.
Rhonda Valentine Dixon