Joseph O'Connor's beautifully written 'Where Have You Been' is the author's first short story collection in more than twenty years and consists of seven short stories and a novella. In the first story 'Two Little Clouds' we meet Eddie Virago who, in his younger days in London was: "hip, facetious, indifferent to convention" and who is now back in Dublin having left his exciting life behind and working in an estate agents selling flats for a living. When he meets up with the narrator of the story, an old acquaintance from his London days, and the two spend an evening of heavy drinking and reminiscing, our narrator realizes just why he hasn't been in touch with Eddie: "When you don't see someone for twenty years, there's usually a good reason." In 'Boyhood's Fire' we read about Liam Hynes who, having just received the news of his sister's terrible accident, is required to attend a wedding and act as if everything is all right. Unsurprisingly, Liam finds himself unable to cope at the wedding reception, and a rather uncomfortable evening is passed by both himself and his rather unsympathetic girlfriend.
In the story 'October-Coloured Weather' we meet a dying woman who spends a rather unusual night in an hotel in the company of an American recovering alcoholic and in 'The Death of a Civil Servant' we read about Senan Mulvey, separated from his wife and mourning the death of their baby daughter, who decides that life really is not worth living. For the beautifully described and very poignant story 'Orchard Street, Dawn' we move to New York in the nineteenth century and learn about Bridget and Joseph Moore, who left the famine in Ireland to come to America with the hopes of a better life. But is it a better life, or just a different one?
In case you are thinking that these stories sound unremittingly depressing, I would just like to add that they aren't - but they are very poignant, and although there is humour present in parts of these stories, other parts brought tears to my eyes, especially in the story 'Orchard Street, Dawn'. A sense of loss is a constant presence throughout this collection, so I was glad when I came to the final part of the book, the novella, where we are left with more of an optimistic feeling. This is an admirable collection of stories, set against the backdrop of Ireland's history, full of convincing characters you find yourself caring about (no mean feat in short story writing where we often do not have time to become really involved with the characters) and situations that most of us probably hope we will not have to experience for ourselves. Truthful, beautifully composed stories that will linger in the mind - but you might just want to have something more cheerful to hand to read when you have finished this moving collection.