Author: Tom Phelan

Publisher: Arcade Publishing, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-62872-428-8

Irish fiction is rather new to me. Most recently, I read “The Little Red Chairs,” by 86-year-old, pioneering feminist Edna O’Brien, a brutal view of a rural village ripped out of its familiar routine by a seductive stranger. It was terrifying. “Lies the Mushroom Pickers Told” is a gentle and amusing tale, but still startling in its own way. Separately, two expatriates, a missionary priest and an adventuring favorite son, return to their community of simple farmers in 1951, upsetting their families’ hard-won order. The story unfolds through a third expat, who, at age eleven, also in 1951, was taken by his parents to England in the middle of the night, his father being in debt and out of work. In chapter one, Patrick Bracken returns as a journalist, and he manages, with the help of a retired solicitor and his gossipy wife, Sam and Elsie Howard, to elicit the facts that confirm his suspicions about how the other two visitors died. The gradual result of their afternoon is more than soda bread; it is yeasty dough laden with seeds and raisins, braided into a perfect loaf by three distinct personalities remembering events from different sets of obligations.

The author, Tom Phelan, is a late-blooming published storyteller, formerly a priest and a teacher. His first novel appeared in 1993 when he was 53. He is appreciated for his rendering of Irish reality with tenderness and grace, while depicting hunger, wars, bigotry, cruelty, child abuse, and spiritual warp in his youthful experience. Phelan served the Catholic Church in England and in the United States. He left the priesthood in the 1970s, earned a master’s degree from Seattle University, and returned to the east coast to work as a school custodian for 20 years. This seems important, possibly because I imagine him writing late at night, uninterested in becoming a school administrator. If this were true, it would explain his unflinching acceptance of the working men and women of little education and lesser means. He does not look down on them, not even the village masturbator. Rather, he uses their language to convey the tightness of their community, the strength of their self-knowledge. For those readers truly interested in linguistics and dialogue, he has inserted a glossary at the back of the book.

The structure is old-fashioned: chapter titles and headings that begin “In which…” pace the story for pleasure. The murders implied do not make the book a thriller. It is a revealer of temperament, of limitations, and of things that matter. I especially enjoyed the sharp-tongued, cautionary, critical – and yet sexy -- banter between the solicitor and his wife. In fact there is a lot of sex in this book, but not without genuine intimacy. Expect to love even the cow dung.