This anthology is perhaps the most comprehensive anthology of Irish writing that's ever been produced. Spanning 400 years and 1200 pages, editor Colm Toibin has done a masterful job at collecting the well-known (Jonathan Swift, James Joyce, Roddy Doyle) with the less well-known (Rosa Mulholland, Mairtin O'Cadhain, Leland Bardwell), and created a book that should be on every Irishman's bookcase.
Toibin, born in Ireland and hailed by the Irish Independent as "the best Irish writer of his generation," knows Irish fiction. His introduction detailing the history of Irish literature is itself a fine piece of work. He's a strong novelist (THE SOUTH, THE HEATHER BLAZING) whose quite familiar with the Irish writing past (Oliver Goldsmith, Anthony Trollope) and young enough to know about the up-and-coming Irish fiction writers (Dermot Bolger, Colum McCann) so as to make a complete work, solid in every way.
As Toibin states in his introduction, "history [Irish] reads like a form of fiction, full of love stories with ill-fated lovers dying with a smile." This Irish history can be seen again and again in the works as they trace from the seventeenth century, with Jonathan Swift's classic GULLIVER'S TRAVELS, through the contemporary age, with Emma Donoghue's story GOING BACK. In between, you have not only the best Irish fiction written, you have some of the best fiction written, period.
Bram Stoker's DRACULA haunts these pages. James Joyce's THE PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN paints great color across these pages. Samuel Beckett's FIRST LOVE, a great story of family and loss, lies within these pages. Anthony Cronin's THE LIFE OF RILEY lives within these pages. Edna O'Brien, John Banville, Sebastian Barry and Anne Enright all have their spot within these pages. They enlighten us with not only an intimate history of Ireland, but give us a mirror in which to see ourselves.
Reviewed by Jonathan Shipley on February 28, 2000
The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction