Review: In the Middle of the Fields by Mary Lavin

In the Middle of the Fields by Mary Lavin
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Mary Lavin said that a short story should always be "an arrow in flight". That is, a short story should be always moving, and every sentence should add to the story. While the climax of this story is but a conversation, the plot is incredibly precise and gives the reader a submersive view into the world of quiet grief. Surprisingly, perhaps, the story also has an underlying feminist tone - quite a bold position as it takes place and was written in the early 1960's.

In The Middle of the Fields is the story of a woman in rural Ireland -- a widow who lives on her own with three young daughters. The small house they live in, as the title describes, is surrounded by fields with long grass. Having lost her husband, our main character is in need of someone to help her take care of her land, specifically for someone to cut her grass so that it does not seed itself and become impossible for the animals to graze.

Cutting The Grass by Martin Driscoll

During the day, two men visit to discuss arrangements for said job. All is in order for the task to be completed the next day, so our widow locks up the house and shuts herself in her bedroom, as she does every night when the sun goes down. At night, we are told, is when she experiences fear - "unnamed fears," as she calls them. Her bedroom is where she feels safest at night -- safe from unwanted visitors, the outside world, and her own grief. So it is here in her bedroom where we find her, barefoot, brushing her hair, safe -- until she hears a dreaded, unexpected knock at the door.

I will not reveal who is at the door or the conversation and actions that follow, as that is the main part of the story, but it is absolutely brilliant, evenly-paced writing. This is exactly how you write a story with very little action that can still keep the reader intrigued and on their toes.

The hint of feminism aforementioned is very subtle, and could be easily missed, especially without knowing the setting or context of the story. Within this tale is a situation every modern woman knows: trying to get a man to leave you alone, but he just does not take the hint. Even the most gentle of men can strike a bit of fear into a lady, whether he's lingering near you at the bar, or, quite literally, darkening your doorway.

The words shared between our widow and her late night visitor is a conversational power play between man and woman, a tale that has been told over and over again and depicts that position that every woman has found herself in: trying to get rid of man who just doesn’t get it. This story reminds men that they often do not even realize how easily they can frighten women, whether they intend to or not. However, it also boldly states that women, often by words alone, can shift the power back into their own hands and regain control.

I listened to this story on The New Yorker Fiction Podcast. It was read by author Colm Tóibín. He both gave an introduction as well as discussed the story with the host afterwards. Had I not listened to the afterward, I don't think I would have "got it" as much as I do now. An overall excellent reading & discussion. Definitely recommended for those who love classic literature, the Irish culture, and well-written short stories in general.

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