Today is the shortest day of the year, so it’s the best day to write about The Shortest Day by Colm Toibin, a novella of just 31 pages, one of the shortest books I’ve read. I loved it. It appealed to me on several levels – first of all it’s about the mythical past, about the strange carvings I’ve found on certain stones, about archaeology, and about the unknown customs and rituals of our ancient past, and secondly because it’s storytelling at its best – a tale of wonder and mystery.
Amazon Original Stories|3 November 2020|31 pages
Professor O’Kelly is writing notes about Newgrange, also called Bru na Boinne, a circular mound with a retaining wall that had a narrow passageway leading into a vaulted central chamber. There are spirals and diamond shaped designs cut into some of the stones both inside the chamber itself and outside the entrance to the passageway. It’s a burial chamber, a prehistoric monument in County Meath in Ireland, that was built around 3200 BC – older than Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids. It’s ringed by a stone circle, stones brought from the Mournes and Wicklow Mountains.
He speculates about the people who created the burial chamber, who they were, where they came from and what they believed in. He wonders about their burial rituals, what language they spoke and what they believed about the spirit. It all remains a mystery. He would dearly love to find something to open up its secrets to him. He has visited it several times in the past and plans to spend the days before Christmas visiting Newgrange, to make fresh drawings of the carvings on the stones and do a small amount of excavation in the passageway.
Meanwhile deep within the chamber there were whispers among the dead that the professor was coming again. They are concerned that he would discover the secret of the light penetrating the chamber on the winter solstice – the shortest day of the year. Some of the local inhabitants know of the secret but they never talk about it, except in whispers between themselves. When he arrives they put up a number of obstacles to prevent him from entering the chamber.
This is a wonderful story full of atmosphere, of dread and of anticipation. My heart was in my mouth as I read this story, wondering and hoping that the professor would succeed. Would he witness the secret of Newgrange – the secret of those who had lived thousands of years before?
3 thoughts on “The Shortest Day by Colm Toibin”
It really sounds absorbing, Margaret! I like the atmospheric feel of it, too, just from your description and the bit you’ve shared. It does make one wonder what those who lived that long ago might have known that we’ve lost… Fascinating!
Ooh, this sounds wonderful! I shall head straight to Amazon – thanks for highlighting it! 😀
From what you say this is a must read for me. I loved visiting Orkney a couple of years ago where there are lots of interesting and atmospheric burial chambers, as well as many stone circles.
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