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Light in darkness as O'Connor returns to short stories

One of the better 1970s Hollywood directors, George Roy Hill, who made Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, once said humour was the natural voice of despair.

With Joseph O'Connor, humour more obliquely provides a cover for confronting readers with the darkness of the soul.

Behind an exhilarating array of sharp dialogue and biting one-liners worthy of Hugh Leonard, his fiction charts the fragility of relationships, the cruelty of chance and circumstance throwing people together only to shatter their lives, the nightmare of distrust and guilt stirred by memory, and the stark fear of separation and being left alone in the night.

O'Connor introduced himself at 26 with a short story The Last Of The Mohicans, which he submitted to the Dublin-based New Irish Writing in 1988.

On dialling a London telephone number he'd given, I discovered he was on the point of giving up writing. The Last Of The Mohicans went on to win the Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year Award. Its likeable rogue Eddie Virago reappeared in his debut novel Cowboys And Indians as an archetypal antihero for the Ryanair generation.

His play Red Roses For Me lifted the lid on a dysfunctional family forced together for a funeral. Each new novel was longer and blacker, culminating with the extraordinary famine ship saga Star Of The Sea and sequel Redemption Falls, which was even darker.

Where Have You Been? is his first collection of short stories for 20 years and reasserts a mastery of the form that first drew me to his writing. It can be read in some ways as a companion to his longer fiction.

Virago returns to hog the limelight in Two Little Clouds, now ruling the roost in a Celtic Tiger property bubble.

By contrast Orchard Street, Dawn jumps back in time to a New York Lower East Side tenement where the daughter of an immigrant Irish couple dies in her illiterate mother's embrace.

The unbearable poignancy is encapsulated in a letter home, the words written down for the mother by her husband to be read to her mother: "I write with hard news and do not know how to say it. Our daughter Agnes died on Wednesday the twentyfirst, and was buried in Calvary Cemetery. Our hearts are broken. There is nothing for me in the world."

O'Connor's concern in this fine compassionate collection is with the ups and downs of coupling, and baggage each partner brings.

The concluding novella of the title revolves around a will-they-won't-they affair in which a dumped husband, made wary by the scars of a dysfunctional childhood, can't be sure if a London production designer really fancies him or is just playing a game.

One of the best, is told through the eyes of a woman. In October-Coloured Weather, a terminally ill English teacher spends a night in a Dublin hotel before returning to a husband cheating on her with one of her former pupils. An American who "seemed like a man who could laugh without being cruel or superior, and she liked that about him", gets talking with her. They talk into the night. "We never met before," he tells her.

"Tonight we met and talked. Five minutes either way it wouldn't have happened. But it did, see. That's the sacred moment. If there's a sacrament, that's it."

It's an epiphany that cuts to the heart of O'Connor's fiction, the fickleness of chance but also its miracle.