‘The Clever One’ by Maeve Brennan

The Clever One by Maeve Brennan, 1953

The magic trick:

Building a story around the revelation of a secret, but having that reveal at the beginning, not the end 

Let’s start another week of Maeve Brennan stories. They’re too good to not feature on the SSMT website.

This week’s batch focus on the autobiographical sketches she wrote in the 1950s about a young girl, named Maeve coincidentally enough, in Dublin.

“The Clever One” actually finds Maeve as an adult, looking back on her life. Specifically, it revolves around the revelation of a long kept secret by Maeve’s sister. Our narrator had always assumed that her little sister had struggled in her childhood with a kind of seizure-like affliction. Only now, 20 years later, does she find out that her sister was faking.

So, as a reader, you’d probably expect the story to build up to that dramatic reveal. But here, the reveal is actually very early. The tension builds not as a ramp up but more as a spooling out, as Maeve gradually gives us backstory and context so that we can properly understand just how much this secret is shaking her fundamental understanding about her place in the world.

It’s almost like a story working in reverse.

And that’s quite a trick on Brennan’s part.

The selection:

I felt superior to her and protective toward her because she was so tiny, and because she hated school and never did well in her lessons, and because she got ugly, painful chilblains in the cold weather and I never did, and most of all because she was shy. As a matter of fact, I never gave her a chance to say a word. People were always told that I had the brains in the family. “Derry has the beauty,” they used to say, “but Maeve has all the brains.” I believed every word of this.

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