Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Sara Baume, Setting, Tramp Press

‘Seven Steeples’ by Sara Baume

Fiction – Kindle edition; Tramp Press; 288 pages; 2022.

The rhythms of nature and the passing of time are the central themes in Sara Baume’s latest novel Seven Steeples.

Set over the course of seven years, it tells the quiet, contemplative story of Bell (Isabel) and Sigh (Simon), who both ditch their menial city jobs — Bell waiting tables, Sigh packaging TVs in a factory — to move into a rental house, “a drab, roofed box girdled by countryside” at the bottom of a mountain.

They bring their two dogs — Pip, a lurcher, and Voss, a terrier — with them and live a simple life supported by social welfare payments and dwindling savings.

After the excitement of moving in together for the first time (the pair met at a party), taking minimal furniture and an odd assortment of belongings with them, their lives quickly settle into a routine. Morning walks. Trips to the nearest town for supplies. The occasional spot of gardening.

A quiet, misanthropic life

Their nearest neighbour, a farmer, has a nodding acquaintance with them, but for the most part, they keep themselves to themselves. They make no friends and they deliberately cut ties with everyone they know in the city.

Four years and seven months passed without a single visitor.

And as time passes, they carry next to no upkeep on the house, whether inside or out, and it slowly begins to fall into ruin — but they don’t care:

They had grown accustomed to disrepair.

Their lives become reduced to a 20km radius of the lichen-encrusted house and they have little interest in the outside world. They demonstrate an alarming lack of curiosity about anything. It takes them three whole years before they wonder about the mountain, the only thing that never changes, behind them.

The landlord was called to unblock the drain. He came armed with rods and rubber gloves. As he crouched on the gravel to rummage and bail, Sigh finally remembered to ask him about the mountain – whether or not it was commonage, and if there was a path all the way to the top. Yes and yes, he told them, though it was probably overgrown because nobody went up there. The mouth of the path was through the farmer’s yard behind the milking parlour and he himself had never climbed it, though for a long time he had been meaning to. […] They say there is a wild goat who lives up there, the landlord said, the last surviving member of an indigenous flock. They say that from the top, the landlord said, you can see seven standing stones, seven schools, and seven steeples.

By the time the seventh year swings around — measured in the passing of seasons, all forensically described in Baume’s careful but elegantly detailed prose — they’ve worked up enough wherewithal to climb it. And when they do, they see a whole new perspective on the world below and make a surprising observation about their own, closely entwined relationship.

Exquisite prose

Something about Seven Steeples didn’t entirely work for me. There’s no dialogue, no plot and the characters are aloof, perhaps because there’s no interior life and we don’t ever get to know what they’re thinking or feeling.

And while the prose is exquisite, particularly in the way Baume chronicles the weather, the passing seasons, the plant life and the animals that inhabit the countryside, there’s far too much exposition. I quickly grew bored of Bell and Sigh’s life, their passivity and their inability to follow through on the things they realised needed to be done or addressed.

However, as an exploration of hearth and home, Seven Steeples offers us a glimpse of an alternative lifestyle, one in which the busyness of the modern world is rejected and the rawness of the natural one is embraced.

For other takes on this novel, please see Claire’s review at Word by Word and Jacqui’s review at JacquiWine’s Journal.

The book has just been shortlisted for this year’s Dylan Thomas Prize for young writers.

I have previously reviewed Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither and A Line Made by Walking, both of which I loved.

I read this book as part of Cathy’s #ReadingIrelandMonth23. You can find out more about this annual blog event at Cathy’s blog 746 Books.

Book review, Deirdre Osborne, Greenfinch, Joan Anim-Addo, Kadija Sesay George, Non-fiction

‘This is the Canon: Decolonize Your Bookshelf in 50 Books’ by Joan Anim-Addo, Deirdre Osborne & Kadija Sesay George

Non-fiction – paperback; Greenfinch; 352 pages; 2022.

I love a good book list so no surprise that This is the Canon: Decolonize Your Bookshelf in 50 Books would appeal to me with its curated list of 50 fiction titles from around the world.

The authors — Joan Anim-Addo, Deirdre Osborne and Kadija Sesay George — are all esteemed academics who have made a living out of championing writers from diverse backgrounds.

Among a string of accolades and accomplishments, Professor Joan Anim-Addo, who was born in Grenada, co-founded the MA in Black British Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London, with Deirdre Osborne in 2014; Osborne, who is Australian-born, is Reader in English Literature and Drama in the Theatre and Performance Department at Goldsmiths and the editor of the 2016 Cambridge Companion to British Black and Asian Literature (1945-2010); and Dr Kadija Sesay George, a literary activist of Sierra Leonean descent, is a literary project manager and former publisher of SABLE LitMag, a magazine for emerging writers of colour.

Together they have curated a list designed to:

centralize fiction produced by writers of African descent, Asian descent and Indigenous Peoples, to offer a corrective to reverse the pre-eminence of white-dominant literary canons.

The list is sandwiched between an engaging introduction that introduces this non-white canon and argues the need for it (highlighting also, some of the pitfalls associated with generating any kind of list) and an afterword that encourages readers to be proactive in their reading choices and to become “reader activists”.

50 books

Each book on the list is accompanied by a thoughtful review (of around three pages in length), a paragraph on its publishing history, author biography and a helpful list of further reading suggestions aka “if you like this, try…” For example, if you like Tony Birch’s The White Girl, one of two books on the list by Indigenous Australians, it recommends reading Sally Morgan’s My Place (1997), Kim Scott’s Benang: From the Heart (1999), Claire G Colman’s Terra Nullius (2017) and Leah Purcell’s The Drover’s Wife (2016).

The list, arranged in chronological order, is as follows (hyperlinks take you to reviews of books I have previously read):

  1. Love in a Fallen City and Other Stories by Eileen Chang (1943)
  2. All About H. Hatterr: A Gesture by G V Desani (1948)
  3. Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata (1952)
  4. The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier (1953)
  5. The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon (1956)
  6. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958)
  7. Children of the New World: A Novel of the Algerian War by Assia Diebar (1962)
  8. Wide Sargasso by Sea Jean Rhys (1966)
  9. A Grain of Wheat by Ngügi wa Thiongo (1967)
  10. The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah (1968)
  11. The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart (1972)
  12. A Question of Power by Bessie Head (1974)
  13. If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin (1974)
  14. Between Two Worlds by Miriam Tiali (1975)
  15. Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi (1975)
  16. Our Sister Killjoy: Or Reflections from a Black-eyed Squint by Ama Ata Aidoo (1977)
  17. Territory of Light by Yako Tsushima (1979)
  18. Kindred by Octavia E. Butler (1979)
  19. The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta (1979)
  20. So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba (1980)
  21. The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1982)
  22. Segu by Maryse Condé (1984)
  23. Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid (1985)
  24. Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)
  25. Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga (1988)
  26. Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories by Sandra Cisneros (1991)
  27. Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau (1992)
  28. Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat (1994)
  29. Discerner of Hearts and Other Stories by Olive Senior (1995)
  30. Salt by Earl Lovelace (1996)
  31. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (1997)
  32. Trumpet by Jackie Kay (1998)
  33. The Years with Laura Diaz by Carlos Fuentes (1999)
  34. The Best of Albert Wendt’s Short Stories by Albert Wendt (1999)
  35. Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson (2000)
  36. The Emperor’s Babe: A Novel by Bernardine Evaristo (2001)
  37. Dogside Story by Patricia Grace (2001)
  38. Shell Shaker by LeAnne Howe (2001)
  39. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (2003)
  40. Small Island by Andrea Levy (2004)
  41. Dancing in the Dark by Caryl Phillips (2005)
  42. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2006)
  43. The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (2008)
  44. In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin (2009)
  45. How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu (2010)
  46. NW by Zadie Smith (2012)
  47. The Swan Book by Alexis Wright (2013)
  48. A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (2014)
  49. The Sellout by Paul Beatty (2015)
  50. The White Girl by Tony Birch (2019)

Literary activism

The Afterword is especially interesting, for having read it I realise that I am a “literary activist” and a “reader activist” and didn’t even know it! If you are reading this blog, maintaining your own blog or reading books written by people of diverse backgrounds, you fall into these categories too.

It defines literary activism as:

the full range of work involved in the creation, production and promotion of literature and books.

It also then flags “reader activism”, which “can help influence the shape of the contemporary fiction landscape” by supporting

writers and their books by talking about them, recommending them and by voting with your wallet. […] This can make a real difference to opening up the literary world. It is an effective way to make publishers sit up and take notice of what readers want and it supports authors financially.

It outlines some practical steps you can take, which I’ve summarised as follows:

  • visit your local library
  • join a reading group
  • support independent publishers and bookshops
  • buy literary magazines and experience new writers
  • donate to writing prizes
  • attend literary festivals and events

This is the Canon: Decolonize Your Bookshelf in 50 Books is a terrific reference book. Not only will it proudly sit alongside Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (my go-to literary reference book of choice), I will be using it to help shape my reading life moving forward. Watch this space.

Author, Book review, Deirdre Madden, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Birds of the Innocent Wood’ by Deirdre Madden

Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 164 pages; 2014.

Deirdre Madden’s The Birds of the Innocent Wood, first published in 1988, is a mysterious, opaque tale about dark family secrets and strained relationships spanning two generations.

It reads a bit like a thriller, helped by a few fast-paced early chapters, before settling into an intriguing if downbeat story where nothing is fully spelt out — or resolved. It’s even hard to know what era this book is set in because there is a timeless quality to everything about it, and Madden’s adoption of a third-person omniscient narrator lends the entire novel the feel of a fairy tale or fable.

An orphan’s tale

Set in rural Ireland, it focuses on Jane, who is orphaned as a toddler when her parents die in a house fire. Taken in by an aunt who does not want her, she’s sent to a convent boarding school, where she delights in telling others of her terrible loss to gain sympathy.

Every time she told her story she felt as if she was leading the unsuspecting children to a vast black pit, and when she had taken them right to the edge, she would suddenly draw back and abandon them there. She craved their pity and their sense of horror; and at the same time she utterly despised the other little girls for allowing her to induce these feelings in them. It was her tragedy, and she was never so weak as to cry for the loss of her parents.

When she finishes school, friendless and isolated, she meets James, a local farmer, and marries him to ward off the loneliness. She moves to his farm, where he lives with his widowed father and their farmhand, Gerald, but never feels that she truly belongs. She takes against their neighbour, Ellen, whom she feels is too close to her husband, even though Ellen eventually marries Gerald.

Jane’s story is interleaved with that of her teenage twin daughters, Catherine and Sarah, who are both cold and odd and just as sociopathic as their mother. The twins, however, are vastly different from each other. Catherine desperately wants to become a nun, while Sarah sets her heart on the local boy, Peter, who is Ellen and Gerald’s son.

As the twins plot against each other for reasons that are never fully explained, there are hints of family secrets and untold histories, but again nothing is obvious or clear-cut. Madden grants her readers the intelligence to figure it out for themselves, something her compatriot (and my favourite writer) Jennifer Johnston also does with aplomb.

Carefully controlled prose

Putting aside the plot, and even the characterisation, both of which are excellent, it’s the writing and the mood of the story that makes this novel such an engaging read. Its bleakness and gloomy outlook are only matched by the restrained, carefully controlled prose.

And Madden’s clever use of avian imagery, whether crows being shot out of trees, songbirds announcing the arrival of dawn or nests being discovered in unlikely places, act as metaphors and signifiers of events going on in the characters often sad and troubled lives.

Despite the fact it comes in at under 170 densely written pages, there’s a lot to unpack in this one.

The Birds of the Innocent Wood won a Somerset Maugham Award in 1989. These awards are for writers under the age of 30 and there are normally multiple winners each year.

Simon from Stuck in a Book has also reviewed it.

Deirdre Madden is from County Antrim in Northern Ireland and has eight novels (and a handful of children’s books)  to her name. I’ve read four of her novels and regard her as one of my favourite authors.

I read this book as part of Cathy’s #ReadingIrelandMonth23. You can find out more about this annual blog event at Cathy’s blog 746 Books.

Author, Book review, HQ, Michael Arndt, Non-fiction, Publisher

‘Snails & Monkey Tails: A Visual Guide to Punctuation & Symbols’ by Michael Arndt

Non-fiction – hardcover; HQ; 160 pages; 2022.

And now for something completely different.

As a self-confessed “word nerd” (and someone who has just spent the best part of eight weeks writing a copy style guide in my new role at work), I couldn’t resist buying Michael Arndt’s Snails & Monkey Tails when I saw it on the shelves of my local independent bookstore.

This delightfully designed reference book is for anyone interested in language and typography. It’s ideal for flicking through and delving into on an ad-hoc basis, but I actually read it cover to cover — and found it absolutely fascinating.

There’s a quirky, fun element to the design — which uses a muted colour palette of black, white, grey and a vibrant eye-popping red — that adds to the experience.  (To get a glimpse of the book’s design, check out this article in the Design Observer which reproduces many of the spreads.)

Featuring 14 standard punctuation marks in the English language, as well as a range of commonly used symbols, the book explains their origins and provides helpful tips on grammatical usage.

I deal with punctuation every day (some may laughingly say I just move commas around and correct people’s spelling!) and thought I knew a lot about my “tools of the trade”, but I learned a lot.

For instance, the Italians call the @ symbol a snail (chiocciola) and the Germans call it a monkey’s tail (affenschwanz), hence the book’s title.

The ¶ symbol, which is one of my favourites (perhaps because it’s an “invisible” in Adobe InDesign and pleasingly shows the start of every new paragraph), is called a pilcrow and was originally used to mark chapter headings or capitula (chapters / little heads).

Pilcrows were rubricated (lettered in red, from the Latin rubricare, to redden) by medieval monks known as rubricators to indicate the beginning of paragraphs.

If you have ever wondered why paragraphs are indented, it’s because:

Indents in medieval manuscripts left room for pilcrows, to be added by hand, even after the invention of the printing press. Eventually, the rubricated mark was abandoned, though the indentation remains.

Other fascinating facts:

  • The & symbol (ampersand) is derived from blending together the letters e and t
  • The #, which I call a “hash”, is also called a pound sign, number sign and octothorpe
  • Until 1970, the ! (exclamation point) did not have its own key on the typewriter — instead, you had to backspace and type an apostrophe over a full stop to create one (I have a vague memory of doing this on my dad’s old Olivetti when I was a child)
  • There was once a symbol called an “interrobang” (), which was a fusion of the question mark and the exclamation point to express incredulity, and was invented by an advertising executive in 1962 but fell out of favour about a decade later.

I also discovered why many writers annoyingly type two spaces at the end of every sentence (which I then have to delete). It’s a habit or “rule” left over from the days of using typewriters. Fonts on typewriters were monospaced so two spaces were needed after a full stop, but today’s computer technology optically corrects this so only one space is needed.

Finally, Snails & Monkey Tails has a helpful glossary of terms and a useful index. It even shows how to type the correct characters on a Mac and Windows PC using shortcuts and/or unicodes if there’s no glyph palette to help you. This is a terrific little book and one that I have proudly added to my small stash of books about grammar, writing and language usage that I have collected over the course of my career.

Australia, Author, Book review, Jackie Huggins, Magabala Books, memoir, Ngaire Jarro, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading First Nations Writers, Reading Projects, Setting

‘Jack of Hearts QX11594’ by Jackie Huggins & Ngaire Jarro

Non-fiction – paperback; Magabala Books; 224 pages; 2022.

Jack of Hearts QX11594 is an affectionate portrait of Jack Huggins, a former POW and son of a First World War veteran, as told through the eyes of his daughters, Jackie Huggins and Ngaire Jarro.

The book has recently been longlisted for the 2023 Stella Prize, which is how it came to my attention, but I can see that Lisa at ANZLitLovers reviewed it last September, so I am not sure how I missed it.

Wartime experiences

It’s an interesting account of one man’s wartime experiences and the legacy he left behind, but it also reclaims the important role Aboriginal soldiers played in Australian history. That’s because Jack Huggins was a First Nations man who signed up to defend the country at a time when Aboriginal Australians were not even considered citizens. In this context, why did he and so many other Aboriginal men go to war, his daughters wonder.

There were many reasons why Aboriginal men and women went to serve in defence of their country. For many, it was for love of country, to defend their country and sovereign rights, for others it was for payment, security, pursuit of freedom and adventure. We believe our Father’s motivation was to follow in his Father’s footsteps …

Based on personal recollections and written in a naïve, conversational style, the book follows one man’s journey from an idyllic childhood in Ayr, in northern Queensland, to his time as a prisoner of war working on the notorious Burma-Thailand Death Railway during World War Two.

It covers his return home, where fell in love with an Aboriginal woman and got married. He died seven years later from a heart attack, aged 38, leaving behind his wife, Rita, and a trio of young children — three-year-old Ngaire, two-year-old Jackie, and Johnny, who was just four months old. (As an aside, Jackie Huggins has previously written her mother’s life story in a book titled Auntie Rita, which was published in 1994.)

Two voices

The book is told in two distinct voices and while they’re not labelled as such, it’s clear that the more personal elements are Ngaire’s and the more factual ones are Jackie’s. Together, the sisters piece together their father’s story from family anecdotes, defence force records, letters, photographs and interviews with people who knew him personally.

They also retrace his steps as a soldier, where he was captured by the Japanese in Singapore and put to work building the notorious railway, a forced labour project in which “nearly 39 per cent of all those who worked in the railway perished […] mainly from disease and malnourishment”.

As well as being a loving portrait of a man who survived against the odds, Jack of Hearts QX11594 shines a light on the role Aboriginals played in Australia’s ANZAC tradition. The sisters write that in the wars, both First and Second, “Indigenous men and women were spotlighted, welcomed, seen and recognised, serving on the frontline and protecting each other”. But when they were repatriated, it was another story:

For many returned Indigenous veterans, discrimination and prejudice flourished. They were left out of society and were not served in shops and public places, after fighting for their country. They were scorned and degraded and could not get the necessities of a good life such as employment and housing.

Jack, an only child, was one of the lucky ones. He had a good job in the post office and had been raised in a loving home. His parents were unusual in that they were Aboriginal homeowners. The sisters say that it has always puzzled them as to “why Father’s family […] remained ‘free’ people while other Aboriginal people were being herded off in droves to missions and reserves all over Queensland”. They wonder if they claimed another identity to escape, which was common practice at the time.

Another perspective 

I had a couple of minor issues with the editing of the book — the word “very” is used repeatedly, there’s a lot of repetition and sometimes statements are made that could have been fleshed out to add more colour and vibrancy — but I’m being pedantic.

This isn’t the kind of book you read for its literary merit. If you judge Jack of Hearts QX11594 on the sisters’ desire to learn more about their father’s short life by writing his story, it has hit its mark.

Will it make the Stella shortlist? Probably not. But this is a worthy contribution to our nation’s history, one that debunks the myth that only white Australians went to war, by quietly sharing a deeply personal account so different to what most of us have been previously told.

UPDATE (17 March): I neglected to mention that the sisters are from the Bidjara/Birri Gubba Juru nations.

I read this book for my #ReadingFirstNationsWriters project, which you can read more about here. All the books reviewed for this project are on my dedicated First Nations Writers page. I also read this book because it is on the 2023 Stella Prize longlist .

Author, Book review, Edna O'Brien, Faber and Faber, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘August is a Wicked Month’ by Edna O’Brien

Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 208 pages; 2016.

Edna O’Brien’s fourth novel, August is a Wicked Month, was first published in 1965 and subsequently banned by the Irish censors for the story’s sexual candour.

That candour comes in the form of the book’s protagonist, Ellen, a 27-year-old Irishwoman separated from her husband, who goes on a solo holiday to the French Riviera that doesn’t quite work out as planned.

It’s a relatively bleak tale, punctuated by moments of fleeting happiness, joy, excitement and danger, as Ellen seeks solace from her loneliness and emotional isolation.

A trip to the sun

When the book opens Ellen’s husband offers to take their young son  — who divides his time between both parents — on a camping trip to Wales. This frees her up to enjoy her summer vacation from her job as a theatre critic by becoming  “a sort of tourist doing tourist things” in London.

A week into her leave,  a male friend she’s known for about a year drops by and kisses her in the garden. They go to bed together and Ellen finds herself besotted — “Not for years had she felt more happier, more content and therefore youthful”  — but she gets sick of waiting for him to call. To punish him, she decides to go away and books a trip to the south of France.

Her husband and son would not be back for a week or more and she would lie in a strange new place and let strange new things happen to her.

In France, everything is, indeed, new and strange. She has sex on the brain and flirts with almost every male she sees, including the man sitting beside her on the plane. But her judgement is skewed and her choices are poor. Nothing really works out as she would like.

When she falls in with a crowd attached to an American movie star, things look more promising. There are parties in big houses and plenty of attention from rich, powerful men. (Think The Great Gatsby but set in the sun of the French Riviera.)

But she clashes with one of the young American women in the star’s orbit and seems to come at everything from a different angle than everyone else. She tells her new acquaintances that she’s English to avoid uncomfortable conversations about religion and Catholicism. (Early on in the novel there is a brief reference to her having spent an “awful spell in the Magdalen laundry scrubbing it out, down on her knees getting cleansed” but with no further explanation, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps. )

Mid-way through the book the mood of frivolity and sexual abandonment comes to a screeching halt when something happens to remind Ellen that independence comes at a cost.

Evocative and lyrical

I’ve read a handful of Edna O’Brien’s novels in the past, but August is a Wicked Month is by far my favourite.

It’s so evocative of a time and place and she writes so lyrically about being on holiday and experiencing new things. It’s also a fascinating insight into a woman’s interior life, her sexual desires and her hunger to live life to the fullest.

But it was the switch in mood — from light to dark — that really made an impression on me. It was like a kick to the stomach and suddenly the whole story took on a different purpose and became so much more than I had imagined at the start. It made me think about so much and I can see from having re-read the earlier sections that O’Brien had carefully plotted the entire story arc.

It’s a brilliant, brave and frank book. More, please!

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘A Woman of my Age’ by Nina Bawden: A woman begins to question everything about her life and her marriage when she goes on holiday to Morocco with her husband.

‘The Summer Before the Dark’ by Doris Lessing: A well-educated woman contemplates her future after 20 years of marriage and motherhood at a time when having a career wasn’t open to all.

I read this book as part of Cathy’s #ReadingIrelandMonth23. You can find out more about this annual blog event at Cathy’s blog 746 Books.

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Sebastian Barry, Setting

‘Old God’s Time’ by Sebastian Barry

Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber & Faber; 272 pages; 2023. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Sebastian Barry has long been one of my favourite authors so I was excited to read his latest novel, the first to return to Irish shores since The Secret Scripture published in 2008.

Old God’s Time — his ninth novel  is set in Dublin in the 1990s and tells the story of a retired policeman who is brought back to help investigate a “cold case”. But this is not a conventional crime novel.

In fact, it’s the kind of novel that refuses to be boxed in. It’s full of contradictions: complex and multi-layered, yet it’s also a page-turner and effortless to read. It’s an examination of memory, love and survival, blackly humourous in places, harrowing in others — but it should probably come with a trigger warning because at its centre is the utterly vile crime of child sexual abuse as carried out by priests in the Catholic Church.

The pursuit of rough justice

Told in the third person but from the perspective of retired detective Tom Kettle, it examines the idea of rough justice (as opposed to judicial justice). It asks some uncomfortable questions about what happens to survivors when no one is listening.

Tom, a widower, still mourns his beloved wife, June, who was violently and cruelly abused by a priest as a child. His two adult children, Winnie and Joseph, are both dead.

He lives in a lean-to annexed to a Victorian castle in Dalkey, an upmarket Dublin suburb, overlooking the Irish Sea. For some nine months, he’s been content to live a quiet life, alone with just his thoughts where “he had grown to love this interesting inactivity and privacy”. But when two young detectives from his old division come knocking at his door, the past comes back to haunt him in ways he had never quite imagined.

Mind games

The narrative swings between past and present, and sometimes it’s impossible to determine what is real and what is imagined. Tom’s memories, recalled in exacting detail, seem more vivid than his reality, as the line between thoughts and the real world blur.

Things once fresh, immediate, terrible, receding away into old God’s time, like the walkers walking so far along Killiney Strand that, as you watch them, there is a moment when they are only a black speck, and then they’re gone. Maybe old God’s time longs for the time when it was only time, the stuff of the clockface and the wristwatch. But that didn’t mean it could be summoned back, or should be. He had been asked to reach back into memory, as if a person could truly do that.

And while there is a dark undercurrent that pulls Tom along, one that leads to a shocking denouement toward the end, there are lighter moments to provide some relief.

The romance between Tom and June is beautifully told and a real joy to read, but it’s often the witty asides that keep things on an even keel. For example, one of the detectives who comes a-calling is described as “a nice big lump of a young man with a brushstroke for a moustache, a touch Hitlerian if the truth were known”. In another example, a barber describes a haircut as a “Number One, like the child’s phrase for taking a piss”.

Exquisite prose

As ever with a Barry novel, the prose is exquisite. He’s a master at crafting original similes: a ruby necklace is “held tense on her lined neck, like insects on the very point of dispersal”; a meal of frankfurters and mash “lay in his belly like an early pregnancy’; and bed sheets are “so full of nylon they were like an electric storm over Switzerland”.

In just a few carefully chosen words he can conjure up visual images that leave an impression in a reader’s mind. Instead of saying a character is fat, for instance, he says “good lunches and dinners had kept the lines out of his face”. And here’s a filmic description of girls being put to work in an orphanage that still stays with me:

Nuns cared more that the huge floors were polished, the girleens down on their knobbly knees, a long row of them, fifty, with the big polishing cloths. The hands lost in them like stones in snow.

Old God’s Time traverses some complex psychological territory but Barry handles harrowing issues with great sensitivity and humanity. It takes you on an emotional rollercoaster, from happiness to anger— and back again — and will leave you wrung out at the end. But this is a wonderfully haunting novel that has an important story to tell.

I read this book as part of Cathy’s #ReadingIrelandMonth23. You can find out more about this annual blog event at Cathy’s blog 746 Books.

A Year With William Trevor, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, William Trevor

‘Miss Gomez and the Brethren’ by William Trevor

A Year With William Trevor | #WilliamTrevor2023

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 264 pages; 2015.

Reading William Trevor’s books in chronological order is proving to be an interesting exercise because Miss Gomez and the Brethren bears many striking similarities to Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel, the novel immediately preceding it.

Both revolve around intriguing female characters, outsiders thrust into a new community, where they disturb the equilibrium and exhibit signs of eccentricity — although the opening line in this novel puts it more bluntly:

‘In my opinion,’ said Miss Arbuthnot, ‘the child is not in her right mind.’

Both stories also feature disturbing male characters who visit prostitutes or sexually harass women, but Miss Gomez and the Brethren dials up the dark side of human behaviour much more than its predecessor.

A Jamaican orphan

The story, which is set in the late 1960s, begins in Jamaica, where we meet Miss Gomez, an 11-year-old orphan whose parents perished in “the Adeline Street disaster” in which 91 people were burnt alive.

At Arbuthnot Orphanage the legend grew that she was a mad girl, rendered so by the strange circumstance of being the only one spared in the Adeline Street disaster. Occasionally she accepted the legend herself and saw in it the explanation of all that was worrying in her life and her mind. She certainly preferred being mad to being stupid. With such thoughts the child grew up. As the years went by, her legs became excessively long; thin and dark, like autumn twigs. She was troublesome, the staff continued to repeat, because of some streak in her: she took no interest, she didn’t ask normal questions like other children. She overheard them talking about her and didn’t much mind when they were unpleasant about her.

This inability to fit in gets worse when Miss Gomez emigrates to England as a young woman — part of the Windrush generation — and finds herself in London, where everyone seems to be suspicious of black people. She has a succession of menial jobs before she lands a lucrative position as a “dancer” in a Soho club where she’s told that a “black girl naked in glasses […] was an excitement for all-white afternoon clients”. This later paves the way for a short stint as a prostitute in “Mrs Idle’s pleasure house”.

But then Miss Gomez is saved by religion when she answers an ad placed by the Church of the Brethren of the Way back in Tacas, Jamaica. A postal correspondence ensues with the Church founder, Reverend Lloyd Patterson, who encourages her to pray for criminals she reads about in the daily newspapers.

Miss Gomez becomes rather evangelical in this pursuit, and when she takes a job as a cleaner at the last two occupied buildings — the Thistle Arms and nearby Bassett’s Petstore — on a South London street earmarked for demolition, her “God bothering” is ratcheted up to the point where she predicts a “sex crime” that attracts the attention of the police.

A cast of motley characters

At Crow Street we get introduced to a small collection of odd characters — Mr and Mrs Tuke, who run the Thistle Arms, and the three people who live with them: their teenage daughter Prudence; Mr Batt, their 81-year-old lodger and veteran of the First Wolrd War; and Alban Roche, a young man who had previously been convicted as a peeping Tom but now works at the pet shop at the end of the street. Mrs Bassett, the pet shop owner, is a secondary character, as is Atlas Flynn, an Irish labourer who has a “thing” for Mrs Tuke and won’t take no for an answer, even though he knows she is married.

The increasingly derelict Crow Street is almost a character in its own right, providing a sufficiently creepy and isolated backdrop for the drama that unfolds when Miss Gomez infiltrates the street’s motley collection of residents.

Indeed, the street’s changing fortunes could be seen as a metaphor for the larger societal changes that are in play. London’s population is changing. There’s a steady influx of Irish labourers rebuilding the suburbs, and black immigrants are pouring in from the Caribbean.

Racism is rife. For example, Mrs Tuke claims she’s scared of Miss Gomez because she’s a “savage” (I will spare you other racist jibes because they’re offensive but Trevor is always careful to show it is his characters and not him expressing these abhorrent views.)

And there’s always the hint of escalating crime and violence. Miss Gomez, of course, is on a mission to pray for those committing such acts, and her scouring of the newspapers to find people to pray for elicits this:

Another judge, trying another case, said that in his opinion there was sickness everywhere. A woman couldn’t go out to post a letter without running the risk of God alone knew what. There were people walking the country’s streets and byeways who shouldn’t be walking anywhere. There were lunatics abroad and people obsessed with murder, violence, and sexual cruelty. His own niece had been insulted on a tube train. He’d heard of a woman who’d received a telephone call from a man who put intimate proposals to her. In public places advertisements were obscenely defaced, radio and television brought filth into decent folks’ sitting-rooms. In a hotel in Scotland he’d had to walk from a television lounge because of the one-track nature of a late-night show. Women with drinks in their hands, he said, had been sitting in the television lounge laughing.

Admittedly, Miss Gomez and the Brethren does head into some dark territory, but it’s all implied rather than outlined in detail — Trevor knows when to reign it in — but of his early novels, this is definitely the most sombre. And while there are occasional moments of black comedy, on the whole, it paints a rather unsavoury picture of human nature…

I read this book as part of A Year With William Trevor, which I am co-hosting with  Cathy from 746 Books. You are invited to join in using the hashtag #WilliamTrevor2023. To find out more, including our monthly reading schedule, please click here.

♥ This month Cathy reviewed ‘The Love Department’.  I reviewed the same book in 2019. My review is here.

♥ Next month Cathy plans to review ‘The Hill Bachelors ’. and I plan to review ‘Elizabeth Alone’.

Book review

2023 Stella Prize longlist

I’m on the other side of the country (Melbourne, which is a 4hr plane trip away) for a few days to help my sister celebrate a special birthday. When I was booking my trip I was excited to see it coincided with the Stella Prize longlist announcement, so I bought a pair of tickets and invited my teenage niece to come along.

(My niece has become an avid reader in the past couple of years and our tastes are remarkably similar despite us never having talked about books before.)

That announcement was last night. It was held at the Wheeler Centre, opposite the State Library, in the CBD.

After an introductory speech by the Executive Director of Stella, Jaclyn Booton, the Chair of judges, Alice Pung, wasted no time in announcing the 12 books on the longlist, a mix of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. She then invited the panel of judges — Astrid Edwards, Beejay Silcox, Jeff Sparrow and Alison Whittaker — to join her on stage to discuss the books in more detail.

Each judge took it in turns to champion a book — their passion and excitement about each title really shone through, making me (and I’m sure everyone else in the audience) itching to read them.

The list (see below) is an excellent one. The past couple of years I felt the Stella had lost its way, trying to be all things to all people, and I abandoned the notion of reading the shortlist as I had done in previous years. But this year’s longlist seems genuinely exciting.

I liked that judge Beejay Wilcox said these were books that offered the thrill of the unknown — in other words, they weren’t predictable and often wrong footed the reader. These are the qualities I, too, look for in books. I like them to shun the tropes and try new ways of telling a story, either through structure, plot or both and they get extra bonus points if they do exciting things with voice.

Anyway, here’s the list in full in alphabetical order by author’s surname — note that the hyperlinks take you to the book’s entry on the Stella website:

Interestingly, I’m about quarter-way through Iris, so I’m delighted to see that on the list, and I have We Come With this Place and Hydra in my TBR already.

After the discussion about the individual titles, the panel of judges talked a little about the judging process and why they were excited by the list as a whole. It was pointed out that most titles on the list are by small independent presses, which are more inclined to publish off-the-wall or “risky” books.

And the judges were very frank, claiming that of the 200+ books submitted for consideration some of them were just plain terrible and maybe shouldn’t have been published at all!

But readers shouldn’t worry that the books that made the cut were judged by their covers or their look, feel and heft: all titles were read on e-readers to reinforce the idea that it was the text, and the text alone, being judged.

Will I read the entire longlist? Probably not, but I’m going to give the shortlist a red hot go after it is announced on 30 March.

The winner of the $60,000 will be named on 27 April.

You can watch a video of the announcement here:

Book review

‘Shirley’ by Ronnie Scott

Fiction – paperback; Hamish Hamilton; 304 pages; 2023. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I missed Ronnie Scott’s debut The Adversary when it was published a couple of years ago but having now read his second novel, Shirley, I plan on rectifying that situation as soon as possible.

Shirley is one of those delicious-to-read novels that is difficult to describe. If I said it was about a 30-something woman just living her life and navigating the complex relationship she has with her unconventional mother, that would make it sound dull — and it’s certainly not that. I picked it up knowing next to little about it and then I couldn’t put it down (sorry, I hate using that term but it’s an accurate way to express my relationship with this book).

I ate it up in just three sittings over the course of two days.

“Ate up” is a good term to use in this context because this book is heavily focused on food — the narrator is a vegan who likes to cook, and her mother, who lives abroad, is a famous TV personality who made her name through cookery shows — and there are delicious descriptions throughout. (As an aside, I note that in 2014 Scott wrote a non-fiction book about food called Salad Days, so it’s clearly something he’s interested in and knowledgeable about.)

Here’s a plan for an easy meal that can be made after a long day at work […] just cook a few different veggies, but cook them long and slow. I’d done this in the oven on a low temperature the night before […] and now I was heating them up in three of my bad little pots; because the point of the veggies was to be salty, soft and full of garlic oil, a little time in the fridge to marinate actually did them some good. In one pot was pumpkin, another smoked eggplant, and zucchini in the third, the last of which had been cooked so long and slow that it was like caramelised onion in its colour and texture.

It’s set in Melbourne — specifically the inner-city suburbs of Abbotsford and Collingwood — and focuses on the months between the summer bushfires that ravaged the east coast of Australia in late 2019 and Melbourne’s first COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020. But this is NOT a covid/lockdown novel, although it’s told from the perspective of someone looking back on the pandemic — “The past two years haven’t been too easy on anyone” — and how it changed people’s relationships — with themselves and others.

A quiet life

The narrator is an unnamed young woman who leads a low-key life as a copywriter for an insurance company. She’s recently brought her first property, a one-bedroom apartment on the top floor of a squat brick building, and has been allowed to hire someone to help her at work, so things are going along relatively well even if she doesn’t find her job fulfilling.

But as the year turns, a few things change her equilibrium: she breaks up with David, her boyfriend of three-and-a-half years (but they remain friends, helped partly by the fact he rents an apartment in the same block and they keep running into one another); her childhood home, ‘Shirley’ (of the title), is put up for sale; and a new neighbour, a successful female foodie entrepreneur, called Frankie moves in downstairs with whom she develops a tentative friendship. (Frankie, by a stroke of coincidence, is also David’s boss.)

The story charts what happens during this three-month period — there are parties and hook-ups (the woman has an on-off relationship with a “man in a band”) and escapades with David’s adopted cat Meanie, who is blind and diabetic and very old.

Overshadowing this is the woman’s relationship with her famous mother which follows her wherever she goes:

I have the same pink skin as my mother, the same dark hair, the same T-zone, the heavy brows […] the hawkish nose. […] On me, the nose is […] probably the one feature that makes me most recognisable to a certain kind of celebrity-minded person. When I walk into a room of strangers, I’m often my mother’s daughter; and while I do not consider it a curse to see the familiar sequence on people’s faces — recognition, complete awareness of who you are, disappointment that you’re not your mother, silent correction to normal, conversation with note of discord — I am aware that it falls under the general rubric of curses to look like one’s famous mother, only plainer.

The “curse” is worsened by the knowledge that almost 20 years earlier her mother was involved in a scandal that resulted in her fleeing Australia, leaving her teenage daughter in the care of a male assistant. The details of that scandal are slowly revealed over the course of the novel (it’s ludicrously funny rather than sordid), but it has cast a long shadow over the narrator’s life because she was the one left behind to deal with the consequences.

If I was to fault this enormously charming novel it would be that Scott ties up all the loose endings a little too neatly at the end and explains connections that might otherwise have been better left unexplained.

But Shirley is an engaging read with a dynamic female lead that makes a refreshing change from all the “sad girl” novels that fill the new release shelves.

It sparkles with great dialogue, believable characters, hunger-inducing descriptions of food and a vivid inner-city setting. Its interesting observations about love and trust, foodie culture, work-life balance, and the relationship between employers and their staff are simply an added bonus.

Now to see if I can find a copy of Scott’s earlier novel…

‘Shirley’ doesn’t seem to have been published outside of Australia. Try hunting down a copy on or Book Depository, or order it directly from Australia via the independent bookstore Shipping info here.