Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 288 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Claire Kilroy is a young Irish writer whose debut novel, All Summer, published in 2003, garnered much critical acclaim and earned her the 2004 Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. It was also shortlisted for the 2004 Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award.
Her second novel Tenderwire (2006), a literary thriller set in New York, was shortlisted for the 2007 Hughes and Hughes Irish Novel of the Year but lost out to Patrick McCabe’s Winterwood. I read it last August and thought it was such an intelligent page-turner I was eager to read more of her work. So when I found out there was a new one on the way I asked Faber and Faber if they’d be kind enough to send me a proof copy, and they obliged.
Sadly, I found it very difficult to “get into” All Names Have Been Changed and I put it aside, hoping I might find it more rewarding if I picked it up at another time. And so it lay abandoned on my bedside table for almost two months, until I picked it up last night to give it another try. This time the book seemed more readable and I eagerly made my way through the remaining 100 or so pages, but ultimately I found it disappointing in comparison to Tenderwire.
The book is set in 1980s Dublin and is about a group of creative writing students at Trinity College who become dangerously obsessed with their tutor, the world-famous PJ Glynn. It is narrated by Declan, the only male student in the class of five, but not much seems to happen and before long, as harsh as this will sound, the reader begins to wonder whether there is any point in ploughing on.
Because this is a book about group dynamics and personalities, it seems odd that none of the characters, bar Glynn, a stereotypical drunk Irishman, and Declan, the impoverished student, are particularly memorable. Perhaps it was just me, but the others — Antonia, Aisling, Faye and Guinevere — seemed indistinguishable from each other, so I could never quite remember which one was the mature student, which one was the Goth and which one was rumoured to be abused by her husband. This seems a fundamental flaw given this is essentially a story about writing.
But, in a way, it is this examination of what it is to be a writer that makes All Names Have Been Changed such an interesting read. If you have ever participated in a writing class or idolised a particular author, then much of the content will resonate.
There’s a lot of literary in-jokes here, too, and probably far too many of them went over my head, but it becomes apparent as the story moves on that the participants in the group find themselves acting out roles in a novel. Indeed, at one point, Declan realises that he is no longer aping Glynn but the characters in Glynn’s books.
And Kilroy takes it further by giving each chapter a title taken from a real-life Irish book or song — for example, I don’t like Mondays; The Book of Evidence; The pipes, the pipes are calling; and Tarry Glynn — half the fun of which is identifying their source.
Such a gloomy, sombre novel — remember, this is set during a time when the length of Dublin’s dole queues were notorious and the city was in the grip of a heroin epidemic — begs for this light relief, but I’m not sure the dark humour truly works.
While Kilroy’s prose cannot be faulted (the oft-used phrase “beautifully written” has never been more apt) and the tone is measured and the atmosphere suitably claustrophobic, it feels as if something is missing. I suspect it might be a tighter plot, because even as a character-driven novel I don’t think All Names Have Been Changed quite pulls it off. You might beg to differ.