Anne Griffin, Author, Book review, Fiction, general, Ireland, Publisher, Sceptre, Setting

‘When All is Said’ by Anne Griffin

Fiction – paperback; Sceptre; 266 pages; 2019.

The cover of my edition of Anne Griffin’s When All is Said claims it is an international bestseller. I can see why.

This is a delightful and entertaining tale about an old man looking back on his life in rural Ireland, a man who came from nothing, struggled with dyslexia and reinvented himself as a farmer with an eye for property acquisition.

It shows how the course of his life was altered by a single act in his childhood involving a rare gold coin, an act that binds him to the owner forevermore.

An evening in the bar

The novel is set on a single evening, in the bar of a grand hotel, and is split into five parts. Each part is a toast dedicated to a person who played an important role, whether for good or bad, in 84-year-old Maurice Hannigan’s life.

7.05pm
First Toast: to Tony
Bottle of stout

Over the course of the evening, interspersed with wonderfully amusing details about the hotel and its young landlady owner, we learn about Maurice’s upbringing and the relationships he had with his older brother, his wife Sadie, his two children and his sister-in-law. It’s a typical life in the sense that it’s filled with births, deaths and marriages, ups and downs, tragedies and small triumphs.

But for all the charm and witticisms Maurice displays as he relays his life story, there’s an undercurrent of unease.  On more than one occasion I wondered if others actually liked him? Was he petty? Perhaps even sly and cruel? For throughout the tale Maurice holds a grudge, and a deeply felt one at that — and it’s largely about that aforementioned coin.

A lifelong grudge

This is how the grudge came about. When Maurice’s headmaster advised him to leave school, aged 10, because he struggled to read and write — thanks to what was clearly a case of undiagnosed dyslexia — he went to work for the Dollards, a Protestant family in a Big House, where his mother was already employed in the kitchen.

Maurice did odd jobs around the farm but was subjected to terrible beatings and bullying, mainly by the Dollards’ son, Thomas, who was of a similar age.

Quicker than I thought possible, Thomas was there at my back, a hunting crop in his hand. As I turned, he struck me with it, the metal slicing into my cheek. When I fell to the ground holding my face, he kicked my stomach again and again and again.

Maurice gets to avenge these ongoing cruel acts several months later when he scoops up a gold coin that Thomas has flung out an upstairs window as part of a fight with his father. No one sees Maurice take the coin which turns out to be an exceedingly rare gold sovereign produced when King Edward VIII was on the throne but removed from circulation upon his abdication in 1936. The coin is so rare that its loss costs Thomas his inheritance — and later his sanity.

(Side note: the coin, it turns out, isn’t fictionalised. Only six were produced, making them one of the rarest British coins in existence. Google tells me that the Royal Mint dubbed it the “coinage that never was” because it was pulled from production when King Edward VIII abdicated to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. One of these coins sold at auction in 2020 for £1 million. More about the coin here.)

Reading treat

When All is Said is a real treat to read. The author achieves a careful balancing act, preventing the narrative from heading into either sentimental or maudlin territory. It is tender, frank and endearing.

Maurice’s voice is brilliant — it’s intimate, moving, funny and all too human. You do feel like you are sitting at the bar with him, listening to him tell his tale. He’s a flawed character but he recognises his flaws. When he apologises to his son for not being a good father  — “I know, really I do, that I could’ve been better” — you know he means it.

I’m not sure you could describe When All is Said as a “feel good” book, but it’s certainly a warm and witty one, the kind of tale that makes you appreciate a life well lived. It is masterful storytelling.

16 thoughts on “‘When All is Said’ by Anne Griffin”

    1. I’d never heard about the coin before. Fascinating. Apparently Edward insisted his portrait face the wrong way too because he was vain and didn’t want his bad side showing!

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    1. It’s brilliant. I had heard nothing about it but picked it up by chance in a bookshop when I was looking for something “easy” to read on the beach. It proved to be the perfect choice.

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  1. I often think that when people, when I, apologize for not being a better husband or father, that we think it’s a get out of jail free card, that the apology makes up for all that not being better.

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    1. Ha! Always interesting to get a man’s perspective on these things, Bill! I do think Maurice in this tale is a bit of a shit dad but there’s a reason. His son is bookish and good with words (he later becomes a famous journalist in the US) but Maurice has no time for these interests because of his dyslexia… he wants his son to work the land with him… and, well, he’s not very supportive of his son’s desire to do other things with his life…

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    2. I hadn’t heard of the book kimbofo, but it sounds like a good read.

      As for apologies, I take Bill’s point. Mr Gums is pretty cynical about apologies for this very reason, ie he thinks too many people think apologising is enough, and the end of it. I, of course, am not so black-and-white. Sometimes, apology is all you can do, and, if done sincerely, it is worth doing. BUT, other times – as with “the” Apology – it should be the start of a much bigger process. I don’t know when Maurice apologises here, but if he starts, at that point, being a better father – that is, it’s not too late because he’s on his deathbed! – then the apology is truly meaningful.

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      1. He says it at the very end… but the book is structured as a kind of conversation with his absent son, so his story is not so much an apology but an explanation of why he is the way he is. It’s all very well done. A perfectly enjoyable read and one that I’ve been thinking about ever since finishing it more than a week ago.

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  2. After loving Niall Williams so much last year, I’ve been keeping an ear out for some other Irish writers that might appeal in a similar way. This could be it!

    (Sorry for the late commenting. I’ve been reading blogs on my phone, but for some reason am having a LOT of trouble liking and commenting. It seems to want me to log in every single time on every single blog! So I have to wait until I get onto my laptop to comment.)

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    1. Are you using the WP app? I never have any issue with that… apart from the odd blog whose settings don’t allow you to comment on the app but out of the dozens I follow there’s only two like that 🤷🏻‍♀️

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