Author, Bonnie Garmus, Book review, Doubleday, Fiction, general, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Lessons in Chemistry’ by Bonnie Garmus

Fiction – paperback; Doubleday; 390pp; 2022.

I tend to avoid over-hyped books, particularly if they clutter up my social media feeds, which is why I had decided, rightly or wrongly, that Bonnie Garmus’ Lessons in Chemistry was NOT A BOOK FOR ME. (Yes, the capital letters are important.)

And then I saw Brona’s persuasive review and borrowed the book from the library. I ate it up in a couple of days and realised I’d been wrong to cast judgement based on over-exposure to other people’s enthusiasm when I hadn’t even read the novel myself.

It’s a compelling, fast-paced story set in 1950s America about a female chemist who falls in love with another chemist but because he is famous and successful everyone assumes she’s riding on his coattails. Later, when she accidentally falls pregnant, she is sacked. After the birth of her daughter, she reinvents herself as a TV chef, who inspires women across America to find their true calling and pursue it.

Unfortunately, it wears its feminist agenda too heavily on its sleeve (it’s written with a modern mindset that would have been out of place at the time the book is set) and features some irritating quirky elements, such as an anthropomorphised dog and a precocious, super-intelligent child, but I had a fun time reading it anyway. It’s an enjoyable romp, full of comic moments, great characters and a delightful plot, the type of book to get you out of a reading slump or keep you company on a rainy day.

And yet, it deals with some dark subject matter, including the theft of women’s academic work and systematic misogyny, rape and sexual assault (in the workplace), but it never dwells on these: they are presented as fait accompli, just something that the average woman in 1950s America has to put up with if she flouts societal obligations and expectations, which are limited to running a home and raising children.

[…] she only ever seemed to bring out the worst in men. They either wanted to control her, touch her, dominate her, silence her, correct her, or tell her what to do. She didn’t understand why they couldn’t just treat her as a fellow human being, as a colleague, a friend, an equal, or even a stranger on the street, someone to whom one is automatically respectful until you find out they’ve buried a bunch of bodies in the backyard.

Along with the constant commentary about how difficult it is for women — in this case lead character Elizabeth Zott — to be taken seriously outside of the home, it’s littered with witty one-liners to add a level of “sass” and impudence (which I, for one, appreciated). Here’s an example:

Like so many undesirable men, Mr Sloane truly believed other women found him attractive. Harriet [his wife] had no idea where that specific brand of self-confidence came from. Because while stupid people may not know they’re stupid because they’re stupid, surely unattractive people must know they’re unattractive because of mirrors.

The word that best springs to mind to describe Lessons in Chemistry is “hyperreal”. Everything seems slightly exaggerated – the dialogue, the tone of voice, the setting, and the ridiculous nature of the TV cooking show hosted by a woman who uses chemical names for ingredients.

It feels like something dreamed up by author Anne Tyler, the creator of the period drama series Mad Men and film-maker Wes Anderson. But it’s a winning combination. I can’t wait for the TV adaptation coming later this year

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2023)

20 Books of Summer – 2023 edition

I’ve been participating in Cathy’s annual 20 Books of Summer reading challenge since 2017, so here I am again, albeit a few days late, putting up my hand to say I’m giving it another shot.

This three-month-long event (1 June-31 August) is a great way to tackle books on the TBR, and while I’ve had mixed results over the years (I don’t always read the full 20 books), it’s fun to delve into the shelves to unearth gems that have been hanging around for a long time.

This year is a bit more exciting than usual because I have recently been reacquainted with my “London TBR” — that is, all the books that went into storage when I repatriated in June 2019 — so that means I have loads and loads to choose from! (A global pandemic got in the way of fully packing up our lives in the UK, hence the delay in getting things shipped.)

In fact, I have so many books to choose from I’m finding it difficult to decide on which 20 to read. In fact, I’ve chosen 30 physical books and nine digital ones, and while there’s no way I will read 39 in three months, I will choose my 20 from this pile as and when the mood strikes rather than deciding now which ones to read.

Cathy’s pretty relaxed with the rules, so I also reserve the right to ignore these ones and substitute them for others on my shelves!

As you can see, these two piles are a good reflection of my reading interests. I’ve got Australian literature, Irish literature (including William Trevor), a couple of Brits and a bunch of First Nations writing in there. There are some non-fiction reads, a couple of Patrick Modianos and a handful of Italian books to capitalise on my new-found interest in Italian literature, especially those set in and around the Second World War.

The books on my Kindle include more of the same, with a couple of Japanese modern classics thrown into the mix:

My list in full

  • ‘Locust Summer’ by David Allan-Petale (Australian)
  • ‘The Children’s Train’ by Viola Ardone (Italian)
  • ‘Cold Enough for Snow’ by Jessica Au (Australian)
  • ‘Forbidden Notebook’ by Alba de Cespedes (Italian)
  • ‘Day’s End’ by Garry Disher (Australian)
  • ‘The Happy Couple’ by Naoise Dolan (Irish)
  • ‘The House of Doors’ by Tan Twang Eng (Malaysian)
  • ‘Happening’ by Annie Ernaux (French)
  • ‘All Our Yesterdays’ by Natalia Ginzburg (Italian)
  • ‘Billa Yarrudhanggalangdhuray / River of Dreams’ by Anita Heiss (Australian/First Nations)
  • ‘Madukka, The River Serpent’ by Julie Janson (Australian/First Nations)
  • ‘Walk the Blue Fields’ by Claire Keegan (Irish)
  • ‘Soldier, Soldier’ by Claire Kilroy (Irish)
  • ‘The Pea Pickers’ by Eve Langley (Australian)
  • ‘Christ Stopped at Eboli’ by Carlo Levi (Italian)
  • ‘Grace Notes’ by Bernard MacLaverty (Irish)
  • ‘Tokyo Express’ by Seicho Matsumoto (Japanese)
  • ‘The Sun Walks Down’ by Fiona McFarlane (Australian)
  • ‘The Pornographer’ by John McGahern (Irish)
  • ‘The Search Warrant’ by Patrick Modiano (French)
  • ‘In the Cafe of Lost Youth’ by Patrick Modiano (French)
  • ‘The Satsuma Complex’ by Bob Mortimer (British)
  • ‘My Father’s House’ by Joseph O’Connor (Irish)
  • ‘Miss Emily’ by Nuala O’Connor (Irish)
  • ‘A Chill in the Air’ by Iris Origo (Italian)
  • ‘War in Val D’Orcia’ by Iris Origo (Italian)
  • ‘Spies in Canaan’ by David Park (Irish)
  • ‘I Refuse’ by Per Petterson (Norwegian)
  • ‘The Moon and the Bonfires’ by Cesare Pevase (Italian)
  • ‘The Thing About September’ by Donal Ryan (Irish)
  • ‘The Adversary’ by Ronnie Scott (Australian)
  • ‘The Magicians’ by Colm Toibin (Irish)
  • ‘The Silence in the Garden’ by William Trevor (Irish)
  • ‘Fool’s Fortune’ by William Trevor (Irish)
  • ‘Other People’s Worlds’ by William Trevor (Irish)
  • ‘Territory of Light’ by Yuko Tsushima (Japanese)
  • ‘Personal Score’ by Ellen Van Neerven (Australian/First Nations)
  • ‘The Gardener’ by Salley Vickers (British)
  • ‘Another Day in the Colony’ by Chelsea Watego (Australian/First Nations)

You can find out more about 20 Books of Summer at Cathy’s blog and see who else is participating on this add your links page.

Have you read any of the books I’ve chosen? Any suggestions on which one to start with first? Are you participating in this challenge?

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

‘A Bit on the Side’ by William Trevor

A Year With William Trevor | #WilliamTrevor2023

Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 172 pages; 2005.

The title of William Trevor’s short story collection A Bit on the Side might hint at love affairs and adultery, and while there is, indeed, some of that, the real theme that runs throughout is loneliness and solitude. 

Most of the 12 stories feature characters dealing with situations in which they are friendless or somehow isolated from the rest of mainstream society. It’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that many are set in provincial Ireland.

And while this book was published toward the latter part of Trevor’s career (it was first published in 2004), it still has all the hallmarks of his earlier work in that it explores the darker side of humanity and offers up a range of characters who are perhaps misguided or selfish or psychologically damaged.

A widow’s relief

The opening story “Sitting with the Dead”, for instance, is about Emily, a woman recently bereaved, who is secretly relieved that her controlling husband, a racehorse trainer with a surfeit of anger, has died but must maintain a mourning wife facade.

When two middle-aged Catholic sisters arrive slightly too late to sit with the dying (as they have made a habit of doing), Emily invites them in for a cup of tea even though she doesn’t know them and doesn’t want the company. But their mere presence invites confession because she’s never had anyone to share her truth with: 

‘He married me for the house,’ she said, unable to prevent herself from saying that too. The women were strangers, she was speaking ill of the dead. She shook her head in an effort to deny what she’d said, but that seemed to be dishonesty, worse than speaking ill. […] ‘He married me for the forty acres,’ Emily said, compelled again to say what she didn’t want to. ‘I was a Protestant girl that got passed by until he made a bid for me and I thought it was romantic, like he did himself – the race cards, the race ribbons, the jockey’s colours, the big crowd there’d be. That’s how it happened.’
‘Ah now, now,’ Kathleen said. ‘Ah now, dear.’

A strange date

In “An Evening Out”, probably my favourite story in the collection, a middle-aged man and woman go on their first date, having pre-arranged it via the intriguingly named Bryanston Square Introduction Bureau. They meet at a theatre bar in London because it would be empty when they arrived and therefore there “wouldn’t be the embarrassment of approaches made by either of them to the wrong person”.

But both of them have different agendas. Evelyn, who is lonely following the death of the mother she looked after for years, is now looking for companionship — “marriage did not come into it, but nor was it entirely ruled out” — while Jeffrey, a photographer, is looking for someone with a car who can drive him to photoshoots across town.

He’s also looking for a free meal (with plenty of expensive wine) and manages, by sleight of hand, to get Evelyn to pay for it when he discovers she sold her Nissan a year ago and is therefore of no practical use to him.

A woman’s confession

In “Solitude”, a young girl pushes her mother’s lover down the stairs, a tragedy which brings her parents together but has other consequences: they move out of their grand house in London and spend the rest of their lives cosseting their daughter and wondering about Europe where they take up residence in a succession of hotels.

It’s only when her parents die, both aged in their 80s, that she feels able to confess what she did as a child to complete strangers.

Each time I found my listener, each time across a teashop table or in a park, there was politeness; and moments later there was revulsion. Some traveller killing tedious time in a railway waiting-room would look away and mumble nothing; or on a tram, or in a train, would angrily push past a nuisance. And the whisper of an apology would not be heard. 

Oblique approach

What’s interesting stylistically about many of these stories (not all) is the way Trevor seems to shun a more straightforward narrative style and opts for an oblique approach.

I often struggled to get an initial handle on the stories — who was who, and who had done what and why, for instance — and had to readjust my expectations. I was not going to be told anything. I was going to be shown. And I might even have to wait until the end of each story for all the information to be revealed so that I could make sense of the whole. Sometimes I even went back and reread a story once I had all the facts to fully understand it.

A Bit on the Side is, therefore, not a collection to rush through. It’s a collection to savour and to take your time with. It’s a collection that will reward the patient reader.

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 is reviewing ‘Felicia’s Journey’. I have previously reviewed this book, which you can read here.

♥ Next month Cathy plans to review ‘Death in Summer’ and I plan to review ‘Other People’s Worlds’

2023 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Literary prizes

The 2023 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Winner

Congratulations to Irish writer Aingeala Flannery whose book The Amusements was named winner of the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award 2023 at Listowel Writers’ Week overnight. She receives €20,000 in prize money.

In my review, I described the book, which is essentially a collection of loosely connected short stories, as having a “distinct William Trevor vibe”.

I read every shortlisted title, which was a rich and rewarding experience.

As a reminder, the books were:

The official announcement is here.

2023 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Audrey Magee, Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, satire, Setting

‘The Colony’ by Audrey Magee

Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 384 pages; 2022.

When I was undertaking my Master of Journalism in the mid-1990s, I wrote a 5,000-word essay on how the Irish broadcast media was helping preserve and promote the Irish language, particularly in the Gaeltacht districts. I was thinking of how at risk the language was (in the years before the 2003 Official Languages Act was adopted) when I was reading Audrey Magee’s The Colony.

I was also thinking of J.M. Synge’s The Aran Islands, an anthropological study of the people who lived on these ancient rocky islands in Galway Bay, untouched by modernity at the turn of the 19th century, and how he sought to document their traditions and lifestyles before they disappeared forever.

The Colony, an intricately woven novel about the impacts of colonisation on a small island off the west coast of Ireland, is an amalgamation of these subject areas — and it is probably the best book I have read all year (so far).

Visitors and rivals

Jean-Pierre (JP) Masson, a Frenchman, is spending the summer (his fourth) on the island to document the Irish language, which is spoken almost exclusively by the inhabitants, while Mr Lloyd, an artist and an Englishman, is there (for the first time) to document the landscape in his paintings.

The two men become rivals in the sense that they wanted the island and its inhabitants all to themselves for a single summer — Masson believes Lloyd’s presence will affect the integrity of his study because the population will be more inclined to speak English with him. And Lloyd doesn’t like the idea of a noisy Frenchman, flirting with the island’s women and spoiling the peace and quiet he needs to do his art.

Their interleaved narratives are interspersed with short one-paragraph chapters revealing the state of play on the Irish mainland: it’s 1979 and The Troubles are in full swing.

Joseph McKee is walking on Saturday, June 9th to a butcher shop in Belfast, close to the amusement arcade on Castle Street where he works as a doorman. He is thirty-four years old, a Catholic and a member of the Official IRA. Two men from the Ulster Defence Association pull up beside him on a motorbike and shoot him four times in the back of the head, revving the engine to mask the sound of the gun.

A strange dependency

To survive, the islanders, who often make snide and funny comments about their visitors behind their backs (or in Irish), need the rent money Lloyd and Masson pay. The menfolk generally make their living from fishing, but in recent years many have died at sea and there’s a very real fear, especially among the women, that the community will starve when the harsh winter months arrive.

James, one of the young men on the island who spends his days hunting rabbits to supply his mother and grandmother with food for the table, dreams of escaping his adult fate — which is to become a fisherman — and begins to badger Lloyd into teaching him to paint. When he discovers an untapped talent for art, he believes he can head to London and make a different life for himself.

But even with Lloyd’s begrudging support, it’s clear that neither Lloyd nor Masson has any interest in helping the people they are using for their own ends. Once they have done their work, they will head back to England and France respectively and think nothing of the people they have left behind or of the potential harm they may have created by interfering in day-to-day life, if only for a few months.

Allegory and satire

The Colony is a wonderful allegory and biting satire about colonialism in all its oppressive, systematic glory.

Lloyd, who complains about the food and refuses to learn the Irish language, represents the worst of British colonialism; Masson, who is arrogant and demanding but damaged by his own colonial legacy (his mother was Algerian and yearned for her homeland), represents a sense of history repeating itself.

As both bicker and fight and argue with each other, it’s clear that neither party can see the potential long-reaching impact of their presence in a community that has become beholden to their money and influence.

You can’t speak on this. You have spent centuries trying to annihilate this language, this culture.
Lloyd stuck his fork into his tart. He ate two pieces and drank some tea.
France is no better, said Lloyd. Look at Algeria. At Cameroon. At the Pacific Islands.
You’re deflecting.
Lloyd shrugged.
This is about Ireland, said Masson. About the Irish language.
And do the Irish have a say, said Lloyd, in your great plan for saving the language?
The English don’t, said Masson.

But the islanders aren’t portrayed as weak or inferior. Indeed, the boatman Micheál does take advantage, believing the visitors to be ludicrous, stupid — or both.

Many times I was reminded of the wonderful work of Magnus Mills, whose own fable-like tales have often dealt with similar issues. (A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In, for instance, mocks colonialism, while The Field of the Cloth of Gold is about immigration and integration.) Even the mundane dialogue and understated comic moments feel like they have come out of Mills’ playbook.

But the prose style is more elegant, more lyrical than Mills, and often the way it is arranged on the page, stanza-like and with one word per line, it reads like poetry.

I adored The Colony, which was longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction. It has recently been shortlisted for this year’s Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award, which will be named in a few days’ time. It would be a deserving winner.

For other reviews, please see Lisa’s at ANZ LitLovers and Susan’s at A Life in Books. Sue at Whispering Gums has also reviewed it.

This is my fifth and final book from the 2023 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year shortlist. I am trying to read them all (there are five) before the winner is named at the end of May.

2023 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Adrian Duncan, Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting, Tuskar Rock Press

‘The Geometer Lobachevsky’ by Adrian Duncan

Fiction – Kindle edition; Tuskar Rock; 166 pages; 2022.

When I was sent by the Soviet state to London to further my studies in calculus, knowing I would never become a great mathematician, I strayed instead into the foothills of anthropology.

It’s not every day you read a novel that is about surveying, peat extraction, electricity generation and exile — so full points to Berlin-based Irish writer Adrian Duncan for originality!

A Russian emigré in Ireland

The Geometer Lobachevsky, which has been shortlisted for the 2023 Walter Scott Prize and the 2023 Kerry Group Novel of the Year, is a unique story about a Russian man, Nikolai Lobachevsky, who finds himself in Ireland helping survey a peatland bog in the Midlands.

It is 1950, and Ireland is embarking on a new era of state-powered electricity generation inspired by the Soviet’s expertise in this subject area.

I am standing on the edge of a bog. There is wind. And sky meeting arm-opening land.

But Nikolai finds the work challenging, not because he can’t do it, but because his Irish counterparts don’t seem to understand the fundamental problems associated with measuring a landscape that moves and swells depending on its ever-changing water content.

His attempts to add rigour and mathematical accuracy to the process are viewed as comical and at odds with normal Irish conventions which is to just get things done with as little effort as possible (hence the quote above which refers to “anthropology”).

Exiled on an island

Not that it matters much in the long run, for Nikolai goes into hiding when he receives a letter calling him back to Leningrad to take up a “special appointment”.

In the pit of my stomach bubbles a pool of bile; I want to take a match to this pool, light it and burn it way, then take the match to what remains.

He reinvents himself as a Polish ex-POW who has discovered God and moves to an island on the Shannon estuary. Here he falls in with four devoutly Catholic Irish families and immerses themselves in their lives.

I live on the northern edge of this island of barely 300 acres, amid the hedges and pastures, in a gatehouse once owned by a member of what they call ‘the landed gentry’.

Eventually, the pull of his family back home, and the desire to see their faces for one last time, has him return to Russia — against his better judgement.

Strange and evocative tale

The Geometer Lobachevsky is an extraordinarily strange yet eerily evocative novel. The descriptions of landscapes and places are lush and cinematic.

References to mathematics infuse the text to remind us that Nikolai — the fictional grandson of the famous 19th-century Russian mathematician of the same name — is a geometer who sees everything around him through the lens of shapes and angles and numbers. It’s a neat touch.

But for all the descriptive language, and even the political commentary (which seems to suggest there was incompetency, corruption and violence within Ireland’s electricity industry as it was being set up), the narrative lacks propulsion. I kept wondering where the story was headed and didn’t much care in the end whether Nikolai lived or died.

It’s a book of moods, intrigue and vivid imagery. But I need more than that to truly fall in love with a story.

This is my fourth book from the 2023 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year shortlist. I am trying to read them all (there are five) before the winner is named at the end of May.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Maclehose Press, Paris, Patrick Modiano, Publisher, Setting

‘The Black Notebook’ by Patrick Modiano (translated by Mark Polizzotti)

Fiction – hardcover; MacLehose Press; 160 pages; 2016. Translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti.

This is my third review of Patrick Modiano’s work this year, for which I make no apologies. He’s fast becoming a new favourite writer.

The Black Notebook, first published in the French language as L’herbe des nuits in 2012, bears striking similarities to an earlier 1992 novel, After the Circus, which was the first Modiano book I had ever read and reviewed.

In that novel, the narrator, Jean, reveals that as an 18-year-old he was interrogated by police about a man and a woman he claimed not to know. He also tells us about a woman named Gisèle who he met and fell in love with, but she had many closely guarded secrets and lured him into a world beset by dangerous unseen forces.

In The Black Notebook, the narrator, who is also called Jean (although whether it’s the same Jean isn’t made clear and probably isn’t important), explains that about 20 years earlier he was interrogated by police about his involvement with a woman called Dannie, who had a dubious past and was wanted for a homicide committed three months before they met.

His relationship with her years earlier had unwittingly drawn him into a world of dangerous men where the threat of violence ran like an undercurrent beneath their loose acquaintanceships. He had never truly known who they were or what they did, but he would meet them at the Unic Hôtel, the Cité Universitaire cafeteria or empty cafés for drinks and conversation.

Exploring the streets of Paris

Fast forward 40 years and Jean is now a middle-aged man and a successful writer. He acts like a flâneur, wandering the streets of the Montparnasse district of Paris, but he has a goal in mind. Using his notebook from his youth as an aidemémoire, he wants to piece together clues about who Dannie was, what crime she had committed and how he truly felt about her.

The notebook includes “as many small details as possible concerning this short, turbulent period of my life” but often lacks context or explanation. It’s all snippets of information to jog the memory, which he describes as akin to a train rushing by

… too fast for you to read the name of the town. And so, with your forehead pressed against the window, you note down other details: a passing river, the village bell tower, a black cow ruminating beneath a tree, removed from the herd. You hope that at the next station, you’ll be able to read the name and find out what region you’re in.

The narrative, told in a simple, straightforward style, explores notions of memory and time — “For me, there has never been a present or a past” — and seamlessly blends Jean’s recollections of the past with his present experiences.

Through the looking glass

There are recurring motifs — a red car, a camel-coloured overcoat, a black briefcase, various train station platforms and lights left on in rooms — throughout the text, while multiple references to glass — in windows, mirrors, windscreens and even aquariums — are used as a metaphor for a barrier, a place to look at the world but remain separate from it.

This is how he describes seeing the gang of men, for instance, as he stands on the pavement and watches them through the hotel window:

They were only a few centimetres from me behind the window, and the second one, with his moonlike face and hard eyes, didn’t notice me either. Perhaps the glass was opaque from the inside, like a one-way mirror. Or else, very simply, dozens and dozens of years stood between us: they remained frozen in the past, in the middle of the hotel foyer, and we no longer lived, they and I, in the same space of time.

Towards the end of Jean’s stroll, he runs into Langlais, the police officer, now retired, who interrogated him all those years ago, and they sit in a cafe and enjoy a coffee together. And that’s when Langlais offers to share the case file he filched as a “souvenir” of his retirement and which offers up most of the answers Jean has been looking for.

The Black Notebook is a thrilling and tense read, but it’s also a hypnotic one.

Patrick Modiano was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2014 and has more than 40 books to his name.

2023 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Aingeala Flannery, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, short stories

‘The Amusements’ by Aingeala Flannery

Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 223 pages; 2022.

Aingeala Flannery’s The Amusements is a collection of loosely connected short stories set in Tramore, a traditional seaside town in County Waterford, on the southeast coast of Ireland, famed for its fairground and long beach.

There’s a distinct William Trevor “vibe” about the tales of small-town lives depicted here, so I felt validated to discover, via the author’s Acknowledgements, that she was inspired by Trevor’s work, explaining that his story Honeymoon in Tramore “set me off on a flight of fancy”.

The way Flannery explores the interconnectedness of people living in the same small community, where everyone knows everyone else, where people bear grudges and are suspicious of “blow-ins”, comes right out of Trevor’s “school of writing”. Even her characters — life-like, flawed and shaped by their local community — could have stepped out of his pages.

But that’s not to say her work is derivative; it’s not. The Amusements is a highly original, closely observed portrait of a town and its residents, both permanent and fleeting, and the ways in which their lives intersect over the course of 30 or so years.

Interconnected stories

There are 16 stories in total and most are framed around the Swaine family headed by bitter matriarch Nancy who never has a nice word to say about anyone.

My sister says our mother is ‘spitting venom’. I can’t tell any more if Tish is trying to warn me, or to guilt me. Seems to me Nancy always spat venom, was always out with somebody: Auntie Stasia, the next-door neighbour, my brother Michael and his ‘appalling’ wife. It’s not easy to stay in with a person whose default position is disapproval.

We first meet Nancy in “Star of the Sea” when she’s a widowed mother who breaks up her teenage daughter Stella’s close friendship with budding photographer Helen Grant. She appears again in “Making Friends” when she has a serious falling out with her new neighbour Vonnie Jacob. Later, in “Home” Nancy is residing in an aged-care facility and her now-adult daughter Stella —who has moved to London via New York —  returns to Tramore on a flying visit to see her. In “The Reason I’m Calling” she is dying, aged 68, and by “Woodbine” she has passed away.

Her children, Tish and Stella, star in separate stories: Tish is married to a “good husband” and has a young daughter, Evie, but seems harassed and discontent with her lot; Stella, who moved away to become an artist, lives an unconventional life and hates returning home to Tramore because it just reminds her of all the reasons she fled in the first place.

Brilliant characters

Other subsidiary characters from the town — such as the butcher Thaddeus Burke, the public health nurse Jenny Supple and the bed-and-breakfast landlady Muriel Power — are also featured. Many of these characters move from one tale to another, and events which happen in one story are concluded, or referenced, in the next. But there are also a few that end abruptly and don’t seem to add much to the overarching narrative, and I would question their inclusion.

Tramore is also a character in its own right, a place that comes alive in summer as a bustling tourist hot spot, but dies down in winter when the amusement arcades close and the fairground rides shut down.

But regardless of the season, idle gossip, reputational crises and personal struggles abound. Anyone who has lived in a small town or close-knit community will recognise the people in these pages.

The Amusements is a terrifically entertaining read, brimming with life in all its messy, chaotic complexity. It has been shortlisted for this year’s Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year.

This is my third book from the 2023 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year shortlist. I am trying to read them all (there are five) before the winner is named at the end of May.

2023 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Anya Bergman, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Literary prizes, Manilla Press, Norway, Publisher, Setting

‘The Witches of Vardø’ by Anya Bergman

Fiction – paperback; Manilla Press; 385 pages; 2023.

In the winter of 1662-63, a total of 20 women died during the witch trials which took place on the island of Vardø, located in the extreme northeastern part of Norway, far above the Arctic Circle. The women had been put on trial for “making pacts with the devil”. Eighteen of them were burnt at the stake and two were tortured to death.

Anya Begman’s novel The Witches of Vardø is a fictionalised account of what happened. The characters are inspired by real people whose experiences are documented in court testimonies.

In writing the book, the author, who lived in Norway for a time, says her purpose was to “raise the lost voices of the women accused of witchcraft with tenderness while invigorating their seventeenth-century history with contemporary resonance”.

Dual storyline

I don’t tend to read historical fiction set earlier than the 19th century, so this novel took me right out of my comfort zone. It reads very much like a fable or old-fashioned tale, with lots of tell and not a huge amount of show, but once I got into the rhythm of the story (it’s a slow burn), I quite enjoyed it.

The narrative comprises two storylines told in alternate chapters from two different points of view. Both highlight the very real dangers of being female in a patriarchal society where men controlled every facet of a woman’s life, restricting them to domestic (and sexual) servitude.

Anna Rhodius, the daughter of a physician and a talented healer herself, was once the King of Denmark’s mistress. She has been banished to Vardø but she’s eager to return to her life of privilege and will do almost anything she can to go back to it, even if that means helping to prosecute other women for witchcraft.

Ingeborg Sigvaldsdatter is the teenage daughter of Zigri, a woman accused of witchcraft when her affair with a local merchant is discovered. Accompanied by Maren, another teenager whose mother has already been condemned as a witch, Ingeborg makes a long and treacherous journey to Vardø to try to rescue her mother who has been locked up in the governor’s fortress.

Anna’s story is told in the first person in a series of letters she addresses to the King, pleading to be reinstated in his eyes; Ingeborg’s is in the third person and takes a wider view, showing how her life was forever altered when her fisherman father and brother were lost at sea, leaving behind a wife and two daughters who were plunged into grief and struggled to find enough to eat.

Their stories are interleaved with folktales, including those of the Sámi people, and the mysterious appearance of a lynx with golden eyes.

Plot-driven story

The Witches of Vardø is a largely plot-driven novel that charts events leading up to and including Zigri’s trial.

It moves at a relatively slow pace and there’s a lot of detail (about Ingeborg’s journey and Anna’s past affair), which sometimes feels laboured. But the writing is atmospheric, chilly and Gothic by turn. The depictions of romantic love and the betrayals that can sometimes come with it are beautifully evoked.

Unsurprisingly, the witch trial that forms the climax of the novel is powerful and violent, but the aftermath, in which Maren and Ingeborg escape to lead lives of their own feels redemptive — and hopeful.

For another take on this novel, please see this review at Theresa Smith Writes.


A lasting memorial

By Stylegar – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47091822

Just to hammer home the point that the witch trials were a real thing, these photographs show the Steilneset Memorial in Vardø, which commemorates the 91 victims who were convicted of witchcraft and executed in Finnmark in the 17th century. A collaboration between the artist Louise Bourgeois and the architect Peter Zumthor, it comprises a 125m memorial hall (above) and a burning chair (below).

You can read more about the memorial at this Norwegian tourist website (note, it’s in Norwegian but you can translate it) or via this Wikipedia page.

By Bjarne Riesto – https://www.flickr.com/photos/eager/13571909504, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48501399


This is my second book from the 2023 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year shortlist. I am trying to read them all (there are five) before the winner is named at the end of May.

Book lists

10 years of favourite reads from the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year shortlists

At the end of this month, the winner of the 2023 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year will be named at Listowel Writers’ Week.

This annual award for Irish writers of fiction was established in 1995 — and the list of alumni reads like a roll call of Ireland’s best contemporary writers, including everyone from Deidre Madden to John Banville. (You can see the list of winners on this Wikipedia page.)

I’ve been following the prize closely since 2017, but I was first made aware of it in 2012 when I read the winner, Christine Dwyer Hickey’s exceedingly good The Cold Eye of Heaven. In fact, I read three other books from that year’s shortlist — Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz, Carlo Gebler’s The Dead Eight and Belinda McKeon’s Solace — and loved them all.

Over the years, the shortlists have provided me with rich pickings and acted as a faithful guide to the best crop of Irish novels released in a particular year. I thought it might be useful to put together a list of my favourites from the past decade.

If you’re not sure where to start with Irish literature or just want to read something entertaining and well-written, this list of 18 novels should provide inspiration. It has been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Click on the book’s title to read my review in full.

‘The Blue Guitar’ by John Banville (shortlisted in 2016)

A pompous, self-obsessed Irish artist looks back — in forensic detail — on the love affair he carried out with his best friend’s wife. Richly immersive.

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry

‘Beatlebone’ by Kevin Barry (shortlisted in 2016)

A Liverpudlian named John goes on a riotous adventure to the uninhabited Irish island he bought years ago but has never visited. A riotous romp full of unexpected surprises.

‘Night Boat to Tangier’ by Kevin Barry (shortlisted 2020)

Two Irish gangsters reminisce about their topsy-turvy lives as drug dealers while they wait for someone to get off the night boat at the Spanish port of Algeciras. Blackly comic.

‘A Ladder to the Sky’ by John Boyne (shortlisted 2019)

A would-be writer hellbent on topping the bestseller lists resorts to criminality in the pursuit of fame and glory. Riotously good fun.

My Name is Leon

‘My Name is Leon’ by Kit de Waal (winner 2017)

A mixed-race nine-year-old boy is separated from his younger brother when he is taken into foster care. Bittersweet and heartbreaking.

‘Bright Burning Things’ by Lisa Harding (shortlisted 2022)

A former stage actress with a young son begins to hear paranoid voices in her head that she can only alleviate with alcohol. Tense and compelling with a truly distinctive voice.

‘Small Things Like These’ by Claire Keegan (winner 2022)

Hard-working coal merchant Bill Furlong uncovers a disturbing secret at the local convent run by the Good Shepherd nuns. A short, powerful read.

The Devil I Know by Claire Kilroy

‘The Devil I Know’ by Claire Kilroy (shortlisted 2013)

Tristram St Lawrence, 13th Earl of Howth, gives evidence at a public inquiry into the collapse of the Irish economy. Darkly comic morality tale.

‘Time Present and Time Past’ by Deirdre Madden (shortlisted 2014)

A pair of 40-something siblings negotiate complicated family histories. Understated and hugely enjoyable.

‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’ by Eimear McBride (winner 2014)

A young woman explores her relationship with an older brother, who suffers a brain tumour in childhood that later returns when he is a young man. Devastating and unique.

‘TransAtlantic’ by Colum McCann (shortlisted 2014)

One-hundred and fifty years of Irish history explored through a handful of seminal real-life characters — British aviators, an abolitionist and an American politician — together with three generations of fictional women from the same family. Bold and ambitious.

Solar Bones

‘Solar Bones’ by Mike McCormack (shortlisted 2017)

Civil engineer Marcus Conway stands in his kitchen and thinks about his life and what it is to be a good man. Audacious and unforgettable.

‘Midwinter Break’ by Bernard McLaverty (shortlisted 2018)

Gerry and Stella’s long marriage begins to unravel on a long weekend trip to Amsterdam. Intimate and moving.

‘The Closet Of Savage Mementos’ by Nuala Ní Chonchúir (shortlisted 2015)

A woman looks back on the time she took a summer job in Scotland and fell in love with a much older man who changed her life forever. Evocative and emotional.

‘Shadowplay’ by Joseph O’Connor (shortlisted 2020)

Struggling writer Bram Stoker runs the Lyceum Theatre in 1870s London, where he joins forces with theatre director Henry Irving and leading actress Ellen Terry, and marries a renowned English beauty Florence Balcombe. Full of Gothic atmosphere.

‘Nora’ by Nuala O’Connor (shortlisted 2022)

Nora Barnacle falls in love with writer James Joyce, becomes his muse and flees Ireland with him. Bold and bawdy.

Travelling in a strange land

‘Travelling in a Strange Land’ by David Park (winner 2019)

A newly bereaved parent drives across England in a snowstorm to collect his sole surviving son from university to bring him home to Belfast. Contemplative and beautiful.

‘Bina’ by Anakana Schofield (winner 2021)

An elderly Irish woman gives shelter to a man who refuses to leave. Completely bonkers and bitterly funny.

Have you read any of these books? Or have any piqued your interest?