Author, Book review, Donal Ryan, Doubleday, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Strange Flowers’ by Donal Ryan

Fiction – Kindle edition; Doubleday; 240 pages; 2020.

Given my penchant for Irish literature, you would think that I would have read a Donal Ryan novel by now. Admittedly, I did give his debut novel, The Spinning Heart, a go when it was first published in 2012 but abandoned it because it wasn’t working for me. I almost did the same with this one.

Family problems

Strange Flowers, published in 2020, is a novel spanning three generations of one family.

Set in rural Ireland in the early 1970s, it tells the story of Moll Gladney, a young woman who one day leaves the family home without explanation and does not return.

Her distraught parents, Paddy and Kit, believe they will never see her again, thinking their daughter “was either pregnant or dead, and it was hard to know which one of those was worse”. They continue on with their lives as best they can, their existence a “solemn half-life of work and prayers and weakening hope”.

Five years go by and then, completely out of the blue, Moll returns, dragging a troubled past with her. That past includes a husband — a black man named Alexander Elmwood  — and a child, Joshua, both of whom she has left behind in London.

A new life

The story follows what happens when Alexander turns up in Ireland to try to find his wife, how the pair settle into rural life and the close bond Josh develops with his grandparents. Later, when Josh is an adult, he repeats his mother’s pattern of behaviour by fleeing to London.

Despite being told in a disjointed manner employing different points of view along the way —  Strange Flowers is broken into six parts named after sections in the Bible — it’s easy enough to follow and all the loose ends are nicely tied up at the end. We even find out why Moll went on the run in the first place, right back in 1973, which makes for a satisfying read.

And while the narrative is occasionally devastating and sad and brims with melancholia and a sense of history repeating, there was something about it that just did not work for me.

I hesitate to use the word “twee” but it’s the first one that springs to mind. The Irishness feels overdone to the point of being “Oirish” and ditto for the breathless nature of the prose in which some sentences are up to a page long.

I also had difficulty with the portrayal of Alexander’s family in London and the way in which an English black man could be so readily accepted by a small Irish community (he experiences little to no racism).

On the whole, I felt rather lukewarm about this novel, but realise this puts me out of step with many other readers and critics, all of whom have heaped praise on it.

Strange Flowers won the An Post Irish Novel of the Year in 2020 and has been described by the Sunday Independent as “one of the greatest novels of this century”. 

Australia, Author, Book review, Doubleday, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, M.L. Stedman, Publisher, Setting

‘The Light Between Oceans’ by M.L. Stedman


Fiction – hardcover; Doubleday; 400 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

In the opening chapter of M.L. Stedman’s extraordinary debut novel, The Light Between Oceans, a couple of lines from a conversation acts as a portent of things to come. It is 1918, and Tom Sherbourne, returned from the Great War, is sailing on board a passenger ship between Sydney and Perth, en route to a new job. During the trip he rescues a woman from the unwanted advances of another returned soldier. He tells her she will no longer have any more trouble from him, but it’s up to her whether she reports the incident formally. “Being over there changes a man,” he says, in an attempt to explain the man’s actions.  “Right and wrong don’t look so different any more to some.”

It is that blurring of lines between right and wrong that later come back to haunt Tom. And, through an amazing coincidence, so, too, does the woman.

Captivating and heart-rending

But let me backtrack. This novel, which is the first by Australian-born, London-based Stedman, was apparently subject to an international bidding war by nine publishers keen to acquire rights to it. I’m not surprised. This is one of those rare books that is so captivating and heart-rending that it leaves you feeling bereft — and cried out — when it ends.

It is set mainly in the 1920s on a remote island off the coast of Western Australia, where the Indian Ocean meets the Great Southern Ocean. Tom works for the Commonwealth Lighthouse Service running and maintaining the lighthouse. It is a lonely life, but when he meets and woos Isabel during some rare onshore leave, he brings her back to the island as his wife.

Their idyllic existence is ruined by a succession of miscarriages and a stillbirth that plunge the couple into despair. But one day, a dinghy washes up on their little beach containing a dead man and a “woman’s soft lavender cardigan wrapped around a tiny, screaming infant”.

Despite Tom’s reservations — he’s a stickler for rules and order — the couple decide to keep the baby, whom they call Lucy, and pass her off as their own daughter. Their isolation and lack of contact with other humans, save from the boatmen that bring them occasional supplies, means their subterfuge can be carried out relatively easily.

But when they go on their first shore leave, some two years later, the impact of their decision hits them in an unexpected way: a local widow, ravaged by grief, is still looking for her baby, believed lost at sea.

A secret begins to unspool

As Tom and Isabel’s secret begins to unspool, the small rift in their marriage widens into a gulf — Tom, who has never been comfortable with their decision, now wants to do the right thing and tell the authorities; Isabel, who believes Lucy was a “gift from God”, wants to carry on as if nothing has happened. Who is right? What impact will it have on Lucy if her parents decide to come clean? And will the real mother be any happier having a child she has not brought up returned to her?

The Light Between Oceans charts the impact of one fateful decision on both the “fake” parents and the real mother. It also reveals the impact on others unwittingly caught up in the subterfuge, such as Isabel’s parents, who are much devoted to their only grandchild.

By setting the story in the aftermath of the Great War, Stedman is also able to highlight other issues, such as the importance of family when so many sons had been lost on the battlefields of Europe, and the ways in which small-town communities can band together to ostracise people perceived as being different.

It’s not a perfect novel — I felt Isabel’s motherly devotion was sometimes too contrived and Tom’s never-ending patience unrealistic — but it is an intelligent, page-turning read. And the ending, so beautifully and touchingly rendered, means only a hard-hearted reader won’t want to cry buckets over it.

The Light Between Oceans is published in the UK tomorrow.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Doubleday, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Paolo Giordano, Publisher, Setting

‘The Solitude of Prime Numbers’ by Paolo Giordano


Fiction – hardcover; Doubleday; 352 pages; 2009. Translated from the Italian by Shaun Whiteside. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

A novel written by a particle physicist that features mathematics and numbers may not be all that surprising. But what is surprising about Paulo Giordano’s debut, The Solitude of Prime Numbers, is the age of the author — he’s just 26 — and the outstanding success, both critically and commercially, that the book has garnered.

According to the publisher, the book has sold more than 1.2 million copies across 34 countries since its publication in Italy last year. It has topped the Dutch and Spanish bestseller lists and scooped five literary awards, including Italy’s premier literary award, the Premio Stega.

Earlier this year, I heard the author interviewed on BBC Radio 5’s Book Reviews with Simon Mayo show, and everyone on the panel raved about it. I decided then that I really ought to read it, because surely it couldn’t be that good? Or could it?

Well, I’m afraid to say that you’ll get no dissident voice from these quarters. The book is a delight. It’s literary without being pretentious, which probably explains its extraordinary success. But it also tells a wonderful story about two intriguing characters, Alice and Mattia, and their intertwined destinies.

Both Alice and Mattia are loners, who have been scarred by childhood tragedies. Alice suffered a terrible skiing accident which has left her with a pronounced and permanent limp, while Mattia abandoned his mentally disabled twin sister in a park to go to a party, and when he returned she was gone, never to be found. These two irreversible episodes have manifested themselves in psychological conditions: Alice is anorexic, Mattia is a self-harmer.

Interestingly, Giordano doesn’t sensationalise or glorify their conditions, they’re merely character traits and never explored in any great depth. Indeed, Alice is so successful at hiding her illness that no one, not even the closest of family members, ever seems to notice it. (This, I admit, annoyed me a little: how could you not notice someone shoving food in napkins or fainting, because they’re so undernourished?)

The story, which spans 24 years, follows these two characters from childhood to adulthood, as they grapple with their lives and make decisions about their futures. The third-person narrative keeps the momentum going by toying with the idea that Alice and Mattia are destined to be together.

Mathematicians call them twin primes: they are pairs of prime numbers that are close to one another, almost neighbours, but between them there is always an even number that prevents them from really touching. Numbers like 11 and 13, like 17 and 19, 41 and 43. If you have the patience to go on counting, you discover that these pairs gradually become rarer. […] Mattia thought that he and Alice were like that, two twin primes, alone and lost, close but not close enough really to touch one another.

I won’t spoil it by revealing whether they do, in fact, get their acts together, because most of the fun of reading The Solitude of Prime Numbers is discovering whether they will ever become truly romantically involved. What I will say is this: the ending is not the predictable one that seems to loom at around the 290-page mark, which only made my love for this book all the stronger.

This is by no means a perfect novel, but it’s an extraordinarily human one, melancholy and inspiring by turns. It also comes across as being very wise, particularly in terms of familial relationships, friendship, marriage and parenthood, as if Giordano is much, much older than his years. He also has an uncanny ability to get inside the head of a teenage girl who is desperate to be liked by her peers, and the scenes in which Alice is bullied at high school are incredibly authentic.

Assuming Giordano continues to pursue a writing career, rather than a scientific one, then he will definitely be one to watch in the future. But in the meantime, I suspect his debut will continue to sell like hot cakes, as indeed it should.

Author, Book review, Doubleday, Fiction, France, general, Joanne Harris, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Holy Fools’ by Joanne Harris


Fiction – hardback; Doubleday; 430 pages; 2003.

I was looking forward to Joanne Harris’s latest fare so much I went out and bought Holy Fools as a full-price hardcover, something I’ve never done before. But I figured the enjoyment I’d get from her newest fiction would be well worth the £15 price tag. Unfortunately, I was wrong.

This book was incredibly disappointing. It took me a very long time to read, which is uncharacteristic of my past experiences with Harris’s novels — normally I whizz through them at lightening-fast pace, enjoying every moment.

By comparison Holy Fools was, at times, mind-numbingly dull. This may sound harsh, but I did try very much to like this book. On the surface it had everything going for it: an “exotic” setting (a remote abbey on a French island), an interesting historical backdrop (17th century France during a time of great political upheaval) and inspired themes (religious dogma versus witchcraft). But this was merely window dressing; scratch the surface and there was little underneath.

The characterisation resorts to cheap stereotypes and the plot was virtually nonexistent. The tension between the protagonist — Juliette, a one-time circus performer who takes refuge in the abbey with her young child — and Guy LeMerle — her ex-lover now turned charlatan priest — is weak and uninspired. I kept waiting for the story to go somewhere, for the characters to develop and grow, but this did not eventuate.

Harris may have built a reputation as a successful author, one of the first in recent times to get the “literary novel” into the bestseller lists, but Holy Fools is a disappointing edition to her captivating “series” of French books.

Author, Book review, Doubleday, Fiction, France, general, Joanne Harris, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Coastliners’ by Joanne Harris


Fiction – hardcover; Doubleday; 479 pages; 2002.

Joanne Harris‘s thematic explorations of the world of chocolate in Chocolat, wine-making in Blackberry Wine and French crepes and other baked treats in Five Quarters of the Orange have earned her a loyal following of culinary-loving readers. Such readers will, therefore, find Harris’s latest novel, Coastliners, a somewhat surprising departure from the norm.

Swapping food for a marine theme, Harris sets her story on the sparsely populated Breton island of Le Devin, where local girl Mado returns after a ten-year absence. Instead of the happy home-coming she had expected, Mado finds that her ageing father, GrosJean, is uncommunicative and seemingly overwhelmed by a depression that he cannot shrug off.

Similarly, her local village, Les Salants, rundown and impoverished, is threatened by the machinations of local entrepreneur, Claude Brismand. The locals, whose lives are controlled by tradition and superstition, have given up hope for the future as they watch their livelihoods disappear and their tourist trade being taken over by the wealthier community of nearby La Houssiniere.

It is Mado who comes up with a plan to reverse Le Salants’s fortunes. Drawing upon the help of Flynn, a mysterious English drifter who has set up camp on the island, she encourages the local villagers to fight for their community. But their efforts are soon thwarted by Brismand, who uses not only his wealth but his family connections to further his own interests. His underhand methods prove incredibly testing of Mado’s determination and strength of character.

At its most basic level Coastliners is a story about good versus evil. But it’s also about the battle between conserving and protecting the fragile coastal environment against the desire for economic growth and development as well as the fight to preserve a traditional way of life in a constantly changing world.

Similarly, Harris explores the frictions between local communities, the disputes between families and the sometimes complicated rivalries between siblings. But her characters — of which there is a “cast of thousands” — tend to be cliched and slightly two- dimensional.

The writing, on occasions, seems formulaic and forced, particularly when Harris is creating “back story” or trying to move the plot forward too quickly. At other times her descriptions of the marine environment are breathtaking in their vividness. Pages cluttered with coastal imagery bring the beach and the sea alive, even when she isn’t talking directly about the ocean. For instance, she describes the body of a drowned man as “smooth and featureless as a skinned seal” and the arrival of evening as “night showing its single black sail”. Mostly, she talks about tides and marine weather conditions, fishing vessels and sandy beaches in the same confident and richly evocative way she wrote about food and drink in her previous novels.

But whether readers of those past successes will appreciate the switch in Harris’s thematic musings is another thing entirely. Personally, I missed the mouthwatering fare that characterised her novels but I also appreciate Harris’s desire to prove that she is not just a one-trick pony.