Andrew O'Hagan, Author, Book review, England, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Scotland, Setting

‘Mayflies’ by Andrew O’Hagan

Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 277 pages; 2020.

Andrew O’Hagan is a Scottish writer and literary critic with several award-winning novels and non-fiction books to his name.

Mayflies, his sixth novel, won the Christopher Isherwood Prize for Autobiographical Prose in 2020, with the judges describing it as “exuberant and heartbreaking”.

They weren’t wrong. This is a rare novel that starts out full of bonhomie and youthful energy and a cheerfulness that resonates off the page. By the end, the reader is left feeling bereft in the knowledge that life, for some, can be full of challenges despite our very best efforts to make something of ourselves. But there is also an aching awareness of the importance of love and friendship in all stages of our lives.

A book of two halves

Mayflies is a coming-of-age story framed around a group of working-class Ayrshire lads growing up in Thatcher’s Britain and is divided into two equal parts. The first is set in the summer of 1986; the second, some 30 years later, in the autumn of 2017.

It’s narrated by Jimmy, a bookish 18-year-old who has “divorced” his parents, and largely hangs out with his larger-than-life friend, Tully, whose family have pretty much adopted him as one of their own.

It’s this friendship between the quiet, thoughtful schoolboy Jimmy and the mischevious and fun-to-be-around lathe-turner Tully that forms the heart of the novel.

Together with a group of friends — Limbo, Tibbs, Dr Clogs and Hogg — they head to Manchester for a weekend of music and mayhem, a weekend that turns out to be one of the most formative experiences of their lives, filled with banter, booze, adrenalin and a sense of freedom.

The Manchester scene

For those of us of a certain, a-hem, age (O’Hagan is just a year older than me), Manchester was the musical Mecca of the world in the mid-to-late 1980s and beyond, and O’Hagan beautifully captures the awe and excitement of seeing those quintessential bands of the time, as punk merged into New Wave, and offered up the likes of Joy Divison, New Order and The Smiths.

We came into Manchester like air into Xanadu*. The place was a state of mind to us and we saw cascades of glitter in ordinary things.

The novel is shot through with references to the record stores (Picadilly Records), music venues (G-Mex), nightclubs (Hacienda) and record labels (Factory) of the time, which lends a ring of authenticity — and nostalgia.

I was a record-shop obsessive in my day, so this quote particularly resonated:

We were all obsessed with record shops. The major churches of the British Isles, with their stained glass, rood screens, and flying buttresses, were as nothing next to some grubby black box under Central Station, or some rabbit hutch in Manchester, which sold imports, fanzines, and gobbets of gig information.

But I also enjoyed the name-checking of bands and films and books and political events — the UK miner’s strike et al — and I laughed out loud at the scene in which Jimmy and Tully spot the members of The Smiths coming down the stairs of the hotel they were drinking in and going out into the street.

I thought I was seeing stuff — nobody else in the foyer seemed to notice. I elbowed Tully and he turned to see Morrissey and Marr. A lurch in the stomach. The singer was wearing a red shirt and he hit the air like a chip-pan on fire. Right behind him was Johnny Marr, light and young as his melodies and smoking a fag. The word ‘vermillion’ came to mind, and so did his lyrics, all the band’s images, and that’s how it works when you’re a fan who thinks Keats might save the world. In an instant, without a word being exchanged, Tully and I were through the doors and onto the pavement, just in time to see the famous Mancunians stepping into a Rolls-Royce.

Change in gear

When the book reaches the halfway point, there is a definite change in gear. Gone is the exuberance and energy of the first half, instead, there is a sombre, more serious tone to the writing reflected in the age of the characters who are now middle-aged men living quietly middle-class lives, far removed from the working-class roots of their fathers.

Jimmy is a successful writer living in London with his wife, Iona, who works in the theatre; Tully has gone back to school to transform himself into an English teacher and he is now Head of English at a school in Glasgow. He has a long-term partner, Anna, and is relatively happy and settled.

A phone call brings them back together again and what follows tests both men’s friendship, Jimmy’s relationship with Anna, and their worldviews.

This part might sound depressing, but it’s shot through with humour — Tully never loses his zest for life and his penchant for banter — and there’s a wedding that brings together many of the lads from the Manchester trip who haven’t seen each other for decades, as well as a holiday to Sicily that is depicted with charm and vividness.

Throughout, O’Hagan treads a fine line, showing the contrast between middle age and youth, without sliding into sentimentality. Yes, it’s occasionally wistful and there’s an undercurrent of pathos, but the story, as a whole, is evocative and poignant.

It explores many issues including the positive long-term impact a teacher can have on a student’s future; the importance of defending working-class rights but not their prejudices; the far-reaching consequences of Thatcherite politics on an entire generation and the ways in which the more recent Brexit referendum will do something similar. But I especially loved its depiction of music, male friendship and mortality.

For other reviews of this novel, please see Brona’s review at This Reading Life, Jacqui’s review at JacquiWine’s Journal, and Annabel’s review at Annabookbel.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘The Guts’ by Roddy Doyle: Male friendship, family and music form the central themes of this frank and funny novel about a man grappling with his own mortality in the face of a cancer diagnosis.

* This is how I felt about London when I first arrived in the summer of 1998! 

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Fiona Scarlett, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Boys Don’t Cry’ by Fiona Scarlett

Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber & Faber; 178 pages; 2021.

It sounded like Da was crying. I’ve never seen Da cry. He tells us that crying is a sign of weakness. That boys don’t cry. That boys should never cry. So we don’t. Ever. Unless we’re in private, when nobody sees.

If you took a big cooking pot and threw in Irish authors Roddy Doyle and Kit de Waal, then added the scriptwriters for the Irish gangster TV series Love/Hate and gave it a good stir, the end result might be Fiona Scarlett’s Boys Don’t Cry.

This novella about sibling love, divided loyalties, illness, grief and toxic masculinity is a heartrending — and heartwarming — read.

A tale of two brothers

Set in working-class Dublin, the story unfolds through the eyes of two brothers, who tell their version of events in alternate chapters.

Joe is 17 and a gifted artist. He’s been lucky enough to secure a place in a prestigious private school, but he is constantly aware that he is from a different social class and doesn’t quite fit in. He’s often bullied and expected to behave in a stereotypical way, purely because of his background.

Finn is 12 and a happy-go-lucky boy who loves playing sport and having fun with friends. He looks up to his big brother and adores his Ma and Da. But when he develops unexplained bruising on his arms and legs and begins suffering from bad nose bleeds, a question mark is raised over his health. Is he being physically abused at home, or is something else going on?

What makes the story so compelling is the way in which it is told, for each brother’s version of events is told in a different time period — Joe’s is AFTER Finn’s — but they are interleaved so that one loosely informs the other to make a more powerful read.

Working-class family

When I began reading this book, I literally had no idea what it was about. I have no memory of buying it and don’t know why I did so, other than it must have received a good review somewhere or I thought the subject matter appealed at the time. (According to Amazon, I purchased it on 1 May 2021.)

While it soon becomes clear that the family in Boys Don’t Cry is not your usual working-class family — Da runs a drug operation for the local kingpin, Dessie Murphy, but is now locked up in Mountjoy prison for shooting a policeman, who nearly died — it takes a while to figure out why everyone is wracked with grief and why Joe hates his father so much.

In fact, Joe, a complex character, is the heart of this story. He’s the one who holds the narrative together and makes it such a compelling read because you feel for him — and fear for him.

He’s clearly emotionally troubled — it takes some time to get to the root of why this might be the case — and he’s filled with hate for Dessie Murphy and wants nothing to do with him. But when his friend Sabine incurs a debt she can’t pay off, the temptation to do a one-off job for the gangster becomes hard to resist.

As a reader, you know that Dessie is grooming Joe to join the gang, but Joe is naive, oblivious to the dangers and realities of the criminal underworld: it’s never a case of just doing one job and walking away, once you’re in the “family” you can never leave…

A tear-jerker

Boys Don’t Cry is a remarkable read in so many ways. It’s a brilliant evocation of a family plunged in grief, of a teenager struggling to determine his own code of ethics and of a young boy grappling with mortality. It’s about heavy subjects but there are flashes of humour throughout to lighten the load.

The author is a primary school teacher and it’s clear she knows what makes children and teens tick; she really conveys their moods and feelings and mindset in an authentic way.

A word of warning though. I wouldn’t recommend reading this one in public — and I’d suggest having tissues on hand, because it’s a bit of a tear-jerker, ironic given the title, which is all about repressing emotions and keeping everything in check.

I read this book for Novellas in November (#NovNov), which is hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck 

Author, Book review, Claire Keegan, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction

‘Small Things Like These’ by Claire Keegan

Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber & Faber; 73 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley.

Claire Keegan is a well regarded Irish writer best known for her short stories, which include the collections Antarctica (1999) and Walk the Blue Fields (2007), and her novella Foster (2010), which you can read for free on the New Yorker website if you wish to get a feel for her writing.

Her latest book, Small Things Like These, is being marketed as a novel, but it’s only 73 pages in length and feels more like an extended short story. It’s written in Keegan’s typical economical prose, but addresses big themes and big emotions.

It’s a beautiful portrait of a man carrying out a small act of defiance against the Catholic Church at a time when it controlled almost every facet of Irish life.

Ireland in the 1980s

The story is set in Ireland in 1985, a period of economic deprivation and political instability, when  “the young people were emigrating, leaving for London and Boston, New York”.

Bill Furlong is a hard-working coal merchant who is married with five young daughters. But he’s stuck in a rut and is beginning to wonder what his life is all about. Christmas is approaching and there’s a lot to do to get all his deliveries completed on time.

What was it all for? Furlong wondered. The work and the constant worry. Getting up in the dark and making the deliveries, one after another, the whole day long, then coming home in the dark and trying to wash the black off himself and sitting into a dinner at the table and falling asleep before waking in the dark to meet a version of the same thing, yet again. Might things never change or develop into something else, or new? Lately, he had begun to wonder what mattered, apart from Eileen and the girls. He was touching forty but didn’t feel himself to be getting anywhere or making any kind of progress and could not but sometimes wonder what the days were for.

His mind keeps returning to his upbringing by a single mother, who was a domestic servant in a Big House when she fell pregnant at 16. At this time, unwed mothers were condemned and their children stigmatised. Bill was fortunate that Mrs Wilson, the widow who owned the Big House, was kindly and maternal.

When his mother’s trouble became known, and her people made it clear that they’d have no more to do with her, Mrs Wilson, instead of giving his mother her walking papers, told her she should stay on, and keep her work. On the morning Furlong was born, it was Mrs Wilson who had his mother taken into hospital, and had them brought home. It was the first of April, 1946, and some said the boy would turn out to be a fool.

But even now, all these decades later, he still feels tarnished by the knowledge that he was born out of wedlock and that he has no idea who his father is. The only real male role model in his life has been Ned, the farmhand at the Big House, with whom he still keeps in touch.

Where was his father now? Sometimes, he caught himself looking at older men, trying to find a physical resemblance, or listening out for some clue in the things people said. Surely some local knew who his father was – everyone had a father – and it didn’t seem likely that someone hadn’t ever said a word about it in his company for people were bound, he knew, to reveal not only themselves but what they knew, in conversation.

A visit to the convent

The pivotal moment in the story happens when Bill makes a delivery to the local convent — “a powerful-looking place on the hill at the far side of the river” — run by the Good Shepherd nuns. The nuns run a training school for girls on-site, along with a successful laundry business. Bill is aware of local rumours that the girls are of “low character” and that they work demanding hours in the laundry as a form of penance, but he has no proof, and what would he do about it anyway?

But when he discovers a thin, dishevelled and clearly frightened teenage girl locked in the coal shed, he begins to join the dots. Aware of his own five daughters at home and the knowledge of his own mother’s fate, he decides it’s time to do something to help. He is, in effect, paying forward Mrs Wilson’s kindness.

Small Things Like These is a short, powerful read, one that will linger in the mind for a long time. The author has dedicated it to the “women and children who suffered time in Ireland’s Magdalen laundries” and her afterword provides a brief history for those who aren’t aware of these scandalous Catholic institutions that housed unwed mothers and abused them.

Small Things Like These will be published in the UK on 21 October 2021 and in the US and Canada on 30 November 2021. In Australia, the Kindle edition will be available on 19 October.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, John Banville, Publisher, Setting, Spain

‘April in Spain’ by John Banville

Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber & Faber; 368 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley.

If I had to choose one word to describe John Banville‘s latest crime novel it would be this: fun.

April in Spain is historical crime at its best, the kind of story you can get lost in and enjoy to the full even if the crime itself is a bit of a let down.

Postwar tale

This evocative postwar tale stars Dublin pathologist Quirke, whom we have met in earlier novels published under Banville’s pseudonym, Benjamin Black, and Detective St. John Strafford who made his first appearance in last year’s Snow. (Note, you don’t need to be familiar with those novels, but it’s great fun for readers who are.)

It’s set in San Sebastián, on the northern coast of Spain’s mountainous Basque Country, which is famous for its forests, beaches, sparkling wine and seafood. Quirke is holidaying here somewhat reluctantly (he finds it difficult to relax) thanks to his wife, Evelyn, a straight-talking Austrian psychotherapist, who arranged the trip.

‘Northern Spain is southern Ireland,’ she said. ‘It rains all the time, everywhere is green, and everyone is Catholic. You will love it.’

One evening, enjoying a quiet drink in a bar in the Old Town, Quirke hears an Irish accent and wonders if he might know the woman to whom it belongs, but she’s sitting behind him and he can’t see her properly. When he does finally run into her under different circumstances a few days later he realises he does know her — or at least he thinks he does. The problem is she’s supposed to be dead, having been murdered by her brother following a sex scandal involving one of Ireland’s most distinguished political families many years earlier.

Quirke being Quirke can’t ignore the possibility that April Latimer, now going by the name Angela Lawless (note the same initials), is still alive, but how to prove it? That’s where Detective Strafford comes into the picture. He arrives in Spain, accompanied by Quirke’s adult daughter who was friends with April and will be able to help identify her.

The villain in the shadows

But lurking in the shadows is another visitor to San Sebastián with a keen interest in April Latimer. His name is Terry Tice and he’s an Irish-born East End gangster cut from a similar cloth to Reggie Kray.

Terry Tice liked killing people. It was as simple as that. Maybe like wasn’t the right word. Nowadays he was paid to do it, and well paid.

The narrative eventually brings all these characters together in a surprising end, although it’s a slim premise for a crime novel. The strength of April in Spain is really the way in which Banville tells his story and builds suspense via his beautifully crafted prose. I love how he comes at everything with a completely original eye, inventing his own metaphors and creating unique similies. It’s the kind of writing that dazzles without showing off and is utterly enjoyable to read.

A flustered woman, for instance, is described as being akin to a “bird floundering in a net as colourless as air”. An old guy behind the desk in a pub has “the look of a walrus, with fat shoulders and a sloped back and a tired moustache drooping at the tips”. A man becomes anxious so that the “collar of his shirt seems all of a sudden two or three sizes too small for him”, while a worried woman feels “like a swimmer on a high diving board whose nerve had failed”.

I particularly liked this description of something as simple as dust:

She blew the dust from the lid — how lovely dust could be, when it lay like that, like a smooth coating of fur, dull-mauve and almost too soft to touch.

He paints such delicious pictures with words that the story really comes alive in your mind.

San Sebastián travel diary

The first part of the book, as Quirke settles into holiday mode, is a delight. I went to San Sebastián in 2018 and it remains one of the most memorable (and beautiful) European destinations I’ve ever visited. I recognised so much of Banville’s descriptions, including his references to the local fizzy white wine known as txakoli — “That was one word Quirke was quick to learn how to pronounce: tchacholy” —  and the delicious skewered snacks known as pintxos, which Quirke describes as (rather unkindly) “a slightly fancier version of the dull old sandwich. He was against the idea of local specialities, which in his experience were all too local, and rarely special”.

In move to protect his “big Irish head”, Quirke is even dragged to the very same hat shop I bought a Panama hat in:

They found a hat shop not far from the hotel. It was called Casa Ponsol. A sign over the door announced with a proud flourish that it had been founded in 1838. It might have been an annexe to the Londres [his hotel]. Quirke felt intimidated.

The mood of the story isn’t as dark as you might expect. The banter between Quirke and his wife is particularly funny (the push and pull of their relationship is brilliantly evoked). And there’s a vein of gentle humour, often mocking, running throughout. Here’s an example. Quirke and Evelyn buy oysters in the local fish market but when they get back to their hotel room they realise they have nothing to open them with.

Now she came out of the bathroom. ‘Here is a nail scissors,’ she said. ‘That will do to open them with.’ And that was how Quirke ended up in hospital.

And here’s how Terry Tice describes his impression of the tourists he sees on the beach:

People looked so stupid here, the tourists especially, the fat women as pale as suet, the men with the cuffs of their trousers rolled up and knotted handkerchiefs on their heads to ward off the sun. Then there were the he-men, flexing their muscles, as if they all thought they were Johnny Weissmuller. As for swimming, that really was for chumps. Imagine floundering around up to your neck out there, with them all screaming around you, and throwing water in each other’s faces, or standing with their hands on their hips and that faraway look on their faces that told you they were taking a piss.

I suspect diehard readers of the crime genre might find this novel a little disappointing. But what it lacks in plot, it more than makes up for in terrific characters — the people in this book are brilliant creations, each one distinct and well rounded, and Terry Tice is dastardly enough to become one of those strange evil villains you love to hate.

Yes, April in Spain is great fun. More, please.

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Sally Rooney, Setting

‘Beautiful World, Where are You’ by Sally Rooney

Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 337 pages; 2021.

Here’s an understatement for you. Sally Rooney’s new novel, Beautiful World, Where are You, arrived with a lot of fanfare.

Her American publisher produced a bucket hat and a load of other merchandise, a clever marketing exercise that warranted the attention of an entire article in GQ magazine, and proof copies handed out in some jurisdictions came with strict embargos. Advance reader copies sold for huge amounts prior to publication.

As much as I liked (not loved) her previous two novels, Conversations with Friends and Normal People, I was prepared to wait for the hype to die down before buying the new one. But then I had a cold rush of blood to the head, made a spur-of-the-moment purchase and settled down to read. And then I kept reading. And reading. And within the space of a weekend, I had finished it — and decided it was excellent.

Builds on previous work

Beautiful World, Where are You builds on the strengths of Rooney’s two earlier novels, but it’s not necessarily more of the same: the protagonists feel older and are grappling with issues more pertinent to women about to hit their thirties, but even the structure of the book, and the way it is plotted, is more mature.

It’s not perfect (what novel is?), but it’s entertaining and there’s a certain irony at play because one of the key characters is a famous author who is young and Irish and, well, it’s hard not to see Rooney having a pop at the ridiculousness of her own situation and the machinations of the publishing industry which has turned her into the literary star she is today.

The story is clever and playful, but it’s also melancholy and bittersweet. And, unusually for a Rooney novel, it ends on a happy note.

The plot

There’s not much of a plot other than an exploration of how life plays out for two young women, both of whom are unhappy with their situations, over a short period of time. It focuses on their personal growth through the romantic relationships they develop and charts the ups and downs of those relationships.

It focuses on two women in their late twenties who are best friends: Alice is a successful novelist; Eileen is an editorial assistant on a literary magazine.

Alice is recovering from a nervous breakdown and has decamped to the countryside, living in a house she’s borrowed from friends. She has recently met a local boy, Felix, a packer in a warehouse, via a dating app. It’s clear the two come from opposite ends of the wealth spectrum, but they are patient and kind, and somehow their relationship — platonic at first before morphing into something sexual — works even if it takes them a long time to fully open up to one another.

Eileen, who lives in Dublin, has recently broken up with her live-in boyfriend, but a family friend (and someone she has known since childhood), Simon, has crossed her path again after a long absence and there’s something about the security he offers as an older man in a settled job that attracts her. There’s an age gap between them and a failure for either party to properly commit (Simon, for instance, still sees other people), but they regularly meet up for sex and chit-chat.

Slow build-up

The two couples don’t come together until late in the novel when Alice invites Eileen and Simon to stay for a weekend. Before this happens, Rooney allows us to get to know her protagonists intimately. We understand the prickly nature of Alice’s character, for instance, and her desire to keep people at arm’s length. We realise that Eileen craves affection and security, but struggles with the idea that a friend could also be a sexual partner.

And we come to understand the intelligence of both women, their innermost thoughts and beliefs spilled out across heavily detailed email correspondence that makes up alternate chapters between the main narrative.

Prose wise, the early parts of the novel are lean, stripped back, almost pedestrian. Later, particularly after the couples meet, Rooney’s writing takes on a more lyrical quality. Her sentences lengthen, the adjectives arrive, the prose practically sings off the page.

Meanwhile, the emails, from both parties, are academic in tone, complex in thought and heavy on detail. Sometimes they feel like Wikipedia entries that have been shoehorned in to make political points. But the emails add to the tonality of the novel, giving it a richer depth, adding colour where otherwise we might only see how the women act rather than what they think. It’s a clever device.

Misunderstandings and miscommunication

As with Rooney’s previous work, there’s a lot of sex in the story. But it’s kinder, gentler sex than the type often depicted in Conversations with Friends, for instance. There’s still pain and heartache and misunderstandings between lovers. Eileen and Simon are especially infuriating in their inability to actually discuss what it is they want to happen long term, but, on the whole, the ups and downs described here all feel, well, normal.

And the conversations, often awkward, occasionally painful but always honest, are evocative and real. And, as ever with a Rooney novel, it’s often the things that are left unsaid that are the most revealing.

But happily, I don’t think it’s too much of a plot spoiler to reveal that the characters in Beautiful World, Where are You, do, in fact, find the beautiful world for which they’ve been looking… it makes a nice change.

Africa, Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Zimbabwe

‘This Mournable Body’ by Tsitsi Dangarembga

Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 384 pages; 2020.

Shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body is one of the most powerful pieces of fiction I’ve read in a long time.

It’s a challenging read, in all kinds of ways, not least because of the unfamiliar (to me) African setting and cultural references, the second-person point-of-view and the author’s tendency to skip over detail so that I often had to reread passages to interpret what was happening.

But its POWER comes from the way in which it made me see the world from a completely different perspective as I walked in the shoes of the main character, Tambudzai, a woman from Zimbabwe who has fallen on hard times. Tambudzai’s struggle to keep going, to get herself back on track, despite the direst of circumstances, is deeply affecting, so much so that when I finished this book it left me in a deep funk for days afterwards.

Precarious circumstances  

When the book opens Tambudzai is living in a run-down youth hostel in downtown Harare. She’s quit her successful mid-level job in an advertising agency in protest against her white colleagues taking her ideas and presenting them as their own. It’s a decision that shows Tambudzai’s strength of character, but it has terrible repercussions, for now, without a regular income, her living arrangements have become precarious.

The novel traces Tambudzai’s various attempts to improve her situation. When she gets a job as a teacher she takes a room in a widow’s house, but even then the money is tight and she must scrimp and save — and even steal edible plants from the widow’s garden to survive. Later, when she is fired from her job — not unreasonably, it has to be said — Tambudzai must pull herself up again.

A chance encounter with her former boss from the advertising agency she fled leads to a job for a travel start-up company. It’s the perfect opportunity to start afresh, to make a good impression and to advance her career.

In the beginning, she does exactly that, but Tambudzai’s success is limited by her inability to be anything other than herself, for a younger colleague with more get up and go, more energy and more willingness to manipulate things for her own ends, effectively leapfrogs Tambudzai’s standing in the company. It’s heartbreaking to see such a resilient, fiercely independent woman being overshadowed in this way.

Final part of trilogy

This Mournable Body is the final part of a trilogy — following on from Nervous Conditions and The Book of Not — but it works as a standalone. That said, I’m sure Tambudzai’s story might resonate even more if you have read the previous instalments.

Even so, it is clear from this novel alone that Tambudzai is a complicated, complex character, someone whose family expected big things of her. She’s well educated, having fled her small village to become the first in her family to get a degree, but she struggles with her mental health and has no reliable support network — no friends, no family, no colleagues — to help her.

A series of poor decisions and an inability to get herself out of a cycle of “boom” and “bust” means she never achieves the success she feels she deserves. It’s almost as though she can’t quite tap into her full potential and can’t rise above the issues — personal and otherwise — that hold her back.

When she eventually goes back to her home village to run tours for the travel company, it’s not the recipe for success for which she might have dreamed. She’s effectively selling her own people’s poverty as a tourist gimmick and the role she plays in this is just that — a role, one which she finds increasingly more difficult to play.

This novel is a searing indictment of cultural imperialism, structural racism and gender inequality in 1990s Zimbabwe. I’ve not been so incensed by the thwarted potential of a fictional character since I read Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure more than 30 years ago. Expect to see This Mournable Body in my books of the year list come December.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, John Banville, Publisher, Setting

‘Snow’ by John Banville

Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber & Faber; 352 pages; 2020. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Irish literary writer John Banville usually writes crime novels under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, but this time around he has been brave enough to publish it under his own name. I can see why. It’s a very fine novel indeed, and while it traverses dark subject matter, it has a playful touch, including a reference to one of Benjamin Black’s better-known characters, the state pathologist Quirke, which greatly amused me.

Locked room mystery

Set in County Wexford in 1957, Snow is essentially a locked-room mystery in which a popular priest is found murdered in a Big House.

It’s one of those deliciously intriguing stories in which almost any one of the myriad characters interviewed by the young police detective could be the culprit. The magic of the mystery is enhanced by the evocative setting — a snowy few days around Christmas in the late 1950s — and the unusual circumstances —  a Catholic priest murdered in a stately home of the landed gentry.

The murder itself is a rather vicious and violent one: Father Tom Lawless is found in the library lying in a pool of blood. He’s been stabbed in the neck and castrated. There’s a candlestick near his head, but not much else by way of clues. The crime is so sordid the circumstances are not disclosed to the public; most people think he fell down a flight of stairs and sustained fatal injuries.

When Detective Inspector St John — “It’s pronounced Sinjun,” he would wearily explain — Strafford arrives on the scene, having travelled down from Dublin because the local Gardaí are indisposed, he interviews everyone living in Ballyglass House. This includes Colonel Geoffrey Osborne, who describes Father Tom as “very popular, in these parts” and then explains how he came to be staying with the family:

He often comes over – came over, I suppose I should say now – from his place up at Scallanstown. His horse is stabled here – I’m master of the Keelmore hounds, Father Tom never missed an outing. We were supposed to ride yesterday, but there was the snow. He called in anyway and stayed for dinner, and we gave him a bed for the night. I couldn’t have let him go out again in that weather.’ His eyes went back to the corpse. ‘Though looking at him now, and what’s become of the poor chap, I bitterly regret that I didn’t send him home, snow or no snow. Who would do such a terrible thing to him I can’t think.’ He gave a slight cough, and waggled a finger embarrassedly in the direction of the dead man’s crotch. ‘I fastened up his trousers as best I could, for decency’s sake.’ So much for the integrity of the crime scene, Strafford thought, with a silent sigh. ‘When you look you’ll see that they – well, they gelded the poor chap. Barbarians.’

What follows is a painstaking investigation, where Strafford speaks to all the likely suspects, including the stable boy, the housekeeper, Osborne’s adult children and his second wife. There’s a sense of deja vu because Osborne’s first wife died when she fell down the stairs many years earlier, so Strafford wonders if an undetected killer has struck again.

There’s a second mystery thrown in for good measure, when Strafford’s second in command, Detective Sergeant Jenkins, goes missing midway through proceedings.

An obvious motive

Of course, for the modern-day reader, the motive for the murder of a priest is obvious, but Banville remains true to the period and shrouds the case in real mystery for Ireland at that time was devoutly religious and held priests in high esteem.

He throws in plenty of red herrings and potential culprits, but when the investigation reaches a stalemate he includes an “interlude” from 10 years earlier to get himself out of a problem he’s written himself into. This is the only jarring aspect of the book, which is filled with lush imagery and elegant turns of phrase.

The murder, for instance, is described as leaving “a tremor in the air, like the hum that lingers when a bell stops tolling”; a Labrador lying at someone’s feet is “as fat and torpid as a seal”; a pink satin eiderdown looks as “plump and smooth and shiny as a pie crust”; and a stubborn wine stain is “shaped like the faded map of a lost continent”.

The characters are all richly drawn and described in amusing detail.

The first thing everyone noticed about Sergeant Jenkins was the flatness of his head. It looked as if the top of it had been sliced clean off, like the big end of a boiled egg. How, people wondered, was there room for a brain of any size at all in such a shallow space? He tried to hide the disfigurement by slathering his hair with Brylcreem and forcing it into a sort of bouffant style on top, but no one was fooled.

There’s much focus on the divisions between class and religion, too, where men are judged just as much by their accents and the clothes they wear as they are by the church they attend and the tipple they drink.

Bushmills was supposedly the whiskey favoured by Protestants, while Jameson’s was the Catholics’ choice. Strafford thought it absurd, another of the multitude of minor myths the country thrived on.

Snow is a hugely evocative, atmospheric tale, and told in such a filmic way, it would make a very fine telemovie or Netflix series. I loved it — and the Coda at the end, set in the summer of 1967, gives a new, intriguing twist that I never saw coming. This is historical crime fiction at its finest.

2020 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Africa, Author, Book review, Edna O'Brien, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Nigeria, Publisher, Setting

‘Girl’ by Edna O’Brien

Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 240 pages; 2019.

Edna O’Brien specialises in writing about ordinary people — usually women — being thrust into extraordinary, and often dangerous, situations, then examining how things play out. (See In The Forest, published in 2002, and The Little Red Chairs, published in 2015.) Her latest novel, Girl, is cut from a similar cloth.

In this short novel, which has been longlisted for the Women’s Prize and shortlisted for the 2020 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, O’Brien tells the tale of a Nigerian schoolgirl captured by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram.

I was a girl once, but not any more. I smell. Blood dried and crusted all over me, and my wrapper in shreds. My insides, a morass. Hurtled through this forest that I saw, that first awful night, when I and my friends were snatched from the school.

A frightening and often disturbing story, Girl reveals the depths of humanity’s dark heart and puts the reader in the shoes of Maryam, a teenage girl confronted by an unimaginable horror: stolen away from her family and made to live among violent, sexually depraved men with little to no hope of escape.

Of course, she does escape (otherwise there wouldn’t be much to write about) and her journey to freedom is almost as perilous and fraught as her life in captivity. Burdened with a baby and accompanied by Buki, another kidnapped teenage girl, she is forced to live by her wits, to scrounge for food in the forest and to keep her eye out for savage men in pursuit.

It is deeply telling that when she comes across a local nomadic tribe willing to provide shelter, their kind offer of help is soon withdrawn when they realise how dangerous it is to hide Maryam.

I was sitting on the bed when Madara came in. There was something wrong. […] She spoke standing and her voice was firm. ‘When the women went to the village this morning, the vendors at first refused to speak or do business with them. Word had got out that we were hiding a militant’s wife and child. Everyone down there is in terror. They know what will happen. Their gods will be confiscated, their stalls burned down and they themselves slaughtered. Then the Jihadis will come here for us, they know how to find us, they know every inch of this forest. They will destroy everything. They will take our herd. There will be nothing left of us.’
‘I will go,’ I said, half rising, wanting to thank her for the endless kindnesses, but she rebutted it.

This is an extraordinarily powerful tale, fast-moving and often confronting, but written with an exacting and sensitive eye. (O’Brien, who is in her 80s, visited Nigeria twice to research the novel and met survivors of Boko Haram’s cruel activities, so there’s a real ring of authenticity to the story.)

I liked that it didn’t get too bogged down in the machinations of the sect, but looked at the impact on one girl’s life during and after capture, shining a light on the terrible injustices and prejudices against women but also showing how a tenacious spirit can overcome the worst of what humanity throws at us.

I came away from this novel not downhearted or dispirited but feeling a sense of optimism for Maryam and the future ahead of her.

Reviewers dubbed O’Brien’s previous novel, The Little Red Chairs, her masterpiece, but I think they got it wrong. In my opinion, that accolade belongs to Girl.

Lisa Hill also liked this book.

This is my 3rd book for the 2020 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award.

Author, Book review, England, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, Max Porter, Publisher, Setting

‘Lanny’ by Max Porter

Fiction – hardcover; Faber & Faber; 224 pages; 2019. 

I think I’m going to be seriously out of step with many who read Max Porter’s new book Lanny in that I didn’t fall in love with it. In fact, I’m not even sure I liked it much.

I also had ambivalent feelings about his debut, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, published in 2015, which went on to win a slew of awards and turned Porter into the next Big Thing.

Experimental style

Lanny is a difficult novel to describe. It’s “experimental” and takes elements of English folklore and mixes it up with a bit of gritty magic realism, a smidgen of horror, a bit of suspense, some poetry and a lot of very middle class themes — of busy Londoners moving to a commuter village, of gossip and innuendo, of concerns about monsters that live among us.

The story, divided into three distinct parts, is told from multiple points of view. It is alive with dialogue, both spoken out loud and interior monologues, but there’s not a speech mark to be seen. Often it is difficult to know exactly who is speaking — but, for the most part, it doesn’t really matter, for the dialogue, mainly in part two, is simply snippits of conversation (and gossip) from a diverse range of village voices, which builds to a noisy crescendo.

That noisy crescendo revolves around the nub of the novel, which is the disappearance of Lanny, a young boy, who is free to roam the village, often singing to himself as he does so.

His mother, Jolie, is a stay-at-home-mum who pens gruesome crime novels, and his father, Robert, has an office job in London and doesn’t much like village life (or his family for that matter). Their parenting is very much “light touch” and they choose to ignore warnings to stay away from “Mad Pete”, the local (famous) artist, whom they hire to teach Lanny painting and drawing.

Of course, the (logical) assumption is that Pete has done something terrible to Lanny, which is why he has disappeared. But even with a water-tight alibi, that’s not how the villagers, or the media, quite see it.

A suspense story

There’s a build up of tension in part two — Where has Lanny gone? What has happened to him? — that makes the novel a proper page-turner. It’s genuinely frightening because it feeds into our greatest fears when children go missing, especially when they are known to be friendly with grown men who live alone.

But for me the resolution was just a bit too kooky for my liking. And while I understand that Porter is tapping into English folklore and the myth of the Green Man (who, in this book, is known as Dead Papa Toothwort), it just didn’t work for me. It felt like it simply gave the author a means to explain what had happened to Lanny without using a more straightforward, conventional narrative.

That said, I’m sure Lanny is going to win literary awards aplenty. It’s already won rave reviews, but this isn’t one of them.

2019 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Reading Projects, Sally Rooney, Setting, TBR40

‘Normal People’ by Sally Rooney

Fiction – hardcover; Faber & Faber; 288 pages; 2018.

Sally Rooney’s Normal People has had so many rave reviews and won so many prizes and accolades — the latest, The Book of the Year at the British Book Awards, was bestowed last week — that I’m not sure I can add anything new to the conversation.

But what I can do is give you my reaction to this stylish novel, which is essentially an on-off romance between two people from the same Irish country town over the course of four years (2011 to 2015).

Brief overview

For those of you that may not yet have read the book, here’s a brief overview. Marianne and Connell both attend the same secondary school on the west coast of Ireland, but Marianne is in a different socio-economic class to Connell because Connell’s mother works as a cleaner at Marianne’s house.

The pair are different in other ways: Marianne is a loner and regarded by her classmates as a bit kooky and someone to avoid, while Connell is popular and good looking and leads a hectic social life.

But both are academically minded and good students, and this is what brings them to the attention of one another, a mutual respect for their brains and intellectual capabilities. Secretly, they become friends, then lovers, but no one knows about their relationship, which is kept hidden from fellow classmates — it’s really only Connell’s mother that twigs there’s something going on between the two of them.

The book charts the ups and downs of this unspecified relationship as the pair leave school, move from the village they’ve both grown up in and forge new lives in Dublin, where they attend Trinity, Marianne to study history and politics, Connell to study English.

Unusual structure

Normal People is structured in an interesting way. It’s very much a narrative composed of set pieces framed around scenes — in bedrooms, in kitchens, at parties, in cars — that are essentially people talking but which give great insight into the individual character’s thoughts and behaviours and fears and hopes.

Indeed, this is a dialogue driven novel but there is not a single quotation mark in sight. It’s written it in such a way that it’s perfectly clear when people are speaking and who is doing it. (I heard Sally Rooney speak at her only London event earlier this month where she explained that using quotation marks would just add extra clutter on the page that wasn’t needed. )

Paradoxically, it’s often the things that people don’t say in this story that provides it’s edgier moments: when characters hold back from making confessions or being completely honest or not making the most of the opportunity to steer the conversation in ways that would make their lives easier but which might cause pain or embarrassment in the short term.

The narrative itself jumps forward in spurts, with each chapter heading indicating how much time has passed since the last chapter  — for instance “Four Months Later (August 2011)” and “Three Months Later” (March 2014)” — giving a sense of movement and fast pace to what is essentially a deeply nuanced and measured story.

The UK paperback edition

But did I like it?

I have to admit that I thought the book dragged in places and I didn’t think there was enough tension between the characters. I wanted more action, perhaps more resolution, between Marianne and Connell. I kept waiting for something to happen, something big that would formalise their relationship or finish it. I don’t think it’s a plot spoiler to say that this doesn’t happen.

But what I did like — and it took me awhile to come to this realisation — is the ways in which Marianne and Connell’s relationship is influenced by the exterior forces of class and money, by their own sense of self-worth (or lack thereof) and desire to be “normal”, and their inherent mutual attraction regardless of circumstance or upbringing. I also liked how Rooney occasionally shows how some issues, such as domestic violence, cut across the class divide. (It wasn’t until I heard Rooney speak at the event I attended that I discovered she calls herself a Marxist; with hindsight I can very much see that influence in her work, though I would not call this book political; it’s much more subtle than that.)

Normal People is essentially a universal story about individuals finding their place in a world that is complex, one that has obstacles in place which may hinder opportunities for success, whether because of class, gender or upbringing. And yet it also shows how social mobility is (occasionally) possible, how we can influence each other for the better and find ways to seek love and happiness against the odds. It ends on a hopeful note.

That said, I still liked Conversations with Friends better.

Added extra

If you are interested, this is the aforementioned event I attended at the beginning of May, which has been recorded in full by the London Review of Books, which hosted the evening in the gorgeous surrounds of St George’s Church in Bloomsbury, London.

This is my 3rd book for the 2019 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award and my 19th for #TBR40. I bought it late last year after a member of my book group raved about it. I treated myself to the Waterstones’ exclusive hardback edition.