Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, John Murray, literary fiction, Paula McGrath, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘A History of Running Away’ by Paula McGrath

A History of Running Away by Paula McGrath

Fiction – paperback; John Murray; 256 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

When Irishwoman Katie Taylor won an Olympic gold medal at London 2012, becoming the first ever Olympic female lightweight boxing champion, it was a seminal moment — not just for Irish sport but for women’s boxing in general. In Paula McGrath’s latest novel, A History of Running Away, women’s boxing (and Taylor’s achievement) is a core element of the storyline, which explores what it is to grow up and forge your own path under difficult circumstances.

Ambitious structure and wide scope

Set in 1980s Dublin and London, modern-day Ireland and the US, this novel has an ambitious structure. There are two main intertwined narratives — one in the first person, the other in the third person — which swing between 1982 and 2012. These follow two main characters: Rosemary, from rural Ireland who rebrands herself as Jasmine; and Ali, an American teen who’s on the run from the grandparents she didn’t know she had until her mother died.

There’s a third narrative thread that emerges towards the end of the novel; that of Jasmine’s mother, who tells the heartbreaking repercussion of having a child out-of-wedlock in 1960s Ireland.

The story is essentially about three generations of teenage girls, all trying to find their rightful place in the world. It’s hard-hitting in places — Jasmine works in a strip club when she runs away to London; Ali is raped by a member of the motorcycle gang with whom she’s hanging out; Jasmine’s mother, Margaret, is sent to live in a convent when she becomes pregnant and is forced to give up her child for adoption — and addresses some big themes common in Irish fiction, including alcoholism, emigration to England, and the Church meddling in young women’s affairs.

Uneven storylines

The novel is uneven in places. Ali’s storyline, for instances, goes unexpectedly quiet then comes alive again towards the latter part of the book, by which time I’d almost forgotten she existed.

But Jasmine’s story, the dominant of the two, is an intriguing and compelling one. Aged 17 she makes the decision to become a boxer. A black medical student from Kenya, who she meets by chance, agrees to be her trainer; a dangerous act given that it was illegal at the time for women to box in Ireland. Sadly, Jasmine never gets the chance to fight a legitimate bout because it’s 1983 when she becomes passionate about the sport, but in 2012, when she’s a maternity doctor caring for her mother who has Alzheimer’s, she follows the aforementioned Katie Taylor’s gold medal-winning bout with great delight — and a twinge of jealousy.

My favourite storyline, however, is Margaret’s, told in a frank and heartfelt voice, rich in Irish vernacular, which describes her teenage love affair and pregnancy, her painful stint with the nuns, marriage to her lover’s brother and then what happens when her lover returns from abroad. This on its own would make a terrifically absorbing novel. I wanted to hear more from this very Irish-sounding voice.

Coupled with the wide-ranging scope of the novel and its dramatic story-telling, it’s the superb characterisation that makes A History of Running Away such a good readEven the subsidiary characters — the bullying Uncle Adrian; the “culchie” cousin with a secret gambling habit, also called Adrian; Deano, the good-looking neighbour; and George, the boxing coach — are well drawn, flesh-and-blood real and believable, all people I wanted to spend time with.

This isn’t a perfect novel but it’s vivid sense of time and place makes it an absorbing read and it’s focus on women’s sport adds an intriguing twist.

Earlier this week Paula McGrath took part in Triple Choice Tuesday. To see which three books she recommends, please visit this post.

2016 YWOYA, Author, Book review, Fiction, Jessie Greengrass, John Murray, Publisher, Setting, short stories, UK

‘An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It’ by Jessie Greengrass

An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It

Fiction – paperback; John Murray Originals; 192 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Solitude and loneliness are common threads that run throughout the 12 short stories in this collection, by debut author Jessie Greengrass, which has recently been shortlisted for the 2016 The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award.

The self-titled story, An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It, sets the scene for all that follows, for each tale is written in the same precise, almost cold, but always elegant style with nary an adjective to be seen. There’s a certain kind of melancholia at work here — and a clarity that defies the often convoluted sentence structure.

Yet the subject matter varies wildly from story to story and even the time periods swing between past, present and future. Nothing feels predictable and starting each new story feels like going on an unexpected adventure into unexplored territory: you’re never sure where it’s going to take you.

And yet, despite the characters being (mainly) nameless (sometimes we don’t even know their gender, nor their age), it’s easy to identify with them, to empathise with their circumstances, their predicaments, their successes and their failures. Everything feels deeply personal, if somewhat quirky.

Some personal favourites

A handful of stories stand out. The lead one, of a hunter who reveals his role in the demise of the Great Auk, is a haunting tale of loss, greed and cruelty, but it’s tinged with unexpected comic moments, too, such as this description of the birds:

… they were clumsy, they waddled, their walk was ungainly; they swayed and rolled as they struggled to put one flat foot upon the rock in front of the other and often they fell over. We caught them up and pulled the feathers that we needed and then let them go half-plucked and even then they would not run but only stand bemused and blinking and naked where we put them. And then later they would die of their own accord.

Humour is well used in the story All the Other Jobs, too. In this short tale a discontented narrator, paralysed by indecision, dreams of running away and leading a new, more productive life. Who doesn’t recognise this kind of thoroughly modern 21st century behaviour?

I spent a lot of time on the internet, cycling through a set series of websites, letting my eyes drift down one page and then another without any effort to read or absorb, past even passive consumption. I found this so comforting. Hours would recede in the clicking of links without me retaining any clear impression of what I had been looking at. It was a kind of abnegation, a loss of self in the expectation of each loading page, the small reward of its arrival after the brief wait so much more satisfying than any of the information it might contain.

My favourite story has to be Winter, 2058, a strangely haunting tale set in the future that reads like something John Wyndham might have dreamed up. Here, on the edge of the North York Moors, the narrator must guard watch over an “intrusion” site, an area where mysterious phenomena occur — odd lights and sounds, changes in temperature — that cause people to disappear or befuddles their brains:

We were told that when an intrusion was entering the active phase of its cycle the first thing we would notice would be that things would feel colder. Not just the temperature but the world itself: we would feel that the world had become colder, that something had been stripped away from it, some quality of receptiveness or responsiveness which had previously made it home. The feeling would bloom slowly from unease into fear.

This eerie story of displacement, of the unknowable power of nature, of a bid to make sense of something unexplained  is wholly mesmirising from start to finish. You become immersed in a kind of supernatural fairytale in which nothing quite makes sense and it leaves you with a deep sense of dread. I suspect it’s a metaphor for learning that no matter how many friends and family we might have we’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. How deep is that?

As you might have guessed, I was very much impressed by this tantalising collection of odd, often quirky, tales. There’s a deeply philosophical bent to them, perhaps no surprise given the author studied philosophy, and richly humane, filled with ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. They’re also hugely imaginative and quite unlike anything I’ve read before. More please.

This is my 4th and final book for the #ShadowYoungWriterAward

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Germany, John Murray, Louise Welsh, Publisher, Setting

‘The Girl on the Stairs’ by Louise Welsh


Fiction – hardcover; John Murray; 279 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

It can’t be a coincidence that I’ve read two psychological thrillers set in Berlin this year — Melanie Joosten’s Berlin Syndrome and Louise Welsh’s The Girl on the Stairs.  The German city has such a rich and chequered history — the Wiemar Republic, Nazi Germany and then the split between East and West — that it is haunted by the ghosts of the past. Louse Welsh capitalises on this eerie atmosphere in this, her fifth and latest, novel.

Life in a strange new neighbourhood

The story revolves around a lesbian couple, Jane and Petra, who live in an old but renovated apartment in an ex-Jewish district of Berlin now populated by streetwalkers and well-to-do professionals. Petra, who is German, has a high-flying job in a bank and is the major breadwinner; Jane, a former bookseller, has just moved to Berlin from Scotland, and is seven months pregnant with their first child.

While Petra is busy at work, Jane is left to her own devices. When she is alone in the apartment, which faces onto a cemetery, she doesn’t feel comfortable and she often gets the sensation she’s being watched. At night she thinks she can see a flame burning in the abandoned building out the back.

There it was again, the faintest glimmer on the other side of the courtyard. Was it a light from somewhere in the building reflecting on a broken window in the derelict backhouse? It flickered again and disappeared. The windows in the backhouse were almost all free of glass. It shone again, faint and wavering; could it be the wind breezing through an unglazed window, causing a flame to tremble?

She can also hear her neighbours — Alban Mann, supposedly a respected doctor, and his 13-year-old daughter, Anna — arguing through the wall or in the stairwell. On one occasion she hears Herr Mann call his daughter a whore and on another she notices that Anna has a bruise on her face.

Jane then begins to wonder if Anna, who looks far older than her years and dresses like the streetwalkers that work in the neighbourhood, might be spending her evenings in the backhouse to escape an abusive father.

What would persuade a child to hide in an abandoned building amongst the pigeon droppings and scuttle of rats? What could be so bad that you would prefer the company of ghosts to home?

Jane’s suspicions about Herr Mann are heightened when she meets her downstairs neighbours, an elderly couple, Karl and Heike Becker, who tell her that Herr Mann’s wife went missing several years ago. According to Heike, Herr Mann murdered his wife and buried her under the floorboards, but Heike’s befuddled behaviour suggests she might have dementia — should Jane believe her or not?

Can you trust your neighbour?

The nub of the novel is this: is Alban Mann a murderer and child abuser, or is Jane simply letting her imagination run away with her?

All of Jane’s attempts to help Anna — by approaching her directly and by speaking with a local priest — are thwarted, but you are never quite sure whether she is being told to butt out because she’s a busybody or because she’s onto something. Her persistence — even when her front door is painted with an ugly slogan and the police arrive to warn her off — suggests the latter.

Welsh is very good at building a sense of eminent doom and a rising level of paranoia. In fact, the narrative is so menacing and claustrophobic, I wouldn’t want to read this book if I lived alone.

But by the same token, as with these kinds of psychological thrillers (of which I’ve read dozens and dozens in my time), there can only ever be one outcome: the protagonist has it all right, or she has it all wrong. And I’m afraid that in this case I guessed the over-the-top ending far too easily and felt some elements of the storyline towards the end slightly far-fetched.

But if you like fast-paced heart-hammering reads and don’t mind the odd implausibility in plot, then this is a good one to get the pulse racing. And it’s got enough spooky elements to make it a perfect Halloween-type read. But make sure you lock the doors, the windows — and the attic hatch — first.