2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, Italy, literary fiction, Literary prizes, New Island, Nuala O'Connor, Paris, Publisher, Setting, Switzerland

‘NORA: A Love Story of Nora Barnacle and James Joyce’ by Nuala O’Connor

Fiction – Kindle edition; New Island; 507 pages; 2021.

Nora, by Nuala O’Connor*, is a bold and bawdy fictionalised account of the life of Nora Barnacle, who was James Joyce’s muse, partner and inspiration for Molly Bloom in his acclaimed novel Ulysses.

A love story

At its most basic level, it’s a love story between two people who flee the religious constrictions of Ireland for a new life, relatively free of judgment and prying eyes, in mainland Europe. But that life, a self-imposed exile, is peripatetic and impoverished, and Jim (as Nora calls him) has ongoing health issues, including glaucoma, nerves and a problem with alcohol that provides additional challenges.

Using key points in the historical record, O’Connor charts the couple’s relationship from 1904 — when they had their first sexual encounter in Dublin — to Jim’s death in Zurich, in 1941, following surgery for a perforated duodenal ulcer. A final chapter describes Nora’s life as a widow until her own death (from kidney failure) in 1951. According to the author, “some small facts have been altered or amended for dramatic purposes” but it’s largely faithful to the couple’s shared and complex history.

That history includes the birth of two children — a son, Giorgio, and a daughter, Lucia — in quick succession. (Lucia, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a young woman, causes a rift in their relationship because Nora believed her daughter needed to be hospitalised but Jim thought it was unnecessary.)

It also consists of wider family dramas, other romantic liaisons and friendships with the likes of Samuel Beckett, Peggy Guggenheim and Sylvia Beach.

A supportive wife

And underpinning it all is Nora’s undying support of her husband’s career despite the fact it doesn’t always make her, or her children, happy.

‘You’re a beautiful writer, Jim,’ I say. And he is, though truly some of his stories baffle me as much as the Moore fellow’s ones. But, it seems, some of my own stories live within Jim’s writing. It’s a queer feeling, but is he not entitled to take parts of me and mould them for his good use? Especially if it will get him a book published and move us along in this life.

There’s no doubt that the pair’s life together is an extraordinary adventure, full of ups and downs and incredibly testing times, but the strength of their love for one another gets them through.

It’s quite bawdy and sexually explicit in places, and when this period of their life wanes, as it inevitably does in most long-term relationships, Nora becomes annoyed by his inability to commit himself to her in any legal way (the pair don’t get married until 1931 after 27 years together) and what she believes is his immature ways:

Jim Joyce is my love, but he’s also a bother to my heart and a sore conundrum to my mind. I don’t think the day will come when he’ll grow to be the man he should be.

Intimate first-person tale

The novel is incredibly detailed and written in an intimate first-person voice from Nora’s perspective, but at more than 500 pages it’s long, perhaps overly so, but it does reward the patient reader.

It’s vivid and bold, sensuous and ribald, and gives voice to a woman who lived her life in the shadow of a man who was fiercely ambitious but also hungry for attention and being the life of the party.

Yes, the other wives and the literary women, who so love to scurry around the great James Joyce, find me a vast disappointment. But, hand on heart, I don’t give a sailor’s snot what they think. Jim is Jim, and Nora is Nora, and we know that despite any upsets and troubles we’ve had, we’re strong as steel together.

Nora has been shortlisted for this year’s Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award and having read all the books on the shortlist now, I will nail my flag to the mast and declare that I think it deserves to be named the winner!

This is my 4th book for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award. I am trying to read the entire shortlist before the winner is announced on 1st June.

* Nuala O’Connor also writes under her Irish name, Nuala Ní Chonchúir’. I’ve read several of her books, all reviewed here.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), 2018 Giller Prize, Alex Miller, Allen & Unwin, Author, Book review, Books in translation, dystopian, Eric Dupont, Fiction, Five fast reviews, literary fiction, Mercè Rodoreda, New Island, Nuala O'Connor, Penguin, Publisher, QC Fiction, Quercus

Five Fast Reviews: Eric Dupont, Thea Lim, Alex Miller, Nuala O’Connor and Mercè Rodoreda

It’s been a crazy few weeks around here… and this blog has been much neglected (my last review was posted some three weeks ago). So, in a bid to get up to speed before December comes to an end, here’s five books, arranged in alphabetical order according to the author’s surname, that I read during the year that I never quite got around to reviewing.

‘Songs for the Cold of Heart’ by Eric Dupont 

Fiction – paperback; QC Fiction; 603 pages; 2018. Translated from the French by Peter McCambridge

Songs for the cold of heartSongs for the Cold of Heart was shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize, but it lost out to Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black. We chose it as our Shadow Giller winner — a totally unanimous decision.

Quite unlike anything I’ve ever read before, this doorstop of a novel is epic in scope and unrivalled in ambition, one that makes for a truly immersive reading experience.

Full of vivid, well-drawn characters and wonderfully evoked settings, it’s a tale that spans several generations of the one Quebec-French family, with each new chapter able to stand alone as a short story. But the force of all those chapters working together creates a richly layered narrative in which motifs —  and even jokes — keep repeating themselves from one generation to the next, revealing unexpected connections and insights into a family whose reputation has been built on a combination of legend, invention and self-mythologising.  It brims with sex and humour, love and tragedy, empathy and arrogance, and is littered with tall tales, a smidgen of magic realism and much innuendo.

Expertly translated by Peter McCambridge (it must have taken an age to work on), this is a proper literary tour de force. Sadly, it is priced at an eye-watering £29 here in the UK, which is a shame, because it truly deserves a much wider English language audience.

‘An Ocean of Minutes’ by Thea Lim 

Fiction – hardcover; Quercus; 360 pages; 2018. 

An ocean of minutesYet another title that was shortlisted for the 2018 Giller Prize, Thea Lim’s An Ocean of Minutes proved to be a great surprise. I was dreading this slice of dystopian fiction in which a 20-something woman time travels from 1981 to 1998 to escape a pandemic and be reunited with her one true love, but it’s hugely atmospheric and has a strangely haunting, elegiac tone. It totally swept me away, taking me through all the emotions from anger to heartbreak — and back again.

Reading between the lines, there are hints of social commentary — about modern slavery, the class system and immigration — and the ways in which we can become trapped by circumstances beyond our control, with no way to better ourselves or escape economic insecurity because of the systems that conspire against us. But this is also a story about courage, faith, taking risks and believing in the power of love and family.

‘The Passage of Love’ by Alex Miller 

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 584 pages; 2018. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The Passage of LoveIt’s no secret that Alex Miller is one of my favourite authors, and this novel, which is the thinly veiled story of his own life, is probably my favourite book of the year. Another truly immersive read, I devoured almost all 550-plus pages in the space of a weekend, but then eked it out for another fortnight because I simply did not want the tale to end.

It’s filled with angst, love and cruelty, as well as the struggle to be true to oneself, to find your place in the world and to find the courage to lead a creative life rather than a safe one. It’s a fascinating portrait of a complicated marriage, too, showing how we can never truly know the person with whom we are most intimate. And it’s a quintessentially Australian tale, not only in its achingly beautiful descriptions of landscapes and country towns, but of the gross injustices carried out against the First Peoples, whom Miller himself has lived and worked with and written about in previous novels.

Reading this book also helped me to appreciate the common themes in Miller’s extraordinary backlist; the pennies began to drop about his obsession with Germany and Holocaust survivors, the London Blitz, Aboriginal genocide, the writer’s life and his amazing psychological insights into love and intimacy.

‘Joyride to Jupiter’ by Nuala O’Connor 

Fiction – paperback; New Island; 157 pages; 2017. 

Joyride to jupiterI read Joyride to Jupiter as part of the #20booksofsummer challenge, but never got around to writing about it on this blog. I have previously read O’Connor’s novels, published under the name Nuala Ní Chonchúir, and found them both deeply moving and evocative.

This collection of short stories is more of the same, all written in eloquent, pared-back language and filled with well drawn, often troubled and flawed, characters struggling to make sense of the world. Some stories are only a few pages long, but even so, the reader is immediately immersed into the lives (and loves) of intriguing people, whether that be a young girl witnessing her father’s infidelity or a devoted husband dealing with his wife’s dementia. There are recurring themes — mainly sexual, it has to be said — but all the stories, which are set in various places around the world, are universal. It’s a quick read, but I can’t say it’s a particularly memorable one.

‘Death in Spring’ by Mercè Rodoreda

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 150 pages; 2018. Translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennent

Death in springPart of Penguin’s  European Writers series, this novella packs a real punch despite the fact it has no real plot. Set in a remote village in Catalan where the citizens are sticklers for following tradition, it tells the story of a young boy’s coming of age and how he must forge his own path in a society that is both oppressive and cruel.

Said to be an allegory of life under Franco’s dictatorship, it’s a deeply disturbing read full of nightmarish scenes and vivid, no-holds-barred language. But it’s also very beautiful, with lush, lyrical descriptions of nature and the ever-changing seasons (indicating that life goes on regardless of whatever cruel acts humans do to each other). But, even so, Death in Spring leaves the reader unsettled, perhaps because it’s such a visceral, often challenging, experience.

Author, Book review, Doreen Finn, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, New Island, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘My Buried Life’ by Doreen Finn


Fiction – paperback; New Island Books; 254 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Irish writer Doreen Finn’s My Buried Life is a remarkably accomplished, confident and polished debut novel set in Dublin after the economic crash.

A return to Dublin

It tells the story of a New York-based poet and academic in her late 30s who returns to her childhood home after the death of her mother. But Eva Perry, who narrates the story, doesn’t expect to stay long: she simply wants to tidy up her mother’s affairs and head back to her life in Manhattan as quickly as possible.

Yet things are not straightforward, for Eva is nursing deeply felt hurts — she’s recently broken off an affair with a married man, whom she loved — and now all the painful memories of her childhood come rushing back: the complicated relationship she had with her estranged mother, the unexplained death of her father when she was just four years old and then the depression and suicide of her older brother when she was 16.

And then there’s the ongoing problem she has with alcohol:

I want to stop drinking again. I can’t keep on doing what I’ve been doing since I got back to Dublin. I can’t live a healthy or productive life if my principal objective each day is to count the minutes until I allow myself a drink. It’s starting to show on my face, in my body. […] I don’t want to be that woman, alone with her books and empty bottles. I actually don’t know what I do want, but I don’t want that.

Melancholy, hope and humour

This probably makes My Buried Life sound quite maudlin — I mean, come on, in the first few chapters there’s already been a funeral, a suicide, a confession about alcoholism and a broken love affair  — but Eva is such a fascinating character, and her voice is so heartfelt, honest and often self-deprecating, that the story doesn’t feel as if it is wallowing in the gloom of it all. Instead, the narrative is infused with a well-balanced sense of melancholia but there’s also a slow burning anger at its core, which gives the story a sharp little edge. And the secrets, which are slowly revealed one by one as the story unfolds, make it a particularly compelling read.

It’s very much a book about “home” — where is it if you are an immigrant, what makes it and how it shapes us — and the displacement felt when returning to the place where you grew up after a long time away. I especially loved Eva’s withering commentary about how Dublin had changed —  for the worse — while she’d been gone:

Political discussion on the radio […] washes over me like sea foam, numbing in its repetition. The lies, the accusations, the nonsense about the imploded property market, as though property were the only thing wrong with this country. As though politicians and cute hoors hadn’t been ripping Ireland off in every guise imaginable since the dawn of independence, and now, when they’re still at it, people are somehow required to be surprised, shocked that any of this could have happened. I want to point the finger of blame at them all, the bankers, the politicos, all who allowed this to happen, with their mock shock, their disbelief that this could be happening to Ireland. Poster child for neo-liberal politics. Celtic Tiger indeed.

But this is also a book about second chances (I suspect the Irish economy may well be a metaphor for Eva’s own life) and it’s filled with many tender moments as Eva finds herself becoming intimate with a new circle of friends and lovers. In its exploration of family, loyalty and the secrets that bind us to one another, My Buried Life shows one woman’s struggle to accept her past in order to move into the future. It’s written in lush, almost musical prose, and while it may be Doreen Finn’s first book, I’m pretty sure it won’t be her last…

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Máire T. Robinson, New Island, Publisher, Setting

‘Skin Paper Stone’ by Máire T. Robinson


Fiction – paperback; New Island Books; 224 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

“I don’t believe there’s one true path. There’s endless paths stretching out to infinity. You just have to choose one and walk down it and see where it leads. We’re all stumbling in the dark, but how we stumble is our choice, nobody else’s.”

So says Alex, a small-time drug dealer, in Máire T. Robinson’s debut novel Skin Paper Stone. Set in Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, after the economic crash, the story revolves around a group of 20-somethings trying to find their rightful place in the world.

Stevie, an ancient history graduate, has decided to return to university to pursue her PhD after spending many years as an office temp. She’s broken up with her long-term boyfriend, Donal, and moved from Dublin to Galway, where she hopes to put the shadows of the past — including a teenage brush with anorexia and ongoing body image problems — behind her.

Here she meets easy-going Joe Kavanagh — known as Kav — who works as a lowly paid kitchen hand in a tacky tourist restaurant and sells weed on the side. He’s given up his artistic ambitions, but has dreams of moving to Thailand and becoming a tattoo artist, yet spends all his money on dope and booze.

Predictably, the pair develop a romantic relationship, but Skin Paper Stone is far from being a romance: it’s about well educated but directionless people trying to find a way forward when there’s no jobs, no money and, seemingly, no hope for a better future — unless you emigrate to the New World.

A lost generation

This might make the book sound depressing, but it’s not. The story looks at the underbelly of Galway’s “lost generation” — young people who are “damaged” and have lost their way — post-boom, but none of them have given up.  While they’re struggling to keep their heads above water on a day-to-day basis, they all have (limited) aspirations: Stevie to complete her PhD on sheela-na-gigs — figurative carvings of naked women displaying oversized genatalia that adorn many churches — and Kav to set up a tattoo parlour abroad. Even the city’s two rival drug dealers, Alex and Pajo, want to be top dog, even if they have to achieve it through violence and intimidation.

The narrative is underpinned by a constant refrain, that of the need to escape: Kav longs to escape his older brother’s disdain, Stevie her parents’ over-protectiveness. Even Jacqui Maloney, a local girl who’s worked on a shop floor for years and been passed over for promotion one too many times, wants to settle down and get married — albeit with the thuggish, sexually deviant Pajo.

It helps that Robinson writes with warmth and understanding. She treats her characters — all well drawn and authentic — with kindness and empathy. These are not bad people; they’re simply caught by circumstance and trapped by their own inability to see a way forward. It’s only when Stevie and Kav are thrown together that their perspectives on life — and love — change, seemingly for the better.

Robinson also writes about Galway — its tacky tourist shops, its pubs, the river that winds through it and the people who inhabit it — so evocatively that the city feels like a character in its own right.

Gently nuanced read

Skin Paper Stone  is a gently nuanced book that refrains from casting judgement on any of the people that inhabit its pages. Perhaps the ending comes together too quickly — Stevie’s decision to “escape” is slightly rushed and, in my mind, inexplicable, and the “problem” of Pajo is resolved too easily — yet this is an enormously enjoyable story that rings true.

Finally, I must issue a slight word of caution — as much as it pains me to say this, because I don’t want it to put people off buying this book — I found some of the copy-editing sloppy. In one case an entire sentence was repeated, Brussels sprout was spelled incorrectly, a reference to Murder, She Wrote had the comma in the wrong place, and there were several speech marks missing. Hopefully a second print run may iron out these problems…

In the meantime, I very much look forward to seeing what Robinson writes next…

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, New Island, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Publisher, Scotland, Setting

‘The Closet of Savage Mementos’ by Nuala Ní Chonchúir


Fiction – Kindle edition; New Island Books; 224 pages; 2014.

In late 2013 I read Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s astonishing debut novel You, which was about a young girl growing up in 1980s Dublin. Told in the present tense and in the second person (from the viewpoint of the girl), it was a truly memorable read, and when I heard the author had a new novel coming out I promptly bought myself a copy.

The Closet of Savage Mementos is perhaps the grown-up version of You, seeing as it tells the story of a young woman grappling with love, loss and difficult family relationships, who, some 20 years later, must confront the confusion, grief and anger associated with her past.

It’s a quietly understated read but hugely evocative of time and place, written in a straightforward prose style that brims with humanity and real emotion. It was only after I finished the novel that I discovered it was largely based on Ní Chonchúir’s own life, which only serves to make it a more poignant and profound read.

A novel in two parts

The book is divided into two parts. The first is set in 1991, when Lillis Yourell, a budding photographer who works part-time in a camera shop, takes a summer job as a waitress in the Highlands of Scotland. It’s something she’d been planning for a while, but when her best friend and sometime lover, Donal, dies in a motorbike accident it’s a way of clearing her head and coming to terms with her grief. It’s also a chance to escape her visual artist mother, Verity, an alcoholic with a tongue that cuts like a knife — “I hate people who remind me of myself. And Lillis reminds me so much of me that I could kill her” — and to ensure her gay brother, Robin, shoulders some of the responsibility of “parenting” her.

While in Scotland, Lillis falls for a much older man, and their romance, played out under the eyes of the small tourist community of Kinlochbrack, offers much-needed solace during a time of loneliness, but it also has unforeseen consequences that change Lillis’s life forever…

The second part of the book is set 20 years later. Lillis is 41 and back living in contemporary Dublin, where she continues to deal with her difficult mother, “a dyed-in-the-wool contrarian”. She’s recently married for the first time and just had a new baby. Life is interesting but what happened in Scotland all those years ago still niggles.

I don’t want to spoil the plot, so you’ll have to read the book, but let’s just say Lillis has the courage to confront — and reconcile — her past, and it’s rather lovely and sweet and tear-inducing.

New and fresh writing

As ever, the writing in this novel is gorgeous, probably not surprising given the author is also a poet. But open any page and there are sentences that sing, little descriptions that really capture a scene or a moment in new and fresh ways: the “navy lumps of the hills opposite are like whales, huge and motionless”, a baby’s “skin is butter soft” and he has “lamb-chubby thighs”; a blue paperweight with bubbles of glass around a piece of seaweed “looks like fireworks have gone off underwater”.

And the characters are wonderfully drawn, though some, such as Robin, are frustratingly unknowable, probably because we only ever really see things from Lillis’s point of view.

The Closet of Savage Mementos could be called a coming-of-age story, but I think it’s more firmly rooted in a sharply observed “life story” and how the arrival of motherhood changes the perception of ourselves and our own mothers. Indeed, if there is an overriding theme it is that the thing Lillis fears most is turning into her mother, based, I suspect, on the belief that bad parenting causes bad parenting.

Robin bent towards me. “Hey, do you remember the time you broke her china jug and the two of us buried it in the bottom of the garden? I was thinking about that yesterday.”
“God, I’d kind of forgotten about that day. She kept at us and at us until we showed her where we’d hidden the bits.”
“Then she locked us under the stairs. Good old Verity and her brilliant parenting.”

The book deals with some heavy subjects related to parenthood, marriage, siblings, betrayal, grief, death and alcoholism, but the author keeps a tight rein on the narrative and never lets it turn into a misery memoir. It’s lightened by moments of gentle humour — even the idea of Verity collecting roadkill to turn into “taxidart” is quite funny:

“She skins and mounts them and dresses them in costumes […] she was presented with a monkey recently; she gave it a pipe, a pinny and high heels.”

But in essence The Closet of Savage Mementos is just a great read. It’s a raw, honest and uncompromising novel about one woman reconciling her past with her present. I loved it.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, New Island, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Setting

‘You’ by Nuala Ní Chonchúir


Fiction – Kindle edition; New Island Books; 157 pages; 2010.

Nuala Ní Chonchúir‘s debut novel, You, is a lovely, heartfelt and completely engrossing story about a 10-year-old Irish girl grappling with issues out of her control: the loss of her best friend Gwen, who moves to Wales; the impending birth of a new half-sibling to her father’s second wife; and a new man in her mother’s life.

A Dublin childhood

You is set in Dublin in the 1980s and revolves around the unnamed girl, who is largely responsible for her two siblings — her younger brother Liam, and “the baby”, who is her half-brother — because her mother is partial to a drink. A couple of neighbours also help out.

Every so often the girl and Liam go to stay with their dad, who lives on the other side of town. He has remarried and there’s another baby on the way.  Eventually, they stay with him on an extended basis when their mother goes to hospital for “a little rest” but all the time the girl longs to return home, to her damp, crumbling house by the river Liffey, because she’s convinced that her step-mother has it in for her.

Indeed, the girl is never quite sure where her loyalties lie — she loves her mother but hates her new boyfriend; and she loves her father but doesn’t like his new wife. The one constant in her life, however, is  her best friend Gwen, who causes another spoke to fall off the wheel, as it were, when she announces that she’s moving across the Irish Sea to live in Wales. It’s almost too much for the girl to bear…

A funny, feisty narrator

You is told in the present tense and in the second person from the viewpoint of the girl, who is feisty and funny and opinionated and cheeky — and fiercely independent.

I’m not normally a fan of second-person narrators, but it’s testament to Ní Chonchúir’s skills as a writer that the story clips along at a steady pace and never feels laboured. You get pulled into the story because of the girl’s voice and get to experience everything she experiences, which makes her tale feel more immediate and real. Here’s an example:

Sometimes you wish that your ma was dead and that you, Liam and the baby lived in an orphanage. The people in the orphanage would feel really sorry for you and they would sing songs to you and let you sit on their lap. They’d bring you on picnics in meadows and they’d have a big basket, a checkered blanket and a flask and stuff. Then one day a rich couple would come and adopt the three of you and you would all live happily ever after in a big old house with ponies to ride on. The adoption ma would be movie-style pretty and the adoption da would be tall and handsome and he’d wear a suit and tie. Your da never wears a suit because he’s an electrician and he wears jeans or cords and jumpers. You like to think about all that sometimes, but the good feeling of it doesn’t last because the guilt starts creeping up your body and into your mind. It’s not right to wish that people are dead, especially not a close relative, even if they are narky all the time and make your life a living hell. Your ma has her good points; she just doesn’t like to show them very often.

I often laughed out loud at some of the girl’s observations and at other times I wanted to cry. Much of what she thinks and feels provides great insight, not only into her own small world, which is fragmenting at the seams, but at the ways in which her mother is struggling to cope with single parenthood, depression and the fact her ex-husband has moved on and she has not. For that reason, this is a very warm and human book.

Admittedly, I wondered where the narrative was going to take me, but then something quite dramatic and shocking happens mid-way through and suddenly what had been an eloquent character study is transformed into a brilliant family drama tinged by tragedy and heartbreak.

You might be a short and simple story, but it’s evocative — of time, of place, of childhood — and incredibly poignant. I loved every word.

Author, Book review, Diarmuid Ó Conghaile, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, New Island, Publisher, Setting

‘Being Alexander’ by Diarmuid Ó Conghaile


Fiction – Kindle edition; New Island; 224 pages; 2013.

New Island is one of my favourite independent presses and perusing its website is the perfect way to discover (new-to-me) Irish writers. While I’ve only read a handful of its titles over the years, I’m yet to be disappointed. Diarmuid Ó Conghaile’s debut novel, Being Alexander, is no exception — and I have to tip my hat at Natasha, on Twitter, who first alerted me to it when she told me a friend of hers had thought very highly of it.

Dublin in the boom years

The book is set in Dublin, Ireland, in 2003-04, at the height of the economic boom and it focuses on Alexander Vespucci, who is bored by his job, his friends — and his life.

Alexander is employed by the National Economic Advisory Council and is senior economist on the Council Secretariat. He manages a small team of people, which he finds a rather tedious task:

The people he manages mostly just want stuff from him: attention; approval; meaningful work, but not too much of it; development opportunities; days off; tolerance of their mood swings. In return, he is responsible for the shit they turn out and the deadlines they don’t care about; plus they constitute an extra set of people he has to avoid if he is late, or hung over, or wishes to disappear early.

Included in these tedious tasks is finding out which staff member has run up extremely high phone bills by calling astrology lines and attending a Council meeting in which the availability of broadband for small businesses is top of the agenda.

Bored with life

If his work life sounds boring, his personal life isn’t that much better. His relationship with his long-term girlfriend is falling apart without him even realising, his best friend keeps tapping him up for money and his family are constantly nagging him to visit a dying aunt in the hope she’ll look favourably upon him in her will.

He’s the type of guy who looks as if he’s doing okay on the surface, but scratch a little deeper and you see he’s merely lurching from one almost-crisis to the next. He wants to do the right thing, but he’s scared to push himself for fear of failing.

‘Don’t you guys find that life is really difficult?’ he says suddenly in a moment of reckless honesty, of madness. ‘I sometimes feel like I’m drowning, you know? I’m up to my throat in water, turning my face to the sky so that it won’t flood into my mouth.’ He feels his eyes scrunching up, not that he is getting teary, but he is filled with a rush of emotion that concentrates itself in this part of his face. Paul looks at him blankly, glances at Danny, drinks from his pint. Danny is stern. ‘In fairness, we don’t talk about that kind of thing,’ he says.

Slow burner

I have to admit it took me awhile to get into this book, and I think that’s largely due to the fact it’s character based, not plot based, so the narrative kind of drifts along — a bit like Alexander’s life — although there is a key pivotal moment about half-way through, which involves a tragedy, that came as something of a shock to this reader.

I did find myself enjoying the way in which Ó Conghaile creates a whole world and peoples it with interesting characters, none of whom are particularly likable but all of whom are drifting in their jobs and personal lives, despite the fact the country is awash with cash and Ireland’s citizens have never had it so good.

And there’s something about the very real frailty of Alexander that gets under the skin — I often wanted to reach into the pages of the book and give him a good kick up the backside, to tell him it wasn’t so bad and that if he wanted to change his life he had to grab it by the horns and not wait for someone else to do it.

An ‘office novel’

It’s real strength lies in the depiction of the work place — this is a proper “office novel” — in which the tedium of each day is the only steady thing in Alexander’s life, though that soon begins to crumble when he gets embroiled in a sexual harassment case and is pressured into some high-level corruption involving the aforementioned supply of broadband to rural communities.

There’s a handful of funny set pieces and some great one-liners, which had me chortling over my Kindle, such as this one:

‘Do you reject Satan and all his evil works?’ asks the priest. ‘Yes,’ says the congregation, half-heartedly. Alexander moves his lips, but emits no sound. He thinks: Why pick on Satan? Why not reject something really odious, like Brown Thomas’ department store or Sky Sports.

However, for the most part, the tone of this book is one of, if not despair, then certainly a kind of apologetic hopelessness, as if Alexander knows he’s rubbish and just wants everyone to accept the fact so he can get on with being miserable — preferably alone.

Being Alexander perfectly captures the sense of ennui which creeps up on all of us at some point in our lives. And it does a wonderful job of depicting the kind of aimless existence that characterises my generation of 30 and 40-somethings. It’s not a perfect novel, but it’s an enjoyable romp and marks Ó Conghaile as a writer to watch.

Author, Book review, Carlo Gébler, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, New Island, Publisher, Setting

‘The Dead Eight’ by Carlo Gébler


Fiction – Kindle edition; New Island Books; 404 pages; 2011.

Don’t be fooled by the menacing image on the cover of this book: this is not hardboiled noir, as I had mistakenly thought, but historical fiction of the finest order. The title of the novel, and the picture used to illustrate it, comes from what criminals call the two circles of the end of a shotgun lying on their side.

A fictionalised account of a true murder case

Carlo Gébler’s The Dead Eight is based on a true story in which police framed an innocent man for the murder of a prostitute in rural Ireland in 1940. The man, Harry Gleeson, was a farmer and he was hanged at Mountjoy Prison the following year. His story has been recounted in Marcus Bourke’s 1993 non-fiction book Murder at Marhill: Was Harry Gleeson Innocent?

Gébler’s dramatic retelling of invents is less about Gleeson and more about the murder victim, Moll McCarthy, who was found lying in a field with two fatal shotgun wounds — in fact, one side of her face had been blown away.

The author is careful to state in his Afterword that his fictionalised version is a mix of “factual content with a great body of invented speculative material”. He has used key dates and events, the topography, some lines from police interviews and court cases but everything else comes entirely from his imagination.

And what an imagination it is. Moll “Foxy” McCarthy is a wonderfully realised character: a woman from the wrong side of the tracks, desperate to be loved and wanted, who finds the only way she can survive is to charge men for sexual favours. Her “fee” is not necessarily money, but anything to keep her tribe of illegitimate children — she had seven by seven different men — clothed and fed.

He drove away. She carried the potatoes inside. As a rule when one of her callers gave her a gift she was happy — above all if it was food because that meant a feed for the children and that was great. She always got a good feeling when she filled their bellies and there was only one feeling she knew to beat it and that was the feeling she had gotten when her visitors had told her that they liked or even loved her and they would leave their wives and families and marry her and even though none ever had and even though she knew deep down that they would not do what they said she had always believed them at the moment they had said these things and then she was happy and trusting and certain until they broke the terrible news that the relationship was over and they said that they were not going to marry her, let alone see her again.

Slow-building momentum

The story is told from the viewpoint of Moll McCarthy’s grandson, Hector, who wants to “tell the whole truth”. “Still, even if this were a novel, would you believe it?” he writes.

The narrative takes a long time to build up because it starts with the life of Moll’s mother — also a prostitute — before the focus shifts to Moll. And Gébler’s prose, while understated and journalistic, is rich in detail. He is particularly good at capturing the period detail and the social mores of the time. (I should point out that commas are not his strong point — this lends the prose a kind of breathy, almost emphysemic, quality, as the section quoted above clearly illustrates.)

But there is a purpose to this careful and painstaking analysis of two women (and the men entangled in their lives), because it enables the author to draw a warm and empathetic portrait of those many might judge — and condemn — rather more harshly. And it shows that no matter how people choose to live their lives no one deserves to meet their end in such a brutal and untimely manner.

Gébler’s greatest achievement is showing the way in which Moll was being manipulated by the people around her —  she had become an unwitting pawn in a dangerous game involving the IRA and the police — but he does so with effortless restraint. Indeed, this expertly paced book is not so much an examination of a crime, but a fascinating look at Irish social history at a time when no one quite knew who to trust.

A miscarriage of justice

I read this novel with a slow-simmering anger: anger at the way Moll, as a woman, never had a chance to make something of herself; anger that she paid the ultimate price for this; anger that the authorities got away with murder; and anger that an innocent man was hanged for something he didn’t do.

The Dead Eight is an extraordinary novel in all senses of the word. In his attempt to expose a miscarriage of justice in the Irish judicial system and explain how it came about, including the motives by all those involved, Gébler has crafted a genuinely moving, humane and important novel.


Aidan Higgins, Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, New Island, Publisher, Setting

‘Langrishe, Go Down’ by Aidan Higgins

Langrishe, Go Down

Fiction – paperback; New Island Books; 320 pages; 2007.

First published in 1966, Aidan Higgins’ first novel, Langrishe, Go Down, is regarded as an Irish classic. It won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Irish Academy of Letters Award, and was later made into a television movie based on a screenplay by the great Harold Pinter.

It is by no means an easy read — it features literary flourishes characteristic of high modernism and a narrative that switches between third person and first person seemingly on a whim — but it is a rich and rewarding one. I also found it profoundly moving.

The story is set in Ireland in the 1930s. Four middle-aged sisters live in a crumbling estate set on 72 acres in Celbridge, County Kildare. They are unusual in that they are landed Catholics, but their parents are dead and the money has long since run out. But their social standing remains, even if the only way they can pay their bills is to cut down a stately ash tree in the garden for two quid (a trend started by their late father, who felled trees and sold them for firewood when he was desperate for cash).

The book opens with the older sister, Helen, taking a crowded bus journey back home from an outing in Dublin. It is evening and the bus is awash with “circles of bilious light” and “warm gusts of sweetish nauseous air”, all brought incredibly alive by Higgins’ masterful writing. Without any mention of time or date, we get an immediate sense of period by the Evening Herald lying open on Helen’s knee:

Well muffled up against the elements, the passengers read that the Italians were arming, that Herr von Ribbentrop had made a provocative speech at the Leipzig Fair, that the Pope had graciously given audience to Monsignor Pisani, Archbishop of Tomi. General Franco had spoken on the destined march of free Spain. At Melbourne, in cool summer weather, Australia had retained the Ashes.

By the time Helen gets home, we know the world is in a dire situation, that the Spanish Civil War is in full swing and the trouble is brewing in Germany. But the home front isn’t much better. Helen’s younger sister, Imogen, is prone to hypochondria and spends her days in bed, not wanting to rise, and her diet, comprising thin omelets sprinkled with parsley, has left her pale and weak. But what led to this situation?

The answer is revealed in part II, when the story jumps back in time, to 1932. In just over 150 pages, Higgins details the secret affair Imogen leads with her German lover, Otto Beck, a mature-age student who lives on the Langrishe farm. Otto is an intellectual, well read, well travelled and prone to talking endlessly about himself and his studies. (He is working on a thesis entitled The Ossianic Problem and the Actual Folk Sagas and Customs in 17th Century Ireland with special reference to the work of Goethe and the Brothers Grimm: a sociological-philological-critical study, a title that Imogen so deftly points out is “a bit of a mouthful”.) Imogen, a 40-something virgin, sees him as her last chance to experience love.

They embark on a passionate affair — which lasts “two springs, two summers, three autumns and two winters” — and suddenly Imogen’s rather routine domestic life takes on a new exciting element. But when she begins to realise that self-absorbed Otto is taking her for granted, that he is only interested in her body and not her mind, the relationship hits rocky ground. I don’t think it is a spoiler to say it ends badly, but it is heart-rending to read.

The breakdown of their relationship is perhaps a metaphor for the tragic decline of the house in which Imogen was raised. As the property falls into ruin, so, too, does Imogen’s simple, chaste life. Similarly, the ties that bind the sisters together begin to fray until very little love or friendship between them remains. And we could take it even further and suggest it mirrors the demise of Ireland’s old order of power, too.

If this sounds like a terribly melancholy story, then you’d be right. It’s heart-breaking in places, particularly when you realise that much of Imogen’s behaviour is characterised by small acts of desperation in order to escape her dull, dreary life. But there’s other emotion here, too, including love, passion and sexual desire, which balances the despair.

While this novel won’t be to everyone’s tastes — too literary, too modernist, too experimental — I thoroughly enjoyed it, not least because it took me right out of my comfort zone and introduced me to a novel regarded by so many as a masterpiece.

Author, Book review, Ireland, memoir, New Island, Non-fiction, Nuala O'Faolain, Publisher, Setting

‘Are you Somebody?’ by Nuala O’Faolain


Non-fiction – paperback; New Island Books (2nd edition); 264 pages; 2008.

I’ve read some extraordinary memoirs in recent years, all by professional writers — Pete Hamill’s A Drinking Life, Hilary Mantel’s Giving Up the Ghost, Amélie Nothomb’s The Life of Hunger — and this one, by Irish author, journalist and TV producer Nuala O’Faolain, is right up there with the best of them.

O’Faolain, who died last year aged 68 from cancer, was a household name in Ireland. Indeed, in the introduction to this edition, she writes that she was “fairly well known” but is quick to point out that she was “no star”:

People have to look at me twice or three times to put a name on me. Sometimes when I’m drinking in a lounge bar, a group of women, say, across the room begin to look at me, and send one of their number over to me, or when I’m in the supermarket someone who has just passed me by turns back, and comes right up to me and scrutinises my face. ‘Are you somebody?’ they ask.

By contrast, I know very little about O’Faolain outside of her wonderful novel My Dream of You, which I read earlier in the year and had been told was a thinly veiled biography. Having enjoyed it so much I figured I should try the “real” thing, which is how I came to read this memoir.

There’s no doubt that O’Faolain knows how to write. There’s also no doubt that she knows how to do so in a very candid way. There’s no hedging her bets, or taking a softly-softly approach. It’s all here, warts and all.

She was born one of nine children in 1940 “when nine was not even thought of as a big family among the teeming, penniless, anonymous Irish of the day”. She viewed herself as a nobody, just an ordinary girl, in a country constricted by Catholicism, who would eventually be married and kept by a man. And yet, for most of Nuala’s life, she rages against this stereotypical expectation and breaks as many social norms as she can.

Without going into too much detail, she moves in with a man she has not married (a huge no-no in Holy Catholic Ireland at the time) and later flees to England, where she forges a hugely successful academic and journalistic career. But along the way, despite her successful working life, there is something missing: a troubled past and estranged relationship with her family seems to keep her back (her father, a well-known Irish journalist, does not come off very well in this memoir, nor her mother, who turned to drink to numb the pain of a bad marriage). And then there’s her promiscuity and search for “passion” which ultimately leaves her feeling rather lost and empty.

Surprisingly, for a woman so candid about her sexual desires, she gives scant regard to her partner of 15 years, the journalist Nell McCafferty and barely mentions her in this book, apart from describing the odd cosy holiday together. (Perhaps Nuala’s second volume, entitled Almost There, may fill in some of these gaps.)

Are You Somebody? is about one woman’s search for meaning, dealing with a past that you cannot leave behind and coming to terms with growing old. There’s a sadness at the heart of this memoir, and a slow-burning rage, too, and perhaps just a smidgen of self-pity. But, ultimately, it’s a powerhouse of a read, and you come away from it feeling as if you really got to know the lonely, flawed and hugely intelligent and brave woman who wrote it.