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.

2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Lisa Harding, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting

‘Bright Burning Things’ by Lisa Harding

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 320 pages; 2021.

Novels with strong, distinctive voices are always winners for me — and so it proved with Lisa Harding’s Bright Burning Things, which has recently been shortlisted for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award.

A woman’s life unravelling

Told from the perspective of Sonya, a former stage actress now single mother with a young son, this tense, unflinching story puts us firmly in the mind of someone losing her grip on reality.

[…] Abruptly I sit, and just as abruptly I cry. This is all part of it: my ‘condition’, as diagnosed by Howard [a former boyfriend]. He said it was what made me such a great actress: extreme and electric. The moods crashed through me then, never really landing, never really taking hold, but since stopping acting and having Tommy, alone, and the tiredness and the feeling of being judged by the voices, and now the old ladies of the world, they have taken up permanent residence.

The first few chapters of this novel are told in a dizzying, confused voice, one that is paranoid, convinced that everyone is watching and judging, especially Mrs O’Malley the neighbour across the road. And her actions are just as erratic, whether that be driving her old car too fast, stripping down to her underwear to go swimming in the ocean, shoplifting food and wine from the supermarket, or burning the fish fingers she cooks for Tommy’s dinner.

Her mental distress is only eased by drinking alcohol, which, in turn, just makes her more confused and her behaviour more erratic. Sometimes she experiences extreme blackouts — and she knows this is not good when she has a young child to look after. But this brings on more anxiety, which only fuels her drinking. It is a vicious cycle.

An intervention

Her father, with whom she’s not had contact for two years (or so she says), intervenes and whisks her off to a rehabilitation facility run by nuns.

He gets out, opens my door, takes the bag out of the boot and leads the way. Where have you been, Dad? I’m being led to the sanitorium, the madhouse where they used to lock up wild women in this country not so long ago — when it was still a land of priests and patriarchy — women with hysteria, with desire, with too much of everything in their veins, women who incited and inflamed. Yup, that’s me! I almost start to skip. Where is my camera?

Here, under the care of counsellors and doctors and medication, she undergoes a 12-week programme of abstinence, but she pines for Tommy, who has been taken into care, and becomes increasingly obsessed about her dog because no one will tell her what has happened to him.

Eventually, when released, everyone is reunited, but it’s not smooth sailing. Tommy has developed an obsession with fire, and Sonya has to watch he doesn’t burn the house down. And while she has a better grip on reality (thanks to her therapy), she struggles to play her new role as a sane and alcohol-free mother.

This is going to be the hardest acting job ever. All the characters I have played up to now were able to give full vent to their passions and furies. My new character is called Ms Sanity, and Sanity has to hide her truth at all costs, Sanity has to smile and suppress, Sanity has to present a neatly packaged front to the world. My audience would no doubt be bored of Ms Sanity within minutes.

When she develops a romantic relationship with one of the counsellors who checks her progress, his home visits begin to blur the line between “doctor” and patient. And kind, considerate David turns out to be not so kind and not so considerate after all. His presence begins to feel oppressive and his behaviour coercive.

Unique voice

Bright Burning Things is a compelling read, because even though the story might feel familiar — an alcoholic, mentally distressed woman going off the rails — it’s the voice, confidential, strained and disbelieving, that gives this novel its unique twist.

It’s tense and immersive throughout, building towards a potentially terrifying climax, but there’s an undercurrent of wry humour to lessen the narrative’s weight. You’re never sure what’s going to happen next and whether anyone will step in to help the characters at the heart of this book. You worry for Sonya, but you worry more for young Tommy.

The author draws many parallels between acting on stage and acting in real life, and how certain people thrive on attention but only when it is on their terms. She also explores the pain and ecstasy of addiction and maternal love, letting us in on a deeply personal world that feels raw and intimate.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Sorrow and Bliss’ by Meg Mason: The story of a woman who struggles to maintain her sanity — and her marriage — in the face of an undiagnosed mental illness.

‘The Sound of My Voice’ by Ron Butlin: a successful executive at a biscuit factory masks the fact he is a high-functioning alcoholic who’s struggling to keep all the balls in the air.

This is my 3rd 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.

2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Kevin Power, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Scribner, Serbia, Setting

‘White City’ by Kevin Power

Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 450 pages; 2021.

Addiction, self-loathing, corruption — and shady property deals — form the heart of this darkly humourous novel that has recently been shortlisted for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award.

Affluent but adrift

Kevin Power’s White City is told from the point of view of 27-year-old Ben — the son of a retired South Dublin banker — who is in a rehab clinic trying to figure out how he lost control of his comfortably privileged life.

I am the bitter only son of a disgraced rich man and I have washed up here in rehab, at the end of every road, with zero money, zero prospects, zero hope. I have cheated and stolen and lied — lied to myself most of all. I have consorted with fraudsters and war criminals. In an effort to beat my father at his own game, I failed: at love, at money, at life.

The narrative charts Ben’s fall from grace, which begins with his father’s arrest for “stealing €600 million from the books of his own bank” and ends with him developing a serious drug habit that lands him in the St Augustine Wellness Centre for Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation, which he describes as:

[…] a detox tank and monitored care facility for the rich and the rich-by-proxy, for the gouged, the spent, the luckless, for the terminally middle-class.

In between, he moves in with his girlfriend Clio (to save costs), takes a job with a dodgy marketing agency (which doesn’t pay enough to keep him in the manner to which he’s been accustomed) and bumps into an old school friend, James Mullens, who offers him the chance to get rich quickly (he takes it).

That decision to join James’ new business  — a property development in Serbia — ultimately leads to his downfall because what he doesn’t know when he signs up is that it’s a high-risk scam pitting a group of rich Dublin lads against a bunch of Balkan gangsters. The result is farcical — and dangerous.

Fast-paced romp

Told in the first person, White City is a fast-paced romp laced with biting humour. For all his selfishness, Ben demonstrates an astonishing amount of self-awareness, but the knowing nods and winks are probably for the benefit of his therapist, for whom he is penning a memoir of sorts.

How am I doing so far, Dr F? I hope you’re happy with the family stuff. I’d hoped to get through this whole account without mentioning my mother at all, actually — or perhaps by mentioning her only indirectly, like Perseus (is it?) looking at the Gorgon in his shield. If that’s okay with you, I might skip over the real childhood stuff, or save it up for later.

His story, largely told in chronological order, is intercut with his therapy sessions and includes his frank, sometimes cruel conversations with Dr Felix, his sponsor at the rehab clinic.

As his tale is fleshed out, and his life begins to spin out of control, it becomes clear that Ben’s financial dependency on his father has left him vulnerable, his relationship with both parents, tenuous and suspect as it is, becomes stretched to breaking point and his greed gets the better of him.

White City is wickedly funny throughout, but its razor-sharp commentary on materialism, the nouveau rich and the shallowness of modern life adds an extra layer of meaning. I think it rightfully deserves its place on the aforementioned shortlist.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘The Devil I Know’ by Claire Kilroy: A wickedly biting satire about all the speculative development, corrupt politicians, prostitution and international money lending that led to the collapse of the Celtic Tiger.

‘Here are the Young Men’ by Rob Doyle: Set in 2003, when Ireland was awash with jobs and cash, this is a nihilistic drug-fuelled story about four teenage boys who are awaiting the outcome of their Leaving Cert exam results which will determine their future lives.

This is my 2nd 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.

Author, Billy O'Callaghan, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Life Sentences’ by Billy O’Callaghan

Fiction – paperback; Jonathan Cape; 220 pages; 2021.

Irish writer Billy O’Callaghan’s Life Sentences is a wholly absorbing family saga that spans three generations over the course of a century. It’s loosely based on the author’s own family tree and gives voice to the branch that was “illegitimate” because two children were born out of wedlock at a time when this was frowned upon.

At its essence, it is a love story between a teenage girl and the married man with whom she falls in love, but it’s also a damning portrait of one man’s eagerness to have his cake and eat it too, arrogantly ignoring his responsibilities to the children he fathered and blaming the woman for falling pregnant in the first place.

It’s split into three parts, with each part told by a different family member: Jer, 1920; Nancy, 1911; and Nellie, 1982.

Nancy’s romance

Nancy is the central character in this tale. As a 16-year-old, she flees Clear Island, off the south-west coast of County Cork, after the famine kills all her family, and starts afresh on the mainland where she finds work in a big house on the northside of Cork city. It is here she falls for the tall, good-looking, charismatic gardener, Michael Egan, with whom she starts a secret relationship, unaware that he is already married.

I  was nineteen when I met Michael Egan for the first time. That’s not where my story begins, but it’s where I begin, that day the beginning of my happiness and the start of my fall.

When she falls pregnant, Michael Egan (he is always referred to by his first and last names throughout this story) wants nothing to do with her. She’s fired from her job and moves into a workhouse.

Later, she moves into a crowded tenement and supports herself through “shameful things I could not regret, as much as I hated myself for them because I knew they were necessary”. It is while walking the streets down near the pubs “where I knew men with money in their pockets would be” that she bumps into Michael Egan once again.

Despite her better judgement, and perhaps because Michael is a familiar face and unlikely to be physically rough with her, she rekindles her affair with him. But history repeats. Another child is born out of wedlock, Michael Egan rejects her and it’s back to the workhouse with a baby and toddler in tow.

Jer’s complex history

It is that baby, a boy named Jeremiah, or Jer for short, whom we meet when the novel opens. He is in a pub, “drinking fast and heavy”, waiting for the guards to come looking for him. We slowly learn that he is angry, deeply angry, because his beloved sister Mamie has died (Nancy’s firstborn) and that he blames her husband, a violent alcoholic, for her death.

He killed her. He might not have kicked the chair away, but with his drinking he put the rope around her neck. He’s been killing her for years. And now she’s gone.

Despite this imminent arrest, we discover that Jer is a good man, happily married with six children, but he is emotionally scarred, not just by his impoverished childhood and the father he met on just a few occasions, but by his time in the Great War. He seeks solace in his family, but his thoughts often turn to Michael Egan:

Dead now, dead a long time, but one half of me then and still. I exist because of this man, but because of him I am rootless. I made myself strong, in spite of him.

Nellie’s sense of peace

Jer’s youngest daughter, Nellie, takes up the final part of the novel. She’s in her 60s and lives with her daughter Gina and son-in-law Liam just “a stone’s throw from the house in which I was born”.

She’s dying but isn’t afraid to do so, and has shunned any kind of medical intervention:

I’ve watched so many go [die], and find comfort in knowing that I’m to take the same road. If it leads nowhere then that’s all right. But if there’s a chance of maybe seeing them again, my loved ones, my husband Dinsy and my father and mother and all the rest, then who wouldn’t want that?

As Nellie looks back on her life, we see how things have panned out for Nancy’s children and grandchildren. There is tragedy and heartbreak in this life, but there is also love and happiness and a sense of belonging, of putting down roots that her own father never could because of his illegitimacy.

Sad and melancholy

I adored this book. Yes, it’s sad and melancholy and treads some dark territory (there’s a lot of death in this novel, it has to be said), but it’s written in such an engaging manner, brimming with humanity and compassion, celebrating the tenacity and resilience of a family just doing their best to get by against the odds.

It’s intimate, rewarding and poignant, the kind of novel to make the heart lurch. And I’m delighted to see the author has two other novels and a bunch of short story collections for me to explore. I will look forward to reading them when I can.

I read this book as part of Cathy’s #ReadingIrelandMonth2022. You can find out more about this annual blog event at Cathy’s blog 746 Books.

Author, Benjamin Black, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, John Banville, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘Elegy for April’ by Benjamin Black (aka John Banville)

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 342 pages; 2010.

Last year I read John Banville’s latest novel, April in Spain, a marvellous crime-inspired romp set in San Sebastian in the 1950s.

But while I recognised the connections with his Quirke Dublin series penned under his crime-writing pseudonym, Benjamin Black, and his magnificent locked room mystery Snow, I failed to see that it was basically a follow-up to his novel Elegy for April, published more than a decade ago.

I only discovered this fact when browsing in my local second-hand book warehouse and Elegy for April was staring at me on the shelves! So it came home with me (in exchange for $9.90) and I’ve spent the best part of the last week reading it and eking out the story for as long as possible because I was enjoying it so much.

A woman vanishes

Set in Dublin in the 1950s, this richly atmospheric tale focuses on the mysterious disappearance of a junior doctor, April Latimer, and explores what might have happened to her.

Was she murdered, or did she stage her own disappearance? And regardless of the scenario, what caused her to vanish? There’s no body to be found, no sign of struggle or foul play.

Her family — a stuck-up mother, a pretentious brother and an uncle who is a government minister — don’t seem to care, arguing that April had long chosen to disassociate herself from her family for personal reasons and she’s probably just gone off with a man or escaped for a holiday in the sun.

But her circle of friends are concerned because it is unlike April to not attend their drinking sessions and get-togethers without telling them first. Her friend Phoebe Griffin is so worried she asks her father, the pathologist Quirke, to help determine what might have happened.

Genre busting novel

This novel isn’t a police procedural, nor is it a traditional detective story. It’s Banville’s own take on crime but it’s by no means a conventional crime novel per se. The reader can’t even be sure that a crime has taken place. There’s certainly no neat resolution, with all the loose stories lines tied up at the end.

But Elegy for April is a wonderfully evocative read and what it lacks in plot it makes up for in characterisation. It is peopled with a cast of distinctly colourful characters, including the star of the show, Quirke, whose orphaned childhood and complex, and often strained, family relationships have shaped his outlook on life and which provide a rich back story for Banville to explore.

When the book opens, for instance, we discover that Quirke is just finishing a stint at St John of the Cross, a “refuge for addicts of all kinds”, because of his penchant for booze. Throughout the novel, he wrestles with his newfound sobriety, convincing himself that one or two drinks won’t hurt — often with disastrous, and occasionally, hilarious results.

And while he’s adjusting to life as a teetotaler, he’s also adjusting to life as a father, for when Quirke’s wife died in childbirth, he gave away his infant daughter to his sister-in-law and kept it secret from the child, Phoebe, who has only recently learned of the truth. The pair are trying out their newfound father-daughter relationship with tender but laboured efforts.

Portrait of 1950s Dublin

The story paints a vivid portrait of 1950s Dublin — the streets, the pubs, the landmarks — and society’s moral stance on such things as inter-racial relationships (was April Latimer, for instance, having relations with a black Nigerian man?), abortion and single women.

And while it’s a serious story about a potential murder, it’s also incredibly funny in places. Quirke, for instance, buys a car — a very expensive and rare Alvis TC108 Super Graber Coupe, “one of only three manufactured so far” (Wikipedia picture) — even though he does not know how to drive and doesn’t have a licence. His scenes behind the wheel are hilarious.

At the corner of Clare Street, a boy with a schoolbag on his back stepped off the pavement into the street. When he heard the blare of the horn he stopped in surprise and turned and watched with what seemed mild curiosity as the sleek black car bore down on him with its nose low to the ground and its tyres smoking and the two men gaping at him from behind the windscreen, one of them grimacing with the effort of braking and the other with a hand to his head. ‘God almighty, Quirke!’ Malachy cried, as Quirke wrenched the steering wheel violently to the right and back again.

Quirke looked in the mirror. The boy was still standing in the middle of the road, shouting something after them. ‘Yes,’ he said thoughtfully, ‘it wouldn’t do to run one of them down. They’re probably all counted in these parts.’

And as ever with a Banville novel, the prose is beautiful and dotted with highly original similies throughout.

Quirke, for instance, standing in his long black coat and black hat resembles a “blackened stump of a tree that had been blasted by lightning”; a stage actress with whom Quirke has a fling has vivid red lips “sharply curved and glistening, that looked as if a rare and exotic butterfly had settled on her mouth and clung there, twitching and throbbing”; while a secret between lovers that is never discussed but always remains between them is described as “like a light shining uncertainly afar in a dark wood”.

I thoroughly enjoyed Elegy for April and look forward to reading more in this Quirke series as soon as I can lay my hands on them.

I read this book as part of Cathy’s #ReadingIrelandMonth2022. You can find out more about this annual blog event at Cathy’s blog 746 Books.

Author, Book review, Cathy Sweeney, Fiction, Ireland, Publisher, Setting, short stories, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

‘Modern Times’ by Cathy Sweeney #ReadingIrelandMonth22

Fiction – hardcover; Weidenfeld & Nicholson; 148 pages; 2020.

This is why I love browsing in the library so much; I would not have discovered Cathy Sweeney’s Modern Times otherwise.

First published in the Republic of Ireland by Stinging Fly Press and now reissued by W&N, it is a collection of short stories with an absurdist and often risqué slant.

The suggestive cover art — designed by Steve Marking / Orion — is perfectly appropriate, for the very first story, “Love Story”, opens like this:

There was once a woman who loved her husband’s cøck^ so much that she began taking it to work in her lunchbox.

How’s that for an opening line?

Tales about taboo subjects

There are other stories that revolve around sex and love affairs and lust. Most are only a few pages long, but they are shocking, confronting and wickedly funny by turn.

In “The Birthday Present”, for instance, a woman buys her husband a sex doll called Tina for his 57th birthday and keeps it locked in the guest room for his personal entertainment. But when he dies unexpectedly, she has to keep “Tina” hidden from her adult children.

In “The Handyman” a divorcee wonders what it would be like to have sex with the handyman she invites into her semi-detached house to fix up a few things before putting it on the market, while in “A Theory of Forms” a teacher reminisces about the illicit sex she used to have with a teenage boy who had learning difficulties.

In “The Woman with too Many Mouths”, a man plans to end his affair with a woman who has two mouths — “She was, as I said, not my type” — while in “The Chair”, a married couple take it in turns to administer electric shocks as a substitute for sex:

When it is my turn to sit in the chair, I am almost relieved. In the days leading up to it I become irritable, angry, even on occasion experiencing violent ideations. Often, during this period, I think of leaving my husband, of breaking everything. But when the time comes to sit in the chair I do so without protestation. A sensation of release and expanse overtakes me, as though I am swimming effortlessly in a vast blue ocean, obeying laws of nature that are larger than me, larger than the universe.

A little bit bonkers

Not all the stories are framed around these taboo subjects. Some are truly bizarre and best described as OFF THE WALL, bonkers or just plain WIERD.

There’s a story about a palace that becomes sick evident by a “dark discolouration” spreading through the bricks at the top of its tower. Another story revolves around a manuscript that is found wrapped in newspaper and hidden behind a boiler in a house recently “vacated” by an old man. In another, a son returns from boarding school and is instructed to supervise his mother at a family celebration for fear she will get up to “her old antics, letting the whole family down”.

Out of the 21 stories in the collection, my favourite is “The Woman Whose Child Was A Very Old Man” in which an unmarried mother escaping a “dull provincial backwater” moves to a city bedsit and takes a job at a local shop. She can’t afford childcare, so while she is at work she puts her baby in the freezer and as soon as she gets home she thaws him out.

Well, human nature is human nature, and anything can become normal. Soon putting the baby in the freezer was part of the rhythm of life. There were no various side effects. The baby went into arrested development while frozen, but then caught up easily when thawed out. When the woman had a day off the baby sometimes outgrew a romper suit in an afternoon or learned to crawl in an hour.

Eventually, this pattern of freezing and growing gets out of whack, and the child grows — and ages — too quickly. And then the woman gets distracted by her new career as a writer and forgets her child in the freezer, only to return years later to find he’s become a very old man. Yes, I told you the stories were bonkers.

Wholly original

The blurb on my edition suggests that Sweeney’s stories are reminiscent of Lydia Davis, Daisy Johnson and Angela Carter, but having only read Carter’s The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault I don’t know how accurate that comparison is. They do bring to mind the genius that is Magnus Mills, perhaps because of the simple, fable-like prose in which they are written. Regardless, they are wholly original — and totally memorable.

Modern Times is a refreshing palate cleanser offering a quirky, inventive take on the short story. It is great fun to read! I hope Sweeney writes a novel next so she can give extended reign to that vivid imagination!

^ I’ve inserted a special character so my content isn’t deemed “unsafe” by search engines.

I read this book as part of Cathy’s #ReadingIrelandMonth2022. You can find out more about this annual blog event at Cathy’s blog 746 Books.

Anne Griffin, Author, Book review, Fiction, general, Ireland, Publisher, Sceptre, Setting

‘When All is Said’ by Anne Griffin

Fiction – paperback; Sceptre; 266 pages; 2019.

The cover of my edition of Anne Griffin’s When All is Said claims it is an international bestseller. I can see why.

This is a delightful and entertaining tale about an old man looking back on his life in rural Ireland, a man who came from nothing, struggled with dyslexia and reinvented himself as a farmer with an eye for property acquisition.

It shows how the course of his life was altered by a single act in his childhood involving a rare gold coin, an act that binds him to the owner forevermore.

An evening in the bar

The novel is set on a single evening, in the bar of a grand hotel, and is split into five parts. Each part is a toast dedicated to a person who played an important role, whether for good or bad, in 84-year-old Maurice Hannigan’s life.

7.05pm
First Toast: to Tony
Bottle of stout

Over the course of the evening, interspersed with wonderfully amusing details about the hotel and its young landlady owner, we learn about Maurice’s upbringing and the relationships he had with his older brother, his wife Sadie, his two children and his sister-in-law. It’s a typical life in the sense that it’s filled with births, deaths and marriages, ups and downs, tragedies and small triumphs.

But for all the charm and witticisms Maurice displays as he relays his life story, there’s an undercurrent of unease.  On more than one occasion I wondered if others actually liked him? Was he petty? Perhaps even sly and cruel? For throughout the tale Maurice holds a grudge, and a deeply felt one at that — and it’s largely about that aforementioned coin.

A lifelong grudge

This is how the grudge came about. When Maurice’s headmaster advised him to leave school, aged 10, because he struggled to read and write — thanks to what was clearly a case of undiagnosed dyslexia — he went to work for the Dollards, a Protestant family in a Big House, where his mother was already employed in the kitchen.

Maurice did odd jobs around the farm but was subjected to terrible beatings and bullying, mainly by the Dollards’ son, Thomas, who was of a similar age.

Quicker than I thought possible, Thomas was there at my back, a hunting crop in his hand. As I turned, he struck me with it, the metal slicing into my cheek. When I fell to the ground holding my face, he kicked my stomach again and again and again.

Maurice gets to avenge these ongoing cruel acts several months later when he scoops up a gold coin that Thomas has flung out an upstairs window as part of a fight with his father. No one sees Maurice take the coin which turns out to be an exceedingly rare gold sovereign produced when King Edward VIII was on the throne but removed from circulation upon his abdication in 1936. The coin is so rare that its loss costs Thomas his inheritance — and later his sanity.

(Side note: the coin, it turns out, isn’t fictionalised. Only six were produced, making them one of the rarest British coins in existence. Google tells me that the Royal Mint dubbed it the “coinage that never was” because it was pulled from production when King Edward VIII abdicated to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. One of these coins sold at auction in 2020 for £1 million. More about the coin here.)

Reading treat

When All is Said is a real treat to read. The author achieves a careful balancing act, preventing the narrative from heading into either sentimental or maudlin territory. It is tender, frank and endearing.

Maurice’s voice is brilliant — it’s intimate, moving, funny and all too human. You do feel like you are sitting at the bar with him, listening to him tell his tale. He’s a flawed character but he recognises his flaws. When he apologises to his son for not being a good father  — “I know, really I do, that I could’ve been better” — you know he means it.

I’m not sure you could describe When All is Said as a “feel good” book, but it’s certainly a warm and witty one, the kind of tale that makes you appreciate a life well lived. It is masterful storytelling.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Sarah Tolmie, science fiction, Setting

‘The Fourth Island’ by Sarah Tolmie

Fiction – paperback; Tordotcom; 112 pages; 2020.

Loss, despair — and distinctive knitted jumpers* — feature strongly in The Fourth Island, a mesmerising novella by Canadian writer Sarah Tolmie.

It’s set on the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland, which comprise Inis Mór, Inis Meáin and Inis Oírr, but the story imagines a fourth island called Inis Caillte (directly translated from the Irish to mean the “lost island”).

This island is a secret until a drowned man, Jim Conneely, washes up on the shore of Inis Mór wearing a distinctive jumper that no one recognises.

The fact remains that any knitter in any town on any of the isles, or on any farm, knows a sweater knit, here in the Arans. She can probably tell you who knit it. She will know the wool and the stitches and the patterns common to each district and family and parish. She can probably tell you what saint’s day it was finished on. And if she doesn’t know herself, she knows a woman who will. […] So, when a woman tells you that it is undoubtedly an Aran sweater but it was knit by a woman neither from Inis Mór nor Inis Meáin nor Inis Oírr, you are left with a riddle.

The man is buried but the jumper is kept by Aoife, an old wise woman who wields a lot of power in the community, a kind of antithesis to the priest whose power, said to be divine, is merely in the office he holds.

To keep the jumper is a bad omen, but keep it she does, until she dies, and then “Dirty Nellie”, the village whore who is deaf and dumb, takes it for herself. The warmth of the garment offers comfort, for Nellie has terrible pain in her stomach that no amount of herbal remedies, provided by Aoife, has ever been able to ease.

The story traces what happens to Nell and a small collection of other characters who find themselves unexpectedly transported to Inis Caillte, a magical kind of island where people are happy, restored to good health — Nell, for instance, regains her hearing and her voice when she arrives — and where everyone can understand each other regardless of the language they speak.

It’s also a place where time ceases to have meaning. The story is set in 1840, but there are characters on the island who are from Cromwell’s era, 200 years earlier, which begs the question, what is going on?

Speculative fiction

The Fourth Island is speculative fiction and — SPOILER ALERT, skip to the next paragraph to avoid — I suspect the island is actually a version of heaven and that all the residents on it are dead.

It explores loss in all its many forms, including the loss of life, the loss of health, the loss of reputation, the loss of religion, the loss of pain.

It also posits the idea that loss need not necessarily be negative, for in Nellie’s case regaining her ability to hear and speak after a lifetime of being unable to do so presents her with a strangely unwelcome challenge: she must deal with her newfound loss of silence and come to terms with being a different person.

The one thing she dwelt on was the loss of her deafness — it was a loss, the loss of the person she had been before — and its meaning.

Other positives include the loss of prejudice — all the characters get on with each other and one man, in particular, realises that in his earlier life on Inis Mór he had shunned Nellie because he had rushed to judgement about her lifestyle, but now he regards her as a friend.

Oh, there’s a lot to consider and mull over and cogitate on in this short novella, which is beguiling, unsettling, melancholy and wise. It’s written in hypnotic, fable-like prose, which lends a fairytale quality to the story.

It would make a great book group choice because there’s so much to discuss. Like the best speculative fiction, it’s full of ideas and metaphors, and different readers will bring their own interpretations to bear on it. It really is a little gem of a book.

* I am using the Australian/British term jumper, but the text uses the North American term sweater.

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.