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

‘Beautiful World, Where are You’ by Sally Rooney

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

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

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

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

Builds on previous work

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

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

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

The plot

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

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

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

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

Slow build-up

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

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

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

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

Misunderstandings and miscommunication

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

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

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

Author, Book review, Conor O'Callaghan, Doubleday Ireland, Fiction, France, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘We Are Not in the World’ by Conor O’Callaghan

Fiction – paperback; Doubleday Ireland; 260 pages; 2020.

We Are Not in the World by Conor O’Callaghan is a haunting, heartbreaking novel about an Irishman trying to come to terms with two major events in his life: the breakdown of a six-year affair with a married woman and the hospitalisation of his beloved young adult daughter who has tried to take her own life.

Two storylines

The narrative is comprised of two threads: the man’s road journey through France as a novice truck driver delivering unspecified goods for a mysterious man named Carl; and the tale of his illicit affair, told in reverse chronological order from break-up to initial meeting.

The first thread is told in the first person; the second in the second person.

It’s set in August 2015, before the Brexit referendum, in which “the whole landscape of continental haulage could change indefinitely and not for any good.” Refugees, fleeing war-torn Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, are on the news, and when Paddy arrives in Calais from Dover, it’s hard to ignore their inpoverished presence, in the “jungle” and on the streets around town.

The road is lined with wire fencing, fingers pushed through, faces pressed against. Behind them, waves of tents and shacks. The fence is staring at us. And we’re trying not to make eye contact, with the fence. A truck with an Irish reg gets pulled out of the contraflow. Live bodies, one by one, are prised from its chassis.

Clandestine daughter

Accompanying him on this journey is his 20-something American-raised daughter, Kitty, who, as it turns out, is making the trip as a “clandestine” — Paddy is not supposed to have passengers on board — and spends most of her time hidden in the sleeping alcove behind the driver’s seat. Paddy deliberately times their rest stops and overnight stays at unsociable hours to avoid other truck drivers, including the aforementioned Carl, making the same journey and spotting Kitty.

Their time together, whether in the truck’s cabin or sharing a meal in roadside cafes, is conveyed largely through Roddy-Doyle-esque dialogue:

This, she says staring straight ahead.
This?
These more like.
I’m gonna need a few specifics, darling, please.
There you go again.
These what are a bit what?
Carparks, she says.
Ah.
They’re a bit samey.
She is: bored in her reclined passenger seat, in shades and King of the Road cap, rambling aimlessly. I am: about to go indoors to check that it’s safe for her to join me, working overtime to humour her along, inclined to lose track of days that we’ve been here.
They are, I suppose.
They are, aren’t they?
They are.
It’s not just me, she says.
Not just you, love.
Same nothing spaces, she says. Same caffs, same staff, same drab grub. Same sun even, same dome of unblemished friggin azure over our heads.

As the journey unfolds, we learn more about Paddy’s tormented past, his childhood with his beloved mother, also called Kitty, and the strained relationship with his younger brother, Art, who is the “golden child” and executor of their mother’s will in which he is the major beneficiary.

Art also has a very close relationship with his niece, who is also his godchild, and it’s hard not to see that perhaps he has been more of a father figure to her than her own father and this is why this particular road trip, spending time together, is so important to Paddy: he needs to repair their fractured relationship.

We also learn the details of Paddy’s affair, the strange time he spent living in a snow-bound caravan in his lover’s back garden, and the forbidden trysts in stairwells, public toilets and other daring locations.

There’s an achingly sad side trip to Camargue to try to locate a house where Paddy’s mother stayed as a young girl, and another confronting scene in which Paddy is expected to partake in what appears to be a “gang bang” in a wood involving lots of other truck drivers. (He declines.)

An opaque but unforgettable story

Much of the story is opaque and occasionally confusing. Sometimes it’s difficult to know whether references to Kitty are to Kitty the daughter or Kitty the mother. I suspect this is deliberate.

And just like O’Callaghan’s wonderful debut novel, Nothing on Earth, which I read a few years ago, the story is infused with a strange, almost elusive, sense of foreboding. It feels both sinister and enigmatic at the same time.

It’s the kind of novel that is hard work, for you have to piece together bits of information in your own head and come to your own conclusions about what is really going on, but it is entirely worth the effort. (We never find out what Paddy is transporting, for instance, and why Carl encourages him to rig the tachometer readings because he appears to otherwise observe all the haulier rules about driving limits and rest times.)

The ending, when it comes, is like a sucker punch to the stomach. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I finished this book a few days ago. Combined with the unsettling nature of the story, the beautiful language and the difficult subjects tackled, including familial and forbidden relationships, We Are Not in the World is a truly indelible read.

If you like this, you might also like:

‘Travelling in a Strange Land’ by David Park: The story of a photographer from Northern Ireland driving across a snowbound England to rescue his ill son stranded in his student lodgings.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Sara Baume, Setting, TBR 21, Windmill Books

‘A Line Made By Walking’ by Sara Baume

Fiction – paperback; Windmill Books; 302 pages; 2018.

Sara Baume’s novel A Line Made by Walking takes its name from an artwork created by Richard Long in 1967 which now hangs in the Tate Britain. That artwork is a black and white photograph of a field in Wiltshire with a thin line through the middle created when the artist walked backwards and forwards enough times to flatten the crop. (The image can be viewed here.)

This is just one of dozens of art works — mainly installations — referenced in Baume’s hypnotic novel about Frankie, a young Irish woman grappling with a sense of purpose. She is a fine arts graduate but hasn’t managed to make a name for herself as an artist. She’s worked in a gallery but found it unfulfilling, and living in Dublin has been a lonely experience.

Now, aged 25, Frankie has decamped to her late grandmother’s house in the countryside, where she’s convinced her parents she will be caretaker until the property has sold. But her grandmother died three years ago, the house is falling apart and there doesn’t seem to be much interest from buyers.

Most of her grandmother’s unwanted belongings are still in the house and Frankie, chronically depressed but refusing to take medication, doesn’t have the wherewithal to do any housework, much less transform the place into a saleable state. In fact, she does so little housework that she moves from one bedroom to another so that she doesn’t need to wash the sheets!

Now that I am no longer a student of any kind, I must take responsibility for the furniture inside my head.

In this rural idyll, she immerses herself in nature, getting to know its rhythms and seasonal variations, as she learns to navigate the world on her own terms. She begins a special project to photograph any dead birds and animals she finds (these photographs are published in the book) and continually challenges herself to recall the thematic art she knows and loves:

Works about Blinking Lights, another, I test myself: Felix Gonzalez-Torres, again, “Untitled”, 1992. A chain of lightbulbs, bound to one another by an extension cord. The artist gave permission for curators to display the piece however they wished. He wanted it to bend and change according to circumstance; the only thing he did not allow was for his bulbs to be renewed during the run of each exhibition. He wanted them to live out their natural lifespan and die, the way a person does.

Death is a constant preoccupation, but the story never feels morbid. But as Frankie spends more and more time alone, turning herself into a proper recluse, shunning her neighbours and not taking calls, there are worrying signs that she may be having a breakdown of some kind.

As her thoughts spill out all a-jumble on the page — an interior monologue recalling childhood incidents, memories of her adored grandmother and more recent troubles involving doctors and worried parents — it’s clear she’s set a bar for herself that is too high and that’s she’s going to have to find a way to adjust to a new way of living and of seeing the world.

For all its mish-mash of anecdotes which tumble unbidden from her head, the narrative spins and shines in Baume’s capable hands. There’s a lot of witty humour that helps lighten the mood.

Everything is tied together beautifully with Frankie’s interpretations of various visual art forms across many different eras (there’s a helpful list of all the works referenced at the rear of the book), which serve to show that art and life are invariably intertwined in ways we may not even realise.

A Line Made by Walking is a beautiful, hypnotic story about the fragility of life — and creativity. It was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2017.

For other reviews of this novel, please see Susan’s at A Life in Books and Kate’s at booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

I have previously reviewed Baume’s debut novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither, about a troubled man and his relationship with his dog.

This is my 20th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it secondhand from Elizabeth’s Bookshop, here in Fremantle, on 8 May this year.

2021 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Anakana Schofield, Author, Book review, Fiction, Fleet, Ireland, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21

‘Bina’ by Anakana Schofield

Fiction – Kindle edition; Fleet; 336 pages; 2019.

I am always looking for novels that are written in a strong, distinctive voice. Anakana Schofield’s latest novel, Bina, has that in spades.

It’s a bitterly funny and completely bonkers tale about an elderly Irish woman called Bina — “That’s Bye-na not Beena” — who gave shelter to a man who later refused to leave.

If a man comes to your door, do not open it.

He’s now in Canada, but she’s worried he might return. It’s not clear what the man has done to upset her so much, nor why he’s now abroad. It’s also not clear why she has protestors in her front garden and medical waste in her back garden.

It’s written in such a way that nothing is really clear at all.

A novel in warnings

The first-person narrative is a series of warnings — “I’m here to warn you, not to reassure you” — and it’s up to you, the reader, to make sense of Bina’s tale, which is sometimes structured in stanzas (see below) like angry poetry:

Stop roundabouting it, Bina. That’s me

To myself. I’m roundabouting again, amn’t I. Need to keep straight. Not be dizzy in circles. Need to tell it straight

Have to find a way to tell it all, with or without me in it. Keep it
straight, Bina

Or you’ll confuse them.

It sounds like hard work, but I really admire this kind of writing. Nothing is spelt out yet Bina’s thoughts, which come out all a-jumble and not necessarily in chronological order, can be pieced together to form a cohesive whole.

What this woman has to share with the world is alarming and disturbing, but it’s also blackly comic.

I must have said no to her 32 times. It wasn’t 32 times nearly enough because she threatened she’d go on her own, if I wasn’t going to help. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. This is what no 32 times looks like.

It’s also littered with footnotes, which can wear thin if you hate skipping ahead to read them. Interestingly, it’s through these footnotes that I realised the character Bina had first appeared in Schofield’s debut novel Malarky, which I read back in 2011 but did not review. In that novel, Bina was threatening to attack a plane with a hammer.

Schofield has taken that strident character and given her a novel of her own. It’s a perturbing story but one that gives plenty of food for thought — about ageing, misogyny and euthanasia, to name but a few — but there are enough kooky elements (Bina, for instance, dreams a lot about David Bowie) to add an absurdist element to the tale, one that offers plenty of laughs and light relief.

It was shortlisted for the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize.

I have previously reviewed Schofield’s novel Martin John.

This is my 3rd book for the 2021 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award and my 17th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it on Kindle last year when it was on special for 99p!

Author, Book review, Emilie Pine, essays, Ireland, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21, Tramp Press

‘Notes to Self’ by Emilie Pine

Non-fiction – essays; Tramp Press*; 190 pages; 2018.

Notes to Self is a deeply personal collection of essays by Irish academic Emilie Pine. The pieces are all themed around Emilie’s life and are astonishing in their frankness and honesty.

There are six essays, the majority of which are framed around what it is to be a woman in the 21st century, forging a career, trying to start a family and caring for vulnerable parents. Taken collectively, the book could also be classified as a memoir.

The opening essay, “Notes on Temperance”, sets the tone for the entire book, for in it Pine tells the story of how, together with her sister, they “rescued” their father, an alcoholic, from a decrepit Greek hospital where they feared he would die.

By the time we find him, he has been lying in a pool of his own shit for several hours.

The essay charts their efforts to help a man who does not want to be helped, flying from Ireland and Corfu, and back again, numerous times to ensure his well-being; how they got him back to Dublin for a bit before he took it upon himself to return to Greece; how Pine learns to respect her father’s “principled stubbornness” and admires his talent as a writer; and how she came to understand that the emotional labour of looking after a poorly parent might make her “heart race” but comes with its own rewards: “an ever-changing conversation between two people, father and daughter”.

In “The Baby Years” she explains her struggles with infertility (“Do I want kids? I agonised for years”) and how, when she finally got pregnant, the baby dies in-utero.

On October 18th I am admitted for what they call an ERPC. It’s another terrible acronym; this one translates as ‘the evacuation of retained products of conception’.

Similarly, the essay “Notes on Bleeding and Other Crimes” looks at the intimate biology of what it is to be female and to experience menstruation  — the bloody mess of it, the pain of it, the surprise of it, the sometimes embarrassing times we are caught out by it — from our teenage years to perimenopause.

For three decades I have lived within a silence that declares periods too embarrassing, too unwanted, too female to talk about out loud. […] To hell with covering up, with being embarrassed, with being silent.

There are other essays about what it is like to grow up in Ireland with parents who have separated (“Speaking/Not Speaking”), about her troubled adolescence in which drugs and sex and a wild-child attitude reined (“Something About Me”) and, finally, about sexism in the workplace, particularly academia (“This is not on the Exam”).

And while Pine writes from her own personal experiences living and working in Ireland, there is a universality about the topics covered that will resonate with many women regardless of background or upbringing.

There are a lot of home truths in Notes to Self, and the frankness is, at times, breathtaking in its audacity and crudity. But Pine is not afraid to break taboos, to shine a light on uncomfortable topics, to shake off the shame often attached to them and to show that resilience and bravery come in many forms.

It is a superlative read.

* Please note this book has since been picked up and republished by Penguin.

If you like this, you might also like:

‘Constellations: Reflections of Life’ by Sinead Gleeson: a collection of 14 extraordinary, life-affirming and very personal essays covering the author’s own experience of sickness, health, motherhood and grief.

This is my 15th book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it from Dublin, Ireland, not long after it was released in 2018, and carried it in my suitcase when I repatriated to Australia in June 2019.

2021 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Niamh Campbell, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

‘This Happy’ by Niamh Campbell

Fiction – paperback; Weidenfeld & Nicolson; 311 pages; 2020.

When Alannah is 12-years-old, her father walks out on the family. A school psychologist tells her that she will always have trouble with men.

And that is essentially what Niamh Campbell’s novel This Happy is about — a young woman, now 30 years old, recounting the two most important male relationships in her life and trying to make sense of them both.

Two men six years apart

The first relationship occurred when she was 23. She fell in love with Harry, an Englishman 20 years her senior. He was married. She was studying art history in London. She gave up her student lodgings, packed her bags and visited him in Ireland where he rented a cottage in Drogheda, on the east coast where she was raised, to work on his writing, free from his wife.

The affair, which is complex and one-sided, ends abruptly after a mere three weeks but has a long-lasting emotional impact on Alannah.

Seven years later, she is now married — to someone else. Her husband, 10 years her senior, is a history teacher with ambitions to be a politician, but Alannah isn’t so sure he’s cut out for the job. She does not believe in him and feels unable to offer her unconditional support.

When one day she spies the landlady, who owned the Drogheda cottage, walking down a Dublin street, her mind turns toward Harry, her long-lost love.

She then recounts that relationship, the bliss and agony of it, and compares Harry to her now-husband, their ambitions, background and desires, and plagues herself with thoughts of what might have been with what she has now.

Style over substance

There’s no plot. The book is simply structured around Alannah’s interior thoughts and her memories. Stylistically the prose is what I would call verbose. The language is lush, ripe with metaphors and astute observations, but it feels over-written and, dare I say it, over-wrought.

This is not to say it’s a bad book. It isn’t. But you need to be in the right frame of mind to read it. You need to want to revel in the language, to soak up the words and the clever ways in which they are arranged on the page.

Much of it is about memory. About the way memory works. But it’s also about love and relationships, desire and ambition, class and privilege, how our childhoods inform our adult lives, how our expectations and beliefs can be thwarted by reality, and how if we always look back we can never look forward.

If you could dive into an old life — something you never protected when it was happening, something you believe to be a prelude at the time — if you could dive like one dives into love, or fall slowly over a precipice into it, enthralled, would you do this? Sometimes it seems like this is all I do. Like my past is a residue riming the world of the present, lying over everything. I’ve been living at speed because I know I can revisit the edited version.

But as much as I loved the honesty of the writing and the often gorgeous descriptions, I came away from the novel wondering if there was any point to the story. A newly married woman wonders if she might have had a different life with a different man isn’t that original after all.

This Happy was shortlisted for Newcomer of the Year at the 2020 An Post Irish Book Awards and has just been shortlisted for this year’s Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award, which will be announced in June.

Annabel has reviewed it too.

This is my 2nd book for the 2021 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award and my 12th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it from my local independent book shop when it was published last August.

Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, crime/thriller, Dervla McTiernan, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, Harper Collins, Ireland, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21

‘The Rúin’ by Dervla McTiernan

Fiction – paperback; Harper Collins; 380 pages; 2018.

Dervla McTiernan’s The Rúin is an excellent police procedural set in Galway, Ireland. This is the first in the DI Cormac Reilly series, which continues with The Scholar (published in 2019) and The Good Turn (2020).

Dead from a drug overdose

In this debut, it’s 1993 and rookie Garda Cormac Reilly is called out to a decrepit Georgian manor house where Hilaria Blake, a known alcoholic, lies dead in her bed from a heroin overdose. Her two children, 15-year-old Maude and 5-year-old Jack, show signs of neglect. The boy, in particular, is covered in unexplained bruises. There’s not much Reilly can do, except take the children to the hospital and let social services take over.

Fast forward 20 years and Reilly has left his high-flying career as a detective in Dublin and is about to take up a new post in Galway so that he can be with his partner, Emma, a successful academic.

But easing into a new police station isn’t straightforward. Someone is spreading nasty rumours about him and he’s not sure who to trust.

Complications arise when the Blake death and those two neglected children return to haunt him. Jack, now an adult, has been found dead in the River Corrib. The police claim it’s suicide, but Jack’s girlfriend, a promising young surgeon, begs to differ. Yes, the pair had argued over an unwanted pregnancy, but Aisling doesn’t believe that would be enough for Jack to want to deliberately drown himself.

When Maude returns to Ireland after having lived on a remote sheep station in Western Australia for most of her adult life, there is pressure on Reilly to interrogate her over the death of both her mother and her brother. There’s a hidden agenda going on and trying to unravel it is the nub of this complex but compelling novel, which is written with great sensitivity and humanity.

Dual narrative

The narrative, which switches between Aisling and Cormac’s point of view, moves things along at a clip and gives the reader a well rounded view of events, both past and present.

And while the characters in The Rúin are all flawed and deeply human, the two leads are “good eggs” who you want to cheer on. However, things do stray into caricature towards the end when the culprit is revealed and his behaviour escalates into over-the-top shenanigans.

And while I guessed the “solution” pretty early on, this is a well-plotted, deftly written police procedural about family secrets, police corruption, child abuse and how the past and present can collide in disturbing ways.

The Rúin has won numerous awards, including the 2019 Ned Kelly Award for Best First Novel, the 2019 Davitt Award and the 2019 Barry Award for Best Original Paperback, and been shortlisted for the Australian Book Industry Awards, the Irish Book Awards and the Kate O’Brien Award.

Cathy at 746 Books also enjoyed this one.

This is my 9th book for #AWW2021 and my 9th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it last year. I’m not sure I’m going to succeed unless I read a LOT over the next 6 weeks.

And because the author lives in Perth (where she emigrated with her family after the Global Financial Crash), this book also qualifies for my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

Ambelin & Ezekiel Kwaymullina, Australia, Book lists, Book review, Books in translation, Catherine Steadman, Children/YA, crime/thriller, Daunt Books, Elisa Shua Dusapin, England, Fiction, Headline Review, Ireland, Jennifer Johnston, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, Simon & Schuster, South Korea

Four Quick Reviews: Elisa Shua Dusapin, Jennifer Johnston, Ambelin & Ezekiel Kwaymullina, and Catherine Steadman

As 2020 draws to a close, I’m keen to wrap-up all my reviews so that I’m not playing catch-up well into the new year. (I will do my books of the year post tomorrow.)

So here are four quick reviews of books I have read recently. They are a good reflection of my eclectic reading tastes because they include a translated novel (from Korea/France), a literary novel (from Ireland), a young adult novel (by two Aboriginal writers) and a psychological thriller-cum-mystery (from England).

They have been reviewed in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘Winter in Sokcho’  by Elisa Shua Dusapin
Fiction – paperback; Daunt Books; 154 pages; 2020. Translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins

This intriguing novel is set in a South Korean tourist town, not far from the border with North Korea, during the offseason. The unnamed French-Korean narrator is a young woman in her early 20s who feels like an outsider but has no real desire to travel or live elsewhere. She has a disinterested boyfriend, who heads to Seoul to follow his dream of becoming a model, while she remains behind in Sokcho to help run a near-empty guest house. Her mother, who works in a nearby fish market, is critical of her daughter’s failure to get married and makes snide comments about her weight (she’s so thin you can see her ribs).

When a young Frenchman arrives at the guest house so he can work on his drawings (he’s a cartoonist), the narrator develops an uneasy one-sided relationship with him, acting as his tour guide and (unknown to her) muse for his art.

The entire novella is embued with a sense of melancholia, helped partly by the pared-back, hypnotic prose in which it’s written, but it also has a page-turning quality because the reader can’t help but wonder if the pair will ever become lovers. I  really enjoyed this debut and ate it up in a matter of hours.  Jacqui at JacquiWine’s Journal liked it too.

‘The Captains and the Kings’  by Jennifer Johnston
Fiction – Kindle edition; Headline; 152 pages; 1999. 

Jennifer Johnston is my favourite living writer and this book, her debut, first published in 1972 when she was in her 40s, earned her the Author’s Club First Novel Award.

There’s an aching, melancholy quality to this story, about Mr Predergast, a well-travelled elderly Anglo-Irishman, a widower, who now lives alone in his crumbling Big House with just his (drunken) gardener for company. When a local lad, Diarmid, is foisted on him by his parents because they’re worried he won’t amount to anything and needs a reliable job, Mr Predergast is dismissive. He doesn’t want to employ him.

But Diarmid, who is friendless and lonely himself, doesn’t take no for an answer and eventually the pair develop an uneasy friendship that gives Mr Predergast a renewed lease of life, one that helps him get over the loss of his elder brother in the Great War and eases the pain of his late (overbearing) mother’s preference for her older son. As the pair become closer — an old man at the end of his life, a teenager on the brink of his — the local community, headed by the vicar, does not approve of the relationship between a Protestant man and a Catholic boy — with bittersweet consequences. Lisa at ANZLitLovers liked this one too.

‘Catching Teller Crow’  by Ambelin & Ezekiel Kwaymullina
Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 180 pages; 2019. 

This is one of the more unusual books I have read this year — a young adult novel written by an Aboriginal brother and sister duo — that employs Aboriginal storytelling devices in which time is not linear. It’s billed as a crime novel, but it incorporates elements of magic realism, has occasional chapters written entirely in verse, is narrated by a dead teenager, features an indigenous ghost as a witness and focuses on the “enduring strength of Aboriginal women and girls”.

The plot revolves around a murder investigation by a grief-stricken white detective and his Aboriginal daughter, Beth Teller, who has not yet “crossed over to the other side” having recently been killed in a car accident. Working together, the pair uncover a series of clues that suggest a fire in a local boarding house may have been deliberately lit in order to cover a hideous crime. A potential witness, a teenage girl called Isobel Catching, helps them build the case.

The story, which weaves colonial history, violence and grief into the narrative, has earned two of Australia’s most prestigious writing awards: the Victorian Premier YA Prize for Literature, and Best Young Adult Novel at the Aurealis Awards. I found it hard work, and a little bit out of my comfort zone, but it’s a good one to try if you are looking for something different.

‘Mr Nobody’  by Catherine Steadman
Fiction – Kindle edition; Simon & Schuster; 400 pages; 2020. 

Last year I read Steadman’s debut novel, Something in the Water, which I really enjoyed, so I was looking forward to this new one published earlier in the year.

The story starts with a handsome man washed up on a Norfolk beach who cannot remember his name and has no ID on his person. In fact, he has no memory at all. A young neuropsychiatrist from London, Dr Emma Lewis, is drafted in to determine if he is faking it, but Dr Lewis has her own mysterious past, having been in a witness protection program for the past 14 years, and the decision to accept the job is a risky one.

The author plays her hand carefully, drip-feeding information bit by bit, so the doctor’s back story doesn’t become clear until you are two-thirds of the way through the novel, making this a proper page-turner. There are enough hints that the amnesiac may also have a dodgy past — perhaps he was an assassin or a spy or worked for the military in some capacity.

Unfortunately, this curious medical mystery goes a bit over-the-top toward the end and heads into psychological thriller territory with a wholly unbelievable denouement. Up until the 80% mark (yes, I read this on a Kindle) I really enjoyed the story, but it was let down by a ludicrous ending that tied up all the loose bits too neatly, a common fault of the genre, I guess. And at 400 pages, it was far too long…

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

‘Snow’ by John Banville

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

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

Locked room mystery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An obvious motive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, John Banville, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘The Blue Guitar’ by John Banville

Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 274 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

It’s been a long time since I have read anything by John Banville. I always forget how much I enjoy his writing until I pick up one of his books again.

The Blue Guitar, published in 2015, is about an Irish artist by the name of Oliver Orme who conducts an affair with his best friend’s wife, Polly.

It’s a languid, richly immersive story that features all of Banville’s typical literary flourishes — long, flowery sentences, vivid detail and an impressive vocabulary — and his usual trademarks — men with secrets, an obsession with art and crimes of the heart.

A confessional tale

The story is narrated by Oliver in a pompous, self-obsessed voice (Banville does these kinds of characters so well) after the affair is over. He’s nursing his wounds and looking back on how the affair started and then how it ended. His detail is forensic.

But for all Oliver’s narcissism, there is a vein of stark honesty running throughout his tale: he really wants to confess all (or maybe he just wants to brag?). He describes himself as old  — “pushing fifty and feel a hundred, big with years”  — and fat, a man with a shameful secret  “of which, however, I am not as ashamed as I should be”. That secret is his penchant for petty thievery.

The first thing I ever stole, the first thing I remember stealing, was a tube of oil paint. Yes, I know, it seems altogether too pat, doesn’t it, since I was to be an artist and all, but there you are.

He even sees the affair as a form of thievery.

But it’s true, I suppose. I did steal her, picked her up when her husband wasn’t looking and popped her in my pocket. Yes, I pinched Polly; Polly I purloined. Used her, too, and badly, squeezed out of her everything she had to give and then ran off and left her. Imagine a squirm, a shiver of shame, imagine two white-knuckled fat fists beating a breast in vain.

Similarly, Oliver views much of his world through the prism of an art lense, comparing events and scenes with famous paintings. In Edouard Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe, for instance, he sees his wife, Gloria, as the woman “in the buff” and Polly “off in the background bathing her feet”.

Later, he describes Polly having  “the look of a ravaged version of the flower-strewing Flora to the left of the central figure” in Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera.

Yet for all his high-brow observations and cultured view of the world, Oliver isn’t without a sense of humour. It’s understated, but I often laughed when I came across some of his funny remarks, including his description of himself, creeping around in a dark house…

[…] with the blanket clutched around me and my bare feet and furry little legs on show, I must have had something of the aspect of one of the smaller of the great apes, improbably decked out in drawers and vest and some sort of cape, or else a fallen king, perhaps, witlessly wandering in the night.

The narrative also contains many witty one-liners — “Lot of water under that bridge, let’s not drown ourselves in it”; “Nowadays it all feels like repetition. Think I’ve said that, too”; and “I dropped in to see my sister. She is called Olive. I know, outrageous, these names.” — which makes Oliver a little more down-to-earth than the picture he likes to paint of himself (pun fully intended).

A rich writing style

As ever, reading anything by Banville is to have your own vocabulary expanded exponentially (which is why it’s always good to read him on an electronic device with a built-in dictionary). Here’s just a handful of the words I had to look up: haruspicating, virescence, turpitude, immanence, anaglypta, micturating, winceyette, casuistry, sibylline, phthisic, hobbledehoy, homunculus and autochthons.

But he’s excellent at describing people — he loves to tell us what they’re wearing — including how they move, what their expressions reveal and so on. This is his pen portrait of Polly’s father:

He wore a three-piece suit of greenish tweed, and a venerable pair of highly polished brown brogues. Though his complexion was in general colourless, there was a ragged pink patch, finely veined, in the hollow of each cheek. He was a little deaf, and when addressed would draw himself quickly forwards, his head tilted to one side and his eyes fixed on the speaker’s lips with bird-like alertness.

I also like the way he uses metaphors and similes, with nary a cliché in site:

It strikes me that what I have always done was to let my eye play over the world like weather, thinking I was making it mine, more, making it me, while in truth I had no more effect than sunlight or rain, the shadow of a cloud.

I realise I’ve included more than my usual share of quotes in this review, but I find Banville’s use of language and the ideas he presents inspiring. The story itself is a thin one — it’s just a self-obsessed man falling in love with someone he shouldn’t, after all —  but no one could tell it in the same richly evocative way as Banville and through the eyes of a character only he could create.

You can find other reviews of this book at ANZLitLovers (here) and The Guardian (here).

This is my 13h book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I first received an advanced readers copy from NetGalley prior to publication in 2015 but never got around to reading it. Then the publisher sent me a lovely hardcover edition. And yet it has taken all this time to finally get around to reading it.