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

‘You’ by Nuala Ní Chonchúir

You

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

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

A Dublin childhood

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

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

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

A funny, feisty narrator

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

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

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

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

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

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

Australia, Author, Book review, Mark Seymour, memoir, Music, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Thirteen Tonne Theory: Life Inside Hunters and Collectors’ by Mark Seymour

ThirteenTonne

Non-fiction – paperback; Viking; 391 pages; 2008.

If you are an Australian of a certain age and are a fan of pub rock, then chances are you have seen Hunters and Collectors perform live. And if you have seen them perform live then you no doubt know that this band is one of the most visceral live acts — second only to Midnight Oil — to ever come out of the Southern Hemisphere.

This book, written by lead singer Mark Seymour (who also happens to be the older brother of Crowded House’s bass player Nick Seymour), provides an inside look at what it was like fronting this powerhouse of a band for 18 years.

Of course, if you haven’t already guessed by now, I am a longtime Hunters and Collectors fan. But funnily enough, I always preferred seeing them live than listening to their records, which never seemed to convey the sheer velocity and passion of the music when performed in concert. In fact, this view of the band is not a unique one: they were critically acclaimed but never quite achieved the commercial success that comes so easily to other bands that do far less hard graft.

The book, which is currently only available in Australia (my sister gave me this copy when she visited me in London a couple of months ago), does help explain why the band was big in Australia but failed to crack the UK or American markets. Set up as an artistic collective, in which every member of the eight-piece band shared songwriting copyright and royalties, the decision-making process did not allow anyone to take the lead, nor did it allow the goal of commercial superstardom to become the over-riding aim. Seymour makes no bones about how frustrating this became, especially when, as lead singer, he was seen as the “face” of the band and its key lyricist.

At times the story reads a bit like a kid who has thrown the toys out of the pram. Seymour clearly thinks the band and, more importantly, himself deserved better. But he is also incredibly candid and so hard on himself that you kind of feel sorry for him.

I particularly liked his account of the band’s early days in London, where they were on the cusp of international success, only to blow it all when one member who’d had too much to drink insulted the record company. This incident — in a curry house in Shepherd’s Bush — would be laugh-out-loud funny if it weren’t for the painful financial repercussions that followed. You get the sense that Hunters and Collectors never quite recovered from this monumental error.

All in all, Thirteen Tonne Theory (the name comes from the weight of equipment the band took on the road when they toured up and down the country) is an intriguing read. Written by a singer that crafted so many Australian anthems — Talking to a Stranger, Say Goodbye, Throw Your Arms Around Me and The Holy Grail — it’s a wonderful, if slightly worthy, warts-and-all account that fans will find fascinating.