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.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Polygon, Publisher, Ron Butlin, Scotland, Setting

‘The Sound of my Voice’ by Ron Butlin

The sound of my voice

Fiction – paperback; Polygon; 146 pages; 2018.

Oh. My. Goodness. This. Book. Is. Genius.

But don’t take my word for it. Irvine Welsh, in the introduction to this newly republished edition of The Sound of My Voice, describes it as “one of the greatest pieces of fiction to come out of Britain in the 80s”.

And Lizzy Siddal describes it as one of her “top 5 novels of all time” (her review is here). It was thanks to Lizzy that I got to read this book at all: I won a copy in a recent competition she hosted on her blog.

A man who has it all

The Sound of My Voice, which was first published by Canongate in 1987, is reminiscent of  Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City but with one important difference: unlike McInerney’s unnamed narrator, an aspiring journalist whose marriage has fallen apart, the main character, Morris Magellan, has it all. He has an important job as an executive in a biscuit factory (hence the image on the front cover), a devoted wife, two children (whom he dubs “the accusations”) and a home of his own.

On the surface he looks like he’s leading his best life, but scratch a little deeper and you’ll see that he’s not. For Morris is a high-functioning alcoholic who’s struggling to keep all the balls in the air:

The thing about drink is knowing when to use it and not letting it use you. One drink’ll charge the system, get it in gear; but a second could be too much. Knowing when to drink and when to stop — that’s the trick.

He’s convinced himself that he’s in control of the bottle — “Yes, maybe you do have a drink now and again, but no one could say it affected your work” — but to the reader it becomes increasingly clear that he uses it to get through the day and to keep the rising tide of mud that surrounds him at bay.

Over the years you have become very skilful at sensing what is expected of you, irrespective of your own needs or wishes. You have never been accepted, nor have you ever tried to be; you have never loved, hated or been angry. Instead you have known only the anxieties of performance: that you do not make even one mistake by forgetting a line or missing a cue.

As Morris’ story unfolds — all narrated in the second person using a self-deprecating voice that is filled with sophistry and self-deception — we learn what is troubling him and how it all begins to unravel when he witnesses a horrific event on his way to work.

In that one moment, the restraining forces of over twenty years was suddenly released — tearing apart the darkness and yourself.

Dark humour

While the story is underpinned by pathos and a dark undercurrent that suggests all will not end well for Morris, there are many laugh-out-loud moments and scenes that would be absolutely hilarious if his behaviour wasn’t so appalling. The use of the second-person narrative puts us right in Morris’ head, making us complicit in his crimes and unable to restrain the worst of his excesses. He spends every day trying to avoid the voice in his head which is hell-bent on self-destruction.

It is his poor devoted wife that one feels sorry for, and yet we never hear her side of the story; she’s always filtered through Morris’ eyes. I longed to understand whether she truly understood her husband’s problems or whether she was too self-obsessed to notice; we never find out.

In the Afterword to this edition, the author says he  “poured my heart and soul into this novel”. You can tell. The Sound of My Voice is a wonderfully perceptive portrait of the lies we sometimes tell ourselves to get through modern life. It brims with compassion, humanity — and kindness. Five stars.

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

‘My Buried Life’ by Doreen Finn

My-Buried-Life

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

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

A return to Dublin

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

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

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

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

Melancholy, hope and humour

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

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

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

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

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

‘The Closet of Savage Mementos’ by Nuala Ní Chonchúir

The-closet-of-savage-mementos

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

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

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

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

A novel in two parts

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

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

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

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

New and fresh writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author, Back Bay Books, Book review, memoir, Mexico, New York, Non-fiction, Pete Hamill, Publisher, Setting

‘A Drinking Life’ by Pete Hamill

ADrinkingLife

Non-fiction – paperback; 1st Back Bay Ed; 280 pages; 1995.

I am a sucker for memoirs, especially if they’re written by “proper writers”, whether authors or journalists. It’s not so much that these particular people lead more interesting lives than others, but they can write about them so much better than anyone else. Essentially, they use the skills of novelists and reporters to turn their life stories into highly readable and entertaining narratives.

I was particularly keen to read journalist and novelist Pete Hamill’s memoir A Drinking Life because I knew so little about the man. I suspect Americans have a better handle on him given he’s been the editor-in-chief of both the New York Post and the New York Daily News, but I only discovered him when I read his 2002 novel Forever last year. I thought that book was excellent and on an excursion to New York last November I went on a mission to track down his memoir, expecting that I’d probably have to order it online at some point. But, alas, the first store I went into — Barnes & Noble in the Time Warner Centre — had it in stock. I felt like I’d found gold at the end of the rainbow!

Needless to say, it took me almost a year to dig it out of the ever-growing To Be Read pile, but the wait was worth it.

A New Yorker’s memoir

Given the title, I had expected A Drinking Life to be a story about Hamill’s battle with booze, but that’s not really what this memoir is about. While he discusses his relationship with alcohol very frankly throughout the book, from his first taste of beer as a child to his teenage discovery that drink could let him “get rid of something”, this is not solely an alcoholic’s confessional.

It’s actually a memoir of a lifetime New Yorker, and, more crucially, reveals how a poor working-class kid from Brooklyn managed to carve out a successful writing career despite several setbacks, poor decisions and a fondness for women and drink.

At times it reminded me very much of Betty Smith’s much-loved American classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, particularly Hamill’s account of growing up in Brooklyn the oldest of seven children (his parents were Catholic immigrants from Belfast, Northern Ireland), but it’s also a firsthand account of what it was like to experience everything from the Great Depression (Hamill was born in 1935) to the Korean War, McCarthyism to the assassination of President Kennedy.

A forthright account

What makes this particular memoir so vivid and interesting to read, however, is Hamill’s brutal frankness and the candid nature of his writing. He never shies away from being totally honest, even if it portrays him in a bad light.

His relationship with his father is often painful to read, because he makes it clear that he loved his father, a one-legged drunk, but did not feel that his father loved him in return — he was constantly seeking approval that never came. It was only when he left school at 16, moved out of the family home and took a job as sheet metal worker in the Brooklyn Navy Yard that he gained some measure of paternal respect. This was helped, in part, by working alongside men that knew his father and who told him tales about Billy Hamill’s strength, determination and brains.

Pity allowed me to see him as man, instead of a father who could not play the role that my childish imagination and need had assigned him. I could see him in Belfast as a boy, running streets and fields with his twin brother, trying to eat in a kitchen with a dozen other kids, listening to commands from his own father. […] In a new way Billy Hamill came alive to me, a person cobbled together from sparse facts and my imagination, and in that summer of my own defeat, I pitied him, with the glibness of a child, and felt the permanent grieving hurt in all his black silences.

Strength from drink

But despite Hamill’s vow that “I didn’t want to be like my father. I didn’t want to be a drunk”, he discovers that drinking gives him “strength, confidence, ease, laughter; it made me believe that dreams really could come true”. It is the drink that sustains him through a myriad number of changes in life direction: he studies art, has an affair with a much older nude model while dating a “nice girl” his own age, flees to Mexico City with a male friend to study painting and writing, and later returns to New York, as a fugitive, to work as a graphic designer. In 1960 he makes the dramatic switch from pictures to words, and becomes a reporter for the New York Post.

He later marries, has two children, and travels the world in pursuit of stories and good times. When his marriage breaks down, mainly because of his drinking, he decides to quit the bottle for good. It was a move that produced another dramatic turn in his life, because he met and later moved in with actress Shirley MacLaine, and developed a career writing fiction, including novels and TV scripts.

According to Hamill’s own website, A Drinking Life was on the New York Times list for 13 weeks when it was published in 1995. I’m not surprised. It’s a terrific account of a life well-lived, even if much of that life was marred by drink. You certainly don’t need to have read any of his novels to appreciate the wonderful story recounted here, but it will no doubt encourage you to seek out his other work. It’s emotional, forthright, funny and informative: what more could you ask for in a memoir?