6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘The Bass Rock’ to ‘Breath’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeI honestly can’t believe it is June already. I know it’s a cliché to say it, but where does the time go?

Anyway, it’s the first Saturday of the month, which means it’s time to participate in Six Degrees of Separation (check out Kate’s blog to find out the “rules” and how to participate).

This month, the starting book is…

The Bass Rock’ by Evie Wyld (2020)
I haven’t read this novel, which won this year’s Stella Prize, though it has been lingering in my digital TBR for quite some time. I know that an element of it is historical fiction set in Scotland, which brings to mind another book with a similar background…

Elemental by Amanda Curtin

‘Elemental’ by Amanda Curtin (2016)
In this richly evocative novel by Western Australian writer Amanda Curtin, we meet Meggie Tulloch, a woman born in the late 19th century to a traditional fishing family on the north-east coast of Scotland. Spanning 1891 to 1932, Maggie shares her life story, including her time as a “herring girl” and her later marriage and emigration to the other side of the world. This brings to mind…

The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop

‘The Other Side of the World’ by Stephanie Bishop (2015)
This is a deeply melancholy novel about emigration, marriage and motherhood. It tells the story of an English woman who, together with her Anglo-Indian husband and two young children, becomes a “£10 POM” and emigrates in the early 1960s to begin a new life in Western Australia. But things don’t go according to plan and Charlotte struggles with the homesickness and dislocation that every emigrant feels. This brings to mind…

Brooklyn’ by Colm Tóibín (2009)
One of my favourite novels, Brooklyn captures the emigrant’s sense of dislocation so beautifully it made me cry. Set in the 1950s, it tells the story of Eilis Lacey, a young Irishwoman from Co. Wexford, who leaves behind her mother and devoted older sister, Rose, to immigrate to Brooklyn, USA, in search of a better life. This brings to mind…

‘Road Ends’ by Mary Lawson (2014)
Set in Canada in the 1960s, this book charts the slow disintegration of a large, dysfunctional family when the eldest daughter decides to leave home to pursue her dream of living abroad. There are three different threads to the tale, but the most evocative one (in my opinion) is that of Megan Cartwright, who moves to London and finds her dream job (after many ups and downs) running a small boutique hotel. This brings to mind…

‘Hotel Iris’ by Yoko Ogawa (2011)
In this strangely beautiful Japanese novel, we meet 17-year-old Mari, who helps run a hotel on the coast with her overbearing mother. Late one evening two hotel guests, a screaming woman and her male companion, are ejected from the premises. Later, Mari, who is alarmingly young and naive, strikes up a friendship with the man — more than 50 years her senior — that morphs into a rather deviant sexual affair. This brings to mind…

‘Breath’ by Tim Winton (2009)
This gentle, occasionally heart-breaking, story is about a boy growing up on the Western Australian coast in the 1970s. Bruce Pike, better known as “Pikelet”, is a bit of an outsider, but he develops a bond with “Loonie”, the town’s wild child, and everything changes. The pair fall in with an older surfer, Sando, who challenges them to try surfing in often dangerous and remote locations, but it’s the clandestine (and deviant sexual) relationship that Pikelet has with the Sando’s American girlfriend that takes him into deadly territory…

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a story about three generations of women in Scotland to a tale of teenage boys growing up in Western Australia, via four stories about emigration and a Japanese novel focused on a strange romance between an older man and a teenage girl.

Have you read any of these books? 

Please note, you can see all my other Six Degrees of Separation contributions here.

Book lists, Book review

4 new books by favourite authors

As much as I try NOT to read a constant diet of shiny new books it’s sometimes difficult when there are so many tempting new books being advertised on social media and being reviewed by bloggers. My wishlist seems to grow exponentially by the day!

To make matters worse, four of my favourite writers are due to have new novels published this year: John Banville (Irish), Damon Galgut (South African), Per Petterson (Norwegian) and Colm Tóibín (Irish).

Here’s some more information about the books, arranged in order of publication date and with details lifted from publisher websites:

‘The Promise’ by Damon Galgut
Publication date: June, in UK and Australia

“The Promise charts the crash and burn of a white South African family, living on a farm outside Pretoria. The Swarts are gathering for Ma’s funeral. The younger generation, Anton and Amor, detest everything the family stand for — not least the failed promise to the Black woman who has worked for them her whole life. After years of service, Salome was promised her own house, her own land… yet somehow, as each decade passes, that promise remains unfulfilled. The narrator’s eye shifts and blinks: moving fluidly between characters, flying into their dreams; deliciously lethal in its observation. And as the country moves from old deep divisions to its new so-called fairer society, the lost promise of more than just one family hovers behind the novel’s title.”

‘Men in my Situation’ by Per Petterson
Publication date: August, in UK and Australia

“In 1992 Arvid Jansen is thirty-eight and divorced. Turid has left with their three girls, slipping into her young, exuberant crowd of friends, ‘the colourful’, and a new house with no trace of their previous life together. More than a year has passed since the tragic accident that took his parents and two of his brothers. Existence has become a question of holding on to a few firm things. Loud, smoky bars, whisky, records, company for the night and taxis home. Or driving his Mazda into the stunning, solitary landscape outside of Oslo, sleeping in the car when his bed is an impossible place to be, craving a connection that is always just beyond reach. At some point, the girls decide against weekend visits with their dad. Arvid suspects that his eldest daughter, Vigdis, sees what kind of a man he really is. Adrift and inept, paralysed by grief. And maybe she’s right to keep her distance from his lonely life. Is there any redemption for a man in his situation? When Arvid has lost or been left by all those dear to him and feels his life unravelling, perhaps there is still a way forward.”

‘The Magician’ by Colm Tóibín
Publication date: September, in UK and Australia

“The Magician tells the story of Thomas Mann, whose life was filled with great acclaim and contradiction. He would find himself on the wrong side of history in the First World War, cheerleading the German army, but have a clear vision of the future in the second, anticipating the horrors of Nazism. He would have six children and keep his homosexuality hidden; he was a man forever connected to his family and yet bore witness to the ravages of suicide. He would write some of the greatest works of European literature, and win the Nobel Prize, but would never return to the country that inspired his creativity. Through one life, Colm Tóibín tells the breathtaking story of the twentieth century.”

‘April in Spain’ by John Banville
Publication date: October, in UK and Australia

“When Dublin pathologist Quirke glimpses a familiar face while on holiday with his wife, it’s hard, at first, to tell whether his imagination is just running away with him. Could she really be who he thinks she is, and have a connection with a crime that nearly brought ruin to an Irish political dynasty? Unable to ignore his instincts, Quirke makes a call back home and Detective St John Strafford is soon dispatched to Spain. But he’s not the only one on route: as a terrifying hitman hunts down his prey, they are all set for a brutal showdown.”

Are there any books here you would be keen to read? What books are you looking forward to this year?

Book lists

16 books for 16 years of blogging

Sometime this week marks the 16th birthday of this blog. (I’m not sure of the definite date, only that it was the first week of March 2004.)

To celebrate the occasion I thought I’d create a special list, choosing an influential book for every year I’ve been blogging.

Each of the 16 books I have chosen left a lasting impression on me in some way, either by taking me into new reading territory or introducing me to a new favourite author.

Without further ado, here is my list arranged in chronological order beginning with 2004.

Year: 2004
Book: ‘Towards the end of the Morning’ by Michael Frayn
What it is about: A comedy of manners featuring two Fleet Street journalists in the 1960s who spend most of their time in the pub wishing they could break into the more lucrative business of television reporting.
How it influenced me: It opened my eyes to a whole new “genre” of books about newspaper journalists. I’ve read quite a few since then and have a list of my favourite 10 here.

Year: 2005
Book: ‘Three to see the King’ by Magnus Mills
What it is about: An allegory exploring whether the grass is greener on the other side.
How it influenced me: Reading this strange, quirky book turned me into a lifelong Magnus Mills fan. I’ve read all of his novels since then. You can read those reviews here.

The Barracks by John McGahern

Year: 2006
Book: ‘The Barracks’ by John McGahern
What it is about: A former nurse in war-torn London returns to rural Ireland, where she marries a policeman much older than herself and becomes stepmother to three children. When she develops breast cancer, she hides the diagnosis from everyone bar the local priest.
How it influenced me: After reading this book it made such an impression on me I went out and bought McGahern’s entire back catalogue. That same year I read two more by him. He promptly became my favourite writer. I even went to County Leitrim, where McGahern was from, to hunt out haunts mentioned in his novels and his memoir.

Year: 2007
Book:  ‘The Blackwater Lightship’ by Colm Toibin
What it is about: Three generations of Irishwomen, estranged for years, reluctantly join forces to look after one of their own who has a serious life-threatening illness.
How it influenced me: It turned me into a life-long Toibin fan and I’m slowly but surely making my way through his backlist. This is what I have reviewed so far.

Tarry Flynn

Year: 2008
Book:
‘Tarry Flynn’ by Patrick Kavanagh 
What it is about: This is a joyous bittersweet novel about a bachelor farmer in rural Ireland in the 1930s.
How it influenced me: It opened my eye to the concept of “rural novels”, especially ones about farming, which I have sought out ever since.

Merry go round in the sea by randolph stow

Year: 2009
Book: ‘The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea’ by Randolph Stow
What it is about: A gentle coming-of-age story set in Geraldton, Western Australia during the Second World War.
How it influenced me: I loved this book so much I actually read it twice in a year. It also made me want to read his entire back catalogue, but at the time most of it was out of print. Fortunately, Text Classics has since rectified this and I have them all lying in wait.

Year: 2010
Book: ‘This Human Season’ by Louise Dean
What it is about: Set in Belfast at the height of The Troubles, this profoundly moving story looks at both sides of the “dirty protest” carried out by political prisoners held in The Maze prison.
How it influenced me: As well as making me want to read more books by Louise Dean, it encouraged me to seek out more novels from Northern Ireland. Through this exploration, I have discovered the likes of David Park and Deidre Madden.

Devotion of Suspect X

Year: 2011
Book:  ‘The Devotion of Suspect X’ by Keigo Higashino
What it is about: This is an extraordinary crime novel which bucks the normal conventions of the genre: we know from the outset who has committed the crime, how they did it and who has helped cover it up, but we don’t know the steps taken to protect the real murderer.
How it influenced me:  This book got me into Japanese crime fiction, including several by Higashino, as well as wider Japanese literature.

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

Year: 2012
Book: ‘Plainsong’ by Kent Haruf 
What it is about: Set in rural Colorado in the 1980s, this gorgeously bittersweet story follows the trials and tribulations of a handful of diverse but interesting characters, including two old bachelor brothers, who run a farm and take in a pregnant teenager kicked out of home.
How it influenced me: This book rocketed straight into my all-time favourite reads. I loved its rural setting (see Tarry Flynn above) and its eccentric, warm-hearted characters, but most of all I loved the eloquent and elegant prose style. I have since read all of Haruf’s backlist. Sadly, his death a few years ago means there’s no more left for me to read.

Year: 2013
Book: ‘Of Human Bondage’ by W. Somerset Maugham [not reviewed]
What it is about: This doorstep of a novel follows the life and times of an orphan with a club foot who is raised by a strict and religious uncle in the English provinces, but flees, first to Germany, then to Paris, before settling in London to study medicine. It’s a profoundly moving book because it shows what happens to people when there is no welfare state. I loved this book so much I couldn’t bring myself to review it.
How it influenced me: Since reading this book, I’ve been happily working my way through W. Somerset Maugham’s backlist. This is what I have reviewed so far.

Year: 2014
Book: ‘Black and Proud: The Story of an Iconic AFL Photo’ by Matthew Klugman and Gary Osmond [not reviewed]
What it is about: This award-winning book examines racism in sport. It charts the story behind the image that is on its front cover — Aboriginal Australian AFL footballer Nicky Winmar pointing to his chest declaring he was “proud to be black” after enduring racist abuse during a football match on 17 April 1993 — and puts it into the wider context of Australian society.
How it influenced me: I’m not a football fan, but this book proved to be a compelling account of an important issue. I read Anna Krien’s Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport, which is about rape culture in the AFL world, at around the same time and it was equally as compelling. But the Winmar story was the one that sent me off on a new journey exploring indigenous issues, including Stan Grant’s Talking to My Country and Cal Flynn’s Thicker Than Water: History, Secrets and Guilt: A Memoir.

Year: 2015
Book: ‘The Good Doctor’ by Damon Galgut 
What it is about: Set in post-apartheid South Africa, this is the story of two doctors working in a deserted rural hospital who must share lodgings. It is a fascinating portrait of male friendship amid huge societal changes as the “new” South Africa shakes off its dark history.
How it influenced me: This book, with its effortless, dreamy prose, turned me into a Galgut fan. I’ve read four more novels by him since reading this one.

Walking Free by Dr Munjed Al Muderis

Year: 2016
Book: ‘Walking Free’ by Dr Munjed Al Muderis (with Patrick Weaver)
What it is about: The true-life story of an Iranian refugee who was held in Curtin Immigration Detention Centre in the remote Kimberly region of Western Australia. After surviving this hellhole for 10 months, he eventually gained his freedom. He is now one of the world’s leading specialists in osseointegration in which prosthetic limbs are implanted and fused into bone Terminator style.
How it influenced me: This book opened my eyes to Australia’s shameful and inhumane policy of detention for refugees and asylum seekers, and made me more conscious of the issues facing those people seeking new lives against the odds.

Down in the city by Elizabeth Harrower

Year: 2017
Book: ‘Down in the City’ by Elizabeth Harrower
What it is about: Set in Sydney one hot summer, it tells the story of an abusive marriage between two people from opposite ends of the social spectrum.
How it influenced me: Even though I’d read two books by Harrower before, this was the one that made me sit up and pay attention. Her ability to evoke atmosphere and to capture the inner-most workings of the human soul are just brilliant. I am on a mission to read all of Harrower’s work. This is what I’ve read so far.

Lie with me

Year: 2018
Book: ‘Lie With Me’ by Sabine Durrant
What it is about: This book nicely fits into the “holidays from hell” genre. It’s a psychological thriller set on a Greek island but is told from the perspective of a nasty, conniving narrator who you are never quite sure whether to trust.
How it influenced me: I always like a good psychological-thriller-come-page-turner and it’s such a relief to find a new author who you can rely on to offer up a great story. I have since read several more by this author.

Year: 2019
Book:  ‘The Old Boys’ by William Trevor 
What it is about: This is a black comedy about four septuagenarians who all went to boarding school together more than 50 years earlier and behave very much as you would expect a group of immature schoolboys to behave — badly! They connive, cheat and backstab each other, all in an outlandish bid to establish who is “top dog”.
How it influenced me: I had previously read quite a bit of Trevor’s later work and I associated him with poignant tales of thwarted love in rural Ireland, but this book showed me that his early work was very different (this was his debut novel): it was set in London and darkly comic. I have since read several more of his earlier novels and hope to work my way through his massive backlist. All my reviews of his work are here.

So, there you have it. These are the most influential books I’ve read in the past 16 years. I’m conscious of the fact that this is a very male-dominated list. But I’m sure that if I compiled this list tomorrow, the books here would probably be different. For now, this will have to do.

Have you read any of this list? Or care to share your own influential reads?

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2019

This year has been a rather eventful one for me — in all kinds of ways.

Repatriating after almost 21 years in the UK has posed many challenges, but I’ve not regretted it and I have loved being able to buy Australian books as soon as they’ve been released instead of waiting a year or more for an overseas publication date!

I undertook a few reading projects across the year, with mixed results.

All up, I read 87 books — choosing my favourite proved a tough call. Surprisingly, more than half of the titles I loved were non-fiction reads (I seemed to read a LOT of non-fiction books this year) and 50 percent of the titles came from Australia.

Without further ado, here are the books that made an impression on me this year. They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my full review.

No Friend But the Mountain: Writing from Manus Prison by Behrouz Boochani (2018)
This award-winning memoir looks at Australia’s offshore immigration detention system from the point of view of a Kurdish-Iranian journalist caught up in it.

A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne (2018)
A rip-roaring read about a would-be writer hellbent on topping the bestseller lists — at any cost.

Eggshell Skull: A Memoir about Standing Up, Speaking Out and Fighting Back by Bri Lee (2018)
This riveting memoir marries the personal with the political by charting the author’s first year working in the Australian judicial system as she grapples with an eating disorder stemming from her own sexual abuse.

Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume 1, 1978-1987 by Helen Garner (2019)
This collection of sublime and pithy journal entries spans 10 years of Garner’s life and showcases her ability to capture the tiniest of details to elevate seemingly ordinary occurrences into scenes of extraordinary power.

Constellations book cover

Constellations by Sinead Gleeson (2019)
A brilliant collection of deeply personal essays examining the body, illness and how the relationship between the two shapes our identity.

The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire by Chloe Hooper (2019)
A true-crime story looking at the police investigation and subsequent court trial of a man charged with deliberately lighting a fire in Churchill, Central Gippsland that burnt 32,860 hectares and killed 11 people.

The Erratics by Vicki Laveau-Harvie (2018)
This year’s Stella Prize winner, Laveau-Harvie’s memoir recounts how she had to deal with her Canadian-based elderly parents — one of whom was trying to kill the other — from afar.

The Offing by Benjamin Myers (2019)
A beautifully rendered tale about the unlikely friendship between a teenage boy and an elderly woman in Yorkshire following the Second World War.

Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor (2019)
This atmospheric Victorian Gothic drama focuses on Irishman Bram Stoker, actor and theatre director Henry Irving and leading stage actress Ellen Terry and follows their complicated, intertwined lives as they work together at the Lyceum Theatre in London in 1878.

The South by Colm Toibin (1990)
A luminous tale of art and love and sacrifice set in Spain and Ireland in the 1950s and 60s, which has lingered in my mind long after I finished reading it. In fact, I loved this book so much I added Toibin to my favourite authors page.

I trust you have had an exciting reading year and discovered some wonderful books and writers. Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? What were your favourite reads of 2019?

Please note that you can see my favourite books of all the years between 2006 and 2019 by visiting my Books of the Year page.

Author, Book review, Colm Tóibín, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, Spain

‘The South’ by Colm Tóibín

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 256 pages; 2015.

Colm Tóibín’s debut novel, The South, is a luminous tale of art and love and sacrifice set in Spain and Ireland in the 1950s and 60s. It’s also a beautifully structured story about history and memory, violence and trauma.

It was first published in 1990 but was reissued by Picador a few years ago as part of its new Picador Classics range (which boasts books by John Banville, Alice Sebold and Tim Winton, among others — if you are interested, the range is here.)

In the introduction to this edition, Roy Foster says it “announced the arrival of a new novelist with a new style — economical, lapidary, incantatory — and a new kind of Irish novel”. It seems strange to think of it like that now, because this is the kind of style I associate with most of the Irish novels I read, but as Foster points out, 25 years ago, this was radically different to Irish fiction of the time, which was largely associated with “short stories in the Chekhovian mode”.

In search of a new life

The protagonist in The South is Katherine Proctor, an upperclass Protestant woman, who flees her County Wexford home, abandoning her (controlling) husband and 10-year-old son, in pursuit of a new life in Spain. (In that sense, the South of the title refers to both the Irish Republic and Catalonia.)

A talented painter, Katherine hankers for a different way of life, free from the constraints of marriage, motherhood and the shadows of her Irish past, and moves to Spain — first to the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona, then to the mountains of Catalonia — to begin afresh and to focus on her first love: art.

When the book begins, it is 24 October 1950, and Katherine is in Barcelona living in a hotel run by a “fat woman” and “her little mouse of a husband”. She doesn’t understand the language and is feeling isolated, scared and paranoid.

It is difficult for me being on my own and it has been since I left. In the street sometimes I think I am being followed. I try not to move too far away from the hotel. The journey, here, however has been the worst so far. There are men everywhere watching you. I came in from France to San Sebastian and stayed there in a small hotel looking over the beach and the calm sea. I was lonely there. I felt bad. In he greyness of the city everything was closed. The streets were deserted every afternoon. […] I took the night train to Barcelona. […] The moment I awoke I knew someone was in the compartment. The train was moving fast. It was still dark so I could see nothing. I stayed still and tried to keep breathing as though I were asleep.

Though Katherine manages to escape the man who tried to rape her on the train, she’s scarred by the experience. She’s uneasy in the company of men, but when she meets Miguel, an art teacher, she falls in love and the pair move to a small village in the mountains to paint and live a stripped-back (read squalid) but happy existence.

In this isolated but beautiful place Katherine discovers personal freedom with a man who respects her, but she begins to realise that she cannot truly escape her own roots. For in hearing about Miguel’s tortured past in the Spanish Civil War, she comes to understand her own traumas — abandoned by her mother, the family home burnt out by Irish Republicans — from an earlier life.

And while she would like nothing better than to ignore memories of her homeland she cannot because one of Miguel’s friends, Michael Graves, is an ex-patriate Irishman, who serves as a constant reminder of what she left behind.

Written in economical but elegant prose, The South is an effortless read, so effortless it almost feels weightless. And yet this book deals with big themes — themes which often recur in Tóibín’s later work. These include childhood abandonment, the sometimes troubled relationships between mothers and their sons, and the sense of dislocation that travel or immigration can bring when you are cut off from your place of birth.

A circular story

In this novel, Katherine does, eventually, return to the family home at Enniscorthy to try to re-establish a connection with her now grown son. It is a bittersweet experience.

It is a revelation to see how Tóibín manages to encapsulate all the little hurts and the interior struggles of both characters without resorting to over-the-top dramatics. It is that restraint which lends the book its power to move the reader, because we know — or can at least imagine — all the horrible things, all the pain and hurt, that each person is keeping hidden from the other.

The cool detachment of the prose is anything but.

Similarly, while the writing style is sparse, Tóibín describes things with a painterly eye — it is a very visual novel, one that describes landscapes, whether of the Spanish mountains, the Wexford countryside or inner-city Dublin, and the feelings they evoke, through the eyes of an artist:

Fog seeped everywhere in January. In the little warren of houses around Oxmanstown Road where she moved when she returned to Ireland, the smoke from the chimneys didn’t lift, it hung heavy in the air all day. There was ice on the footpaths in the morning; there was a damp and bitter cold. 

If you haven’t guess already, I adored The South. Reading it was an exquisite experience. It’s such a beautiful, heart-felt story and reading it back-to-back with Tóibín’s non-fiction book Homage to Barcelona, written at about the same time, made the experience even richer.

It also helped that it tapped into my (emerging) interest in the Spanish Civil War and allowed me to draw parallels with it and the fight for Irish independence. I also loved the references to art and the “creative struggle” — and I’ve come to realise there’s no other (living) male writer that can write women as well as Tóibín, he really knows what makes us tick.

Five stars.

This is my 20th book for #TBR40. I bought this copy only recently but when I was sorting through a bunch of Irish novels stored in my wardrobe (who needs clothes?) I discovered an older edition, published in 2001, which had been sitting there unread for at least a decade! That means it qualifies for my TBR project, which includes anything in my possession prior to 31 December 2018.

Author, Book review, Colm Tóibín, Non-fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, Spain, travel

‘Homage to Barcelona’ by Colm Tóibín

Non-fiction – paperback; Picador; 240 pages; 2010.

Perhaps it’s because I grew up in Australia, right at the bottom of the world, so removed from everywhere else, that I quickly developed a desire to travel and to explore and to discover new places and cultures. As a child and teenager I could only do it through books.

Later, as an undergrad, my interest in travel was piqued even further by classes I took in the history of human civilisation and the great gardens and landscapes of the world. When I was about 21 I distinctly remember aching to visit Italy and Spain and Rome and New York and England to see all the amazing places I had studied and learned about.

Of course, as a cash-strapped student, and later as a new graduate struggling to find a job because Australia was in the grip of an economic recession, I had to satisfy my wanderlust through books. That’s when I went through a phase of reading travelogues — Eric Newby’s Round Ireland in Low Gear and Robin Hanbury-Tenison’s Worlds Apart: An Explorer’s Life are the two that stick in the mind the most.

But those kinds of books never really did it for me. If I’m honest, they bored me. It was a genre I quickly abandoned.

It wasn’t until I  left Australia for the first time, aged 29, that I got to explore the Northern Hemisphere. During my 30s and 40s I learned a valuable lesson: those travelogues don’t really resonate with me unless I’ve already visited the places that are mentioned in the book, or, better still, if I’m in-situ at the time of reading.

Which is a long-winded way of getting around to saying what I really wanted to say: that reading Colm Tóibín’s travelogue-cum-memoir Barcelona while I was actually in Barcelona was an immeasurably pleasurable experience.

In this book, the mere mention of the quiet, dark alleyways of the Gothic Quarter, which I had explored thoroughly for an entire afternoon, or the descriptions of Plaça Reial, where I’d treated myself to a glass of white Rioja and a plate of deep-fried anchovies while watching passersby, felt all the more special because I had experienced them first hand.

Plaça Reial is a large, exotic-looking square, that is lined with restaurants and cafes, the perfect place to people watch

 

Bishops Bridge, in the Gothic Quarter, looks medieval but was built in 1928 to match the style of the two Gothic buildings it links together

 

The chapter on Antoni Gaudí — A Dream of Gaudí — gave me a greater understanding and appreciation for the man’s amazing architectural achievements, the Sagrada Família (his great unfinished Catholic cathedral) and Casa Milà (aka La Pedrera or the “stone quarry”), both of which I’d visited and marvelled over, my jaw hanging open with the sheer wonder and beauty of them.

The Sagrada Família, which has been under construction since 1882 and isn’t expected to be completed until 2032!

 

Casa Milà, built in the early part of the 20th century, was the last private residence designed by Gaudi

 

But the book is much more than a tourist guide to the city. It’s a comprehensive look at Barcelona’s history, its food and culture, its nightlife, its artistic achievements and its political ups and downs. Tóibín’s lyrical writing, which I know so well from his novels (you can see reviews of them here), is only equalled by the subject matter he covers such as the artists (Picasso, Miró, Dali) and the urban designers and architects that shaped the city.

It’s written with all the insight of someone who has lived and breathed the city (Tóibín lived there from 1975 — “two months before the death of Franco” — until 1978, and has been a frequent visitor ever since.)

Reading it now, almost 30 years later after it was first published in 1990 (just as Barcelona was gearing up to host the Olympic Games), some of it appears to be a little out of date. For instance, Plaça Reial, he writes, is best avoided because it was “reputed to be the source of all the crime in the city centre, the place where the handbag-snatchers and the dope dealers hang out” and he shares similar advice about the rest of the Barri Gòtic, which has clearly been much cleaned up crime-wise since then.

But this hardly seems to matter, for Barcelona is a wonderful book that celebrates a wonderful European city. It’s a beguiling portrait of a sometimes troubled place, one that continues to forge — and fight for — its own Catalan identity. And it’s rich with personal insights and anecdotes, almost as if Tóibín is your own private tour guide. What more could you want from a travelogue?

The photographs in this post were taken during my solo trip to Barcelona on 19-22 March 2019. There are a lot more on my Instagram account if you fancy scrolling back through my timeline.

10 books, Book lists

10 books on the International Dublin Literary Award longlist 2016

10-booksThe longlist for the 2016 International Dublin Literary Award, the world’s richest literary prize, was unveiled earlier this week. There are 160 titles on the list — from all corners of the world — all of which have been nominated by librarians, making it a proper “readers’ prize”.

I’ve read quite a few on the list, so I thought I would highlight 10 of my favourite ones here.

The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author surname. Click on each book title to read my review in full.

The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry
The-temporary-gentleman
“Written in the form of a memoir, the book details Jack McNulty’s rather colourful life. It covers his time as a doltish student who meets and falls in love with the beautiful Mai Kirwan in the west of Ireland through to their rather tumultuous (and sad) marriage. He also relays his experiences as a ‘temporary gentleman’ in the British Army during the Second World War to his later career as an engineer and UN observer, mainly in Africa.”

Academy Street by Mary Costello
Academy Street
“This debut novel has been written with all the assuredness and maturity of someone who’s been honing their craft for years. It charts the life of Tess Lohan from her girlhood in rural Ireland to her retirement in New York more than half a century later. Told in the third person, it reveals a woman who’s a little afraid of grabbing life by the horns despite the fact she has the courage to emigrate to the US alone with little more than the clothes on her back. Here, in 1950s Manhattan, she has the inner strength and determination to create a new life for herself — she finds an apartment of her own, becomes a nurse and brings up a child — but she remains a quiet and shy person.”

Lost and Found by Brooke Davis
Lost-and-found
“This is a lovely feel-good novel. It’s quirky and sweet. It’s funny and joyful. It’s tender, poignant and heart-rending. I felt sad when I came to the end of the story, not because the ending was sad (it’s not) but because I had to say goodbye to seven-year-old Millie and her two older chums, octogenarians Agatha Pantha and Karl the Touch Typist.”

The Avenue of the Giants by Marc Dugain  (translated by Howard Curtis)
Avenue of the giants
“This book is loosely based on the life story of California ‘Co-ed Killer’ Edmund Kemper, who was active in the 1970s. It is one of the most astonishing novels I’ve ever read, not the least because it’s so gruesome and shocking in places, but also because it has such a strong and powerful narrative voice. The first 100 pages are especially gripping as you are placed firmly in the head of Al Kenner, a depraved yet highly intelligent killer. His first person narrative is immediate and rational, yet coolly detached, making for a rather chilling reading experience.”

Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch (translated by Sam Garrett)
Summer House with Swimming Pool
Summer House with Swimming Pool  is based on a holiday from hell: there are family arguments, forbidden love affairs and a few cross words between friends. But there’s also a dark undercurrent of menace and misogyny that has deep repercussions for everyone in this sorry saga. When the book opens we know that thespian Ralph Meier is dead and that his doctor, Marc Schlosser, who narrates the story has been accused of his murder through negligence. As Marc prepares to face the Board of Medical Examiners, the story rewinds to explain how events have lead to this dire predicament.”

Us Conductors by Sean Michaels
Us-Conductors
“Sean Michaels’ debut novel, Us Conductors, is a fictionalised account of the life of Russian engineer and physicist Lev Sergeyevich Termen (1896-1993) — later known as Leon Theremin — who invented the electronic musical instrument that takes his name: the theremin. It’s an intriguing read because it’s so ambitious in scope and theme. It’s a story about music, invention, emigration, science, love, espionage, money, fame, crime and punishment. It’s part New York novel, part prison memoir, part espionage tale, part romance. But, most of all, it’s epic, life-affirming — and fun.”

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Everything-I-never-told-you
“This novel focuses on what happens to individual members of the Lee family following the death of 16-year-old Lydia, who drowns in the lake behind the family home. Initially, it’s not clear whether her death was an accident, homicide or suicide, but this book is not a crime novel: it’s an exposé on closely-held secrets, family history, parental expectations, sexual equality, identity, racism and grief.”

The Thrill of it All by Joseph O’Connor
The-thrill-of-it-all
“If anything is ripe for satire it is rock journalism and rock biographies. They’re so filled with clichés and stereotypes, how could you not want to send them up? Irish writer Joseph O’Connor does exactly that with this gloriously clever novel, which is the fictionalised memoir of a guitarist from a rock band that made it big in the 1980s. He covers all the clichés — the lousy gigs with just two people in the audience, the struggle to get a record deal, the infighting, the sex, the drugs and so on — but he does it with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek but without ever turning it into farce or mockery. It actually feels like a book with a heart: you care about the people in it.”

Family Life by Akhil Sharma
Family-life
“In Akhil Sharma’s second novel, Family Life, an immigrant Indian family living in suburban America face a tragic situation: their eldest son Birju, a promising young scholar, survives an accident that leaves him brain damaged, blind and unable to walk or talk. He requires constant care around the clock, but his family never give up hope that he will eventually emerge unscathed from the condition that has so destroyed his life and irrevocably altered theirs. This heartbreaking story is told from the point of view of Birju’s younger brother, Ajay, whose voice is delightfully naive and filled with petty jealousies, hopeless romanticism and a deep and abiding love for the sibling he once admired but now pities and, occasionally, despises. ‘After the accident, I was glad I might become an only child,’ he confesses to God at one point.”

Nora Webster by ColmTóibín
Nora-Webster
“The book, which is set in Ireland’s County Wexford in the late 1960s and 1970s, is focused on one woman — the Nora Webster of the title — who has recently been widowed. Her husband, a school teacher who played an active role in local politics and was regarded as a pillar of the community, has died of some never-explained-to-the-reader illness and she is left to bring up four children alone: two of them — young adult daughters — no longer live at home, but there are two young boys under the age of 11 whom she treats in a distant but not unkind way.”

The prize shortlist will be published on 12 April 2016, and the winner will be announced on 9 June. To find out more, and to view the longlist in full, please visit the official website.

Have you read any of these books? Or others from the extensive longlist?

Author, Book review, Colm Tóibín, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘Nora Webster’ by Colm Tóibín

Nora-Webster

Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 385 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

It will come as no surprise to long-time followers of this blog that Colm Tóibín’s latest novel, Nora Webster, would be right up my street.

I enjoyed his 1992 novel The Heather Blazing, when I read it more than 20 years ago, as well as more recent forays into his work, specifically The Blackwater Lightship and Brooklyn (both reviewed on this blog), and I have been saving up some of his others for “comfort reads” — because, to be frank, that’s how I view his writing: it’s often unbearably sad and melancholic but I find his lyrical style, its form and rhythm, quite comforting. And yet, when I read Nora Webster, I didn’t find it particularly comforting at all… I found it, well, let me be frank once again, kind of lacking. Let me explain.

A woman’s grief

The book, which is set in Ireland’s County Wexford (Tóibín’s home town of Enniscorthy to be precise) in the late 1960s and 1970s, is focused on one woman — the Nora Webster of the title — who has recently been widowed. Her husband, a school teacher who played an active role in local politics and was regarded as a pillar of the community, has died of some never-explained-to-the-reader illness and she is left to bring up four children alone: two of them — young adult daughters — no longer live at home, but there are two young boys under the age of 11 whom she treats in a distant but not unkind way.

Early on in the novel there are two pivotal moments: the first is the realisation that Nora is broke and must return to work, something she hasn’t done since becoming a mother; and the second is her inability to see the harm she might have caused her two boys when she placed them in the care of an aunt while her husband was ill in hospital — during that time she never once visited them or let them see their father.

Now, bereft and grieving, she realises she must get on with life without her husband by her side. Her return to part-time work is fraught with difficulties — mainly in the form of a bitchy boss, whose antics are so over-the-top as to be cartoonish — and she’s constantly worried about her eldest son who seems to have developed a stutter, but there is hope and redemption too, mainly in the form of music, when Nora rediscovers her ability to sing. (On more than one occasion I was reminded of last year’s Giller short-listed novel Tell by Frances Itani, in which music and song serves to sooth the loneliness of a woman grappling with the return of her husband crippled during the Great War.)

Character-driven narrative

There’s not much of a plot in this book — it basically follows Nora getting on with her new life as a widow and raising her two now-fatherless sons as best she can over the course of several years. It’s largely character driven. Typically, the characters — Nora, her children, her siblings and their families, her work colleagues, new friends and the local nuns — are beautifully drawn, and Tóibín builds up a realistic portrait of a close-knit community at a time when life (and gossip) was so much simpler than it is now.

Indeed, Toibin is at his best when he focuses on the minutiae of Nora’s daily life — the housework, her job, the care of her sons, her singing practice — and the sense of community that surrounds, and occasionally smothers, her: this is a woman who wants to grieve alone but Irish village life, where everyone knows everyone else’s business, refuses to let her do so.

It’s a slow, gentle read, and a moving portrait of one woman’s grief, but I kept wondering whether the narrative was going to build to any particular climax (it doesn’t). I felt as if the story was plodding along, going nowhere and I occasionally grew bored — I hate to say it, but even Tóibín’s lovely lyrical voice wasn’t enough to sustain me on the journey.

That said, I do need to issue two caveats. First, I read Nora Webster immediately in the wake of Mary Costello’s extraordinarily powerful debut novel, Academy Street, which meant it paled by comparison. And second, I did not realise the book was based on Tóibín’s own mother until I watched the BBC documentary Colm Toibin: His Mother’s Son just days after finishing it. I think having this knowledge in mind while reading the book would have certainly made me more sympathetic to the novel’s aims: to explore why Nora Webster — flawed and fragile — behaved in the ways she did during her husband’s illness and afterwards…

Author, Book review, Colm Tóibín, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting, Viking

‘Brooklyn’ by Colm Tóibín

Brooklyn

Fiction – hardcover; Viking; 256 pages; 2009.

As long time readers of this blog will know, I have a soft spot for Irish fiction, so it was no great surprise that Colm Tóibín‘s Brooklyn would be my type of book. But what I did find surprising was just how much I liked it. I devoured it in just two sittings this past weekend.

An Irishwoman abroad

The book opens in poor, provincial 1950s Ireland — Enniscorthy, County Wexford to be precise.

Eilis Lacey, a part-time shop girl, leaves behind her mother and devoted older sister, Rose, to immigrate to Brooklyn, USA, in search of a better life. She lives in an all-girl boarding house, presided over by the matron-like Mrs Kehoe, and spends her days working in a local department store and her evenings studying for a book-keeping qualification at Brooklyn College.

Along the way she makes several friends, meets a boy and finds herself living a relatively contented life, despite the fact that she still misses her family back home.

I’m not sure I can really say anything else without giving away crucial plot spoilers, so I shall keep schutm, suffice to say this is a quietly devastating read, one in which it is completely possible to lose all track of time as you get lost in the world presented here.

A paean to homesickness

Brooklyn is a gentle read, but its gentleness should not be mistaken for shallowness. It might be set in the 1950s but it touches on universal themes that resonate today, and I’ve yet to read anything that so perfectly captures the profound sense of dislocation you feel when you swap one country for another and then return to your homeland for the first time.

In short, Brooklyn is a superb paean to homesickness and the émigré experience. I think I identified with it so strongly because it shows, in an understated but powerful manner, how all emigrants have to make that god-awful decision about whether to stay or go, a decision that paralysed me for years.

When Eilis is confronted with this choice she is tormented because there is no single right answer: whatever she chooses will have both negative and positive repercussions for herself and her loved ones.

Proactive, not passive

And while I’ve tried to avoid reading reviews of this book, fearful that it will put me off reading it, I’m conscious Brooklyn has drawn criticism from some quarters over Eilis’s passive nature, yet I did not see her that way at all. Sure, her move to Brooklyn is organised by others, namely Father Flood and Rose, but she recognises this as an opportunity for which she should be grateful, even if she finds the prospect of leaving all she knows behind a daunting one. She’s proactive enough to get herself educated while in Brooklyn, because she recognises this as another opportunity to better herself in ways which would not be possible “back home”.

The truly lovely thing about Eilis is that she is a good person, and she thereby attracts good people and many acts of kindness come her way, but her good manners and her unwillingness to rock the boat should not be mistaken for passivity.

Brooklyn deserves a wide readership: it’s a powerful story about culture shock and the life-changing decisions we all must make as we grow up and forge our own paths. I rather suspect it’s going to be one of those books that will stay with me a long time…

Author, Book review, Colm Tóibín, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘The Blackwater Lightship’ by Colm Toibin

BlackwaterLightship

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 272 pages; 2000.

This quiet, understated novel, the fourth by Irish writer Colm Tóibín, was shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize and the 2001 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. And with good reason. It is a beautiful heartfelt book about three generations of women, estranged for years, who must join forces to look after one of their own who has a serious life-threatening illness.

Helen, the central character, is a 30-something school teacher married with two young boys, who has managed to carve out a comfortable existence in Dublin. But despite her career success and ordered life, she hides a guilty secret: as a college student she had a falling out with her mother, Lily, and has not talked to her since. In fact Lily was not invited to Helen’s wedding and she has never met her grandsons.

Helen’s relationship with her grandmother, Dora, is not quite as strained, but Dora and Lily are particularly tetchy with one another and rarely talk.

But these personal histories, filled with pain, hurt and anger, must be cast aside when Helen’s younger brother, Declan, announces he has AIDS. For the first time in decades the three women are thrown together by circumstances beyond their control.

When a very ill Declan says he wants to stay in his grandmother’s falling-down house by the Wexford coast, the three women, all strong-willed and contrary, find their tense relationships tested even further.

Things are not made any easier by the presence of Declan’s gay friends whom he regards as “family” but whom his mother, in particular, does not like.

But for Helen it is the house, which holds unpleasant childhood reminders of her father’s untimely death, that causes her to confront her troubled past.

The Blackwater Lightship is not a straightforward novel. There’s no happy conclusion. By turns it is shocking and moving. Its stark, spare prose lulls the reader into a false sense of comfort, a bit like the calm before the storm, because the nub of this novel is far from pleasant. Exploring the notions of family ties and how history binds us together no matter how hard we might try to escape it, it also looks at morals, manners and the pain we can dish out with one hand and hold close with the other.

This is a quick, emotional read and one that lingers in the mind for a considerable time. It is hugely reminiscent of John McGahern’s Amongst Women and Jennifer Johnston’s The Gingerbread Women, two other Irish novels about troubled people coming to term with familial relationships, both written in a succinct, bleak style.