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

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

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 342 pages; 2010.

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

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

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

A woman vanishes

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

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

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

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

Genre busting novel

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

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

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

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

Portrait of 1950s Dublin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Fiona Scarlett, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Boys Don’t Cry’ by Fiona Scarlett

Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber & Faber; 178 pages; 2021.

It sounded like Da was crying. I’ve never seen Da cry. He tells us that crying is a sign of weakness. That boys don’t cry. That boys should never cry. So we don’t. Ever. Unless we’re in private, when nobody sees.

If you took a big cooking pot and threw in Irish authors Roddy Doyle and Kit de Waal, then added the scriptwriters for the Irish gangster TV series Love/Hate and gave it a good stir, the end result might be Fiona Scarlett’s Boys Don’t Cry.

This novella about sibling love, divided loyalties, illness, grief and toxic masculinity is a heartrending — and heartwarming — read.

A tale of two brothers

Set in working-class Dublin, the story unfolds through the eyes of two brothers, who tell their version of events in alternate chapters.

Joe is 17 and a gifted artist. He’s been lucky enough to secure a place in a prestigious private school, but he is constantly aware that he is from a different social class and doesn’t quite fit in. He’s often bullied and expected to behave in a stereotypical way, purely because of his background.

Finn is 12 and a happy-go-lucky boy who loves playing sport and having fun with friends. He looks up to his big brother and adores his Ma and Da. But when he develops unexplained bruising on his arms and legs and begins suffering from bad nose bleeds, a question mark is raised over his health. Is he being physically abused at home, or is something else going on?

What makes the story so compelling is the way in which it is told, for each brother’s version of events is told in a different time period — Joe’s is AFTER Finn’s — but they are interleaved so that one loosely informs the other to make a more powerful read.

Working-class family

When I began reading this book, I literally had no idea what it was about. I have no memory of buying it and don’t know why I did so, other than it must have received a good review somewhere or I thought the subject matter appealed at the time. (According to Amazon, I purchased it on 1 May 2021.)

While it soon becomes clear that the family in Boys Don’t Cry is not your usual working-class family — Da runs a drug operation for the local kingpin, Dessie Murphy, but is now locked up in Mountjoy prison for shooting a policeman, who nearly died — it takes a while to figure out why everyone is wracked with grief and why Joe hates his father so much.

In fact, Joe, a complex character, is the heart of this story. He’s the one who holds the narrative together and makes it such a compelling read because you feel for him — and fear for him.

He’s clearly emotionally troubled — it takes some time to get to the root of why this might be the case — and he’s filled with hate for Dessie Murphy and wants nothing to do with him. But when his friend Sabine incurs a debt she can’t pay off, the temptation to do a one-off job for the gangster becomes hard to resist.

As a reader, you know that Dessie is grooming Joe to join the gang, but Joe is naive, oblivious to the dangers and realities of the criminal underworld: it’s never a case of just doing one job and walking away, once you’re in the “family” you can never leave…

A tear-jerker

Boys Don’t Cry is a remarkable read in so many ways. It’s a brilliant evocation of a family plunged in grief, of a teenager struggling to determine his own code of ethics and of a young boy grappling with mortality. It’s about heavy subjects but there are flashes of humour throughout to lighten the load.

The author is a primary school teacher and it’s clear she knows what makes children and teens tick; she really conveys their moods and feelings and mindset in an authentic way.

A word of warning though. I wouldn’t recommend reading this one in public — and I’d suggest having tissues on hand, because it’s a bit of a tear-jerker, ironic given the title, which is all about repressing emotions and keeping everything in check.

I read this book for Novellas in November (#NovNov), which is hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck 

Author, Book review, 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, Book review, Deirdre Madden, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Setting

‘Time Present and Time Past’ by Deirdre Madden

Time-present-and-time-past

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 240 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I’m not surprised Faber and Faber didn’t bother writing a blurb to put on the back of this handsome edition of Deirdre Maddens Time Present and Time Past — it would be a tricky task to “market” this extraordinary novel in any meaningful way in just a couple of short press-friendly paragraphs.

Indeed, I’m sure that whatever I say in this review will not do justice to this story, which revolves around the domestic but addresses big themes relating to time and memory and family history. I picked it up expecting to read just a chapter or two, and before I knew it I was two-thirds finished and decided it was just so lovely and enjoyable I had to stay at home to finish the whole thing in one greedy gulp.

A pair of siblings

Set in Dublin during the good times before the economic crash turned the country upside down, it focuses on a pair of 40-something siblings — Fintan Buckley and his younger sister Martina.

Fintan, a congenial, easy-going man, is a legal adviser who is happily married to childhood sweetheart Colette with whom he has has two sons, Robert and Niall, both at university, and a seven-year-old daughter, Lucy.

Martina, a renowned beauty who is headstrong and forthright, runs her own upmarket dress shop after having enjoyed a successful fashion career in London. She returned to Dublin about a decade ago and now lives with her aged aunt.

On the surface, Fintan and Martina lead comfortable middle-class lives, which not even their domineering and opinionated mother can ruin. But scratch a little deeper and there is more going on. For Fintan it is an unknown and untapped desire to reconnect with his childhood past, for Martina it is the need to deal with a traumatic event from her time in London.

Both these threads eventually come together, but in the process Madden interleaves lots of family history — how Fintan and Colette met, for example — to show how the bonds of friendship and family can not only wax and wane over time but form our own personal narratives.

Memory and time

But Time Past and Time Present isn’t a straightforward “cosy” domestic story. As the title suggests, it explores notions of time and looks at how memory can shift and change shape with the ticking of the clock.

Part of the novel focuses on Fintan’s inner life in which he begins to experience brief moments of altered states of consciousness that take him out of linear time and make him more open to the notion of an “immense pathos in life”. In one instance he has an out-of-body experience during a meeting with his personal assistant — and yet no one notices any change in him. Appearances, as they say, can be deceptive.

This theme is further explored by Fintan’s emerging interest in early photography and his realisation that he tends to

think of the past as profoundly different to the present, which it was, but not in the ways he expected; so that he had been surprised by Rob’s remark of a week ago on a cold day of torrential rain, when Fintan had found him in the hall gloomily sluicing water off his leather jacket and flapping his black umbrella: ‘They would have had weather like this during the Famine. Do you ever think about that, Dad? Rain like this and rotten potatoes.’

Not much plot

The most interesting thing about this book is that not much happens in it  and yet I found myself getting caught up in the Buckley’s lives despite the complete absence of drama — this is definitely not a soap opera.

Perhaps the secret is two-fold: it’s all written in the present tense, which creates a sense of immediacy, and by focusing solely on ordinary people it’s easy to identify with the characters, all of whom are genuinely likable and well meaning. Indeed, I felt as if I actually knew these characters they seemed so recognisable to people I know and love.

Indeed, Madden has crafted a hugely enjoyable tale about ordinary lives being quietly lead and the importance of family history in shaping who we are and who we want to be. It is understated and unsentimental, yet manages to pack an emotional punch.

Time Past and Time Present has been shortlisted for this year’s Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year award, which will be announced on 28 May.

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.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, Publisher, Roddy Doyle, Setting

‘The Guts’ by Roddy Doyle

The-Guts

Fiction – hardcover; Jonathan Cape; 328 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown TrilogyThe Commitments (published in 1987), The Snapper (1990) and The Van (1991) — is one of my favourite ever volumes, so I was falling over myself with excitement when I heard he had a new novel out that turned the “trilogy” into a “quartet”.

Back with the Rabbitte family

The Guts is set in modern-day Dublin — there are references to Whitney Houston’s death, boxer Katie Taylor‘s gold medal in the London Olympics, and Christy Moore, Sigur Ros and The Cure playing the Electric Picnic, which suggests the date is 2012.

Jimmy Rabbitte, the man who invented and managed the soul band The Commitments in The Commitments, is now 47. He’s married to the lovely Aoife and has four kids — all named after soul singers.

While he’s not rich, he has managed to survive the collapse of the Irish economy via an online business (www.kelticpunk.com), which he founded with his wife, selling long-lost Irish punk songs as downloads. After paying off the mortgage, he sold 75 per cent of the business to a partner, Noeleene, but keeps his hand in by managing reunion gigs and other associated projects.

But now things aren’t so great: Jimmy has been diagnosed with bowel cancer. He needs an operation and a series of chemotherapy treatments. And just when it’s all looking pretty grim he stumbles upon three things to distract him — the gorgeous Imelda Quirke, who was a singer in The Commitments he hasn’t seen in 20 or so years; trumpet lessons; and a project to find punk-like music recorded in the same year as the International Eucharist Congress held in Dublin in 1932.

Black comedy

It’s been a long time since I’ve been in the company of the Rabbitte family — and I have to say I enjoyed every minute of it. I knew I was going to love this book when I got my first laugh on page 3. From then on, I pretty much tittered my way throughout it.

Occasionally Doyle does waver into sentimentality, especially where cancer is concerned, but he usually reigns it back in with a good dose of black humour —  I especially loved that Jimmy’s purple velour tracksuit bottoms, given to him as a Christmas present by his wife, are dubbed “cancer trousers” and that the book Chemotherapy & Radiation for Dummies sent to him as a joke actually becomes bedtime reading material.

There are some delightful set pieces involving the family that particularly tickled my fancy. For instance, when 10-year-old Brian, nicknamed Smoke (presumably after Smoky Robinson), requests a  sat nav for Christmas, his parents buy him one even though he “doesn’t have a fuckin’ car”. And this is what happens on Christmas morning:

He walked down the road with Brian and got excited with him when they came to the first corner, and there it was, on the sat nav.
—Brilliant.
They took the left and watched themselves taking it.
—Coolio.
Here, Smoke, tell it where we’re goin’ and it’ll tell us where to go.
Brian impressed Jimmy, the way all his kids did, with his ability to negotiate the buttons, the confidence, the effortless speed. No grunting from this boy.
—Where we goin’? he asked.
—The Spar, said Smokey.
—It’s only over there.
—Drive forward, said the sat nav.
The voice was posh and reassuring, like an Aer Lingus pilot’s. […]
They found the Spar and were going on to Brian’s school. […] Brian turned right.
—The wrong way, Smoke.
—I know.
—Turn left, said the voice.
Brian kept going.
—Turn LEFT, said the voice.
Brian looked down at the sat nav.
—Fuck off, he said, and laughed.
He looked at Jimmy. And Jimmy laughed too.
—It’s brilliant, Dad, said Brian.

A musical project

The main story arc charts Jimmy coming to terms with his cancer treatment and reconnecting with the people he loves, including his long-lost brother, whom he manages to trackdown via Facebook. He also re-establishes contact with Outspan, another character from The Commitments, who has lung cancer and is in far worse shape than him.

But the real highlight is Jimmy’s musical project in which he hunts for tracks to include on a record of controversial Irish songs from 1932, the idea being to sell it during the 50th International Eucharist Congress held in Dublin in the summer. As he hunts about in people’s attics, looking for old recordings, he can’t quite find the song he’s looking for — one that will sum up “the great escape”, one that will “say things that weren’t allowed” — and because of that he hits upon a rather radical idea: he will simply write one himself and find someone to record it.

What ensues is a kind of modern-day farce, involving YouTube and social media “buzz”, culminating in a very public, very surreal performance at the Electric Picnic music festival.

A heartfelt story

I think it’s clear from The Guts that Roddy Doyle has written this one from the guts: it’s frank and funny, it’s about things that matter (love and family and friendship), and it crackles with feisty Dublin dialect and richly comic exchanges. And the endless music references are just brilliant.

Despite the tragic illness at its core, the story is largely optimistic and upbeat, though it does stray into the saccharine every now and then.

But on the whole I loved spending time with Jimmy, a middle-aged man getting back in touch with his emotions and enjoying what he loves: women, family, pints and music, not necessarily in that order.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Lilliput Press, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, William King

‘Is That All There Is?’ by William King

Is-that-all-there-is

Fiction – paperback; Lilliput Press; 222 pages; 2013.

William King is a parish priest and author from Ireland who first came to my attention with his brilliant novel Leaving Ardglass, which was one of my favourite reads from 2011. That book told a heartbreaking story of two Irish brothers working on building sites in London in the 1960s, one of whom turned into a corrupt property magnate and the other who returned to Ireland to escape it all and become a priest. It was a compelling morality tale of what happens to those who put money before all else.

King’s new book (which I promptly ordered direct from the publisher the day it was released) covers similar themes but this time the setting is modern day Dublin during the bubble-and-burst of the Celtic Tiger.

Ambition and greed

The story follows three main characters — middle-aged husband and wife Philip and Samantha Lalor, and Philip’s bull-headed boss, Aengus Sharkey, the powerful CEO of a (fictional) bank, Nat Am. All three are ambitious and hungry for success.

When Is That All There Is? opens (the title, by the way, is from a song made popular by Peggy Lee in the 1960s) we meet Philip and Sam moving into their new glitzy home — a renovated monastery with all the mod cons. But the couple, who have two teenage children, rarely have time to enjoy it.

Sam has a high-powered job in an advertising agency, which takes her across the globe — to New York, to London — to help direct TV commercials. And Philip is an executive banker, working all the hours god sends him to keep the family leading the glamorous lifestyle to which they’ve become accustomed.

But in the background there are rumours of an impending crisis — there’s been a run at Northern Rock, the British bank; Merrill Lynch, a subsidiary of the Bank of America, is in trouble; and the American investment bank Bear Stearns has collapsed. “No matter what rumours you hear, continue to lend,” Sharkey tells his lending managers at an impromptu meeting, a mantra which eventually leaves him — and everyone else — high and dry.

Boom and bust

There’s been a recent influx of  excellent Irish novels set during the Irish boom and bust — Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz, Tana French’s Broken Harbour, Claire Kilroy’s The Devil You Know and Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart — but this is the first one I’ve read that really looks at the last few months before the crash and examines the moral culpability of those in the thick of it. To what extent did they know what was coming? And what could they have done (if anything) to prevent it?

While King doesn’t cast judgement, his portrait of Ireland’s boom — the easy credit, the ostentatious wealth, the corporate greed — and the emptiness of people’s lives is not a flattering one.

And while the narrative is somewhat predictable — these people will surely get their comeuppance — King’s ear for dialogue is superb, particularly the bawdy boardroom banter and the way in which Sharkey hoodwinks everyone by telling lies and half-truths to get what he wants. His motto, “you are what you have” could almost be the epitaph on Ireland’s economic tombstone.

Book review, Glitterati, History, Ireland, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Through Irish Eyes: A Visual Companion to Angela McCourt’s Ireland’ by Malachy McCourt (foreword) and David Pritchard

Through-Irish-Eyes

Non-fiction – hardcover; Glitterati; 64 pages; 2013. Review copy supplied by publisher.

It seems appropriate to feature this lovely coffee table-style book on St Patrick’s Day. Admittedly, it’s not my usual fare, but when I was offered this for review it ticked several boxes: (1) it was Irish; (2) it was a companion to Angela’s Ashes, a memoir I remember fondly; and (3) it featured lots of old-fashioned black-and-white photographs, which appealed to the amateur photographer in me. I certainly wasn’t disappointed when it arrived — all the way from New York — and I’ve been enjoying perusing it over the past few days.

I think what I like most about this book — apart from the high-end production values and the attractive cursive fonts used throughout (I do like a good font) — is the way in which it serves to remind us of another time and place, a time when poverty was rife, a time that makes you glad you never had to live through such cruelty and horror. Look at these photographs — all of them taken in and around Limerick in the 1930s and 40s — and you are immediately transported to an Ireland of slums and deprivation. It sometimes make for uncomfortable viewing. Even though many people are smiling in the pictures — and often the children are laughing and being mischievous, as children are wont to do —there’s a part of you that wonders if they were merely playing up for the camera.

As an archive, it is refreshing in its honesty: this, indeed, is how the other half once lived.

Malachy McCourt’s foreword is particularly searing in its anger. (Malachy is, of course,  the younger brother of Frank McCourt, who wrote Angela’s Ashes, and is an author in his own right.) As he looked at the pictures, he says he “raged and wept and cursed at the savages, domestic and foreign, who visited such cruelty on a graceful, generous people, but then allowed the peace and serenity to fill my soul again because I am with hope and faith that those bestial days are done”.

He adds: “Look at this book carefully and keep it close, lest we and our children and their children forget.”

The stunning and often candid photographs, which are accompanied by detailed captions and literary quotes and are arranged according to theme, don’t just convey urban poverty, however. There are also pictures of the beautiful, occasionally rugged, countryside, as well as parkland and architectural landmarks. Through Irish Eyes is the kind of book you can dip into and out of at your leisure, but I found it compelling (and haunting) enough to read it from cover to cover.

Finally, I’m grateful to the publisher for allowing me to publish some of the photographs from the book — the captions, I’m afraid, are all my own:

Two-women

Irish charladies taking a break from hard labour
Classroom

Can you spot the weird Santa Claus in this photograph?
Nun-and-boys

A nun hands out bread to a waiting line of boys
Sewing-machinists

Workers in a Limerick garment factory

All photographs from Through Irish Eyes: A Visual Companion to Angela McCourt’s Ireland, copyright © 2013, published by Glitterati Incorporated. www.Glitteratiincorporated.com.

Atlantic Books, Author, Book review, Christine Dwyer Hickey, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Cold Eye of Heaven’ by Christine Dwyer Hickey

Cold-eye-of-heaven

Fiction – Kindle edition; Atlantic Books; 368 pages; 2011.

Last month I stated that I was going to read all the books shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year. Christine Dwyer Hickey‘s The Cold Eye of Heaven, published last year, is one of the shortlisted titles.

A life told backwards

The book opens on 15 January 2010. Farley, an elderly gent who lives alone, has collapsed on the bathroom floor in the middle of the night, “one side of his face shoved into the linoleum, right shoulder pressed into the radiator”. As he lays there, trying to figure out how he got there and how he might be rescued, his mind starts wandering back to earlier times.

We are then transported back to the previous day in which Farley traverses Dublin on various errands — taking his suit to the drycleaners, getting one of his shoes resoled, trying to find a priest to sign a mass card — all in preparation for the funeral of an old colleague, Slowey, with whom he had become estranged.

From then on, the book tells Farley’s life story in reverse chronological order — in 10-year increments — right back to his early childhood in 1940. Along the way we find out about his relationship with Slowey — the pair were in business together as law clerks, but they were also related by marriage  — and discover how things fell apart between them.

We learn about his marriage to Martina, a raven-haired beauty, who died from cancer very young, and how he never quite recovered from her death. And we learn of an adulterous relationship he began some time afterwards that created terrible repercussions from which he could never quite escape. There is also a heartbreaking chapter in which he must look after his senile mother, who often mistakes him for her lover.

An extraordinary portrait of an ordinary man

What emerges is a very human portrait of a complex individual leading an ordinary life, often in extraordinary times. As well as being a lovely, poignant and often humorous tale of one man’s life, it is also a brilliant portrait of Dublin through the ages — before and after the Celtic Tiger. The second chapter is especially evocative of the streets and pubs and churches, and in Farley’s attempt to attend a funeral, there’s a very strong nod to James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Indeed, this particularly chapter — by far the strongest in the entire novel — is laugh-out loud funny in places, as we get glimpses of Farley’s inner-most feelings, often about ageing, that are deliciously wicked and acerbic. (For example, he would “prefer to eat his own vomit” than get meals on wheels; he wonders if it is worth going up to the alter during Slowey’s funeral because “it’s not as if he’s believed in that fucking eejit for more than forty years”.)

Dwyer Hickey is particularly good at detail — an elderly Farley making his way gingerly across a snowy garden path is like “a half-pissed tightrope walker”, a neighbour has a “face bulged from the cold and there’s a jellied, goitred look about her eyes”, a stationary bus is “farting out a long bloom of fumes” — and she deftly balances a full gamut of emotions — sadness, grief, disappointment, joy and happiness — so that nothing feels cloying or tacked on.

My only quibble is that the younger Farley is far less interesting (and wicked) than the older version, so as the book gets closer to the end (and Farley’s beginning) the narrative runs a little out of steam.

But in exploring the full arc of one man’s life from grave to cradle, Dwyer Hickey is able to explore many themes, in particular what it is to get old, but also how love, betrayal and heartbreak can shape one’s outlook. Her acute insights into the inner-most workings of the human heart, mind and soul make The Cold Eye of Heaven a rich, warm and humane novel.

Author, Belinda McKeon, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘Solace’ by Belinda McKeon

Solace

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 352 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Belinda McKeon’s debut novel Solace is one of those books that has definitely improved with age. I read it several weeks ago and planned on giving it a three-star review. But I’ve thought about the book — unintentionally — a bit since then, almost as if certain characters and scenes have wormed into my brain, ready to reappear when I least expect them. When a story sticks like that, it has to be a good sign.

For background information, I first saw a review of Solace on the blog Just William’s Luck, which encouraged me to bump it a bit higher up my TBR. Not that there was ever any doubt that I would read this one: Belinda McKeon is Irish and the press release that accompanied my edition was littered with quotes from the great and the good of the Irish literary establishment — Colum McCann, Anne Enright and Colm Toibin. With names like that on your side, how could McKeon go wrong?

Without wishing to damn Solace with faint praise, it does tell the age old Irish story of strained relationships between fathers and sons. John McGahern is the master of this theme — the classic examples being The Dark and Amongst Women — but McKeon adds a modern twist. The setting is contemporary Ireland — the 2008 financial crash has happened — and the son, Mark Casey, lives in Dublin, while the father, Tom, is running the farm single-handedly in County Longford.

The problem is that Tom can’t run the farm alone, but because he is of that generation of men, unable to communicate with their children, he never fully articulates what it is he wants from Mark. And Mark, who is a doctoral student at Trinity College, is too passive to ever truly stand up to his father’s unspoken demands. But these parental obligations — and expectations — weigh on him heavily.

Mark might be approaching 30, but he has never truly managed to live his own life. Weekends are reluctantly — and resentfully — given up to help Tom bale hay or plough fields, and when the father and son are together there is tension between them. Words, when they are spoken, are harsh and bitter-edged. It is only the delicate manoeuvring of Mark’s mother that keeps the fragile peace in place.

Then, inevitably, Mark falls in love with a trainee solicitor, the beguiling Joanne, he meets at a party in Dublin. By a stroke of co-incidence (and there are several of these in the book), Jo happens to be from his home town, and she, too, has problems with her parents: she is estranged from her mother, and her father, whom she did not trust, is dead. This may partly explain why Mark and Joanne hit it off so quickly.

But McKeon uses the pairing to set up an unconvincing (and in my opinion, unnecessary) plot device, in which Joanne’s dad and Mark’s dad have past history. It seems the two of them spectacularly fell out over a property deal decades ago, and this creates additional tension for Mark — how does he tell his father that his new priority is a woman, rather than the farm, and worse, how does he tell him that the woman is the daughter of a man who wronged him?

That bit of melodrama aside, the novel is written in an understated, restrained style.

In the book’s prologue we know there has been some kind of family tragedy — Tom and Mark are together on the farm, looking after young girl, whom we can only assume is Mark’s daughter — but McKeon refrains from offering any explanation. Indeed, when the tragedy occurs, more than half-way through the book, it’s written in such vague terms it seems anti-climatic. I had to re-read it several times to make sure I’d understood what had happened.

By contrast, some of the scenes in the book seem over-worked and false — Joanne’s troubles at work, for instance, seem laboured; Mark’s shopping trip with his mother doesn’t completely ring true — but there’s a quiet and devastating beauty to this story, about real people trying to make the best of their lives under trying circumstances. As a portrait of a father and son battling to comprehend, trust and respect one another, it’s very authentic — to the point I wanted to yell at Mark to stand up for himself and to pull Tom aside to have a few quiet words.

Solace may not be a polished novel, but it’s an astoundingly good one for a first-time author, and it certainly marks McKeon as a new Irish literary talent to watch.