Anne Enright, Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Green Road’ by Anne Enright

The-Green-Road

Fiction – hardcover; Jonathan Cape; 310 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Anne Enright’s The Green Road has been long listed for the 2015 Man Booker Prize. This is the Irish writer’s  sixth novel, but only the third one of hers I’ve read.

The first one I read, The Gathering, won the 2007 Man Booker Prize and, perhaps somewhat unfairly, gave her a reputation for writing rather grim literary fiction, particularly as it looked at the outfall of sexual abuse on a family. The second book, The Forgotten Waltz, was slightly more accessible, but it still explored dark territory —  that of an extramarital affair as told by the “other woman”.

But this new novel treads totally different territory. It’s not exactly light-hearted but there are elements of black comedy in it, which make it a fun read as opposed to a depressing one.

Family life

The Green Road is essentially a forthright family drama following the lives of four siblings — Hanna,  Emmet, Dan and Constance — and their needy, domineering mother, Rosaleen, over the course of 25 years. Each character gets their own section, beginning when Hanna, the youngest child, is just 12 years old, and culminates with all of the siblings  returning to their childhood home as adults for a Christmas dinner in 2005 at the height of the Celtic Tiger.

The novel highlights the differences between each of the siblings and the ways in which they all grow apart as they get older and pursue their own lives and careers so that they effectively become strangers — and yet as soon as they’re thrown together for a Christmas celebration all the old tensions, resentments and childhood dynamics come to the fore, almost as if they never moved out of the family home.

Enright takes her time fleshing out all of the characters — most of whom we meet as adults— each of whom is grappling with private difficulties: Dan, who once wanted to be a priest, has reinvented himself as an artist in New York but is living a double life during the AIDS crisis of the early 1990s; Emmet, an aid worker in Africa, has rejected the materialism of the modern world but finds it hard to make meaningful connections with women; Constance, raising her own family in Ireland, has a health scare that she keeps to herself; and Hanna, a first-time mother and struggling actor in Dublin, has an ongoing problem with alcohol.

But it is the central character, Rosaleen, that lends the book its gravitas — and humour.  This Irish mammy is manipulative, self-absorbed, living “her entire life requiring things of other people and blaming other people” and vacillating between “a state of hope or regret”:

You could tell Rosaleen about disease, war and mudslides and she would look faintly puzzled, because there were, clearly, much more interesting things happening in the County Clare. Even though nothing happened – she saw to that too. Nothing was discussed. The news was boring or it was alarming, facts were always irrelevant, politics rude. Local gossip, that is what his mother allowed, and only of a particular kind. Marriages, deaths, accidents: she lived for a head-on collision, a bad bend in the road. Her own ailments of course, other people’s diseases. Mrs Finnerty’s cousin’s tumour that turned out to be just a cyst. Her back, her hip, her headaches, and the occasional flashing light when she closed her eyes – ailments that were ever more vague, until, one day, they would not be vague at all. They would be, at the last, entirely clear.

Evocative writing

As ever, Enright’s writing is sharp and lucid and full of beautiful phrases and descriptions. I especially loved her depiction of the Green Road from whence the novel takes its name:

This road turned into the green road that went across the Burren, high above the beach at Fanore, and this was the most beautiful road in the world, bar none, her granny said – famed in song and story – the rocks gathering briefly into walls before lapsing back into field, the little stony pastures whose flowers were sweet and rare. And if you lifted your eyes from the difficulties of the path, it was always different again, the islands sleeping out in the bay, the clouds running their shadows across the water, the Atlantic surging up the distant cliffs in a tranced, silent plume of spray. Far below were the limestone flats they called the Flaggy Shore; grey rocks under a grey sky, and there were days when the sea was a glittering grey and your eyes could not tell if it was dusk or dawn, your eyes were always adjusting. It was like the rocks took the light and hid it away. And that was the thing about Boolavaun, it was a place that made itself hard to see.

And her ability to dissect family life in all its madness and joy is truly wonderful. Somehow she’s able to show exactly what it is like to be a parent, a child, a sibling, a lover and a spouse, whether male or female, and how the “pull” of home never truly leaves us, even if we move countries or continents.

It’s also an interesting look at how our world view and attitudes are shaped by our travels. In this case, Rosaleen, who has never left Ireland, is parochial in outlook, while most of her children, who have had to move away to find work (and love), tend to be more open-minded and “educated”.

But for all the novel’s strengths, I found the structure somewhat let it down. Each character’s story is told in self-contained sections, rather than employing interwoven narrative threads, so it almost feels as if you are reading a collection of short stories. The final part, which brings all the children back home to Ireland for Christmas, feels slightly more novelistic and acts as a nice counterbalance, but overall I found that the whole wasn’t greater than the sum of its parts.

Yes, The Green Road is a more gentle, forgiving, entertaining and accessible novel than Enright’s previous efforts, but whether it impresses the judges enough to make the Man Booker shortlist remains to be seen.

Anne-Enright-signed-copy

As an aside, I saw the author do a reading at Foyles flagship store here in London on 7 May. She was down-to-earth, forthright and funny — adjectives that could also be used to describe the book.

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, Canongate, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Mary Costello, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘Academy Street’ by Mary Costello

Academy Street

Fiction – Kindle edition; Canongate Books; 193 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Mary Costello’s Academy Street won the 2014 Eason Novel of the Year Award at the Irish Book Awards — and it’s my book of the year, too.

It’s a debut novel but has been written with all the assuredness and maturity of someone who’s been honing their craft for years. Unsurprisingly, the author is an accomplished short story writer — her work has been anthologised and published in New Irish Writing and The Stinging Fly and her first collection, The China Factory, was published to critical acclaim in 2012.

One woman’s life

The book 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: she’s reticent, lacks self-confidence and never really knows “what to do or how to act”.

Occasionally she thought about retiring, moving house, taking a trip back to Ireland, but she did none of these things. There was, in her nature, a certain passivity, an acquiescence that was ill-suited to change or transformation, as if she feared ruffling fate or rousing to anger some capricious creature that lay sleeping at the bottom of her soul.

Throughout this short, powerful novel, we follow Tess’s ups and downs — her occasional periods of happiness, her heartbreaking disappointments, her successes, her failures — and throughout it all her forbearance and stoicism shines through.

But aside from a friendship she develops with a female neighbour, she always feels at a distance from others and is unable to create the kinds of connections she so desperately craves:

All evening long she smiled and mingled, but she felt remote. It seemed at times that she was marooned on an island, a moat of water, wide and black, separating her from all human love.

Like many lonely people she finds solace in books, and some of the most touching scenes describe her very strong feelings towards novels and literature.

Tess found a new life in books. […] The mere sighting of a book on her hall table or night stand as she walked by, the author’s name or title on the spine, the remembrance of character — his trials, his adversity — took her out of ordinary time and induced in her an intensity of feeling, a sense of union with that writer. […]The things she hankered after — encounters with beauty, love, sometimes the numinous — she found in books. […] She became herself, her most true self, in those hours among books.

A distinctive voice

Because Academy Street condenses one woman’s life into just 193 pages, some aspects feel a little rushed or skipped over, but that’s a minor quibble.

I fell in love with this book from the first page. It’s written in that lovely lyrical style reminiscent of the best Irish fiction — think a cross between Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn and Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side — but has a distinctive voice all of its own.

It so encapsulates the human condition — our desperate desire to fit in, to make meaningful connections with others, to feel as if we are worth something to someone — it’s easy to identify with Tess’s situation. Adrift from her own family — and her own country — her sense of isolation resonates off the page. But while it’s quite a sad story, it’s more bittersweet than depressing and is never sentimental or cloying. It’s poignant and has an undercurrent of melancholia, but is punctuated with quiet moments of joy.

Tess Lohan’s life might be quiet and understated but the impact on the reader is nothing less than devastating.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Niall Williams, Publisher, Setting

‘History of the Rain’ by Niall Williams

History-of-the-rain

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 368 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I first discovered Irish author Niall Williams when I read his extraordinarily moving debut novel, Four Letters of Love, when it was released in paperback long before I started this blog. Today, it remains in my affections as one of the best novels I have ever read.

Since then I’ve read a handful of his other books — As it is in Heaven (1999), The Fall of Light (2001) and Only Say the Word (2004) — so I was very much looking forward to his new one, History of the Rain, which hit the bookshops last week.

I wasn’t disappointed. While it’s quite unlike any of Williams’ previous work — in both theme and style — it is a lovely, literary-inspired read that explores the importance of stories and story telling to our sense of self and our family histories. It will especially appeal to booklovers and anyone who just loves a good yarn, for indeed, that’s what this is: a good yarn — and a gripping, often witty, one at that.

A remarkable voice

History of the Rain has a truly distinctive and original voice in 19-year-old first-person narrator “Plain” Ruth Swain, who is bed-bound in her attic bedroom because of an unexplained illness that has cut short her university career. She spends all her time reading the 3,958 books that once belonged to her late father because, in doing so, “that is where I will find him”.

In what Ruth fittingly dubs a “river narrative”, the story meanders all over the place, but its purpose is clear: to bring her father, a failed farmer and struggling poet, back to life. As part of her “research”, Ruth must also unearth the stories of her father’s paternal, and essentially English, lineage: her great grandfather Reverend Swain, who had impossible standards no one could live up to, and his son Abraham, who fought in France while his contemporaries were at home fighting in the Civil War.

Somewhere in this heady mix of family history she also tells the story of her twin brother, Aeney, her father’s adored “golden child”, who tragically dies before his time, leaving everyone heartbroken.

What emerges is a rather eccentric tale about rather eccentric (but good-hearted) people — and it’s all told in Ruth’s old-before-her-years but sharply funny voice as she explores the myths that have shrouded her family for three generations.

A love of books

For anyone who loves books (let’s face it, if you’re reading this blog that will be you), it’s a complete joy from beginning to end, because the entire text is littered with literary references — there’s Dickens (“the greatest novelist that ever was or will be”), Jane Austen, Patrick Kavanagh, Robert Louis Stevenson (“I like writers who were sick”) and so on — which Ruth uses as a form of commentary, in parenthesis, on her own life and her beloved father’s life. Here’s an example:

This, Dear Reader, is a river narrative. My chosen style is The Meander. I know that in The Brothers Karamazov (Book 1,777, Penguin Classics, London) Ippolit Kirillovich chose the historical form of narration because Dostoevsky says it checked his own exuberant rhetoric. Beginnings, middles and ends force you into that place where you have to Stick to the Story as Maeve Mulvey said the night the Junior Certs were supposed to be going to the cinema in Ennis but were buying cans in Dunnes and drinking them in the Parnell Street carpark and Mrs Pender saw Grainne Hayes hanging off the salt-and-vinegar lips of some pimpled beanpole at The Height, wearing enough eyeliner and mascara to maker her look like a badger in Disney and that micro-mini that wasn’t more than two inches of black-plastic silage wrap, all of which required they chose the historical form of narration and Stick To Their Story since she’d left Hayes’s house earlier that evening in jeans and hoodie.

The story is heartbreaking in places, underpinned by a sense of hopelessness as Ruth’s father tries to farm “fourteen acres of the worst farming land in Ireland” without realising he’s doing it all wrong — regardless of how much it rains. But at the heart of the novel there beats a fierce optimism and a love of nature — especially leaping salmon — that imbues the story with a rosy, hopeful, aren’t-we-lucky-to-be-alive type of glow.

History of the Rain is, by turns, witty, charming and moving. It has the feel of an old-fashioned tale told well, the kind of book you can curl up with and get lost in for hours at a time, one that transports you to another time and place and does it effortlessly.

Williams’ tone of voice is pitch-perfect, but it’s the characters — so real, human and riddled with foibles — that makes the story really come alive. I loved being in their company.

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.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Hodder, Ireland, Publisher, Setting, Tana French

‘Broken Harbour’ by Tana French

Broken-Harbour

Fiction – Kindle edition; Hodder; 544 pages; 2012.

Last week Tana French‘s Broken Harbour won the Crime Fiction Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards. I read it back in July, within a week or two of its release, after I’d trawled every independent book store near Charing Cross Road looking for it. Not one shop had it in stock and I had to resort to buying it from Amazon as a Kindle edition.

I have a long relationship with Tana French, having read (and loved) In The Woods, The Likeness and Faithful Place. And because I knew this one was set in the aftermath of Ireland going bust — a topic that’s only now just emerging as a common thread in Irish fiction — I was eager to read it, hence my search for it on foot (and then online).

Murder mystery

The story is essentially a locked room murder mystery: a young man, Patrick Spain, has been stabbed to death in the family home; his two children have been smothered in their beds; and a fourth victim, Jennifer Spain, is in intensive care but is not expected to recover. There are no signs of forced entry. However, something is clearly not right.

This is how Mike “Scorcher” Kennedy, the detective in charge of the investigation, puts it:

‘There was something very weird going on in that house, and I’m talking
about well before last night. We’ve got a bunch of holes in the walls, and no clue who made them or why — if you can find us any indications, fingerprints or anything, we’d be very grateful. We’ve also got a load of baby monitors — at least two audio and five video, going by the chargers on the bedside table, but there could be more. We’re not sure what they were for yet, and we’ve only located three of the cameras: upstairs landing, sitting-room side table, kitchen floor. I’d like photos of all of them in situ. And we need to find the other two cameras, or however many there are. Same for the viewers: we’ve got two charging, two on the kitchen floor, so we’re short at least one.’

As Scorcher’s investigation develops he discovers some strange things about the Spain family, specifically Patrick, who was made redundant from his well-paid job and then spent countless hours on the internet trying to find out what was making a noise in the interior walls of his house. Was he  paranoid — or depressed? Or was there really something living in his house he couldn’t catch?

Suspenseful narrative

French does a wonderful job of building suspense — the Spains were living on a “ghost estate”, a housing development called Ocean View that was never completed when the Irish economy went bust. Only a handful of homes are habitable. This “haunted blackness of the estate, scaffolding bones looming up out of
nowhere, stark against the stars” gives  the house an eerie setting. The fact that “Scorcher” has bad memories of the area from his childhood, when it was known as Broken Harbour, adds to the claustrophobic feel. The place reverberates with menace and French mines that trench expertly.

She is also an expert at characterisation — and boy, there is an extensive list of well-rounded characters in this one: Patrick and Jennifer Spain, Jennifer’s sister Fiona Rafferty, rookie cop Richie and Scorcher’s troubled younger sister, Dina.

Scorcher, of course, is the standout — he’s appeared in French’s earlier novels, but is the least likable of all the police she has previously introduced us to. He narrates Broken Harbour in a voice that is full of bravado and egotism, a voice that I found annoying pretty much from the start.

I am bloody good at my job. I still believe that. I’ve been on the Murder Squad for ten years, and for seven of those, ever since I found my feet, I’ve had the highest solve rate in the place.

But Scorcher has a softer, more humble side, and as you get to know him over the course of the book it becomes clear that his arrogance is a cover for deep, personal insecurities. He’s actually a damn nice bloke with his heart in the right place — once you understand that, you really want him to figure out “whodunnit”  so that he can maintain his impressive “solve rate”.

An ambitious novel 

But, of course, there are some downsides to this novel, too. Broken Harbour is big, rollicking, often repetitive and sometimes unwieldy. It could have lost a good 200 pages and been all the better for it. There are too many divergent threads, too many red herrings and too many sub-plots going on. This means it takes an age to get to the conclusion — and when you get there you’re so exhausted (or bored or confused) it doesn’t feel particularly satisfying.

That’s not to say this is a bad book. It’s not. I enjoyed it and doubtless plenty of others will, too. Aside from French’s tendency to overwrite things, this is a suspenseful murder mystery that breaks normal crime novel conventions — this is more about why the crime happened and less about who committed it. It also has a kind of Scandinavian feel to it, by which I mean it puts the abhorrent crime into a social context: what part did the rampant consumerism and the subsequent credit crunch have to play in the deaths of one man and his two young children?

In a way, you could probably say they had been broke even before Patrick lost his job. He had made good money, but their credit card had a six-grand limit and it had spent most of the time maxed out — there were a lot of three-figure charges to Brown Thomas, Debenhams, a few websites with vaguely familiar girly names — and then there were the two car loans and the mortgage. But only innocents think broke is made of how much you earn and how much you owe. Ask any economist: broke is made of how you feel. The credit crunch didn’t happen because people woke up any poorer than they’d been the day before; it happened because people woke up scared. Back in January, when Jenny had spent two hundred and seventy euros on some website called Shoe 2 You, the Spains had been doing just fine. By July, they had been broke as all hell. Some people get hit by a tidal wave, dig in their nails and hold on; they stay focused on the positive, keep visualising the way through till it opens up in front of them. Some lose hold. Broke can lead people to places they would never have imagined. It can nudge a law-abiding citizen onto that blurred crumbling edge where a dozen kinds of crime feel like they’re only an arm’s reach away. It can scour away at a lifetime of mild, peaceful decency until all that’s left is teeth and claws and terror. You could almost catch the stench of fear, dank as rotting seaweed, coming up from the dark space at the back of the closet where the Spains had kept their monsters locked down.

That is a long quote to finish on, but I think it showcases French’s prose style and her understanding of what makes people — and society — tick. It also represents the heart and soul of this quite ambitious but slightly flawed novel.

For other, more positive takes on Broken Harbour, please see Guy Savage’s review at His Futile Preoccupations and Danielle’s review at A Work in Progress.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, John Broderick, Lilliput Press, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Pilgrimage’ by John Broderick

Pilgrimage

Fiction – paperback; Lilliput Press; 130 pages; 2004.

Upon publication in 1961 The Pilgrimage, like so many Irish novels that dealt with sex and the Church at the time, was banned by the Censorship Board. Four years later it was retitled The Chameleons and sold more than 100,000 copies in the US.

It was John Broderick’s first novel. He went on to write 11 more — most of which are out of print — and an autobiography, but he got his start as a journalist and book reviewer. He died in 1989.

A dark book about sex

While the scandalous element of this novel may have lost its potency — so much about Ireland has changed since then and the Church is no longer a dominant force — there’s no doubt that this is a very dark book, and the depiction of sex within it still has the power to shock. I’ve not read Fifty Shades of Grey, but I suspect there’s a particular scene in The Pilgrimage that even EL James would not even think to write.

Set during the 1950s, this is very much a story about the hidden Ireland, about what goes on behind closed doors. It is also a disturbing portrait of what happens to ordinary men and women when the Church tries to control sex and sexuality. And it peels back the facade to show how women and gay men were particularly affected by the hypocrisy at the heart of its religious doctrine.

An upstanding woman with a secret life

The story is largely told through the eyes of Julia Glynn, a fine upstanding Church-going woman, who has a secret life. Married to a rich bedridden man, who can no longer fulfill her sexual needs, she seeks out casual encounters with strange men and rekindles her affair with her husband’s handsome young nephew and personal doctor, Jim Glynn.

But when Julia receives a malicious note from an anonymous correspondent detailing her relationship with Jim, she fears that this secret life may become exposed. Not that it puts her off too much — she later instigates a sordid night-time relationship with the household’s butler, a cold man called Stephen Lydon, who may or may not be her husband’s former lover.

As you can see by this brief description, the relationships in this novel are rather complicated and twisted — all the more so when you begin to realise that Julia’s marriage is merely one of convenience. Nothing is spelt out, but if you read between the lines it is clear that her husband is gay and that even on their honeymoon in France, when they “struck up a friendship with a young German who accompanied them everywhere and waved them a sentimental farewell at the airport”, he was having an affair right under her nose.

Restrained prose

Like the best Irish novels, the prose here is restrained, stripped back, bare. Every word counts. Much of the plot moves forward by dialogue, and it is this dialogue which reveals so much about his well-drawn, believable characters — it’s like every time they open their mouths, they reveal their souls.

And despite the lack of any superfluous words, Broderick manages to convey feelings and whole atmospheres — usually of malice and foreboding — so that they resonate off the page. A recurring theme is the claustrophobia of small town life, where everyone knows everyone’s business — or thinks they do — something that Julia finds particularly difficult to live with.

She was glad she had brought the car: to walk through the narrow, claustrophobic streets of this town with its almost indecent sense of intimacy would, at that moment, have been more than she could bear. She was too accurately attuned to the tempo of the place not to know that the tiniest change of mood, or worried preoccupation, was as accurately registered as an earthquake on a seismograph. These people did not lay bare their petty secrets by any logical system, but by an instinct which was almost entirely physical; and, therefore to Julia most terrifying, since her own reactions were largely of the blood. For that reason, like many others who live in those closed communities, she had developed a natural gift for dissimulation to an uncanny pitch of perfection. The city dweller who passes through a country town, and imagines it sleepy and apathetic is very far from the truth: it is as watchful as a jungle.

Two kinds of pilgrimage

The main plot, which involves Julia’s husband planning a trip to Lourdes in the hope he may be cured, gives the book its title. But it could also be argued that the way Julia uses her “smooth-skinned marble body” is a form of pilgrimage, too.

I loved this book for its insights into human nature, its political and social commentary, its spotlight on hypocrisy in the Church and people’s spiritual obsessions — all told in such a simple, crisp prose style and at a surprisingly gripping pace. The ending, which is abrupt and does not feel in keeping with the rest of the novel, has meant more to me with the passing of time.

I haven’t been as excited by an Irish author since I discovered the late, great John McGahern in 2005. This was the first novel I have read by John Broderick; it won’t be the last.

Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, Josephine Hart, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Virago

‘The Truth About Love’ by Josephine Hart

Truth-about-love

Fiction – paperback; Virago Press; 256 pages; 2009.

I first read Josephine Hart, the Irish-born British writer, in the early 1990s. Her first two novels, Damage and Sin, were page-turners of the highest order. But I never got around to reading any of her later work. When I stumbled upon the last novel she wrote — The Truth About Love — in a charity shop a couple of weeks ago for the princely sum of £1.99 it seemed an excellent opportunity to reacquaint myself with her writing.

A story about memory

Despite the somewhat soppy title, The Truth About Love is not romantic fiction. This is a powerful story about history, guilt and trying to move on in a world that never forgets. No surprise then that the two central figures in the book are German and Irish — one of whom is trying to forget the past; the other for whom history is everything.

The story opens in rather spectacular style when we are thrust into the disorientating thoughts of someone dying — “Get a priest and a doctor! Quickly! Quickly! Get a priest! Confession! Get priest first!” The entire first chapter is like this — all confusion and people shouting things at one another with only little snippets of information being revealed. I initially thought it was set somewhere on the battlefields of the First World War, only to discover it was somewhere in rural Ireland in 1962 — and later I was even more astonished to discover that it was a teenage boy who had been fatally wounded in an unexplained explosion in his family’s back garden.

That explosion — and death — haunts the O’Hara family for the entire novel. The mother, Sissy, never quite recovers from the loss of her son, despite her husband’s efforts to comfort and console her. And matters are only made worse when the local community begins to circulate rumours that the boy may have been making explosives for the IRA — although the family claim he was merely making a rocket.

Personal tragedy

While this family tragedy shapes the core of the novel, Hart manages to place it in a wider context by using it as a metaphor for the great tragedies of the first half of the 20th century — specifically the Nazi concentration camps of the Second World War, and the Irish War of Independence, where sometimes families were pitted against other families, and hundreds of men and women died.

There’s a very telling conversation quite early on in the novel, when Tom O’Hara, the grieving father, approaches his German neighbour about the possibility of buying a gate from him. The gate, imported from Germany, has a helmet on it and was much admired by Tom’s son who called it “the warrior’s gate”. Tom wants to put it in the back entrance to his garden as a kind of memorial, but his neighbour is reluctant to part with it. He does, however, promise to consider the idea.

“[…] thank you about the gate. Considering it, at least. Like I said, you’ve been a gentleman to me. I won’t forget.”
“You’re Irish, Mr O’Hara. Forgetfulness is not possible.”
“And you’re German, Mr Middlehoff. No doubt memory is a burden.”

Over the course of the novel this theme recurs over and over, like a mantra, as it infuses each character’s outlook and actions.

A story about Ireland

Not a great deal happens in the novel — it’s more character driven than plot led — but it has multiple narrators who take up the story in turn. Through this, we learn of Mrs O’Hara’s inability to get over her loss (in her own words) and of Mr Middlehoff’s exile and the strange love affairs he conducts when he thinks no one is looking. And, of course, we learn about his past and how he views the country where he has exiled himself, a kind of outsider’s view of Ireland in the 1960s.

Ireland’s more recent tragic history —  especially the IRA’s attacks on mainland Britain in the 1970s and 80s — is taken up by the O’Hara’s daughter, Olivia, who leaves the country for England, where she marries and has children. Her first-person narrative, which begins somewhere around page 150,  looks back over the course of three decades and tells the story not only of Ireland, but of her family’s grief and Mr Middlehoff’s tangled past from a different perspective.

An intense read

The Truth About Love is by no means an easy read — and it is somewhat of a departure from the author’s earlier work. But there’s something about the prose —  fiery and elegant by turns — and her refusal to fill in all the gaps, so that the reader must make up their own mind about certain things, that reminds me very much of the best of Jennifer Johnston’s work.

It’s a very intense story, almost too intense, so that whenever I read it I began to feel claustrophobic. But with that intensity comes a power and an intelligence that marks this book as something rather special. Sadly, it was Hart’s last novel: she died from cancer in June last year.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, England, Fiction, Ireland, Jennifer Lash, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting

‘Blood Ties’ by Jennifer Lash

Blood-Ties

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 375 pages; 1997.

English novelist Jennifer Lash never lived to see her last novel, Blood Ties, published. She died from cancer in 1993.

Also known as Jini Fiennes, she was the mother of actors Ralph and Joseph Fiennes. And if there has ever been a more shallow reason for reading a novel, then I am yet to find it.

On all kinds of levels Blood Ties is a remarkable piece of work. At its most basic level you could describe it as a a classic nature versus nurture story — are children born evil, or does their upbringing play a part? But it is also literary fiction of the highest order — peopled by intriguing, complicated characters; written in achingly beautiful prose; and filled with scenes that swing between sardonic wit, unbelievable cruelty and high drama.

The story is set largely in Co Tipperary, Ireland, and south-east England, including west London. It traces one Anglo-Irish family — headed by stern matriarch Violet Farr — over the course of three generations.

Violet is a bit of a cool fish. She has a saying that “bad blood will out”. But despite her fine standing in the community, her big house, her wealth and her good looks, she lacks any kind of maternal feeling or ability to bond with other people. And when she marries Cecil — a closet homosexual who has repressed his sexuality altogether — it takes 10 years for Violet to fall pregnant.

Their son, Lumsden — named after Violet’s father — is kept very much at a distance and at the first opportunity he is shipped off to boarding school in England, where he is bullied for being Irish and disliked by the staff. When he returns home for holidays it is clear that his mother loves her faithful dog, Birkin, more than him. A decision is made. If he can’t get love or attention for following rules and being good, he will behave badly.

This is the lynch-pin upon which the rest of the novel hangs, for Lumsden turns into a thoroughly wayward teenager beyond anyone’s control. Indeed, it is only when he returns home to Ireland — getting drunk in the local pub, stalking local girls — that his behaviour threatens Violet’s standing in the community. Instead of addressing the issue properly, it is left to drag on. And then Lumsden does something he shouldn’t — and the local priest sees that he is not only run out of town, but shipped back to England forever.

There’s a level of cruelty in operation here that almost defies belief. Violet, so inward-looking, cold-hearted and controlling, thinks nothing of having her only son booted out of the country. Meek, mild, emasculated Cecil drives him to the ferry — and doesn’t even bother to stop and wave goodbye.

Lumsden, for all his failings — and there are many — typifies what happens when love is absent from the home. The sad thing is that this heartless upbringing is repeated in the next generation but this time it is taken to the next degree — neglect and abuse.

There’s no doubt that this book has a strong moral message, nicely tied up in an ending that is both uplifting and redemptive. But its clever, circular plot — the novel starts with Violet’s first grandchild arriving on her doorstep before looping back to her courtship with Cecil — means this is not a straightforward run-of-the-mill read. I found it totally engrossing and hope that this review might help bring Jennifer Lash’s work to a wider audience.

Author, Book review, Fiction, France, Greece, Ireland, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, Tim Winton

‘The Riders’ by Tim Winton

The-Riders-2

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 377 pages; 2008.

Tim Winton is easily one of Australia’s most successful writers and yet I’ve only read one of his novels: the award-winning CloudStreet, which is pretty much compulsory reading if you are Australian. But earlier this month, having just joined my local library, I stumbled upon The Riders and decided to borrow it for a read. I did not expect to like it very much.

Boy, was I wrong. I bloody well couldn’t put this one down. I ate it up in a matter of days, and when I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about it. And now that I’ve long finished it — about a month ago now — I’m still thinking about it and wondering about the characters and trying to figure out why they made the decisions they made and whether any of them genuinely knew what they were doing. The lives of Fred Scully, his wife Jennifer and their daughter Billie will be forever etched in my memory.

The story is set in the late 1980s. The time period is important, because this was the era before mobile phone technology, before the internet, before cheap overseas landline calls. This was the time in which moving to the other side of the world had huge implications because communications were so difficult, complicated — and slow. Indeed, for much of this novel, the prime method of communication is the telegram: a succinct typewritten note delivered by hand.

The Scully’s are somewhat typical young Australians in that they have done the “compulsory” overseas stint, living and working in London, Paris and Greece. But a long weekend to Ireland, to fill in a few days before their final return home to Perth, changes their lives in unimaginable ways. Jennifer falls in love with a dilapidated 18th century peasant’s cottage (or “bothy”) in County Offaly and they pretty much buy it on the spot. The idea is that Fred, a kind of Jack of all trades who’s funded their travels by working on building sites and the like, will stay behind and make the cottage habitable. Meanwhile Jennifer, who is pregnant, will take Billie back home to Australia, pack up their belongings and sell the family home.

This is all back story, because when the novel opens, Fred (everyone, including his daughter, calls him Scully) is holed up in Ireland, doing the hard graft. Some 12 weeks into the project he gets word, via telegram, that Jennifer has sold the house and will be arriving in Shannon Airport on December 13. The excitement of her imminent arrival is palpable.

But on the day of their much awaited reunion only Billie steps off the plane. Jennifer is nowhere to be seen. There is no note and Billie, who is just a child, is mute, so traumatised by the situation that she refuses to speak.

Scully put the bucket of chips and the orange juice in front of his daughter and tried to think calmly. She’d said not a word since arriving and it compounded his anxiety. They sat across the white laminex table from one another, and to strangers they looked equally pasty and stunned. Billie ate her chips without expression.
“Can you tell me?”
Billie looked at the buffet bar, the procession of travellers with red plastic trays in hand.
“Billie, I’ve got a big problem. I don’t know what’s happening. I expected two people and only one came.”
Billie chewed, her eyes meeting his for a moment before she looked down at her juice.
“Did Mum get hurt or sick or something at the airport in London?”
Billie chewed. […]
“Was she on the plane with you from Perth? She must have been. She had to be. Billie, you gotta help me. Can you help me?”
Scully looked at her and knew whatever it was, it wasn’t small, not when you saw the terrible stillness of her face. She was a chatterbox, you couldn’t shut her up usually, and she could handle a small hitch, ride out a bit of complication with some showy bravery, but this.

This is the start of an amazing, sometimes terrifying and quite thrilling (for the reader) adventure, in which Scully drags Billie across Europe looking for his missing wife. And, as he does so, retracing the family’s steps though Greece, France and, later, Amsterdam, he goes through every emotion in the book — rage, heartache, misery, depression — all the while trying to keep things in check for Billie’s sake.

But the hardest part for Scully is coming to terms with the fact that Jennifer may not be the woman he thought she was. While he knows that he has married above his station — he’s a “working-class boofhead” after all, and she’s a university-educated bureaucrat — he begins to wonder if he’s been well and truly duped.

There’s a lot to like about this novel, but I particularly appreciated the strength of the father-daughter relationship and the unconditional love between Scully and Billie. And how nice to read about a father who takes his parental responsibilities seriously, when so many modern novels feature absent, abusive or incapable fathers.

Winton’s prose is also hugely evocative. He is especially good at describing places, such as the streets of Paris or the landscapes of rural Ireland — and on more than one occasion I couldn’t help but think the book would make a wonderful movie, because the narrative is so filmic.

Of course the narrative pacing, and Scully’s rising panic and poor decision-making, makes The Riders a real page turner. The whole time I had my heart in my throat, my pulse racing as I itched to discover what really happened to Jennifer and whether Scully would ever track her down. Without giving away the ending, let me say it wasn’t what I expected — and I’m still thinking about it weeks afterwards.

The Riders, which was first published in 1994, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1995.