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.