Author, Book review, Claire Keegan, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction

‘Small Things Like These’ by Claire Keegan

Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber & Faber; 73 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley.

Claire Keegan is a well regarded Irish writer best known for her short stories, which include the collections Antarctica (1999) and Walk the Blue Fields (2007), and her novella Foster (2010), which you can read for free on the New Yorker website if you wish to get a feel for her writing.

Her latest book, Small Things Like These, is being marketed as a novel, but it’s only 73 pages in length and feels more like an extended short story. It’s written in Keegan’s typical economical prose, but addresses big themes and big emotions.

It’s a beautiful portrait of a man carrying out a small act of defiance against the Catholic Church at a time when it controlled almost every facet of Irish life.

Ireland in the 1980s

The story is set in Ireland in 1985, a period of economic deprivation and political instability, when  “the young people were emigrating, leaving for London and Boston, New York”.

Bill Furlong is a hard-working coal merchant who is married with five young daughters. But he’s stuck in a rut and is beginning to wonder what his life is all about. Christmas is approaching and there’s a lot to do to get all his deliveries completed on time.

What was it all for? Furlong wondered. The work and the constant worry. Getting up in the dark and making the deliveries, one after another, the whole day long, then coming home in the dark and trying to wash the black off himself and sitting into a dinner at the table and falling asleep before waking in the dark to meet a version of the same thing, yet again. Might things never change or develop into something else, or new? Lately, he had begun to wonder what mattered, apart from Eileen and the girls. He was touching forty but didn’t feel himself to be getting anywhere or making any kind of progress and could not but sometimes wonder what the days were for.

His mind keeps returning to his upbringing by a single mother, who was a domestic servant in a Big House when she fell pregnant at 16. At this time, unwed mothers were condemned and their children stigmatised. Bill was fortunate that Mrs Wilson, the widow who owned the Big House, was kindly and maternal.

When his mother’s trouble became known, and her people made it clear that they’d have no more to do with her, Mrs Wilson, instead of giving his mother her walking papers, told her she should stay on, and keep her work. On the morning Furlong was born, it was Mrs Wilson who had his mother taken into hospital, and had them brought home. It was the first of April, 1946, and some said the boy would turn out to be a fool.

But even now, all these decades later, he still feels tarnished by the knowledge that he was born out of wedlock and that he has no idea who his father is. The only real male role model in his life has been Ned, the farmhand at the Big House, with whom he still keeps in touch.

Where was his father now? Sometimes, he caught himself looking at older men, trying to find a physical resemblance, or listening out for some clue in the things people said. Surely some local knew who his father was – everyone had a father – and it didn’t seem likely that someone hadn’t ever said a word about it in his company for people were bound, he knew, to reveal not only themselves but what they knew, in conversation.

A visit to the convent

The pivotal moment in the story happens when Bill makes a delivery to the local convent — “a powerful-looking place on the hill at the far side of the river” — run by the Good Shepherd nuns. The nuns run a training school for girls on-site, along with a successful laundry business. Bill is aware of local rumours that the girls are of “low character” and that they work demanding hours in the laundry as a form of penance, but he has no proof, and what would he do about it anyway?

But when he discovers a thin, dishevelled and clearly frightened teenage girl locked in the coal shed, he begins to join the dots. Aware of his own five daughters at home and the knowledge of his own mother’s fate, he decides it’s time to do something to help. He is, in effect, paying forward Mrs Wilson’s kindness.

Small Things Like These is a short, powerful read, one that will linger in the mind for a long time. The author has dedicated it to the “women and children who suffered time in Ireland’s Magdalen laundries” and her afterword provides a brief history for those who aren’t aware of these scandalous Catholic institutions that housed unwed mothers and abused them.

Small Things Like These will be published in the UK on 21 October 2021 and in the US and Canada on 30 November 2021. In Australia, the Kindle edition will be available on 19 October.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, John Banville, Publisher, Setting, Spain

‘April in Spain’ by John Banville

Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber & Faber; 368 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley.

If I had to choose one word to describe John Banville‘s latest crime novel it would be this: fun.

April in Spain is historical crime at its best, the kind of story you can get lost in and enjoy to the full even if the crime itself is a bit of a let down.

Postwar tale

This evocative postwar tale stars Dublin pathologist Quirke, whom we have met in earlier novels published under Banville’s pseudonym, Benjamin Black, and Detective St. John Strafford who made his first appearance in last year’s Snow. (Note, you don’t need to be familiar with those novels, but it’s great fun for readers who are.)

It’s set in San Sebastián, on the northern coast of Spain’s mountainous Basque Country, and is famous for its forests, beaches, sparkling wine and seafood. Quirke is holidaying here somewhat reluctantly (he finds it difficult to relax) thanks to his wife, Evelyn, a straight-talking Austrian psychotherapist who survived the Holocaust, having arranged it all.

‘Northern Spain is southern Ireland,’ she said. ‘It rains all the time, everywhere is green, and everyone is Catholic. You will love it.’

One evening, enjoying a quiet drink in a bar in the Old Town, Quirke hears an Irish accent and wonders if he might know the woman to whom it belongs, but she’s sitting behind him and he can’t see her properly. When he does finally run into her under different circumstances a few days later he realises he does know her — or at least he thinks he does. The problem is she’s supposed to be dead, having been murdered by her brother following a sex scandal involving one of Ireland’s most distinguished political families many years earlier.

Quirke being Quirke can’t ignore the possibility that April Latimer, now going by the name Angela Lawless (note the same initials), is still alive, but how to prove it? That’s where Detective Strafford comes into the picture. He arrives in Spain, accompanied by Quirke’s adult daughter who was friends with April and will be able to help identify her.

Villain in the shadows

But lurking in the shadows is another visitor to San Sebastián with a keen interest in April Latimer. His name is Terry Tice and he’s an Irish-born East End gangster cut from a similar cloth to Reggie Kray.

Terry Tice liked killing people. It was as simple as that. Maybe like wasn’t the right word. Nowadays he was paid to do it, and well paid.

The narrative eventually brings all these characters together in a surprising end, although it’s a slim premise for a crime novel. The strength of April in Spain is really the way in which Banville tells his story and builds suspense via his beautifully crafted prose. I love how he comes at everything with a completely original eye, inventing his own metaphors and creating unique similies. It’s the kind of writing that dazzles without showing off and is utterly enjoyable to read.

A flustered woman, for instance, is described as being akin to a “bird floundering in a net as colourless as air”. An old guy behind the desk in a pub has “the look of a walrus, with fat shoulders and a sloped back and a tired moustache drooping at the tips”. A man becomes anxious so that the “collar of his shirt seems all of a sudden two or three sizes too small for him”, while a worried woman feels “like a swimmer on a high diving board whose nerve had failed”.

I particularly liked this description of something as simple as dust:

She blew the dust from the lid — how lovely dust could be, when it lay like that, like a smooth coating of fur, dull-mauve and almost too soft to touch.

He paints such delicious pictures with words that the story really comes alive in your mind.

San Sebastián travel diary

The first part of the book, as Quirke settles into holiday mode, is a delight. I went to San Sebastián in 2018 and it remains one of the most memorable (and beautiful) European destinations I’ve ever visited. I recognised so much of Banville’s descriptions, including his references to the local fizzy white wine known as txakoli — “That was one word Quirke was quick to learn how to pronounce: tchacholy” —  and the delicious skewered snacks known as pintxos, which Quirke describes as (rather unkindly) “a slightly fancier version of the dull old sandwich. He was against the idea of local specialities, which in his experience were all too local, and rarely special”.

In move to protect his “big Irish head”, Quirke is even dragged to the very same hat shop I bought a Panama hat in:

They found a hat shop not far from the hotel. It was called Casa Ponsol. A sign over the door announced with a proud flourish that it had been founded in 1838. It might have been an annexe to the Londres [his hotel]. Quirke felt intimidated.

The mood of the story isn’t as dark as you might expect. The banter between Quirke and his wife is particularly funny (the push and pull of their relationship is brilliantly evoked). And there’s a vein of gentle humour, often mocking, running throughout. Here’s an example. Quirke and Evelyn buy oysters in the local fish market but when they get back to their hotel room they realise they have nothing to open them with.

Now she came out of the bathroom. ‘Here is a nail scissors,’ she said. ‘That will do to open them with.’ And that was how Quirke ended up in hospital.

And here’s how Terry Tice describes his impression of the tourists he sees on the beach:

People looked so stupid here, the tourists especially, the fat women as pale as suet, the men with the cuffs of their trousers rolled up and knotted handkerchiefs on their heads to ward off the sun. Then there were the he-men, flexing their muscles, as if they all thought they were Johnny Weissmuller. As for swimming, that really was for chumps. Imagine floundering around up to your neck out there, with them all screaming around you, and throwing water in each other’s faces, or standing with their hands on their hips and that faraway look on their faces that told you they were taking a piss.

I suspect diehard readers of the crime genre might find this novel a little disappointing. But what it lacks in plot, it more than makes up for in terrific characters — the people in this book are brilliant creations, each one distinct and well rounded, and Terry Tice is dastardly enough to become one of those strange evil villains you love to hate.

Yes, April in Spain is great fun. More, please.

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Sally Rooney, Setting

‘Beautiful World, Where are You’ by Sally Rooney

Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 337 pages; 2021.

Here’s an understatement for you. Sally Rooney’s new novel, Beautiful World, Where are You, arrived with a lot of fanfare.

Her American publisher produced a bucket hat and a load of other merchandise, a clever marketing exercise that warranted the attention of an entire article in GQ magazine, and proof copies handed out in some jurisdictions came with strict embargos. Advance reader copies sold for huge amounts prior to publication.

As much as I liked (not loved) her previous two novels, Conversations with Friends and Normal People, I was prepared to wait for the hype to die down before buying the new one. But then I had a cold rush of blood to the head, made a spur-of-the-moment purchase and settled down to read. And then I kept reading. And reading. And within the space of a weekend, I had finished it — and decided it was excellent.

Builds on previous work

Beautiful World, Where are You builds on the strengths of Rooney’s two earlier novels, but it’s not necessarily more of the same: the protagonists feel older and are grappling with issues more pertinent to women about to hit their thirties, but even the structure of the book, and the way it is plotted, is more mature.

It’s not perfect (what novel is?), but it’s entertaining and there’s a certain irony at play because one of the key characters is a famous author who is young and Irish and, well, it’s hard not to see Rooney having a pop at the ridiculousness of her own situation and the machinations of the publishing industry which has turned her into the literary star she is today.

The story is clever and playful, but it’s also melancholy and bittersweet. And, unusually for a Rooney novel, it ends on a happy note.

The plot

There’s not much of a plot other than an exploration of how life plays out for two young women, both of whom are unhappy with their situations, over a short period of time. It focuses on their personal growth through the romantic relationships they develop and charts the ups and downs of those relationships.

It focuses on two women in their late twenties who are best friends: Alice is a successful novelist; Eileen is an editorial assistant on a literary magazine.

Alice is recovering from a nervous breakdown and has decamped to the countryside, living in a house she’s borrowed from friends. She has recently met a local boy, Felix, a packer in a warehouse, via a dating app. It’s clear the two come from opposite ends of the wealth spectrum, but they are patient and kind, and somehow their relationship — platonic at first before morphing into something sexual — works even if it takes them a long time to fully open up to one another.

Eileen, who lives in Dublin, has recently broken up with her live-in boyfriend, but a family friend (and someone she has known since childhood), Simon, has crossed her path again after a long absence and there’s something about the security he offers as an older man in a settled job that attracts her. There’s an age gap between them and a failure for either party to properly commit (Simon, for instance, still sees other people), but they regularly meet up for sex and chit-chat.

Slow build-up

The two couples don’t come together until late in the novel when Alice invites Eileen and Simon to stay for a weekend. Before this happens, Rooney allows us to get to know her protagonists intimately. We understand the prickly nature of Alice’s character, for instance, and her desire to keep people at arm’s length. We realise that Eileen craves affection and security, but struggles with the idea that a friend could also be a sexual partner.

And we come to understand the intelligence of both women, their innermost thoughts and beliefs spilled out across heavily detailed email correspondence that makes up alternate chapters between the main narrative.

Prose wise, the early parts of the novel are lean, stripped back, almost pedestrian. Later, particularly after the couples meet, Rooney’s writing takes on a more lyrical quality. Her sentences lengthen, the adjectives arrive, the prose practically sings off the page.

Meanwhile, the emails, from both parties, are academic in tone, complex in thought and heavy on detail. Sometimes they feel like Wikipedia entries that have been shoehorned in to make political points. But the emails add to the tonality of the novel, giving it a richer depth, adding colour where otherwise we might only see how the women act rather than what they think. It’s a clever device.

Misunderstandings and miscommunication

As with Rooney’s previous work, there’s a lot of sex in the story. But it’s kinder, gentler sex than the type often depicted in Conversations with Friends, for instance. There’s still pain and heartache and misunderstandings between lovers. Eileen and Simon are especially infuriating in their inability to actually discuss what it is they want to happen long term, but, on the whole, the ups and downs described here all feel, well, normal.

And the conversations, often awkward, occasionally painful but always honest, are evocative and real. And, as ever with a Rooney novel, it’s often the things that are left unsaid that are the most revealing.

But happily, I don’t think it’s too much of a plot spoiler to reveal that the characters in Beautiful World, Where are You, do, in fact, find the beautiful world for which they’ve been looking… it makes a nice change.

Author, Book review, Conor O'Callaghan, Doubleday Ireland, Fiction, France, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘We Are Not in the World’ by Conor O’Callaghan

Fiction – paperback; Doubleday Ireland; 260 pages; 2020.

We Are Not in the World by Conor O’Callaghan is a haunting, heartbreaking novel about an Irishman trying to come to terms with two major events in his life: the breakdown of a six-year affair with a married woman and the hospitalisation of his beloved young adult daughter who has tried to take her own life.

Two storylines

The narrative is comprised of two threads: the man’s road journey through France as a novice truck driver delivering unspecified goods for a mysterious man named Carl; and the tale of his illicit affair, told in reverse chronological order from break-up to initial meeting.

The first thread is told in the first person; the second in the second person.

It’s set in August 2015, before the Brexit referendum, in which “the whole landscape of continental haulage could change indefinitely and not for any good.” Refugees, fleeing war-torn Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, are on the news, and when Paddy arrives in Calais from Dover, it’s hard to ignore their inpoverished presence, in the “jungle” and on the streets around town.

The road is lined with wire fencing, fingers pushed through, faces pressed against. Behind them, waves of tents and shacks. The fence is staring at us. And we’re trying not to make eye contact, with the fence. A truck with an Irish reg gets pulled out of the contraflow. Live bodies, one by one, are prised from its chassis.

Clandestine daughter

Accompanying him on this journey is his 20-something American-raised daughter, Kitty, who, as it turns out, is making the trip as a “clandestine” — Paddy is not supposed to have passengers on board — and spends most of her time hidden in the sleeping alcove behind the driver’s seat. Paddy deliberately times their rest stops and overnight stays at unsociable hours to avoid other truck drivers, including the aforementioned Carl, making the same journey and spotting Kitty.

Their time together, whether in the truck’s cabin or sharing a meal in roadside cafes, is conveyed largely through Roddy-Doyle-esque dialogue:

This, she says staring straight ahead.
This?
These more like.
I’m gonna need a few specifics, darling, please.
There you go again.
These what are a bit what?
Carparks, she says.
Ah.
They’re a bit samey.
She is: bored in her reclined passenger seat, in shades and King of the Road cap, rambling aimlessly. I am: about to go indoors to check that it’s safe for her to join me, working overtime to humour her along, inclined to lose track of days that we’ve been here.
They are, I suppose.
They are, aren’t they?
They are.
It’s not just me, she says.
Not just you, love.
Same nothing spaces, she says. Same caffs, same staff, same drab grub. Same sun even, same dome of unblemished friggin azure over our heads.

As the journey unfolds, we learn more about Paddy’s tormented past, his childhood with his beloved mother, also called Kitty, and the strained relationship with his younger brother, Art, who is the “golden child” and executor of their mother’s will in which he is the major beneficiary.

Art also has a very close relationship with his niece, who is also his godchild, and it’s hard not to see that perhaps he has been more of a father figure to her than her own father and this is why this particular road trip, spending time together, is so important to Paddy: he needs to repair their fractured relationship.

We also learn the details of Paddy’s affair, the strange time he spent living in a snow-bound caravan in his lover’s back garden, and the forbidden trysts in stairwells, public toilets and other daring locations.

There’s an achingly sad side trip to Camargue to try to locate a house where Paddy’s mother stayed as a young girl, and another confronting scene in which Paddy is expected to partake in what appears to be a “gang bang” in a wood involving lots of other truck drivers. (He declines.)

An opaque but unforgettable story

Much of the story is opaque and occasionally confusing. Sometimes it’s difficult to know whether references to Kitty are to Kitty the daughter or Kitty the mother. I suspect this is deliberate.

And just like O’Callaghan’s wonderful debut novel, Nothing on Earth, which I read a few years ago, the story is infused with a strange, almost elusive, sense of foreboding. It feels both sinister and enigmatic at the same time.

It’s the kind of novel that is hard work, for you have to piece together bits of information in your own head and come to your own conclusions about what is really going on, but it is entirely worth the effort. (We never find out what Paddy is transporting, for instance, and why Carl encourages him to rig the tachometer readings because he appears to otherwise observe all the haulier rules about driving limits and rest times.)

The ending, when it comes, is like a sucker punch to the stomach. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I finished this book a few days ago. Combined with the unsettling nature of the story, the beautiful language and the difficult subjects tackled, including familial and forbidden relationships, We Are Not in the World is a truly indelible read.

If you like this, you might also like:

‘Travelling in a Strange Land’ by David Park: The story of a photographer from Northern Ireland driving across a snowbound England to rescue his ill son stranded in his student lodgings.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Sara Baume, Setting, TBR 21, Windmill Books

‘A Line Made By Walking’ by Sara Baume

Fiction – paperback; Windmill Books; 302 pages; 2018.

Sara Baume’s novel A Line Made by Walking takes its name from an artwork created by Richard Long in 1967 which now hangs in the Tate Britain. That artwork is a black and white photograph of a field in Wiltshire with a thin line through the middle created when the artist walked backwards and forwards enough times to flatten the crop. (The image can be viewed here.)

This is just one of dozens of art works — mainly installations — referenced in Baume’s hypnotic novel about Frankie, a young Irish woman grappling with a sense of purpose. She is a fine arts graduate but hasn’t managed to make a name for herself as an artist. She’s worked in a gallery but found it unfulfilling, and living in Dublin has been a lonely experience.

Now, aged 25, Frankie has decamped to her late grandmother’s house in the countryside, where she’s convinced her parents she will be caretaker until the property has sold. But her grandmother died three years ago, the house is falling apart and there doesn’t seem to be much interest from buyers.

Most of her grandmother’s unwanted belongings are still in the house and Frankie, chronically depressed but refusing to take medication, doesn’t have the wherewithal to do any housework, much less transform the place into a saleable state. In fact, she does so little housework that she moves from one bedroom to another so that she doesn’t need to wash the sheets!

Now that I am no longer a student of any kind, I must take responsibility for the furniture inside my head.

In this rural idyll, she immerses herself in nature, getting to know its rhythms and seasonal variations, as she learns to navigate the world on her own terms. She begins a special project to photograph any dead birds and animals she finds (these photographs are published in the book) and continually challenges herself to recall the thematic art she knows and loves:

Works about Blinking Lights, another, I test myself: Felix Gonzalez-Torres, again, “Untitled”, 1992. A chain of lightbulbs, bound to one another by an extension cord. The artist gave permission for curators to display the piece however they wished. He wanted it to bend and change according to circumstance; the only thing he did not allow was for his bulbs to be renewed during the run of each exhibition. He wanted them to live out their natural lifespan and die, the way a person does.

Death is a constant preoccupation, but the story never feels morbid. But as Frankie spends more and more time alone, turning herself into a proper recluse, shunning her neighbours and not taking calls, there are worrying signs that she may be having a breakdown of some kind.

As her thoughts spill out all a-jumble on the page — an interior monologue recalling childhood incidents, memories of her adored grandmother and more recent troubles involving doctors and worried parents — it’s clear she’s set a bar for herself that is too high and that’s she’s going to have to find a way to adjust to a new way of living and of seeing the world.

For all its mish-mash of anecdotes which tumble unbidden from her head, the narrative spins and shines in Baume’s capable hands. There’s a lot of witty humour that helps lighten the mood.

Everything is tied together beautifully with Frankie’s interpretations of various visual art forms across many different eras (there’s a helpful list of all the works referenced at the rear of the book), which serve to show that art and life are invariably intertwined in ways we may not even realise.

A Line Made by Walking is a beautiful, hypnotic story about the fragility of life — and creativity. It was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2017.

For other reviews of this novel, please see Susan’s at A Life in Books and Kate’s at booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

I have previously reviewed Baume’s debut novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither, about a troubled man and his relationship with his dog.

This is my 20th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it secondhand from Elizabeth’s Bookshop, here in Fremantle, on 8 May this year.

2021 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Literary prizes

The 2021 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Winner

Congratulations to Anakana Schofield whose extraordinarily bonkers (in a good way) novel Bina was named winner of the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award 2021 earlier in the week. She receives €15,000 prize money.

As you will know, I had planned to read every book on the shortlist, but life got in the way (I spent the best part of 8 weeks getting finance for a mortgage, buying a property and then moving in), but I did manage to read three out of five novels. Out of those, Bina was by far my favourite. In my review I said:

It’s a perturbing story but one that gives plenty of food for thought — about ageing, misogyny and euthanasia, to name but a few — but there are enough kooky elements (Bina, for instance, dreams a lot about David Bowie) to add an absurdist element to the tale, one that offers plenty of laughs and light relief.

I can’t find an official press release about the prize (the official website is just horrible to navigate), but you can read more about the winner via this news story from the Irish Examiner.

2021 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Anakana Schofield, Author, Book review, Fiction, Fleet, Ireland, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21

‘Bina’ by Anakana Schofield

Fiction – Kindle edition; Fleet; 336 pages; 2019.

I am always looking for novels that are written in a strong, distinctive voice. Anakana Schofield’s latest novel, Bina, has that in spades.

It’s a bitterly funny and completely bonkers tale about an elderly Irish woman called Bina — “That’s Bye-na not Beena” — who gave shelter to a man who later refused to leave.

If a man comes to your door, do not open it.

He’s now in Canada, but she’s worried he might return. It’s not clear what the man has done to upset her so much, nor why he’s now abroad. It’s also not clear why she has protestors in her front garden and medical waste in her back garden.

It’s written in such a way that nothing is really clear at all.

A novel in warnings

The first-person narrative is a series of warnings — “I’m here to warn you, not to reassure you” — and it’s up to you, the reader, to make sense of Bina’s tale, which is sometimes structured in stanzas (see below) like angry poetry:

Stop roundabouting it, Bina. That’s me

To myself. I’m roundabouting again, amn’t I. Need to keep straight. Not be dizzy in circles. Need to tell it straight

Have to find a way to tell it all, with or without me in it. Keep it
straight, Bina

Or you’ll confuse them.

It sounds like hard work, but I really admire this kind of writing. Nothing is spelt out yet Bina’s thoughts, which come out all a-jumble and not necessarily in chronological order, can be pieced together to form a cohesive whole.

What this woman has to share with the world is alarming and disturbing, but it’s also blackly comic.

I must have said no to her 32 times. It wasn’t 32 times nearly enough because she threatened she’d go on her own, if I wasn’t going to help. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. This is what no 32 times looks like.

It’s also littered with footnotes, which can wear thin if you hate skipping ahead to read them. Interestingly, it’s through these footnotes that I realised the character Bina had first appeared in Schofield’s debut novel Malarky, which I read back in 2011 but did not review. In that novel, Bina was threatening to attack a plane with a hammer.

Schofield has taken that strident character and given her a novel of her own. It’s a perturbing story but one that gives plenty of food for thought — about ageing, misogyny and euthanasia, to name but a few — but there are enough kooky elements (Bina, for instance, dreams a lot about David Bowie) to add an absurdist element to the tale, one that offers plenty of laughs and light relief.

It was shortlisted for the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize.

I have previously reviewed Schofield’s novel Martin John.

This is my 3rd book for the 2021 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award and my 17th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it on Kindle last year when it was on special for 99p!

Author, Book review, Emilie Pine, essays, Ireland, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21, Tramp Press

‘Notes to Self’ by Emilie Pine

Non-fiction – essays; Tramp Press*; 190 pages; 2018.

Notes to Self is a deeply personal collection of essays by Irish academic Emilie Pine. The pieces are all themed around Emilie’s life and are astonishing in their frankness and honesty.

There are six essays, the majority of which are framed around what it is to be a woman in the 21st century, forging a career, trying to start a family and caring for vulnerable parents. Taken collectively, the book could also be classified as a memoir.

The opening essay, “Notes on Temperance”, sets the tone for the entire book, for in it Pine tells the story of how, together with her sister, they “rescued” their father, an alcoholic, from a decrepit Greek hospital where they feared he would die.

By the time we find him, he has been lying in a pool of his own shit for several hours.

The essay charts their efforts to help a man who does not want to be helped, flying from Ireland and Corfu, and back again, numerous times to ensure his well-being; how they got him back to Dublin for a bit before he took it upon himself to return to Greece; how Pine learns to respect her father’s “principled stubbornness” and admires his talent as a writer; and how she came to understand that the emotional labour of looking after a poorly parent might make her “heart race” but comes with its own rewards: “an ever-changing conversation between two people, father and daughter”.

In “The Baby Years” she explains her struggles with infertility (“Do I want kids? I agonised for years”) and how, when she finally got pregnant, the baby dies in-utero.

On October 18th I am admitted for what they call an ERPC. It’s another terrible acronym; this one translates as ‘the evacuation of retained products of conception’.

Similarly, the essay “Notes on Bleeding and Other Crimes” looks at the intimate biology of what it is to be female and to experience menstruation  — the bloody mess of it, the pain of it, the surprise of it, the sometimes embarrassing times we are caught out by it — from our teenage years to perimenopause.

For three decades I have lived within a silence that declares periods too embarrassing, too unwanted, too female to talk about out loud. […] To hell with covering up, with being embarrassed, with being silent.

There are other essays about what it is like to grow up in Ireland with parents who have separated (“Speaking/Not Speaking”), about her troubled adolescence in which drugs and sex and a wild-child attitude reined (“Something About Me”) and, finally, about sexism in the workplace, particularly academia (“This is not on the Exam”).

And while Pine writes from her own personal experiences living and working in Ireland, there is a universality about the topics covered that will resonate with many women regardless of background or upbringing.

There are a lot of home truths in Notes to Self, and the frankness is, at times, breathtaking in its audacity and crudity. But Pine is not afraid to break taboos, to shine a light on uncomfortable topics, to shake off the shame often attached to them and to show that resilience and bravery come in many forms.

It is a superlative read.

* Please note this book has since been picked up and republished by Penguin.

If you like this, you might also like:

‘Constellations: Reflections of Life’ by Sinead Gleeson: a collection of 14 extraordinary, life-affirming and very personal essays covering the author’s own experience of sickness, health, motherhood and grief.

This is my 15th book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it from Dublin, Ireland, not long after it was released in 2018, and carried it in my suitcase when I repatriated to Australia in June 2019.

2021 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Niamh Campbell, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

‘This Happy’ by Niamh Campbell

Fiction – paperback; Weidenfeld & Nicolson; 311 pages; 2020.

When Alannah is 12-years-old, her father walks out on the family. A school psychologist tells her that she will always have trouble with men.

And that is essentially what Niamh Campbell’s novel This Happy is about — a young woman, now 30 years old, recounting the two most important male relationships in her life and trying to make sense of them both.

Two men six years apart

The first relationship occurred when she was 23. She fell in love with Harry, an Englishman 20 years her senior. He was married. She was studying art history in London. She gave up her student lodgings, packed her bags and visited him in Ireland where he rented a cottage in Drogheda, on the east coast where she was raised, to work on his writing, free from his wife.

The affair, which is complex and one-sided, ends abruptly after a mere three weeks but has a long-lasting emotional impact on Alannah.

Seven years later, she is now married — to someone else. Her husband, 10 years her senior, is a history teacher with ambitions to be a politician, but Alannah isn’t so sure he’s cut out for the job. She does not believe in him and feels unable to offer her unconditional support.

When one day she spies the landlady, who owned the Drogheda cottage, walking down a Dublin street, her mind turns toward Harry, her long-lost love.

She then recounts that relationship, the bliss and agony of it, and compares Harry to her now-husband, their ambitions, background and desires, and plagues herself with thoughts of what might have been with what she has now.

Style over substance

There’s no plot. The book is simply structured around Alannah’s interior thoughts and her memories. Stylistically the prose is what I would call verbose. The language is lush, ripe with metaphors and astute observations, but it feels over-written and, dare I say it, over-wrought.

This is not to say it’s a bad book. It isn’t. But you need to be in the right frame of mind to read it. You need to want to revel in the language, to soak up the words and the clever ways in which they are arranged on the page.

Much of it is about memory. About the way memory works. But it’s also about love and relationships, desire and ambition, class and privilege, how our childhoods inform our adult lives, how our expectations and beliefs can be thwarted by reality, and how if we always look back we can never look forward.

If you could dive into an old life — something you never protected when it was happening, something you believe to be a prelude at the time — if you could dive like one dives into love, or fall slowly over a precipice into it, enthralled, would you do this? Sometimes it seems like this is all I do. Like my past is a residue riming the world of the present, lying over everything. I’ve been living at speed because I know I can revisit the edited version.

But as much as I loved the honesty of the writing and the often gorgeous descriptions, I came away from the novel wondering if there was any point to the story. A newly married woman wonders if she might have had a different life with a different man isn’t that original after all.

This Happy was shortlisted for Newcomer of the Year at the 2020 An Post Irish Book Awards and has just been shortlisted for this year’s Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award, which will be announced in June.

Annabel has reviewed it too.

This is my 2nd book for the 2021 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award and my 12th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it from my local independent book shop when it was published last August.

2021 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Bloomsbury Circus, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Reading Projects, Rob Doyle, TBR 21

‘Threshold’ by Rob Doyle

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury Circus; 316 pages; 2020. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Have you ever read a book and then been stumped about how to review it or how to explain it to others?

Rob Doyle’s new “novel” — I use the term lightly because I’m not sure if this is a novel or a memoir or reportage or a series of essays because it certainly feels like all of these things in places — is just like that.

I don’t know how to articulate what Threshold is about. There’s no plot, there are few characters and next to no dialogue. It’s probably best described as a novel of ideas.

I enjoyed reading it and I came away from it feeling as if my grey matter had been deeply stimulated because it got me thinking about all kinds of things, specifically how humans use art, literature, music, drugs and travel to escape themselves, to gain new experiences and to make sense of the world around them.

An ageing narrator

The book is narrated by someone called Rob, who may or may not be the actual author. He’s writing as a middle-aged Irishman looking back on his life, and each self-contained chapter explains a specific incident or time in his 20s and 30s framed around a certain issue.

For example, in the opening chapter headed Mushroom, Rob tells us about his use of magic mushrooms, collected in Dublin’s Phoenix Park where they grow wild, to get high; in Mediterranean, we follow him on his trip to the small Catalan beach town of Blanes to follow in the footsteps of Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño, who lived and worked there for a large part of his life until his death in 2003; and in Nightclub he tells us about living in Berlin and being immersed in the hardcore techno club scene.

Sandwiched between each chapter is a one-page letter (or email) in which Rob writes to an unnamed friend, sharing an insight (usually about the writing process) or aphorism.

For as long as you are working, you have a why: when you reach the end of a project, the why dissolves. You are left alone with yourself, in all the pain from which the work had offered relief. But there is another perspective, more comforting and no less valid: with the completion of every book, it gets easier to disappear.

There’s no narrative arc because the stories aren’t necessarily told in chronological order. And yet, for all its breaking of normal “writerly” conventions, this is an imminently readable book. The prose is silky smooth, the voice understated. Occasionally it is shocking (there are many references to sex and drug use, for instance), but on the whole, I found myself swept up in the tales (and the ideas and the facts) revealed here.

It is deeply philosophical and introspective, but the mood is lightened by a playful sense of humour running throughout, although it’s not immediately obvious. You have to read closely to spot the clever “in” jokes and the sly little digs. In a book that is obsessed with recounting dreams, for instance, I couldn’t help but laugh at this line from Henry James, tucked away on page 189, that says: “Tell a dream, lose a reader.”

Nor could I withhold my chuckles when I came across this paragraph about suicide:

There was only one way I would have the balls to kill myself and that was by shooting myself in the skull. That seemed by far the best way of doing it: quick, loud, bloody and — hopefully — painless. All of this was fanciful, though. I could not shoot my skull because I didn’t live in a country where I could acquire a gun. The only country I knew where I’d be able to buy a gun was America, and I could never live there again: I would rather kill myself.

One man’s search for meaning

In essence, Threshold is one man’s search for meaning in a world often devoid of meaning. It’s a very male book, by which I mean it’s clear that Rob navigates a world that is made for him (without fear of falling pregnant, for instance, or being taken advantage of when drunk or high) and it’s sometimes hard to accept that his lack of clear direction in his life is anything other than his own making.

I loved the journey it took me on, including the meta aspects of it, and the cleverness of the writing and the ideas and philosophies presented. It’s a book to mull over, chew on, discuss with others. It’s one of the strangest books I’ve ever read, but it’s also one of the most engaging. Make of that what you will.

Threshold has been shortlisted for this year’s Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award. I still don’t know how to articulate what it is about.

If you liked this book, you might also like:

In a Strange Room’ by Damon Galgut: A lush, hypnotic novel that explores longing and desire through the prism of travel.

This is my 1st book for the 2021 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award and my 10th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I was actually sent this book unsolicited by the Australian publisher last year not long after I posted my review of Doyle’s debut novel.