A Year With William Trevor, Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, William Trevor

‘Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel’ by William Trevor

A Year With William Trevor | #WilliamTrevor2023

Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 281 pages; 2015.

William Trevor’s fifth novel Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel was first published in 1969. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1970.

It carries the black humour married with pathos that marks his early work. It also features a cast of truly eccentric characters, none more so than the titular Mrs Eckdorf who is, quite frankly, one of the most bizarre (and annoying) people I have ever come across in fiction.

A house of ill repute

The story is set in central Dublin, specifically a once-plush hotel that is now better known as a house of ill repute. 

Mrs Eckdorf, an English-born woman who resides in Germany (having married a rich German), arrives in Ireland to visit the hotel. She’s a photographer by profession and she wants to satisfy her curiosity: she had been told a story about the hotel by a barman on an ocean liner and it has intrigued her ever since. She’s convinced something tragic happened that changed the fortunes of O’Neill’s and she wants to hear all about it.

When she arrives she discovers that Mrs Sinnott, the deaf-mute owner, is about to celebrate her 92nd birthday. This is the perfect opportunity for Mrs Eckdorf to interrogate her under the pretence of photographing proceedings for a lavish coffee table book.

She moves into the hotel without having made a booking and then tries to ingratiate herself with its motley cast of characters. They include Mrs Sinnott’s feckless 58-year-old son, Eugene, who is addicted to drink and gambling on the horses; O’Shea, the loyal hotel porter, whose faithful greyhound follows him everywhere; Eddie Trump, the barman in the hotel’s Excelsior Bar; Morrissey, a man in his mid-thirties, who is a pimp and uses the hotel’s rooms for his clients’ “appointments”; Agnes Quin, who sleeps with men for money; and Father Hennessey, the local Catholic priest. 

‘As mad as a hatter’

It’s not an easy ride. They think she’s “as mad as a hatter”. Or, as Eugene says:

‘Your woman above in the hotel has a touch of the sawdust about her.’
‘Is that what she is?’ said Agnes Quin. ‘Out of Duffy’s Circus or something?’
‘Ah no, no.’ Eugene paused […] ‘You could see her on the back of a horse going round in the ring. She’s that type of woman.’

O’Shea has more time for her, believing that she’s here to buy the hotel and he longs for the establishment to return to its glory days, the kind of place that attracted the rich and famous. Mrs Eckdorf does not disabuse him of this notion, using it to try to get information out of him about the tragedy she suspects happened in the past.

‘O’Shea, what happened once in the hall of the hotel?’ He shook his head. The only thing he could remember that was of note, he said, was that a bookmaker called Jack Tyler had once fallen over the bannisters and landed in the hall and had not been hurt. He had not been sober at the time.

When she finally meets Mrs Sinnott she rudely reads the notebooks her visitors use to communicate with her (Mrs Sinnott cannot lipread and does not know sign language), thinking she might find some clues there. When she’s confronted about this, she shrugs it off.

‘I’ve read every page of those exercise-books.’
He stared at her and continued to stare. He said: ‘Those are private conversations. Those are the conversations that people have with Mrs Sinnott.’
‘Yes. And I have read them.’ 

A funny farce

The book is comprised of set pieces, largely involving Mrs Eckdorf (but not always), that are blackly funny. It’s almost like Mrs Eckdorf doesn’t have a filter between her brain and her mouth, and so she says the most outrageous things, or waffles on in a nonsensical manner. She’s loud and rude and narcissistic.

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that she’s having some kind of mental breakdown and losing her marbles. 

But she’s not the only one who’s odd or behaves badly — and that’s what makes the book such a richly comic read.

Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel is a wonderfully farcical story featuring brilliant characters. It raises issues about madness, manners and declining morals. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I read this book as part of A Year With William Trevor, which I am co-hosting with  Cathy from 746 Books. You are invited to join in using the hashtag #WilliamTrevor2023. To find out more, including our monthly reading schedule, please click here.

♥ This month Cathy is reviewing ‘The Boarding House’. I reviewed this same book in 2019. You can read my review here.

♥ Next month Cathy plans to review ‘The Love Department’ and I plan to review ‘Miss Gomez and the Brethren’.

Author, Bono, Book review, Books in translation, David Whish-Wilson, Elena Ferrante, Fiction, Fremantle Press, historical fiction, Hutchinson, literary fiction, memoir, Music, Non-fiction, Publisher, Text

Three Quick Reviews: Bono, Elena Ferrante & David Whish-Wilson

Three weeks into the new year already, and I’m conscious of the fact I still have a few reviews from 2022 to write up. In the interests of expediency — and to alleviate my increasing sense of guilt — here are my quick thoughts on a trio of books I read last year.

They include an Irish memoir, an Italian novella and an Australian historical crime novel. They have been reviewed in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story’ by Bono

Non-fiction – hardcover; Hutchinson Heinemann; 560 pages; 2022.

As a long-time U2 fan, I have a love/hate relationship with Bono. In fact, I did not expect to like this book at all, but I found it surprisingly enjoyable and entertaining. The man can certainly write. The text is ripe with metaphors and allegories, and while it is occasionally a little heavy on the spiritual side of things, for the most part, it is laugh-out-loud funny. Who knew the egotistical, sometimes tub-thumping Bono had such a delicious sense of self-deprecating humour!

As the subtitle suggests, the memoir is structured around 40 U2 songs, which allows the author to arrange his story thematically and to write about episodes in his life without the constraint of a chronological narrative (although it is, loosely, chronological).

The bits I liked best? His honesty about his upbringing (his mother died when he was 14) and the complex relationship he had with his father; the way he writes about his wife, Ali, whom he clearly loves and admires (in many ways, the book is a love letter to her); and his funny tales about famous people which often show him in a poor light when he could so easily have told this stories in a boastful manner.

I especially loved his deep dives into his philanthropy and activism, going behind the news headlines to explain what this work fighting against AIDS and extreme poverty means to him, why he does it and what he has learned along the way — not only about himself but about the (long, slow) process of campaigning for political and social change.

If reading more than 500 pages is more than you can bear, I’m told the audiobook, which includes the U2 songs mentioned in the chapter titles, is excellent (Bono narrates it himself). Alternatively, there’s a playlist on Spotify or head to YouTube to watch (multiple) recordings of his promotional book tour, such as this one, at Washington National Cathedral (fast-forward to 10-minute mark to skip the religious stuff). That said, his appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert is probably the best and his performance of ‘With or Without You’ is stunning.

‘The Lost Daughter’ by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein)

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 144 pages; 2015. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein.

Here’s another book I wasn’t expecting to like but found myself completely enamoured by.

I read My Brilliant Friend, the first in the author’s wildly popular Neapolitan tetralogy, many years ago but I didn’t like it enough to follow up with the rest in the series. But this standalone novella, purchased secondhand for the princely sum of $3, was in a class of its own. Indeed, The Lost Daughter was one of my favourite books of 2022.

The story provides a dark glimpse of motherhood and the ties that forever bind women to their children. It is narrated by Leda, a 40-something divorced mother of two adult daughters, who goes on holiday to the Italian coast for the summer. While there she gets drawn into the world of a family whose menacing machinations she doesn’t quite understand. When she steals the doll of a young girl, she sparks off a chain of events that have unforetold repercussions.

The narrative backflips between the escalating tensions of the present day and Leda’s past as a young promising academic struggling to reconcile motherhood with her marriage and career. It’s written in sparse, hypnotic prose yet somehow manages to convey a sense of urgency and danger. I ate it up in a few hours and still think about it. The film adaptation, starring Olivia Colman, is excellent.

‘The Sawdust House’ by David Whish-Wilson

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 304 pages; 2022.

David Whish-Wilson’s The Sawdust House is a vividly entertaining, multi-layered story about convicts, boxing, journalism, identity and reinvention. It is set in 19th-century San Franciso where a specially convened committee is doing its utmost to rid the city of Australian criminals.

Based on a real story, it is framed around Irish-born ex-convict James “Yankee” Sullivan (Wikipedia entry here), a renowned bare-knuckled pugilist, who is being held in prison by the Committee of Vigilance.

The book’s structure is highly original: it tells Yankee’s story using the device of an interview with Thomas Crane, an American newspaperman, in which the journalist’s thoughts and queries alternate with the prisoner’s responses. From this we learn of Yankee’s daring escape from an Australian jail, his trek to America, the great loves of his life — women, boxing, booze — and his dream of opening his own public house, The Sawdust House of the title.

It’s a rollicking great story, written in the vernacular of the time, and one that has a ring of authenticity about it.

David is a local writer, so ‘The Sawdust House’ qualifies for my ongoing Focus on Western Australian Writers reading project, which you can read more about here

A Year With William Trevor, Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, short stories, Venice, William Trevor

‘Cheating at Canasta’ by William Trevor

A Year With William Trevor | #WilliamTrevor2023


Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 252 pages; 2008.

To kick off ‘A Year With William Trevor‘ — which I am co-hosting with  Cathy from 746 BooksI randomly selected Cheating at Canasta, a collection of short stories that were first published in the Guardian, the New Yorker, the Sewanee Review and Tatler

It proved a perfect introduction to this year-long reading project, because the tales here, so masterfully written, showcase Trevor’s recurring themes: the complexity of family dynamics and relationships between men and women; the darker side of human nature; missed opportunities; and the ways in which the past has a habit of catching up with the future. Fear and shame dominate.

There are 12 stories in this volume, all roughly the same length, some set in Ireland, the country of Trevor’s birth, and some in England, the country where he spent most of his long life. But the title story, “Cheating at Canasta”, is set in Venice, specifically, Harry’s Bar, where a man, who is losing his wife to dementia, returns to the place they both adored and finds his time there disrupted by a younger couple quarrelling on a nearby table.

Young people caught up in events

When the hardcover edition of the book was published in 2007 it garnered mixed reviews, including a rather churlish one by Adam Mars-Jones in the Guardian (which I’m deliberately not linking to) which claimed Trevor couldn’t write about young people very well. I beg to differ.

In “Bravado”, a teenage girl witnesses a deadly assault on a boy she doesn’t know by her boyfriend who does it to impress her, earning himself an 11-year prison sentence in the process. Before her boyfriend is arrested, Aisling knows she should speak up but she’s understandably conflicted, caught between the excitement of her first romantic love and the responsibilities of the adult world she’s yet to fully join. What really holds her back, though, is the fact that she doesn’t want her father to know she went behind his back and kept seeing the boy he had warned her to stay away from.

It’s all resolved in the end, and Aisling does the right thing, but it leaves a long-lasting mark on her:

In a bleak cemetery, Aisling begged forgiveness of the dead for the falsity she had embraced when what there was had been too ugly to accept. Silent, she had watched an act committed to impress her, to deserve her love, as other acts had been. And watching, there was pleasure. If only for a moment, but still there had been.

Petty jealousy and imagined hurts

In ‘The Children’, an 11-year-old girl (and only child), Connie, handles the death of her adored mother with aplomb — “You’ve been a strength, Connie,” her father tells her after the funeral — and quickly adjusts to life without her.

But when her father falls in love with a local woman a few years later and installs her and her two children, one of whom is Connie’s best friend, into the house, Connie’s behaviour changes. She spends more and more time alone, hiding on the roof, which she’s forbidden to climb, to read her late mother’s books.

And in one instant she turns on her soon-to-be step-sister with the cruel words: “This isn’t your house.”  Connie’s sense of betrayal, of a deeply held hurt, petty jealousy and an inability to accept changed circumstances is palpable.

Teenager in danger

And in ‘An Afternoon’, teenage Jasmin meets up with an older man she’s only ever met online. Her naivety is alarming as she spends an afternoon in his company, laps up his attention — “You’re pretty,” he said. “You’re pretty, Jasmin” — accepts the alcohol he offers her and agrees to go back to his house.

Again there was the ripple of excitement. She could feel it all over her body, a fluttering of pins and needles it almost felt like but she knew it wasn’t that. She loved being with him; she’d known she would.

She’s rescued at the last minute — Trevor doesn’t always let bad things happen to his characters — and the sense of relief, for this reader at least, is enormous but hard-earned.

The first is the best

The stand-out story of the collection, however, is the first one, “The Dressmaker’s Child”, which you can read online at the New Yorker, and which I had originally planned to read at the end of the year according to the schedule Cathy and I put together for A Year With William Trevor. (I didn’t know it was in this collection, so I’ll have to substitute that with something else and will let you know in due course.) 

In this story, Cahal, an Irish car mechanic, drives two Spanish tourists to see the “Weeping Virgin of Pouldearg”, a religious icon discredited by locals, and thinks nothing of charging them €50 for the privilege. On the way back to town, he runs over a child, the daughter of the local dressmaker, but does not stop to help. The Spaniards in the back seat are too busy kissing each other to notice the bump in the road.

What enfolds afterwards is a mixture of pure shame and fear and dread as Cathal wrestles with his conscience, even though the body is found not on the road, as expected, but at “the bottom of a fissure, half covered with shale, in the exhausted quarry half a mile from where she’d lived”. 

This strange development is quintessential William Trevor, a writer who likes to take seemingly ordinary characters and thrust them into unusual circumstances to see how things play out. Most of the stories in Cheating at Canasta contain moments of oddity that change the direction of the narrative. Each tale is an adventure. It’s like getting into a car and not knowing quite where you will end up…

I read this book as part of A Year With William Trevor, which I am co-hosting with  Cathy from 746 Books. You are invited to join in using the hashtag #WilliamTrevor2023. To find out more, including our monthly reading schedule, please click here.

This month Cathy has reviewed ‘The Old Boys’. I reviewed this same book in 2019. You can read my review here.

Author, Bernard MacLaverty, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Netherlands, Publisher, Setting, W.W. Norton & Company

‘Midwinter Break’ by Bernard MacLaverty

Fiction – paperback; W. W. Norton & Company; 208 pages; 2018.

Northern Irish writer Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break is an intimate portrait of a long marriage between two “empty nesters” who are keeping secrets from each other.

Gerry, a retired architect, is desperately trying to hide his dependence on alcohol. At the same time, Stella, a former teacher, wants to explore her faith by joining a religious order — without her husband tagging along.

It’s only when the pair go on a midwinter break to Amsterdam that things begin to go awry and they are forced to confront the fact that they want different things out of life now that they have raised their family and no longer work. Stella describes it like this: “I’m tired. I’m tired of living the way we do.”

A quietly devastating story

Slow-moving and with next to no plot, the story unfolds gently in the third person.

MacLaverty employs a close observational style that details the minutia of travel and the minor tensions and annoyances that can arise when a couple are confined together in strange surroundings.

As the pair traverse the city, visiting the sites — the Red Light District, the Rijksmuseum and Anne Frank’s house, amongst others — we follow their every move in minute detail, eavesdrop on their conversations and come to understand their deep love and affection for one another. But we can also see the pressure points.

MacLaverty switches the viewpoint from character to character with each new chapter, giving the reader a glimpse of the individual mindsets at play, and from this clever, but gently deployed device, we see how Gerry and Stella are very different people, driven by different agendas, motivations and desires.

Through this slow but intimate revealing of personality, a quietly devastating picture builds of a couple who endured a tragedy early on in their marriage and handled it in vastly different ways. That event, which resulted in them leaving their native Belfast for a new life in Scotland, has shaped them in ways that are still playing out 50 years later…

Contemplative — and funny, too

I loved this deeply contemplative book, with its intimate insights into a marriage and its carefully constructed narrative. It’s not overly heavy or depressing; it’s realistic and wise and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny.

There’s a particular scene in Anne Frank’s house, in which Stella is mistakenly thought to have stolen an item, that is quite hilarious, and there are other more observant “truths” that resonated. I’ll leave you with this gem, a metaphor for the push and pull of Gerry and Stella’s long marriage:

A gap opened up in the traffic, and he walked her to the middle. There was a black four-by-four approaching but they had time to cross. Gerry strode forward but Stella was nervous and held back. He tightened his grip on her hand but she had frozen in the middle of the road.
‘Come on.’ She wrenched her hand away from his. Her whole body was immovable so Gerry walked on across the road. He waited for her on the far pavement. She stood in the road looking this way and that. The black four-by-four cruised past her and she came almost running to Gerry’s side.
‘Some day you’ll get us both killed,’ he said.
‘I can judge for myself,’ she said. ‘But you can’t judge for me.’

Other (less favourable) reviews include Brona’s at This Reading Life and Karen’s at Booker Talk.

I read this book back in August as part of my participation in #20booksofsummer 2022 edition but just never got around to reviewing it. I bought it secondhand from my local book warehouse in January 2022.

Author, Book review, Colm Tóibín, essays, Non-fiction, Picador, Publisher

‘A Guest at the Feast’ by Colm Tóibín

Non-fiction – paperback; Picador; 300 pages; 2022.

A Guest at the Feast brings together Colm Tóibín’s previously published non-fiction work in one volume. There are 11 essays in total, which were written between 1995 and 2022, and mostly published in the London Review of Books. They are unified by some common themes, including art (specifically literature and poetry) and religion (specifically Catholicism).

The volume is divided into three parts: the first focuses on personal, autobiographical-type essays; the second focuses on the Catholic Church and its various scandals; and the third is largely about writers — Marilynne Robinson, Francis Stuart, John McGahern and Thomas Mann — and the influences on their work.

Admittedly, this collection wasn’t quite what I expected. Its overriding theme is religion and now, having read the book, I feel like I know more about the inner-most workings of the Catholic Church than I ever wanted to know. Its saving grace is the eloquence of the prose, which makes for an effortless read, and the seamless weaving of facts with personal insights.

A brush with cancer

My favourite essay is the opening one — Cancer: My Part in its Downfall — a deeply personal and self-deprecating account of Tóibín’s testicular cancer diagnosis and treatment.  I had previously read it online and recalled its startling opening line:

It all started with my balls.

But I also loved the little insights he provides into hospital life, the side effects of chemotherapy — he loses his sense of taste but constantly dreams of food  — and the things that annoy him about spending so much time at home, where he is forced to listen to the “ghastly cries” of Dublin’s seagull population and the incessant sound of their claws on his roof.

They made their irritating little noises against the slate of the roof through the night until I came to believe that they and their parents had been sent by some force of darkness to mock me.

The humour, mixed with pathos, makes the essay memorable and moving.

The magic of McGahern

I also enjoyed his short essay Snail Slow: John McGahern, which is essentially a review of the book The Letters of John McGahern (Faber, 2021) but reads like a mini biography and examination of McGahern’s influences.

McGahern, who died in 2006, is one of my favourite writers (see my reviews here) and is widely regarded as one of the most important writers of the latter half of the 20th century. Tóibín knew him personally and imbues his review with personal insights. He makes no bones about the fact that he wasn’t always a fan.

I found too much Irish misery in it [his work], too much fear and violence and repressed sexuality, too much rural life and Catholicism. Perhaps my aversion was made more intense by the fact that I recognised this world. I have been brought up in it; I was still living in it.

(Interestingly, it is these very factors that make me so interested in McGahern’s work — it probably helps that I am not Catholic and did not grow up in Ireland.)

Tóibín later comes to appreciate — and love — McGahern’s writing, and when he develops a friendship with him learns that he’s a man of contradictions and not without malice; he could make harsh judgments but he could also “have wondrous responses to anything that appealed to him”.

Charting the Church’s downfall 

The middle section of the book is concerned wholly with the Roman Catholic Church and comprises long-form reviews of books about the institution:

  • The Paradoxical Pope, first published in The New Yorker in 1995, is a portrait of John Paul II and the tensions between American Catholics and the Vatican, specifically around birth control, abortion, homosexuality and celibacy;
  • Among the Flutterers, first published in 2010, looks at the ways in which the Church has lost its power in Ireland and posits a theory that it provides a good cover for gay men who will never have to explain why they have never married;
  • The Bergoglio Smile examines the dark side of Pope Francis; and
  • The Ferns Report reviews an official Irish government inquiry into the allegations of clerical sexual abuse in Tóibín’s home county of Wexford.

Each essay in this “Catholic set” is incredibly well-written, detailed and fact-filled, but reading them one after the other (I read this book in the space of a weekend) was a bit heavy going. The personal insights do lighten the load slightly — but only slightly.

The benefit of reading them together, however, is seeing how the Church’s power diminishes over time as popes change and scandals slowly emerge. At the time the first essay was written, for instance, abortion and contraception were the main controversies. Ten years later, at the time of the last essay,  pedophilia was being exposed through official inquiries.

Easy to read

On the whole, I enjoyed A Guest at the Feast but if I had known I could read most of the content online for free I might have thought twice about buying it.

That said, it’s easy to read, full of droll moments, carefully considered observations and deeply personal reflections and anecdotes that bring his subjects to life. It’s a masterclass in non-fiction writing.

Author, Book review, Donal Ryan, Doubleday, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Strange Flowers’ by Donal Ryan

Fiction – Kindle edition; Doubleday; 240 pages; 2020.

Given my penchant for Irish literature, you would think that I would have read a Donal Ryan novel by now. Admittedly, I did give his debut novel, The Spinning Heart, a go when it was first published in 2012 but abandoned it because it wasn’t working for me. I almost did the same with this one.

Family problems

Strange Flowers, published in 2020, is a novel spanning three generations of one family.

Set in rural Ireland in the early 1970s, it tells the story of Moll Gladney, a young woman who one day leaves the family home without explanation and does not return.

Her distraught parents, Paddy and Kit, believe they will never see her again, thinking their daughter “was either pregnant or dead, and it was hard to know which one of those was worse”. They continue on with their lives as best they can, their existence a “solemn half-life of work and prayers and weakening hope”.

Five years go by and then, completely out of the blue, Moll returns, dragging a troubled past with her. That past includes a husband — a black man named Alexander Elmwood  — and a child, Joshua, both of whom she has left behind in London.

A new life

The story follows what happens when Alexander turns up in Ireland to try to find his wife, how the pair settle into rural life and the close bond Josh develops with his grandparents. Later, when Josh is an adult, he repeats his mother’s pattern of behaviour by fleeing to London.

Despite being told in a disjointed manner employing different points of view along the way —  Strange Flowers is broken into six parts named after sections in the Bible — it’s easy enough to follow and all the loose ends are nicely tied up at the end. We even find out why Moll went on the run in the first place, right back in 1973, which makes for a satisfying read.

And while the narrative is occasionally devastating and sad and brims with melancholia and a sense of history repeating, there was something about it that just did not work for me.

I hesitate to use the word “twee” but it’s the first one that springs to mind. The Irishness feels overdone to the point of being “Oirish” and ditto for the breathless nature of the prose in which some sentences are up to a page long.

I also had difficulty with the portrayal of Alexander’s family in London and the way in which an English black man could be so readily accepted by a small Irish community (he experiences little to no racism).

On the whole, I felt rather lukewarm about this novel, but realise this puts me out of step with many other readers and critics, all of whom have heaped praise on it.

Strange Flowers won the An Post Irish Novel of the Year in 2020 and has been described by the Sunday Independent as “one of the greatest novels of this century”. 

2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Adam Kay, Author, Book review, Fiction, Grove Press, historical fiction, Jan Carson, Lily King, literary fiction, Literary prizes, memoir, New Guinea, Non-fiction, Northern Ireland, Pan Books, Publisher, Setting, Transworld Digital, UK

Three Quick Reviews: Jan Carson, Adam Kay & Lily King

I’m a bit behind in my reviewing, so here’s a quick round-up of books I have recently read. This trio comprises an Irish “supernatural” story, a medical memoir from the UK and a historical novel by an American writer. They have been reviewed in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘The Raptures’ by Jan Carson

Fiction – Kindle edition; Transworld Digital; 332 pages; 2022.

Shortlisted for the 2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year award, Jan Carson’s The Raptures is an unusual tale about a mysterious illness that spreads through a group of children from the same village, killing them one by one. But one young girl, Hannah Adger, remains healthy, the sole survivor of her entire classroom. Scared and haunted by survivor’s guilt, Hannah, who is from an evangelical Protestant family, discovers she can see and communicate with her dead friends.

Set in Ulster in 1993 during The Troubles, the illness that sweeps the small community is a metaphor for a war that rages on with seemingly no end in sight. As the children fall prey to the mystery illness, the community is brought together by a desire to end the disease that is killing its loved ones — but many families get caught up in the fear and the anger of an out-of-control plague and look for someone to blame, contributing to the divisions in an already divided community.

Admittedly, I struggled a little with this book. The structure, repetitive and predictable, quickly wore thin and I found the supernatural elements hard to believe. Ditto for the explanation of what caused the illness (which I guessed long before it was revealed). Perhaps it didn’t help that I had Covid-19 when I read the tale, so I wasn’t in the mood for reading about sick people dying. But as a treatise on religion, grief and faith, The Raptures is an unusual — and unique — read.

‘This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor’ by Adam Kay

Non-fiction – memoir; Pan Macmillan; 256 pages; 2018.

One of the best things about living in the UK (which I did between 1998-2019) was the free medical treatment I was able to access under the National Health Service (NHS), a centrally funded universal healthcare system, free at the point of delivery. But the system is not perfect and is chronically underfunded and overstretched. Adam Kay’s memoir of his time working in the NHS as a junior doctor highlights what it is like to work on the front line, where every decision you make has life and death implications for the people under your care.

Written in diary form over the course of several years, This is Going to Hurt is a no-holds-barred account of a medical career forged in an overwhelmingly stressful environment dominated by long hours, poor pay and next to no emotional support. But Kay, who has since left the profession to become a stand-up comic, takes a cynical, often sarcastic tone, recounting stories and events — mostly to do with obstetrics and gynaecology, the areas in which he specialised  — with sharp-edged humour, so I tittered my way through most of the book.

And when I wasn’t laughing, I was crying because it’s so heartbreaking in places. Mind you, it’s nowhere near as dark and oppressive as the recent BBC drama series, which prompted me to read the book.

(Note, I wouldn’t advise anyone who is pregnant or has had a traumatic birth experience to pick it up.)

‘Euphoria’ by Lily King

Fiction – paperback; Grove Press; 288 pages; 2014.

Said to be loosely based on American anthropologist Margaret Mead’s time spent researching tribes in New Guinea in the 1940s, Euphoria is a story about a love triangle set in the jungle. It’s the first time I’ve ever read a novel about anthropologists and I found it a fascinating tale about ego, arrogance, academic controversy and desire.

I knew nothing about Mead and her achievements, so I can only judge the book on the power of its storytelling, which I found compelling even if the plot was a little thin. This is essentially a character-driven story — and what characters they are! We meet American Nell Stone, the central character, upon which the others revolve, including her Australian husband Fen, and the couple’s English friend Andrew Bankson.

King paints a convincing portrait of a trio of anthropologists at work, fleshing out each character so that we meet them in the past and the present, understand what drives them, what infuriates them and why they do what they do.

And the setting, including the (fictional) tribes that are described in such vivid detail, imbues the story with a rich sense of atmosphere and realism.

I read ‘The Raptures’ as part of my project to read all the shortlisted titles for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award
2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, Italy, literary fiction, Literary prizes, New Island, Nuala O'Connor, Paris, Publisher, Setting, Switzerland

‘NORA: A Love Story of Nora Barnacle and James Joyce’ by Nuala O’Connor

Fiction – Kindle edition; New Island; 507 pages; 2021.

Nora, by Nuala O’Connor*, is a bold and bawdy fictionalised account of the life of Nora Barnacle, who was James Joyce’s muse, partner and inspiration for Molly Bloom in his acclaimed novel Ulysses.

A love story

At its most basic level, it’s a love story between two people who flee the religious constrictions of Ireland for a new life, relatively free of judgment and prying eyes, in mainland Europe. But that life, a self-imposed exile, is peripatetic and impoverished, and Jim (as Nora calls him) has ongoing health issues, including glaucoma, nerves and a problem with alcohol that provides additional challenges.

Using key points in the historical record, O’Connor charts the couple’s relationship from 1904 — when they had their first sexual encounter in Dublin — to Jim’s death in Zurich, in 1941, following surgery for a perforated duodenal ulcer. A final chapter describes Nora’s life as a widow until her own death (from kidney failure) in 1951. According to the author, “some small facts have been altered or amended for dramatic purposes” but it’s largely faithful to the couple’s shared and complex history.

That history includes the birth of two children — a son, Giorgio, and a daughter, Lucia — in quick succession. (Lucia, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a young woman, causes a rift in their relationship because Nora believed her daughter needed to be hospitalised but Jim thought it was unnecessary.)

It also consists of wider family dramas, other romantic liaisons and friendships with the likes of Samuel Beckett, Peggy Guggenheim and Sylvia Beach.

A supportive wife

And underpinning it all is Nora’s undying support of her husband’s career despite the fact it doesn’t always make her, or her children, happy.

‘You’re a beautiful writer, Jim,’ I say. And he is, though truly some of his stories baffle me as much as the Moore fellow’s ones. But, it seems, some of my own stories live within Jim’s writing. It’s a queer feeling, but is he not entitled to take parts of me and mould them for his good use? Especially if it will get him a book published and move us along in this life.

There’s no doubt that the pair’s life together is an extraordinary adventure, full of ups and downs and incredibly testing times, but the strength of their love for one another gets them through.

It’s quite bawdy and sexually explicit in places, and when this period of their life wanes, as it inevitably does in most long-term relationships, Nora becomes annoyed by his inability to commit himself to her in any legal way (the pair don’t get married until 1931 after 27 years together) and what she believes is his immature ways:

Jim Joyce is my love, but he’s also a bother to my heart and a sore conundrum to my mind. I don’t think the day will come when he’ll grow to be the man he should be.

Intimate first-person tale

The novel is incredibly detailed and written in an intimate first-person voice from Nora’s perspective, but at more than 500 pages it’s long, perhaps overly so, but it does reward the patient reader.

It’s vivid and bold, sensuous and ribald, and gives voice to a woman who lived her life in the shadow of a man who was fiercely ambitious but also hungry for attention and being the life of the party.

Yes, the other wives and the literary women, who so love to scurry around the great James Joyce, find me a vast disappointment. But, hand on heart, I don’t give a sailor’s snot what they think. Jim is Jim, and Nora is Nora, and we know that despite any upsets and troubles we’ve had, we’re strong as steel together.

Nora has been shortlisted for this year’s Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award and having read all the books on the shortlist now, I will nail my flag to the mast and declare that I think it deserves to be named the winner!

This is my 4th book for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award. I am trying to read the entire shortlist before the winner is announced on 1st June.

* Nuala O’Connor also writes under her Irish name, Nuala Ní Chonchúir’. I’ve read several of her books, all reviewed here.

2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Lisa Harding, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting

‘Bright Burning Things’ by Lisa Harding

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 320 pages; 2021.

Novels with strong, distinctive voices are always winners for me — and so it proved with Lisa Harding’s Bright Burning Things, which has recently been shortlisted for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award.

A woman’s life unravelling

Told from the perspective of Sonya, a former stage actress now single mother with a young son, this tense, unflinching story puts us firmly in the mind of someone losing her grip on reality.

[…] Abruptly I sit, and just as abruptly I cry. This is all part of it: my ‘condition’, as diagnosed by Howard [a former boyfriend]. He said it was what made me such a great actress: extreme and electric. The moods crashed through me then, never really landing, never really taking hold, but since stopping acting and having Tommy, alone, and the tiredness and the feeling of being judged by the voices, and now the old ladies of the world, they have taken up permanent residence.

The first few chapters of this novel are told in a dizzying, confused voice, one that is paranoid, convinced that everyone is watching and judging, especially Mrs O’Malley the neighbour across the road. And her actions are just as erratic, whether that be driving her old car too fast, stripping down to her underwear to go swimming in the ocean, shoplifting food and wine from the supermarket, or burning the fish fingers she cooks for Tommy’s dinner.

Her mental distress is only eased by drinking alcohol, which, in turn, just makes her more confused and her behaviour more erratic. Sometimes she experiences extreme blackouts — and she knows this is not good when she has a young child to look after. But this brings on more anxiety, which only fuels her drinking. It is a vicious cycle.

An intervention

Her father, with whom she’s not had contact for two years (or so she says), intervenes and whisks her off to a rehabilitation facility run by nuns.

He gets out, opens my door, takes the bag out of the boot and leads the way. Where have you been, Dad? I’m being led to the sanitorium, the madhouse where they used to lock up wild women in this country not so long ago — when it was still a land of priests and patriarchy — women with hysteria, with desire, with too much of everything in their veins, women who incited and inflamed. Yup, that’s me! I almost start to skip. Where is my camera?

Here, under the care of counsellors and doctors and medication, she undergoes a 12-week programme of abstinence, but she pines for Tommy, who has been taken into care, and becomes increasingly obsessed about her dog because no one will tell her what has happened to him.

Eventually, when released, everyone is reunited, but it’s not smooth sailing. Tommy has developed an obsession with fire, and Sonya has to watch he doesn’t burn the house down. And while she has a better grip on reality (thanks to her therapy), she struggles to play her new role as a sane and alcohol-free mother.

This is going to be the hardest acting job ever. All the characters I have played up to now were able to give full vent to their passions and furies. My new character is called Ms Sanity, and Sanity has to hide her truth at all costs, Sanity has to smile and suppress, Sanity has to present a neatly packaged front to the world. My audience would no doubt be bored of Ms Sanity within minutes.

When she develops a romantic relationship with one of the counsellors who checks her progress, his home visits begin to blur the line between “doctor” and patient. And kind, considerate David turns out to be not so kind and not so considerate after all. His presence begins to feel oppressive and his behaviour coercive.

Unique voice

Bright Burning Things is a compelling read, because even though the story might feel familiar — an alcoholic, mentally distressed woman going off the rails — it’s the voice, confidential, strained and disbelieving, that gives this novel its unique twist.

It’s tense and immersive throughout, building towards a potentially terrifying climax, but there’s an undercurrent of wry humour to lessen the narrative’s weight. You’re never sure what’s going to happen next and whether anyone will step in to help the characters at the heart of this book. You worry for Sonya, but you worry more for young Tommy.

The author draws many parallels between acting on stage and acting in real life, and how certain people thrive on attention but only when it is on their terms. She also explores the pain and ecstasy of addiction and maternal love, letting us in on a deeply personal world that feels raw and intimate.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Sorrow and Bliss’ by Meg Mason: The story of a woman who struggles to maintain her sanity — and her marriage — in the face of an undiagnosed mental illness.

‘The Sound of My Voice’ by Ron Butlin: a successful executive at a biscuit factory masks the fact he is a high-functioning alcoholic who’s struggling to keep all the balls in the air.

This is my 3rd book for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award. I am trying to read the entire shortlist before the winner is announced on 1st June.

2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Kevin Power, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Scribner, Serbia, Setting

‘White City’ by Kevin Power

Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 450 pages; 2021.

Addiction, self-loathing, corruption — and shady property deals — form the heart of this darkly humourous novel that has recently been shortlisted for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award.

Affluent but adrift

Kevin Power’s White City is told from the point of view of 27-year-old Ben — the son of a retired South Dublin banker — who is in a rehab clinic trying to figure out how he lost control of his comfortably privileged life.

I am the bitter only son of a disgraced rich man and I have washed up here in rehab, at the end of every road, with zero money, zero prospects, zero hope. I have cheated and stolen and lied — lied to myself most of all. I have consorted with fraudsters and war criminals. In an effort to beat my father at his own game, I failed: at love, at money, at life.

The narrative charts Ben’s fall from grace, which begins with his father’s arrest for “stealing €600 million from the books of his own bank” and ends with him developing a serious drug habit that lands him in the St Augustine Wellness Centre for Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation, which he describes as:

[…] a detox tank and monitored care facility for the rich and the rich-by-proxy, for the gouged, the spent, the luckless, for the terminally middle-class.

In between, he moves in with his girlfriend Clio (to save costs), takes a job with a dodgy marketing agency (which doesn’t pay enough to keep him in the manner to which he’s been accustomed) and bumps into an old school friend, James Mullens, who offers him the chance to get rich quickly (he takes it).

That decision to join James’ new business  — a property development in Serbia — ultimately leads to his downfall because what he doesn’t know when he signs up is that it’s a high-risk scam pitting a group of rich Dublin lads against a bunch of Balkan gangsters. The result is farcical — and dangerous.

Fast-paced romp

Told in the first person, White City is a fast-paced romp laced with biting humour. For all his selfishness, Ben demonstrates an astonishing amount of self-awareness, but the knowing nods and winks are probably for the benefit of his therapist, for whom he is penning a memoir of sorts.

How am I doing so far, Dr F? I hope you’re happy with the family stuff. I’d hoped to get through this whole account without mentioning my mother at all, actually — or perhaps by mentioning her only indirectly, like Perseus (is it?) looking at the Gorgon in his shield. If that’s okay with you, I might skip over the real childhood stuff, or save it up for later.

His story, largely told in chronological order, is intercut with his therapy sessions and includes his frank, sometimes cruel conversations with Dr Felix, his sponsor at the rehab clinic.

As his tale is fleshed out, and his life begins to spin out of control, it becomes clear that Ben’s financial dependency on his father has left him vulnerable, his relationship with both parents, tenuous and suspect as it is, becomes stretched to breaking point and his greed gets the better of him.

White City is wickedly funny throughout, but its razor-sharp commentary on materialism, the nouveau rich and the shallowness of modern life adds an extra layer of meaning. I think it rightfully deserves its place on the aforementioned shortlist.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘The Devil I Know’ by Claire Kilroy: A wickedly biting satire about all the speculative development, corrupt politicians, prostitution and international money lending that led to the collapse of the Celtic Tiger.

‘Here are the Young Men’ by Rob Doyle: Set in 2003, when Ireland was awash with jobs and cash, this is a nihilistic drug-fuelled story about four teenage boys who are awaiting the outcome of their Leaving Cert exam results which will determine their future lives.

This is my 2nd book for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award. I am trying to read the entire shortlist before the winner is announced on 1st June.