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.

Author, James Joyce

Want to read James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’? Here are some tips that might help you

First edition of Ulysses published by Shakespeare & Company, 1922

Yesterday (2 February) marked the 100th anniversary of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

This modernist novel was published in Paris, France, on Joyce’s 40th birthday and despite a bumpy trajectory — deemed obscene in the US and banned in the UK until 1936 — it’s long been regarded as a masterpiece of English-language literature.

The story is set on 16 June 1904 in Dublin and follows a day in the life of Leopold Bloom, an Irish Jew, as he traverses the city on foot. It chronicles his innermost thoughts as well as his actions, appointments and conversations. It’s challenging and clever, stylistically dense and brilliantly witty — and quite unlike anything that came before it or has followed since.

I read it in 2011 when I was in between jobs and had the time and focus to read it in its entirety. Back then my blog was heavily focused on Irish literature, so I was delighted when Tourism Ireland invited me to celebrate Bloomsday (16 June) in the city in which the story is set.

There was a Bloomsday breakfast at the Gresham Hotel in O’Connell Street, complete with a troupe of Joycean players performing scenes from the novel while we chowed down on “grilled mutton kidneys” with “a fine tang of faintly scented urine”. This was followed by a literary walk and an evening pub quiz.

Part of my stay involved an entertaining session on how to read Ulysses led by academic Dr Eibhlín Evans. More than a decade later I still recall that session in quite vivid detail. I wrote about the session at the time but deleted that post when I rebranded and moved my blog from Typepad to WordPress in 2014.

I have dug it out of my files and thought it might be timely to republish it here today:

Originally published at 10am on 20 July 2011

You want to read James Joyce’s Ulysses but are too scared to tackle it. You’ve picked it up once or twice. You might have even read a chapter or two. But then you’ve abandoned the book — and felt like a failure.

Many of us have been there. I tried to read the novel in my early 20s. I got about a third of the way into it, then put it down and never picked it up again. A year or two later, too ashamed to keep the book in my personal library, I sold it to a second-hand store just to be rid of the damn thing.

But then last month I set upon a mission to read it in three weeks — to have it finished by Bloomsday — and found myself thoroughly enjoying it. The key is not to get too concerned with understanding every single reference, but just go with the flow, and if all else fails, read bits of it out loud and buy yourself a guide to help you along.

Or you could try a different route — and learn to read it while in Dublin.

Dr Eibhlín Evans, an academic and writer, set up The Flying Book Club [now defunct] to do just that — and a lot more besides. The organisation, based in a gorgeous Georgian building not far from St Stephen’s Green, runs all kinds of literary programmes for visitors to Dublin who wants to learn more about the city’s literary history and Irish literature in general.

When I visited Dublin last month I attended a three-hour session on “Feel the Fear but Read it Anyway!” which provided tips on reading Ulysses for those who have always been too scared to tackle it.

Even though I had recently finished reading the book — just two days earlier, in fact — it was an inspiring session. If only I’d attended it before I had read the book, the challenge would have been far less daunting.

During the session, held on a damp rainy Friday afternoon, Dr Evans put the book into context and gave us some background to Joyce’s troubled life. Dr Mark Quinn also gave us some tips on reading the book, and then we were treated to a lively and animated reading by a Dubliner, who really got into the spirit of it and brought Joyce’s work to life. In fact, he had us all roaring with laughter. (It was the bit in Barney Kiernan’s pub that ends with the anti-semitic “citizen” hurling a biscuit tin at Bloom’s head while his dog gives chase.)

I took some notes, and what follows is a mix of tips I picked up from those who were there, including the dozen or so people in the audience:

      • Ulysses has a difficult reputation — and not without reason. It has a structure, a narrative and a voice that you probably have never come across before

      • It is a “novel of ideas”

      • It was written at a time when the world was going through a period of radical uncertainty — psychology was a new science, religion was being challenged by Darwinism,  gender issues were coming to the fore with the suffragette movement and history was no longer viewed as a reliable narrative

      • It was written at a time when Nationalism was on the rise in Ireland. And what better way to analyse a country than by having your  central character — Leopold Bloom, the Irish-born Jew — as an outsider,  with an outsider’s keen eye and dispassionate way of looking at things

      • The main character is an anti-hero — he is an ordinary man with ordinary problems trying to get by like everyone else

      • The book depicts the inner reality of its characters, rather than outer reality. This is achieved chiefly through  stream-of-consciousness and inner dialogue

      • It is helpful to look at the book as if it was a newspaper, with each chapter like a different section

      • Note that each chapter is written in a different  literary style and is often themed around a particular subject or idea

      • It is not necessary to understand every reference in the book. If you don’t understand something, don’t get hung up on it — just keep reading!

      • If you get really stuck, try reading some of it out loud — or listen to an audio version to get to grips with the Dublin vernacular

I would add that the more widely you read — everything from historical drama to post-modern fiction — the easier you will find Ulysses to tackle because the book is essentially a history of English literary styles condensed into one volume. In many ways, when I tackled it, I felt like I’d been in training for it my whole life.

If you’re still too scared, take The Flying Book Club’s advice and feel the fear but read it anyway!

I travelled to Dublin and attended this event as a guest of Tourism Ireland. Many thanks to Dr Eibhlín Evans and The Flying Book Club for the warm Irish welcome, delicious afternoon tea and wonderful discussion — it was the highlight of my trip.

Here are some interesting pieces that have been published to celebrate the centenary:

Have you read Ulysses? Or would you like to?

Triple Choice Tuesday

Triple Choice Tuesday: Paula McGrath

Welcome to Triple Choice Tuesday. This is where I ask some of my favourite bloggers, writers and readers to share the names of three books that mean a lot to them. The idea is that it might raise the profile of certain books and introduce you to new titles, new authors and new bloggers.

Today’s guest is the Irish writer Paula McGrath, who lives in Dublin.

Paula has a background in English Literature and is currently a doctoral student at the University of Limerick.

Her first novel, Generation, was published in 2015. Her latest novel, A History of Running Away, has just been published in hardback by John Murray. I read it while on holiday a few weeks ago and really enjoyed it. Watch out for my review coming very soon.

Without further ado, here are Paula’s choices:

A favourite book: The Lover by Marguerite Duras

Ulysses (see below), and The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino are strong contenders, but every few years I return to another favourite, The Lover, by Marguerite Duras. Set in pre-war Indochina of Duras’ childhood, this novel (novella, really) tells the unsettling story of a 15 year old girl and her wealthy Chinese lover. I first read it when I was in my early twenties, and it intrigued and alienated me in equal measure; as much as I was fascinated by its protagonist, I could not relate to experiences which were just too far removed from my own. But something curious has happened in the intervening years: with each reread, my world-view seems, if not quite to converge, at least to draw closer to that of Duras’s protagonist. But there is something about the book which I suspect will always remain a puzzle, and I can’t help thinking that Duras, who rewrote her story over and over, in different guises, felt the same.

A  book that changed my world: Ulysses by James Joyce

I read Ulysses first at 18 and though most of it went over my head I was hooked. I studied it a couple of years later with then Trinity College lecturer, now Senator David Norris, a brilliant entertainer and teacher, who brought the book to life. Once you’ve heard his “shite and onions” rendition you can never unhear it. In the nineties, I was back worrying it again, comparing the Penelope/Molly Bloom episode with Edna O’Brien’s Night for a Master’s degree. Later, I bought the audio version and I listen to bits of it often. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of it.

I fought against it when I began writing, as every Irish writer must. I wince when I look over something I’ve just written and find unintentional stream-of-conscious sentences or composite words – a section of my novel, A History of Running Away, had to be prised gently from my Joyce-stained fingers and properly punctuated – but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

A book that deserves wider audience: Gods & Angels by David Park

Otherwise well-read people often admit not having read, or even heard of, David Park. I wouldn’t be surprised if I were to learn that he’s not particularly interested in reaching a wider audience, but I can’t recommend his short story collection, Gods & Angels, enough. It takes its title from Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is man” speech, and aptly encompasses the book’s dominant theme of masculinity. Fear, inadequacy, and isolation hover just beneath the surface for most of the predominately male protagonists. Park is a consummate stylist, and this collection flows and startles by turn, its language ever-attuned to the requirements of the given moment. Sometimes these moments can seem hopeless, but for all the failings of its protagonists, the stories in this collection ultimately offer plenty of reasons for optimism.

Thanks, Paula, for taking part in my Triple Choice Tuesday!

This is such a great selection of books. I’m a big fan of The Lover, which I read and reviewed a few years ago. It’s one of those books that really sticks with you, it’s so evocative and sensual. 

I’ve also read Ulysses (though never reviewed it) and regard it as one of the most amazing novels I’ve ever read. No, I didn’t understand every word, but the playful use of language, the way each chapter is written in a different style and genre, the evocative atmospheres and emotions of it all, are really something to behold.

And while I’ve not read David Park’s short story collection, I’m pleased to say I’ve read two of his novels — The Light of Amsterdam and The Truth Commissioner — and enjoyed them both.

What do you think of Paula’s choices? Have you read any of these books?

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2011

Books-of-the-yearIt’s that time of year again, when I assess what I’ve read and decide my best reads of the past 12 months.

At the time of writing I am on target to read just under 100 books, which comprised a mix of narrative non-fiction, translated fiction, crime fiction, latest literary releases and older books pulled off the TBR pile. The ratio of men to women writers was roughly 6:4. And, for the first time ever, I did not read one American novel.

For the purposes of this list, I’ve only included novels (and one novella), although I would highly recommend ‘Antarctica’ by Claire Keegan for those who enjoy short story collections and ‘Joe Cinque’s Consolation’ by Helen Garner for those who like narrative non-fiction.

The following list has been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Click on the titles to read my review in full.

Mercy‘Mercy’ by Jussi Adler-Olsen (2011)

It’s no secret that I love a bit of Scandinavian crime and this one, by Jussi Adler-Olsen, is one of the best I’ve ever read and certainly the best I’ve read in 2011. I was so enamoured of it that I cleared my whole weekend to eagerly eat it up and even before I’d reached the half-way point I tweeted that it “beats the pants off Steig Larsson”. Mercy is the first book in the “Department Q” series (three others have yet to be translated into English), a division within the Danish police force that looks at cases that have run cold and remain unsolved. In this story, homicide detective Carl Mørk investigates the mysterious disappearance of a young and beautiful politician, who vanished while on board a cruise ship five years earlier. Could she still be alive? What Mørk discovers is chilling to the core…

Fair-stood-the-wind-for-france‘Fair Stood the Wind for France’ by H. E. Bates (1944)

H.E. Bates’ 1944 classic Fair Stood the Wind for France is one of the finest and loveliest books I’ve ever read. It’s definitely my favourite read of the year and is one of those books that I know I will read again at some point, if only to wallow in its beauty once again. It tells the story of a young British pilot whose plane is downed over France and the lengths he and his crew must go to in order to survive. Because it is set against the horrors of war, it takes on a life-affirming force, and Bates’ prose is so elegant and pitch-perfect he somehow gets to the heart of human emotions without actually spelling anything out. In fact Bates’ writing is so stripped back — not one word is wasted — that it seems a feat of exceptional genius to wring so much emotion, drama and truth out of almost every sentence, every page.

Afterparty‘The Afterparty’ by Leo Benedictus (2011)

The Afterparty arrived unannounced at Chez Reading Matters and I wasn’t sure that it would be my cup of tea — or my sort of whisky — going by the cover image alone. I figured I’d try a chapter or two to see if it was my thing, and if it wasn’t I’d put the book aside and forget about it. Two hours whizzed by and I was so immersed in the story I just had to keep on reading… In the end I found it to be an inventive, darkly funny, postmodern novel set in a world where British celebrities rule the roost and lowly tabloid journalists will stoop to almost anything in the quest for a big story — and there’s not a hacked phone in sight!

Sunday-at-pool‘A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali’ by Gil Courtemanche (2009)

I have a penchant for harrowing novels and this one is probably the most harrowing I’ve ever read. It’s set during the Rwandan genocide of 1994, in which more than 800,000 people were systematically slaughtered. It was an event that I was aware of in only the vaguest terms — probably because, as Courtemanche writes in this novel, “the media don’t show dead bodies cut up by men and shredded by vultures and wild dogs”. The story is told in the third person, but we see it mainly through the world-weary eyes of Bernard Valcourt, a widower and highly experienced journalist from Canada, who is bored with his job as a Radio-Canada producer and goes to Rwanda to try something new. What he experiences on the ground is so shocking and horrifying I felt dirty reading about it. Definitely not for the faint-hearted, but this is an important book that explores what happens when hate is left to reign unchecked.

Devotion-of-suspect-x‘The Devotion Of Suspect’ X by Keigo Higashino (2011)

I love a good crime thriller and this one by Japanese writer Keigo Higashino is as close to perfection as a crime thriller can be. It works because even though you know from the outset who committed the crime — the murder of an abusive husband — you’re not quite sure how the body was moved to the position in which it is found by the police the next day, with its face and fingerprints destroyed. In perfectly restrained style, Higashino offers a slow drip feed of information, as clues are revealed by  the police detective investigating the murder, along with two academics, one a physicist and the other a mathematician, who were rivals in a former life. But even when you think you have solved the riddle, Higashino offers a brilliantly unexpected ending that could only be plotted by a genius! No wonder the book has sold more than two million copies in Japan alone.

Five-Bells‘Five Bells’ by Gail Jones (2011)

I was convinced this novel by Australian writer Gail Jones was going to make the Booker longlist, if not the shortlist. It’s probably the most literary novel I’ve read in 2011, but it seems to have slipped under the radar. This is a great shame, because the novel — Jones’ fifth — deserves a wide audience. It’s not a particularly plot-driven story; instead it focuses on four individual characters and reveals their inner lives as they criss-cross Sydney on a fine summer’s day. Jones’ great achievement is that she gives each character an authentic back story and fleshes it out without being too obvious about it. In doing this she shows how memory works, but she’s also able to demonstrate what it is to be human, and how, despite our varied backgrounds and upbringings, we are all much alike beneath the surface.

Ulysses-small‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce (1922)

I didn’t review this  — how do you review something that’s so infamous? Who would have thought the book I was too scared to read would turn out to be such an enjoyable romp, not only through Dublin on one fine June day, but through a wide variety of literary styles and genres. In many ways, when I tackled it, I felt like I’d been in training for it my whole life — that’s because the book is essentially a history of English literary styles condensed into one volume. And while there were bits that went totally over my head, I was constantly amazed and surprised by how widely it has influenced so many writers that have followed. I can honestly say that Ulysses changes the way you look at literature after you’ve read it.

‘Leaving Ardglass’ by William King Leaving-Ardglass(2008)

Sometimes you pick up a book and before you’ve even finished the first page you immediately know there’s something very special about it. That’s exactly how I felt when I began reading William King’s Leaving Ardglass, a saga that spans 40 years and follows the lives of two Irish brothers — MJ Galvin, a building constructor turned property magnate, and his younger sibling, Tom. Much of the story is set in London during the 1960s, where Tom, who narrates the story, earns his living on building sites and witnesses some horrendous scenes, including the death of a fellow worker. The story is shocking in places and there are endless examples of racism against the Irish. Mostly, there’s an all-pervasive sense of wasted lives, that these men will spend their lives “digging and drinking, and finish up at the doss-house”. It’s an eye-opening book, but beautifully written, with fine plotting and great characterisation.

Get-me-out-of-here‘Get Me Out of Here’ by Henry Sutton (2010)

I do love a nasty character in a novel and Matt, the narrator of Get Me Out of Here, is the funniest — and sickest — character I’ve come across in modern fiction for a long time. He is filled with an over-inflated sense of self-importance and thinks the world revolves around him. He is shallow and manipulative. But as you get further and further into the novel, which is set in London circa 2008, you begin to realise that Matt is not all he seems to be. In fact, he may well be a danger to society. I loved this book and laughed out loud a lot. It’s enormous fun and yet, outside of Courtemanche’s A Sunday at the Pool in Kingali, it’s the most disturbing novel I’ve read all year.

Down-the-rabbit-hole ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ by Juan Pablo Villalobos (2011)

Technically, at just 77 pages in length, this is really a novella, but for the purposes of this list it is one of the most powerful — and enjoyable — reads of the year. The charming seven-year-old narrator, Tochtli, lives in a secure compound with his drug baron father. He is obsessed with guns, violence, death — and acquiring a pygmy hippopotamus from Liberia. Most of his narration treads a fine line between comedy and heartbreak. And because he is far too young to comprehend all the illegal activities happening around him, as you read his tale you want to step in to protect him— you understand the danger he is in, even if he doesn’t. Down the Rabbit Hole is an ultra-quick read — you can easily consume it in a couple of hours — but its brevity should not be mistaken for shallowness. This is one of the best novellas I’ve ever read.

Have you read any from this list? Care to share your own top 10?

1001 books, Author, Book review, Fiction, Flamingo, Ireland, James Joyce, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ by James Joyce


Fiction – paperback; Flamingo; 272 pages; 1994.

First published in 1916, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce is a semi-autobiographical first novel that has been much lauded for its inventive use of language and its exposé on the claustrophobia of growing up in holy Catholic Ireland.

Stephen Dedalus, the narrator of the novel, tells his story stream-of-consciousness-style from early childhood, where he boards at a strict Jesuit school, to early adulthood, when he has a crisis of faith, abandons his religion and flees his country.

The first part of his novel is enormously entertaining and deeply moving. Joyce captures the voice of the child protagonist so well, you want to wrap up the young Stephen in your arms to protect him from the school bullies and the violent priests. When he makes a decision to stand up for himself, albeit under some duress from his school chums, you feel his fear, but then you also share his elation when he confronts that fear and survives.

Unfortunately, for me, the charm and beauty of the book’s opening chapters are not sustained. As the story progresses and Stephen grows older, the narrative becomes more complicated, with intricate, sometimes overly wordy passages that are difficult to follow. By the time Stephen is at university, the intellectualising of his thoughts are almost unfathomable! More than once I had to backtrack and re-read entire pages to try to make sense of them.

I suspect this change in narrative style is supposed to mirror the changes in Stephen’s maturity. We see him lose his childhood innocence, undergo a sexual awakening (in which he sleeps with a string of prostitutes) and then feel the full weight of Catholic guilt on his shoulders.

Later, when he goes to university, we experience his intellectual development and his gradual revolt against his religion, much to the chagrin of his close friends who fail to understand how he can no longer believe in God.

I have to confess that I absolutely loved and adored the first 100 or so pages of this book, which were mainly narrated in a direct style and provided some of the best descriptions of what it is to be a child that I have ever read. It was when the narrative got more complicated and more experimental that it failed to hook me as a reader.

But on the whole, having largely enjoyed A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I’m pleased to say I have overcome my fear of Joyce… and I now have Dubliners in my sights!

‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ by James Joyce, first published in 1916, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it claims the novel established the author “as one of the most innovative literary talents of the twentieth century”.