6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Second Place’ to ‘Tarry Flynn’

It’s the first Saturday of the month, which means it’s time to participate in Six Degrees of Separation (check out Kate’s blog to find out the “rules” and how to participate).

This month the starting book is…

‘Second Place’ by Rachel Cusk (2021)

Now, I don’t think it’s a secret, but I do not get on with Ms Cusk, having read two of her books in the past, so no surprise that I haven’t read this one and have no interest in doing so, Booker prize-listing or not. I understand it’s a novel about art, so I am going to link to…

‘Night Blue’ by Angela O’Keeffe (2021)

This wonderfully inventive Australian novella is about Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, one of the most expensive paintings ever acquired by the Australian Government, and is narrated by the painting itself. I told you it was inventive!

Another book about art (and with ‘blue’ in the title) is…

‘The Blue Guitar’ by John Banville (2015)

This rather witty story is about an Irish artist by the name of Oliver Orme who conducts an affair with his best friend’s wife. It’s told from Oliver’s point of view and written in a deliciously pompous voice by a middle-aged man who has a penchant for petty thievery.

Another story about a badly behaved man carrying out an affair is…

‘A Very Scotch Affair’ by Robin Jenkins (1968)

In this classic Scottish novel, a man stuck in a miserable marriage decides to leave his wife even though she’s been diagnosed with cancer. He runs off with his lover and leaves a trail of devastation in his wake. It sounds grim, but it’s actually quite witty — and the reader knows from the start that the man is a total cad and not deserving of our sympathy.

Another novel about a cad is…

‘The Ginger Man’ by JP Donleavy (1955)

In this classic Irish novel set in Dublin, we meet Sebastian Dangerfield, a shameless boozer and womaniser, who misbehaves at every opportunity even though he has a wife and infant child at home. He is the kind of character a reader loves to hate. It’s an enormously fun, if occasionally shocking and ribald, read. It was banned in Ireland for many years.

Another book banned by the Irish Censorship Board is…

The Pilgrimage by John Broderick

‘The Pilgrimage’ by John Broderick (1961)

This gripping novel set in the 1950s is about a fine upstanding church-going woman who has a secret life: she seeks out casual encounters with strange men and has an affair with her husband’s young nephew. It’s a very dark book, one that explores what happens to ordinary men and women when the Catholic Church tries to control sex and sexuality.

Another book that revolves around the Catholic Church’s control of every aspect of Irish life…

Tarry Flynn

‘Tarry Flynn’ by Patrick Kavanagh (1948)

This is actually a rather charming and often hilarious story about a bachelor farmer in rural Ireland in the 1930s and the pressure he feels to get married and settle down when he’s really not that interested. The local priest, on the other hand, is so worried that the rural area in which the story is set is “in danger of boiling over in wild orgies of lust” that he organises a special Mission to warn parishioners about the sin of sex outside of marriage. But the Mission attracts lots of young women, of marriageable age, so the priest’s plan kind of backfires…

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a literary novel about art to a gentle comedy about an Irish farmer via tales about affairs, men behaving badly and Holy Catholic Ireland.

Have you read any of these books? 

Please note, you can see all my other Six Degrees of Separation contributions here.

Book lists, Book review

4 new books by favourite authors

As much as I try NOT to read a constant diet of shiny new books it’s sometimes difficult when there are so many tempting new books being advertised on social media and being reviewed by bloggers. My wishlist seems to grow exponentially by the day!

To make matters worse, four of my favourite writers are due to have new novels published this year: John Banville (Irish), Damon Galgut (South African), Per Petterson (Norwegian) and Colm Tóibín (Irish).

Here’s some more information about the books, arranged in order of publication date and with details lifted from publisher websites:

‘The Promise’ by Damon Galgut
Publication date: June, in UK and Australia

“The Promise charts the crash and burn of a white South African family, living on a farm outside Pretoria. The Swarts are gathering for Ma’s funeral. The younger generation, Anton and Amor, detest everything the family stand for — not least the failed promise to the Black woman who has worked for them her whole life. After years of service, Salome was promised her own house, her own land… yet somehow, as each decade passes, that promise remains unfulfilled. The narrator’s eye shifts and blinks: moving fluidly between characters, flying into their dreams; deliciously lethal in its observation. And as the country moves from old deep divisions to its new so-called fairer society, the lost promise of more than just one family hovers behind the novel’s title.”

‘Men in my Situation’ by Per Petterson
Publication date: August, in UK and Australia

“In 1992 Arvid Jansen is thirty-eight and divorced. Turid has left with their three girls, slipping into her young, exuberant crowd of friends, ‘the colourful’, and a new house with no trace of their previous life together. More than a year has passed since the tragic accident that took his parents and two of his brothers. Existence has become a question of holding on to a few firm things. Loud, smoky bars, whisky, records, company for the night and taxis home. Or driving his Mazda into the stunning, solitary landscape outside of Oslo, sleeping in the car when his bed is an impossible place to be, craving a connection that is always just beyond reach. At some point, the girls decide against weekend visits with their dad. Arvid suspects that his eldest daughter, Vigdis, sees what kind of a man he really is. Adrift and inept, paralysed by grief. And maybe she’s right to keep her distance from his lonely life. Is there any redemption for a man in his situation? When Arvid has lost or been left by all those dear to him and feels his life unravelling, perhaps there is still a way forward.”

‘The Magician’ by Colm Tóibín
Publication date: September, in UK and Australia

“The Magician tells the story of Thomas Mann, whose life was filled with great acclaim and contradiction. He would find himself on the wrong side of history in the First World War, cheerleading the German army, but have a clear vision of the future in the second, anticipating the horrors of Nazism. He would have six children and keep his homosexuality hidden; he was a man forever connected to his family and yet bore witness to the ravages of suicide. He would write some of the greatest works of European literature, and win the Nobel Prize, but would never return to the country that inspired his creativity. Through one life, Colm Tóibín tells the breathtaking story of the twentieth century.”

‘April in Spain’ by John Banville
Publication date: October, in UK and Australia

“When Dublin pathologist Quirke glimpses a familiar face while on holiday with his wife, it’s hard, at first, to tell whether his imagination is just running away with him. Could she really be who he thinks she is, and have a connection with a crime that nearly brought ruin to an Irish political dynasty? Unable to ignore his instincts, Quirke makes a call back home and Detective St John Strafford is soon dispatched to Spain. But he’s not the only one on route: as a terrifying hitman hunts down his prey, they are all set for a brutal showdown.”

Are there any books here you would be keen to read? What books are you looking forward to this year?

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2020

Happy New Year everyone! I know we are all excited and hopeful that 2021 will be happy, healthier and more normal than 2020, but before we step into a brand new year I wanted to look back at what I read over the past 12 months.

I read 83 books in total, which is roughly what I read most years, the only difference being that most of the books were published in 2020. (GoodReads has helpfully listed them all here.)

I don’t normally read so many shiny new books, but in 2020 I went out of my way to support my local independent bookshop (big shout out to New Edition in Fremantle), which bravely kept its doors open all year, including during our first (and thankfully only) six-week shutdown in March/April. I made it a regular habit to visit once a week and to never leave empty-handed! (What a tough challenge — hehehe.)

Also, I think I’m still enjoying the thrill of being able to buy newly published Australian fiction after being unable to do so when I lived in London for two decades! As a consequence, I did buy a lot of  #OzLit, including everything on the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction shortlist and the 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award shortlist.

My love for Irish fiction didn’t go away either. As per usual, I read all the books on the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award shortlist — although I abandoned one and had previously read another in 2019, so this wasn’t a particularly difficult “challenge” to complete.

It wasn’t all new, new, new though. In the first half of the year, I embarked on a plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June in a project I dubbed #TBR2020. I actually managed to complete this — which reminds me I really ought to have done a wrap-up post.

I also participated in Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer for the fourth time. And while I didn’t quite hit target, I did manage to read 17 books from my TBR — all listed here.

But that’s enough about my projects. What were the books that left a marked impression on me? Without further ado, here they are, all arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks will take you to my full review.

‘Snow’ by John Banville (2020)
Set in County Wexford at Christmas in 1957, Snow is a locked-room mystery in which a popular priest is found murdered in a Big House. Evocative, atmospheric and full of brilliant characters, this is historical crime fiction at its finest.

‘Night Boat to Tangier’ by Kevin Barry (2019)
This story about two 50-something Irish gangsters recalling the ups and downs they have weathered over the years as drug dealers in Cork and Spain is darkly comic but with a mournful undertone.

‘This Mournable Body’ by Tsitsi Dangarembga (2020)
Booker-shortlisted novel told in the second person about a well-educated Black woman from Zimbabwe who has fallen on hard times. One of the most powerful pieces of fiction I have ever read.

‘The Living Sea of Waking Dreams’ by Richard Flanagan (2020)
I am yet to review this one properly, but it’s an exquisitely written tale about preserving human life at any cost at a time when everything in the natural world is being killed off. A novel full of irony, ideas and issues but is not without humour — or hope.

‘The Butchers’ by Ruth Gilligan (2020)
Unexpectedly immersive, compelling and SURREAL novel set in Ireland during the BSE crisis of 1996. It made me, a fussy carnivore, look at beef consumption in a whole new light.

‘A Week in the Life of Cassandra Aberline’ by Glenda Guest (2018)
Possibly my favourite book of the year, this richly layered story follows one woman’s journey from Sydney to Perth by train when she discovers she has Alzheimer’s. In Perth she hopes to make amends for a past sin. Along the way we learn about her life.

‘The Animals in That Country’ by Laura Jean McKay (2020)
Wholly original dystopian tale about a flu pandemic that allows infected people to understand what animals are saying. Terrifying, deliriously strange and blackly comic.

‘The Last of Her Kind’ by Sigrid Nunez (2006)
A totally immersive story set in New York in the late 1960s which follows the ups and downs of an unlikely friendship between two women from different ends of the social spectrum who are roommates at college.

‘A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing’ by Jessie Tu (2020)
This seriously impressive debut novel is an uncompromising look at a talented young violinist trying to fill the void left behind when her fame as a child prodigy has died out. Brash, sex-obsessed and memorable.

‘Redhead by the Side of the Road’ Anne Tyler (2020)
Perceptive and warm-hearted tale of a 40-something man whose dull, predictable life gets turned on its head. Tyler is a genius at writing about ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations and this one is no exception.

I trust you have discovered some wonderful books and writers this year despite everything that has been going on around the world. Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? What were your favourite reads of 2020, I’d love to know?

Please note that you can see my favourite books of all the years between 2006 and 2020 by visiting my Books of the Year page.

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

‘Snow’ by John Banville

Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber & Faber; 352 pages; 2020. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Irish literary writer John Banville usually writes crime novels under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, but this time around he has been brave enough to publish it under his own name. I can see why. It’s a very fine novel indeed, and while it traverses dark subject matter, it has a playful touch, including a reference to one of Benjamin Black’s better-known characters, the state pathologist Quirke, which greatly amused me.

Locked room mystery

Set in County Wexford in 1957, Snow is essentially a locked-room mystery in which a popular priest is found murdered in a Big House.

It’s one of those deliciously intriguing stories in which almost any one of the myriad characters interviewed by the young police detective could be the culprit. The magic of the mystery is enhanced by the evocative setting — a snowy few days around Christmas in the late 1950s — and the unusual circumstances —  a Catholic priest murdered in a stately home of the landed gentry.

The murder itself is a rather vicious and violent one: Father Tom Lawless is found in the library lying in a pool of blood. He’s been stabbed in the neck and castrated. There’s a candlestick near his head, but not much else by way of clues. The crime is so sordid the circumstances are not disclosed to the public; most people think he fell down a flight of stairs and sustained fatal injuries.

When Detective Inspector St John — “It’s pronounced Sinjun,” he would wearily explain — Strafford arrives on the scene, having travelled down from Dublin because the local Gardaí are indisposed, he interviews everyone living in Ballyglass House. This includes Colonel Geoffrey Osborne, who describes Father Tom as “very popular, in these parts” and then explains how he came to be staying with the family:

He often comes over – came over, I suppose I should say now – from his place up at Scallanstown. His horse is stabled here – I’m master of the Keelmore hounds, Father Tom never missed an outing. We were supposed to ride yesterday, but there was the snow. He called in anyway and stayed for dinner, and we gave him a bed for the night. I couldn’t have let him go out again in that weather.’ His eyes went back to the corpse. ‘Though looking at him now, and what’s become of the poor chap, I bitterly regret that I didn’t send him home, snow or no snow. Who would do such a terrible thing to him I can’t think.’ He gave a slight cough, and waggled a finger embarrassedly in the direction of the dead man’s crotch. ‘I fastened up his trousers as best I could, for decency’s sake.’ So much for the integrity of the crime scene, Strafford thought, with a silent sigh. ‘When you look you’ll see that they – well, they gelded the poor chap. Barbarians.’

What follows is a painstaking investigation, where Strafford speaks to all the likely suspects, including the stable boy, the housekeeper, Osborne’s adult children and his second wife. There’s a sense of deja vu because Osborne’s first wife died when she fell down the stairs many years earlier, so Strafford wonders if an undetected killer has struck again.

There’s a second mystery thrown in for good measure, when Strafford’s second in command, Detective Sergeant Jenkins, goes missing midway through proceedings.

An obvious motive

Of course, for the modern-day reader, the motive for the murder of a priest is obvious, but Banville remains true to the period and shrouds the case in real mystery for Ireland at that time was devoutly religious and held priests in high esteem.

He throws in plenty of red herrings and potential culprits, but when the investigation reaches a stalemate he includes an “interlude” from 10 years earlier to get himself out of a problem he’s written himself into. This is the only jarring aspect of the book, which is filled with lush imagery and elegant turns of phrase.

The murder, for instance, is described as leaving “a tremor in the air, like the hum that lingers when a bell stops tolling”; a Labrador lying at someone’s feet is “as fat and torpid as a seal”; a pink satin eiderdown looks as “plump and smooth and shiny as a pie crust”; and a stubborn wine stain is “shaped like the faded map of a lost continent”.

The characters are all richly drawn and described in amusing detail.

The first thing everyone noticed about Sergeant Jenkins was the flatness of his head. It looked as if the top of it had been sliced clean off, like the big end of a boiled egg. How, people wondered, was there room for a brain of any size at all in such a shallow space? He tried to hide the disfigurement by slathering his hair with Brylcreem and forcing it into a sort of bouffant style on top, but no one was fooled.

There’s much focus on the divisions between class and religion, too, where men are judged just as much by their accents and the clothes they wear as they are by the church they attend and the tipple they drink.

Bushmills was supposedly the whiskey favoured by Protestants, while Jameson’s was the Catholics’ choice. Strafford thought it absurd, another of the multitude of minor myths the country thrived on.

Snow is a hugely evocative, atmospheric tale, and told in such a filmic way, it would make a very fine telemovie or Netflix series. I loved it — and the Coda at the end, set in the summer of 1967, gives a new, intriguing twist that I never saw coming. This is historical crime fiction at its finest.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, John Banville, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘The Blue Guitar’ by John Banville

Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 274 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

It’s been a long time since I have read anything by John Banville. I always forget how much I enjoy his writing until I pick up one of his books again.

The Blue Guitar, published in 2015, is about an Irish artist by the name of Oliver Orme who conducts an affair with his best friend’s wife, Polly.

It’s a languid, richly immersive story that features all of Banville’s typical literary flourishes — long, flowery sentences, vivid detail and an impressive vocabulary — and his usual trademarks — men with secrets, an obsession with art and crimes of the heart.

A confessional tale

The story is narrated by Oliver in a pompous, self-obsessed voice (Banville does these kinds of characters so well) after the affair is over. He’s nursing his wounds and looking back on how the affair started and then how it ended. His detail is forensic.

But for all Oliver’s narcissism, there is a vein of stark honesty running throughout his tale: he really wants to confess all (or maybe he just wants to brag?). He describes himself as old  — “pushing fifty and feel a hundred, big with years”  — and fat, a man with a shameful secret  “of which, however, I am not as ashamed as I should be”. That secret is his penchant for petty thievery.

The first thing I ever stole, the first thing I remember stealing, was a tube of oil paint. Yes, I know, it seems altogether too pat, doesn’t it, since I was to be an artist and all, but there you are.

He even sees the affair as a form of thievery.

But it’s true, I suppose. I did steal her, picked her up when her husband wasn’t looking and popped her in my pocket. Yes, I pinched Polly; Polly I purloined. Used her, too, and badly, squeezed out of her everything she had to give and then ran off and left her. Imagine a squirm, a shiver of shame, imagine two white-knuckled fat fists beating a breast in vain.

Similarly, Oliver views much of his world through the prism of an art lense, comparing events and scenes with famous paintings. In Edouard Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe, for instance, he sees his wife, Gloria, as the woman “in the buff” and Polly “off in the background bathing her feet”.

Later, he describes Polly having  “the look of a ravaged version of the flower-strewing Flora to the left of the central figure” in Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera.

Yet for all his high-brow observations and cultured view of the world, Oliver isn’t without a sense of humour. It’s understated, but I often laughed when I came across some of his funny remarks, including his description of himself, creeping around in a dark house…

[…] with the blanket clutched around me and my bare feet and furry little legs on show, I must have had something of the aspect of one of the smaller of the great apes, improbably decked out in drawers and vest and some sort of cape, or else a fallen king, perhaps, witlessly wandering in the night.

The narrative also contains many witty one-liners — “Lot of water under that bridge, let’s not drown ourselves in it”; “Nowadays it all feels like repetition. Think I’ve said that, too”; and “I dropped in to see my sister. She is called Olive. I know, outrageous, these names.” — which makes Oliver a little more down-to-earth than the picture he likes to paint of himself (pun fully intended).

A rich writing style

As ever, reading anything by Banville is to have your own vocabulary expanded exponentially (which is why it’s always good to read him on an electronic device with a built-in dictionary). Here’s just a handful of the words I had to look up: haruspicating, virescence, turpitude, immanence, anaglypta, micturating, winceyette, casuistry, sibylline, phthisic, hobbledehoy, homunculus and autochthons.

But he’s excellent at describing people — he loves to tell us what they’re wearing — including how they move, what their expressions reveal and so on. This is his pen portrait of Polly’s father:

He wore a three-piece suit of greenish tweed, and a venerable pair of highly polished brown brogues. Though his complexion was in general colourless, there was a ragged pink patch, finely veined, in the hollow of each cheek. He was a little deaf, and when addressed would draw himself quickly forwards, his head tilted to one side and his eyes fixed on the speaker’s lips with bird-like alertness.

I also like the way he uses metaphors and similes, with nary a cliché in site:

It strikes me that what I have always done was to let my eye play over the world like weather, thinking I was making it mine, more, making it me, while in truth I had no more effect than sunlight or rain, the shadow of a cloud.

I realise I’ve included more than my usual share of quotes in this review, but I find Banville’s use of language and the ideas he presents inspiring. The story itself is a thin one — it’s just a self-obsessed man falling in love with someone he shouldn’t, after all —  but no one could tell it in the same richly evocative way as Banville and through the eyes of a character only he could create.

You can find other reviews of this book at ANZLitLovers (here) and The Guardian (here).

This is my 13h book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I first received an advanced readers copy from NetGalley prior to publication in 2015 but never got around to reading it. Then the publisher sent me a lovely hardcover edition. And yet it has taken all this time to finally get around to reading it.

Author, Benjamin Black, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, New York, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘The Lemur’ by Benjamin Black

The Lemur

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 2009; 185 pages.

Ghostwriters or journalists who get themselves into trouble while researching the books that they are writing is not a new idea in fiction — think Robert Harris’ The Ghost and Alan Glynn’s Bloodland for a start. Into this “genre” comes The Lemur, a stand-alone novella by John Banville writing under the pseudonym Benjamin Black.

But this is not your average run-of-the-mill psychological thriller. Fast-paced and full of classy prose (and classy characters), it has all the hallmarks of a book that could have been written any time in the past 60 years: it feels like a good old-fashioned classic, with a nod to the likes of Graham Greene and Raymond Chandler, but is set in modern day Manhattan, with its glass canyons and chaotic streets ringing with the constant sound of police sirens.

The story is a slight one — a biographer hires a researcher who uncovers a dangerous secret but is murdered before the secret can be told — but in Black/Banville’s hands it feels like a much grander narrative.

A man with a secret

Essentially, The Lemur goes something like this: John Glass, a renowned Irish journalist, has married into a rich American family headed by billionaire William “Big Bill” Mulholland, a former CIA operative who has made his money in spyware electronics. When Mulholland discovers that another journalist, Wilson Cleaver, is planning a hostile biography of him, he hires his son-in-law, Glass, to pen the official version for the grand sum of $1million.

But Glass, feeling slightly out of his depth, decides to hire a researcher to help him on the project. And this is where he meets the “Lemur” of the title — a young researcher by the name of Dylan Riley, who already seems to know a lot about Mulholland. Glass is immediately suspicious of him, not the least because “with that long neck and little head and those big, shiny eyes, he bore a strong resemblance to one of the more exotic rodents”.

Things take a turn for a worse when a day after their first meeting Riley tries to blackmail Glass for $500,000:

“No, you look,” the Lemur said, in a new, harsh and suddenly unadolescent-sounding voice. “You used to be the real thing, Glass. A lot of us believed in you, followed your example. Now look at you.” He gave a snort of disgust. “Well, sell out to your father-in-law the spook if you like. Tell the world what a sterling guy he is, the unacknowledged Cold War conscience of the West, the man who urged negotiations with Castro and a safe passage for Allende to Russia — as if he’d have wanted to go, the poor schmuck. Go ahead, write his testament, and peddle your soul for a mess of dollars. But I know something that will tear you people apart, and I think you should pay me, I think you WILL pay me, to keep it all in the family.”

But the next day, the Lemur is found dead, shot through the eye with a Beretta. What is the secret he knew? And has he told anyone else? And why are the police suddenly asking Glass a lot of questions?

Edgy and filmic

The Lemur might be a relatively simply tale — there’s nary a red herring to be seen and the narrative is far too short to twist and turn in the way of a conventional thriller — but it definitely holds the attention, probably because the author makes every scene, no matter how small, feel edgy and combative: you’re never quite sure which character in a given situation is going to come off the worse for wear.

As one would expect from a Booker prize-winning author, the prose is rich and alive but Banville reigns things in beautifully: there are no literary flourishes, just good writing with a distinct filmic quality to it.

Likewise, the characters are exemplarily drawn — the bullish but aloof father-in-law; the impeccably dressed and successful wife; the intriguing and artistic mistress; the arrogant “young pretender” step son; the once-famed journalist wrestling with his conscience and afraid to lose all — while the razor-sharp dialogue moves things along at a clipping pace.

The ending, while plucked from the usual “family secret” book of cliches, is satisfying in its own little way. But this is not the kind of book you read for the denouement; it’s the pleasurable journey you experience along the way that makes The Lemur such a beguiling read.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, John Banville, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Viking

‘Ancient Light’ by John Banville

Ancient-light

Fiction – hardcover; Viking; 256 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Love, grief and memory are common themes in John Banville’s work, and his latest novel, Ancient Light, is no exception.

The story has two narrative threads spooling from the one narrator: a current storyline in which aging stage actor Alexander Cleave is given a rare movie role starring opposite a bright young thing, and a second storyline in which he remembers his first unlikely love affair as a teenage boy in 1950s Ireland.

Both narratives twist and turn around one another, allowing the past to inform the present, but also reminding Alexander of two tragic losses in his life: that of his first lover and that of his adult daughter’s suicide 10 years before.

A killer first sentence

The book opens with a rather striking first line:

Billy Gray was my best friend and I fell in love with his mother.

Alexander was 15 and Mrs Gray was 35. Their illicit — and illegal — affair commenced on a metal-framed camp bed — “or it might have been a horsehair mattress thrown on the floor” — set up in the laundry room and then proceeded in all manner of uncomfortable places: the back seat of Mrs Gray’s car, a derelict house in the woods and the floor of the laundry room after the bed mysteriously disappears.

This tantalising storyline recalled in snippets and moments of self-doubt — “Images from the past crowd my head and I cannot tell if they are memories or inventions” — explores how the young Alexander was besotted with his older lover. And it shows, in painstaking detail, how the pair risked condemnation, ruination and, worst of all in Roman Catholic Ireland, damnation for their sordid behaviour.

Lots of questions to think about

A book of this nature throws up all kinds of questions for the reader — particularly when you consider recent news stories in which grown men have gone on the run with teenage lovers and then been thrown in prison for their actions.

This story might be about an older woman and her teenage lover, but does this make it any less of a crime? What was Mrs Gray doing sleeping with a schoolboy? And because Alex was, quite frankly, a randy young male, does this make their sexual liaisons more acceptable?

Of course, Ancient Light only ever tells Alexander’s side of the story — and even then we are never quite sure how much of it is reliable, a point that he labours constantly. The reader, however, will come to their own conclusions. Me? I figured Mrs Gray was lonely, bored and looking for a frisson of excitement in her dull 1950s small town life as a homemaker and mother (this does not make it right), and Alexander, initially thrilled by the sex, was clearly not mature enough to handle the complexity of an adult relationship. He struggled with his emotions, often rowing with Mrs Gray or sulking because she behaved in ways he didn’t expect. She fulfilled a need — and not just a sexual one.

Lovely writing, perfect voice

As ever with a John Banville novel, the writing is rather lovely, ripe with meaning and exquisite sentences. The voice of Alexander — a heady mix of pomposity, runaway ego and heartfelt regret and sadness — is captured so expertly that I did not know whether I loved or loathed him.

Occasionally alarming, often tender and moving, this is a novel of remarkable insight. And as a multi-layered confessional, looking back on a life marked by an aching sense of loss, it is a pretty damn fine one.

Ancient Light won the 2012 Novel of the Year at the Irish Book Awards. It is the final novel in the trilogy formed by Eclipse (2000) and Shroud (2002), neither of which I have read, an oversight I plan to rectify soon.

5 books, Book lists

5 books starring amoral protagonists

5-books-200pixContemporary fiction is filled with bad guys, but how many stories put you firmly in the head of the nasty perpetrator and present their side of the story as a fait accompli?

Here are five novels that come to mind, all of which feature characters with skewed moral compasses.

They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname (hyperlinks take you to my reviews):

 

BookofEvidence

‘The Book of Evidence’ by John Banville (1989)

The wicked protagonist in this 1989 Booker shortlisted novel is Freddie Montgomery, a scientist, who steals a painting from a neighbour and accidentally kills a servant girl in the process. He then goes on the run to avoid detection. This dark and disturbing tale, which is told from Freddie’s point of view, recounts events leading up to his arrest — and it soon becomes clear he does not believe he has done anything wrong. The story is all the more disturbing given it is based on a real-life case, about a nurse murdered in Dublin, from 1982. (Note I read this before I began blogging, so I can’t link to a review.)

The-ginger-man‘The Ginger Man’ by J.P. Donleavy (1955)

The Ginger Man recounts the adventures of Sebastian Dangerfield, an American Protestant of Irish descent, who does everything a married man should not do: he spends the couple’s rent money on alcohol; staggers home drunk and acts violently towards his wife; and conducts numerous adulterous affairs. He’s thoroughly unlikable and completely selfish, and everything he does is outrageous. The book treads a whisper-thin line between comedy and tragedy, and while you don’t exactly cheer on Dangerfield’s exploits, you do keep reading in order to see what amoral thing he will do next!

Talented-Mr-Ripley

‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ by Patricia Highsmith (1955)

Tom Ripley, the talented one of the title, is a truly wonderful creation. A 23-year-old loner, he wants the finest things in life but cannot afford them — well, not until he bumps off a rich friend and acquires access to his monthly trust fund cheque first. While Tom’s actions are far from moral, or legal, you can’t help but cheer him on, as he moves from one Italian city to another in order to avoid the law which is breathing down his neck. The fast-paced narrative means you keep turning the pages to see whether our anti-hero gets away with his dastardly crimes! The ending may just surprise you.

The-butcher-boy‘The Butcher Boy’ by Patrick McCabe (1992)

Francis ‘Francie’ Brady is the meanest and most deranged schoolboy you’re ever likely to meet in modern fiction. He comes from a dysfunctional family — his mother is beaten up by her husband, his father is an alcoholic — and when a neighbour calls his family “pigs” he takes it to heart and wages a campaign of abuse and retaliation that does not end well. The story, which is told stream of consciousness style with no punctuation, follows Francie’s exploits, which include running away from home, going to a special school for boys where he is sexually abused and later committing a quite atrocious murder of his own. This incredibly dark and hard-hitting novel earned McCabe a place on the Booker shortlist in 1992 and still remains one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read. (Again, I read this before I began blogging, so I can’t link to a review.)

Get-me-out-of-here

‘Get Me Out of Here’ by Henry Sutton (2010)

Matt, the 30-something narrator of this novel, seems harmless enough to begin with. He’s a brand-obsessed businessman with a penchant for shopping, and while it’s clear that he’s obnoxious and self-centred, the further you get into the story the more you realise he is losing his grip on reality and is quite a dangerous and manipulative character. As he becomes more and more troubled, he begins committing more and more offences which will land him in serious trouble should he ever get caught. But because he is delusional, Matt cannot see that he is doing anything wrong, which makes for some incredibly funny set pieces. While I can’t say I cheered Matt on while I read this book — I felt far too worried for his sanity — I did get some good laughs out of his exploits and just hoped he’d get the medical help he so clearly needed!

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend some other reads that place the bad guy (or girl) at the heart of the story?

10 books, Book lists, Books of the year

My favourite books of 2006

Books-of-the-yearA year’s worth of novels. How do I choose which ones make my Top 10 list?

I read so many interesting books this year. I didn’t have any specific reading goals other than to read more foreign novels (that is, books in translation) and more books from my homeland (Australia). I did well on both fronts, reading some 15 books in translation and 12 Australian novels.

Most of my reads were modern fiction (released in the past five years) with a handful of classics thrown in and a helluva lot of Irish stuff. All up I read 82 books, a fine increase on last year’s 30-odd total.

My favourite read for 2006 was, without question, the extremely profound Snow by Orhan Pamuk. I found the book so incredibly thoughtful, weighty and sagacious that I could not bring myself to review it.

My top 10 (in alphabetical order by book title) is as follows — hyperlinks take you to my full review:

1. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (German)

2. A Gesture Life by Chang-Rae Lee (American)

3. A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry (Irish)

4. Miss Garnet’s Angel by Salley Vickers (English)

5. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson (English)

6. Sixty Lights by Gail Jones (Australian)

7. Snow by Orhan Pamuk (Turkish)

8. Tainted Blood by Arnaldur Indriðason (Icelandic)

9. Tatty by Christine Dwyer Hickey (Irish)

10. The Sea by John Banville (Irish)

And an extra one thrown in for good measure:

The Barracks by John McGahern (Irish)

What books did you fall in love with this year?

1001 books, Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, John Banville, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘The Sea’ by John Banville

TheSea

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 200 pages; 2005.

When John Banville won last year’s Booker Prize many were surprised. Critics, from the established media and the blogosphere alike, seemed united in their distaste for this novel, deeming it unworthy (and in some cases unreadable) for the UK’s most prestigious literary award.

Despite being a longtime admirer of John Banville’s work (although it had been about a decade since I’d last read any of his fiction), I was reluctant to try The Sea. I did not want to have my image of his work destroyed. I did not want to discover that the critics were right and I was wrong. And so my hardcover edition sat on the shelf unread for so long that it was eclipsed by the paperback release and I was forced to read it before the paperback reviews put me off it forever.

Now I am wondering why I waited so long, because The Sea is a remarkable novel — in all senses of the word.

It tells the story of Max Morden, a retired art historian, who takes a trip to the seaside village (where he once spent a childhood holiday) to come to terms with the “delicate business of being the survivor” after the death of his beloved wife. The novel, written stream of consciousness style, charts Max’s interior monologue, his recollections of the past colliding with the awkwardness of his present day grief.

Banville, a master of narrative, entwines several stories into one seamless, smoothly polished piece of fiction. The reader does not  even notice the joins between Max’s divergent memories: his wife (meeting, falling in love, making a life together) and a childhood vacation spent at his current seaside resort, where he was enchanted by the Grace family, and fell in love, first, with the mother Mrs Grace and was then seduced by the daughter, the beguiling and forthright Chloe.

Colliding with his remembrance of things past is his present reality: arguing with his strong-willed daughter who comes to visit; putting up with other house guests, such as Colonel Blunden who “overplays the part of an old soldier”, and the stern but friendly landlady Miss Vavasour; and finding things for himself to do, even if it means getting falling-over drunk in the local pub.

Just as the reader begins to wonder whether there is any point to these meandering narratives, Banville does what he does best: he allows these seemingly unrelated stories to join forces. This delivers a shocking blow, so that the reader suddenly realises that Max’s grief is two-fold: he is escaping from a recent loss but also coming to terms with a devastating incident from his childhood that has shaped much of his long life.

For me, the joy of reading a Banville book is knowing that you are in the hands of a master craftsman. He writes sentences like jewellers craft necklaces, carefully threading gems to catch your eye and take your breath away. He uses double-barrel adjectives (spit-smeared ball, bat-squeaks of pretend, dull-apple shade of the underside of a leaf) in unexpected ways, re-inventing language so that there’s not a cliche in sight. And he writes beautiful, lyrical descriptions that are distinctive and mesmerising without being pretentious, such as this:

A steep-slanted flash of sunlight fell across the beach, turning the sand above the waterline bone-white, and a white seabird, dazzling against the wall of cloud, flew up on sickle wings and turned with a soundless snap and plunged itself, a shutting chevron, into the sea’s unruly back.

I will be the first to confess that Banville may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But I appreciate his refusal to stick to conventions, to experiment with language and to explore so eloquently and with such clarity what goes on in people’s hearts and minds – the “grim gift for seeing people’s souls” as Don DeLillo described it.

If you are after something with a straight-forward narrative and a conventional plot, The Sea is not for you, but if you enjoy stylised fiction revolving around deep themes – love, loss, identity and remembrance – and revel in the use of sublime language, then I suspect you will be just as enthralled by this novel as I was.