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.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, John Broderick, Lilliput Press, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Waking of Willie Ryan’ by John Broderick

The Waking of Willie Ryan by John Broderick

Fiction – paperback; Lilliput; 240 pages; 2004.

Back in 2012 I read John Broderick’s The Pilgrimage, an astonishing and shocking novel about sexual repression in 1950s Ireland, which has remained with me to this day.

Broderick’s later novel, The Waking of Willie Ryan, which was originally published in 1963, is just as memorable.

This story — of a man who escapes an asylum to confront the people who put him there — is a damning indictment of how easy it once was to remove troublesome people from society by merely labelling them “insane”. It’s also a horrifying expose of the Church’s cruelty towards homosexuals and the way in which it refuses to accept responsibility for past actions.

On the run 

When the book opens we meet Willie Ryan, an unmarried man in his 60s, who is fleeing the asylum in which he’s been living for the past 25 years. His story, which gently unfolds over the course of the novel, is one of great pain and anguish, of hidden abuse and thwarted love affairs, of being hugely wronged by others and then having to pay a high price.

Now, aware that he hasn’t much longer to live, Willie wants to come home to die. But his brother and sister-in-law, well-to-do people in small town Ireland, don’t want anything to do with him, and it is their son, Chris, who shows compassion and takes him in. It soon becomes clears that Willie is not insane and probably never has been. But he has dark secrets, about his childhood, about his love for another man, about the real reason he was incarcerated in a mental institution all those years ago.

While the story introduces subsidiary characters, all confronting their own demons — Chris is battling his own tortured love life; the asylum nurse Halloran is coming to terms with Willie’s motivations; Willie’s brother Mike is grappling with his own grief and remorse; his snobby sister-in-law is continuing to sweep unpalatable truths under the carpet — the central focus of this rather extraordinarily dark novel is the epistemological battle between Willie and the Catholic priest who helped put him away.

Beautiful prose

Like The Pilgrimage before it, The Waking of Willie Ryan deals with oppressive and often shocking subject matter, but it’s written in such beautifully evocative prose, often with an eye towards the witty, that it rarely feels heavy. Here, for instance, is Broderick’s wonderfully scandalous way of describing two women with a penchant for gossip:

They were both hothouse plants: products of years of rich foods, over-heated houses, soft beds, fine linen, and financial security, privileges which had branded them more particularly because they were intensely aware of them. Scented, over-dressed, over-jewelled, they might both have been expensive blooms forced for the same market. The one, slim, sinuous, waxy — a black orchid; the other, fleshly rounded, florid — a prize begonia.

But on the whole there’s a melancholy ache to much of the text as Willie comes to the end of his life knowing that his happiness — and his potential — has been sabotaged by religion and the petty small mindedness of those around him.

The Waking of Willie Ryan is a wonderfully poignant, often bittersweet, tale about refusing to conform and then seeking your own form of retribution at a time when the Church held sway over almost every facet of people’s lives. David Norris, in the foreword to this edition, calls the novel a “masterpiece”. I think he might be right.

5 books, Book lists

5 Irish novels you’ve probably never heard of

5-books-200pixIn honour of St Patrick’s Day I thought I’d put together a list of Irish novels — with a difference.

While I would never presume to know what you have read or not read, here are five Irish novels that you may not have heard of. All are excellent reads and deserving of a far wider audience.

The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — hyperlinks will take you to my full reviews:

The Pilgrimage by John Broderick‘The Pilgrimage’ by John Broderick (1961)

The Pilgrimage was banned by the Irish Censorship Board upon publication in 1961. I’m not surprised. Even now it has the power to shock. Set during the 1950s, it is about what happens to ordinary men and women when the Catholic Church tries to control sex and sexuality. And it peels back the facade to show how women and gay men were affected by the hypocrisy at the heart of its religious doctrine. The story is largely told through the eyes of an upstanding Church-going woman who has a secret life in which she seeks out casual encounters with strange men, the consequences of which are rather devastating…

The dead eight‘The Dead Eight’ by Carlo Gébler (2011)

Carlo Gébler’s The Dead Eight is based on a true story in which police framed an innocent man for the murder of a prostitute in rural Ireland in 1940. The man, Harry Gleeson, was hanged at Mountjoy Prison the following year. Gébler’s dramatic retelling of events is less about Gleeson and more about the murder victim, Moll McCarthy, who was found lying in a field with two fatal shotgun wounds — in fact, one side of her face had been blown away. Mixing fact with fiction, this is a riveting tale about an impoverished and uneducated woman who became an unwitting pawn in a dangerous game involving the IRA and the police.

The Devil I Know by Claire Kilroy‘The Devil I Know’ by Claire Kilroy (2012)

The Devil I Know is an extraordinarily funny satire about the collapse of the Irish economy following the 2008 global financial crisis. This Faustian tale is set over 10 days in March, 2016, when Tristram St Lawrence, 13th Earl of Howth, is giving evidence at a public inquiry into the collapse of the Irish economy. His lurid, fantastical tale, which is laugh-out-loud funny in places, highlights the stupidity, idiocy and foolhardiness of a succession of builders, bankers, politicians, developers and businessmen who put their own greed above all else. This is a morality tale of the finest order.

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

Leaving Ardglass is about two Irish brothers whose lives follow vastly different trajectories. When the younger brother, Tom, the narrator of the story, heads to London in the summer of 1961 to work on the construction sites run by his older brother, much of what he witnesses challenges his value system and opens his eyes to the ways of the world. The story is shocking in places, but its depiction of the truly tough and knockabout lives that Irish immigrants were forced to live at the time is unparalleled — and incredibly moving. It’s one of the best Irish novels I’ve ever read.

The Last Fine Summer‘The Last Fine Summer’ by John McKenna (1997)

The Last Fine Summer is set in rural Ireland in the mid-1990s. It is narrated by Tim, a 29-year-old school teacher, who is grieving over the loss of his much younger lover, whom he addresses directly in a series of letters. This narrative is undercut with the story of Tim’s previous love affair with his best friend 10 years earlier. Much of the story is about teenagers finding their feet, negotiating that “last summer” when school ends and the rest of their lives begin, but it’s also about the relationship between fathers and sons. Sadly, the book is out of print, but it’s worth hunting out second-hand copies, because this is a powerful novel about love and loss, death and remorse. It is John McGahern-like in its depiction of the passing seasons, of rural life, close-knit communities and the ways in which education can help you rise above your circumstances.

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend another Irish novel that deserves a wider audience?

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2012

Books-of-the-yearAs the year draws to a close, it’s time to choose my favourite reads of 2012.

Until I sat down to do this task, I would have described the past 12 months as a fairly average reading year.  I read a lot of books I awarded four stars and several that I thought worthy of five stars, but there were few that really stood out in the memory. And yet, when I went back through my archives, I recalled so many fabulous books that I began to find it hard to narrow it down to just 10 titles.

Without further ado, here’s what made the cut. The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks take you to my original review.

Pilgrimage

The Pilgrimage by John Broderick (1961)

I loved this book for its insights into human nature, its political and social commentary, its spotlight on hypocrisy in the Church and people’s spiritual obsessions — all told in such a simple, crisp prose style and at a surprisingly gripping pace.

Plainsong-original

Plainsong by Kent Haruf (2001)

Plainsong is a beautiful, sincere story about real people with complicated, messy lives — and I loved every single carefully chosen word of it.

Gillespie-and-I

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris (2011)

I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun reading a novel. It transports you into a strange world of art, deception, troubled families, disturbed children, grumpy housemaids and caged greenfinches, and then takes you on a rollicking good ride that you don’t want to end.

Devil_I_Know

The Devil I Know by Claire Kilroy (2012)

The Devil I Know, came out in the summer and I greedily gulped it down in a matter of days. It is an extraordinarily funny satire about the recent collapse of the Irish economy — and certainly the best Irish book I read all year.


Colour-of-milk

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon (2012)

The Colour of Milk is a truly compelling book because Mary’s voice is so urgent and authentic. And the ending, which is shocking, unexpected and heart-breaking, is the kind that makes you gasp out loud — and then you want to have a big sob.


Fly-away-peter

Fly Away Peter by David Malouf (1999)

This is a truly beautiful and devastating story set before and during the Great War. I read it in two sittings and felt stunned by the sheer power and emotion that Malouf wrings from just 144 pages of eloquently written prose.


The_Lighthouse

The Lighthouse by Alison Moore (2012)

I loved that from such a tiny package — the book is less than 200 pages and can be comfortably read in a handful of sittings — Moore has crafted a delightful, tightly crafted and incredibly suspenseful story.


Everybody_has_everything

Everybody Has Everything by Katrina Onstad (2012)

It is so filled with home truths — about relationships, friends, family and society — that if you don’t recognise yourself within these pages you will see someone else you know, perhaps a friend, a sibling or work colleague.


Imposter-bridge

The Imposter Bride
by Nancy Richler (2012)

I loved the detailed world that Richler creates here — her characters are wonderfully alive, flawed and judgemental, but also hard-working, determined and independent. Her prose style is clean and elegant, and she has a terrific ear for dialogue so it feels like you are eavesdropping on real-life conversations.


Heaven-and-hell

Heaven and Hell by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (2011)

Heaven and Hell is a powerful story about friendship, redemption, despair and the ocean. It was an unexpected delight to read it and certainly the most enchanting book I have read this year. It deserves a wide audience.

Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? Care to share your own top 10?

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, John Broderick, Lilliput Press, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Pilgrimage’ by John Broderick

Pilgrimage

Fiction – paperback; Lilliput Press; 130 pages; 2004.

Upon publication in 1961 The Pilgrimage, like so many Irish novels that dealt with sex and the Church at the time, was banned by the Censorship Board. Four years later it was retitled The Chameleons and sold more than 100,000 copies in the US.

It was John Broderick’s first novel. He went on to write 11 more — most of which are out of print — and an autobiography, but he got his start as a journalist and book reviewer. He died in 1989.

A dark book about sex

While the scandalous element of this novel may have lost its potency — so much about Ireland has changed since then and the Church is no longer a dominant force — there’s no doubt that this is a very dark book, and the depiction of sex within it still has the power to shock. I’ve not read Fifty Shades of Grey, but I suspect there’s a particular scene in The Pilgrimage that even EL James would not even think to write.

Set during the 1950s, this is very much a story about the hidden Ireland, about what goes on behind closed doors. It is also a disturbing portrait of what happens to ordinary men and women when the Church tries to control sex and sexuality. And it peels back the facade to show how women and gay men were particularly affected by the hypocrisy at the heart of its religious doctrine.

An upstanding woman with a secret life

The story is largely told through the eyes of Julia Glynn, a fine upstanding Church-going woman, who has a secret life. Married to a rich bedridden man, who can no longer fulfill her sexual needs, she seeks out casual encounters with strange men and rekindles her affair with her husband’s handsome young nephew and personal doctor, Jim Glynn.

But when Julia receives a malicious note from an anonymous correspondent detailing her relationship with Jim, she fears that this secret life may become exposed. Not that it puts her off too much — she later instigates a sordid night-time relationship with the household’s butler, a cold man called Stephen Lydon, who may or may not be her husband’s former lover.

As you can see by this brief description, the relationships in this novel are rather complicated and twisted — all the more so when you begin to realise that Julia’s marriage is merely one of convenience. Nothing is spelt out, but if you read between the lines it is clear that her husband is gay and that even on their honeymoon in France, when they “struck up a friendship with a young German who accompanied them everywhere and waved them a sentimental farewell at the airport”, he was having an affair right under her nose.

Restrained prose

Like the best Irish novels, the prose here is restrained, stripped back, bare. Every word counts. Much of the plot moves forward by dialogue, and it is this dialogue which reveals so much about his well-drawn, believable characters — it’s like every time they open their mouths, they reveal their souls.

And despite the lack of any superfluous words, Broderick manages to convey feelings and whole atmospheres — usually of malice and foreboding — so that they resonate off the page. A recurring theme is the claustrophobia of small town life, where everyone knows everyone’s business — or thinks they do — something that Julia finds particularly difficult to live with.

She was glad she had brought the car: to walk through the narrow, claustrophobic streets of this town with its almost indecent sense of intimacy would, at that moment, have been more than she could bear. She was too accurately attuned to the tempo of the place not to know that the tiniest change of mood, or worried preoccupation, was as accurately registered as an earthquake on a seismograph. These people did not lay bare their petty secrets by any logical system, but by an instinct which was almost entirely physical; and, therefore to Julia most terrifying, since her own reactions were largely of the blood. For that reason, like many others who live in those closed communities, she had developed a natural gift for dissimulation to an uncanny pitch of perfection. The city dweller who passes through a country town, and imagines it sleepy and apathetic is very far from the truth: it is as watchful as a jungle.

Two kinds of pilgrimage

The main plot, which involves Julia’s husband planning a trip to Lourdes in the hope he may be cured, gives the book its title. But it could also be argued that the way Julia uses her “smooth-skinned marble body” is a form of pilgrimage, too.

I loved this book for its insights into human nature, its political and social commentary, its spotlight on hypocrisy in the Church and people’s spiritual obsessions — all told in such a simple, crisp prose style and at a surprisingly gripping pace. The ending, which is abrupt and does not feel in keeping with the rest of the novel, has meant more to me with the passing of time.

I haven’t been as excited by an Irish author since I discovered the late, great John McGahern in 2005. This was the first novel I have read by John Broderick; it won’t be the last.