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?

5 books, Book lists

5 books about forbidden love

5-books-200pixWith Valentine’s Day just around the corner I thought I’d put together a post about novels focussed on love — but with a twist. 

Instead of sweet, innocent romances, here are five novels that tell stories of forbidden love between people who should probably know better.

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

Skin lane‘Skin Lane’ by Neil Bartlett (2008)

Set in the London fur trade in 1967, this book is narrated deadpan style by Mr F, a 46-year-old loner, who begins having weird dreams in which a young naked man, his face obscured by his hair, is found hanging upside down in his bathroom. When a new apprentice joins Mr F at work he begins to wonder whether he might, in fact, be the boy of his dreams… This is a dark and creepy tale, one that has parallels to Beauty and the Beast, about an older man falling for a younger colleague that he cannot have. I read it more than four years ago, but the story has stayed with me — it’s one that does, indeed, get under the skin.

the space between us‘The Space Between Us’ by John MacKenna (2009)

It’s a bit difficult to summarise this novel by Irish writer John MacKenna without revealing a crucial plot spoiler, but let’s just say it’s about a widowed man who faces the challenge of raising his young daughter alone in ways that might not immediately spring to mind. Instead of being upset by his wife’s death, he’s relieved, perhaps because a married friend, Kate, has confessed she’s in love with him. This is an intriguing story about love in all its many facets — forbidden, unrequited, sexual and parental — death, grief and the relationships between fathers and daughters.

Lamb‘Lamb’ by Bonnie Nadzam (2011)

After David Lamb’s wife leaves him his life goes into a bit of a tailspin. Then, following his father’s funeral, he makes a spur of the moment decision to kidnap an 11-year-old girl, with whom he develops an unhealthy relationship. The book is not sexually explicit, but it is clear that Lamb is grooming young Tommie for his own perverse interests by building trust and making her feel special at every opportunity. When the two end up in a cabin in the woods you can’t help but fear for Tommie’s safety…

Tampa‘Tampa’ by Alissa Nutting (2013)

Meet Celeste Price, eighth grade English teacher, who has blond hair, a red corvette, an ultra-handsome husband — and an unusual sexual obsession with her 14-year-old male students. A novel about a pedophile might sound a bit repulsive  — it is, especially as the author makes the reader complicit in Celeste’s crimes— but it’s also a  compelling read thanks to the narrator’s engaging, often humorous, voice. But this isn’t just a titillating read: it throws up many questions about sexualisation of children, the lines between pupils and teachers, trust and betrayal.

A ship made of paper‘A Ship Made of Paper’ by Scott Spencer (2004)

This novel is very much in the vein of Anne Tyler in that it’s about ordinary people finding themselves in extraordinary situations. It’s about a lawyer, Daniel Emerson, who flees New York after a messy trial has ruined his outlook on life. He takes his long-term girlfriend Kate and Kate’s four-year-old daughter, Ruby, back to his home town to start afresh. In the safety of the rural town, he settles into a comfortable, if somewhat easy, existence. But then life gets slightly more complicated when he notices that he is falling in love with Iris, the mother of Ruby’s best friend. This isn’t just a story about two people having an affair, risking everything in the process, but because Iris is black and Daniel is white it’s a fascinating exploration of race relations (without ever resorting to stereotypes or caricature) and societal expectations. It’s a truly compelling and utterly believable read.

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend another novel about forbidden love?

Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, John MacKenna, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘A Haunted Heart’ by John MacKenna


Fiction – paperback; Picador; 272 pages; 1999.

John MacKenna’s A Haunted Heart is a rather beautiful story about an elderly Irish woman looking back on her life in which she joined the Quakers and fell in love with someone who did not love her back. The entire novel has a lovely Victorian feel to it and is ripe with mystery, forbidden love,  religious fervour, guilt and redemption.

A lifetime of journals

It is 1959. Elizabeth Hallshead is 78 and has spent the past 60 years living in England. She returns to her native Ireland after the death of her cousin, whose house she has inherited. She takes a lifetime of journals with her — 69 volumes — and prepares to write an account of her friend Abigail’s life for Abigail’s daughters.

I first met your mother, Abigail Beale (née Meredith), in the February of 1899. You were three years old, then, Lydia, and you, Myfanwy, were two. But before I tell you of that, I need to step back a short space, to the first time I saw Joshua Jacob, for he was to be the one who brought your mother and me together and the one who caused the separation between you and your mother.

But writing this memorial is not a straightforward or easy task. First, Elizabeth is gravely ill. Though we never find out the precise nature of her medical condition, we know that she is not expected to live very long. She is in the care of the kindly local doctor, who is just a phone call away, but sometimes she is in so much physical pain she cannot continue to work on the manuscript.  (By contrast, when she isn’t in pain, she enjoys exploring the countryside on her bicycle!)

And second, there are aspects to Abigail’s story which are mentally painful to recall. This is accompanied by the feeling that Elizabeth is holding things back, though whether she is trying to spare the feelings of Abigail’s daughter or is unable to confront her own truth, it is difficult to tell.

Two narratives

The novel is structured around these two intertwined narratives — Elizabeth’s present day (told in diary form) in which she writes the memorial, deals with her illness and tries to track down Abigail’s children; and her past (told in manuscript form) in which she joined an offshoot of the Quakers, run by the charismatic if misguided Joshua, and met Abigail, who had sacrificed her marriage and motherhood to become a disciple.

In both narratives, Elizabeth’s voice is engaging and intimate, and while it’s clear she is trying to set the record straight for Abigail’s children, ultimately she is confessing to a forbidden love she has kept secret for more than half a century.

In fact, this seems to be a recurring them in MacKenna’s work; two of his other novels which I have read and reviewed on this site — The Last Fine Summer, published in 1997, and The Space Between Us, published in 2009 — also deal with forbidden love, albeit two completely different types.

A moving story

A Haunted Heart is a strangely beguiling story dealing with big themes — remorse and longing, religious extremism and personal accountability, amongst others  — set in a time when not everyone was free to live the life they wished to live.

It is incredibly moving in places — at times it made me angry, at other times it filled me with despair — but in the tradition of great Irish literature it is always restrained and never sentimental.

Sadly, A Haunted Heart appears to be out of print, but you should be able to source a copy from secondhand booksellers online for just a few pennies. I paid about 2 pence for mine; I would have easily paid £20 (and more) for it and thought it value for money.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, John MacKenna, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘The Last Fine Summer’ by John MacKenna


Fiction – paperback; Picador; 267 pages; 1999.

I read John MacKenna’s The Space Between Us, a novel bought on a whim when perusing the New Island Books website, late last year. I enjoyed it so much I decided to seek out more of his work, only to find his three previous novels are now out of print. And so thanks to Amazon marketplace I managed to secure a copy of The Last Fine Summer, first published in 1997, for the princely sum of a few pence.

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, Jean, 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, Kevin, ten years earlier.

From the very first page we are told that both Jean and Kevin are dead, but we do not know the circumstances of their death, only that they died before their time. This is a superb plot device, because the reader knows what’s coming, but isn’t exactly sure when it will arrive.

MacKenna builds on this momentum by adding forbidden love into the mix: Jean is a student at Tim’s school; Kevin is gay. And if that wasn’t enough, mid-way through the affair with Kevin, Tim, who is confused about his own sexuality, fixes his sights on Kevin’s older sister, Hannah, so that a tricky and delicate ménage à trois results.

All this probably sounds sordid and trashy, but in MacKenna’s restrained, almost limpid, writing style, it comes across as beautiful and tragic. Much of the story is about teenagers finding their feet, negotiating that “last summer” when school ends and the rest of their lives begin. And while The Last Fine Summer may revolve around sexual love, there’s something deeper at its core: the relationship between fathers and sons.

Both Tim and Kevin are motherless from a young age. But where Tim forges a strong relationship with his quietly spoken dad, Kevin rails against his father, a farmer who is way too loose and heavy with his fists. It is this abuse which inspires Kevin to study hard so that he can escape the farm and go to college.

The Last Fine Summer is a powerful novel about love and loss, death and remorse. It is 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. I thoroughly enjoyed it and cannot understand why it is no longer in print. The bring-back-John-MacKenna’s-novels-into-print campaign starts here!

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, John MacKenna, literary fiction, New Island, Publisher, Setting

‘The Space Between Us’ by John MacKenna


Fiction – paperback; New Island Books; 282 pages; 2009.

At what point do you decide to abandon a book? I ask, because I came very close to abandoning this one by Irish writer John MacKenna. I struggled with the first 54 pages, not quite believing the dialogue (too verbose, too artificial) nor the characters (too one-dimensional, too false). But something convinced me to keep reading on, because who knows, maybe it would get better. And, thankfully, it did.

Reviewing this book proves somewhat problematic, however, because the plot has several key revelations which are best discovered by simply reading the book rather than reading this review. (And, whatever you do, don’t read the review or “product description” on Amazon, because they’re riddled with spoilers. I found this out the hard way, but even though I discovered what was going to happen, The Space Between Us still left me reeling at the end, part in shock, part in awe.)

The basic premise of the novel goes something like this.

A young architect opens the door to two police officers (or guards, as they are known in Ireland) who inform him that his wife, a solicitor, has been killed in a car crash. His reaction is not what one would expect. Instead of being overwhelmed with grief he’s overwhelmed by relief — their marriage had been floundering for a long time but neither party had had the courage to end it. Now, left alone to raise his two-year-old daughter, our unnamed narrator has been given a second chance to start afresh. When a married friend, Kate, confesses she’s in love with him, there seems only one road to take…

The book then jumps ahead 17 years and we discover the narrator living in the same house, but alone. His daughter, Jane, is studying classical music at university, but comes home to spend her weekends with him and their dog, the impossibly named Rostropovich. The story then follows our narrator for a year, and in that year, we find him being tested on very many levels.

“You need to stop letting things happen to you and make them happen for you,” his neighbour berates him one day.

“You need to be more passionate about life. And I’m not talking about shagging me. I’m talking about you and this way you have of sitting back and letting life wash over you. I’ve known you for twenty years and you’ve allowed yourself to just exist, you’ve lived without passion.”

This seems to mirror something Beth, his late wife, once told him when they were on holiday in Amsterdam almost 20 years earlier. She thought a permanent move to the Netherlands would be the impetus needed to kick-start his career to the next level, “the move that gives you the grand design”. But he’s content designing houses in small-town Ireland and the idea doesn’t interest him.

“I think you’re afraid of the world,” Beth said. I knew by her eyes she was serious. “I think you feel safe being the medium-sized fish in a tiny pond. But what happens if another fish appears in that pond?”

In essence this is a novel about the choices we make in life and the consequences of those choices. It’s also very much about unrequited love, death, grief and the relationships between fathers and daughters. And I defy anyone not to read this and be incredibly moved by the gentle prose and the emotional story that unfolds but most of all by the powerhouse ending that turns everything else on its head. This book isn’t what I expected, it’s far more shocking and disturbing than I could have possibly envisaged, and I rather suspect anyone who decides to give it a try will concur.

Oh, and if anyone does read this book, please come back and let me know: I’m dying to have a proper discussion about it, as it throws up so many interesting topics and issues.