20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, Publisher, Roddy Doyle, Setting

‘Love’ by Roddy Doyle

Fiction – paperback; Jonathan Cape; 336 pages; 2020.

Roddy Doyle has cornered the market in stories focused on middle-aged Irishmen reflecting on their lives and loves.

This “trend” largely began with his short story collection Bullfighting (published 2011), quickly followed by Two Pints (2012) and Two More Pints (2014) (the latter two have been on my TBR since publication). Even his emotionally devastating novel Smile (2017) is about a middle-aged man picking up his life after the breakdown of his marriage.

His most recent novel Love is more of the same. It reveals how two middle-aged men discover that love comes in many forms, not just sexual.

A night on the town

Set over the course of one (drunken) night, it tells the story of two 50-something friends — Joe and Davy —catching up over a meal at a restaurant, which is then followed by a spontaneous pub crawl through central Dublin.

Told from Davy’s point of view, it is very much focused on a confession by Joe: that he has left his wife for another woman but has never had sex with her. (Davy, who moved to England decades earlier, has his own confession to make, but this is held back until the last 50 or so pages, giving the story a rather unexpected emotional ending.)

Comprised largely of dialogue interspersed with flashbacks to earlier times, the book follows an evening’s conversation, which remains stuck in a repetitive, single groove: that Joe is smitten with his new woman even though he still loves his wife.

Davy, whose own marriage has defied the odds, interrogates Joe because he thinks the relationship is far-fetched. He finds it difficult to believe that Joe hasn’t “traded in” his wife for a younger model but has moved in with a woman he went to school with some 37 years ago and whom he became reacquainted by accident at a parent-teacher evening a year ago.

He saw her at the end of a corridor and he knew. Immediately. She was exactly the same. Even from that far off. Even though she was only a shape, a dark, slim shape — a silhouette — in the centre of the late-afternoon light that filled the glass door behind her.
—She was never slim, I said.
He shrugged.
—I don’t even know what slim means, really, he said.
He smiled.
—Same here, I said.
—I just said it, he said. —The word. She was a tall shape – instead.
—Not a roundly shape.
—She’s aged well, I said. —That’s what you’re telling me.
—I am, he said. —And she has.

A long conversation

As the evening progresses, Joe’s conversation is like a stuck record. As more pubs are visited and an alarming number of pints are sunk, the pair’s circuitous conversation is mired by misunderstandings, occasional aggressive outbursts and comic moments.

And yet, despite the tedious nature of the banter, there’s something strangely touching about two men bearing their souls to one another. Here, in the pub, they can relax and be themselves.

Pubs, the world of men. There were women too. But the world — the pub — was made by men, put there for men. There were no women serving, no lounge girls, very few women sitting on the stools along the counters. Dark wood, old mirrors, smoke-drenched walls and ceilings. And photographs of men. Jockeys, footballers, men drinking, writers — all men — rebels, boxers. The women were guests. The men were at home. […] I’d discovered my life. The shy man’s heaven.

In fact, the succession of well-known Dublin pubs name-checked in this novel (many of which I’ve visited myself, including my all-time favourite establishment, The Palace Bar on Fleet Street) creates the perfect setting for the conversations that unfold within: dark and claustrophobic, rich with history and untold secrets.

Doyle captures the mood and atmosphere of the pub, as well as the little rituals between drinkers, in such a faithful, authentic way that reading this book made me thirsty for Guinness!

I watched the pints settle as if it was the first time I’d seen it happen, the tan darkening to black and the arrival of the collar. I couldn’t help myself.
—It’s a fuckin’ miracle, really, isn’t it?
He knew what I was talking about.
—It is, he agreed.
It wasn’t the first time he’d heard it. It had been one of our lines, since we’d heard some oul’ lad say it, probably where I was standing now.
Joe picked up his pint and placed it a few inches closer to him. I did the same – I leaned across him and put my glass on top of a wet bar mat.
—I don’t think I want this one, I said.
I meant it.
—I’m fuckin’ full o’ drink, I said – another phrase we’d got from an old man when we were young men, an old man who had probably been younger than we were now.

Similarly, the characters in Love are as well-drawn as the pubs. Joe and Davy are funny and loyal, sometimes bewildered (by women) and often perplexed (by the onset of age). Their conversation and their antics feel very real.

Yet, despite these strengths, the premise of this novel is relatively weak. The story unfolds too slowly and feels too long. It could easily lose 100 pages and be none the weaker for it.

That said, I enjoyed spending time in the company of these men. And the ending, when it comes, is as touching as anything I’ve read in a good long while.

This is my 3rd novel for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I purchased it from my local indie book store last month.

Author, Book review, Canada, Claire Messud, Fiction, literary fiction, Setting, Virago

‘The Woman Upstairs’ by Claire Messud


Fiction – Kindle edition; Virago; 320 pages; 2013.

While stories about angry men are a dime-a-dozen, it’s not often we get to read about angry women — and for that reason alone Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs stands out from the crowd. The protagonist, Nora Eldridge, is one of those people that has always done the right thing by everyone but now, 42, single and with no dependents, she’s beginning to wonder what good it did her. Instead of pursuing her dream to become a full-time artist, she’s settled for a life as an elementary school teacher — and this is now eating away at her.

But she is shaken out of her ennui by the arrival of a new student, eight-year-old Reza Shahid, whom she develops very fond feelings for, almost as if he was the son she never had. Before long she is enthral to his equally beguiling parents — Skandar, an academic from Lebanon, and Sirena, an installation artist from Italy — whom have moved from Paris to Massachusetts for a year. Together, Nora and Sirena agree to co-rent an artists’ studio so that they can work on their individual projects, and at last it seems as if Nora can finally pursue her real passion.

The story is narrated five years after the arrival of the Shahids and it’s clear that much of Nora’s latent anger results from them. But what is it about this family, with whom she was so infatuated, that has left her feeling so used and betrayed? The reason isn’t for me to share here — you’ll have to read the book to find out — but let’s just say I didn’t truly understand the fuss.

But that’s kind of how I felt about this story in general — it features great character development, and there’s plenty of momentum in the narrative to keep one turning the pages, but I just didn’t care about any of these people — not the angelic boy, not the patronising academic, not the cool and detached Italian artist and especially not the contrary, self-pitying narrator at its heart. It’s an entertaining enough read — and thought-provoking, too — and yet, despite expecting to strongly identify with Nora (I’m of a similar age), I found her immensely infuriating and whiny.

I think Messud’s greatest achievement is in provoking such a strong response in the reader, for it’s not very often that I dislike a character so strongly. The thing I’ve been mulling over ever since is this: is Nora a victim or just very good at making bad decisions?

The Woman Upstairs was longlisted for the 2013 Giller Prize.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Jonathan Cape, Publisher, Roddy Doyle, Setting, short stories

‘Bullfighting’ by Roddy Doyle


Fiction – hard cover; Jonathan Cape; 214 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

It’s been a long time since I have read anything by Roddy Doyle. I devoured his Barrytown Trilogy in the mid-1990s, absolutely loved his Booker-winning Paddy Clarke, Ha, Ha, Ha and got ready to slash my wrists over The Woman Who Walked Into Doors. But I was less impressed with a Star Called Henry and so I didn’t bother reading the two follow-ups in that series.

But when his latest book popped through the letter box unsolicited a month or so ago, I figured I should give the poor man a second chance.

Bullfighting is a volume of short stories that could be best categorised as tales of male middle-age angst. There are 13 stories in this collection, many of which have been published elsewhere, including the New Yorker and The Faber Book of New Irish Short Stories.

The men in this book are passive, weak and out of touch with their emotions. Those that are married seem unable to communicate on any meaningful level with their wives. In The Joke, one man feels as if he’s invisible, that he’s being taken for granted by his wife, but he cannot articulate the problem — “Sick of what, but? He wasn’t sure. The whole thing. Everything. He was just sick of it” — so nothing is resolved.

It’s even worse for Kevin in the story Ash. His wife tells him she’s leaving him, but then she returns for one last romp in bed — “She rode the arse off me” — before disappearing again. He doesn’t know if his wife is ever coming back. Indeed, he’s not even sure if his wife has properly left him, because she’s not taken any personal belongings with her. He is stuck at home with the kids, but does nothing — he doesn’t even have the courage to make a phone call — to clarify the situation, to express his anger, or his dismay. He is kind of pathetic.

The over-riding theme here is men — “miserable poor shites” as one character describes it — stuck in ruts, of boredom, of monotony. Hanahoe, in the opening story Recuperation, puts it like this:

It’s depressing, a life, laid out like that. Mass, driving the kids to football, or dancing. The pint on Friday. The sex on Sunday. Pay on Thursday. The shop on Saturday. Leave the house at the same time, park in the same spot. The loyalty card. The bags. The routine. One day he knew: he hated it.

But just as I was getting sick of the repetitive themes — the family men growing old, coming to terms with the kids leaving home, of parents requiring care, of friends and neighbours dying of one disease (usually cancer) or another — Doyle throws a curve ball in the form of Blood, a startling story about a married man who develops a taste for raw steak and wonders if he might be turning into a vampire.

The stories that follow are slightly more edgy, although they are still peopled by men facing the fact that they have already lived more than half of their lives. The signature story, Bullfighting, hints at men finally opening up and communicating with one another beyond the usual pub-talk of football and politics. It revolves around four childhood friends holidaying in Spain, sleeping by day, partying by night, and even if it is the drunkenness that allows them to talk openly, at least they are admitting their problems and failings.

The collection as a whole is an effortless read, told in warm and witty Roddy Doyle style.  But with so much male repression bound up in one book, most of it completely unresolved, I wondered how much of it is a true reflection of this generation — okay, my generation — of men? When Terence, in The Slave, says middle-age is all about “getting older, slower, tired, bored, useless. It’s death becoming something real”, is that what most men think — and feel? Answers in the comments box, please!

Africa, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Morocco, Nina Bawden, Publisher, Setting, Virago

‘A Woman of My Age’ by Nina Bawden


Fiction – paperback; Virago Modern Classics; 160 pages; 1992.

Until very recently I had Nina Bawden pegged as a children’s author. Then, while browsing BookMooch a week or so ago, I accidentally discovered she had a rather extensive back catalogue of adult fiction that I simply did not know about. I promptly acquired a rather battered copy of A Woman of My Age (Virago Modern Classic Number 366) and set about reading it.

First published in 1967, this short novel reminded me very much of Doris Lessing’s The Summer Before the Dark  in that it tells the story of one woman’s emotional journey — figuratively and physically — as she struggles to come to terms with growing older and finding her rightful place in the world.

From the outset it is clear that our narrator is not content:

I find this so difficult. When I look in the mirror — not to see if the grey roots are beginning to show before the next tinting, but in the same way I used to look at myself when I was seventeen, at what, whom and why — I remain, as I did then, cloudy, fading, sadly out of focus. I do not know myself, only my situation: I am Elizabeth Jourdelay, married to Richard, the mother of his two sons. I am, I am middle-aged. This is an embarrassment that has come upon me suddenly, taking me by surprise so that I don’t really believe it. Looking in the mirror I see the wrinkles, but perhaps tomorrow they will be gone and my skin will be smooth again. Though wrinkles are not important. The important thing is that I am in the middle of my life and I feel as I did when I was adolescent, that I do not know where to go from here.

Now, on holiday in Morocco with Richard, Elizabeth longs for the desert because her life was “crowded, cluttered up”. But the journey is far from the calm, peaceful one for which she longs. Alongside the heat, there are other English travellers with whom she must contend: the delightfully eccentric and elderly Mr and Mrs Hobbs, and the slightly vain, thrice-married Flora and her much younger lover, Adam.

While Elizabeth enjoys the Hobbs’ company, because they remind her of the parents she never had, she finds Flora irritating. Indeed, Flora had gone to Oxford with Richard, and there are suggestions that they pair may have been lovers in the distant past and that their accidental meeting in Fez may have been pre-arranged. These niggling suspicions eat away at Elizabeth, who finds herself analysing her own marriage with a man she barely knew when she married him, aged 20, some 18 years ago.

Her somewhat melancholy recollections of their life together are seamlessly interspersed with what is happening in the present time, as the couple travel from Fez to the barren uplands beyond the Atlas mountains. The reader soon begins to realise that Elizabeth has made far too many compromises in order that the marriage can work, and now, in a foreign country, the cracks in their relationship can no longer be smoothed over. The tension, some of it tragi-comical, builds and builds until it comes to a devastating head…

A Woman of My Age is definitely a product of its times, when women married young and were expected to stay at home and raise a family. But in Elizabeth Jourdelay, Bawden has created a headstrong and independent character who rails against society’s “rules” and constraints. Raised by two spinster aunts, one of whom brought her up “to give too much importance to careers and causes and things of the mind”, Elizabeth finds marriage and motherhood constricting.

A highly political creature — “I was very unsure of myself except in matters of political opinion” — she longs to become a local councillor but Richard thought it a “dirty game and he could not understand how I could endure it” .

Later, when she raises the subject of getting a job, the response from her mother-in-law is crushing:

She said, first, ‘Do you really want one, dear? Richard and I thought you had settled so nicely’ — as if I was some sort of jelly — and then, ‘Well, if you really want to, I suppose it would be nice for you to earn some pin money.’

Unfortunately, it does not pan out as planned.

Perhaps it was stupid of me, but I had expected so much, if in a rather
a vague way, that the reality was a bitter shock: I was unqualified, I
had no degree, I wasn’t even trained as a secretary. It soon became
clear that nothing which came up to my expectations was open to me.
When I realised this, the walls seemed to close in. I became a gloomily
devoted mother.

There’s something very sad about Elizabeth reconciling her expectations with keeping her family happy, because it’s clear that her husband has not had to do the same thing. Of course, we only hear Elizabeth’s side of the story, but as the narrative progresses you begin to understand that Richard is not the saintly school teacher husband he purports to be.

And while Bawden deftly captures all the tensions and betrayals and compromises that married people make, she also does a nice line in setting the mood. Her descriptions of Morocco are particularly vivid.

The terrace of the casbah fell away down the hill, dovetailed into one another like the streets and courts of a medieval city, all enclosed in a wall of the same red earth. At one end there was a little tower where cranes were nesting. Beyond the wall was the palm-grove, a chess-board of different coloured grasses, and beyond the oasis, the flat, ochre colour of the desert. The air quivered, not just far in a heat haze, but close by me on the parapet, in a kind of vibrating brightness that hurt my eyes.

In fact, setting the book in Morocco is a clever touch, because it allows Elizabeth to compare the subjugation of women in North African societies with her own situation. Indeed, when Flora points out that “their men shut them up at home; even if you visit the house, the women don’t appear socially. Just to serve the food” the point seemingly goes over Elizabeth’s head, but it did not go over mine.

Having read my first Nina Bawden adult novel I’m keen to read the others — there’s certainly plenty to keep me occupied as you can see by this and this. Next on the rank is The Birds in the Trees or maybe I will try Afternoon of a Good Women, two books I mooched even before I’d come to the end of this one. If they are half as good as A Woman of My Age I am sure to be in for a treat.