2021 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Bloomsbury Circus, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Reading Projects, Rob Doyle, TBR 21

‘Threshold’ by Rob Doyle

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury Circus; 316 pages; 2020. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Have you ever read a book and then been stumped about how to review it or how to explain it to others?

Rob Doyle’s new “novel” — I use the term lightly because I’m not sure if this is a novel or a memoir or reportage or a series of essays because it certainly feels like all of these things in places — is just like that.

I don’t know how to articulate what Threshold is about. There’s no plot, there are few characters and next to no dialogue. It’s probably best described as a novel of ideas.

I enjoyed reading it and I came away from it feeling as if my grey matter had been deeply stimulated because it got me thinking about all kinds of things, specifically how humans use art, literature, music, drugs and travel to escape themselves, to gain new experiences and to make sense of the world around them.

An ageing narrator

The book is narrated by someone called Rob, who may or may not be the actual author. He’s writing as a middle-aged Irishman looking back on his life, and each self-contained chapter explains a specific incident or time in his 20s and 30s framed around a certain issue.

For example, in the opening chapter headed Mushroom, Rob tells us about his use of magic mushrooms, collected in Dublin’s Phoenix Park where they grow wild, to get high; in Mediterranean, we follow him on his trip to the small Catalan beach town of Blanes to follow in the footsteps of Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño, who lived and worked there for a large part of his life until his death in 2003; and in Nightclub he tells us about living in Berlin and being immersed in the hardcore techno club scene.

Sandwiched between each chapter is a one-page letter (or email) in which Rob writes to an unnamed friend, sharing an insight (usually about the writing process) or aphorism.

For as long as you are working, you have a why: when you reach the end of a project, the why dissolves. You are left alone with yourself, in all the pain from which the work had offered relief. But there is another perspective, more comforting and no less valid: with the completion of every book, it gets easier to disappear.

There’s no narrative arc because the stories aren’t necessarily told in chronological order. And yet, for all its breaking of normal “writerly” conventions, this is an imminently readable book. The prose is silky smooth, the voice understated. Occasionally it is shocking (there are many references to sex and drug use, for instance), but on the whole, I found myself swept up in the tales (and the ideas and the facts) revealed here.

It is deeply philosophical and introspective, but the mood is lightened by a playful sense of humour running throughout, although it’s not immediately obvious. You have to read closely to spot the clever “in” jokes and the sly little digs. In a book that is obsessed with recounting dreams, for instance, I couldn’t help but laugh at this line from Henry James, tucked away on page 189, that says: “Tell a dream, lose a reader.”

Nor could I withhold my chuckles when I came across this paragraph about suicide:

There was only one way I would have the balls to kill myself and that was by shooting myself in the skull. That seemed by far the best way of doing it: quick, loud, bloody and — hopefully — painless. All of this was fanciful, though. I could not shoot my skull because I didn’t live in a country where I could acquire a gun. The only country I knew where I’d be able to buy a gun was America, and I could never live there again: I would rather kill myself.

One man’s search for meaning

In essence, Threshold is one man’s search for meaning in a world often devoid of meaning. It’s a very male book, by which I mean it’s clear that Rob navigates a world that is made for him (without fear of falling pregnant, for instance, or being taken advantage of when drunk or high) and it’s sometimes hard to accept that his lack of clear direction in his life is anything other than his own making.

I loved the journey it took me on, including the meta aspects of it, and the cleverness of the writing and the ideas and philosophies presented. It’s a book to mull over, chew on, discuss with others. It’s one of the strangest books I’ve ever read, but it’s also one of the most engaging. Make of that what you will.

Threshold has been shortlisted for this year’s Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award. I still don’t know how to articulate what it is about.

If you liked this book, you might also like:

In a Strange Room’ by Damon Galgut: A lush, hypnotic novel that explores longing and desire through the prism of travel.

This is my 1st book for the 2021 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award and my 10th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I was actually sent this book unsolicited by the Australian publisher last year not long after I posted my review of Doyle’s debut novel.

2021 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year

The 2021 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award shortlist

It’s that time of the year again. The shortlist for The Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year award has been announced.

No longlist is announced for this annual prize. Instead, a shortlist of five titles is revealed a couple of months before Listowel Writers’ Week and the winner of the €15,000 prize is named on the opening night of the festival.

Longtime readers of my blog will know that this is one of my favourite literary awards, which I have been following for many years now. I usually try to read all the books on the shortlist. In doing so, I have been introduced to some excellent Irish fiction, including The Cold Eye of Heaven by Christine Dwyer Hickey, an incredibly under-rated novel (which I highly recommend you read, especially if you are in any way intrigued by James Joyce’s Ulysses) and last year’s superb winner Girl by Edna O’Brien.

Below is this year’s shortlist, arranged in alphabetical order by author surname, with the publisher’s synopsis underneath. Hyperlinks will take you to my reviews. Do keep coming back to this post as I will update the hyperlinks as and when I review each title.

The five shortlisted novels are:

‘This Happy’ by Niamh Campbell

When Alannah was twenty-three, she met a man who was older than her – a married man – and fell in love. Things happened suddenly. They met in April, in the first bit of mild weather; and in August, they went to stay in rural Ireland, overseen by the cottage’s landlady. Six years later, when Alannah is newly married to another man, she sees the landlady from afar. Memories of those days spent in bliss, then torture, return to her. And the realisation that she has been waiting – all this time – to be rediscovered.

‘Threshold’ by Rob Doyle

Rob has spent most of his confusing adult life wandering, writing, and imbibing literature and narcotics in equally vast doses. Now, stranded between reckless youth and middle age, between exaltation and despair, his travels have acquired a de facto purpose: the immemorial quest for transcendent meaning. On a lurid pilgrimage for cheap thrills and universal truth, Doyle’s narrator takes us from the menacing peripheries of Paris to the drug-fuelled clubland of Berlin, from art festivals to sun-kissed islands, through metaphysical awakenings in Asia and the brink of destruction in Europe, into the shattering revelations brought on by the psychedelic DMT.

‘A Sabbatical in Leipzig’ by Adrian Duncan

A retired Irish engineer living alone in Bilbao reflects on his life, work, homes and relationships, structuring his thoughts around key pieces of art and music, focusing particularly on a five-year period of prolonged mental agitation spent with his partner in Leipzig.

‘Words to Shape my Name’ by Laura McKenna

In a London graveyard in 1857, Harriet Small is approached by a stranger, an unwanted intruder who insists that she hear him out . . . in the will of a woman she only barely remembers, Harriet has been left an unusual collection of papers: her father’s True Narrative of his life after escaping slavery and his journey into the heart of revolutionary Ireland.

‘Bina’ by Anakana Schofield

“My name is Bina and I’m a very busy woman. That’s Bye-na, not Beena. I don’t know who Beena is but I expect she’s having a happy life. I don’t know who you are, or the state of your life. But if you’ve come all this way here to listen to me, your life will undoubtedly get worse. I’m here to warn you . . .” So begins this ‘novel in warnings’ – an unforgettable tour de force in the voice of an ordinary-extraordinary woman who has simply had enough.

The winner will be announced on 2 June.

Have you read any of these books? Or have any piqued your interest? Please do feel free to join in and read one or two or perhaps the entire shortlist with me. 

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Rob Doyle, Setting, TBR2020

‘Here are the Young Men’ by Rob Doyle

Fiction – Kindle edition; Bloomsbury; 304 pages; 2015.

Rob Doyle’s Here are the Young Men should come with a warning: this is a very VERY dark novel. But it’s compelling and page-turning, and one of the most visceral books I have read in a long time.

A Dublin summer

Set in the Dublin summer of 2003, it focuses on a group of teenage boys — Matthew, Rez, Cocker and Kearney — who have just finished school and are awaiting the outcome of their Leaving Cert exam results, which will determine their future lives.

But these boys are Trouble. Matthew, for instance, has been barred from attending his graduation ceremony for “unacceptable behaviour” throughout the course of the school year, while Kearney, who has an obsession with death, has disturbing fantasies about killing people as if he is living in a violent video game.

Now thrust into a post-school void, the gang of four hang out together, filling their time with drugs and booze and parties. They drift from day to day, dislocated and alienated from their communities and their parents, struggling to see any future for themselves despite the abundance of jobs and opportunities open to them. (The book is set at the height of the Celtic Tiger, when Ireland was awash with cash and affluence.)

The only thing that holds the group together is their shared need to escape reality:

The buzz from the hash made everything warm, like the world was coated in a soft, amber light. Everything felt more vivid and more interesting than usual – the hash was like a tool to drain the banality out of life. (p30)

Interesting structure

Told in alternate chapters from Matthew, Kearney and Rez’s points of view, the structure of the book gives us insights into each character’s take on life. Matthew is academically bright and wants more out of life but he’s bored, lonely and doesn’t know how to change things; Kearney is violent and volatile, lacks a moral compass and is oblivious to the fact that he is not well-liked; while Rez is bookish and clever but thinks too much and is sliding into a dark depression.

Over the course of the summer, things change: Cocker drifts away to another set of friends (we never actually hear his side of the story); Kearney goes to America to hang out with his older brother; Matthew takes a part-time job in a petrol station and becomes romantically involved with a girl from school; and Rez begins working as a nightwatchman, which turns his world a little upside down.

Rez worried. He worried that he was losing it, smoking too much dope and falling out of orbit with the world. For as long as he could remember, he’d had the sense that he wasn’t as fully connected to reality as you were supposed to be. But he had always struggled to express the specifics of this condition, even to himself. Recently, so much had fallen away, no longer trusted as being real: emotions, pleasure, music, art, even gestures and expressions. Nothing was simply itself; everything was a reflection of something else. Nothing was to be trusted. (p51)

Veering towards violence

It’s only when Kearney returns from his time in the States that life takes on a harder, more dangerous edge for them all: Matthew has fallen in with a drug pusher; Rez has become suicidal; and Kearney has become mentally unhinged thanks to a heavy diet of hash, hard drugs, booze and aggressive video games.

While the trio have never been violent —  “Fighting had never been our thing, despite the punk-rock attitude and the cynical agenda. In fact, we were against it.” — Kearney’s grip on reality means the game has now changed.

This is how Matthew describes it:

Lately I’d grown depressed at the thought – which not long ago would have felt exciting – that most of my friends were twisted, volatile outsiders. You started out playing with this stuff – the extremism, the chaos – and it felt vital and exhilarating; but then suddenly you couldn’t control it, you’d gone too far and it wasn’t exciting any more, only frightening. (p210)

Confronting story

It’s at this point that Here are the Young Men slides into confronting territory. There are scenes and actions here that are disturbing and abhorrent, providing the reader with glimpses into Kearney’s deranged mind. But it’s not done for shock value — it’s to make us realise that when people fall through the cracks, when society turns its back, the repercussions can be devastating.

Reading this book is a bit like taking a dangerous rollercoaster ride: you hang on for dear life and hope that you can get off with all your limbs intact. But for all its nihilistic tendencies, its pessimism and its harsh depiction of teenage life, it’s not without hope. I will leave the last word to Rez:

The challenge was to live in this weird, catastrophic, haywire world and ride it out, create your own pride and meaning within it, to face up to the nihilism and not be crushed by it. You had to keep yourself alive: through hate, through loving whatever there was left to love, through music and art and inspiration, through passion and intensity and feeling. (p284)

I read this book as part of Cathy’s Reading Ireland Month 2020, an annual initiative to read books from Ireland. You can find out more about that on Cathy’s blog 746 Books

This is my 8th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I bought it on Kindle on 21 February 2015, proving that sometimes it takes me many, many YEARS to read things on my TBR!

Triple Choice Tuesday

Triple Choice Tuesday: Isabel Costello

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

Today’s guest is Isabel Costello, who hosts the Literary Sofa blog featuring guest authors, book reviews and her twice yearly selections of recommended new fiction, as well as candid accounts of her own experiences as a writer.

Her ‘home territory’ is the crossover zone between literary and commercial fiction and she has a special interest in contemporary American and French writing.

Isabel has completed two novels and has had several stories published and shortlisted in competitions including the Asham Award. She loves to connect with readers and has shared short stories with live audiences in London and Brighton.

When she’s not reading or writing she can often be found talking books on Twitter @isabelcostello

MadameA favourite book: Madame by Antoni Libera (translated from Polish by Agnieszka Kolakowska)

It’s not surprising that people think it’s impossible to buy books for me, but my friends are actually very good at introducing me to titles I haven’t come across. Madame was a leaving present from a former colleague, and an inspired choice. Set in Communist Warsaw in the late 60s, it’s the captivating coming-of-age story of a precocious teenager fixated on his glamorous French teacher. It’s literary, sophisticated and engaging in its portrayal of a place, an era and a relationship charged with all kinds of tension. I rarely re-read books and it’s always a risk, but after dipping into Madame a few times this week, I can’t resist.

LetrangerA book that changed my world: L’Etranger by Albert Camus (various translations)

I read French and German at university, and France has always been a big part of my life. L’Etranger is an extraordinary book, which is accessible on many levels. By the time I encountered it at 16 I had emphatically rejected my Catholic upbringing, and this text ignited my interest in two related questions: the search for meaning and randomness. All of this contributed to my becoming a writer (although if you ask any roomful of authors why they write it’s astounding how many reply, ‘To make sense of life’!)

In 2013, I attended a stunning dramatic reading of L’Etranger at the Southbank Centre to mark the centenary of Albert Camus’ birth and I have visited his grave in the small town of Lourmarin in Provence. That sounds slightly fanatical but it’s very close to where we often go on holiday.

Here-are-the-young-menA book that deserves a wider audience: We are the Young Men by Rob Doyle

This one makes me nervous because I don’t presume to know what other people have read and often find myself unaware of books which are apparently extremely well known. This paperback hit my doormat out of the blue and caught my eye, as raising two sons has made me reflect a lot on masculinity and the portrayal of men, especially in the context of feminism. A story following some disillusioned Dublin teenagers the summer they leave school, this is not for you if you have a problem with profanity, blasphemy, substance abuse, explicit sex and sickening violence. (The only one of these which bothered me was the violence). But if you can handle all that, this is a fearless and arresting novel that transcends shock value to question what it is to be young, male and lacking meaning (there we go again). It is undeniably and deliberately crass in places, but I was more struck by how poignant, profound and insightful it is. There are far too many safe and predictable books out there — this isn’t one of them.

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

These all sound fabulous, especially the first choice, which I’ve not heard of before. Camus is one of those authors I’ve not read despite owning most of his work — he often gets name-checked in this slot, which is perhaps why I’ve started to buy his work. And the final book has been on my radar for some time, given I’m quite partial to Irish novels, but now it’s promptly rocketed up my must-read soon list!

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