Author, Book review, Cynan Jones, Fiction, Granta, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, UK, Wales

‘The Long Dry’ by Cynan Jones


Fiction – paperback; Granta; 104 pages; 2014.

Earlier this year I read Cynan Jones’ extraordinarily powerful novel The Dig and was so impressed I quickly sought out his first book, The Long Dry, which was published in 2006 and won a Betty Trask Award the following year. Cut from similar cloth as The Dig, it depicts a world that is earthy, rough and rugged but it is written in such lyrical pared-back language it practically sings with the beauty of the rural landscape in which it is set.

A lost cow

Set over the course of a single day, it tells the tale of a farmer looking for a missing cow. But this is much more than a simple search-and-rescue mission, for as Gareth searches the parched fields we learn about his hopes, his dreams and the love he has for his wife and children.

Central to this is Gareth’s connection to the land — he is a second generation farmer, having inherited the farm from his father who bought it after the war because he no longer wanted to work in a bank — and his community, including Bill, the simple-minded neighbour who was given a few acres of the farm by Gareth’s father, for whom he feels responsible.

We also hear from the wife — in brief, first-person snippets — who is worried that she’s no longer sexually desirable, suffers headaches and depression, and has a dark secret of which she is very much ashamed.

Then there’s the teenage son, who’s more interested in having fun than carrying out his tasks in any kind of responsible way, and the young daughter, Emmy, wise beyond her years and very much-loved and doted on by her father.

And finally, the lost cow’s wanderings — she is heavily pregnant, which is why it is so important for Gareth to find her — are threaded into the narrative, which is punctuated by little fragmentary set pieces, mini-stories within the story, that showcase life and death on the farm.

Nature writing

The Long Dry is very much a paean to nature, which is beautifully evoked in simple yet vivid descriptions, occasionally using unexpected words that not so much as confront the reader but check that you’re paying attention:

Damselflies and strong white butterflies, delicate as hell, are everywhere around the pond, and machine-like dragonflies hit smaller insects in the air as they fly. The reeds are flowering with their strange crests and on the island in the middle of the pond the willow herb is starting to come to seed, and the thistles.

There’s also some unexpected humour, too:

People are seduced by ducks: by their seeming placidity. They fall for the apparent imbecility of their smiles and their quietly lunatic quacking. But they are dangerous things which plot, like functioning addicts. In the local town — a beautiful Georgian harbour town which is not lazy and which is very colourful — the ducks got out of hand. […] If you tried to drink a quiet pint on the harbour the ducks were there and they sat squatly and looked up at you and seemed to chuckle superciliously, which was off-putting. If you put your washing out, somehow the ducks knew, and by some defiance of physics managed to crap on it. And duck crap isn’t nice. It’s green like baby-shit. If you fed a baby on broccoli for a week.

But mostly this is a tiny book packed with startling little moments and quietly devastating revelations — mainly about the farmer’s wife and the couple’s young daughter — that come out of the blue and turn the entire story on its head.

The Long Dry is beautiful and sad, poignant and often quirky, but full of human empathy. It constantly spins and shimmers and dances along the very fine line between sex and death — this book brims with both — and the way in which we are all essentially animalistic, in our basic needs, our desires and our behaviour. It explores the fragility of life, of holding on to happiness and how tragedy can strike at any moment. And it’s filled with vivid, sometimes unsettling, imagery that lives on in the mind long after the book has been put down.

It is, quite frankly, an extraordinary achievement to do so much in such a slim volume. I’ll be holding on to this one to read again…

Author, Book review, Cynan Jones, Fiction, Granta, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, UK, Wales

‘The Dig’ Cynan Jones


Fiction – hardcover; Granta; 160 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Visceral. Violent. Compelling. Those are the first three words that spring to mind when I think of Cynan JonesThe Dig, a muscular little novel that is so powerful as to be Herculean.

Set in a Welsh farming community, it could be described as a “rural novel”, but it’s not the bucolic countryside so often depicted in literature. This is nature red in tooth and claw. It feels earthy, rough, rugged — and realistic. Anyone who’s grown up on a farm or in a farming community will recognise the life and landscape depicted here, even if they might not recognise or be familiar with the illegal activities at the heart of the story.

Good vs evil?

The Dig pits two men against each other: Daniel is a sheep farmer; the other, who is referred to throughout as “the big man”, is a ratting man who keeps dogs for pest control.

The big man has a dubious, never-quite-explained criminal history (all we know is that he has firearms offences and a long-ago record for assault) and is currently involved in prohibited activities: he traps badgers, a protected species, for use in badger baiting. This is a cruel and illegal activity in which a badger is put in a pit with a dog and left to fight it out (usually resulting in the death of the badger) for the purposes of “entertainment” and gambling.

Jones’ descriptions of these activities are brutal and stomach-churning, leaving little to the imagination (the one that follows is relatively mild, but will give you an inkling):

The big man took the sack over and dumped it on the table which shook the badger into life so it scuffed on the table and rocked it. A can of beer went over to laughter as they held the table steady and then he punched the badger and it seemed to go still and there was a sense of immediate respect and dislike for him. It’s a big, heavy boar, he said. Then they tipped the badger into the pit.

But The Dig isn’t solely a bloodthirsty, vicious tale, however, because Jones carefully balances this aggressive narrative with a tender love story that shows us the farmer’s softer side. He’s a man who’s constantly holding his emotions in check, even though it’s clear he feels things deeply and his life has been marked by loss.

Beautiful prose

In my opinion, the real strength of the story is the prose style. It is immediate, stripped back, lyrical and, occasionally, hard-hitting, and often reminded me of the Irish writers I love so much. It’s something to do with the incisive way Jones has of getting to the heart of an emotion or a subject using a bare minimum of works in a rhythmic way — his sentences practically sing. And then, every so often, he crafts a sentence that also dances:

A singular moth flutters in through the wind baffles to the naked bulb above the kettle, cuspid, a drifting piece of loose ash on the white filament, paper burnt up, caught in the rising current from some fire unseen, unfelt.

The entire book is also brimful of beautiful descriptions of nature and the weather — in fact, if I underlined all the ones I admired, I’d end up defacing every second paragraph:

It was brewing to rain again, the sky bruising up and coming in from the sea.

An intense read

The Dig is an intense and immersive reading experience — on so many different levels: in its use of language, its characterisation and its depiction of rural life and crime. It is genuinely shocking in places, but it’s also heart-rending. There were times when it made me feel sick, occasionally I wanted to cry, mostly I felt my heartbeat escalating in fear of what was about to happen next.

It is dark and thrilling, definitely not for those with a weak disposition, and left a marked impression on me.  I have no doubt that even though it was the first book I read this year, I already know it will be in my Top 10 for 2015. I’ve already gone out and bought Cynan Jones‘ entire back catalogue…

To see what other bloggers thought of this novel, please see the reviews at Savidge Reads, Farm Lane Books Blog and Asylum.

UPDATE: Thanks to Mary Mayfield for pointing me to this great interview with the author on her blog.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, William Trevor

‘Love and Summer’ by William Trevor

Love and Summer by William Trevor
Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 221 pages; 2009.

The oppressive nature of village life — in which privacy is virtually non-existent —  comes to the fore in William Trevor’s 2009 novel, Love and Summer, which also explores guilt, forbidden love and the strength we all require to rise above our circumstances.

Set in Rathmoye, a small Irish town “some years after the middle of the last century”, it follows a handful of residents over the course of one fine summer.

Trevor takes his time to introduce them all, chapter by chapter, including: the former librarian Orpen Wren, who seems to have lost his marbles and only talks about people and events from the past as if he is stuck in a time warp; the troubled Miss Connulty, who has taken over running the town’s B&B with her “weasel-faced” twin brother, Joseph, upon the death of their community-minded mother; and the hardworking widowed farmer Dillahan and his second wife, Ellie, a foundling who first moved to the farm as a housekeeper, an arrangement organised by the nuns who raised her.

But the equilibrium of Rathmoye — where “nothing happened, its people said” — is disturbed by the arrival of a tweed-clad stranger on a bicycle. He causes a bit of a stir when he turns up on the morning of Mrs Connulty’s funeral asking for directions to the ruins of the local cinema, which he wants to photograph.

His name is Florian Kilderry, “the sole relic of an Italian mother and an Anglo-Irish father”, who has inherited Shelhanagh, a large crumbling house, with its own lake, seven-and-a-half miles from Rathmoye. He cannot afford its upkeep, so his only option is to sell it:

“She’ll fetch a bit, I’d reckon,” the man from the estate agents’ office had said when he’d finished with his tape measure; and the Bank of Ireland thought so too. With the debts paid, there would be enough to live on, if not in splendour at least in comfort for a while. Enough to be a stranger somewhere else, although Florian didn’t yet know where. He had never been outside Ireland.

As Florian goes about getting the house ready for sale — disposing of its contents, including a car — he often travels into the village on photographic excursions (he’s dabbling with it as a potential occupation), and it is here that he strikes up a friendship with Ellie when she’s out and about on her errands. This friendship blossoms into something much deeper and it is this forbidden love affair that forms the heart of this rather genteel novel.

But to dismiss this book as merely a romance would be to do it a disservice.

Trevor is an economical writer, keeping both his prose and his narrative pared back to basics, but his characterisation is superb and the ways in which he draws such a diverse cast together is nothing short of genius. Every character has a back story — Dillahan’s first wife and young child died in a tragic farming accident for which he blames himself, Miss Connulty was “disowned” by her mother following an abortion 20 years earlier, Ellie was raised by nuns who taught her to be chaste and pure, Florian holds a torch for the Italian cousin he no longer keeps in touch with   — and it is these heartaches and desires which play a key role in giving Love and Summer such unexpected strength and power.

Trevor is also superb at capturing the tenets of rural life — the changing seasons, the day-to-day tasks that a farmer must carry out, the routine of keeping a house, the reliance on neighbours and community for help, amongst others — often bringing to mind some of my favourite rural Irish novels, such as John McGahern’s That They May Face the Rising Sun and Patrick Kavanagh’s Tarry Flynn.

There’s no doubt that Love and Summer is a deftly written novel, one that unfolds gently to reveal what it is to be confronted with difficult, heart-rending choices. I loved its quiet beauty and its truthful depiction of rural life and romantic love.

For other takes on this novel, please see KevinfromCanada’s review and Lisa from ANZLitLovers review.

To see reviews of other William Trevor novels on Reading Matters, please visit my William Trevor page.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Fig Tree, historical fiction, literary fiction, Nell Leyshon, Publisher, Setting

‘The Colour of Milk’ by Nell Leyshon


Fiction – hardcover; Fig Tree; 176 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The very best novels are always the ones that tell a story in a truly distinctive voice — Nell Leyshon’s The Colour of Milk does just that.

A teenage farm girl

Beginning in “this year of lord eighteen hundred and thirty”, it is narrated by the ever-feisty and sharp-tongued Mary, who is 15 years old and has an extraordinary tale to tell.

Mary, who has a crippled leg — “mother says it was like that when i come out into the world” — lives on a farm in the West Country with her parents, her beloved grandfather and three sisters. One day her father tells her that she is to move to the local vicarage, where she will work for Mr Graham, whose wife is unwell, as a live-in help. The prospect is shocking, because she’s never been further than the top field of their property, and nor has she slept in any bed other than the one she shares with her sister.

She goes to the vicarage relunctantly. As much as she hates her father and the way he treats her, she misses her family and her usual routine desparately. But there is one good thing about working at the vicarage: Mr Graham has promised to teach her to read and write. And that is how we get to read Mary’s first-hand account of her new life.

An unforgettable voice

The most striking thing about The Colour of Milk is the prose style. There is not one capital letter in the entire narrative, but the sentences, so heart-felt and direct, are easy to follow.

this is my book and i am writing it by my own hand.
in this year of the lord eighteen hundred and thirty one i am still sitting by my window. the wind comes through the cracks in the window frame.
i am tired from doing this and my wrist aches from doing this. but i promised myself i would write the truth and the things that happened. i will do that.
and my hair is the colour of milk.

The narrative, which is very much tied to the seasons, is divided into four parts — spring, summer, autumn, winter — so that we experience the full cycle of rural life in the early 19th century. During the year we see Mary transform from a naive farm girl into a semi-literate woman, but along the way she gets to experience far more than she bargained for when Mr Graham wants to teach her more than her letters…

A memorable ending

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. The story is so imprinted on my mind it has stayed with me for more than two months now (I read it on the plane to Canada back in April) and is by far the best (and most memorable) thing I have read so far this year.

It’s the type of novel I want to press into everyone’s hands and say, here, read this. If that’s not an endorsement for a fine little novel (it comes in a very compact size), I don’t know what is.

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Charlotte Wood, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Children’ by Charlotte Wood


Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 319 pages; 2008.

I read Charlotte Wood’s The Submerged Cathedral about this time last year and enjoyed it enough to want to explore more of her work. The Children, her third novel, is set over six days in February 2006.

Taken to hospital

Geoff Connolly, a retiree, falls off the roof of his home in rural New South Wales and is taken to hospital with severe head injuries. As he lays like “a mechanically breathing corpse” in the newly opened intensive care unit, his wife and three adult children — war correspondent Mandy, civil servant Stephen and artist Cathy — gather around his bedside to keep vigil.

But this is not a happy family. The siblings nurse decades-long petty grievances and bitter rivalries. Stephen has kept himself apart from the family for years and only keeps in intermittent touch with Cathy. Mandy, shell-shocked and hardened from too much time reporting from the world’s war zones, is unable to keep a civil tongue in her head — at the expense of her now crumbling marriage to Chris. While Sydney-based Cathy, the youngest, plays the role of dutiful daughter, failing to understand why her older brother and sister are always at loggerheads.

But while Geoff is oblivious to the tension and strain around him, so, too, is his wife Margaret, who is bewildered by events and the behaviour of her adult children. Her family is coming apart at the seams, but is it still her role, after all these years, to keep it together?

You bring your children up to escape sorrow. You spend your best years trying to stop them witnessing it — on television, in you, in your neighbours’ faces. Then you realise, slowly, that there is no escape, that they must steer their own way through life’s cruelties.

Dual storyline

If that’s not enough, there’s a separate drama unfolding around them: Tony, a warden at the hospital, has developed an unhealthy obsession with Mandy that threatens her safety — perhaps more so than at any other time in her life, including her stints in the Balkans and war-torn Iraq, she just doesn’t know it yet.

Wood maintains this narrative tension throughout the novel by interspersing short chapters, from Tony’s point-of-view, that demonstrate his childlike, creepy tendencies. But even without this subsidiary storyline, the main thrust of The Children — a family collapsing in on itself at a time of great distress — is a page-turning read.

The characters are so well drawn that you feel as if you’ve known them all your life. Mandy is particularly believable as the embittered, contrary and “superior” war correspondent and I like the way Wood fleshes out her back story in order to contrast Mandy’s inability to readjust to ordinary civilian life.

Authentic dialogue

The dialogue, too, is absolutely spot-on. There’s one stand-out scene in an RSL restaurant — a quintessential element of life in small town Australia, I must say — where the siblings have a spat over the menu. This deteoriates into a ding-dong battle in which Stephen delivers some hard (and painful) truths to his older sister while Margaret frets about keeping up appearances:

But Stephen is aflame. ‘You just hate ordinary people, Mandy. You hate ordinariness. But the poor bloody people overseas you are always going on about, that you make your famous living out of? You know what they want? Ordinariness. They want exactly what it is about this place that you despise!’
Mandy is silenced. She puts a cigarette to her lips, staring at her brother. She has never hated anyone so much in her life.
‘You can’t smoke in here!’ Margaret cries.

Wonderful family drama

The Children is a wonderful family drama — on an equal to anything that loads of famous white American males churn out and for which they get lauded — that puts “normality” under the microscope. It is closely observed and so beautifully nuanced that I’m sure you could read this book a dozen times and come away with new things you missed earlier.

My only quibble is the too-quick and overly dramatic ending — in which Tony and Mandy finally come head-to-head — because it lets down an otherwise superbly crafted novel.

The Children was shortlisted for the Australian Book Industry Awards literary fiction award in 2008. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to be available outside of Australia or New Zealand.

Author, Belinda McKeon, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘Solace’ by Belinda McKeon


Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 352 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Belinda McKeon’s debut novel Solace is one of those books that has definitely improved with age. I read it several weeks ago and planned on giving it a three-star review. But I’ve thought about the book — unintentionally — a bit since then, almost as if certain characters and scenes have wormed into my brain, ready to reappear when I least expect them. When a story sticks like that, it has to be a good sign.

For background information, I first saw a review of Solace on the blog Just William’s Luck, which encouraged me to bump it a bit higher up my TBR. Not that there was ever any doubt that I would read this one: Belinda McKeon is Irish and the press release that accompanied my edition was littered with quotes from the great and the good of the Irish literary establishment — Colum McCann, Anne Enright and Colm Toibin. With names like that on your side, how could McKeon go wrong?

Without wishing to damn Solace with faint praise, it does tell the age old Irish story of strained relationships between fathers and sons. John McGahern is the master of this theme — the classic examples being The Dark and Amongst Women — but McKeon adds a modern twist. The setting is contemporary Ireland — the 2008 financial crash has happened — and the son, Mark Casey, lives in Dublin, while the father, Tom, is running the farm single-handedly in County Longford.

The problem is that Tom can’t run the farm alone, but because he is of that generation of men, unable to communicate with their children, he never fully articulates what it is he wants from Mark. And Mark, who is a doctoral student at Trinity College, is too passive to ever truly stand up to his father’s unspoken demands. But these parental obligations — and expectations — weigh on him heavily.

Mark might be approaching 30, but he has never truly managed to live his own life. Weekends are reluctantly — and resentfully — given up to help Tom bale hay or plough fields, and when the father and son are together there is tension between them. Words, when they are spoken, are harsh and bitter-edged. It is only the delicate manoeuvring of Mark’s mother that keeps the fragile peace in place.

Then, inevitably, Mark falls in love with a trainee solicitor, the beguiling Joanne, he meets at a party in Dublin. By a stroke of co-incidence (and there are several of these in the book), Jo happens to be from his home town, and she, too, has problems with her parents: she is estranged from her mother, and her father, whom she did not trust, is dead. This may partly explain why Mark and Joanne hit it off so quickly.

But McKeon uses the pairing to set up an unconvincing (and in my opinion, unnecessary) plot device, in which Joanne’s dad and Mark’s dad have past history. It seems the two of them spectacularly fell out over a property deal decades ago, and this creates additional tension for Mark — how does he tell his father that his new priority is a woman, rather than the farm, and worse, how does he tell him that the woman is the daughter of a man who wronged him?

That bit of melodrama aside, the novel is written in an understated, restrained style.

In the book’s prologue we know there has been some kind of family tragedy — Tom and Mark are together on the farm, looking after young girl, whom we can only assume is Mark’s daughter — but McKeon refrains from offering any explanation. Indeed, when the tragedy occurs, more than half-way through the book, it’s written in such vague terms it seems anti-climatic. I had to re-read it several times to make sure I’d understood what had happened.

By contrast, some of the scenes in the book seem over-worked and false — Joanne’s troubles at work, for instance, seem laboured; Mark’s shopping trip with his mother doesn’t completely ring true — but there’s a quiet and devastating beauty to this story, about real people trying to make the best of their lives under trying circumstances. As a portrait of a father and son battling to comprehend, trust and respect one another, it’s very authentic — to the point I wanted to yell at Mark to stand up for himself and to pull Tom aside to have a few quiet words.

Solace may not be a polished novel, but it’s an astoundingly good one for a first-time author, and it certainly marks McKeon as a new Irish literary talent to watch.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, historical fiction, J.L. Carr, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting

‘A Month in the Country’ by J.L. Carr


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 84 pages; 2000.

There’s something about J.L. Carr’s Booker-nominated A Month in the Country which feels as if it was written long before its 1980 publication date. The story is a rather gentle and subtle one, ripe with religious symbolism, and it is so evocative of a long-lost English summer that whenever you lift your head from the page you expect to see blue skies, sunshine and fields of yellow-bright rape seed blowing in the breeze.

My edition comes with a rather good introduction by Penelope Fitzgerald, and a short forward by J.L. Carr himself, who says the idea of the book “was to write an easy-going story, a rural idyll along the lines of Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree. […] I wanted its narrator to look back regretfully across forty or fifty years but, recalling a time irrecoverably lost, still feel a tug at the heart”.

I’ve not read Hardy’s novel, so I can’t make a comparison, but I think Carr has definitely succeeded on the tug-at-the-heart element.

The story is a simple one about a young English soldier, Tom Birkin, who returns from the Great War and undertakes a special project: to uncover a medieval mural inside a church.

Tom, a Londoner, is not used to rural life. But in the Yorkshire village of Oxgodby he finds the peace and quiet an antidote to his military experience, which has left him with a disturbing facial tick.

The marvellous thing was coming into this haven of calm water and, for a season, not having to worry my head with anything but uncovering their wall-painting for them. And, afterwards, perhaps I could make a new start, forget what the War […] had done to me and begin where I’d left off. This is what I need, I thought — a new start and, afterwards, maybe I won’t be a casualty anymore.

He befriends another former solider — and outsider — at work in the village, Charles Moon, who is looking for a lost medieval grave near the church.

He also develops two key relationships with female residents — 14-year-old precocious schoolgirl Kathy Ellerbeck, and the vicar’s young, beautiful wife, Alice Keach — both of them platonic, although the latter provides a frisson of sexual tension. I won’t spoil it by telling you what happens!

As Tom slowly, methodically sets about gently removing the whitewash from the painting, he comes to know the inner-most workings of the village, its natives and their little secrets. There’s not much more to the story than his gentle adaptation to rural living, the friendships he makes and the recuperative power of time to heal emotional wounds.

A Month in the Country is an understated but heartfelt story. Because it is told from Tom’s point of view, looking back on his younger self, there’s a bittersweet edge to it, tinged as it is with nostalgia and regret. Not bad for a slim book that’s less than 100 pages long.

Australia, Author, Book review, D'Arcy Niland, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting

‘The Shiralee’ by D’Arcy Niland


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 257 pages; 2009.

D’Arcy Niland was an Australian author who wrote six novels, several short story collections, some poetry, radio and television plays, and an autobiography between 1955 and his untimely death in 1969. He was married to New Zealand writer Ruth Park of The Harp in the South trilogy fame.

He was best known for his first novel, The Shiralee, first published in 1955, which went on to become an international bestseller. It was turned into a film, starring Peter Finch, in 1957. But I largely knew it as a TV mini-series, produced in 1987, starring Bryan Brown. I didn’t watch the series, because I remember the promotional adverts made it look like mawkish sentimental claptrap, and sadly that put me off ever wanting to read the book.

Turns out that was my loss, because The Shiralee, recently re-issued as a Penguin Modern Classic, is an absolute gem, one of those delicious reads that transports you to another time and place, and makes you hungry to read more of the same thing.

Life on the road

The story is set during the Great Depression (I think — it’s hard to be 100 per cent sure). Macauley is a swagman, an Australian term for an itinerant labourer who travels between jobs largely on foot, carrying a traditional swag (a bed that you roll up) and a tuckerbag (a bag to store food). He even stores his money in “a travelling branch of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company — an empty golden syrup tin”.

As he crosses the byways and highways of rural NSW, Macauley is accompanied by his four-year-old daughter, Buster, whom he initially regards as his “shiralee”, a slang word for burden. Six months earlier he “kidnapped” Buster from her city-based mother, when Macauley discovered his wife in bed with another man. Taking Buster was supposed to be a form of punishment, but it seems to have backfired, and his quiet, frugal lifestyle has now become tempered by a little girl who talks too much and slows him down.

And yet, while it’s slowly dawning on him that Buster’s mother doesn’t want her daughter back, Macauley is getting used to the company — even if he may not want to admit it.

They had walked for two hours, and Macauley couldn’t help but observe, as he had been observing, the growing endurance of the little girl. It dragged from him some slight sense of gratification. He wasn’t paying out tribute to the child: he was merely feeling the small but positive diminution of responsibility. But it wouldn’t be long now. At the end of the third hour and a steadily maintained pace, Buster’s feet were scuffling, and she was whinging to be carried.
‘Don’t kid me,’ Macauley said. ‘You can go on a bit yet.’
‘I can’t. I can’t,’ the kid whimpered desperately.
‘Come on.’
Macauley took her hand, and kept going. He felt the tugging weight. It got heavier and heavier. It was not brutality, but purposeful tactics. He stopped them short of the verge of exhaustion. When the child was swaying, leaning back from the mooring of his hand, the legs wobbling, the voice dreeing mournfully while the tears flowed unattended down the crumpled face — that was when Macauley picked her up.
She was asleep in five minutes, her head on his shoulder.
Pity crept like a little flame into the smoulder of his resentment, but the resentment was too strong for it and it was smothered. Macauley told himself this could not go on. He was vehement.
Yet when he saw emus he had a wish that she could see them; when he saw the wild pigs had been rooting up ground he had an inclination to point it out; and when he came upon a goanna disgorging at his approach a kitten rabbit he had an instinct to wake her up and show her the sight.

The story covers Macauley’s and Buster’s adventures on the road. To write much more would spoil the enjoyment for others, but it’s safe to say there’s a few brawls, a run-in with the police and a lot of miserable weather. In fact, you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next, and I was surprised, on more than one occasion, at the turn of events. (Note, there are no chapter breaks, so it’s almost impossible to put this book down, because there never seems to be a natural point to stop reading.)

A bygone way of life

It’s interesting to get a glimpse of a bygone way of life, particularly given that allowing a child to live such a rough and ready lifestyle today would be tantamount to child abuse.

There’s a wonderful sense of friendship and camaraderie in this book, too, not only between father and daughter, but between the many old friends Macauley meets along the way, as well as the new people he bumps into who think nothing of sharing their food and their shelter. It’s certainly a less suspicious era, where people are trusted at face value, and no one thinks twice about picking up strangers wandering along the roadside.

Obviously, The Shiralee is a product of its time, and there’s a very light smattering of racist terminology throughout.

But the book has a big heart. It’s funny in places and sad in others. It’s occasionally tender, occasionally brutal. It’s humble, knowing and wise. Sometimes it makes you feel ashamed to be human, at other times it makes you feel proud. And, above all, it makes you wish every book was written like this: forthright, absorbing and genuinely moving. It is never mawkish, never sentimental.

I wanted the book to go on forever because I so enjoyed being in the company of these wonderfully smart and good-hearted people, but when it didn’t, I felt like having a good, long howl: it’s got a cracker of an emotional ending.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography says the book is about the “responsibility of fatherhood” but I like this description best, because it sums it up perfectly: “Niland’s writing reveals a man who was profoundly aware of the paradoxical burdens and vitality of the shiralees which all human beings must carry.”

I can’t praise The Shiralee enough and look forward to hunting out Niland’s back catalogue, sadly all out of print, in the weeks to come.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Patrick Kavanagh, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting

‘Tarry Flynn’ by Patrick Kavanagh


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Classics; 192 pages; 2000.

Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967) is best known as an Irish poet, but he also dabbled in fiction. Tarry Flynn, first published in 1948, is perhaps his most popular and most famous novel. It is set in rural Ireland in the 1930s and tells the story of a young farmer’s day-to-day desires: women, nature and poetry, not necessarily in that order.

On the face of it, this book does not have much of a plot. It’s essentially a series of vignettes, held together by the passing seasons, but it is written in such beautiful, evocative prose, it’s difficult to find fault with the narrative. There’s a quiet, understated grace to every sentence that makes it a powerful and affecting read. I never thought I would say this, but I loved this book so much I’m afraid the late John McGahern, my favourite Irish writer and possibly my favourite writer per se,  has a rival for my affections.

There are lots of similarities in style and content — I rather suspect that McGahern (1934-2006) drew inspiration from Kavanagh’s work — but it is their shared ability to find beauty in the simplest of things, in the mundane tasks of people’s lives, that I love so much.

In Tarry Flynn, the farmer of the title, Kavanagh creates a character that is also able to find beauty in a world that he finds otherwise perplexing.

He stooped down under the belly of the animal to catch the girth strap and as he did he caught a glimpse of the morning sun coming down the valley; it glinted on the swamp and the sedge and flowers caught a meaning for him. That was his meaning. Having found it suddenly, the tying of the girth and the putting of the mare in the cart and every little act became a wonderful miraculous work. It made him very proud too and in some ways impossible. Other important things did not seem important at all.


Walking in the meadow in summer was a great excitement. The simple, fantastic beauty of ordinary things growing — marsh-marigolds, dandelions, thistles and grass. He did not ask things to have a meaning or to tell a story. To be was the only story.

In fact, Tarry is so awe-struck by the fields and flowers and changing seasons that he believes that the “Holy Spirit was in the fields” and that religion is “beauty in Nature”. When he shares these views with his overbearing mother, she feels that there is a “kink in him which she never had been able to fathom” and that he spends far too much time with his head in the clouds.

And he was forever reading and dreaming to himself in the fields. It
was a risk to let him out alone in a horse and cart. The heart was
often out of her mouth that he’d turn the cart upside down in a gripe
while he was dreaming or looking at the flowers. And then the shocking things that he sometimes said about religion and the priests. She was very worried about all that. Not that she loved the priests — like a true mother she’d cut the Pope’s throat for the sake of her son — but she felt the power of the priests and didn’t want to have their ill

The priests are, indeed, powerful. The local priest, Father Daly, is so worried that Dargan, 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.

Tarry, who is fast approaching 30, is one of those bachelors to whom the Mission is aimed. But he has never even kissed a girl, much less gone “all the way” and so the Church’s crusade is pretty much a lost cause as far as he is concerned. Indeed, it tends to backfire a little because as he moulds the potatoes one morning…

…his mind drifted to a new excitement by the thought of all the strange girls that would be coming to the Mission. It often worried him that a lot of other men might be as hypocritical as himself. He, when he analysed himself, knew that he went to religious events of this kind mainly to see the girls.

While the book has dark overtones — the Mission and the Catholic Church’s control of every aspect of village life is pivotal to the story — it also contains some light-hearted scenes and there’s a gentle witticism that pervades much of Tarry’s escapades, especially his dispute with a neighbour over the purchase of a field.

All in all, this is a lovely, gentle story about one man’s struggle to rise above the burden of family, farm and lust, all set in the idyllic surrounds of 1930s rural Ireland.

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, John McGahern, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘That They May Face the Rising Sun’ by John McGahern


Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 304  pages; 2003.

This book, published in the USA under the title By the Lake, was the last novel by Irish writer John McGahern, who died, aged 71, in 2006.

It is a beautiful, slow-moving book that mirrors the gentle rhythm of rural life and brims with a subdued love of nature.

In its depiction of the changing seasons and the farming calendar — the birth of lambs, the cutting of hay — it tells an almost universal story about humankind and its relationship to the land and the climate. But this is more than a book about what it is like to live in the Irish countryside. It also tells an important, often overlooked tale, of how humans interact with each other when they live in small communities.

That They May Face The Rising Sun is brought alive by a cast of intriguing, some might say eccentric, characters, although it mainly revolves around a pair of middle-aged outsiders — Kate and Joe, who fled the London rat race to try a gentler way of living. Over the course of a year we learn about their ups and downs, their hopes and fears, the ways in which they lead their quiet lives on a day-to-day basis and the people they befriend along the way.

There is little action to drive the narrative forward. Instead the reader comes to know — and appreciate — the rituals of rural living that inch this story along. Aided by McGahern’s calm, meditative prose, it’s hard not to be emotionally affected by the simplicity — and realism — of the story. I loved every word.