Orchid and the Wasp is a completely character driven novel. We spend ten or so years in the company of Gael Foess, a smart, sassy Irish girl growing up through the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger. We open with Gael as an 11 year old girl selling “virginity” pills to her school friends to restore their hymens. Whether they work or not is immaterial – they work for Gael.
Then we meet Gael’s immediate family, her father Jarlath, a senior banker with Barclays, and her mother Sive, an internationally renowned orchestral conductor. Gael’s brother Guthrie is a delicate boy who is bullied at school. Gael seems to draw strength from her parents’ expectations, Guthrie seems to have given up trying.
Gael, like so many of her Gaelic ancestors, sets off to seek her fortune first in England and then in New York. Although she never takes success for granted, she displays no fear of failure. She is willing to blag, cheat and blackmail her way to the top. She’s like a computer gamer, wanting to get off to the fastest start possible or die in the attempt. She is willing to bet her last cent on an outside chance - she’s not even gambling on red and black, she’s putting her chips on the numbers. Except she knows the House has the edge, so she has to become the House.
There is a plot; it’s based on art and it only really starts half way through the book. Up until that point it is all just establishing the scene. While that happens, the reader may wonder whether it is going anywhere at all – the answer is oh yes, it certainly is!
But the plot is not the selling point. It’s the sidetracks within sidetracks. The romance with Harper, the start of the Occupy movement, the bohemian art forger. It is a comic delight in the same vein as The Sellout and Joshua Ferris. There are witty references and word games aplenty.
And at the end, the reader realises that Gael is not the grotesque and greedy figure we first imagined. Yes, she is a complete con artist. But only because she enjoys the conning; the rewards are incidental and can be given away lightly. We love her for it, but deep down we know that it is not a sustainable business model. Gael is Ireland, born of the earls and the Sidhe, her heart is captured by a Harp, her future uncertain but the present day is a gas.
Orchid and the Wasp is a fabulous novel and must be one of the best of 2018. It deserves to win prizes. Booker, anyone?
From a Low and Quiet Sea is a difficult book to categorise. Is it a novel? Is it stories? Does it matter?
In this case, I think it does.
Most novels have a clear narrative arc. There is a beginning where we are introduced to characters and situations, then there is a quest where someone is looking for something, and then there's the end - usually when that something has been found (a happy novel) or irredeemably lost (a tragic novel). There will be a major plot development at exactly half way through, and mini-changes at one and two thirds of the way through. It makes for a satisfying, if somewhat predictable pace.
Sometimes great novels depart from the formula in spectacular style. But attempting this is a gamble; it can make a novel feel tricksy and badly paced. Despite some brilliant writing at the sentence level, I fear that Low and Quiet Sea is a bit of a busted flush.
Basically, we have three stand-alone stories.
Farouk is a man fleeing an unnamed war-torn country by boat in the Mediterranean. Probably Syria, but possibly Libya. This is written in a highly stylised manner, conveying an exotic culture and working as a proxy for a different values system to the anticipated reader. It feels quite like Mohsin Hamid's Exit West, but dealing with the journey as much as the before and after.
Lampy is a man who might be quite bright, but his ambition exceeds his prospects and right now he is driving a bus for an aged care facility in the West of Ireland. He lives at home with his mother and (possibly senile) grandfather and spends his time trying to find the woman of his dreams.
John is a wealthy accountant who speaks in religious tones but who seems to have had a pretty earthly life.
In each of the stories, the focus is on the character with details unfolding slowly to create a ruler picture. Each is written in a quite distinctive voice with perfect tone and a poet's attention to detail. Truly these are gems. And they represent about 80% of the book.
Then, there's a final section that follows three women - the breaks between these three sub-narratives is intentionally un-signposted. From these narratives, we see how the three male characters fit together (and they don't fit together terribly much, if the truth be told) and we see enough external perspective to make us reassess (although not completely revise) our estimation of the three male characters. This section is terribly hard to follow; the reader has to have pretty close recall of the earlier sections and hold a lot of oblique references together to really create a map of how everyone fits into the somewhat scant story.
The conclusion, at least for this reader, is that this is a work of technical brilliance and innovation, but one where the pace and balance feel all wrong. Yes it is enjoyable, but it's not that satisfying. So how do you score a book that has probably achieved the author's objectives completely, but where the author's ambition does not quite coincide with the product the reader desires? If ever there were a case for three and a half stars, this is it.
Roddy Doyle does gritty, real life Dublin life with a sense of humour and a great ear for dialogue. It's what he is famous for. Recently he published a series of short dialogues on current affairs, narrated over a pint of beer in a bar (Two Pints). These were previously published in newspapers and were, at best, ephemeral.
So in Smile, where we meet Victor Forde down the pub, having a series of conversations over beer, it is difficult to disengage from Two Pints and see the conversation as something more deep and meaningful. But once this hurdle is overcome, we start to see the emergence of a complex story of love lost, unfulfilled promise and a brutal childhood in a Christian Brothers school. The narrative switches between the past and the conversation in the bar, initially with Eddie Fitzpatrick, a former school student, and latterly with a group of regulars.
And Victor is something of the celebrity, having once been a journalist and a social commentator on the radio himself and married (and separated) from Rachel, a celebrity chef, TV host and founder of Meals on Heels. So as you would imagine, he has stories...
As the novel progresses, the intrigue builds. Eddie has always been a bit creepy, but he starts to become more and more sinister. And it becomes more and more apparent that all is not well with Victor. But the end, when it comes, is weird. That is a surprise as Roddy Doyle has never really done weird before. To start with, you kinda feel WTF? This is not Roddy Doyle as we know him. But give it a day and it will start to fall into place and it is clear that it has been done with a very delicate hand. With hindsight, some of the weirdness was always there, and when it becomes apparent it does not detract in any way from what has gone before.
It is so difficult to describe without spoilers, but please please please give it a go. This is poignant and deals sensitively with one of the most difficult aspects of recent Irish social history. The final result is that Victor feels like a real person who deserves our support. And there are many more Victors out there.
It is difficult to do anything new with the Irish village novel, even with the coming and going of the Celtic Tiger. It is a well trodden path going all the way back to John McGahern, Liam O'Flaherty and back to Somerville and Ross and William Carleton. You know the thing, slightly quirky individuals, oppressive priests, scary schoolmasters, licentious publicans, etc.
Yes Mike McCormack does manage to wring some life from the theme, principally by narrating in a stream of consciousness voice. His big trick is to write the novel as a single sentence - although in fact he doesn't, he just uses a lot of conjunctions and eschews full stops and capital letters; there are plenty of dead ends where these would appear in any other novel.
So, a quirky narrative style.
It is used to zip back and forth in the life of Marcus Conway, a civil engineer who is refusing to sign off the foundation slab of a new school building because it was poured from three different concrete mixes. This brings a touch of the urban to the pastoral. And it opens the door to exploring local government corruption, the plight of the construction industry in post-GFC Ireland and the extent to which a man should stand up to authority. And there are forays into Marcus's younger life, courting, young children, school. At times, it gets quite engrossing. The problem, though, is that the narrative style does not allow any theme to resolve as it has to segue into something else, and it leaves the reader no natural pause to stop and reflect on what has happened. The result is a general impression that the novel is good, but without leaving much of a lasting impression. You need mental pauses to process and remember stuff and Solar Bones doesn't give you that.
The end of the novel contains a reveal - fairly pointlessly - that I suspect is a device Mike McCormack employed to avoid having to bring the various narrative strands to a conclusion. I won't say what it is, although I doubt that knowing it would change anything about the experience of reading the novel and it was included in the publisher's blurb on the original micro-press edition.
Solar Bones is a solid book that leans quite heavily on being quirky rather than entertaining. However, it never quite reaches excellence and I'd hesitate to recommend it either as a story or a social commentary.
review of The Wonder by Emma Donoghue
The Wonder is the latest novel by author Emma Donoghue and it sees a nurse, Lib Wright, travel from a hospital in England to the Irish Midlands in the 1860s. She has been chosen for this position because of her experience in the Crimean War as one of Florence Nightingale's volunteer nurses but is unclear hat her role will undertake only that it is for a specified period of a fortnight. When Lib arrives, she is filed in about the role and what it entails, to watch a mysterious girl that has gone without any food for 4 months since April. Is the girl, Anna O'Donnell a medical miracle, a curiosity or a fraud, imposter, liar. Lib's role is to watch her in shifts of 8 hours with the other watcher, Sister Michael.
There are other characters in it, Anna's family is her overpowering mother Rosaleen and a relative Kitty who in the words of Lib, a slavey. In the background as a low-key figure is Anna's father Malachy, he tends to be in the periphery of the novel but considering the historical time, this is understandable and the departed brother of Anna's, Pat who despite not being there, plays an importune role to Anna. There is the priest, Mr Thaddeus and the doctor, Dr McBearty who both are membership of the committee who has hired both Sister Michael. Another main character being the Micky Byrne who has been sent down by one of the newspapers he writes for, The Irish Times (He provides to Lib details of what he writes and the various slants that are required for each publication from unionist to nationalist point of view. The Irish Times being a moderate point of view) and there are regular visitors to see the miracle child abstaining from food for four months without showing any signs of such
I found this slow to get into this novel to begin with but when I did, I found the novel to be very compelling reading. However I did think it kind of ran out of steam towards the end, which was a little bit disappointing to me.
Overall I thought that this was a very good novel, early on I thought maybe *** then based on middle section ***** but my final rating is