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  1. As You Were is a story about Sinéad Hynes, a youngish woman in the West of Ireland, living with a terminal diagnosis. Her old life was shattered by the diagnosis - on her way home she saw a lone magpie and this divides her live into Before Magpie and After Magpie. Sinéad decides not to tell anyone - least of all her husband and three children. As her condition worsens, Sinéad requires more intensive palliation and is eventually hospitalised. There are also thoughts about the dying process - about how is becomes public property. However much Sinéad wants to keep it a private affair, she cannot do this. She believes she is entitled to a private hospital room, but she is put on display in a ward with others. The doctors' conversations are audible. Sinéad is expected to make particular choices, to respond in a predictable way. Dying has become a conveyer belt, the manufacture of a commodity. Sinéad can try to hold out, but inevitably there comes a point where her secret cannot hold out, and she has to confide. As Sinéad languishes in hospital, she is able to observe the rivalries that play out between her fellow patients and their families. There are opportunities to explore their back-stories, giving vantage points from different strata within the Irish social order - whether from an uneducated woman with a large family; a doting schoolteacher; a local politician or the migrant healthcare workers who are part of the new Ireland. Their stories are compelling, sometimes heartbreaking. There was a sense that, as the patients died and passed the baton on to their children, so too the old order of Ireland was dying and being replaced by new hope. Goodbye to the all powerful church and state. Goodbye to the pious morality. Goodbye to the control of women's bodies. This could have been a sad book, a dreary book. But it isn't. Sinéad is (somewhat ironically) full of life and determined not to just curl up. She still has opinions; she has a wry humour, she is still interested to watch the Irish economy disintegrating - seeming to compete with her in a race to the grave. This is a novel about a person, not a death. It's actually quite uplifting. ****0
  2. If you are fascinated by the bed-hopping habits of students then this is the book you have been waiting for! Connell and Marianne are from Carricklea, a fictional town in Sligo (not the fashionable end of Ireland). Marianne lives in the big house with her mother. At school, she is ostracised for being weird – perhaps because she is rich, perhaps because her father is dead. Perhaps because she is clever. Connell is from the regular side of town. His father is also gone; his mother Lorraine works for Marianne’s mother as a cleaner. Connell is also clever, but he seems to have kept this hidden from his friends. Connell is popular and able to get dates with pretty much anyone he wants – even the most popular girl in school. Connell and Marianne have a clandestine relationship that Connell tries to deny is actually a relationship, and Marianne seems to be grateful for any company she can get, regardless of the terms. Each chapter moves the clock forward by a few weeks or a few months and the pair disappear off to Dublin to go to university. Dublin’s a different place altogether and Marianne’s wealth and intelligence bring ready acceptance into the beautiful people. Connell, meanwhile, is the poor bogtrotter who struggles to find his niche. Then, like a Russian novel, these two friends drift in and out of one another’s lives and in and out of one another’s beds. In between their brief periods of togetherness, we tick off heaps of social issues that are of great importance to undergraduates: academic pressure; prizes and scholarships; abusive older boyfriends; parties; finding the next drink… I suppose the theme of the novel is about social class and power imbalances. How in youth, fitting in is about reaching downwards whereas in adulthood it is about aspirations and reaching upwards. It’s like Bill Gates used to say: be nice to nerds because one day you’ll work for them. And associated with class, you have the urban/rural divide with the Dublin Jackeens ruling the roost, only admitting those from the big houses into their midst. But at the same time, there is a hollowness to this belonging. The sacrifices you have to make to your integrity as you adapt to fit in will ultimately lead to hollow feelings. This is a novel that could happily have been written twenty, thirty years ago. Things don’t change. But people do – and a novel that might have seemed wonderful and insightful in my own youth now looks trivial. Student relationships were only ever interesting if you were in them. You always remember your first love, but then life happens. And life is more interesting. ***00
  3. The Wild Laughter is Caoilinn Hughes's follow up to The Orchid and the Wasp which was, for my money, the most complex and beguiling Celtic Tiger novel. This one is a big contrast - where The Orchid and The Wasp was a colourful novel about hope and good fortune set in Dublin and New York, The Wild Laughter is a dowdy novel set in dowdy County Roscommon. Is it just coincidence that this was John McGahern's setting for his loosely autobiographical The Barracks? We have a village. We have a farm. We have Doharty (Hart) Black about to inherit the farm from his mother Nora and his terminally ill father Manus, known affectionately as The Chief. Hart feels stuck. He has no great interest in farming and is envious of his brother Cormac who has escaped to town and gets to hang out with the arty crowd. Hart apparently got the looks and Cormac got the brains - and he doesn't think this was a fair trade. The farm is not healthy. It wasn't ever quite clear, but it seems the family made some poor investments that were wiped out when the Celtic Tiger collapsed. There's a sense that the Blacks are collateral damage while they imagine the financiers and dealmakers have survived. This feels like a significant evolution from the pastoral feel of McGahern's novels. But how far is this really new? Couldn't a parallel be made to the devastating impact of An Gorta Mor, driving tenant farmers broke while the landlords seemed to have got away unscathed? Couldn't Cormac be seen as an emigrant, fleeing the land for the prospect of a brighter life? But having set up the novel to be one thing, its focus seems to slide. First of all, we have a story of sibling rivalry over women. And then we have a story about assisted dying complete with a courtroom potboiler. The pace changes wildly between these different focuses - towards the end each successive chapter could almost have come from a different novel. It is unconventional, it's a bit distracting, but it also lifts this above a McGahern wannabe. Caoilinn Hughes can certainly write - probably in two languages. There were plenty of phrases as Gaeilge that were not translated into English. I got some of them from my basic knowledge of Scottish Gaidhlig, but a lot of it went over my head. I suspect the novel is highly referential on an academic level (characters' names, for example, are not chosen at random; a couple are spelled out but the others have meanings too). Sometimes, though, a novel can be too clever. The Achilles Heel in The Wild Laughter is that the crucial plot developments are written in such an oblique way that it is hard to be sure exactly what has happened. By all means invite readers to read between clever lines for small points of detail, but when the main thrust of the story is dissipated in this way it can be so frustrating. Overall, there's enough in The Wild Laughter to be readable, thought provoking and occasionally fun. The narrative angle is quirky and scenes of farmyard raids (links to Ribbonism?) are fun. But a more consistent narrative drive and clearer language in parts could have made this truly great. ****0
  4. Donal Ryan is a writer who likes a quirky timeline. His previous works have tended to take the form of successive short stories from different viewpoints and Strange Flowers is more of the same. We meet Kit and Paddy Gladney, tenant farmers in Tipperary. Their daughter Moll, a good girl, has left home without leaving a trace. They are bewildered. They grieve. They feel the eyes of the village boring into them. Then, after five years, Moll returns. Successive sections follow different characters at different life stages until a final section allows Moll to fill in the gaps. The narrative voice – which has been done so well in previous of Ryan’s works, is every bit as good here. Lilting Irish idiom places the characters as subservient to their setting. It could be timeless (and for much of the first section the time setting is obscure), but modern details of a wider world – Dublin, London, aeroplanes – encroach. The story is intriguing, too, and explores themes of property ownership, race, ambition, sexuality. How and ever, there is a big biblical theme running through the work. The sections are named for books of the Bible. There is a meta-narrative woven into one section about Jesus restoring sight to a blind man. I am prepared to believe that many of the set pieces are directly analogous to Biblical scenes or parables – but not being up on my Scripture I think these all passed me by. Maybe there was some big message about people being more than a sum of their traits and appearances but that’s really rather an obvious statement. My own thinking about referential novels is that it’s fun when you get the references but they don’t really add to the profundity of the work. Overall this felt like a very tightly controlled novel where sometimes the structure felt a little too rigid, forcing the pace and sequencing of information. Much of Joshua’s section, for example, only really became meaningful from reading subsequent sections. I am a great believer in show, don’t tell – but if you are going to tell, then do it at the same time as you are showing. The shifts in point of view and time were abrupt – intentionally so as that seems to be Donal Ryan’s thang – but I wonder whether it might have been possible to create a more powerful and sympathetic work from interweaving some of the threads. Still glad to have read Strange Flowers, but my three and a half stars feel like they should have been more. ***1/2
  5. When All Is Said boasts impressive plugs from respectable writers: Donal Ryan and Graham Norton are just two of them. And they're right - this is an astonishing book. We meet Maurice Hannigan, a successful businessman, 84 years old and nearing the end of his time, reminiscing about the five people who affected him most in his life. He sits in his local hotel, downing drinks at the bar and uses each drink to toast one of those individuals. His rambling and conversational narrative is apparently for the benefit of Kevin, his son across the water in New York. Hannigan's story is one of rags to riches. After an unsuccessful attempt at school, he started his working life as a hand on the Dollards' estate. Seventy years later, through shrewd buying and selling, he owns that estate. It would have been easy to write a thrilling account of the wheeling and dealing that brought him that success, but instead the novel is one of people and relationships. We see how those relationships both changed events, and were changed by them. The underlying stories are personal, and mostly stories of regret. In particular, we see how events were affected by the toss of a coin, the ripples still being felt so many decades later. We see how much Hannigan loved Sadie, his late wife, yet neglected her and treated her badly. We see Hannigan conflicted by his hatred of the Dollards but his compassion for individuals. We see how he wrestles with his conscience - and often ends up victorious. This is a deep, complex life story that exposes itself subtly, layer on layer. That the reader can be made to feel any sympathy at all for an Irish property dealer is a feat - to get the reader so deep into his psyche is almost miraculous. This really is a fantastic book that works on so many levels. It is sad, very sad, but also very human and narrated with a voice that is not self-pitying. Highly recommended. *****
  6. Nobber by oisin fagan Nobber is a lawless unruly place. Not much has changed in the 670 years between when this is set and nowadays In this novel, the plague has struck Ireland and noblemen are buying up land all over Ireland at a fraction of what it was worth a few years before. Meanwhile a marauding band of gaels are also causing havoc throughiut the lands. Both groups reach the near deserted Co. Meath Town of nobber where the plague has enforced a curfew, only 3 or 4 inhabitants see the sunlight hours including the very strange nudist blacksmith. Overall it did take me a little bit to get into this novel but oisin fagan has done a very good job in crafting the novel and I thought this was a very good novel. * * * * An aside on lawlessness in modern nobber
  7. It’s a while since I read Night Boat to Tangier so some of the detail has softened. But I was left with a deep impression of two ageing Irish drug runners (Maurice and Charlie) passing the time as they wait at a ferry terminal expecting to intercept Maurice’s daughter Dilly. The beauty is in the dialogue between the two as they wait - and as we learn more about the uneasy relationship between the pair. Maurice and Charlie are big wheels back home - they trail a wake of fear behind them - but on the grand scale of things, they are medium sized fish in a small pond. They have a history of falling out and falling back in with one another, compartmentalising some pretty big betrayals. There is an air of menace throughout. It’s not clear why the men want to intercept Dilly, or even what they would do with her if they do meet, but there is as sense of significance. And, as we later see, Dilly is in no hurry to meet Maurice and Charlie. Much of the novel is dialogue, and the premise (two people waiting for a third) is reminiscent of Waiting for Godot. But the occasional introduction of other characters and the appearance of Dilly offer enough of a variation that this cannot be taken as a straight re-writing. Perhaps there’s also an element of John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction - discussing hamburgers and morality in between hits. Night Boat to Tangier was entertaining and engaging - but did feel a bit like it was treading ground that Roddy Doyle has previously stood on. It’s a light and fast read that is grounded in our present times and will bring nods of recognition, but it probably doesn’t offer quite enough to offer an insight into these times for future readers. ****0
  8. Elizabeth Keane is an Irish émigré, living in New York with her teenage son Zach, having recently split from a husband, Elliot. When her mother Patricia dies, Elizabeth winds up back in Ireland closing up her Patricia’s affairs – in the course of which she finds a stack of letters from the father she never knew, inspiring her to fill in the missing gaps in her own life history. The novel is told in dual timelines: Now and Then. Now is Elizabeth’s story, her quest for her past. She asks former neighbours, acts on half-heard whispers and discovers she has inherited not one but two houses. Then is Patricia’s story, set in the 1970s as she is seduced by lonely hearts letters from Elizabeth’s father, Edward Foley. This historical timeline is no mere backstory – it is the main event and although it starts out quite pedestrian, it becomes quite chilling. The two timelines work together to augment one another. Sometimes one timeline pre-empts the other, and sometimes it fills in details the other timeline has missed. It is handled very deftly. Together, they combine to depict an Ireland with an extensive rural hinterland that has still not completely shed its religious and moral shackles. Secrets abound – many taken to the grave after decades of silence. People’s roles in society are determined at birth and the only way to break free of those roles are to emigrate, either westwards or eastwards. And even then, the Elizabeth, Zach and Elliot situation is not without parallels to the Patricia, Elizabeth and Edward story. In particular, there is an undercurrent of the lives that gay people can be forced to live in order to comply with society’s expectations. One of the main surprises in A Keeper is how serious it is given Graham Norton’s fame as a comedian. The reader may expect the novel to come packed with one-liners, sarcastic asides, innuendo and single-entendres. The reader may expect something over-hyped that was published only because of the famous by-line. Not a bit of it. The novel is almost completely devoid of humour; it is black, it grips social issues and in parts it is genuinely terrifying. A Keeper is a mature and thoughtful work by a writer of considerable talent. ****0
  9. Milkman is a stream of consciousness story narrated by an unnamed young woman living in an unnamed part of Belfast (probably the Ardoyne), some time in the late 1970s. By way of context, the intensity of the killings in the early 1970s – especially the civilian deaths – had subsided; there had been population movement and people had retreated into small, “safe” pockets exclusively populated by people of the same political tradition (which was also generally correlated to people’s national identity and religion). Both unionists and nationalists still thought they could win the war through armed conflict, and the political voice of Sinn Féin had not yet come to the fore. The Hunger Strikes were still a couple of years into the future and most people could remember a time before the British Army was deployed to assist the civil power… So the novel is almost a love story set in this quite specific time period. Our narrator lives in a Catholic enclave of North Belfast. She reads 19th century novels while walking, which marks her out as a bit odd. Her maybe-boyfriend is a car mechanic from another unspecified Catholic district of Belfast. She is from a large family, four-ish brothers and three sisters and Ma. Da is dead. Our narrator talks to herself extensively in a colloquial Belfast voice that hinges on repetition and over-explanation. It is a sarcastic voice, cynical about the sectarian conflict and the motives of those who engaged in it. She narrates in euphemisms: the Sorrows, Renouncers of the State, Defenders of the State, the country across the water, the country across the border. People are second sister, the real milkman, chef, the tablets girl, Somebody McSomebody. Similarly places are not names and although most are recognisable – the reservoirs and the parks is Cavehill Road; the ten minute area is Carlisle Circus; the usual place is Milltown cemetery – the euphemisms allow liberties to be taken with the geography. The resulting text is very dense, often circular (at the very least non-linear) and pretty intense. It is like Eimear McBride crossed with James Kelman. The story is one of personal love and personal tragedy set within a dysfunctional society. Our narrator wants to be with maybe-boyfriend, but is admired by Milkman (a senior ranking paramilitary) and Somebody McSomebody (a wannabe paramilitary – was this a time before spides?). In a world where normal law and order does not operate, where law is made by the paramilitaries and is mutable, where whispers and innuendoes constitute evidence, this is a dangerous space. Our narrator knows the perils and even the most mundane activities – jogging by the reservoirs, buying chips, learning French, winning a scrap Blower Bentley supercharger – can be fraught with danger. Her quirky narration and eccentric world view manage to create deliciously black comedy from these dangers. Milkman is a timely novel. This period of the late 1970s has been largely airbrushed out of both world and Northern Irish history. Nowadays the Republican movement has been rehabilitated. They are seen to champion human rights and to lead the equality agenda. Its history is seen to be the ballot box in one hand and the armalite in the other. Their community justice is seen to have been a viable – almost legitimate – alternative to the RUC and the state agencies. It is often almost assumed that those who lost their lives (apart from in the early 1970s) had been “involved”. But what we see is a violent society with kangaroo courts based on self-interest and hypocrisy, arbitrary expulsions, witch hunts, suspicion. Paramilitaries tyrannise their own communities but the communities seem to lap it up. Each fresh atrocity is just casually dropped into conversation. More than anything, our narrator, her family and friends needed stability and predictability. What they got was the law of the jungle. And we know from history that they had 15 more years of this ahead of them before the first signs of the re-emergence of normality. Of course all this is viewed from a nationalist vantage point but we can safely assume that the situation was mirrored in the loyalist community across the road. And Milkman is also relevant to current developments as we start to see the emergence of an anti-political movement based on extreme and ill-planned actions. Brexit as a response to immigration and crime. Walls and travel bans and flip-flopping between nations and leaders being best friends and beyond the pale. If Milkman has a failing, it is that the meandering narration can frustrate the reader. There are few natural pauses, there can be a feeling that we have already covered this ground, ideas and phrases repeat. But they do add up to a work that is strong enough to carry the frustration. Milkman is a mature work that does say something new (or at least say it in a new way) in a field that has been ploughed often before. *****
  10. 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? *****
  11. The Ruin (or Rúin as it is marketed in Australia) is a police procedural introducing Inspector Cormac Reilly of the Garda Siochana. The novel opens well, with Reilly in his first week in the guards, sent to investigate a call from a desolate farmhouse in the wilds of County Mayo. He finds a dead junkie and her two young children. It is creepy and mysterious. Then, 20 years later, Reilly finds himself newly posted in Galway, being given the cold cases to review. He is an unwelcome blow-in and is being deliberately frozen out of any real police work. But when the young boy Reilly had rescued that night in Mayo turns up dead, reported to have jumped off a bridge, Reilly is brought into the margins of the investigation. What follows is good in parts. When Reilly is investigating and interviewing witnesses, the story is engaging. When the narrative turns to office politics, it gets confusing – which is probably intentional; and dull – which probably isn’t. And there is a growing sense of confusion about whether characters were supposed to be in Mayo, or Galway, or moved from one to the other. Trying to piece together the different strands of plot becomes more and more of an effort. By the end, I’m really not quite sure how it did all tie up. This is redeemed to some extend by a few great characters (the elderly Christian busybody from Mayo is brilliant, and the shady defence lawyer also springs to mind). There is also good social commentary on the enormous value placed on the family by the Irish authorities in the late 20th Century. It was the triumph of optimism over common sense. But the overall sense is of a novel that is too complicated, too long and unevenly paced. **1/2
  12. Bernard MacLaverty is a sublime writer and Midwinter Break is as good as anything he has ever written. Gerry and Stella Gilmore are a long-married couple of pensionable age, living in Glasgow but originally from the north of Ireland. Gerry is fond of a nightcap and Stella has quite a strong Catholic faith. They know one another inside out. They have decided to take a mid-winter break to Amsterdam, perhaps to celebrate their enduring marriage. Gradually, and gently, we start to see the flaws in the characters emerge. This is done with such grace; the reader knows, likes and empathises with both Gerry and Stella; the flaws that emerge are real, but we see the real people beneath and they are likeable. As they wander the streets of Amsterdam - both together and separately - they start to discover more about themselves and each other. Partly, they explore the present day, partly their lives in Glasgow, and partly their lives in Ireland. This is a novel about ageing. I recognise myself in Gerry. In fact, the similarity between Gerry's life and my own is uncanny - right down to the night-time leg cramps. There are themes of unfulfilled ambition, fatigue, closure. There is guilt, including the nagging guilt about minor slights and mistakes from years ago. But also there is lots and lots of love. Not bodice ripping young love, but old, mature love that is too often taken for granted. There is change, often not for the better. The change of a nature of a community, the change brought by significant events, and the change brought simply by time, with two people slowly ceasing to be who they once were. The questions that arise are whether to resist or accept those changes. It is an illustration of the Serenity Prayer: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference." Midwinter Break is deeply moving. It speaks of truths that many of us will face some day soon. *****
  13. 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. ***1/2
  14. 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. *****
  15. 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. ****0
  16. review of The Good People by Hannah Kent Hannah Kent's second novel is set in Co. Kerry in the 1820's. It starts with the death of Martin, husband of Nora. This had followed a previous death of their daughter, Johanna a few months earlier. The consequence of this was that Johanna's husband brought their son, Nora's grandson to live with his grandparents. Unfortunately, the grandson Michéal is believed to be a "changeling", sweeped by fairies for the real boy with one for one of their due to the illness. To help with the few hens and the cow, Nora goes to Killarney to hire a girl, Mary to work and live with her. Mary arrives with Nora, unaware that Michéal is a changeling. Stuff has happened in the locality to suggest a curse in place, indicating that the changeling and the fairies (the good people) are at fault, for instance for Martin's death and the sleep wanderings of a local pregnant woman. Also in the part of Kerry is Nance Roche (I had at least one maternal great great grandmother with the surname Roche from south Limerick so fairly close to where the novel was set. That has not affected my opinion one piece). Nance, in Irish local parlance, has the cure (meaning she has knowledge acquired from the fairies to cure illnesses), she is disliked by the local priest. Soon Nance path meets with Nora's path for Nance to try to cure Michéal I really liked this book, I found it to be a wee bit similar to Emma Donoghue's The Wonder, set in Ireland in the 19th century and revolving around a child that is a medical curiousity to the people around. For me, alot of the novel did seem a little familiar (apart from the concept of changelings, despite having seen the Angelina Jolie's movie of the same title) in that a person does suggest I should see a person with the cure for particular things so I got alot of it. Hannah Kent shows herself as being very adept at building a realistic novel set in Ireland and making the dialogue very genuinely Irish and familiar. This is a very good book, I thought. * * * *
  17. Disappointment. I loved The Glorious Heresies and picked up this follow up with the highest hopes. I wish I hadn't. Because, the high points for The Glorious Heresies had been the blend of farce and crime; the balance between good people; inept people and bad people; the multiple viewpoints; the contrast between the Celtic Tiger and the organised crime. But these are all missing in The Blood Miracles. It is just a straight story of drug deals. The characters are the same - well some of them reappear, but then they only seem to come in two dimensions. For example, Ryan Cusack had been on the verge of choosing between an honest life and the easy money of crime. He was a gifted pianist with a possible future. But now he has chosen the path of darkness and his life is spent rustling up deals and trying to second guess who might be double crossing him. He bounces constantly between girls' beds and hoods' offices. Back and forth he goes - girl, office, girl, office with the occasional foray into a nightclub. It is boring. The boredom is not even relieved by cameo characters, because this is what everyone else is doing. The reader is supposed to care what happens to Ryan, and to care whether he ends up working for PJ or Dan - two identikit villains. And Ryan's dad Tony had been comically hopeless in the first novel, but now he is just deadweight for both Ryan and the plot. There is no sense of place, no sense of fun. Really very little to keep the reader turning the repetitive pages. All The Blood Miracles does is to cheapen the memory of The Glorious Heresies by flattening the original characters and dumbing down the original intrigue. I hope, for the next outing, Lisa McInerney finds a new story to tell with new people and, perhaps, new places. **000
  18. Emma Donoghue is coming to speak in Dallas at the end of this month, so for Christmas, I bought my mother this book and tickets to the lecture. And then I read the book. Lib Wright is a nurse who trained under Florence Nightingale during the Crimean campaign, which means she's among the first nurses that existed once nursing became seen as a calling and profession. How she decided to go to train as a nurse is revealed slowly in the book and I won't spoil it here, but it's important to know since it affects her approach to her work. The Crimean campaign has ended and so Lib is now working in England at a hospital and is not very happy. So she accepts a 2-week assignment to watch over a young Irish girl, Anna O'Donnell who claims to have survived and flourished despite not eating for 4 months. The leaders in Anna's community have banded together to hire two "watchers" in order to determine whether or not it is true that a miracle has occurred or is occurring. Lib is selected because of her training with Miss N (as Lib calls Miss Nightingale). The other "watcher" is a nun. Lib arrives with all the prejudices against the Irish that I guess were common at the time, including deep suspicion of any religion, but especially Catholicism. You can imagine how popular that is in the family and community. And her prejudices cause her to misread all sorts of things, which is clearly not obvious to her, but also not always obvious to the reader. Fortunately, Lib is trained to approach things as a scientist and so she works her way through to what's going on and evaluating the characters more accurately at the same time you do. It was really hard to be certain who was being helpful and who was a hindrance for Lib and for me as the reader. In this, Lib is helped by a young reporter from Dublin who has been sent by his editor to find out more about the story. I really liked this book and could not wait to get back to it when something irritating like work or family life interfered with my reading. It was compulsively readable and I kept wondering how in the world it was going to be resolved. I didn't love the resolution--seemed a tiny bit melodramatic--but it made me happy. Highly recommend. Very different from Room, except that it focuses on a child who is in peril and the woman who tries to help her. But that's a very superficial resemblance.
  19. Vivian was not quite wired right. She has no friends, she avoids mirrors, she tells unwelcome truths and fighters children. She has inherited her aunt's house, freeing her of the need to work, so she spends her days searching for a portal into the fairy world in which she believes she belongs. Vivian has a distinctive voice that does remain consistent to the end. Initially this is beguiling; the reader wants to diagnose Vivian, perhaps cure her. The reader hovers uneasily between horror and humour as Vivian fails to comply with society's norms. Some of her actions are endearing - advertising for a friend called Penelope - and some are irritating - making long lists of words that the reader soon learns to skip. There is also a strong sense of pscho-geography with walks around Dublin, peeling street signs appearing to have been edited by fairies, and a tour of the various modes of public transport - we even get to go to the airport even though Vivian is not flying anywhere. However, for a short book this feels very long. The unvarying voice and lack of narrative arc become very fatiguing. Perhaps there is supposed to be an unravelling of Vivian's sad background but it seemed quite obvious from an early stage. That left the whole thing feeling like a short story told over and over again, never going anywhere and certainly never arriving. ***00
  20. 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 ****
  21. Nora Webster, mother of four, Enniscorthy, late 1960s. Recently widowed. This is a story of a phoenix rising from the ashes. Initially caught up in grief and devastation as her husband Maurice dies, leaving her in a financial mess and social isolation, Nora gradually begins to assert her own identity. There are many little sub-plots. The plight of the boys, sent to stay with their aunt during Maurice’s illness, returning with stammers and nightmares. The girls leaving home to set up careers or engage in politics. Nora’s position with Gibney’s, a large firm run by the husband of a school friend. Most of these stories just spiral off into nothing, but chapter by chapter, we see the emergence of a confident and independent Nora. As a widow, she no longer had to ask permission to do anything. She is not subject to the restrictions of the young and single; she is not bound by marital duty. In 1960s Ireland, Nora gradually begins to see that she has a rare and favoured status. The novel begins slowly and it is hard to feel involved with a large and somewhat dreary cast. The hooks and intrigues that are used to draw the reader in are left frustratingly unanswered. But piece by piece, the novel builds a momentum that is as much societal as it is personal. As Nora changes, so too do those around her. Each of her four children is able to make choices that would have been unimaginable a generation earlier. We start to see the introduction of consumer goods, quiz nights, fancy clothes. There’s even a brief flirtation with the concept of homosexuality as a lifestyle rather than a sin. Colm Toibin writes in a plain style; he doesn’t hide important detail in ornate and obscure language. Yet despite the plain speak, the scenes are constructed immaculately. They are vivid, real and fully immerse the reader. Toibin’s previous novels have often ended almost in mid sentence. It’s as though he gets to a point and just decides he has said enough and stops writing. This novel is of that type; there is no ending as such, just a feeling that Toibin is done. Some readers may find Nora Webster a bit drab and dull; actually it isn’t. For this reader, at least, it is a novel of transition and hope. Going hand in hand, there is the emergence of the individual, and the emergence of a nation state. ****0
  22. Glorious Heresies is a treasure of a book. It is essentially a straightforward story about criminal families in Cork, all sparked off by the night a young man is bludgeoned to death with a religious statue in a warehouse that has been used as a brothel. It’s one of those stories where the work to cover up the mess creates a bigger mess, and the work to clear that up creates a bigger mess still. There is a French Farce element to it all. What makes the book special, though, is the narrative voice. Mostly it is told in third person with a roving viewpoint that is able to hear and report interior monologue whilst adding a heavy editorial commentary over it all. This is interspersed with occasional chapters narrated by Ryan Cusack, an aspiring young drug dealer who has been thwarted in his ambition to become a musician. The narrative is generally quietly scathing of Ireland, the Catholic Church, property prices in County Cork, and the talent – or lack thereof – of the local criminal mafia. The characters are real and complex. For example, we find Jimmy Phelan, the local crime baron, dividing his time between murdering his business rivals, shepherding his senile mother, trying to buy pianos and choosing interior decoration schemes to refit his former brothel. He has a business brain and the reader is left to wonder just what he could have done with it if he had gone legit. Then there’s Tony, the hapless and alcoholic handyman (and father of Ryan) who gets caught up way over his head in Jimmy’s schemes and then ends up chasing his own rabbits to try to extricate himself. Tony tries so hard to be a player but he’s only ever the hired help. And how about Georgie, the former working girl who staves off homelessness by joining the local Christian cult? Or Tara Duane, the butter-wouldn’t melt woman next door with a racy past… This is a very stylized novel that, despite the simple plot, is ambitious in its scope. It never once misses the mark. *****
  23. As a story of the hubris of the Celtic Tiger, The Ghost Estate works. In the 1990s, the Irish economy boomed, largely through inward investment in IT and pharameutical plants. The low rate of corporation tax attracted money primarily from the US, and the newly rich Irish wanted to invest their money in housing. Every small town or city within a hundred miles of Dublin fancied itself as commuter territory; aspiring owner-occupiers and buy to let landlords couldn’t wait to sign up for off-the-plan investments; and house prices spiralled. They spirally so high, so fast that it barely mattered whether there were people actually living in these new cookie-cutter houses. You just had to build them and they’d sell. Then the American economy crashed. The banks dried up and building stopped. Suddenly. Half finished – sometimes almost finished – houses were just left to rot in ghost estates up and down the land. John Connell tells the tale of one such development in County Longford. Longford, for those who don’t know it, is a godforsaken hole some 80 miles from Dublin. There are trains to the city that take a couple of hours each way. There’s no way you’d live there if you didn’t have to. Yet, someone persuaded the owner of the big house to sell up his land for redevelopment – a golf course and a low-spec housing estate, with the old house being renovated into a hotel. No matter that there were identical developments every 10 miles in any direction, this looked like a solid gold investment. Enter stage left, Gerard McQuaid. Ger has just taken over the reins at the electricians and has won the contract to fit out the new estate. His business is running on fumes – he lives at home with his parents as he dreams of building his own mansion. And he is dating a young woman who has gone off to university in Dublin. Gerard is not a good manager, despite what he might think, and fails to manage squabbles on site (principally between his Irish workers and new Polish workers); fails to spot signs of impending financial disaster; and fails to manage his own love life. He is caught up with his own greed and his own dreams but is oblivious to everyone and everything around him. There is no sanity checking to any of his plans. This is convincing. We know people like Gerard. We used to envy them. What works less well is a ghostly angle where Gerard stumbles on a painting of the 19th century owner of the estate, Lord Lefoyle, lying discarded in one of the rooms in the big house. Nobody else seems to be able tosee the painting, which mysteriously moves and disappears. This is coupled with occasional chapters set in Lefoyle’s time, briefly touching on key events of Irish history – the 1798 rebellion, O’Connell, An Gorta Mor, etc.). There seems to be some attempt to draw a parallel between greed and ambition in the 1840s and in the 1990s/2000s – neither ending well. But it feels contrived and these chapters just suck the narrative drive from the rest of the book. This is not a novel of suspense. The financial disaster is set out clearly in the prologue; there’s a kind of car crash horror of watching it slowly unfold. The reader is in a position of superiority, knowing what the future holds for the greedy bogger and willing him to wake up before it’s too late – whilst sure that he won’t. This is one of a number of similar novels of which it is not the best. Claire Kilroy’s The Devil I Know and Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart cover the same territory with more panache, but The Ghost Estate is still a testament to an important period of modern Irish history. The Ghost Estate is currently available only in Australia. ***00
  24. On the surface, History Of The Rain is beautifully crafted. Ruth Swain, probably twenty-something and a university graduate, lies in bed in the attic of her family's County Clare home, quietly dying. Probably. Perhaps to fill the boredom, she decides to tell her family history. Armed with a few facts, she invents and hypotesizes; creates dialogue, meetings, motives... She has access to her father's library of books, numbering over 3,000, which she references painstakingly throughout the story; and she has an obsession with the Salmon of Knowledge. Ruth has a lively, playful voice and engages in direct conversation with the reader. Just as some Irish writers - William Trevor and John B Keane come to mind - provide a straight narration of a village of idiots, here we find Ruthie taking ordinary, modern people and trying to cast them in the humorous stereotypes of yesterday's novels. Indeed, the title "History of the Rain" might even have been chosen as a kind of opposite to John McGahern's "That They May Face The Rising Sun". Ruth christens characters based on their traits or over-used phrases, but there's no sense that these nicknames have a generalisability beyond the narrative. They may be portrayed as imbecilic from time to time, but only to suit Ruth's higher narrative purpose. Sadly, the higher narrative purpose lacks direction. We hop, skip and jump all over time and space, but there is precious little storyline. We are led to expect some kind of cataclysmic tragedy - and how we are made to wait for it - that when it comes it is an anti-climax. Individual passages can be funny, apposite, meaningful. But taken together they are pretty forgettable. The family relationships can get quite blurry, which is an achievement for a family that is essentially nuclear. The constant references to Irish mythology and the Irish financial crisis never seem to lead anywhere. They simply lend an air of both the erudite and the contemporary without ever seeming to have a point. Actually, towards the very end, we do see why Ruth might have such a fixation with salmon and rain, but it feels forced. Plotless novels can work - and Niall Williams even puts this thought into Ruth's pen near the end. But they have to rely on depth of characterisation; personal development; lyricism; power of language. Something. Anything. What that "anything" might be is just not sufficiently clear in History Of The Rain. Perhaps familiarity breeds contempt; perhaps a reader who had never come across the Irish village novel might see something of value in here. To this reader, though, it felt like a battle of attrition to keep the pages turning. **000
  25. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, proudly bearing a quote from Anne Enright on the front cover of the Australian edition, reminds readers of what The Gathering might have been. The style is experimental. Verbs are scarce - apparently Eimear McBride wanted to portray just what the girl saw - and sentences tend to be fragmentary. In particular, in the opening sections when the girl is a young child, the ideas are not even half-formed and the narrative is hard to follow. The reader has to read between the lines. Later on, as the girl passes through teenage and on to young adulthood, the ideas are clearer and the narrative has a firmer shape. This could be a relief, except that the subject matter becomes darker and darker as the narrative clears. Growing up in rural Ireland some time ago (exact timing is not clear, probably 1980s/1990s), life has dealt the girl a modest hand. There are people in the world far worse off, but there are others who have landed up with broader horizons and happier home lives. The girl's father has died; her brother is a brain tumour survivor; her uncle is creepy and her mother lacks any strength of resolve. Despite this, the girl manages to fly the nest and study across the water. The novel does have a plot - and a slow-burning shocker it is too - but the strength is the use of this extraordinary narrative style to build a world and build a person. It is not so much about what happens to the girl as about how it affects the girl. How and whether it changes her development. This is the joy of the title - we see a young person with a distinctive personality nevertheless being moulded and shaped as she grow by those around her. Right up until the end, it's not quite clear what the final shape will be, how nature and nurture will resolve their struggle against one another. The narrative style does come with frustrations too. There's no point pretending that there weren't times that I wanted to throw the book across the room, slowly plodding through a soupy mire of abstractions. There were times one wanted to tell Eimear to just get on with it - especially the first half of the final section feels overlong. But miraculously, it is all pulled back at the end; all the effort seems worthwhile and the flabby sections no longer feel flabby. There is great beauty in the novel, but you only appreciate it by standing back at the end and seeing the whole. Does that sound pretentious? There have been comparisons made to Joyce and Beckett. I can see that, though this is not as abstract as Finnegan's Wake, not as narrative as Ulysses and a whole lot warmer than Beckett. If anything, it reminded me of Edna O'Brien's Country Girls or John McGahern's The Dark - provincial and unexpectedly primitive, but with bright lights of opportunity shining through at times. There is a risk that Girl is a derivative, imitative work that will be dismissed as a fraud. But right here, right now, it feels like a genuine, authentic article that represents the emergence of a monster talent. If I had doubts when I laid the book down, they are evaporating by the hour. Girl has the hallmarks of a major work of our time. *****
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