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.
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.
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.
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.
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?