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.
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.
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.
Glenn Patterson is one of Northern Ireland's national treasures. His novels over the past thirty years have documented the social history of Belfast, both contemporary and historic, with a great deal of love. Where other writers have focused mainly on the Troubles and the Catholic part of the community, Patterson writes from a Protestant perspective and his novels have kept the Troubles firmly in the background. Serendipitously, his writing has coincided with the Peace Process, allowing him to reflect great social change across his works.
Where We Are Now is about middle age. Herbie is somewhere in mid-life - perhaps in his 50s - living somewhere in East Belfast. He has been laid off from his work as a payroll manager; as his company downsized, so too did the payroll Department. His ex-wife Tanya lives down south with her new partner Martin. He fills his time walking to the Public Records Office in the Titanic Quarter and offering research services to the visitors looking to recreate their family histories. His speciality is the records of public applotments. In between researches he drinks coffee in Sam's cafe and shops in Lidl.
Herbie is lonely. He drifts into other people's conversations, lives on the edge of other people's lives. He used to ave more going on in his life; he remembers former times living in Mount Oriel when he and Tanya socialised a bit, did things. They had an identity. But now, in reduced circumstances, a visit from his daughter Beth forces Herbie to see his life now for what it is.
This is, of course, a metaphor for where Belfast sits now. Trading on a recent history of being edgy, dangerous, Belfast now welcomes cruise ships, ferries its visitors around in tour buses to take selfies in front of murals. The paramilitaries no longer go on military manoeuvres but still stand over local businesses demanding protection money and free pizzas. They are hard men turning to flab. They still blight the lives of the communities they bleed, but they no longer impress anyone.
And as the Troubles fade, Northern Ireland tries to hark back to an even earlier history - the artificial creation that is the Titanic Quarter. Modern buildings set on the derelict land left when the Harland and Wolff shipyard closed, named for its most famous ship. A ship which, of course, sank on its maiden voyage. Meanwhile, in the city centre there is real history that is being renovated to the point of extinction.
Where We Are Now does have the signs of new beginnings. Sam and Derek - a same sex couple - seem to be accepted into the community. There are migrants coming to Belfast - although whether Brexit will let them stay remains to be seen. As the sub-post offices close they make way for new enterprises. The black taxis are making way for Uber. Even Herbie might find a way to reinvent himself.
There is plenty of observational stuff - the small talk of the middle classes; the sparsely attended local football game (I presume Glentoran); the airport and its connections to the disappointing public transport network; the topography of East Belfast (although I could never quite work out where Herbie lived - perhaps Ballyhackamore); the migration of businesses to the petrol station. The characters also feel real, even though most of them wander in and out of the pages without ever setting the story alight. They are bit part players in the bigger story of a city that is having a mid-life crisis.
So this isn't particularly a plot led story; it isn't exciting or shocking. It is more a chapter in Glenn Patterson's life work that suggests a turning point. Let's see where it goes next.
The quirky female narrator in a Northern Ireland novel is not a new thing but it’s often an enjoyable thing.
Big Girl is Majella O’Neill, an underachieving young woman of stout proportions who is squandering her considerable academic potential by working six nights a week in her local chip shop. The small town is Aghybogey, a thinly disguised version of Castlederg in County Tyrone.
So Majella keeps a list of all the things she doesn’t like, including sub-categories. She also keeps a much shorter list of things she does like, many of which are related to food. She uses these lists to narrate the story of a week following the murder of her grandmother. Given that her father has disappeared ten years ago, Uncle Bobby died while priming a bomb 16 years ago, and her mother is a non-functioning alcoholic, this presents Majella with an opportunity to become an adult and master of her own destiny. Or she could just keep working for the Hunters in the fish shop.
In truth, not much happens during the week; and what does happen is glossed over by Majella as she focuses her thoughts on the foibles of the chip shop regulars, hating alcohol (because of what it is doing to her mother and her home life) and looking for bedding. She drinks a bit, has sex a bit, and eats fish suppers. The charm is in her cynical, comical way of looking at the world, mixed with tragedy that she resolutely refuses to take her place in the real world, instead just hiding behind routines and tics.
This is a really good evocation of small town Ulster, told in a local vernacular that will bring a smile to those who know it and frustrate them those who don’t. The self-segregation of the two halves of the community (the Protestants would only dare come to A Salt and Battered in daylight, even though it serves better chips than the Protestant chip shop); the relatives away across the water; the stories of what you did in the war... If there’s something that sets this apart from similar semi-comic Northern Ireland novels it would be the rural setting west of the Bann allowing for ludicrous ideas like the poshy-woshy Omagh accent and thinking of Strabane as urban.
I just wish Michelle Gallen had done something a bit more with Majella. The story is mostly back-story. The story of the dead grandmother, although acting as a McGuffin, never really takes off and I’m not sure there’s any real character development. This means that some of the repetitiveness of Majella’s life does seep into the text. There are only so many ways of ordering a fish supper or having banter with your work colleague as you put the chips in the fryer.
So four stars rather than five.
Oh, and I read an advance copy. I do hope the final version is more consistent in the name of Johann-Pol, or Johann-Paul, or Yawn-Pawl, or Yawn-Paul...