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.
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
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.
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.
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.