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.
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.