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.
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.