Tag Archives: Irish contemporary fiction

The River Capture by Mary Costello: Madness, Joyce and obsession

Cover imageMary Costello’s Academy Street was one of my books of 2014. The story of one woman’s attenuated life, I loved it for its small canvas and pared back prose, including it in both my Man Booker and Women’s Prize for Fiction wish lists. It popped up again here earlier in the week as one of my Five Novellas I’ve Read. You can imagine, then, how much I was looking forward to The River Capture, slightly daunted when I read that it was an homage to James Joyce, but still keen nevertheless. Costello’s second novel is about Luke O’Brien, a teacher in his thirties who has taken a career break to write about his beloved Joyce but who seems to be getting nowhere.

Luke returned to the family farm four years ago. He’s alone apart from his aunt Ellen whose bungalow is within waving distance. Luke lives on the rent from the family’s fields, determined to drive a hard bargain with the farmer whose cattle now graze them. He does everything but write, turning over all manner of things in his mind, constantly returning to Joyce and his characters. He wanders into town for his shopping, visits his aunt, talks about their family, marked by tragedy, and looks after his adored pregnant cat. One day a young woman appears asking a favour. Her uncle can no longer look after his dog and Ruth has been told that Luke might take him in. They fall to talking, exchanging family histories, sharing lunch and a little wine. Ruth leaves Paddy with Luke, promising to come back soon. When she does, their connection deepens, Ruth a little taken aback at Luke’s frankness about his sexuality. Long emails are exchanged then a weekend away and Luke begins to dare to hope for happiness, even taking Ruth to meet Ellen. It’s after that meeting that a bombshell is dropped, a secret revealed, and an ultimatum delivered precipitating an episode of madness that seems to have been flickering at the edges of Luke’s consciousness for some time.

The River Capture was something of a curate’s egg for me, delicious in the main but with a long stream of consciousness section which veered away from the linear narrative I’d become absorbed in. I should mention that I’ve never managed to finish one of Joyce’s novels and I suspect therein lies the problem.

The first part of Costello’s book had me transfixed with its gorgeous word pictures of the countryside and its portrait of a man caught up in obsessions, skittering from idea to idea. Luke is firmly rooted in family, breaking off his university studies to nurse his sick aunt and then caring for his mother. The farm is freighted with memory which unspools in Luke’s mind as he walks the land and looks around his house. The passages in which he grapples with the awful dilemma with which he’s faced are full of memories, family history, abstruse knowledge – one thought triggering another, often on an entirely different topic. It’s unsettling to read, a vivid depiction of a disordered mind, but it’s a very long passage and I found myself getting lost in it. So, perhaps not quite what I was hoping for although there’s a great deal that I enjoyed. I suspect if you’re a Joyce fan you might think differently.

Canongate Books: Edinburgh 2019 9781782116431 272 pages Hardback

The Groundsmen by Lynn Buckle: A Greek tragedy of a novel

Cover imageBack in May I reviewed Luis Carrasco’s El Hacho, the first publication from époque press, with which I was very impressed. Lynn Buckle’s novel is their second and could not be more different. Not that it isn’t impressive but whereas El Hacho was a timeless, fable-like novella written in clean, spare prose, The Groundsmen explores a supremely dysfunctional family telling their story in their own voices. It’s like having a nest of angry wasps in your head.

Louis and Cally have two daughters, both named after characters who people the Greek myths in which Cally takes refuge to escape her powder keg of husband. Louis looks to his brother Toby to keep him order. They spend much of their time together, even working for the same firm where Louis has carved out a role for himself as a techie. Only Toby grasps the full horror of what happened to Louis when he was a child, having been subjected to the same abuse by Uncle Brown, the groundsman. Both men have perpetuated the cycle, but whereas Toby has a semblance of adult responsibility, Louis careers from crisis to crisis, deeply embroiled in a torment of denial, misogynistic sexual fantasy and self-absorption. When Toby is made redundant amidst rumours of ‘inappropriate’ material found on his computer, Louis fears he may not be far behind, wrapping himself in his usual denial until he is asked to return all his electronic devices. As things begin to unravel even further for Louis, Cally realises she must break out of her stupor for the sake of her children. Meanwhile, five-year-old Cassie escapes her fractured family by turning herself into a dog in her head while fourteen-year-old Andi takes the more dangerous route of finding a boyfriend online.

Buckle’s novel is mercifully short. It’s not a book to enjoy, more one to admire. She tells her family’s story in bursts of interior monologue, a very effective device although these are people whose heads you won’t want to spend much time in. Louis veers chaotically from grandiosity to literally vomiting out his secrets; Cally seems paralysed by years of his cruelty and neediness; Andi retreats into social media, lonely and ripe for grooming while Cassie invents happy families for herself when she’s not channelling Blackie. Only Toby appears to have a veneer of responsibility. The measure of the success of Buckle’s novel lies in the sheer discomfort it provokes. It was a relief to finish it. I found the ending a little bewildering but it’s impossible not to admire the audacity of this unsettling piece of fiction.