Tag Archives: Irish contemporary fiction

The Weight of Love by Hilary Fannin: ‘There were three of us in this marriage’

Cover imageI’d not come across Hilary Fannin until The Weight of Love started popping up on my Twitter timeline. Her name will no doubt be more familiar to Irish readers thanks to her prize-winning column in the Irish Times. She’s also known as a playwright and memoirist but this is her first novel, a delicately nuanced exploration of a long marriage at crisis point.

When Ushi takes in a young boy one summer, Robin finally finds a friend. Ushi is fiercely protective of her son who’s singled out at school for his German mother and no sign of a father. Joe’s mother has a wildness about her that rubs off on her son, lending him a precociousness and unpredictability of his own which emboldens Robin. As soon as he can, Robin takes himself off to London, teaching literature in a school where he meets Ruth, his tentative hopes of a relationship dashed when he introduces her to Joe, all intensity and glamour in comparison to Robin’s quiet diffidence. Ruth moves in with Joe the following day and it’s not until her son is two that she and Robin meet again in Dublin, Robin still in love with her while she still thinks of Joe. Over the years, these two will find an accommodation, Robin becoming the good father to Sid he lacked himself. Over twenty years later, the balance has shifted and it’s time to take stock now that Sid is finding his own way and Ushi is dying.

These old men’s stories were, she considered, smooth as pebbles from the number of times they’d been pulled from memory and fondled with words and sighs

Fannin’s novel alternates between 1995 and 2018, smoothly switching perspectives between Robin and Ruth, building an intricately layered portrait of this complicated marriage as their stories unfold. Memories, anecdotes and episodes from their lives are skilfully threaded through each narrative. Fannin’s characters are convincing and true, their dilemmas sympathetically explored so that we come to care for these people who have become so entangled with each other – whether absent or present. Her writing is striking – often lyrical – and it’s witty.

The two men stood watching it dart around the pond, lonely and confused, looking for a friend to eat

It’s an absorbing, carefully constructed novel, wrenching at times. Fannin gives us a nicely ambivalent ending with just enough grounds for hope for the more optimistic of her readers like me.

Doubleday Ireland: Dublin 2020 9781781620458 352 pages Paperback

Love Notes From a German Building Site by Adrian Duncan: Men at Work

It was its Berlin setting that first attracted me to Adrian Duncan’s Love Notes From a German Building Site, an irresistible backdrop for me. I’d somehow thought it was a love story, quite possibly an unhappy one, but it turned out to be very much more interesting than that. Duncan’s debut follows a couple in their mid-thirties who have left Ireland for Germany. While Evelyn looks forward to starting a new life, Paul flounders at work, trying to tighten his grasp on a language which constantly eludes him.

Paul is a structural engineer refurbishing a building on Alexanderplatz in the old East Berlin, soon to be a temple to consumerism. Evelyn is the daughter of German parents who settled in Ireland in the ‘60s. She’s at ease with the language Paul struggles to express himself in, trying to fix words in his mind with the lists he calls ‘love notes’. The site is a tricky place to navigate: the boss is irascible, many of the workers have little English and Paul is unconfident, more used to working with plans than construction. As the six months of his contract wear on, Paul and Evelyn see little of each other. She explores the city and prepares for her new job in Cologne, a change of career from economist to museum curator filling her with excitement, while Paul grapples with the difficulties of working in a job which doesn’t quite fit. As the project nears its end, tempers on site become dangerously frayed, crises flare and Paul feels himself increasingly out of kilter.

A facet of our curiosity had begun falling away in those specializing years in university, like a shard of rock dislodging itself from a cliff face and slipping quietly into the  water below 

Duncan spent ten years as an engineer before drawing on that experience to write this thoughtful novella whose episodic structure is carefully constructed from memories, snapshots, observations and Paul’s ‘love notes’. Duncan’s use of language is quietly precise, his sense of place wonderfully atmospheric. A few clean bright sentences describing the sound of snow underfoot took me back to my first visit to Berlin, over ten years ago, while his description of Antwerp’s station instantly summoned it up for me as if I was there. The same quiet precision conveys the mind of a man wrestling with work that requires an accuracy hard to achieve in a language which seems to slip through his fingers, exacerbated by the utter exhaustion of an unrelenting schedule as the project hurtles towards its deadline. So few novels are set in the workplace and yet work is such an important part of our lives. Whether we feel comfortable in it or not contributes to our physical and mental health, our relationships and the way we see ourselves. It can both imprison us and liberate us. Written in spare, elegant prose, this beautifully crafted novella brings its importance sharply into focus.

Head of Zeus: London 2019 9781789546248 205 pages Hardback

Next week will be all about my books of the year which, as usual, I’ve been incapable of trimming back to a sensible figure.

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.