Tag Archives: Irish fiction

Blasts from the Past: That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern (2001)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

Last year Cathy from 746 Books was kind enough to ask me to take part in her Books that Built the Blogger series. She’d just kicked off Reading Ireland month and asked me for my favourite Irish novel, a tough question if ever there was one – not a case of where to start but where to stop. The one that finally topped my list was John McGahern’s That They May Face the Rising Sun which has the feel of a man who has come to terms with his troubled past, a past stitched through McGahern’s earlier, bleaker novels as his autobiography makes clear. Somehow that feels appropriate for New Year’s Day.

Leaving their bustling London life behind, Joe and Kate Ruttledge have settled in a small lakeside community in Ireland. They have a farm, subsidised by Joe’s writing, and their life follows a slow, gentle rhythm, in tune with the seasons. The small dramas and quiet satisfactions of everyday life fill their world: visits from their neighbour and dear friend the incorrigibly inquisitive Jamesie, lambing and selling their calves at the cattle mart, and visits to town to pick up supplies and local news. McGahern’s gentle, almost wistful, novel traces a year in the Ruttledges’ lives, introducing perceptively drawn and wonderfully memorable characters while painting quietly restrained yet evocative word pictures of a world in which each small change delicately redistributes the balance of the whole.

McGahern’s writing has a very precise character, the product of the meticulous paring down of his prose out of which the occasional lyrical sentence shines brightly. His carefully crafted novels perfectly capture both place and time. And if I haven’t convinced you to read his work perhaps Colm Tóibín’s description of McGahern as ‘the Irish novelist everyone should read’ will.

Happy 2018!

When Light is Like Water by Molly McCloskey: Love in all its complexity

Cover imageI have a weakness for Irish fiction. It’s often characterised by a restrained clarity – beautiful, elegant prose with a yearning quality about it – or at least the work of authors I favour fits that description. Colm Tóibin, John McGahern, William Trevor, Ann Enright, Deirdre Madden all come to mind and after reading When Light is Like Water I’ll be adding Molly McCloskey’s name to that list. This slim, quietly brilliant novel tells the story of Alice who came to Ireland from Oregon as a young woman and fell in love with an Irishman.

Decades after she first arrived in Ireland,  Alice is house-sitting, back from her job with an NGO at a Kenyan refugee camp. Blindsided by grief at her mother’s death, she looks back at her relationship with the woman who raised her alone and at her own brief marriage to Eddie. Alice had come to Ireland when she was twenty-four with no plan in mind, just a need to become herself. She finds a job in a Sligo pub, makes friends then falls in love with a quiet, steady man, older than herself. These two marry, seeming almost to play at it – Alice still without direction, picking up the odd freelance writing gig and keeping house. They move to the country with the possibility of children in the air but neither can quite bring themselves to commit to the idea. Eddie sometimes travels on business, occasionally Alice goes with him but one day, when he’s away, she meets Cauley, a young writer whose radio spots will offer the convenient excuse of the possibility of work for her. We know from the start that Alice and Cauley will have an affair, and that Eddie and she are no longer married. McCloskey’s novel unfolds Alice’s memories of that intense summer, interspersed with her mother’s story and her experiences of working for the NGO.

When Light is Like Water is a richly textured novel about the complexities of love in its many forms. McCloskey narrates it through Alice’s quietly contemplative voice, exploring the devastation of her grief for her mother but also for the life that she might have led. Her loneliness is palpable in her frequent visits to the real estate website where she’s found the house she and Eddie made their home, playing the marketing video and noting evidence of children. McCloskey couples lovely descriptive passages with a remarkable acuity, penetrating in its observation: ‘Cauley and I were still in our trance’; ‘If we don’t know where we belong, we can feel homesick for almost anywhere we’ve been’; ’I swung between a lightness of being that bordered on vertigo and a sorrow that made the least movement difficult’. This is a deeply thought-provoking novel: multi-layered, complex and beautifully expressed. McCloskey’s writing career stretches back over a couple of decades during which she’s written a memoir and three works of fiction. I’ll be keeping my eye out for them, you can be sure.

Inch Levels by Neil Hegarty: Pay attention…

Cover imageHistory, family and otherwise, is woven through the fabric of this accomplished first novel which seems appropriate given that Neil Hegarty’s previous books deal with the subject. Set in Derry against the background of the Troubles, Inch Levels is about a young man with only a few weeks to live, wrestling with a dilemma and the tortured family history that has led him to it.

Barely into his thirties, Patrick Jackson has been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. He lies in his hospital bed listening to the ringing of the bell in the nearby school where he taught, trying to stave off his pain with memories. He has much to contemplate, his reverie interrupted by the visitors he doesn’t want to see, the sometimes patronising attentions of the nurses he would rather not have to endure. Each day his mother, Sarah, or his sister, Margaret, come to visit him but it’s only Margaret who’s welcome. Patrick’s reflections are studded with vivid memories – a day with his family at the beach; a march in his hometown of Derry which ended in bloodshed; the loving attentions of Cassie the only person Sarah seemed able to trust – but the memory which haunts him is not his own: the events leading to the death of an eleven-year-old girl one autumn day in 1983. As Patrick’s recollections unfold they reveal a family whose emotions have been smothered: a mother closed off, unable to express affection; a father doing the best he can but unable to compensate and two children, confused and resentful but knowing that each is all the other has.

Hegarty’s writing is often striking, particularly when describing the natural world: ‘the landscape was a palette of greens, changing with height into the deeper green-brown of bracken, purple of heather, hard silver glint of scree-strewn slopes’ vividly summons up an Irish hillside. It’s a novel which shows rather than tells, repaying close attention. Piece by piece Hegarty slowly reveals what has led Sarah into her emotional vacuum and the consequences it has had. Written in the main from Patrick’s point of view, the narrative smoothly shifts from character to character, answering questions but often prompting more. It’s adroitly done: so much is left unsaid in this family haunted by events that only one of them understands. Quietly impressive and wholly engrossing, Inch Levels is a fine debut which gently leads its readers to a resolution entirely in keeping with what’s gone before.

All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan: Redemption in spades

Cover imageI ended my review of Donal Ryan’s last novel, The Thing About December, by quoting Litlove’s idea that the higher your expectations for a book, the greater your disappointment when they’re not met. Both Ryan’s novels had been praised to the skies and although there was much to admire in his second, those raised expectations had not been met. Perhaps it’s because I’d learnt my lesson that this time around they were exceeded or perhaps it’s because Ryan has ventured into different territory. Written in gorgeously lyrical prose, All We Shall Know tells the story of Melody Shee’s pregnancy and the unexpected friendship she finds with a young Traveller woman.

After several miscarriages Melody is twelve weeks into her pregnancy. Hardly in a position to criticise given his visits to prostitutes and his predilection for porn, Pat storms out at the news that his wife is carrying the child of a man she supposedly met online. In truth, the father is a seventeen-year-old Traveller she had been teaching to read. As Melody’s pregnancy progresses she looks back over her life: the loss of her mother, her betrayal of her closest friend and the soured passion of her marriage. She visits the Travellers’ site, hoping to catch a glimpse of Martin but finding herself drawn instead to a young woman sitting on the steps of her caravan. Mary is caught up in a feud between clans. Unable to conceive, she’s left her husband so that he can find a fertile partner, bringing dishonour upon her own family. Retribution must be exacted and Melody finds herself caught up in Mary’s story in ways she could hardly imagine. By the end of this slim, intensely moving novella, redemption on a Shakespearean scale has been served.

Ryan structures his story in brief chapters, each one covering a week of Melody’s pregnancy in which she lets slip details of her life. She’s an involving narrator, unflinchingly honest in her confession of guilt at her treatment of others, from her father whose eager concern has been rebuffed for years to the betrayal of her dearest friend in exchange for the approbation of the ‘cool girls’ and access to Pat. ‘I’m bad, for sure. There’s no kindness in me’, she says. Ryan’s writing is both clear and clean yet lyrical – ‘we insisted on marrying each other, and lowering ourselves onto a bed of terrible, scalding, comfortably familiar pain’ – and his ear for dialect is superb. He summons up beautifully the claustrophobia of living in a small town where everyone knows your business and no one is afraid of loudly judging you for it. All these are characteristics familiar from Ryan’s previous novels but what stood out in this one was his story telling: a seamless interweaving of both Mary’s and Melody’s stories leading to a dramatic conclusion. For me, it’s Ryan’s best novel yet.

Spill Simmer Falter Wither: Spring summer autumn winter

Cover imageThe trouble with marketing is its constant use of superlatives – too much hype. We’re all over familiar with ‘dazzling debuts’, ‘stunning achievements’ and the like so that when a book comes along that is truly original, absolutely dazzling, those descriptions ring hollow. Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither comes into that category for me. Hard to find words that will do it justice without floundering around in a sea of hyperbole but I’ll try.

Fifty-seven-year-old Ray lives alone. He’s a misfit – shambling, limping, barely able to string a sentence together in public, his greasy plait trailing down his back. On one of his weekly forays into the village where he’s lived all his life he spots a notice in the window of the local junk shop showing a dog as ugly as he thinks himself. At the dog pound he finds the terrier, bad-tempered and alone, about to face the chop. Ray’s after a ratter, a dog who will keep the infestation of rats which have plagued the house he shared with his father at bay, and takes One Eye, as he christens the disfigured mutt, home with him. Soon this odd pair are inseparable. When One Eye’s terrier nature comes out, savaging a collie then a shih tzu with a little boy in tow, the dog warden knocks at their door. Appalled at the prospect of losing the only friend he’s ever had, Ray packs up the car and drives off into an unexplored world. As these two make their way through autumn into winter until the money runs out, Ray confides his sad story in One Eye.

As its title suggests, Baume’s novel is told in wonderfully poetic, sometimes musical language. She paints vividly gorgeous word pictures of the natural world, weaving observations of the changing seasons through Ray’s narrative. It’s a slim novel but I found myself pulling out quote after quote. Crabs have ‘spots and spiked edges like pinking shears’; Ray’s hairdresser neighbour’s ‘gone on holidays and taken the hum of the hood dryers with her’; ‘Oystercatchers with their startled eyes, redshanks scurrying tetchily on strawberry legs, little egrets freshly laundered, whiter than white’ populate the shoreline. ‘I’m a boulder of a man. Shabbily dressed and sketchily bearded. Steamrollered features and iron filing stubble’ thinks Ray, introducing himself to One Eye, sure that he smells ‘more must and porridge and piss, I suspect, than sugar and apples and soap’. ‘Now you are my third leg, an unlimping leg, and I am the eye you lost’ poignantly captures Ray’s relationship with his dog. He’s a ‘wonkety’ man, afraid to be with people and painfully sensitive to what they think of his strangeness. The novel ends with a wonderfully vivid epilogue which almost mirrors its gut-wrenching prologue. It’s a gorgeous book – the saddest of stories but without a hint of sentimentality. Dazzling, stunning, truly original – all those over used superlatives apply but this time they fit and I was delighted to see that Baume won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature the other week.

Thirteen Ways of Looking: A novella and three stories

Cover imageI’ve been a fan of Colum McCann’s novels since way back in the late ‘90s when I read This Side of Brightness. His fiction ranges far and wide – from Dancer’s Rudolf Nureyev to the Roma of Zoli – and his writing is often strikingly poetic. Unsurprisingly, then, I’ve been looking forward to his new book despite my self-confessed short story prejudice. It opens with the titular ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking’ – a novella, rather than a short story – followed by one very short piece then two others. All of them are powerful in their own way but you won’t be surprised to hear that ‘Thirteen Ways’ is my favourite.

Widower J. Mendelssohn is eighty-two years old. He lives in an Upper East Side apartment with Sally, his Caribbean carer. Almost every day he gets himself out of bed and makes his way, with Sally’s help, to the Italian restaurant not two hundred yards from his apartment. Every day he has the same conversation with Tony the doorman, and every day the restaurant staff greet him warmly. On this particular occasion he’s meeting his son, a hedge fund manager and a disappointment to his father. There’s one other difference in today’s routine: we know very early on that this day will be his last. Mendelssohn’s narrative is interwoven with the efforts of detectives to solve his murder as they scrutinise the footage from the multitude of cameras that line his route, two of them covertly installed in the apartment by his son to keep and eye on the blameless Sally.

Mendelssohn’s narrative takes the form of an internal monologue composed of memories and reflections – the challenges of ageing; his son Elliot and his shortcomings; his daughter Katya, a rebel turned diplomat; philosophical observations; memories of his legal career and speculations as to what Sally’s up to – his darling wife never far from his thoughts. The intimacy of these musings makes his death all the more shocking despite our prior knowledge of it. Punctuating Mendelssohn’s narrative are the detectives’ intricate reconstructions of the day’s events, slowly revealing the culprit. It’s a compelling piece of writing, making its readers think about the nature of guilt which may not be attributed quite as fairly as we think.

As for the other three stories: ‘What Time is it Where You Are?’ is a short playful riff on the process of writing, desultory then increasingly frenetic notes hinting at the panic of a fast approaching deadline. ‘Sh’khol’ examines a very particular loss for which a translator can find no word in English but which she comes to understand all too well when her adopted thirteen-year-old son disappears, the urgency of the search evoked in plain short sentences. In ‘Treaty’ an elderly nun sees her South American torturer on television, apparently involved in peace negotiations and decides to seek her own kind of settlement thirty-seven years after her ordeal. An impressive, thought-provoking collection, then, but I’m hoping for a novel next time.

The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley: A nice slice of Irish black comedy

Cover imageThis one’s a little outside my usual literary purview. It’s a smart little black comedy all wrapped up in a thriller with a bit of a love story thrown in. The title puts you in the picture: Paddy Buckley is an undertaker who has landed himself in deep trouble with Dublin’s chief gangster and is facing his imminent demise. Jeremy Massey’s novel tells the story of what may well be the last four days of Paddy’s life and how an upright citizen whose mid-October Monday starts with a routine callout came to be in this predicament. You’ll have to suspend your disbelief at times but if you can do that you’re in for a lot of fun.

Paddy Buckley works for Dublin’s most respected funeral director as did his much-loved father before him. Paddy’s done his time in the embalming room and now calls on the bereaved, summoning all the tact and delicacy necessary to help them make arrangements for their loved ones’ funerals. He’s no stranger to loss himself. Eva, his heavily pregnant wife, collapsed and died two years ago leaving Paddy bereft and insomniac, unable to get over her death. On the Monday morning in question he’s been called to the home of a well-known artist. Things taking a surprising turn, then an even more surprising one, leaving Paddy somewhat discombobulated, concerned that his spotless reputation may be besmirched. His night is disturbed by a call to a nursing home to pick up a body. On the way home, exhausted and preoccupied, Paddy knocks down a man, killing him instantly.  Grim enough, you might think, but worse is to come. The victim’s wallet, stuffed with 20,000 euros, reveals that this is Donal Cullen, beloved brother of Dublin’s most feared gangster. What follows is Paddy’s attempt to evade Vincent’s ire, entailing nerves of steel, out-of-body experiences, a gorgeous dog and a great deal of quick thinking.

Massey is a third-generation undertaker who clearly knows a great deal about the business, weaving all sorts of arcane bits and pieces through his entertaining caper including a graphic description of embalming. The Undertaker’s Daughter popped into my head several times. Paddy is a thoroughly engaging character, an honourable man caught out by circumstances which lead him into a mire of duplicity, more than capable of thinking on his feet. It’s a very funny novel which keeps you hoping that despite his many prophecies of the dire fate that awaits him, Paddy will somehow pull through. Obviously, I’m not going to tell you the ending but I will say that Massey neatly ties together all those bits and bobs of funeral lore, including the embalming. Great fun, and just the thing when you’re faced with a constant stream of interruptions as I was when I read it. Excellent film material, too.

Tender by Belinda McKeon: Enduring love

TenderThere’s always a moment of worry when you’re about to plunge into a book you’ve been looking forward to for some time. I remember Belinda McKeon’s Solace being surrounded by a great deal of pre-publication buzz, lots of well-known names singing its praises one of whom was Colm Tóibin which made me pay more attention than usual. It turned out to be one of my favourite books of that year, hence the slightly apprehensive anticipation for Tender. In some ways, we’re back in the same territory: young people leaving rural Ireland for the city, both with strong ties to their families, both about to stretch those ties to snapping point.

Catherine and James meet in Dublin when James returns from his Berlin stint as a photographer’s assistant to reclaim the room Catherine has been renting for her first year at Trinity. Entirely different from each other, they almost instantly click. He’s tactile and outgoing, loudly pontificating on everything and everybody yet tender-hearted, while she’s self-conscious, buttoned-up and naïve. Before too long they’ve accumulated all the trappings of intimate friendship, everyone convinced they’re a couple. Eventually, James tells Catherine he’s gay: readers will be far from surprised but it comes as a shock to her. Soon she begins to bask in the glamour of this new sophisticated status, spilling the beans to those James has not yet told. For all his apparent confidence, he’s unable to act on his sexuality, pouring out his misery in his letters to Catherine when he returns to Berlin, letters which she guiltily neglects given her newly busy social life. When James comes back unexpectedly, her attention is elsewhere, but then things take an altogether different turn towards obsessive and impossible love. The novel begins in 1997, continuing through to 1998 when the Good Friday talks appear on the horizon, then ends in 2012, with Catherine and James established in their adult lives – one happy, one not.

Impossible not to read this novel without thinking about the resounding vote in favour of gay marriage passed in Ireland just last month. In the weeks leading up to the referendum, a ‘yes’ vote seemed certain for Dublin but voters in rural Ireland might have tipped the balance the other way despite those heart-warming scenes of people disembarking from boats, planes and trains, coming home to have their say. In the event, those fears were unfounded. Set eighteen years before the referendum, Tender portrays the pain of being gay in a country that had only decriminalised homosexuality five years before. McKeon is particularly good at capturing Catherine’s social awkwardness, her proud excitement at having a gay friend and the self-absorption which blinds her to James’s pain. It’s an extraordinarily intense novel at times: at one point the narrative fractures into short paragraphs as if to allow its readers gulps of air. There’s a long section in which McKeon explores Catherine’s relationship with James through The Birthday Letters, Ted Hughes’ collection of poems to Sylvia Plath, which forms the basis for Catherine’s essay. I’m sure it works if you know the poems well, but it’s a little confusing at times for those of us who don’t. That said I found Tender a profoundly involving novel – raw yet compassionate – and a very moving one, particularly in the light of that referendum vote. Clever title, too!

The Lives of Women: An old, old story, and a sad one

Cover imageChristine Dwyer Hickey is the kind of author about whom there’s not a great deal of brouhaha – no fanfare of Twitter trumpets heralding her next novel or drip feed of showy publicity – which in some ways is a relief and in others a shame. I’m not sure how many readers are acquainted with her quiet, measured prose although the jacket of her latest novel suggests that Last Train from Liguria was a bestseller. I’d like to think that was the case and that The Lives of Women, with its long, slow reveal of a tragedy and the shadow it casts, will meet with similar success. It certainly deserves to.

Elaine has come back to Ireland where her widowed father is wheelchair-bound after surgery. Nearly fifty, she’s lived in New York since she was sixteen but this is only her second visit home. One day, up in the attic exploring a leak, she spots workmen in the old Shillman house and is catapulted back to the summer in the ‘70s which triggered her departure. Along with several other families, Elaine lived with her anxious, over protective mother and her silent, aloof father on the small middle-class estate to which she’s returned. A little diffident and recuperating from a virus at the beginning of the summer, Elaine looked forward to gossipy visits from her best friend Agatha. While Elaine was in hospital her lonely mother had become friends with Mrs Shillman, acquiring a drink habit into the bargain. The arrival of Serena and her daughter Patty with their odd American ways added spice to the lives of the estate’s bored housewives. Serena befriended their teenage daughters, overseeing them with a liberal hand. As the summer wore on, the teenagers did what teenagers do while the women drank and socialised. Towards its end a tragedy played out which affected all who had a part in it, Elaine most of all.

Hickey alternates her narrative between the first-person present day and the third-person ‘70s, emphasising the distance Elaine has put between herself and the summer which shaped the rest of her life. Her writing is precise, quiet and unshowy, making it all the more striking: ‘On a ship babies and women always come first, in the suburbs, they always, always come last’ perfectly describes the departure of the men to their important lives leaving the women at home with little to do. Hickey takes her time revealing the summer’s events, leaking small details, occasionally springing larger surprises as if Elaine is circling the facts until she can face them. It’s all beautifully done: when the event itself is reached it’s hardly a surprise but that isn’t the point. The story is an old one – and sad – but told with great skill and the hope of redemption. If you’ve not yet come across Hickey, I hope you’ll try one of her books. She’s well worth your time.

Academy Street: ‘A life fitting on one page’

Academy StreetIrish – and Irish-American – writers seem to specialise in a particular style of pared-back, elegant prose from which shines out the occasional lyrical gem: William Trevor, John McGahern, Colm Tóibin, Sebastian Barry, Jennifer Johnston, Elizabeth Bowen, Deirdre Madden, Alice McDermott… I could go on. Mary Costello joins that (very long) list with her debut novel, Academy Street, which has all those stylistic hallmarks suffused with the same quiet melancholy that characterises so much of the finest Irish writing.

Spanning almost sixty years, it begins, and ends, with a funeral. Seven-year-old Tess Lohan is lying on a rug watching the evening sun play on the walls of the living room of her home. A blackbird flies through the open window, tears a little paper from the wall and carries it off to line its nest. Tess watches in wonder then hears her family upstairs as they struggle to move the coffin. Lost in the moment, Tess has forgotten and now must remember that she no longer has a mother. The Lohan children cope as best they can, their father made irascible with grief. As Tess grows up, a bright girl whose brush with sickness cuts short her education, she longs to leave the family farm training as a nurse in Dublin then following her sister Claire to America where she settles in New York City. Friendship is not easy for her, always a little outside of things she aches for the intimacy of connection and thinks, fleetingly, that she has found it. Her life is an attenuated one, marked by a deep yearning for an affinity, becoming ‘herself, her most true self, in those hours with books’.

This is a heart-wrenching book. Reading it, you long for joy in Tess’s life, a closeness that will ease her loss and longing. Hers is a life led quietly, never quite making the warm connections that come so easily to her friend Willa. Costello’s careful prose matches her subject perfectly, Tess’s sudden bright moments of empathy and understanding shining out like a beacon. The elderly man she tenderly nurses through his last days recognises the ‘essential loneliness’ they both share, telling her that ‘I could fit my whole life on one page. I could write it all down on a single page.’ A fine novel, best read when cheerful.