Tag Archives: Irish fiction

The Jewel by Neil Hegarty: A multi-faceted gem

It’s three years since I reviewed Neil Hegarty’s first novel, Inch Levels, describing it as ‘quietly impressive’. It’s a subtle, perceptive piece of fiction which I enjoyed very much but it’s often the case that second novels fall far short of debuts. Not so with The Jewel which not only met but far exceeded my expectations. Ostensibly the story of an art heist, Hegarty’s book explores the lives of the theft’s three principle players – the thief, the art historian charged with displaying the piece and the specialist called in to help solve the crime.

Painted on Irish linen by a once-obscure nineteenth-century artist, The Jewel is Emily Sandborne’s finest work, folded into her coffin at her request after her suicide then later disinterred. It’s gorgeous; the malachite set into its mounted subject’s armour glittering against the distemper which never seems to fade. This is the prize stolen from the refurbished Irish National Gallery on the eve of its reopening. Distemper is the medium, chosen by John – painter, self-confessed counterfeiter and thief – whose childhood Deptford home was demolished much to his mother’s disgust, reluctant to move to the council’s much-vaunted tower block. Roisin grew up in rural Ireland, escaping tittle-tattle and judgement to study art history in London but not the childhood tragedy which has left her feeling forever responsible. Ward works for an EU-funded agency, tasked with helping police solve art theft. Born in Dublin, he lives in London, seemingly locked into a dysfunctional relationship with his partner. The theft of Sandborne’s masterwork brings these three together, each with their own many-layered story to unfold.

The Jewel explores a multitude of themes through the stories of its three main protagonists, each of whose alternating narratives follows them from childhood to the early-hours theft. The result is a richly textured novel whose astutely observed characters have all endured tragedy and misfortune. The loss of home is a common thread, whether under duress or a need to escape what turns out to be inescapable. Each of the character’s narratives is anchored in a strong sense of place as if underpinning this loss, vividly evoked by Hegarty’s striking writing – the descriptions of Deptford are particularly atmospheric while the claustrophobia of small-town ‘80s Ireland is sharply portrayed. He’s just as smart in nailing organisations:

And the agency was just this sort of place: a bit bitchy, incestuous, like a university department, like the Borgias in the matter of rivalry and career development

As ever, writing about a book with which I’ve been so struck is much more difficult than reviewing one I’ve simply enjoyed. There’s so much to think about and to admire in this engrossing, accomplished novel that I’ve barely done it justice. Best just read it.

Head of Zeus: London 2019 9781789541809 368 pages Hardback

This is Happiness by Niall Williams: On the cusp of change

Cover imageRegular readers may recall that I’ve a penchant for Irish writing, a liking for the lyrical yet pared back style of William Trevor, Colm Tóibin and John McGahern which characterises so much of the fiction I’ve read from that part of the world. Not Niall Williams’ work, though, if This is Happiness is anything to go by. Written in luxuriant prose, this coming-of-age tale winds back and forth over a single memorable summer which sees the electrification of a small town on the west coast of Ireland.

Seventeen-year-old Noe Crowe is spending the summer with his grandparents, Ganga and Doady, having turned his back on the seminary where he was training to become a priest. The Wednesday before Easter, with the whole of Faha in church apart from Noe, the seemingly incessant rain stops. At around the same time, a man in his sixties turns up, introducing himself to Noe before taking off for a naked swim, much to Noe’s astonishment. This is Christy, employed by the electricity board to reaffirm all those in Faha signed up for electrification and lodging with Ganga and Doady while he does so. Noe finds himself accompanying Christy on his rounds, listening to his tales of travel and adventure until Christy confesses he’s come to Faha to ask forgiveness of the woman he jilted decades ago. Noe has his own love troubles, conceiving an unrequited passion for the doctor’s beautiful daughter who tends him when one of the electricity poles falls on him. As the seventy-five-year-old Noe looks back over that long dry summer when Faha stood on the cusp of change, he tells a poignant story of love, redemption and the secret of happiness.

As, from this, you can probably already tell, for storytelling, there were two principal styles available in Faha, the plain and the baroque

Perhaps it’s because I was half-expecting the aforementioned spare style not having read one of Williams’ novels before that it took me a little while to adjust to his relaxed, discursive storytelling which takes its readers down a multitude of byways. Once over that, I loved its lushness and affectionate humour.

He didn’t mind at all that when Ganga came calling he took an old paper or two back with him and in that way kept up to date with what was new in the world last week  

This is a novel choc-full of stories, peopled with engaging characters, not least Noe, our narrator, and Christy, the man who becomes his friend. Occasionally, the Vaseline-lensed nostalgia of it all felt a little too much – this was a time when grinding poverty was the norm in rural Ireland – but Noe reminds us of that poverty sufficiently often for it not to jar. Williams knows not just how to spin a yarn expertly but how to work it into an entire glorious sunlit tapestry of a community about to plant its feet in the twentieth-century fifty years into it. I loved it. Time to explore his backlist, I think.

Bloomsbury Publishing: London, 2019 9781526609335 400 pages Hardback

Beyond the Sea by Paul Lynch: Cast adrift

I’m not sure how I’ve managed to miss Paul Lynch’s writing but as soon as I finished Beyond the Sea I added his previous novels to my list. Lynch’s prose exemplifies that spare, pared-back style which I so admire, one at which Irish writers seem to excel. In his new novella two fishermen are cast adrift after a dreadful storm, one dragooned into helping the other whose debt to drug barons has become a matter of urgency.

Bolivar is a fisherman, selfish in his pleasures and determined to take them. When a woman he has in his sights tells him the cartel he’s become involved with have come threatening violence unless he pays his debts, he takes off looking for his fishing mate who’s nowhere to be found. His boss warns him a storm has been forecast, telling him to take young Hector if he must go out to sea. Despite his reservations, Bolivar has no choice. These two set off together – one a cynical, seasoned fisherman, the other naive and inexperienced. When the storm hits, its ferocity is so great it knocks out their boat’s engine. Soon it’s clear that the radio is inoperative, too. Neither can know how long they will be cast adrift with no means of calling for help. Each deals with their plight in different ways: Hector turns to God, fashioning an effigy of the Virgin from driftwood while fixating on his two-timing girlfriend; Bolivar devises ways of using the detritus that washes their way, catching enough fish to feed them and finding ways to preserve it. As the days wear on, Hector and Bolivar are forced to overcome their antipathy but days become months and each man is faced with his essential self.

Lynch’s novella explores themes of faith, madness, survival and existential crisis with an extraordinary intensity. Hector and Bolivar are thrown upon themselves and each other in order to survive. As a bond forms between them, each begins to tell the other about their lives, their secrets and their fears but while Hector sees faith as their saviour, Bolivar puts his trust in resourcefulness. Lynch’s short stark sentences, sometimes repeated, effectively evoke a claustrophobic feeling of being stranded aboard this tiny vessel, tossed around on a seemingly endless sea. As so often when I come across a piece of writing that pushes my literary buttons quite so effectively as Lynch’s does, I’m in danger of stuffing this review full of quotes but here are just a few gems:

Time now is not time. It does not pass but rests

Grief is a thing that sits shapeless between them

Days of hammering sun, the sea the sun’s anvil

He decides the barnacles taste entirely of the sea. He wonders too if he is now like them. If now you are made of wind and rain, salty air, the blood watered to brine. How you might taste to a shark

This is such a powerful piece of fiction, beautifully expressed, and all the better for its carefully crafted brevity. So good, I included it on my Booker Prize wish list.

When All is Said by Anne Griffin: Raising a glass or five

Cover imageit was the structure of Anne Griffin’s When All is Said that first caught my eye and when I realised she’d been a bookseller with Waterstones it went straight on my list. John Boyne’s name sits proudly on the back of my proof under a glowing puff, another Waterstones alumni. Spanning a single night, most of which is spent in the bar of the Rainsford House Hotel, Griffin’s debut tells the story of eighty-four-year-old Maurice Hannigan as he makes five toasts.

Widowed two years ago, Maurice has decided he can no longer bear to be without his beloved Sadie. He’s put his affairs in order, dressed himself smartly and settled in at the bar. Over the course of the evening he raises his glass five times: once to his beloved brother Tony, long ago lost to tuberculosis; once to his longed for daughter, Molly, who arrived stillborn; once to his sister-in-law, Noreen, a constant presence in his and Sadie’s life; once to his son Kevin, openly adored by his mother but barely acknowledged by Maurice and lastly to Sadie, much missed but so often overlooked. As Maurice drinks each toast, kindling memories of these five, we learn how his life became intertwined with the Dollards whose farm he went to work on aged ten, now the hotel in which he sits, and the far-reaching repercussions of small split-second decision. Maurice addresses his thoughts to Kevin, confessing his many misdemeanours, not least his inability to express his love and admiration for the son who makes his living from words while his father can barely read. Maurice has made himself one of the wealthiest men in the county but he’s neglected those dearest to him and his vengefulness towards the Dollards has caused them a great deal of misery. Now that he’s sealed his own fate, it might be time for a little redemption.

This is such a clever structure. Griffin tells us story of Maurice’s life through his recollections of the people most important to him, and to some extent the story of rural Ireland over the past century along with it. He’s an expertly drawn character, every inch the jovial old man at first but soon revealing both the sadnesses that have shadowed his life and his inability to open himself to love and joy, his eye fixed on accumulating property and the righting of the wrongs done to his family by the Dollards. Maurice is the master of the colourfully turned phrase, captured well in Griffin’s use of vernacular. His cocky exterior hides a well of grief and not a little guilt but there’s a good deal of comedy amongst the tragedy. A thoroughly enjoyable, smartly turned out piece of fiction inspired, apparently, by a man Griffin met in a hotel who told her he’d worked there as a boy and wouldn’t see the morning.

My Coney Island Baby by Billy O’Callaghan: Love in the afternoon

Cover imageRegular readers may have noticed I’ve a weakness for Irish writing. It was that and the premise of Billy O’Callaghan’s My Coney Island Baby that attracted me to it. Two lovers, engaged in a long affair, meet for an afternoon once a month, a welcome interval in their humdrum marriages. Now each is faced with a crisis that threatens this relationship which has become so precious to them both.

On a bleak November afternoon, Michael and Caitlin battle their way against the wind to a Coney Island hotel. They’ve snatched afternoons like this for twenty-five years since Michael met Caitlin in a bar, escaping the awful grief at the loss of his baby son. Caitlin was already married, still cherishing dreams of becoming a writer and publishing the occasional short story. These two clicked and have continued to do so, telling each other their stories as lust dwindles a little, although never completely, and love grows. Now they’re in their late forties and age is overtaking them. Shortly after they meet, Michael tells Caitlin that his wife has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Later in the afternoon she tells him her husband is in line for a promotion that will take him to Illinois. They both know these monthly meetings may be about to end unless they make an irrevocable decision.

For those seconds of a summer’s afternoon, easy in one another’s arms, they were entirely who they wanted and needed to be.

O’Callaghan’s novel takes place during a single afternoon, switching perspective from Michael to Caitlin. Their stories unfold in such a way that we come to know these two intimately: Michael thinks of the Irish island he left when he was sixteen, and his son whose death indelibly marked his marriage; Caitlin remembers her ambitions to become a writer, and the stepfather whose sudden departure left her and her mother alone again. There’s an elegiac tone to O’Callaghan’s prose coupled with a timelessness which suits his subject beautifully. It’s a novel that quietly  draws you in, engaging sympathy for these two lovers who face the end of the only relationship in which they’ve truly felt themselves.

Five Irish Books I’ve Read

Cover imageThe heading for this post could just as easily be 10, 15 or even 50 Irish books I’ve read. So much of the quietly elegant, understated writing I admire turns out to be by Irish authors. Their work is often tinged with more than a little melancholy, perhaps only to be expected given their country’s history. Below are five of the best Irish books I’ve read, just one with a link to a full review on this blog.

William Trevor’s The Story of Lucy Gault begins in the troubled year of 1921. Three men appear in the grounds of Lahardane to burn the house down. Springing to the defence of his English wife and their daughter, Lahardane’s Protestant owner Everard Gault fires his shotgun meaning only to frighten the trespassers but wounding one of them. The young man’s family will have nothing of Everard’s pleas for forgiveness. For their own safety, the Gaults must leave Ireland, an idea that eight-year-old Lucy finds unbearable. She runs away, determined to make her mother and father stay. Believing Lucy to be dead, her heartbroken parents turn their backs on their beloved home. When Lucy is found alive, they can’t be traced and her life becomes one of atonement for the wrong she feels she’s done them. Infused with an aching sadness, The Story of Lucy Gault typifies Trevor’s novels: slim, elegant, often spare, each word carefully chosen.

John McGahern’s That They May Face the Rising Sun is a little cheerier, unlike much of his fiction. Leaving their bustling London life behind, Joe and Kate Ruttledge have settled in a small Irish lakeside community on a farm subsidised by Joe’s writing. 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; trips to town to pick up supplies and local news. This gentle, almost wistful, novel traces a year in the Ruttledges’ lives, capturing both place and time beautifully. The quiet restraint that characterises much of McGahern’s writing is a delicate counterpoint to the sometimes lyrical sentences that bejewel his work.

I was going to pick a different Colm Tóibin novel from Brooklyn which has received so Cover imagemuch exposure thanks to the excellent film adaptation but it’s my favourite of his and I kept coming back to it. Unable to find work in 1950s Ireland, Eilas Lacey emigrates having heard of the many employment opportunities on offer in New York. She gets a job in a department store, takes up evening classes and tries to keep her desperate homesickness at bay. Shortly after she becomes involved with Tony Fiorello, she’s summoned back to Ireland by news of a family tragedy, hastily agreeing to a secret marriage before she leaves. At home, egged on by her mother, she finds herself falling in love with Jim Farrell, ignoring Tony’s letters and telling no one about him. The Irish American world is a small one, however, and it’s soon clear that Eilas must make a choice. Written in Tóibin’s spare yet eloquent prose, Brooklyn is a triumph, one which I didn’t expect to be matched by the film until I saw Saoirse Ronan as Eilas. She seemed born for the part.

Deirdre Madden’s Molly Fox’s Birthday takes place during the space of one day, as you might expect from its title, but it encapsulates decades of memories as a successful Northern Irish playwright thinks of her friend Molly whose Dublin house she has borrowed while Molly is in New York. Molly is a celebrated actress, feted for her stage performances. As our unnamed narrator struggles with writer’s block she remembers shared times with Molly, her thoughts often returning to their mutual friend Andrew. We know it’s Molly’s birthday from the book’s title but the full significance of the date slowly becomes apparent as our narrator muses on writing, friendship and identity, while wondering why Molly never celebrates her birthday. Madden’s writing is beautifully honed, as elegantly understated as all three of the previous writers.

Cover imageBelinda McKeon’s Tender begins in 1997 and ends in 2012, three years before the resounding referendum vote in favour of equal marriage in Ireland. Catherine and James instantly click when James returns from Berlin to reclaim the room Catherine has been renting for her first year at Trinity. 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 everyone is convinced they’re a couple but eventually James tells Catherine he’s gay. Soon she begins to bask in the glamour of this new sophisticated status, spilling the beans to those James has not yet told with unhappy results. Tender is a profoundly involving novel – raw yet compassionate, and extraordinarily intense at times. Another Irish triumph.

Any books by Irish authors you’d like to recommend?

He Is Mine and I Have No Other by Rebecca O’Connor: Secrets and Lies

Cover imageThis seems to be the year of the novella for me helped along by Madame Bibi who devoted the whole of last month to the form. Set in a small Irish town, Rebecca O’Connor’s He Is Mine and I Have No Other may be short on pages but it’s devastating in its revelation of tragedy, secrets and lies as it tells the story of fifteen-year-old Lani who falls in love with a troubled boy.

Lani lives with her mother, father and grandmother in a house on the edge of town. Every day she watches a boy make his way to the graveyard just above their house where thirty-five orphan girls lie buried, conceiving a passion for him and persuading her best friend to go with her to his school disco. They concoct an alibi for parental consumption, pilfer a few cans and take themselves off – Lani determined to ask the boy to dance. To her amazement he says yes and the two begin to exchange letters – his a little overwrought, hers more prosaic. Already painfully self-conscious, Lani swings from ecstatic fantasies about Leon to a conviction that she’s being laughed at until she discovers that he has a past which marks him out from other boys. Despite the happiness of her mother’s unexpected pregnancy, there are also secrets in her own home, kept tight since her grandmother was Lani’s age.

Lani tells her own story, her narrative occasionally punctuated by short entries from her aunt’s book on the orphans burnt in a convent fire made poignant by their hopes for the future in amongst the neglect and abuse suffered at the hands of their supposed protectors. O’Connor lightens the tone of Lani’s story with a much-needed thread of humour  – her parents call each other ‘mam’ and ‘dad’ but presumably not when the condom broke, thinks Lani, sarcastically; ’the fumes from the aftershave were deadly’ at the school disco which is excruciatingly vivid in its depiction of adolescent awkwardness as the first slow song plays. Lani views boys with deep suspicion as if they’re another species: they smelled, most of those boys. They smelled like they had dirty things on their minds. Lani’s parents’ happiness and concern for her contrast sharply with the misery of Leon’s predicament but there’s no getting away from tragedy in this novel. Prepare to have your heart well and truly wrenched.

That’s it from me until nearly the end of this month. We’re taking to the railways again, leaving for London later today then catching Eurostar to Amsterdam before heading east. The aim is to travel light but no doubt space will be made for a book or three.

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.