We’re almost half way through Reading Ireland Month and I’m having to race to catch up with the weekly prompts devised by by Cathy at 746 Books and Raging Fluff . So expect to see a clutch of Irish-related posts in coming days.
The topic for Week 1 was “My Top 5 Irish … anything to do with Irish culture.” Looking in the archives I discovered that I’d already done a post on favourite Irish novels for Reading Ireland 2020 so to ring the changes, this time I’ll look at my five favourite Irish authors.
The Literary “Dame”
Edna O’Brien‘s skills in observation and her understanding of human nature, are hard to beat.
My first experience of her writing came through her debut novel The Country Girls, the first part of a trilogy that sent shock waves through rural Ireland when it was published in 1960. This tale of two girls who leave their convent upbringing and small village life in search of life and love in city, was banned in Ireland because it dared to feature sex outside marriage. But the book sold well because its themes chimed with the spirit of the Swinging Sixties in the rest of the UK.
I’ve since gone on to read her memoir Country Girl and her 2015 novel Little Red Chairs, a haunting narrative of a political leader responsible for genocide who tries to flee from justice by hiding in an Irish village. What I’ve come to appreciate is how she writes sensitively about a controversial topic, like war crimes or child abduction, neither demonising or sentimentalising the individuals involved.
Edna was appointed an honorary Dame of the Order of the British Empire in 2018 in recognition of her contribution to literature. She’s now in her 90s so I doubt we’ll have the pleasure of anything new from her now sadly.
The Dying Class
Molly Keane (who also published under the pseudonym of M J Farrell) wrote about the dying decades of the Angle Irish gentry class into which she was born. She regards them with affection but also shows up the folly of their attitudes and beliefs. Nowhere is this more evident than in Good Behaviour which is set in a crumbling manor house occupied by a family who are determined to keep up appearances as befitting their status. It’s a witty novel that shows the consequences for trying to live up to the standards of good behaviour. I think she gets better as she matures as an author, the focus on horses, romance and snobbery giving way to a darker aspect, as reflected in Devoted Ladies which is about the dynamics between two women who have formed a lesbian relationship in 1930s London
The Divided Personality
John Banville is another Irish author who publishes under two names, reflecting his interest in two vastly different genres. As John Banville he writes literary fiction of the kind that resulted in the award of the Booker Prize for The Sea. As Benjamin Black he writes crime fiction. I’ve experienced only his “Banville” work, first with The Sea and then via Ancient Light, both of reflect on the remembered past and its ability to shape our destinies. They’re border on the poetical in their use of rhythm, imagery and allusion — Banville seems to take particular delight in descriptions about the landscape and the weather.
I’ve not read any of his Benjamin Black out but last year he published a novel, that is a hybrid of his two writing personas. Snow is a wonderful locked house murder mystery, published in Banville’s name that blends literary flourishes with crime fiction tropes. i loved it so much its made me want to immediately begin reading Benjamin Black’s output.
I have a publishing intern to thank for introducing me to Donal Ryan. His novel The Spinning Heart had been rejected by numerous publishers and was in the reject pile at Doubleday until an intern picked it out, read it and raved about it to her manager. Her intuition was spot on. This novel about the heartbreaking consequences of the collapse of Ireland’s economic boom went on to make the long list for the Booker Prize. I’ve since read From a Low and Quiet Sea which is even more powerful; melancholic in part but with touches of humour. Ryan’s third novel, Strange Flowers is queued up for me to read later this month.
The Award Winner
As the author of eight novels and the winner of many awards, Maggie O’Farrell hardly needs any introduction from me. I first encountered her when a friend bought me a copy of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox.
I loved it so much I’ve read several more of her books including Instructions for a Heatwave , The Hand That First Held Mine, Hamnet (winner of the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction) and her memoir I Am, I Am, I Am. I’ve yet to read a book by her that I haven’t enjoyed though I still view “Esme Lennox” as my favourite.
The good news is that she has a new novel — The Marriage Portrait— due out later this year. It’s set in Renaissance Italy and features a daughter of the powerful Medici family. There’s an extract from the book available to read here.