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We’re staying with the Celtic nations for the choice of our next country in The View From Here series on literature from around the world. Our featured country is Ireland and who better to give us the insight on this country’s literature than the blogger who has co-hosted Reading Ireland month for the past few years: Cathy at 746books
Let’s meet Cathy
Just over two years ago, as I went to buy yet another book, I decided to do a count and see how many unread books I had to hand – on my shelves, my iPad and my Kindle. It came to 746 and I was so shocked! I was reading around 30 books a year and worked out that if I didn’t buy any more books, it would still take me about 25 years to read all the books I had in the house! So, I set myself the challenge to not buy any more books, read all 746 and blog about it along the way.
I’ve rediscovered my love of Irish literature in particular, so I also blog about the Irish literary scene and review new books by Irish authors.
Outside of blogging, I am a mother of 5 year old twins and work in an Arts Centre in Northern Ireland so I’m kept pretty busy!
Q. Who are your favourite authors from Ireland (north and south)?
This is a really hard question, because I love so many! My favourite novelists would be Bernard McLaverty, Brian Moore, Edna O’Brien, Colum McCann and Nuala NiChonchuir, but I also love playwrights like Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh and poets like Paul Durcan and Sinead Morrissey.
Q. Why did you start the Reading Ireland Month?
I had spotted a few reading months relating to Germany and Japan and just thought, why not?! March seemed like the perfect month for it and I decided to team up with my old friend and fellow blogger Niall at The Fluff is Raging to broaden the scope of the month to include posts on movies, music, TV and travel as well as books. I see it as a real celebration of all Irish culture and I love spreading the word about all the great writers that have come from this tiny island! Last year we had over 100 posts and we are hoping for even more this year!
Q. Does literature from Ireland have a particular atmosphere or style, something that maybe makes it stand out as distinctively “Irish”?
This is an interesting question that I think about it a lot. What is it about a small island like Ireland that has produced 4 Nobel Prize winners and a host of world class writers, playwrights and poets? Alongside Greek and Latin, Ireland had one of the earliest ‘languages’ Ogham which dates back to the 4th century AD. There is a great oral tradition of storytelling and myth making that carries on throughout Irish history. In ancient Irish society, the poet was revered and was second only to the chieftain and I think we still carry that reverence today. Add to that a turbulent history of invasion, immigration, famine and war and you have a fertile ground for literature to flourish in.
For me, Irish writing is lyrical and poetic, with a real sense of vitality, always with an eye to the past and to the tradition from which it has come.
Q. What books are creating a buzz in Ireland at the moment?
There is a great range of young authors making a buzz in Ireland at the moment. Writers like Colin Barrett, Danielle McLaughlin, Belinda McKeon, Rob Doyle, Anakana Schofield, Lisa McInerney, Sara Baume and Eimear McBride are all being talked about on a national level. Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and the Guardian First Novel Award and Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing won the 2014 Bailey’s Prize for Women.
The buzz isn’t only about writers though – there are lots of fantastic literary magazines from Ireland exploring new work, like Banshee and The Stinging Fly and Tramp Press is an exciting new publisher working to promote the voices of women in Ireland, old and new. A fabulous book to check out is Dubliners 100, published by Tramp Press where new and established writers from Ireland created a ‘cover version’ of their favourite stories from James Joyce’s Dubliners. It’s a great introduction to Irish writers you may not have heard of!
There is also a great surge in crime writing coming out of Ireland, Tana French is an obvious example of this, but writers like Eoin McNamee, Stuart Neville and Jane Casey are writing very interesting Celtic Noir!
Q. Who are the authors you would consider ‘must read’ for people who wanted to deepen their knowledge of Irish literature?
This is a hard question to answer as the breadth of work there is to choose from is vast. There are the classic writers like Swift, Wilde and Stoker and the modernists like Beckett, Joyce and Yeats. I have a list of 100 Irish Novels on my blog which is a great starting point for anyone interested in Irish Literature. It is in chronological order and spans from 1729 to 2014 and really highlights the diversity and quality of Irish Literature. There were so many books I wanted to include, that I could have made the list go up to 200!
Q. Most keen readers will know of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde. Are there any authors you think deserve more attention?
There are a lot of women writers who deserve attention and have been in the shadows for too many years. Writers like Maria Edgeworth, Elizabeth Bowen and Kate O’Brien can more than hold their own with the titans of Irish literature. There is a famous Irish Writers poster, which was very popular in Ireland and featured only male writers. Last year the Irish Times recreated the poster with only female writers and there is a real feeling that readers are starting to hear and to listen to these voices. I would recommend The Long Gaze Back which is an anthology of short stories by Irish women writers edited by Sinead Gleeson. It is a fascinating collection of work featuring writers like Maria Edgeworth, Maeve Brennan and Elizabeth Bowen alongside less well known writers like Norah Hoult.
Q. Talking of Joyce … he seems to divide readers. Where do you stand on the love him/hate him debate?
I feel like a wee bit of a fraud at this point, as I haven’t read Ulysses! I know, it’s embarrassing, but it is in the 746 so I will be reading it at some point. I have read Finnegan’s Wake and The Dead and would some down on the ‘love’ side, solely for the short story ‘The Dead’ which is a perfect short story and contains one of the most beautiful passages ever written:
‘A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, on the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.’
Hope Cathy’s guest post has given you a taste for Irish authors. If you’re tempted to explore further now is a good time to join Reading Ireland Month which runs until end of March. Find out more info on the sign up page on Cathy’s blog. Follow the Facebook page here or join in the discussion on Twitter using #readireland16.
By coincidence I started reading Kate Grenville’s story of a fictional family who were early settlers in Australia, around the same time that I was researching a real life family who left Ireland to make a new life in Australia.
Both families were forced into travelling the thousands of miles to the new world. Grenville’s patriarch was a convict, transported for life for stealing wood; mine was a farmer fleeing from the Irish potato famine.
Though I suspect both the fictional and the real-life families suffered similar difficulties with an unfamiliar climate and terrain, I don’t know whether ‘my’ family experienced the same conflicts with the indigenous population as the convict William Thornhill does when he tries to colonise some land.
Thornhill was born in London into a life of poverty. He’s not an inherently wicked man but turns to petty crime because it offers an opportunity to keep body and soul alive. Unfortunately he gets caught and is sentenced to death. Transportation is his escape from the gallows.
With his wife Sal and their children he arrives in New South Wales. Through hard work he is able to earn his freedom and to start afresh. He discovers a plot of land in an inlet of the Hawkesbury River, that he is determined to own and cultivate.
In The Secret River, Grenville shows the effect of a burning desire for ownership and how it changes an otherwise decent, hard working and sensitive man.
Cultivation of the new land is a hard task but what keeps Sal going is the belief that one day they will have enough money to return to her beloved London. But the land and the river have taken grip of William. It’s the one time in his life that he has something that is his. Being a landowner represents dignity and status, and he wants to keep it even if that means conflict with the woman he loves.
… nothing would console him for the loss of that point of land the shape of his thumb. For the light in the mornings, slanting in through the trees. For the radiant cliffs in the sunset and the simple blue of the sky. For the feeling of striding out over ground that was his own. For knowing he was a king, as he would only ever be king in that place.
But he has not reckoned that there is another group who equally believe the land they are the rightful owners of this plot of land.
The mysterious, dark-skinned people who appear and disappear from the forests, seem seem to him no more than naked savages. Other ex- convicts up river have found a way to accommodate themselves with the Aborigines but not William. He is angered when they steal his crops and incensed to find his son playing with their children. This to him feels like a betrayal.
When violence between Aborigines and the white settlers erupts further along the river, William is shown a way to protect his own family and everything he has worked for in Australia. But it requires him to accept bloodshed and violence. It’s hard to read this part of the novel without a sense of dread about the decision William has to make because it’s unlikely to have a happy outcome.
This is a novel about two attitudes to the land (the settlers and the Aborigines) but also about two rivers.
Grenville shows the Thames as a harsh and unforgiving, environment against which William contends when he plies his trade as a boatman. Yet he loves the river:
After a time the mud-choked water and the ships it carried, thick on its back like fleas on a dog, became nothing more than a big room of which every corner was known. He came to love that wide pale light around him out on the river, the falling away of insignificant things in the face of the great radiance of the sky. He would rest on the oars at Hungerford Reach, where the tide could be relied on to sweep him around, and stare along the water at the way the light wrapped itself around every object.
Even when he’s soaked through and his face is reddened and swollen by the cold and rain, he accepts his condition because “it was as pointless to complain about the weather as it was to complain that he had been born … in a dank, stuffy room rather than … with a silver spoon waiting to have his name engraved on it.”
The Hawkesbury River fires William’s imagination even more than the Thames. Until he saw the sparkle and dance of light on the water, the way the cliffs tumble into the river through snaking mangroves and the sound of wind rustling through skinny, grey-green trees, he had never realised that a man could fall in love with the land. Or that he could become a different man entirely.
This sky, those cliffs, that river were no longer the means by which he might return to some other place. This was where he was; not just in body but in soul as well.
A man’s heart was a deep pocket he might turn out and be amazed at what he found there.
The is a well-paced novel in the way Grenville shows an escalation of the conflict between Aborigines and some of the white settlers and the conflict within William as he faces his moral dilemma.
Some reviewers have commented that they would have preferred The Secret River to more morally ambiguous. Grenville, they thought, over simplified the portrayal of the attitudes of the settlers to the Aborigines. Actually I thought her exploration of how people are brought to act against their principles and values, was far more nuanced than they gave her credit for.
It seems this novel, which won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2006, and was a Booker prize nominee, is the first in a trilogy. I wonder whether the next two titles will have the same level of tension.
Were it not for the Booker Prize I’m not sure I would have ever experienced Donal Ryan’s work.
He was long listed in 2013 with The Spinning Heart, winning The Guardian first book award the same year. Narrated by 21 victims of Ireland’s economic crash; it reveals the impact of the collapse of the Celtic Tiger on the inhabitants of an unnamed rural town. In my review I described it as “technically adroit … with pitch perfect characterisation.”
That same description can be equally applied to his latest novel, From a Low and Quiet Sea, which is on this year’s Booker Prize long list.
I thought it would be hard to beat The Spinning Heart but Ryan has done it with From a Low and Quiet Sea .
The cast of characters has been significantly trimmed. We’re now focused on three men all of whom have something missing in their lives: a Syrian refugee, a crooked lobbyist and a young man dealing with the heartache of a lost love.
Each man is given their own section in the novel.
Farouk is a doctor who escapes from Syria with his wife and daughter in the hope of finding a more stable, peaceful life in western Europe. Too late, they discover they have been duped and instead of being let to safety are left adrift at sea in the midst of a storm. Ryan apparently wrote this story after hearing a news report about a Syrian doctor who paid what he thought was a high-end smuggler to get him out of the country. Though short, this was an engrossing story in exquisitely evocative prose
They speak to each other through tunnels that extend from their roots . . . sending their messages cell by cell . . . If a tree is starving, its neighbour will send it food. No one knows how this can be, but it is . . . They know the rule, the only one that’s real and must be kept. What’s the rule? You know. I’ve told you lots of times before. Be kind.
The style and pace change markedly for section two which features Lampy, a young man who is pining after the girl he loved who dumped him when she went off to college. He works in a care home, occassionally driving the old inhabitants to their medical appointments. He lives with his mother and grandfather Dixie – a man who loves taking people in the pub down a peg of two. Lampy is frequently frustrated by the old man yet also loves him, feeling “ a strange thrill of pride. His grandfather was wicked; when he was in form his tongue could slice the world in two.”
And finally we get to John, a ruthless man involved in very shady dealings, who is full of remorse for long-ago relationship with a younger woman. He tells his own story through the medium of the confessional, revealing how his family life fell apart when his brother died and he became obsessed with a young woman he met in a bar.
At first it seems these stories have no relationship to each other. It’s only in the fourth – and final – section that they are drawn together in a way that surprised me. To say more would be to spoil the experience of this book for other readers.
From a Low and Quiet Sea is a brief book but it’s one that lingers in the mind. Every character has a unique voice, from melancholy to matter of fact confession but there is also humour – there’s a wonderfully funny scene on the bus where the old people grumble because the vehicle breaks down. It’s so good I’m tempted to read it again soon which is something that I rarely do.
Today in The View from Here series on literature from around the world, we get to visit my home country of Wales with the help of Caroline Oakley, Editor and Publisher at Honno, an independent co-operative press based in Aberystwyth, Wales.
Honno was established in 1986 to publish the best in Welsh women’s writing. Today it publishes novels, autobiographies, memoir and short story anthologies in English as well as classics in both Welsh and English. Over the years Honno and its titles have been awarded many awards. Registered as a community co-operative, any profits made by the company is invested in the publishing programme. Caroline has worked in general trade publishing for over thirty years and has edited a number of award winning and bestselling authors. When not working she likes to walk in the woods, make her own clothes, grow her own food and clear up after her housemates (all seven of whom have four legs).
Q. What recommendations would you have for readers who want to discover books written by authors from Wales?
A good starting point would be www.gwales.com. You can browse fiction by review or the different categories. You have to dig a little deeper but the site also lists Welsh publishers, so it is worth browsing through them individually to see the broad range of titles published in Wales.
Q. In 2014 the Wales Arts Review magazine asked readers the question: “Which is the Greatest Welsh Novel?” They ended up with a shortlist of 23 novels (listed here). What do you think of this list – are there any surprises? Any names missing for you?
I’m not sure I agree with such a label — it would be different for every reader… I’d want to know which categories the books were being judged against before opting for one over another. Also, I haven’t read them all, so how could I judge? And out of the 23 only half a dozen were by women— is this because male authors are better or because they are traditionally more likely to be published? I’m sure there are many many great novels by women that aren’t on the list.
Q. Are there any particular trends or themes that you find often in novels by writers from Wales?
Reinterpretations of traditional Welsh mythology, the history of Welsh emigration, and the transition from rural to industrial ways of life are themes that often crop up, both amongst the classic novels we publish and the contemporary submissions we get.
Q. Apart from Dylan Thomas, few authors from Wales seem to have made a big impact on the world stage. Why isn’t literature from Wales as well known as say Irish literature or Scottish fiction?
I wish I knew! Wales’s writers have certainly been recognised — R.S. Thomas was nominated for a Nobel Prize for instance. A degree of lingering mistrust between England and Wales could be partly to blame — however, Ireland does much better than either Wales or Scotland pro rata for population size and they too have a troubled history. Maybe hitherto they’ve had bigger characters/personalities who’ve been known for behaviour outside of their writing – Dylan Thomas is perhaps the only Welsh writer who fits into this category…
Q. How important are prizes like the Wales Book of the Year award or the Dylan Thomas prize in giving more attention to Welsh authors?
They have proved to be useful in terms of wider recognition from publishing industry in rest of UK and the world, for rights sales in particular –which improves the lot of the author who may then get an offer from bigger international publisher although less good for Welsh publisher who takes risk on an author but can’t afford to retain them on their list once they’re successful.
Q.In an article in The Bookseller magazine in 2016, a number of Welsh publishers commented on how it was getting harder to persuade mainstream media to review books and to get booksellers to stock their titles which come from Wales even if they are not necessarily about Wales Is that something that you’re concerned about?
It definitely has been an issue for us, partly down to mainstream media paying less attention to smaller presses generally, partly that smaller presses just don’t have the budget to effectively promote their books with review copies, pre-pub events and networking and partly down to being unable to network effectively with London-based media when you are in Aberystwyth! I don’t know that being from Wales or about Wales is necessarily the issue here — it’s more that space for any book related material is increasingly limited particularly in the print media/newspapers so inevitably they are going to focus on the big names. Also lead times are getting longer, which works against publishers whose lead times are shorter, which is true of some independent presses like Honno… Contrarily space online for books is growing incrementally but is yet to be seen as creditable or reliable in the same way as the established broadsheets.
Q. When Honno was created, the intention was to increase the opportunity for Welsh women in publishing and to bring Welsh women’s literature to a wider public. Is that still a key focus for you – have you seen any changes in attitude from readers over the years?
Absolutely it’s still a key focus! What we’d like to do is to widen our demographic to younger women in Wales and beyond — a lot of our initial interest was from women who are now getting older and making sure that their descendants know about Honno and recognise its importance is vital. There are many more demands on young women’s time and attention than was true in the early eighties— hence our interest in media other than print as a way of engaging younger readers.
Q Do you have a personal favourite among the authors from Wales?
Of the Welsh Women’s Classics we publish, My Mother’s House by Lily Tobias is one I particularly enjoyed. Obviously it is too difficult to choose a favourite contemporary author from among the Honno stable (without also risking the others’ wrath!) but outside of that Cynan Jones is a favourite — now receiving wide recognition but no longer published in Wales (hence my point earlier about the downside of prizes).
Intrigued? Want to know more?
- You can find more infomation about Honno, their catalogue and authors at their website www.honno.co.uk or via Facebook (facebook.com/honnopress) and via Twitter @honno.
- To learn more about literature from Wales visit the dedicated Literature from Wales page on this blog to discover reviews of authors from Wales and lists of suggested books to read.
- You might also want to take a look at a View from Wales post I wrote in 2016
The ancestral home of Temple Alice might be crumbling and the debts piling up. But for the St Charles family, it’s imperative that appearances are maintained and they uphold the standards of good behaviour befitting the Anglo-Irish gentry. And on the surface they are successful. Papa occupies his time hunting, fishing and generally having a good time with his coterie of female admirers. Mummie is so busy with her gardening and her painting she has no time or patience for all the dull business of housekeeping and child rearing. Daughter Aroon and her younger brother Hubert are consequently left in the care of their beloved governess Miss Brock with whom they swim and picnic joyfully.
It all sounds a halcyon existence. But that’s only on the surface. Time and time again in Good Behaviour a darkness seeps through that is all the more disturbing because it’s so subtly introduced and then glossed over. The tone is set in the opening scene in which Aroon, now a mature woman, prepares a rabbit mousse for her invalid mother’s meal, despite protestations from housemaid Rose that mum gets sick if she eats rabbit. Mother takes one mouthful, is sick. and dies. The result of an error of judgement by a well-meaning daughter or a deliberate act of a woman grown embittered over the years? The reader is left to decide but that episode is already a signal that maybe Aroon is going to prove an entirely unreliable narrator of her story.
The chapters that immediately follow the rabbit episode reinforce our initial impressions that more is going on beneath the surface than first appears. They seem to be series of entertaining anecdotes about Aroon’s childhood in her ancestral country home yet it’s obvious to us, even if it isn’t to her, that she is being largely ignored and starved of affection. Her mother is either distant or dismissive and cruel and her father only seems to pay attention when she is exhibiting her horsemanship even when this results in a near tragic episode where she clings onto a troublesome horse. She is further burdened by her size and shape. She’s tall and full blossomed in a way that is totally out of synch with the fashion in 1920s for slim, boyish figures. To onlookers she looks like a Fat Lady in a peepshow with her “bosoms swinging like jelly bags”.
I have now come to terms with my height but in those years when I was nineteen and twenty, I bent my knees, I bowed my shoulders; I strapped in my bosoms until they burst out around my back.
Aroon is in essence an outsider. Although there are moments when she feels she’s “there at the heart of things” – like when her brother teaches her to dance and she finds there is something at which she can excel or the evenings when Hubert and his friend Richard invite her for drinks and music in their bedroom. Richard gets into bed with her one night. Though nothing happens sexually, the fact Richard was in her bed is enough for Aroon to believe he is in love with her and to eagerly that anticipate nuptial bliss will follow.
But too soon the dream falls apart. Hubert is killed in a motoring accident and Richard disappears to Kenya. The death of son and heir and the earlier tragedy when Papa lost a leg in the battle fields of World War 1 barely disrupt the routine. For this is a house where every mishap or tragedy is shaken off, never spoken of and never allowed to interrupt the gardening or hunting. “Our good behaviour went on and on. . . no one spoke of the pain.” says Aroon after Hubert’s funeral. “We exchanged cool, warning looks – which of us could behave the best: which of us could be least embarrassing…”
Though she does feel the pain when her hopes of marriage fade, she will not show it for she has learned to be a dutiful daughter and how to behave in the same socially impeccably manner as her parents. Phoning the doctor to report her mother’s death for example to the others she has time to observe:
… how the punctual observance of the usual importances is the only way to behave at such times as these. And I do know how to behave – believe me, I know. I have always known. All my life far I have done everything for the best reasons and the most unselfish motives.
What Keane lets us see is how Aroon is ‘right’ about behaviour but so often wrong about people. She doesn’t see that Richard’s romantic overture is designed to disguise his intense relationship with her brother or that the cook Rose isn’t just warming her father’s foot when he’s confined to bed after a stroke. Nor does she see her mother’s lack of affection as odd. It’s just the way things are. “I don’t blame Mummie… She simply did not want to know what was going on in the nursery. She had had children and she longed to forget the horror of it once and for all. She didn’t really like children; she didn’t like dogs either…”
Is she really that limited in understanding that she doesn’t see her mother’s behaviour for what it is: cruelty. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for this girl whose life has been blighted and who seems not to understand how this has happened.
It’s the gap between what Aaron knows and understands and what we as readers understand that makes Good Behaviour such a tremendous book. Added to that Keane’s characters are wholly believable; none of them come across in flattering way. They wouldn’t dream of treating their dogs or horses badly yet are perfectly capable of being mean and spiteful to fellow humans in revenge for personal grievances whether real or imagined. That doesn’t mean this is a novel entirely devoid of humour. There is a wonderful set piece towards the end of the novel where Aaron, on the morning of her father’s funeral is despatched to the station to collect one of his old friends.She lets herself be persuaded to take a tipple in the station buffet – one brand and ginger ale turns into two and three and then she falls on the ice and spends the afternoon sleeping it off while everyone else is at the funeral. But Keane suddenly turns from humour to pathos as Aaron realises she has “let the side down”.
At that moment I knew myself entirely bereft. The sofa murmured and creaked under my sobbing. She [Mummie] was keeping strictly to the day’s essentials; things must be done, masks against any vulgar intrusions of grief. I felt like a child who wets her knickers at a party. Nowhere to hide, no refuge from the shame of it.
Impossible not to feel sympathy at moments like this for a girl who has only wanted ever to love and to be loved but whose soul has been suppressed through neglect and a lifetime of required good behaviour.
A wonderful book; faultless in its concept and in its execution.
About the book: Good Behaviour by Molly Keane was published in 1981 and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize that year. It is the first novel Molly Keane published after a writing break triggered by the death of her husband and was the first time she used her real name (rather than her pseudonym of Maggie J Farrell.) Apparently Keane sent it to a publisher but when it was rejected as ‘too dark’ she stuck it in a kitchen drawer. But then Peggy Ashcroft visited and struck down with flu, asked for something to read. Having read the typescript she urged Molly to try and publish.
About the author: Molly Keane was born as Mary Skrine in County Kildare in Ireland in 1904 into a ‘serious hunting and fishing family’. She wrote her first novel at the age of 17 to supplement her dress allowance, using the pseudonym of M. J Farrell to hide her activities from her sporting friends. Between 1928 and 1961 she wrote 10 novels and a clutch of successful plays.The death in 1946 of her husband, at the early age of 37, was a blow. She stopped writing and devoted herself to bringing up their daughters. Interest in her revived after publication of Good Behaviour. She continued to write well into her 80s. There is an excellent article in The Guardian in which editor Diana Athill reflects on her relationship with Keane – click this link
Why I read this book: I bought this in a library sale. I’d read only one book by her – Devoted Ladies which I enjoyed but didn’t love. But I’d seen plenty of reviews by bloggers whose opinion I trust to the effect of persuading me I really should read Good Behaviour. So thank you Heaven Ali ( her review is here) and the many other reviewers in the Library Thing Virago group. Good Behaviour is one of my 20booksofsummer choices.
Maggie O’Farrell’s latest novel This Must be the Place, is a dazzling portrait of broken relationships and secrets from which we can try to run, but never escape. Everyone in this novel seems to be stumbling and struggling along, hoping that at some point they will find what is missing in their life. What’s missing is the place. And that place is home.
Take the central figure of Daniel Sullivan. He’s a US academic who has drifted into life in a remote part of Ireland with his stunning, eccentric wife. Claudette Wells was once the world’s biggest film stars but then vanished from public view when she staged a disappearing act while on holiday, leaving everyone including her film director husband to believe she was dead. Life is complex enough when your wife readily takes pot shots at anyone who comes close to breaching her privacy but Daniel has further complications in his life. He has children living in California that he never sees and a father in Brooklyn that he dislikes intensely. He doesn’t realise however just how fragile his life is until the day a radio program triggers a memory about a former girlfriend he lost touch with twenty years ago. He should be en route to Brooklyn to mark his father’s 90th birthday but the program has unsettled him so instead he sits on a park bench and reflects:
…my life has been a series of elisions, cover-ups, dropped stitches in knitting. To all appearances, I am a husband, a father, a teacher, a citizen, but when tilted towards the light I become a deserter, a sham, a killer, a thief. On the surface I am one thing but underneath I am riddled with holes and caverns, like a limestone landscape.
Its a contemplation which ends in a journey to right the wrongs of his past; a journey that will threaten his career and his sanity and jeopardise his marriage.
It is possible, I think … to see ailing marriages as brains that have undergone a stroke. Certain connections short-circuit, abilities are lost, cognition suffers, a thousand neural pathways close down for ever. Some strokes are massive, seminal, unignorable, others imperceptible. I’m told its perfectly possible to suffer one and not realise it until much later.
Whether he can make his way home again and re-establish his relationship with Charlotte is a question mark that hangs over the latter half of the book.
O’Farrell crosses time zones and continents to construct Daniel and Claudette’s stories through their own eyes and those around them. The children of their various relationships get their turn as narrators, as do her ex husband and personal assistants. Each chapter is told from a different point of view, relating events that occurred either years earlier or years later than the previous chapter. As readers we never know who’s going to appear next to tell their bit of the story. It also means that we see the gulf between how characters think of themselves and how they are perceived by others.
This Must be The Place is also replete with experiments in style. One chapter narrated by Daniel’s eldest son Niall, uses detailed footnotes to expand on his observations; another portrays Claudette’s life as an actress through illustrations from an auction catalogue of memorabilia. It’s a risky strategy but O’Farrell pulls it off with aplomb, creating an exceptional novel that has now supplanted The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox as my favourite O’Farrell novel. Surely This Must be The Place is a strong contender for some literary prizes?
This Must Be The Place by Maggie O’Farrell is published in the UK by Tinder Press. It’s her seventh novel. There’s a good colour piece about her published by The Independent newspaper – see it here
This is book #1 from my #20booksofsummer list
After a few days musing on authors from Wales I’m now going to hop across the sea to do homage to my Celtic cousins via Reading Ireland Month. I missed the event hosted by Cathy of 746books and Niall of The Fluff is Raging last year but am geared up for this year’s month long event.
I have three books in mind but will probably only manage one of them. I’m just not sure which of them to pick.
Do I go for….
Ancient Light by John Banville. In it an old actor recalls his schoolboy affair with a woman twice his age. I bought this in 2013 on my first visit to the Hay Book Festival where he was one of the featured authors He was a wonderful interviewee, full of anecdotes about the craft of writing (with a fountain pen if he is writing a John Banville novel but a biro when he writes as Benjamin Black). I’d only read The Sea by him previously but loved its lyricism so immediately the session finished I sped over to the bookshop and got a signed copy of Ancient Light. But its stayed on my shelf all this time.
Devoted Ladies by Molly Keane. This is her fifth novel but will be my first experience. I’ve seen her lauded by so many bloggers I simply have to explore her work. This one is set in fashionable, chic London rather than her usual world in Ireland. It shocked readers at the time because it dealt with a a stormy relationship between a lesbian couple.
or my final choice ..
Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín. If this is anywhere as good as Nora Webster which was one of my favourite books from 2015, then it will be a joyful experience. I’m deliberately choosing to ignore the film until I read the book.
All good options I think but which to I choose? Anyone care to make a recommendation???
According to Philip Roth, The Little Red Chairs is “a masterpiece”; the best novel Edna O’Brien has ever written. I wonder if Edna greeted the accolade with a gleam in her eye and her trademark mischievous smile. It is, after all ironic that her status as a novelist is recognised more on the world stage than in her own country. Her early years as a novelist were marked by scorn and derision in her native Ireland. It’s taken more than sixty years for the country to take her back into their bosom. Last year (long overdue) O’Brien was honoured as a Saoithe of Aosdána, Ireland’s highest literary honour, and with it came a presidential apology for the pious disdain which led to a ban on her books for decades and accusations she had a too-favourable attitude to the Provisional IRA.
But O’Brien has never been a lady who sought a quiet life or opted for the safe topics in her books, despite attracting the soubriquet “a “bargain basement Molly Bloom” at one time. In The Little Red Chairs she turns her attention to the monstrous acts perpetrated by a tyrant and to his innocent citizens who are forced to take flight and become stateless refugees. It’s a tremendously haunting novel delivered by someone who has a keenly observant eye and understanding of human nature.
The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien was published in the UK by Faber and Faber in 2015. Thanks to the publishers for providing me with a free copy via NetGalley.
If you’re interesting in discovering why O’Brien came to write this book take a look at this interview with The Daily Telegraph.
From the first page of Troubles, we’re thrust into a rather bizarre world of a once-grand but now dilapidated hotel on the western edge of Southern Ireland. The Majestic Hotel is inhabited by guests who are similarly frayed around the edges. They get to share the accommodation with an army of feral cats that takes up residence in the hotel’s once grand Imperial Bar, the tendrils of rubber plants and creepers which engulf the Palm Court and tree roots that burst through floors. Little of this seems to disturb the equilibrium of the few remaining inhabitants. As they play whist and gossip, their main concern is when – or if – afternoon tea will materialise. They seem equally impervious to the forces of change gathering momentum in the world outside the hotel.
What happens to the Majestic and its disintegrating occupants is a metaphor for the story of Ireland between 1919 and 1921, a period which saw a violent battle for independence from British rule. If the hotel cannot maintain the very fabric of its existence or the way of life it represents, neither can the old order of the privileged Anglo-Irish in Ireland maintain control against the larger and increasingly hostile group of Nationalists and Republicans.
All of which makes it sound as if Troubles is a book in which the story is secondary to the message the author wants to push at us. In other word that this is a book that screams “serious message”.
That would however be doing O’Farrell a great disservice.
Troubles is the first part of his Empire trilogy (the two other novels are The Seige of Krishnapur which is set in India and Singapore). Although the political upheaval in Ireland and the challenge to the imperial order is the background to Troubles, he doesn’t often refer to it directly or get his characters to indulge in long discussions about the merits or otherwise of the varying factions. The outside world only intrudes upon the Majestic in an oblique way, via occasional newspaper cuttings or chance remarks by the characters in the story. The reader is really left to recognise the inferences and to interpret the multiple metaphors for themselves.
We see the events through the eyes of Major Brendan Archer – an ex Army Officer who has come home from World War 1 and now wants to be re-united with the girl he thinks (but is not absolutely sure about) is his fiancee, Angela Spencer. Angela and her father own the Majestic but are not particularly good at hotel management — when the Major arrives, he is astounded that there is no-one at reception, he’s left to his own devices to choose a bedroom; the whole place is covered in dust and there is a funny smell in his room…
The ‘engagement’ doesn’t last long but the major finds himself unable to leave and so becomes a witness to the downward spiral of the hotel and the country.
Farrell tells this story with the same mix of comic and elegaic style that I discovered when reading The Seige of Krishnapur. There are times it borders on the preposterous and times when it’s simply bizarrely funny. I loved the picture he paints early in the book when the Major has his first encounter with the ageing inhabitants. He finds them in the Palm Court, slowly being overtaken by the foliage.
[it]….was really amazingly thick; there were creepers not only dangling rom above but also running in profusion over the floor, leaping out to seize any unwary object that remained in one place for too long. A standard lamp at his elbow, for instance had been throttled by a snake of greenery that had circled up its slender metal stem as far as the black bulb that crowned it like a bulging eyeball.
It was also rather fun trying to work out the nature of some of the allusions. For example, who or what is represented by a massive marmalade cat that prowls the corridors and then squats in the ample lap of one of the most aristocratic female guests, glowering with acid green eyes at everything and everyone around it.
In short Troubles was a fantastic read. Its value was recognised in 2010 when it was was awarded the Lost Man Booker Prize, a one-time award chosen among books published in 1970 which had not been considered for the Man Booker Prize at the time. Sadly, there are not many other novels by O’Farrell for me to explore because his career came to an abrupt end when he was drowned in a storm in 1979 at the age of 44.
The View from Here is a series which looks at the literature of countries from different parts of the globe from the perspective of local bloggers. So if you’ve ever wanted to know what book lovers in Sri Lanka are reading, which Canadian authors you should read or whether French literature is as strong as in the nineteenth century, this is a series for you.
Countries will be added to this list as the features are published. Click on the country name to see the featured post.
- Literature from Sri Lanka: Featured Blogger is Mystica from musingsfromsrilanka
- Literature from The Phillipines: Featured Blogger is Angus of Book Rhapsody
- Literature from Canada: Featured Blogger is Tanya of 52 books or bust
- Literature from France: Featured Blogger is Emma at Words and Peace
- Literature from Japan: Featured blogger is Meredith who blogs as Dolce Bellezza.
- Literature from South Africa: We have two guest posts for South Africa.
Penny who spent 2015 reading only books from South Africa. Penny’s guest post is here
- Literature from India: Featured blogger is Nishita from Nishita’s Rants and Raves
- Literature from Belgium: Featured reader is An https://twitter.com/An1081
- Literature from Australia: Featured blogger is Whispering Gums
- Literature from Antigua and Barbados: Featured blogger is Joanne C Hillhouse
- Literature from Finland: A perspective from Books from Finland
- Literature from Colombia: Featuring Laura Sesana who blogs at Lasesana.com
- Literature from Denmark Featuring Marit who blogs at boegernekslabyrint
- Literature from Ireland – with Cathy of 746books
- Literature from Scotland – with Joanne at PortobelloBookBlog
- Literature from Wales – two contributors talk about Wales:
Booker Talk reflects on the idea of the Great Welsh Novel. Read the article here
In an interview with Editor and publisher Caroline Oakley of Honno Press she considers whether literary prizes are important. Caroline’s interview is available here.