Category Archives: Ireland
In Ancient Light, John Banville returns to themes explored in his earlier Booker prize winning novel The Sea: the remembered past and its ability to shape our destinies.
Alexander Cleave, a stage actor, looks back to one year during his schoolboy days when he had an affair with his best friend’s mother, a woman 20 years his senior. After their first encounter in the laundry room of her house, the pair graduate to sexual trysts on the back seat of her car and then to a mouldy mattress in a run down cottage. So infatuated is Alexander with Mrs Gray that he spies on her when she takes family trips to the cinema or the seaside, jealous of any time she spends away from him. He wants to possess her fully. Years later when the mature Alexander reflects on these times he recalls them as moments of bliss punctuated by tantrums and petulant behaviour as he sought to bend her to his will.
I should confess that sulking was my chief weapon against her, nasty little tyke that I was and I employed it with the skill and niceness of judgement that only a boy as heartless as I would have been capable of. She would resist me for as long as she was able, as I fumed in silence with my arms calmed across my chest and my chin jammed on my collar-bone and my lower lip stuck out for a good inch, but always it was she who gave in, in the end.
Trying to make sense of his younger self, the mature Alexander doesn’t seek to excuse his petulant behaviour. He accepts also that his memory of certain facts is hazy – he constantly jumbles up the times and the seasons when certain events took place for example. He’s not even certain that his recollection of the first time he saw Mrs Gray is accurate. He remembers seeing a woman freewheel towards him down the hill from the church. As she nears him, the wind catches her skirt and exposes her bare skin all the way to the waist, a sight that of course causes a frisson of excitement for the teenage boy. Alexander recalls how he felt at the time and remembers in detail what the cyclist wore but he cannot conjure up her facial features.
Is he lying to himself or simply being selective about what he will remember? Memory is, after all, he explains, an artificial construct.
Images from the far past crowd into my head and half the time I cannot tell whether they are memories or inventions,” he declares as the novel begins. “The items of flotsam that I choose to salvage from the general wreckage – and what is a life but a gradual shipwreck – may take on an aspect of inevitability when I put them on display in their glass showcases, but they are random; representative, perhaps, perhaps compellingly so, but random nevertheless.
That relationship is not the only aspect of his life causing Alexander to ruminate about the past. He is grieving for the death of his daughter Catherine (Cass) some years earlier. Though we learn she had suffered a form of mental illness, her suicide off the Italian coast still perplexes him. Why was she in Italy? Who was the father of her unborn child? Who is the person called Svidrigailov that was with his daughter when she died? An opportunity to answer those questions arrives when Alexander is given a film role in a biopic about Axel Vander, a famous, now dead, academic who led a double life. Alexander begins to suspect there is a connection between Axel Vander and Cass. He gets his chance to uncover the truth when Dawn Deveonport, the female lead in the film, suffers a mental breakdown. Alexander, who has become a bit of a father figure for her, spirits her away from the media frenzy and the anguish of the film’s producers. Guess where they go? – yep, to Italy to a spot a short distance across the water from where his daughter’s body was found.
If you’re thinking this sounds a bit of a convoluted plot relying heavily on coincidences, then you’re not far off the mark. But I forgave Banville for this because Ancient Light is written so beautifully, almost poetically with its use of rhythm, imagery and allusion. He delights in descriptions about the landscape and the weather: rain “sizzles through the leaves”; the sky “was the colour of wetted jute” while a late-autumn afternoon is marked by “scrapings of cloud like bits of crinkled gold leaf.”
Banville sketches characters deftly even when he gives them little more than walk on parts. Dawn Devonport begins as a Marilyn Monroe type figure, a much feted starlet who captivates by making each person feel they’ve been singled out for her special attention. Alexander however sees beneath the veneer to a vulnerable young girl unable to cope with the recent death of her father, a girl in fact much like his own beloved daughter. More notable is Billie Stryker, ostensibly the film’s researcher, whose “sad and sweetly” demeanour lulls Alexander into revelations about his life. “There must be more to her than meets the eye” he concludes after their first meeting.
In fact the same thing could be said for many of the characters in a novel which is in essence about the way people lie to others and themselves about who they are. Nothing is as it seems at first glance. One of the recurring ideas of the novel is the effect of light on perception – Alexander for example recollects one day how he saw Mrs Gray reflected in two mirrors simultaneously, the resulting image turned into fragments of the whole. In another scene he lies on his bed and through a tiny crack in the curtains sees an upside -down projection of the secret. What enables him to ‘see’ himself, to understand his actions and make sense of the fragments and distortions, is an ancient light that comes from distant galleries, taking billions of miles to reach earth. But the same light also provides a form of consolation by the end of the novel, seeming to “shake within itself even as it strengthened, … as if some radiant being were advancing.”
The Book: Ancient Light by John Banville was published in 2012 by Viking. It’s a sequel to Eclipse and Shroud which all feature Alexander Cleave. I haven’t read either of the two earlier novels but didnt feel I was at a disadvantage as a result – Ancient Light to me was easily able to stand on its own merit.
The Author: John Banville comes from Wexford in Ireland. In addition to more than 10 novels written under the name of John Banville, he also writes a crime fiction series in the persona of Benjamin Black. At the Hay Festival in 2013 he explained that he adopts completely different writing practices for each persona. As John Banville he writes long hand with fountain pen and agonises over each word (the process is a long and protracted one he revealed). As Benjamin Black he uses a typewriter.
Why I read this book: I loved reading The Sea (see my review here) and enjoyed the talk Banville gave at the Hay Festival. Signed copies of Ancient Light were available at the festival and I couldn’t resist buying. Reading Ireland 2017 hosted by Cathy at 746books and Niall at The Fluff is Raging was the prompt I needed to get it out of the bookcase.
It’s March and time for Ireland Reading month hosted by Cathy at 746.com. Full details of the activities Cathy has up her sleeve can be found via the announcement post We Celts need to stick together so I’ll be joining in as much as possible.
But what to read is the question – Cathy has put a list of 100 Irish Novels as a good starting point for anyone unsure where to begin. For my own preparations I delved into my personal library at the weekend and came up with six options.
- The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney
- Ancient Light by John Banville
- The Absolutionist by John Boyne
- Good Behaviour by Molly Keane
- The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch
- Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue
It’s unlikely I’ll read more than two before the month given some other commitments.On of those is likely to be Ancient Light by John Banville which I bought as a signed copy after hearing him speak at the Hay Book Festival about three years ago. I loved the lyricism of his Booker Prize winning novel The Sea so I’m hoping Ancient Light will deliver more of the same. The synopsis sounds promising:
… a brilliant, profoundly moving new novel about an actor in the twilight of his life and his career: a meditation on love and loss, and on the inscrutable immediacy of the past in our present lives.
I’m not going to decide in advance on my second choice yet – maybe it’s time to give Molly Keane another try – I’ve read only one by her so far (Devoted Ladies under her pen name of M. J Farrell) – but then I’ve been meaning to get around to The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney ever since it won the Bailey’s prize in 2016. The chairman of the judges described it as “a superbly original, compassionate novel that delivers insights into the very darkest of lives through humour and skilful storytelling.” Skilfull storytelling sounds just the ticket..
Are any of you planning to join Reading Ireland month – if so what are you planning to read? In the meantime, I shall raise my glass of Guinness and wish you “Sláinte” (good health).
The Broke and Brookish this week is looking for suggestions for book club reading.
This wouldn’t be an easy one for me since our book club has rather wide ranging tastes – each person chooses a book so it reflects their taste rather than necessarily what the club as a whole likes. We went down the path of chick lit for a while turned me off but I’ve been introduced to some new authors in other month so it’s almost balanced out. For me a good book club read is one that has plenty of issues and dimensions that can lead to a good discussion – I want more than someone saying “I picked this because I thought it would be fun” and that’s all they can say about the book (believe me it has happened). The book choice doesn’t have to be particularly weighty but something to at least get your teeth into.
If I had my wishlist it would include:
I’ve gone for a mixture of styles, subjects and country of origin of the author (too many book clubs seem to focus only on Western literature).
- The Many by Wyl Menmuir reviewed here. A Booker long listed title from 2016 that I thought superb. It keeps you guessing about what the main message is.
- Another Booker 2016 candidate – and one I would dearly have loved to see win – is Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing which traces the effect of Communist rule on three musicians. It’s an epic that stretches across centuries and countries. Not always easy to grasp it had tremendous emotional power. Reviewed here
- The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw. Set in Japan, a wonderful elliptical story in which a professor of law tells a story about his father’s fascination with traditional Japanese jigsaw puzzles.It’s a metaphor for how our lives are constructed by fragments. Reviewed here
- The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien. Set in a remote Irish village it examines what happens when a dictator on the run from atrocities he committed in his country attracts the attention of a lonely housewife. This book will have you thinking about actions and consequences and forgiveness. Reviewed here
- From Korea comes a book that was a knock out bestseller and not just in Korea. Please Look After Mom by Shin Kyung-sook looks at the mother-child relationship which is thrown into question when an elderly mother goes missing in an underground station while on her way to visit her children. As they search for her they discover secrets about her life and uncomfortable truths about their own attitudes.Reviewed here
- Possession by A. S Byatt was my choice when I joined the book club. I wasn’t sure I had make the right choice until the meeting but surprisingly we had a great discussion about the different forms possession can take -whether for artifacts f the past or for another individual. Reviewed here
- Holiday by Stanley Middleton.Who is he I can hear you asking. Not surprised really.Despite having written more than 40 novels he has more or less disappeared from our radar. A pity. This is a short novel from 1974 in which a middle aged man facing a crisis is his marriage takes a spur of the moment holiday at the seaside. It’s the same resort he visited year after year as a child when his parents took him for their annual holiday. Reflections of those times days mingle with more recent and more bitter memories. Good for discussions around nostalgia and relationships. Reviewed here
- L’Assommoir by Emile Zola. It’s not the first book in Zola’s Rougon-Marquet series of 20 titles but this doesn’t matter too much. Read it for its superb rendition of life on the breadline in nineteenth century Paris. You can, if your book club is of an academic mind, get into all kinds of discussion about Zola’s theory of naturalism and inherited conditions. Reviewed here
- Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Chances are that your club has already read Half a Yellow Sun which is an earlier novel by Adichie. Americanah gives a view of life for a girl who leaves Nigeria – one of the people who achieves the dream – only to find its not what she expected. Can she make a new life or do the ties that bind back to the homeland prove stronger? It’s a novel about choices you make to fit in with a new way of life and how experience changes you. It might sound rather sombre but there are some outstandingly funny scenes in a hairdressing salon. Reviewed here
- Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan: We hope this never happens to anyone. But it does. What if you were one of the passengers in a ferry or cruise liner that is sinking. You’ve got yourself into a lifeboat and are now waiting for rescue. But days go by, water and food supplies dwindle. Who gets to live in those circumstances? Who deserves to die? And who has the right to make those decisions? Those questions lie at the heart of Charlotte Rogan’s debut novel. This isn’t the best written novel I read in 2013 but it was one that stimulated a lot of discussion in our book club meeting. Reviewed here
Those are just some of the books I’d suggest. What would your recommendations be?
We’re off to South Africa for our next country in The View From Here series on literature from around the world. We’ll be in the capable hands of Penny who blogs at 2015 Reading Challenge – SA books only.
Let’s meet Penny
I work at one of South Africa’s major retailers. Over the years, I’ve taken on many different roles mainly relating to the buying/planning space. However my passions lie in reading, hiking and birding. My blog is called 2015 Reading Challenge – SA books only. I didn’t even know reading challenges were a thing then. In 2014, I read a chance remark, on a reading Facebook group, to the effect that there is so much South African Fiction now, one could go a whole year and read nothing else. I thought it would be fun to try that out; I keep year lists for birds in the Southern African region, so why not books? At the same time, I decided to write a review on every book I read and start a blog.
Q. Authors like Andre Brink, Alan Paton and Doris Lessing are names that many people outside of SA would recognise. Is their work the reading experience considered to be ‘classic literature’? If not, what are some of the classics of fiction from S.A?
These writers (Doris Lessing to a lesser extent) could be regarded as classics of SA Literature, if not ‘classic literature’. It depends what is meant by classic literature; if this is meant to refer to works that, in some way, emulate works of the Western canon, then possibly not. I do not necessarily believe ‘classic literature’ to be an ideal to which our writers should be aspiring. Good writing, literary writing are very subjective terms; more important to me is if I have a quality reading experience in which I am engaged, in which characters are multi-dimensional, plot is intriguing and I learn more about the human condition.
There are many novels that meet these criteria, amongst them Afrikaans writers translated into English. These are amongst some of my favourite novels and include writers such as Karel Schoemann, Etienne van Heerden, Marlene van Niekerk and Ingrid Winterbach. Another ‘classic’ is Down Second Ave by Es’kia Mphahlele, a marvellous work that, though autobiographical, experiments with form and reads as fiction. It is set in the 1930s in a township in Pretoria and illuminates how much discrimination was endured by black people even before apartheid. Anyone interested in SA Literature should also make sure they read Bessie Head’s work, even though she may well be considered as a Botswana writer.
Q. Would you consider there are some distinct differences between literature from South Africa and those from some of the other African countries like Nigeria for example?
I am no expert on literature from other African countries so this is merely my opinion. Until very recently, I had only read a few Nigerian writers such as Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and Flora Nwapa. I would say they are far ahead of South Africa, having experienced their independence from colonial rule much earlier. We have only been a democracy since 1994 and prior to this, we were not producing much fiction. Possibly Nigeria have been marketing themselves as the African Lit for longer and more widely too.
With respect to the reading experience, I find SA Fiction quite different. Not so much with contemporary writers, but the classic Heinemann novels are often quite dense and heavy going.
South African writing is drawn from many different cultural communities that add variety to our topics, characters and interactions. This I see as a distinct difference. We have Black, White, Indian (both Hindu and Muslim) and mixed race communities (so-called ‘coloured’ people) all writing fiction. South African writers explore many genres too, like crime fiction and speculative fiction.
Q. South Africa has produced two winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature: Nadine Gordimer in 1991 and J M Coetzee in 2003. How far do you think their work is representative of the issues and challenges of the country?
I cannot comment on Gordimer as I have only read one of her books, The House Gun, published in 1998. I did not like it much as I found it cold and detached. Personally, I found JM Coetzee’s pre-Disgrace (published 1998) novels to be more representative of the country then, allegorical as they might have been. The writer I believe to be truly representative of South Africa is Zakes Mda. Although both Coetzee and Mda live in other countries now, Mda’s topics are still strongly South African while Coetzee seems to have focussed on being a stranger in a new country (isolation has always been an underlying theme in nearly every book he has written).
Since I was in my early twenties, I was hungry to read books set in my own country that, in some way, might reflect my lived experience and my surroundings; books in which I would recognise the environment but be introduced to aspects that were hidden from me. The first novels of this nature that I discovered were Andre Brink’s novels written in the seventies; the next was J.M. Coetzee’s, The Life and times of Michael K. published in 1983 (for which he won the Booker prize; still my favourite Coetzee). Then in the nineties, I discovered Zakes Mda’s She Plays With the Darkness published in 1995. I love all his novels; particularly The Madonna of the Excelsior and Heart of Redness. One of the things I love about Mda’s novels are the way they are grounded in history and also explore contemporary life. He has also written many plays but I am not familiar with them.
Q. What recommendations would you have for readers who want to discover books that show a more contemporary side to life in South Africa – how it is dealing with life post-apartheid for example?
I have so many recommendations for books written post-apartheid, I could never list them all here (check my blog for some of them). I have already mentioned Zakes Mda and some Afrikaans writers. Add Eben Venter to that list (especially for his most recent novel, Wolf, Wolf). Niq Mhlongo (Dog Eat Dog, After Tears, Way Back Home and short story collection, Affluenza) does a great job of representing ‘township’ life; (during apartheid, black people were prohibited from choosing where to live and were not allowed to live in areas designated as white; these areas were called townships or in vernacular slang; eKasi).
Thando Mqolozana tackles the taboo subject of Xhosa initiation rites in A Man who is Not a Man, as well as student politics in Unimportance. Nthikeng Mohlele, writes in a cerebral, philosophical style – try Small Things, Rusty Bell and Pleasure. Henrietta Rose-Innes is another favourite of mine; I particularly enjoyed The Rock Alphabet, Nineveh and The Green Lion. K. Sello Duiker, who committed suicide at the age of 30, produced two brilliant novels in Thirteen Cents and The Quiet Violence of Dreams. These two books are tough reads; not for the faint-hearted.
On a lighter note, our crime fiction is excellent (it says something that I regard crime as ‘lighter’, I suppose). Deon Meyer is our most well-known crime fiction writer. He writes in Afrikaans and is translated into English. A lover of this genre should read all his books; start at the beginning with Dead Before Dying and continue to the 10thand latest, Icarus. This is not necessary as they do stand-alone but I always enjoy knowing what characters had done before.
Q. What would you recommend to someone who has never read any S African authors? Where would you suggest they start?
This is a tough one because the answer depends on the readers’ preference with regard to topic, genre and style. An extremely serious reader may want to trace the development of SA fiction by beginning in the last century while another may be more interested in South Africa today.
If the latter, Imraan Coovadia’s Tales of the Metric System is as good a place to start as any as it dips into every decade since the seventies. Zoe Wicomb writes of a ‘Coloured’ family that ‘tries for white’ during apartheid in Playing With the Light. Although I am not usually a fan of non-fiction, there are several books that are written in the fictional style that I have really enjoyed; anything by Jonny Steinberg who has covered topics that vary from farm murders (Midlands) to prison gangs (The Number) to HIV and Aids (Three Letter Plague). He investigates his areas of interest through in-depth, intimate interviews with individuals and teases out information that fascinates as much as it shocks.
Zukiswa Wanner’s, London Cape Town Joburg, moves between these three cities and with her protagonist, uses an outsider’s voice to illuminate the ins and outs of aspects of SA life in the business, political and personal world. Lauren Beukes is our darling of speculative fiction; inventive, imaginative and highly readable. Her second novel, Zoo City, is set in a Johannesburg that, though imagined, is strangely familiar. Then there is Finuala Dowling, said to be the ‘home-grown Jane Austen’ of SA Lit. In The Fetch and Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart, she writes of the minutiae of life with wit and sparkle and a strand of pathos.
This is merely a taste and there are many more.
Q. How important are prizes like Caine Prize for African writing to contemporary authors?
My feeling is that they are important as they do bring previously unknown writers to the attention of both publishers and readers.
Another prize which is important is the Etisalat Prize for Literature which is awarded to first time African writers of published books. It was inaugurated in 2013 and books by South African writers have been short-listed each year. The 2014 winner, Penumbra was by South African novelist, Songeziwe Mahlangu. One of my favourite novels of last year,What Will People Say by Rehana Rossouw, was short-listed last year. I highly recommend this novel; set in the Cape Flats, it is a heart-breaking tale of parents trying to do the best for their children in an environment dominated by gangs, drugs and politics at the time of the State of Emergency during the eighties.
Q. Which contemporary S African authors do you think we could be hearing more from in the future – people who may be at an early stage of their career?
Names to watch out for are Mohale Mashigo whose first novel, The Yearning, was published this year. It is an accomplished debut, well-written and with a compelling plot. The Reactive by Mashande Ntshanga gives the reader a glimpse into the disaffectedness of youth who live in a world of trauma, untimely death and limited opportunities. Yewande Omotoso’s second novel, The Woman Next Door is a great read. I think it is quite a feat to capture the personalities of two women in their eighties, as she does here. Nakahane Toure and Panashe Chigumadzi have both published debut novels in the last year.
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
Veronica Hegarty is a woman whose life implodes when her favourite brother Liam stuffs his pockets with pebbles and walks into the sea at the age of 40. It falls to Veronica to travel to England to recover his body and take it home to Ireland for the funeral. As the sibling who best understood Liam, and was closest to him through their childhood, she accepts this task falls on her shoulders yet she also resents the fact all her other brothers and sisters take it for granted this is her responsibility.
She resents many things in her life does Veronica not least the fact that her mother keeps forgetting her name.
‘Oh hello’, she said as she opened the hall door, the day I heard about Liam.
‘Hello Darling’. She might say the same to the cat.
‘Come in. Come in’, as she stands in the doorway, and does not move to let me pass.
Of course she knows who I am, it is just my name that escapes her. Her eyes flick from side to side as she wipes one after another off her list.
‘Veronica!’ I feel like shouting it at her. ‘You called me Veronica!’
I could empathise with her frustration here having constantly been mixed up with my sister. But there were only two of us where Veronica it transpires, is the result of 17 pregnancies of which 12 children survived and 5 were miscarried. Little wonder the poor woman couldn’t remember which daughter was which. But the frustration with her mother’s forgetfulness is really a symptom of the far bigger problem in Veronica’s life: her lack of connection to any of her siblings except Liam and her dissatisfaction with her marriage. After Liam’s death her life begins to unravel and all the pent up emotions come to the surface:
I was living my life in inverted commas. I could pick up my keys and go ‘home’ where I could ‘have sex’ with my ‘husband’ just like lots of other people did. This is what I had been doing for years. And I didn’t seem to mind the inverted commas, or even notice that I was living in them, until my brother died.
Her behaviour becomes increasingly irrational. While her husband retreats to bed at the end of each night she stays up drinking wine, sometimes sitting outside the house in her car, sometimes just driving through the countryside until morning. In the midst of her grief she relives her memories of Liam and an incident which she has kept secret all these years.
How much can we trust her memory? She has only a hazy recollection of the incident that happened in her childhood. Nor can she be entirely sure that this was the cause of Liam’s ultimate alcoholism and death. Her recollections of other aspects of her past are similarly hazy with some events she believes she recalls didn’t even happen to her but to her sister. Early on, she tells the story of her grandmother Ada’s first meeting with Lambert Nugent, a man who in subsequent decades is ever present in the Hegarty household. Veronica teases us with hints that there was more to Ada and Lambert’s relationship than was strictly upright. But then goes and pulls the plug with an admission that she had imagined it all.
Enright’s exploration of memory is what captured my interest in The Gathering. Other authors of course have trodden this path but few have tackled it in such an inventive way. The narrative meanders, jumps forwards in time, and then loops back around to the start, giving the feeling you’re reading this while standing on one of those wobble boards that constantly shift the ground under your feet.
It’s a sad, almost grim book that deals with (possible) sexual abuse and the disintegration of a marriage. But Enright delivers this with aplomb.
June 1 was a momentous day at work as the company for whom I work was aquired by a much bigger corporation. We’ve been working on the communications around this for six months so it was a relief to get to the end of yesterday without any glitches. By the time I got home however I had zero energy stores left to even think what I was reading on the first of the month.
I can’t imagine however that anyone but me is bothered in the slightest degree that my snapshot of the month is a day late….
I finished a run of highly enjoyable novels (The Gathering by Anne Enright, Rites of Passage by William Golding and The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso) I went into a dip with Nina Bawden’s The Ice House. This was published by Virago in 1983 in their Modern Classics series as a novel about a friendship between two girls that lasts the decades from early childhood but is threatened by an act of deception. It started well but about two thirds of the way through I began to lose interest. It’s the third of Bawden’s novels I’ve read. A Little Love, A Little Learning was the first – and by far the best. Next up was The Solitary Child, an early work which I thought very lacklustre. The Ice House fell somewhere in the middle. Maybe I just need to choose more careful next time.
Having taken the plunge and joined the 20 Books of Summer Challenge (I’ve opted for the gentler option of 10 books), I’m delighted that the first book – This Must be the Place – is a delight. Maggie O’Farrell is one of those authors that you can buy with a high degree of confidence that between the covers will be some laser-eyed observations about life, emotions and relationships. With other authors that could send alarm signals about pretentiousness but with O’Farrell there is no BS factor, just a darn good story told usually in fragments. This Must be the Place is little short of a delight. It leaps across multiple continents, decades and people as it gives a portrait of a marriage and decisions that could put it in jeopardy. The only challenge in reading this book is that I’m reluctant to put it down at the end of the evening and go to sleep.
I could pretend that I was up at dawn to greet the first of May in the time honoured way, followed by a bit of a caper around the village maypole. I did neither of these. Nor did I go and watch any Morris Men in action or take part in a May Queen parade. No doubt these things were going on somewhere in the UK today though I suspect there were more people heading to the shopping malls than the village green.
So what was I doing on the first of this month??
I finally got around today to finishing Devoted Ladies by M.J Farrell (otherwise known as Molly Keane), a novel which shocked readers at the time because it featured a lesbian relationship. I’d read about two thirds of it by the time I took off for my long trip to USA but it hadn’t grabbed my interest so I left it behind. Today when I picked it up I found it a lot more interesting and I could see why Keane has such a strong following. I still feel the book sagged in the middle and I wanted a lot more about the tense relationship and battle of wills between Jane and Jessica and less about two cousins Piggy and Hester who live in a run down country house in Ireland. I’m glad however I didn’t give up on it if only because of the way in the final pages Keane showed even a faintly ridiculous figure like Piggy could not forever tolerate being the butt of everyone’s jokes. If this is an indication of Keane’s ability to create deep and complex characters, I’ll be keen to look for more of her work.
On the Horizon
I’m toying with opening The Gathering by Anne Enright, which won the 2007 Booker Prize. It was her fourth novel and somewhat of a surprise winner – although the unanimous choice of the judges it had been considered an outsider. This is a novel in which the Hegarty siblings gather in Dublin for the wake of their brother Liam, an alcoholic who killed himself. His sister Veronica uses the opportunity to look through her family’s history to try and make sense of his death. I’ve read the first few pages just to get a feeling for the book and have fallen in love with the immediacy of Enright’s style.
My other option is another Booker prize winner, Life & Times of Michael K by J. M Coetzee which was the 1983 winner. It’s a short work which traces a journey made by Michael K, a poor man with a cleft lip, from Cape Town where he works as a gardener to his mother’s rural birthplace. Along the way he encounters hardship and hostility. I’ve read only one other book by Coetzee (Disgrace which also won the Booker prize) and loved his style so am hoping Michael K will prove just as rewarding.
Last year I made a comment in one blog post about how much I enjoyed Colm Toibin’s Norah Webster. More than a few people people responded by recommending his earlier novel Brooklyn. Some went as far as saying Brookyn was “even better”. I’ve now read it and while I enjoyed it, I wouldn’t rate it as highly.
Both Norah Webster and Brooklyn give center stage to a strong female character who have to confront life changing situations and find their own way through them. The recently widowed Norah Webster and the young woman Eilis Lacey, heroine of Brooklyn are two brave and spirited Irish women whose predicaments are portrayed with warmth, sympathy and depth.
We first encounter Eilis looking out from her bedroom window in the village of Enniscorthy watching her glamorous older sister Rose make her way down the street to an evening at the golf club. Eilis is clearly more an observer of life than a participant. Though she is intelligent and reasonably good looking there few prospects of a husband or a job in accountancy or book keeping that would enable her to fulfill her potential. The most she can get is a lowly job as a shop keepers assistant in the grocery. Rose spots a solution when a priest vists from America and agrees to help find a job in Brooklyn for Ellis.
Within a few weeks, Rose, having survived a rough Atlantic crossing, is ensconced in a boarding house for Irish girls in Brooklyn and selling nylons in an upmarket department store. Tóibín details her first reactions to her new home, the strangeness of the busy pedestrian traffic after the quietness of Irish village streets, the novelty of heated bedrooms and the availability of affordable fashionable clothes. Over time her homesickness dissipates, she embarks on a study program in book keeps and falls in love with Tony, a good looking American Italian plumber with ambitions to get into the property market. Just as life seems to be going her way, tragic news from home sends her back to Ireland and the tension between the obligations of her old life and the excitement of the new.
Where the early parts of the book that dealt with Eilis’ sense of isolation and then the opening up of new possibilities felt touchingly convincing, the final section lacked that same feeling of authenticity. The emotional dilemma encountered by Eilis didn’t seem to be fully explored and we never got the examination of her inner thoughts that would have made her final decision more understandable and credible. As a result I put the book down thinking I’d been short changed, that there was so much more that Toibin could have done to explore Eilis’ emotional quandry. Brooklyn was sweet and lovely for the most part, but ultimately disappointed right at the end.
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.