Category Archives: Irish authors
Normal People was one of the most talked-about books of 2018. It was touted as a potential Booker Prize winner (though didn’t get further than longlist); won the Costa Prize and has now been longlisted for the Women’s Prize.
Given all the award nominations, the euphoric reviews and the number of times Normal People appeared in end of year “best books” lists, I was expecting a lot more from the book.
It’s a tale about an on-off romance between two Millenials from completely different backgrounds. Connell and Marianne attend the same school in small town Carricklea in County Mayo, Ireland. Both are high achievers but there the similarity ends. He”s very popular, the star of the school football ; she has no friends; sits alone at lunch breaks reading Proust and is viewed as a bit of a misfit who “wears ugly thick-soled flat shoes and doesn’t put makeup on her face.”. He lives with his single parent mother who is a cleaner. She comes from a rich family.
They begin a clandestine relationship in school (secret because he’s afraid of what his friends would think). Marianne persuades Connell to follow her to Trinity College in Dublin. There their lives are reversed; she becomes part of the in-crowd; he feels out of place.
They spend four years alternately pursuing and withdrawing from each other. They can’t commit to each other but neither can they survive apart. Whenever they try to pull apart, to find other partners, one of them will come back, seeking the other’s support and help.
As Connell reflects at one stage, he and Marianne are like figure skaters
…improvising their discussions so adeptly and in such perfect synchronisation that it surprises them both. She tosses herself gracefully into the air, and each time, without knowing how he’s going to do it, he catches her.”
A Novel To Suit All Generations?
I suspect the book was aimed at a different age group than my own – my 20-something year old niece loved it. But I don’t think my lack of rapport was entirely attributable to a generational gap.
Problem number one was that the first half of the book was slow and had far too many scenes that were stuffed with mundane details. Here’s one example, taken from a chapter where at the end of a holiday travelling around Europe, Connor ends up at the Greek villa where Marianne and her friends have made their holiday home.
Marianne goes inside and comes back out again with another bottle of sparkling wine, and one bottle of red. Niall starts unwrapping the wire on the first bottle and Marianne hands Connell a corkscrew. Peggy starts clearing people’s plates. Connell unpeels the foil from the top of a bottle as Jamie leans over and says something to Marianne. He sinks the screw into the cork and twists it downwards. Peggy takes his plate away and stacks it with the others.
None of this adds to our understanding of character or the dynamics between the characters. It could omitted without materially affecting he narrative in any way.
Familiar Perspective On Love
Second problem: too much of the plot relied upon miscommunication and gaps between what was said and was was felt. David Nicholls used a similar device in One Day but he made it feel fresh and natural; in Rooney’s novel. it felt contrived.
Normal People didn’t seem to be saying anything that hasn’t already been said in other novels about young love and love across a class divide. Actually for a large part of the book I wasn’t even clear what it was trying to say.
In essence I suppose it aims to show how a relationship helps two people who feel alone, adrift and misunderstood, to learn how to be like “normal people.” To reach that understanding they have to endure physical pain (Marianne) and emotional pain (Connell). Exactly what the normality to which they strive consists of, is unclear since there are no “normal people” who act as role models – with the one notable exception of Connell’s mother.
Uninspired By Characters
This brings me to my third issue with Normal People: the characters of the two principals are examined in minute detail but everyone else around them are sketchily rendered.
In Dublin, Marianne is surrounded by people who have few qualities beyond their willing participation in her desire to be hurt. Connell, when he’s not spending every minute with Marianne, strikes up relationships with nice but dull women.
I get the fact that this is a novel about a relationship so all-consuming it robs everything, and everyone else around them, of colour and vitality. But the result is that the other cast members are flattened to the point where they often feel irrelevant. If I’d been deeply invested in Marianne and Connell’s characters , that wouldn’t have been an issue. But I found the repetitive nature of their relationship irritating and annoying.
I’ve seen reviews which describe Normal People as a “future classic”, a novel that shows what it is to be young and in love in the twenty-first century. It’s a novel that has clearly resonated with many readers. I did grow to appreciate it more when it took on a darker tone in the final third. But to put this on a pedestal as a work of classic literature is stretching things too far.
Time to share with you all what I’m currently reading, what I recently read and what I plan to read next.
What I’m reading now
Given I have zero tolerance for heights, you might be surprised to learn that I’m reading a book about climbing. It won’t be my first either – many years ago I was fascinated by Regions of the Heart, an autobiography of the British climber, Alison Jane Hargreaves. She reached the summit of Everest alone, without oxygen or Sherpas in May 1995. Later that year she died in a storm while descending K2.
I suspect what interests me in this kind of book is that they reveal levels of endurance and courage I don’t have myself.
My current read takes place closer to home; among the slate quarries of North Wales. Many of them were abandoned when the industry declined leaving behind enormous craters; just the kind of terrain to attract climbers.
In Slatehead: The Ascent of Britain’s Slate-climbing Scene, Peter Goulding talks about his love affair with slate and the motley gang who join him in scaling the heights of oddly named landmarks like Orangutan Overhang. I’m on the blog tour for this book which is published by New Welsh Rarebyte on June 4.
I’m also making my way through Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope, number four in his Chronicles of Barsetshire series. It took a time to get going but the drama has now kicked up a gear with the bailiffs about to come knocking on the door of a vicar caught up in the financial schemes of a so-called friend. Some of the well known and well-loved characters from previous books make an appearance including the quite awful bishop’s wife Mrs Proudie.
What I just finished reading
I managed to get to the library the day before all branches in our county were closed indefinitely because of Covid-19. By good fortune it meant I could pick up Actress by Anne Enright. What a delight that turned out to be; a book so good that I didn’t want it to end.
It’s a character study in which a daughter tells the story of her actress mother Katherine O’Dell in an attempt to answer the question she is most often asked “What was she like?” There is another question in the narrative: why did Katherine go mad?
The book was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020 but strangely never made the shortlist. Maybe she will be more successful with the Booker Prize when that longlist is announced in July – Actress is definitely on a par with The Gathering, the novel that won her the prize in 2007.
What I’ll read next
I’ve resisted the temptation to join in 20 Books of Summer, hosted by Cathy at 746books.com again this year. I love the event even though I have never managed to complete my list but at the beginning of the year I made a decision to avoid any challenges which involve reading from a list. That won’t stop me feeling envious when I see all the other participants blogging about their reading plans
I do have a few books lined up already, the result of getting carried away with review copies. Plus I’ve been trying to support independent bookshops and publishers during these extraordinary times so my book buying has gone through the roof.
First for me to read will be The Waiting Rooms by Eve Smith. It’s a debut novel taking place amid a health crisis in the world – a theme we have become all too familiar with in recent month. Smith’s novel is about one woman’s hunt for her birth mother at a point in the future when an antibiotic crisis has decimated the population. The ebook came out in April with the paperback version published by Orenda out on July 9.
There are some new books coming out I have my eye on. One is by the Welsh author Alis Hawkins. Those Who Know is the third in her Teifi Valley Coroner series. It’s out in ebook format but publication of the paperback (the format I’d prefer to read) is postponed until September. I’m waiting for my order of her novel set during the time of the Black Death – The Black and the White – to arrive through my letterbox.
And I’ve just taken delivery of Nia by another Welsh author, Robert Minhinnick, published by Seren Books. It’s about a new mother who joins forces with two friends to explore an unmapped cave system. As events unfold, the strands of her life come into focus – her dysfunctional parents, the daughter she must raise differently, the friends with whom she shared childhood.
Those are my plans. I’ve only now realised that a number of the books I’ve mentioned have a Welsh connection. Now what’s on YOUR reading horizon for the next few weeks? Let me know what you’re currently reading or planning to read next.
This post is for WWW Wednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.
Time to share with you all what I’m currently reading, what I recently read and what I plan to read next.
What I’m reading now
For the first time ever I purchased a book in advance of publication. I loved Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies so much, I just had to have the final instalment in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy. I wasn’t expecting The Mirror & The Light to be so big. Huge in fact and because it’s in hardback, it’s heavy. Which makes it very difficult to read in bed….
But that’s only part of the reason why my progress through this book is at glacial speed. The main factor is that this is a book which takes a good amount of concentration. Mantel’s narration is slippery. You have to keep on your toes to be certain who is speaking. Plus there are a lot of characters (the list at the front of the book is five pages long).
But I’m not complaining. This is a book of sheer brilliance. It is absolutely meant to be savoured. I suspect I’m still going to be reading it when it’s time to do my April edition of “What I’m Reading”.
What I just finished reading
WalesReadingMonth (otherwise known as Dewithon 2020) has been running throughout March. As you’d expect I’ve been participating in the event hosted by Paula at Book Jotter by reading a few books by Welsh authors that were on my TBR shelves.
I posted my review of one of these – Turf or Stone by Margiad Evans – a few days ago. It wasn’t great. Far more to my taste was One Moonlit Night by Caradog Pritchard. It was written in the Welsh language in 1961 as a portrayal of life in a small slate quarrying town in North Wales. The narrator recalls his childhood in this community, a life in which joy, sadness and tragedy are seldom apart.
Pritchard’s novel is written in a poetic style but also uses the local dialect. Once you’ve tuned into this, and got accustomed to the oddities of character names (Will Starch Collar is my favourite), the book is tremendous. I’ll post a more considered response in the next few days.
Incidentally the photo was taken on what turned out to be my very last trip to a coffee shop for some considerable time. No prizes for guessing why coffee shops are no go areas right now.
I also just finished The Silent Treatment by Abbie Greaves, a debut novel which comes out in April. It has an interesting twist on the theme of relationships because it focuses on a married couple who have not spoken to each other for six months. I’m on the blog tour for this mid April so will share my thoughts in a few weeks.
What I’ll read next
I said at the beginning of the year that I was pulling back from reading challenges that involved making lists of books to read or goals for the number of books to read. But I am joining in short reading events where I can and where I have a suitable book/s on my TBR.
I have one book lined up for each.
For Zola Addiction month I have His Excellency Eugene Rougon/Son Excellence Eugène Rougon which is book number two in Zola’s Rougon-Macquet cycle. I’ve been reading them out of order but am now trying to fill in the gaps.
For the 1920 reading club I have Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence. This will be the final book on my Classics Club project (woo hoo….)
I turned to Twitter to help me decide which to read first. But it didn’t help. Because it was a draw… So I shall have to rely on my instinct instead.
In the meantime there is the (not so small) matter of the Mantel to finish, and The Binding which is the next book club choice. And a library loan of Actress by Anne Enright (not that it needs to be finished soon because libraries have gone the way of coffee shops). And more than 200 other books on my shelves.
I shall be busy.
Those are my plans. Now what’s on YOUR reading horizon for the next few weeks? Let me know what you’re currently reading or planning to read next.
This post is for WWW Wednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.
It’s St Patrick’s Day and though the pubs are closed because of the Covid-19 pandemic, we can celebrate in other ways. So lets take the opportunity to honour the rich literary heritage of Ireland with a short literary tour.
There are hundreds of novels I could pick for this tour. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at the 746books blog. Cathy has created three separate lists based on her extensive knowledge of her country’s literary scene. So you can choose from 100 Irish novels, 100 novels by Irish women writers and 100 titles by authors from Northern Ireland.
I’m going to limit myself to just five novels. They’re all books that have made a deep impression upon me.
Edna O’Brien didn’t enamour herself to people in Ireland when her first novel The Country Girls was published in 1960. It was banned by the Irish censorship board and faced significant public criticism because of its portrayal of sex outside marriage. The Catholic Church called it “filth”
O’Brien has since redeemed herself to the extent she was honoured in 2015 as a Saoithe of Aosdána, Ireland’s highest literary honour. She is still going strong though now in her early eighties and has continued to write about controversial subjects.
The Little Red Chairs is a haunting novel that takes its title from a tableau of 11,000 empty chairs created in Sarajevo to commemorate victims of the siege by Bosnian Serbs. Her main character – a fugitive war criminal – is discovered hiding in a backwater village on the west coast of Ireland.
Colm Tóibin won the 2009 Costa Novel Award with his novel Brooklyn, the first half of which is set in the small Irish town of Enniscorthy. I enjoyed it but not as much as his later novel Nora Webster.
Where Brooklyn gave us a portrait of a young single girl, Nora Webster focuses on a middle-aged widow who is struggling to remake her life after the premature death of her husband. Though the focus is very much on the individual, there is a political background to the novel. We’re in the 1960s when political troubles north of the border are on the rise. Nora’s husband had a history of involvement with Fianna Fáil (Republican) politics, and now she discovers her daughter is taking part in protests in Dublin.
The Spinning Heart was one of my favourite novels from 2014. It would never have been published but for an intern who found it in a ‘reject’ pile and raved about it so much she persuaded the publishers it needed to see the light of day. The Booker Prize jurors agreed with her, longlisting it for their award in 2014.
Donal Ryan’s novel dives into a community that is reeling from the sudden end of a period of boom in Ireland, a time when the country was labelled as Celtic Tiger. A local building firm goes bust having over-stretched itself. The boss flees the country, leaving behind unpaid employees and no money in their pension funds. The repercussions are told through the voices of 21 characters who are directly or indirectly affected by the collapse. It’s a masterful work of characterisation.
Bold, brash and edgy; Lisa McInerey’s debut novel portrays a side of Ireland that never features in any tourism brochures. The Glorious Heresies takes us deep in the seedy underworld of Cork; into its grim housing estates populated by schoolboy drug dealers and malicious thugs.
It might sound grim but McInery make us both weep and laugh at the sheer muddle of the lives of the misfits that inhabit this small city. For sheer exuberant story-telling, this is a novel that would be hard to beat.
Milkman is a novel I didn’t think I would finish. But I did and it was one of the highlights of my reading year in 2018.
It’s a strange novel. The location is never named (though we are led to believe it’s Belfast); nor is the narrator. In fact none of the characters have real names; they’re given soubriquets instead which can make the novel confusing. But once you’ve worked out who “third brother-in-law”, “tablets girl”, “nuclear boy” and “maybe-boyfriend” are, and have read between the lines to appreciate what’s actually happening, the book proves riveting.
Burns tackles a problematic period in the history of Ireland, the years known as The Troubles, when paramilitary forces took their fight for independence onto the streets, dolling out summary justice to anyone standing in their way. The narrator is a teenager who catches the unwelcome attention of a paramilitary leader, turning her into a figure of distrust and fear in her community.
It’s a tremendous novel, unconventional but unforgettable.
It’s hard to do justice to a country with such a rich culture and history in just 5 books. I know there are many other books that deserve a place on this list. What would you put on your list?
Never No More is a delightful tale that evokes the generosity of spirit at the heart of a small rural Irish community in the 1920s.
Maura Laverty spent her childhood in the vast peatlands known as the Bog of Allen in County Kildare. Through her fictional alter ego, Delia Scully, Laverty vividly recreates the natural beauty of this region, its colourful characters and the traditions that provide a rhythm to their lives.
Delia is nine years old when her recently widowed mother decides to move her large family to Kilkenny where she will open a new drapery business. Delia hates the idea but fortunately her beloved Grandmother, Mrs Lacy, comes to rescue – Delia can live with her in Derrymore House, Ballyderrig.
Gran sees potential in the girl where her mother sees nothing more than a dreamer. In the gentle nurturing bosom of the older woman. Delia flourishes, becoming a trusted helpmate in the kitchen, an aide in Gran’s many errands of mercy to her neighbours and skilful with her needle.
The one blot in this idyllic world is that Delia can’t make the progress she needs to fulfil her grandmother’s wish for her to become a teacher. The girl delights in reading poetry but cannot get on with French and maths. She also struggles with what she views as the petty rules and regulations in her convent school.
Never No More doesn’t have a plot as such, beyond tracing Delia through the years as she navigates the typical milestones in any young girl’s life. Her first days at school, the onset of puberty, the first dance, the first kiss are all made easier to manage when there is Gran to provide sound advice and the occasional shoulder upon which to cry.
The relationship between the young girl and the mature woman is the outstanding feature of this book. Mrs Lacy is loved and respected by everyone in her community, generous with her time, her knowledge and her food. A committed Catholic, she has no evident vices beyond the occasional tendency towards impatience.
She’s the person you want at your side if you’re a mother in labour or a young bride. When your home burns down and you’re left with not even a stick of furniture, it’s Mrs Lacy who offers you shelter and a home for however long you need it.
To the young Delia. she is much more than a substitute mother:
The love Delia feels towards this woman is equalled by the love she feels for the countryside around Ballyderrig:
When the novel was published in 1942, people in that part of Ireland were apparently unhappy about the way they had been portrayed. I didn’t feel Maura Laverty was being unfair towards these individuals however. For sure there is a lot of humour involved in her anecdotes about the turf cutters, farmers and tinkers who make up the community. But she never makes them seem ridiculous. Nor does she sentimentalise this way of life; never shying away from the fact that people are poor and women die young in childbirth.
Never No More doesn’t just delight with description and anecdote, it also tantalises the taste buds.
The whole novel is punctuated by episodes in which Gran gets to work in the kitchen. Laverty can’t resist going into detailed description of each dish and exactly how its made. Some are more appealing than others!
“Buttery pancakes speckled with sultanas” I can relate to but I think I’ll pass on the stuffed eels and pigs brains “parboiled and coated in batter and fried”
Unsavoury dishes aside however, Never No More is an enjoyable read, a warm and heart-felt homage to a way of life I suspect exists only in fragments.
Never No More by Maura Laverty: Endnotes
Never No More: The Story Of A Lost Village is the debut novel by the Irish born Maura Laverty.
Published in 1942, it proved popular around the world. She followed it with another semi-autobiographical novel featuring Delia Sculle: No More than Human.
Though she wrote several novels, short story collections and two cookery books, she was better known for her work as scriptwriter for an Irish soap opera called Tolka Row that was broadcast on the RTE television station for four years in the 1960s.
Milkman by Anna Burns
Imagine a world where it’s dangerous to be different.
Where people with cameras lurk in bushes to capture your every action.
Where masked paramilitary “heroes” dole out summary justice to suspected informers.
Where almost every family you know has seen brothers, sons, sisters, fathers killed.
We’re not talking here about a fictionalised nightmarish dystopian society where every vestige of normality has broken down. The world of Anna Burns’ Milkman is an all too real place. It’s one where, though she represents them in a highly imaginative manner, these atrocities did occur.
She never names the town in which she sets the novel, nor even the country. But it’s evident she is describing her home city of Belfast, Northern Ireland during the 1970s. This was a time when the country was embroiled in sectarian warfare and the city of Belfast was at the heart of what became labelled as “The Troubles”.
Dangerous to read and walk
Anna Burns tackles the conflict through the eyes of an unnamed 18-year-old girl. She’s an oddity in her neighbourhood because she has no interest in marriage or babies and she reads books. She reads while she walks, usually 19th century novels.
I didn’t see anything wrong with this but it became something else to be added as further proof against me. ‘Reading-while-walking’ was definitely on the list.
This unusual behaviour draws the attention of one of the high-ups in the paramilitary organisation – Milkman – a man who begins to shadow her and treat her as if she’s his property. He has the disconcerting habit of turning up when she least expects him: when she’s out running, as she leaves her French evening classes. He’s creepy and threatening (he says he’ll kill her boyfriend unless she ends that relationship) but in this city it doesn’t do to cross such a powerful figure.
Having been brought up in a hair-trigger society where the ground rules were – if no physically violent touch was being laid upon you, and no outright verbal insults were being levelled at you, and no taunting looks in the vicinity either, then nothing was happening, so how could you be under attack by something that wasn’t there?
The predicament of the narrator, known only as “middle sister”, intensifies when rumours begin that she’s having an affair with this older married man. She’s now “beyond the pale” in the eyes of her community. They daren’t openly attack her for fear of retribution upon their own families but they can still make their distaste evident. Even a simple task like buying chips for her sisters’ supper becomes loaded with hostility.
A City in Turmoil
Milkman is a powerful and intense novel about a city in turmoil and a population fearful they will make just one wrong comment or take one false step. Even groceries are loaded with meaning. There is “the right butter. The wrong butter. The tea of allegiance. The tea of betrayal. There were ‘our shops’ and ‘their shops’.” Distrust of state forces is universal but so too is distrust of hospitals.
It’s not a novel that dazzled me initially. In fact I was frustrated because none of the characters were named. Instead they all have labels: “third brother-in-law”, “tablets girl”, “nuclear boy” and “maybe-boyfriend”. It felt an unnecessary artifice; the product of an author trying to be ‘too clever for their own good.’
But the book slowly wormed its way into my imagination and the more I read, the more entranced I became. Light eventually dawned that what was initially an irritant was actually a strength of the novel. The very namelessness made the novel more sinister, as if the world Burns is describing is impossible to comprehend in normal terms and where individual expression and identity have been lost among the violence and political speak.
Powerful voice of narrator
The narrator is a tremendous creation. She tries to maintain a chippy devil-may-care attitude but she is left isolated and ground down by the association with the milkman
Few people other than “the real milkman” come to her help or speak up on her behalf. She tries to reach out for help but “Ma”, “Maybe-Boyfriend” and “Oldest Friend” all believe the rumours, seeing her as a Jezebel involved in an affair with a older, married man, rather than the innocent victim of a creepy stalker. She even comes to doubt her own version of events: “Was he actually doing anything?” she wonders. “Was anything happening?”
It was not until years later that she more fully appreciates what had happened:
I came to understand how much I’d been closed down, how much I’d been thwarted into a carefully constructed nothingness by that man,” … “Also by the community, by the very mental atmosphere, that minutiae of invasion.”
Milkman is a strange novel. When it was announced as the winner of the Booker Prize in 2018, there were many comments about how ‘challenging’ it was to read. It was compared with Sterne’s Tristram Shandy because of its stream of consciousness, digressive narrative and non linear structure. It’s certainly unconventional. It’s definitely original. I consider it one of the best and most deserving winners of the Booker Prize in recent years.
Milkman: Key Facts
- Milkman, by Anna Burns, was published by Faber and Faber in 2018.
- The Chair of the Booker judges, Kwame Anthony Appiah, described the language as ” simply marvellous; beginning with the distinctive and consistently realised voice of the funny, resilient, astute, plain-spoken, first-person protagonist.”
- Milkman was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2019
Anna Burns: Key Facts
- Anna Burns has drawn on her upbringing in a working-class, Catholic family in the troubled city of Belfast in all three of her novels – Milkman, Little Constructions (2007) and No Bones.
- She wrote Milkman while suffering excruciating back pain and struggling to make ends meet (she resorted to using food banks which she thanks in the acknowledgments of the book).
- She is considering using part of her Booker prize money to pay for treatment on her back. If it’s not successful she has said, she doesn’t feel she will be able to write again.
Why I read Milkman
Although I have a cut off date of 2015 for my Booker prize reading project, I do read the later winners if they appeal to me. Milkman was the first since 2015 which held any appeal.
It just about qualifies for ReadingIrelandMonth2019 hosted by Cathy at 746books.com