World Literary Tour: Visit Ireland in 5 Books

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

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 Toibin

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.

Donal Ryan

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.

Lisa McInerney

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.

Anna Burns

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?

In Death There is Still Joy: Dear Life by Rachel Clarke

Dear Life by Rachel Clarke

We live in an age when people share the most deeply personal aspects of their life with complete strangers.

Magazines are plastered with articles detailing celebrities’ experiences of eating disorders/sexuality/mental health/abuse just to mention a few. And I’m not sure how daytime television would survive if it didn’t have a steady stream of guests willing to open up on issues that a few generations ago would have been considered taboo.

But there’s one topic about which we are strangely reticent even though it affects every one of us. Death. 

t’s a form of denial, a basic human instinct to avoid what is uncomfortable. We even avoid using the actual word. Instead we turn to euphemisms which sound less direct, less harsh, less final in a sense. We don’t say a friend/relative died, they “passed away” or “passed over” or simply “passed”. 

The Fear Factor

Our own death is more difficult to contemplate than that of our loved ones. So we don’t prepare for it. We treat it a bit like those tax return demands, a task we know we have to deal with – but at heart we’re afraid. So the longer we can delay the task, the happier we are.

Few of us would, out of choice, spend our days surrounded by people whose time on this earth can be measured in weeks or days. 

But that’s exactly the world Rachel Clarke decided to embrace. After more than a decade as a doctor who fought to save lives, using every drug and machine at her disposal, she changed direction. Now as a consultant in palliative medicine she cares for people whose battle for life is over. A specialism that’s little understood or valued.

If neurosurgeons are the rock stars of the medical hierarchy – its sexy, alpha, heart-throb heroes – then palliative care doctors are the dowdy support act. A low-rank medical speciality, we lurk in the shadows, too close to death for comfort …. No one in the hospital is quite sure what we get up to, and usually does not wish to know either. Death is taboo for many reasons, not least the fear that it might just be catching.

Dear Life begins as an autobiography, charting Rachel Clarke’s life as the daughter of a hard-working dedicated GP. She considered following in his footsteps but instead followed the path of literature and the arts, becoming a television documentary maker. 

Rachel Clarke, author of Dear Life

In her late 20s she re-assessed her life, abandoned the broadcasting world and retrained as a doctor. What she witnessed in the emergency unit, convinced her to make palliative care her specialism. 

Despite my love of acute and emergency medicine, I found myself drawn to patients with life-limiting illness precisely, in part, because some other doctors ran a mile.

Learned Detachment

Clarke is critical of doctors she heard curtly despatching their patients to the “palliative dustbin” as if they felt that once in a terminal phase of illness, human lives were no longer worth engaging with. But she tempers her censure; acknowledging that from detachment is an essential requirement in the medical profession. It’s a lesson that begins the day that an aspiring doctor begins their medical training.

We might have chosen medicine because we wanted to help people, but doctors could not and should not allow their compassion free rein. … The challenge then for every doctor was to acquire sufficient detachment to be useful while maintaining one’s essential humanity.

That need for detachment is put severely to the test when death comes right to the door of Rachel Clarke’s own life. In his 70s her father was diagnosed with bowel cancer. Clarke was ever the professional as they discussed at length his diagnosis and his treatments. But as his health deteriorated and it was clear he was close to death, it was the daughter who took over, who bathed him just as he had once bathed her in childhood.

Candid and Sensitive

Dear Life is candid yet overwhelmingly sensitive and moving account of what it’s like to work in the world of the dying. A uncomfortable book to read you might think, one that would be far too depressing; too emotional, too heartbreaking. 

Of course it’s emotional. Of course it tugs at the heart. How could it not? But Rachel Clarke shows that even when people are at their lowest ebb, they have the capacity to love and embrace moments of unadulterated joy.  Dear Life gives us a wedding, a fiercely independent woman coiffured and dressed in pearls for her final bridge session and an elderly woman who had lovingly frozen portions of fruit and fish so her husband would be able to survive without her.

These anecdotes were the ones that brought the tears to my eyes. Because they’re not about death, but about life and how people like Rachel Clarke help us prepare to say goodbye in a way that truly means we can rest in peace.

Dear Life is quite simply a stunning book. I urge you to cast aside any fears it will touch on too many nerves and get yourself a copy. I guarantee you will not regret it.

Sample Saturday: Impulse Buys

I’m still on the quest I started in 2019 to bring a degree of control over my TBR stack. Step 5 in my 9 point plan was to take a close look at the books that have been on my shelves, unread, for at least five years.

When I did a count at the start of 2019, the total was 95. I’ve been slowly making inroads into the stack by reading those books or giving them away unread (I confess that more have been given away than have been read).

Those of you who follow Kate at Books are My favourite And Best will have heard of Sample Saturday. It’s where she looks at all the samples on her Kindle and decides which to part company with and which to keep.

I’m taking a leaf out of her book and using this approach to help me make decisions about all the physical and e books books remaining on my “owned but unread” shelves.

Let’s kick off this series with a trio of books that were bought on a whim.

Yiyun Li

Gold Boy Emerald Girl by the Chinese-American author Yiyun Li is a 2011 collection of short stories, or vignettes about modern China. The Guardian review described it as gloriously stark group of nine tales about people who are frustrated, alone in the world, and often railing against it. 

I bought this purely because it was in on sale at a ridiculously low price in The Works right at the time when I was trying to expand the geographic scope of my reading. I didn’t pay enough attention to the author’s biography so didn’t realise at the time she is the Chinese-American author Yiyun Li

Since I’m not a fan of short stories I think this is one I feel comfortable about sending to a new home.

The Verdict: Set Free

Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

I bought this 2011 in Chicago airport while returning from a trip to the USA. I was in a hurry to get to my departure gate but needed something as a back up in case the book I already had, proved to be a dud. I rushed into the only bookshop in the airport and got swayed by the assistant’s recommendation. Of course I never even opened the book.

It’s a non fiction account of the 1893 Chicago World Fair, focusing on two key individuals. The architect responsible for the construction and a fake doctor who turned out to be a serial killer. He’d built a hotel near the fair site to which he lured his victims.

I’m curious how these two strands get woven together.

The Verdict: Reprieve

Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon

I honestly don’t know where my brain was on the day I bought this. I must have confused it with an entirely different book. It’s a collection of sixteen essays. In some Chabon explains how he came to write a few of his best known works. In others he defends his work in genres such as science fiction, fantasy, and comics.

Since I have only a vague idea of who Chabon is and I have little interest in any of the genres mentioned, this is not earning a place on my shelves.

The Verdict: Set Free

Authors At Home: Emilé Zola’s Grand Mansion

It’s time for another episode of “Authors at Home” in which I share some insights into the domestic arrangements of some of our famous writers.

Emile Zola's home

The last episode featured Dove Cottage, a modest house in England’s Lake District that was once home to the Romantic poet William Wordsworth. By way of contrast, let’s go across the English Channel to visit a substantially larger house occupied by one of my favourite authors.

I first heard about Emilé’s house at Médan while reading Zola And The Victorians by Eileen Horne.

Horne’s book included a sketch showing a sizeable property with two towers, each named after his most successful books. The 1895 photograph below shows Nana Tower which housed his study. To the left, and barely visible at the edge of the building was a shorter structure known as Germinal Tower.

The villa in which Emile Zola lived for 20 years

My curiosity aroused, I set out to discover more about this property on the banks of the Seine about 90 minutes from Paris..

Zola bought Médan in 1878, using the royalties gained from his novel L’Assommoir. He described it to his friend Gustav Flaubert as “a rabbit hut in a charming hole.” What particularly appealed to him (apart from the bargain price of nine thousand francs), was the peace and tranquility of the location. It was, he said, “far from any resort … not having a single bourgeois in my neighbourhood. “

He soon got builders to work on transforming what was then a modest sized villa into a vast domain surrounded by gardens, a farm and greenhouses. An avenue of lime trees was planted to help screen the house from view.

So at peace am I in my little desert that I sometimes feel I never want to return to Paris.

Letter to Flaubert, 1878

Though Médan was intended as a refuge from the busy social whirl of Paris, it was also a place where leading figures in the worlds of art and literature were entertained. Cézanne, Manet, Pissaro and Zola’s fellow writers in the Naturalist movement, were regular guests at the summer parties hosted by Madame Alexandrine Zola.. The couple even had a pavilion built as an annexe to accommodate their numerous guests and his publisher.

Emile Zola's house
Médan complete with Germinal Tower (left) and Nana Tower (right)

Most of the house was furnished according to his wife’s direction but Zola took personal control of his study.

Oriental carpets cover the study floor and tapestries adorn the walls. An enormous divan sits in an alcove near the windows and there he will generally nap and read in the afternoons. Curios, pottery and images line shelves and side tables all around the room. …

A substantial library of books is accessed by a spiral staircase which leads to a gallery space and a roof terrace beyond. His desk sits in the centre of the room facing the windows with their view of the river.

Zola And The Victorians by Eileen Horne, p41

Each morning Zola took a stroll from the house, following the path of the river, his dogs at his heels. Later he changes into loose flannel shirt, wide trousers and padded worker’s jacket to begin wok on his latest novel.

Emile Zola

The Zolas lived at Médan for more than 20 years. On 28 September 1902, they left for their home in Paris. Emilé Zola never saw Médan again. He died in the early hours of the following morning in circumstances that remain a mystery to this day.

Three years later Madame Zola handed the house over for the benefit of people who needed convalescence. The property was officially added to the list of France’s historic monuments on 21 March 1983.

On March 21st 1983, Émile Zola’s former property was officially added to the list of France’s historic monuments and became a museum. In 2018 French President Emmanuel Macron announced that the building would become the home of a state museum devoted to the Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus.

Dreyfus was the subject of an infamous miscarriage of justice in the 1890s. After a campaign led by Emilé Zola, his conviction for treason was overturned and he was pardoned by the President.

It doesn’t appear that this project has been completed. The museum’s website simply says the museum will re-open in 2018. Such a shame– I was thinking it’s re-opening would be a great excuse for a little weekend trip to Paris.

A Novel of Two Unequal Halves: Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano

Two words sum up my reaction to Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano: Potential Unfulfilled.

This was a novel described variously by bloggers as “powerful”; “unique” and “dazzling” when it was published in January 2020. It turned out to be less exciting and thought-provoking than indicated by those reactions.

Dear Edward is a tale born out of a tragedy. On a summer morning, the Adler family board a flight for Los Angeles. They are swapping their New York residence for a new home in California where their mother can advance her career as a scriptwriter.

The plane crashes in Colorado mid flight , causing the deaths of 191 passengers. Only one person survives – twelve-year-old Edward Adler.

This is a novel of two halves.

One half  chronicles the effect of the crash upon the young boy, following him from hospital to his new home with his childless aunt and uncle. Physical therapists and a counsellor provide practical support but the biggest effect on his recovery is his friendship with Shay, the teenage girl who lives next door. With her support he begins to eat, get to school and, eventually to connect with the relatives of the passengers who died.

Coming of Age

This half of Dear Edward is essentially is a coming-of-age narrative in which Edward struggles with the loss of his family and his feeling that part of himself was also lost in the sky. It’s handled sensitively and with good insight into the psychological dimensions of grief and survivor guilt.

My problem with the book lay in its other half. In this Ann Napolitano winds back in time to the plane itself, recording the backstories of some of its passengers as it journeys to the moment of oblivion.

In the first class section there’s an irritable old business tycoon who is in the late stages of cancer. Across the aisle is a younger version of him, a Wall Street whizzkid with a drug abuse problem and Edward’s mother who is struggling to complete a script.

Back in the economy section are a soldier injured while on duty in Afghanistan, a larger-than-life woman who is running away from her controlling husband and a young woman flying to meet the man she hopes will be her partner in life.

Two Unequal Halves

My problem was that I didn’t feel these chapters really added much to the overall narrative. We already knew the plane crashed so all we were left with was the human interest angle. But I simply couldn’t connect with any of Ann Napolitano’s characters. They weren’t fleshed out enough to make me feel they were real and I never felt invested in their stories.

It might have made more sense if Dear Edward had just focused on the members of the Adler family. Or better still, just focused on Edward himself and how his survival impacts people who have never met him. These strangers feel a desperate need to reach out to him, sending him letters (hence the book’s title) asking him to fulfill the hopes and dreams of their loved ones who never made it.

How Edward responds to these expectations is one of the most interesting aspects of this book. The novel had so much potential to explore the consequences of a traumatic incident both on the immediate victims and the wider circle of friends and relatives.

I just wish Ann Napolitano had stuck to this main story rather than diluting the novel with, what to me, felt like a side story of the plane in motion.

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano: End Notes

Ann Napolitano

Ann Napolitano is the Associate Editor of One Story literary magazine. She received an MFA from New York University and has taught fiction writing in the USA. She currently lives in Brooklyn.

Dear Edward is her third novel, following on from A Good Hard Look and Within Arm’s Reach. It was published by Dial Press in the United States, and by Viking Penguin in the United Kingdom.

My thanks to Viking for a proof copy in return for an honest review.

Copyright © 2020 bookertalk.com – All rights reserved

6 Degrees From Wolfe Island to Climate Change

This month we begin with Wolfe Island by Lucy Treloar a novel I know little about except that the island in question is being destroyed by rising rising sea levels. 

I’m picking up that eco theme for my first book. We’re heading south in search of warmer climes. Our destination is the Caribbean. In Archipelago by Monique Roffey, a father and daughter flee their home on the island of Trinidad when heavy rains are forecast. They are still scarred by the family tragedy that occurred only a year earlier when a torrent of muddy water destroyed their home. As they sail via archipelegos along the Venezuelan and Colombian coast towards the Galapagos Islands, they see the damaging effect of tourism on  fragile natural environments.

My next link is to another novel which reflects on the issues of climate change. Riverflow by Alison Layland takes us to a small riverside community that rises up in protest at the threat their fields and woods will be destroyed by a fracking operation. Tensions mount as the rain beats down relentlessly and the river rises to an ominously high level.

Floods have sadly become a very topical issue here in Wales in recent weeks. Storm Dennis brought chaos when river levels rose to unprecedented levels, leaving thousands of homes and businesses under water. Environmentalist experts have warned we can expect these “once in a generation” events to happen more frequently as the climate warms up.

For days local newspapers, television and radio stations talked about little else other than the floods. But that topic has now been pushed down the news agenda by the prospect of a Coronovirus pandemic.

Which gives me my third link.

In Station 11 by Emily St John Mandel, the world is gripped by a flu pandemic so virulent its victims die within 48 hours. In a few short weeks Georgia Flu sweeps across the globe and claims the lives of 99.99 per cent of the world’s population. The few survivors must learn to live without power, mechanised transport or antibiotics. (talk of antibacterial hand washes, toilet paper and Happy Birthday to You on repeat cycle are long past).

I wish I could offer you something less depressing but it doesn’t get any better because my next book gives us something else to worry about: nuclear war.

The Last by Hanna Jameson opens shortly after a nuclear war destroys much of the Western world. Twenty guests at a hotel deep in the Swiss countryside learn the truth in text messages sent hurriedly by their loved ones in the destroyed cities. Cut off from the outside world and fearful whether help will arrive, when they discover the body of a young girl they are confronted with another fear: that one of them is a killer.

The Last is a locked room/dystopian fiction mash up. Unfortunately the mix of genres doesn’t work that well. The mystery of who killed the girl fizzles out and the dystopian element lacks true menace. The guests seem more concerned about food supplies than they are about the risk of radiation spreading to their part of the world.

Nevil Shute did a far better job of conveying the imminent threat of radiation fallout. On the Beach details the experiences of a mixed group of people in Australia, one of the few habitable places left on earth after a nuclear war.

As monitoring reports indicate the steady southward progression of the deadly radiation, the Australian government provides citizens with free suicide pills and injections so they can avoid prolonged suffering. They also despatch a submarine to track down the source of a mysterious and incomprehensible radio signal originating from Seattle, Washington.

Early editions of the book includes the most famous lines from T S Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men:

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Whether the future comes via a bang or a whimper, unless you’re a climate change denier, you’ll know the signs are not good. Fires; floods; melting ice caps; threatened species give us a general idea of the problems we face..

But the author of my final book in this chain argues that we don’t know the half of it yet. The situation is “worse, much worse, than you think.” says David Wallace-Wells,  in The Uninhabitable Earth. In short chapters he covers the brutal reality of problems like “Dying Oceans”; “Unbreathable Air” and “Plagues of Warming”. He deliberately sets out to shock – and he succeeded. Though short, it’s an intense read. By the time I got to the end I was in a panic.

And on that sobering note I think it’s time I brought this chain to an end. We started on one small island but ended up thinking about the future of the whole planet. I’ll try to be more up beat in next month’s Six Degrees chain.

%d bloggers like this: