Posted by BookerTalk
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?
Posted by BookerTalk
This week’s Top Ten topic is about books we consider to be underrated and hidden gems. My list is a bit of a cornucopia, comprising of a smattering of historic fiction, literary fiction and works by authors from Africa and South America. All hyperlinks are to my reviews.
Let’s start in Brazil with Dom Casmurro by Machado de Assis, an author little known of outside of South America but is a familiar name to every schoolchild in Brazil (he’s required reading in the education system). It is supposedly an autobiography written by Bento Santiago, a lawyer from Rio de Janeiro, in which he describes his early life, his years of happiness married to his childhood sweetheart and then the heartbreak when he thinks she has betrayed him. Whether this is the truth is uncertain because Bento isn’t exactly a reliable narrator nor one who can be trusted to stick to the point. He can be in the middle of describing the grande passion of his life and then suddenly switches to commenting on ministerial reshuffles and train travel. A great choice for readers who like quirky novels.
Moving on to Africa, first up is Petals of Blood by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, a novel deemed so dangerous by the Kenyan government that they imprisoned the author. What was so incendiary about this novel? Quite simply because it turned the spotlight on the authorities for their betrayal of ordinary people in Kenya, promising them the earth when the country gained independence but then when the rains failed, the crops died and people faced starvation, they ignored their calls for help. A powerful novel that sadly depicts a situation happening in too many parts of the world.
From Ethiopia comes All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu which I picked up on a whim while at the Hay Literary Festival a few years ago. This is a book about love but also about the lengths to which someone will go to build a new life for themselves, even if that means leaving their homeland and their identity.
By complete contrast The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso offers a tale of rivalry and hostility between two very stubborn women who live next door to each other in Cape Town. Many of the scenes are hilarious but this is a novel which also asks searching questions about racial tension and the possibility of reconciliation between the different sectors of South African society.
And finally from Africa we get Wife of the Gods by the Ghanian author Kwei Quartey. The plot revolves around the murder of a young female medical student but the novel does far more than offer a well-paced detective story. This is a tale which takes us to the dark side of Ghana’s culture where young girls are offered as trokosi (or Wives of the Gods) to fetish priests and villagers still believe in the power of medicine men to assuage vengeful gods.
If those titles have given you a taste for fiction from Africa – or indeed from anywhere in the world except your own country, but you don’t know where to begin – your saviour will be The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction by Michael Orthofer. This offers profiles of the literature on a region by region and country by country basis and a multitude of author names to explore.
Changing direction totally I offer one of the best historical fiction novels I have read in several years. Antonia Hodgson’s debut novel The Devil in the Marshalsea takes us into the heart of the notorious squalid and disease ridden Marshalsea prison for debtors. Reading this, you can almost smell the place such is the power of Hodgson’s narrative. Her protagonist Tom Hawkins ends up in the Marshalsea because he has too much of a liking for gambling and women. The question is whether he will leave the prison alive or dead.
I couldn’t possibly create a list of under-rated gems without mentioning Holiday by Stanley Middleton. I know it seems strange to think of a Booker prize winner as a hidden gem but this winner from 1974 is one that few people seem to know. Middleton himself also seems to have disappeared from the public consciousness. This despite the fact he wrote more than 40 novels. Holiday is a quiet novel in a sense because the action, such as it is, is all inside the head of the main character. Edwin Fisher, a university professor takes a spur of the moment holiday at the seaside where he reflects on the breakdown of his marriage. It’s a well observed story of a man who is more an observer than a participant in life.
The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan was also a contender for the Booker prize. This is a novel about a community and the individuals within it that feel the effect of the collapse of Ireland’s economic boom. It’s a novel that almost never saw the light of day. It had been rejected by numerous publishers but was rescued from yet another reject pile by an intern who raved about it and persuaded her employers to give it a go. It then went on to make the long list for the Booker Prize. What happened to the intern is not known but I hope she got a permanent job for showing such great intuition.
And finally, a novel that should have won the Booker in 2013 but sadly the judges felt otherwise. Harvest by Jim Crace is a beautifully written lyrical novel set in a period in history where a traditional way of life where people rely on the land to make a living is ruptured in the name of “Profit, Progress, Enterprise”.