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Good Behaviour by Molly Keane [book review]

country-houseThe ancestral home of Temple Alice might be crumbling and the debts piling up. But for the St Charles family, it’s imperative that appearances are maintained and they uphold the standards of good behaviour befitting the Anglo-Irish gentry. And on the surface they are successful. Papa occupies his time hunting, fishing and generally having a good time with his coterie of female admirers. Mummie is so busy with her gardening and her painting she has no time or patience for all the dull business of housekeeping and child rearing. Daughter Aroon and her younger brother Hubert are consequently left in the care of their beloved governess Miss Brock with whom they swim and picnic joyfully.

It all sounds a halcyon existence. But that’s only on the surface. Time and time again in Good Behaviour a darkness seeps through that is all the more disturbing because it’s so subtly introduced and then glossed over. The tone is set in the opening scene in which Aroon, now a mature woman, prepares a rabbit mousse for her invalid mother’s meal, despite protestations from housemaid Rose that mum gets sick if she eats rabbit. Mother takes one mouthful, is sick. and dies. The result of an error of judgement by a well-meaning daughter or a deliberate act of a woman grown embittered over the years? The reader is left to decide but that episode is already  a signal that maybe Aroon is going to prove an entirely unreliable narrator of her story.

The chapters that immediately follow the rabbit episode reinforce our initial impressions that more is going on beneath the surface than first appears. They seem to be series of entertaining anecdotes about Aroon’s childhood in her ancestral country home yet it’s obvious to us, even if it isn’t to her, that she is being largely ignored and starved of affection. Her mother is either distant or dismissive and cruel and her father only seems to pay attention when she is exhibiting her horsemanship even when this results in a near tragic episode where she clings onto a troublesome horse. She is further burdened by her size and shape. She’s tall and full blossomed in a way that is totally out of synch with the fashion in 1920s for slim, boyish figures.  To onlookers she looks like a Fat Lady in a peepshow with her “bosoms swinging like jelly bags”.

I have now come to terms with my height but in those years when I was nineteen and twenty, I bent my knees, I bowed my shoulders; I strapped in my bosoms until they burst out around my back.

Aroon is in essence an outsider. Although there are moments when she feels she’s “there at the heart of things” – like when her brother teaches her to dance and she finds there is something at which she can excel or the evenings when Hubert and his friend Richard invite her for drinks and music in their bedroom. Richard gets into bed with her one night.  Though nothing happens sexually, the fact Richard was in her bed is enough for Aroon to believe he is in love with her and to eagerly that anticipate nuptial bliss will follow.

But too soon the dream falls apart. Hubert is killed in a motoring accident and Richard disappears to Kenya. The death of son and heir and the earlier tragedy when Papa lost a leg in the battle fields of World War 1 barely disrupt the routine. For this is a house where every mishap or tragedy  is shaken off, never spoken of and never allowed to interrupt the gardening or hunting. “Our good behaviour went on and on. . . no one spoke of the pain.” says Aroon after Hubert’s funeral. “We exchanged cool, warning looks – which of us could behave the best: which of us could be least embarrassing…”

Though she does feel the pain when her hopes of marriage fade, she will not show it for she has learned to be a dutiful daughter and how to behave in the same socially impeccably manner as her parents. Phoning the doctor to report her mother’s death for example to the others she has time to observe:

… how the punctual observance of the usual importances is the only way to behave at such times as these. And I do know how to behave – believe me, I know. I have always known. All my life far I have done everything for the best reasons and the most unselfish motives.

What Keane lets us see is how Aroon is ‘right’ about behaviour but so often wrong about people. She doesn’t see that Richard’s romantic overture is designed to disguise his intense relationship with her brother or that the cook Rose isn’t just warming her father’s foot when he’s confined to bed after a stroke. Nor does she see her mother’s lack of affection as odd. It’s just the way things are. “I don’t blame Mummie… She simply did not want to know what was going on in the nursery. She had had children and she longed to forget the horror of it once and for all.  She didn’t really like children; she didn’t like dogs either…”

Is she really that limited in understanding that she doesn’t see her mother’s behaviour for what it is: cruelty.  It’s hard not to feel sympathy for this girl whose life has been blighted and who seems not to understand how this has happened.

It’s the gap between what Aaron knows and understands and what we as readers understand that makes Good Behaviour such a tremendous book. Added to that Keane’s characters are wholly believable; none of them come across in  flattering way. They wouldn’t dream of treating their dogs or horses badly yet are perfectly capable of being mean and spiteful to fellow humans in revenge for personal grievances whether real or imagined. That doesn’t mean this is a novel entirely devoid of humour. There is a wonderful set piece towards the end of the novel where Aaron, on the morning of her father’s funeral is despatched to the station to collect one of his old friends.She lets herself be persuaded to take a tipple in the station buffet – one brand and ginger ale turns into two and three and then she falls on the ice and spends the afternoon sleeping it off while everyone else is at the funeral. But Keane suddenly turns from humour to pathos as Aaron realises she has “let the side down”.

At that moment I knew myself entirely bereft. The sofa murmured and creaked under my sobbing. She [Mummie] was keeping strictly to the day’s essentials; things must be done, masks against any vulgar intrusions of grief. I felt like a child who wets her knickers at a party. Nowhere to hide, no refuge from the shame of it.

Impossible not to feel sympathy at moments like this for a girl who has only wanted ever to love and to be loved but whose soul has been suppressed through neglect and a lifetime of required good behaviour.

A wonderful book; faultless in its concept and in its execution.

Footnotes

About the book: Good Behaviour by Molly Keane was published in 1981 and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize that year. It is the first novel Molly Keane published after a writing break triggered by the death of her husband and was the first time she used her real name (rather than her pseudonym of Maggie J Farrell.) Apparently Keane sent it to a publisher but when it was rejected as ‘too dark’ she stuck it in a kitchen drawer. But then Peggy Ashcroft visited and struck down with flu, asked for something to read. Having read the typescript she urged Molly to try and publish.

About the author: Molly Keane was born as Mary Skrine in County Kildare in Ireland in 1904 into a ‘serious hunting and fishing family’. She wrote her first novel at the age of 17 to supplement her dress allowance, using the pseudonym of M. J Farrell to hide her activities from her sporting friends. Between 1928 and 1961 she wrote 10 novels and a clutch of successful plays.The death in 1946 of her husband, at the early age of 37, was a blow. She stopped writing and devoted herself to bringing up their daughters. Interest in her revived after publication of Good Behaviour. She continued to write well into her 80s. There is an excellent article in The Guardian in which editor Diana Athill reflects on her relationship with Keane – click this link

Why I read this book: I bought this in a library sale.   I’d read only one book by her – Devoted Ladies which I enjoyed but didn’t love. But I’d seen plenty of reviews by bloggers whose opinion I trust to the effect of persuading me I really should read Good Behaviour. So thank you Heaven Ali ( her review is hereand the many other reviewers in the Library Thing Virago group. Good Behaviour is one of my 20booksofsummer choices.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney

glorious-heresies2The Glorious Heresies is a bold, brash debut novel that won Lisa McInerney numerous accolades including the Bailey’s Prize and the Desmond Elliot prize in 2016.

McInerney’s edgy style will not be to everyone’s liking and her portrayal of Cork’s seedy underworld is unlikely to do much for the city’s tourist trade. Forget any images of pastoral landscape and Guiness-fuelled booze ups to the sound of a few jolly fiddlers. The world of The Glorious Heresies is a crowded vista of brothels and grim housing estates of schoolboy drug dealers and malicious thugs.

Tony Cusack’s terrace was only one of dozens flung out in a lattice of reluctant socialism. There was always some brat lighting bonfires on the green, or a lout with a belly out to next Friday being drunkenly ejected from home (with a measure of screaming fishwife fucked in for good luck), or squad cars or teenage squeals or gibbering dogs.

The novel begins with an accidental murder in a block of flats used as a temporary residence for Maureen Phelan, the mother of one of the city’s leading gangland bosses. When she hits an intruder over the head with a Holy Stone, Maureen sets in motion a chain of events that entangle her son and three other members of the city’s underclass.

To describe the plot further would be to do an injustice to McInderney’s novel because the power of The Glorious Heresies really stems from the brilliantly delineated misfits that make up her cast.  The guy drafted in to dispose of the body is Tony, a drunken wastrel and father of six, whose alcoholism and obsession with his unhinged next-door neighbour threatens to ruin him and his family.  Georgie, the murdered man’s girlfriend, is a wildchild who has run away from her village home because “if she didn’t get up and march out, she’d grow roots down through the thin carpet, down through the foundations, down into the soil, the dirt, the rock and trap herself there until her brain turned to jelly.”  Her new life in Cork is one of drugs and prostitution.

Feeding her habit is Tony’s fifeteen year old son, Ryan. He’s desperate not to turn out like his father who is rather too free with his fists when he’s in his cups. He’s an intelligent boy though disruptive in school, one who hides his talent for playing the piano and puts on a show of bravado. But deep down he mourns the mother who died four years earlier and whose presence is still felt in the family home:

It was a three-bedroom terrace so cavernous without his mother he could barely stand it. It echoed shit he didnt want to think about in chasms that shouldnt have been there.

As the novel opens, Ryan is on the fringe of manhood, about to leave behind his “pile of mangled, skinny limbs” and emerge with “squared shulders and jaws, and strong arms.” His metamorphosis is achieved with the aid of Karine D’Arcy, “”whip-smart and as beautiful as morning”, the most desirable girl in his school. She was now in his bedroom, helping him lose his virginity.  Their relationship is the only stability Ryan can count on as his life goes into spin: a predatory next door neighbour seduces him; his father is implicated in the disposal of the corpse and Ryan’s drug dealing gets him sent down for nine months in a young offenders’ institution.

Though Ryan is the central character, it’s the gangster’s mother Maureen, a woman “crazier than a dustbin fox”, I warmed to the most. After 40 years of exile in London she’s returned to Cork to discover the illegitimate son she had to give up for adoption, has become a much-feared thug, drug baron and sex-industry entrepreneur.  She’s determined to atone for the death, despite her son’s protestations that she’s already caused enough trouble. But when she goes to church to confess her crime, her encounter with a priest stirs up memories of the way the Catholic Church treated unmarried mothers like herself.  She ends up accusing the priest of hypocrisy:

The most natural thing in the world is giving birth; you built your whole religion around it. And yet you poured pitch on girls like me and sold us into slavery and took our humanity from us.”scarred by the treatment yet still vividly scarred by having spent her years in fear of the Holy Trinity: “the priests, the nuns and the neighbours”.

The switching narrative viewpoints take us deep into the minds and hearts of these people and make us cry and despair alongside them, and, at times, laugh.  For though their prospects are bleak and the city is in a post economic-boom tailspin, the sheer muddle of their lives produces some dark humour.

It’s an exuberant debut, unflinching in exposing the dark underbelly of  a city  “spread out in soft mounds and hollows, like a duvet dropped into a well” and biting in its denouncement of the Catholic church as well as a missionary cult that seems to think the answer to the city’s drug problem is to hand out pamphlet. This is a novel that asks serious questions about salvation, guilt and the effects of the past on the present.

Footnotes 

The Book: The Glorious Heresies was published by John Murray in 2015.  It won The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2016 and the Desmond Elliot Prize for 2016. It was longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prie 2016. I read the e-version.

The Author: Lisa McInerney is from Galway and is the author of an award-winning blog ‘Arse End of Ireland’ (no longer active or available). The Irish Times has called her ‘arguably the most talented writer at work in Ireland today’. Her latest novel The Blood Miracles is published in April 2017 – it features Ryan Cusak (from The Glorious Heresies).

Why I read this book: Although I often ignore books that attract huge levels of attentionl this one appealed to me. I read it for ReadingIreland2017 hosted by 746books and  The Fluff is Raging.

 

 

Book Review: The Country Girl by Edna O’Brien

One night in their [her sons’] bedroom with all their clutter and paraphernalia, painted soldiers laid out on trays for battle yet to be, Paul McCartney entered.

EdnaO'BrienThis is just one of the wonderful examples of understated prose found in Edna O’Brien‘s memoir The Country Girl, published last year. Many lesser writers would have changed the order of words in the anecdote to put the emphasis on McCartney rather than banal domestic details. But such was Edna’s life while in Swinging Sixties London; a life so replete with encounters with the great and the good that she can treat individual episodes with  nonchalance.

There are many examples of this nature in the middle of the book as famous names from stage, screen and the literary world flit into her world and onto the pages. She cooks dinner for Len Deighton, Richard Burton recites Shakespeare in her kitchen, Lee Marvin is a guest at her son’s birthday party and she dances with the then-Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

The names are not there to impress. These people were simply part of an ever-extending circle of friends and acquaintances who gravitated to her home in Chelsea and more particularly gravitate to this vivacious young woman from southern Ireland. A party girl she may have been but The Country Girl is no kiss and tell memoir. In fact she is remarkably silent on the identity of some of the men who played a part in her life, including someone who seemed to have been an eminent British politician.

The memoir is instead a warm and frank account of a life that was anything but carefree. O’Brien’s early years in County Clare, Ireland were lived in fear of a father who had drunk away the family’s wealth and in the stultifying atmosphere of a strict Catholic community serviced by the church and 27 pubs but no library. “There was only one book in the village apart from the Bible — du Maurier’s Rebecca,” she told an audience at the 2013 Hay Literary Festival. “We used to share it around but you only got one or two pages at a time and they didn’t always come in the right order.”

It wasn’t until she broke away and moved to Dublin to work as an assistant in a pharmacist’s shop that she discovered literature along with pierced earrings and men. Finding T. S. Eliot’s “Introducing James Joyce” in a quayside stall marked the beginning of what she calls the “two intensities”  of her life — writing and reading. Freedom came at a price — her family tried to kidnap her when they learned of her affair with a married man, forcing the pair to flee the country.  In London, married to  a poet and the mother of  two boys, she began to write. The Country Girls was completed in just three weeks. Her tale of two girls who leave their small Irish village and  convent education for the bright lights of Dublin  met with critical acclaim everywhere except in Ireland and by everyone except her mother and her husband.

In Ireland it was considered immoral and its publication banned. “Filth” proclaimed the Archbishop and the Minister of Justice. Even the local postmistress in her home village weighed in – she should be made to run naked through the street as a punishment she claimed. O’Brien was summoned to a public meeting in Limerick to defend her book against accusations that it was little more than hard-core pornography.

Her husband’s response was more personal:

 Yes he had to concede that despite everything, I had done it, and then he said something that was the death-knell of the already-ailing marriage —You can write and I will never forgive you.

What follows is one of the darkest periods of Edna O’Brien’s life. Separated from her children, she finds herself portrayed in a custody battle as a harlot, the writer of obnoxious and obscene literature and an uncaring mother.

Country Girl was a book O’Brien swore she would never write.  She did so at the age of 78 in order to set the record straight about this and other episodes in her life including a published interview with Gerry Adams the Sinn Fein leader which led to accusations she was promoting the cause of the IRA.

There is a sense though there is much more to this memoir than simply recording the truth for posterity. There is a sense that in turning to the past, she found a reconciliation not just with the land of her birth, the land that never rated her as greatly as Joyce or Yeats and fought her attempts to build a home on its shores, but with herself. After a return visit to her childhood home  that is now in ruins behind a screen of ivy and bramble she reflects on

“… for ever the need to go back,the way animals do, the way elephants trudge thousands of miles to return to where the elephant whisperer has lived. We go back for the whisper.”

My verdict

Elegaic, moving and funny.  A perfect example of how memoirs should be written.

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