“Students, eh? Love ’em or hate ’em, you can’t hit them with a shovel!” (Terry Pratchett, Making Money)

Despite being woefully slow in my blogging, I’ve managed a second post for Reading Ireland Month hosted by Cathy at 746 books and Niall at Raging Fluff. Sláinte!


I’ve picked two novels linked by undergraduate protagonists – one a classic of Irish literature which is on Cathy’s 100 Irish Novels list, the other a little-known first novel by an author who has gone on to huge success.


Ah, those heady student days…

Image from here

Firstly, the classic At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien (1939). The unnamed narrator is in many ways a typical student:

“Whether in or out, I always kept the door of my bedroom locked. This made my movements a matter of some secrecy and enabled me to spend an inclement day in bed without disturbing my uncle’s assumption that I had gone to the College to attend to my studies.  A contemplative life has always been suitable to my disposition.”

His dissolution is perhaps a bit more extreme than most students however:

“It was in the New Year, in February, I think, that I discovered my person was verminous.”

Yuck. Gradually clues emerge that this student may be more literate than he first appears, such as how he describes his friend offering to buy him a drink:

“I rejoined that if his finances warranted such generosity, I would raise no objection, but that I (for my part) was no Rockefeller, thus utilising a figure of speech to convey the poverty of my circumstances.

Name of figure of speech: Synedoche (or Autonomasia)

The three of us walked slowly down to Grogan’s…”

The splintering of the narrative with the definition also hints at what is to come, as soon the story begins to be invaded by other stories the student is writing: about a devil Pooka and a fairy in his pocket; about Furriskey, born a fully grown man; a Western; versions of Irish folklore.  All the narratives start to reflect and echo each other, eventually they overlap and boundaries break down.  In other words, this is classic modernist brilliance, layering up myth and meta-narratives to create something astonishing. If you want to read Ulysses but you’re not sure you’re up to the task, At Swim-Two-Birds could be a good gateway novel 🙂 As Dylan Thomas said:

“This is just the book to give your sister if she’s a loud, dirty, boozy girl.”

In other words, if she’s a student.

Secondly, Stir Fry by Emma Donoghue (1994), who would go on to have enormous success with Room sixteen years later. This is the sort of first novel that doesn’t seem to be published as much now – perfectly decent efforts of thinly disguised biography whereby an author gets to grip with their craft. I’ve no actual facts to back up my theory, but it seems that while more and more books are published, first novels now have to have a huge wow factor – not necessarily a bad thing, but there’s an awful lot of truly dreadful writing being published because it will make money, while these better written but modest efforts flounder. I hope potentially good novelists are not being put off: hang in there budding writers!

Anyway, back to Stir Fry. Maria is seventeen and leaves her rural home to start university in Dublin.

“Dirty blue clouds were scudding over slate roofs. A good cold smell in the air and the whiff of turf smoke as she turned the corner made her think of home. The dusk lasted much longer in the country; nothing to get in the way she supposed. In Dublin there was only half an hour of grey, then the street lamps blinked on and all the shoppers hustled home in the dark.”

She is remarkably naïve, even given her young age, and takes forever to realise that her two flatmates are in a same-sex relationship:

“Now suddenly here were two friends of hers kissing on the table she ate at every night. Rapt faces and library books and garlic, how bizarre.”

She considers moving out, which may seem ridiculous, but Maria’s world sees discussions like this occur in all earnestness:

“‘Look, they’re both very nice. And they wear skirts sometimes too.’

‘Oh, I know,’ said Yvonne wisely, ‘but they’d have to, wouldn’t they, as cover?’”

What follows is a sweet story of Maria coming to realise who she is and what she wants. The characters are all very believable and they and Dublin are drawn with real affection. Stir Fry is a quick read, a bildungsroman in which nothing and everything happens. It doesn’t contain the brilliance Donoghue displayed with Room, but it still made me think it’s a pity we don’t see these types of first novels much anymore.

To end, an Irish band that first came to prominence when I was student – this song was played at many a sticky-floored student club back in my day:

19 thoughts on ““Students, eh? Love ’em or hate ’em, you can’t hit them with a shovel!” (Terry Pratchett, Making Money)

  1. I have been WOEFUL for reading Ireland. I read one book which I have had too many reservations over to have it form part of a celebration of reading Ireland. I am still hoping I might be able to do a post on a poem (yes, just one!) and a kind of tract.

    You have reminded me that I loved At Swim – Two Birds back in the day, and if it is still on my shelves, might re-read again

    And I can’t stop nodding furiously at your judgement re the unfortunate tendency to demanding ‘wow’ – for which read ground-break shock just for the sake of it, the bizarre – hmm no one has written a novel from the point of view of a cushion which turns out to be a vampire before, have they? (I’ve probably given the next wow wannabee an idea with legs there!’)

    The thoughtful, quietly written, not ground breaking , but just with an authentic voice all the same, which speaks softly yet seduces by what it says gets drowned out by the shouting screaming tearing off their clothes and pulling grotesque in your face faces, just to say ‘Look at Me, NO LOOK AT MEEEEEEEEE!’ kind of writing.

    Okay, I exaggerate, there is probably as much wonderful new first writing as there has ever been, but it is probably not the writers being screamed about on bidding wars as everyone falls over the alluring spectacle of loadsamoney to be made with a film tie in, or at least straight to cable, with the latest new hotty of either sex to star, and loads of product placement

    The big question is………..who is going to be cast as that vampiric cushion?!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. One of my other reading buddies recommended Flann O’Brien to me some months ago, so I popped off to read some reviews. I now have a new mantra – “Please, O Great Gods of Literature, save me from Flann O’Brien”. In fact, I hope they just save me from modernism in general! I did like The Young Ones, though… 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think many people don’t realise that Emma Donoghue had written a bunch of stuff before Room (and I think were books which were quite different to Room i.e. with an historical bent??). I have a couple in my TBR stack.
    The inclusion of the Young Ones pic made me laugh because when I was about 12 we lived in England for a few months while my dad was working there. My (younger) brother and I discovered The Young Ones (I suspect it was very new then). We loved it and told everyone back in Australia that they had to watch it when it came on. At some point, it filtered back to my parents that really, it was wildly inappropriate viewing for 12 & 10 year olds (we’d seen them all by then!). Whenever I catch bits of it now I think there is NO WAY I’d let my 10 year old watch it 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you’re right – Room was when I first became aware of her, but looking at her bibliography she’d been prolific before that. I’ve got The Sealed Letter on my TBR, and its set in Victorian London.

      That’s hilarious about The Young Ones 😀 I wasn’t allowed to watch it and had to rely on playground reenactments by the cool kids to know what was going on… I only watched it much later (I think when I actually became a student) – you’re definitely wise to keep your 10 year old away 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  4. You have just made me order a second hand ‘At Swim-Two-Birds’, it really does look fascinating. But, bearing in mind this is not the first book you have inspired me to get, if you blogged faster, my bank account may well suffer even more, so don’t feel too bad about it 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hope you enjoy it! It is fascinating, and completely mad and brilliant.

      Blogging is terrible for adding to the TBR isn’t it? I’ll try and view my snail’s pace as a damage limitation exercise! I hope my recommendations see you right 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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