“Ireland is a great country to die or be married in.” (Elizabeth Bowen)

Firstly, in breaking news (in the sense that it’s not news and of zero interest or urgency) I’ve finally joined the cool kids over at twitter so please validate my fragile sense of self and join me @madame_bibi. More importantly, I’ve tried to follow as many of my bloggy friends as possible but if I’ve missed you please let me know & I will rectify the situation forthwith 🙂

On with the post! This is my second contribution to Reading Ireland 2017 aka the Begorrathon, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Niall at Raging Fluff. I’m hoping to just get this posted in time, as I was sick for a week and while this meant I could finally watch the entire series of Taboo that I had stacked up, I was incapable of reading the printed word  (my capacity for dribbling over Tom Hardy remained unaffected).  If I’m too late, I hereby proclaim that there are at least 32 days in March 😉

So, its Elizabeth Bowen all round as I look at two of her novels, simply because I was lucky enough to find these lovely hardbacks in my favourite charity bookshop a wee while ago:

Firstly, The Death of the Heart (1938), which I pounced on as soon as I saw it, remembering Jacqui’s wonderful review.  Portia, a sixteen year old orphan, moves to London following a transitory life in hotels with her parents, to live with her half-brother and his wife who she barely knows. Wiki quotes Bowen as describing the novel thusly:

“a novel which reflects the time , the pre-war time with its high tension, its increasing anxieties, and this great stress on individualism. People were so conscious of themselves, and of each other, and of their personal relationships because they thought that everything of that time might soon end.”

Certainly the individuals in the novel are self-conscious, but they’re not really aware of one another. Poor Portia finds herself part of a society of selfish individuals who don’t know what they want and so end up tormenting each other while they try and work it out. Portia’s step-mother Anna is unhappy, as is her brother, but neither are sure it is the marriage to one another that is making them miserable. A rejected lover of Anna’s, Eddie, seduces Portia to alleviate his boredom, not realising that to do so to a naïve and loving 16 year old is cruel and damaging. There is an all-round lack of intimacy:

“But something that should have been going on had not gone on: something had not happened. They had sat round a painted, not a burning, fire, at which you tried in vain to warm your hands.”

Portia is temporarily packed off to the seaside to stay with a family that the London set look down as being a bit common, but they are at least lively:

“Mrs Heccomb took off her hat for tea and Portia saw that her hair, like part of an artichoke, seemed to have an upgrowing tendency…This, for some reason, added to Mrs Heccomb’s expression of surprise.”

However, while the Heccombs see Eddie for the cad and bounder he is, they are neither able to convey this adequately to Portia, nor is she willing to listen.  What emerges as Portia tries to find her place in the world and warm relationships within it, is how deeply inadequate human beings can be at communicating with one another. Bowen is interested in the fantasies that are constructed in lieu of real understanding and how these can be sustaining but ultimately empty.

“Not for nothing do we invest so much of ourselves in other people’s lives – or even in momentary pictures of people we do not know. It cuts both ways: the happy group inside the lighted window, the figure in the long grass in the orchard seen from the train stay and support us in our dark hours.”

The novel lacks any sentimentality and is a sharply observed portrait of interwar society.  What stops it from being depressing is Bowen’s glorious prose, her dry sense of humour (I don’t think we are supposed to take the characters as seriously as they take themselves) and the sense that love – imperfect and in many different guises – is there to be found, sometimes in the oddest of places.

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Apparently hair like an artichoke was an actual thing, although I think Bowen had something more flamboyant in mind…

Secondly, A World of Love (1955), which I thought absolutely stunning. Bowen has matured between these two novels and is telling less, showing more, to once again explore the complexities of human relationships with great subtlety. Lilia owns Montefort, a country house in County Cork, and her dead cousin Guy’s fiancé Antonia, lives there with her husband Fred, an illegitimate member of the family, who runs the estate so they live rent-free.

“Of this arrangement it had not yet been decided whether it worked or did not work, still less if it equitable or, if not so, at whose expense.”

Over the course of a few claustrophobically hot days in summer, Antonia and Fred’s daughter, Jane, finds love letters written by Guy to an unnamed woman which is assumed to be Antonia. This will act as a catalyst to bring the unspoken tensions between the adults into sharp relief:

“Almost no experience, other than Guy and their own dissonance, could they be said to have had in common; and yet it was what they had had in common which riveted them. For worse or better, they were in each other’s hands. Such a relationship is lifelong.”

Meanwhile, Jane is on the edge of burgeoning adulthood:

 “Not a straw stirred, or was there to stir, in the kennel; and above her something other than clouds was missing from the uninhabited sky.  Nothing was to be known. One was on the verge, however, possibly, of more.”

I really adored this novel. Again, it was sharply observed, psychologically astute, and with a wonderful undercurrent of dry humour. Bowen minutely dissects human relationships and exposes all their contradictions and conflict, but also how compromise and understanding can be reached. A World of Love felt tighter than The Death of the Heart, the containment of a few days in pretty much one place effectively conveying the claustrophobia that exists for the characters in their various ways, even as they roam a huge estate. Yet Bowen is almost baroque at times, her descriptions rich and layered and filled with meaning:

“No part of the night was not breathless breathing, no part of the quickened stillness not running feet. A call or calling, now nearby, now from behind the skyline, was unlocatable as a corncrakes in the uncut grass. Arising this was, on the part of the two who like hundreds, seemed to be teeming over the land, carrying all before them. The night, ridden by pure excitement, was seized by hope. .. All they had ever touched still now physically held its charge – everything that had been stepped on, scaled up, crept under, brushed against or leaped from now gave out, touched by so much as air, a tingling continuous sweet shock, which the air suffered as though it were half laughing, as was Antonia.”

I realise I may have lost some of you there. But if you don’t mind that sort of prose at times, especially when it’s surrounded by an astute unblinking eye for human foibles and a compassion for our frailties, please do given Bowen a try!

So that’s the end of a very hurriedly written post, please excuse all typos and general incoherence! Now to end with an Irish musician and a blatant grovel to my mother (as he is one of her favourites and I failed on Mother’s Day last weekend):

“Women are most fascinating between the ages of 35 and 40 … Since few women ever pass 40, maximum fascination can continue indefinitely.” (Christian Dior)

On Saturday I had a BIG birthday.

Why thank you, Mr DiCaprio. Yes, ‘twas the big 4-0 for me so this week I’m looking at one book written in 1977 and one book set in 1977. What they’ve taught me about the year of my birth is that much as nostalgia-fest programmes will try and convince me I was born into a glittery glam-rock utopia:

In fact I was born into a post-colonial nightmare of racism and corruption. 1977 was rubbish.

1977: a year so bad even Christoph Waltz looked like this

Firstly, the novel written in 1977, Petals of Blood by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, a damning indictment of the legacy of colonialism and political corruption. Set in Kenya not long after independence from the British in 1964, it is one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. It tells the story of Munira, a teacher; his friend Abdulla, a shopkeeper; Wanja, a barmaid and object of Munira’s affection; and Karega, a young man who wants to know about Munira’s history of school strikes and acts as the voice of communist ideals in the novel. All have moved to the remote village of Ilmorog to try and come to terms with the fallout from the Mau Mau war and build a life for themselves in the new republic.  The title image recurs throughout the story. At its earliest point it is voiced by a child in Munira’s class:

“ ‘Look. A flower with petals of blood.’

It was a solitary red beanflower in a field dominated by white, blue and violet flowers. No matter how you looked at it, it gave you the impression of a flow of blood. Munira bent over it and with a trembling hand plucked it. It had probably been the light playing upon it, for now it was just a red flower.

‘There is no colour called blood. What you mean is that it is red.’ “

What emerges throughout the novel is that of course, there are literally petals of blood. Kenyans have fought and died on their land and their blood is in the earth. Stories of Munira’s school strikes show how indoctrination under empire was a mix of politics, religion and outright racism:

“We saluted the British flag every morning and every evening to the martial sound from the bugles and drums of our school band. Then we would all march in orderly military lines to the chapel to raise choral voices to the Maker: Wash me Redeemer, and I shall be whiter than snow. We would then pray for the continuation of the Empire that had defeated the satanic evil which had erupted in Europe to try the children of God.”

Following severe drought, the residents of Ilmorog travel to Nairobi to speak with their MP. They encounter indifference at best and outright hypocrisy and corruption at worst from businessmen, their MP, a reverend, which allows wa Thiong’o to explore what and who a new society is built on.

“And suddenly it was not her that he was looking at, seeing, but countless other faces in many other places all over the republic. You eat or you are eaten. You fatten on another, or you are fattened upon.”

If this sounds unremittingly bleak, the residents do also encounter a principled lawyer who helps them. If it sounds polemical and more of a treatise than a novel, it isn’t. wa Thiong’o is furious at the injustice and corruption he portrays, but the power of Petals of Blood is that it is never at the expense of believable characters. Munira, Abdulla, Wanja and Karega bring home the human cost of political decision-making and large-scale corruption.

“She had carried dreams in a broken vessel.”

Petals of Blood is an incredible novel. Angry and urgent, ultimately optimistic and with a belief that human beings can make better lives for themselves and for one another, but with a clear-sighted view of the damage we can wreak.

“It was really very beautiful. But at the end of the evening Karega felt very sad. It was like beholding a relic of beauty that had suddenly surfaced, or like listening to a solitary beautiful tune straying, for a time, from a dying world.”

Looking for the name of the translator of this novel, I was surprised to discover that wa Thiong’o wrote in the language of his country’s colonisers. Apparently Petals of Blood was the last time he did so, and he has since written in Gikuyu and Swahili.  He has led a fascinating life, including time as a prisoner of conscience, which you can get a taste of on Wiki.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Secondly, Jubilee by Shelley Harris (2011), set on the day of a street party to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, and also in 2007, where a 30 year reunion of the people captured in a famous photo of that day is planned. The photo featured Satish, the son of Ugandan refugees fleeing Idi Amin, sat amidst his white neighbours:

“Here he was after all, an Asian boy happy in his white-majority Buckinghamshire village, and posing only a minimal threat to house prices.”

For reasons of his own, Satish has no desire to recreate that day. In 2007 he is married to a woman he loves, has two children and a successful career as a paediatric cardiologist. He also has an escalating addiction to diazepam.  We know something awful happened to him on the day of the Jubilee, and by moving back and forth in time, Harris is able to show how the celebration built to crisis, and the fallout thirty years later. This is handled deftly, and didn’t get tiresome. Similarly, the period details are in abundance but not too heavily rammed home, possibly because the author is drawing on her lived experience as the daughter of 1970s immigrants to Britain, fleeing apartheid in South Africa.

“mushy peas; scampi; egg-and-bacon sandwiches; chips and mash and roasties – every iteration of the glorious potato; faggots; fry-ups; fish and chips; jelly and rice pudding; apple pie and Artic roll….He wondered what might happen if these were the only things he ate. Would it build up Britishness in him, all this English food? Would it drain his colour, sharpen his soccer skills, send him rushing into church?”

Satish encounters both casual ignorance and outright racist prejudice from his neighbours, and this is not shied away from but also not dwelt on, as young Satish does not dwell on these things. As adult readers, we know where the hatred can lead and its enduring effect on Satish, which lends the novel an underlying sense of menace.

 “What were they exactly? Indian? Ugandan? He had never been clear. But this was neither their country nor their culture, and no matter how many Union Jacks they raised, they would always be waving someone else’s flag.”

Depressingly, these attitudes do  not make the novel a period piece. There is a still need anti-racism marches, with Stand Up to Racism taking place this Saturday, on UN Anti-Racism Day.

Jubilee builds carefully towards its denouement, and shows the long-term damage that blind prejudice can inflict. It also shows how an act of hatred does not define either the perpetrator or the victim, and the power of forgiveness and reconciliation towards the events of our lives and the choices we make. I don’t know what it was about Jubilee that stopped me totally loving it, but it is a good read and effective evocation of a moment in time.

They look this happy because they’re yet to taste the Coronation chicken

To end, the cheesy earworm that was number one the week I was born. I’ve always thought my enduring love of sax solos came from Careless Whisper, but maybe this made an impact at a very impressionable age. All together now: ya-da-da-da-da….

“If you have the words, there’s always a chance that you’ll find the way.” (Seamus Heaney)

This is a contribution to Reading Ireland 2017 aka the Begorrathon, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Niall at Raging Fluff – do join in!

I’ve decided to make debut novels featuring a crime the theme of the post (the first choice isn’t quite a crime novel, hence that rather cumbersome explanation). It was with regret that I decided the following quote – so thematically apt – was too long to pick as a title:

“There are three states of legality in Irish law. There is all this stuff here under “That’s grand”; then it moves into “Ah, now, don’t push it”; and finally to “Right! You’re taking the piss.” And that’s where the police sweep in.” (Dara O’Briain)

Firstly, The Glorious Heresies, Lisa McInerney’s debut novel which won the Bailey’s Prize in 2016 (the 2017 longlist was announced yesterday). Set in Cork, it tells the story of Robbie O’Donvan’s death – an almost homeless drug addict who theoretically could disappear with few people noticing – and the fractures that radiate out across the city from this one act.

McInerney is interested in the members of society who are simultaneously vilified and ignored. So the people affected by Robbie’s death include a teenage drug dealer, his alcoholic father, their paedophile neighbour, Robbie’s prostitute girlfriend. If this sounds depressing, it really isn’t due to McInerney’s comic voice and eye for beauty where there should be none.

“The rain cleared off in the evening, Tony walked down to the off-licence and stood outside it like a child with tuppence to his name outside the toy shop. If he pressed his nose to the glass, he may well have been able to smell it. The heady warmth of the thought seeped through his hell and into his bones and lifted his onto his toes and rose off him like holy water off the devil’s shoulders.”

She doesn’t shy away from the reality of the situation, but presents it in a complex way, so Tony’s alcoholism is seen through his own eyes as self-medication for the pressures he is under, and we also shown the catastrophic impact this has on his son, Ryan. All the people in the novel are self-aware enough to know the damage they are doing to themselves and others but they are powerless to stop it:

“How could you be two people in five years? How could you undergo such a metamorphosis – whore to saint – and paint the slattern back over the scar tissue only a few short years later?”

McInerney manages to covey insight without ever sitting in judgement on her characters. This moment stood out for me as the tragedy of people who are in so much pain, yet unable to articulate to themselves or others:

“And for the beat before he wordlessly left her she grasped something of what he was trying to say, And that it might have been nice to have someone like him, someone who got it, someone who might have stood by her and bawled her out of it when she stepped out of line.”

The city of Cork is an additional, pervasive character in the novel, surrounding, influencing and directing all the other characters:

“Jimmy had watched the city long enough to know that it would right itself, sooner or later, and that the silence following Robbie O’Donovan’s death was just a long, caught breath”

“The city runs on macro, but what’s that, except the breathing, beating, swallowing, sweating agonies and ecstasies of a hundred thousand little lives?”

I haven’t mentioned much plot-wise regarding The Glorious Heresies, because to me this was the least interesting part of the novel (but still excellent).  How Robbie O’Donovan’s death is dealt with in practical terms is the bare bones of what McInerney is writing about. As a series of characters studies of people and their city, The Glorious Heresies is warm, affectionate, brutal, bleak and incisive.

Secondly, In the Woods by Tana French (2007), the first of her Dublin Murder Squad series, focussing on detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox as they investigate the murder of 12 year old Katy Devlin. I’m not a great one for crime novels but I was persuaded by Lady Fancifull to give French a try. I’m glad I did, but first I had to make it through an appallingly overwritten prologue; I have no idea what French’s editors were thinking, letting her start with a passage which includes a description of a forest thus:

“It’s silence is a pointillist conspiracy of a million tiny noises”

Having waded through such pretentious nonsense, I was rewarded with an accomplished debut crime novel. Rob Ryan is asked to investigate the murder of a child in his home town just outside Dublin, his superiors unaware that when he was twelve, he was found in the same woods as the victim, bloodied and amnesiac, with his two best friends lost forever. If this sounds a bit clichéd, French has fun with it:

“And I suppose, if I’m being honest, it appealed to both my ego and to my sense of the picturesque, the idea of carrying this strange charged secret through the case unsuspected. I suppose it felt, at the time, like the kind of thing that enigmatic Central Casting maverick would have done.”

Maverick coppery 101

As Rob and his partner Cassie investigate Katy’s murder, they discover family secrets and political conspiracies, but did these lead to the death of a twelve year old girl, excited to be going to ballet school?

“All these private, parallel dimensions, underlying such an innocuous little estate; all these self-contained worlds layered onto the same space. I thought of the dark strata of archaeology underfoot; of the fox outside my window, calling out to a city that barely overlapped with mine.”

In the Woods was a good read and filled with believable characters, which bodes well for the rest of the Dublin Murder Squad novels as French focusses on a different person each time. Some quibbles: it was too long and (I feel like I say this all the time) could have done with a heavier-handed edit. The voice of Rob Ryan sometimes felt distinctly feminine but at least he wasn’t an alpha-male detective type. This aside, French’s talent is evident and I’m sure she’s gone from strength to strength in her subsequent novels.

To end, the cop with the least convincing Irish accent of all time, but the performance still won an Oscar, because it’s Lord High Commander Sir Sean Connery 😀