“Writing fiction is an act of almost unreasonable empathy.” (Donal Ryan)

This is my final contribution to Reading Ireland Month 2022 aka The Begorrathon, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books. It’s always a fantastic event and I’m so pleased to have taken part despite my reading and blogging capacity being very poor these days.

I’ve chosen two short novels that feature pretty unsympathetic protagonists. In both instances the writing was so good it kept me right alongside them, and maybe it’s the after-effects of covid (it probably is) but they both made me cry.

 Night Boat to Tangier (2019) is only 214 pages in my edition, with lots of dialogue and spaces on the page, yet it still manages to be a fully realised portrait of two men in middle age, coming to terms with regret.

Charlie and Maurice sit in the port of Algeciras looking for a young woman they expect to turn up there at some point:

“Two Irishmen sombre in the dark light of the terminal make gestures of long sufferance and woe – they are born to such gestures, and offer them easily.”

Quite quickly we realise that Charlie and Maurice are not to be messed with. They accost a young man named Benny and the threat they pose is both insidious and comic:

“The stories we could tell, Benny. Did you ever try and buy 350 goats off a fella in Marrakesh, did you?

On credit.

In a Cork accent.”

The narrative moves back and forth in time, and we learn how it is that these two men have ended up bound together, why one has a limp and the other a damaged eye, who the girl is they are looking for and how they made their money.

What I enjoyed was the affection the two men had for each other, as easily expressed as their violence.

“Is it me or was I something like a Matt Dillon-type in my younger days?

You were the bulb off him, Charlie. But come here.  Have you seen Mickey Rourke lately?

Think I saw him on the number eight going up MacCurtain Street. Top-right-hand seat, overhead the driver.

He’s after leaving himself go something shockin’.

He is, yeah. They nearly had to turf him off the number eight.”

That interaction reminded me of the easy, bordering surreal, dialogue in Roddy Doyle’s Two Pints novellas, but overall it was of Samuel Beckett that Night Boat put me in mind. The two males waiting for someone without knowing when they will arrive, the nihilism and humour, a sense of despair and endurance of hope…

But Night Boat is absolutely its own story. Barry brilliantly evokes the two men as they are in 2018 and as they were in the late 90s/early 00s, showing how their life choices caused such pressure that it took all their strength not to fracture irrevocably. Charlie and Maurice are not very commendable but neither are they one-dimensional baddies. They are deeply flawed and also deeply vulnerable.

Barry writes simply but also has some startling turns of phrase:

“Charlie’s smile is, of its own right, an enlivened thing. It travels the terminal as though disembodied from him. It leaves a woven lace of hysterical menace in its wake.”

To me Night Boat is ripe for adaptation, so I googled and apparently Michael Fassbender has acquired the rights. Intriguing…

“A troubled silence descends – the old times are shifting again; they are rearranging like faultlines.”

Secondly, All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan (2016). I only started reading Ryan a few years ago but he’s quickly become one of my favourite authors. He writes beautifully, but with a pared-back style, and he always demonstrates such compassionate understanding. I thought his quote about this quality was a suitable title for this post about questionable characters.

Melody Shee narrates the story, and she is not a sympathetic character, as she tells us from the off:

‘Martin Toppy is the son of a famous Traveller and the father of my unborn child. He’s seventeen, I’m thirty-three. I was his teacher. I’d have killed myself by now if I was brave enough.”

The novel follows Melody from twelve weeks of pregnancy through to giving birth, as she reflects on her adolescence and early marriage, her relationship with her parents and her history of appalling decision-making.

Her mother was probably depressed, although this is never said, and had a difficult relationship with Melody’s father, which Melody emulated to try and please her mother. She feels guilty about this now, as her father is possibly the nicest man ever:

“There’s no kindness in me. I can feel it, and think about it, but I can never act it, or be it, the way my father is, the way he’s selfless without effort, a man who has kindness in the marrow of his bones, a soul with barely a blemish.”

She married Pat, her childhood sweetheart, and they seem to have spent most of their time verbally destroying one another:

“The boy who’d grown to adulthood beside me, curled around me, stunting himself, stunting me, a twisted tangle of boughs, hunched and bowed and facing inwards.”

“We merged over time into one person, I think, and it’s easy to be cruel to oneself.”

The pregnancy due to another man is the final straw, and they break up, leaving Melody alone in the house, in a town where everyone knows each other’s business. She finds herself strongly drawn to Mary Crothery, a Traveller woman who, although she lives with her family, is somewhat ostracised from her community. As Melody teaches Mary to read, the two form a close bond, and it’s this that pushes the narrative forward as they both anticipate and cope with life-changing events.

Alongside the current day pregnancy and this relationship with Mary, Melody recalls the heart-breaking story of her childhood best friend, Breedie Flynn. While as a reader it is possible to see the cruelty of young adults who don’t comprehend the damage they are doing as unthinking, it is still an all too believable tragedy, and Melody’s intense guilt and grief don’t seem at all misplaced.

Ryan has made a brave choice in centring a woman who has wreaked so much damage on other people’s lives. But Melody isn’t remotely self-pitying or self-justifying, and in a wholly misguided way, she tries to do better. What I haven’t captured here is that she and Mary are both very funny. Melody literally screaming her frustrations at small town judgement and gossip, and Mary’s snarky asides lift the story and stop it being bleak. It’s not depressing, it’s human and messy and there’s sadness and cruelty and love.

I adore Donal Ryan’s writing and even if this story doesn’t appeal, I’d urge you to seek out his work. His writing is so sensitive and precise, and so readable.

“I’m frightened about what will reach my father’s ears, and how his heart will speed and slow in worry and fear, and how he’ll want to help but won’t know how, so will stand at the window, and watch the weather, and wait.”

To end, Cathy’s post about her favourite Irish films reminded me how much I love The Commitments and hadn’t watched it in years – something being stuck on the sofa with covid gave me a chance to remedy. Robert Arkins, who played Jimmy Rabbitte, sang a few songs on the soundtrack, but wasn’t shown singing in the film. I thought he did a great version of Slip Away, but I couldn’t find decent footage of that, so here he is singing Treat Her Right:

“Serious fiction is a dream which can become a nightmare.” (Brian Moore)

Thank you to everyone who left kind comments last week. Covid is dragging on with me but I do seem to be slowly improving – it’s not been great, despite my being tripled vaxxed (and very careful). I sincerely hope you all stay safe and well. Here is my second contribution to Reading Ireland Month 2022 aka The Begorrathon, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books. Do join in with the event if you can!

My choice this week was inspired by the Brian Moore at 100 readalong which Cathy also hosted throughout last year. I really wanted to join in, but my reading was pitiful. It’s not massively improved now to be honest, but it has improved enough that I was finally able to pick up this lovely hardback edition out of the TBR pile:

The only other Brian Moore I’ve read was The Colour of Blood, which I didn’t massively get on with. I didn’t dislike it, and I could tell it was really well written, but I just didn’t connect with it. All the Brian Moore love during last year’s event persuaded me to give him another try and I’m so glad I did. I Am Mary Dunne (1968) was an expertly written, engaging read and a complex character portrait.

We spend a day with the titular 32-year-old narrator, and it’s a bad day she’s having. A receptionist at her hairdressers asks for her name and she finds it escapes her. This sends her into a spiral of anxiety and reminiscences.

“When people say they remember everything that happened in their lives, they’re deceiving themselves. I mean if I were to try and tell anyone the story of my life so far, wouldn’t it come out as fragmentary and faded as those old snapshot albums, scrapbooks, and bundles of letters everyone keeps in some bottom drawer or other?”

She has been married three times, changing her name each time. With each of her husbands, escape seems to be motivating factor driving the marriage. She marries Jimmy in order to leave Canada and escape her home; she marries Hat to escape Jimmy; and she marries Tee because she wants to escape Hat, although with her third husband she also finds love and sexual satisfaction.

The narrative is fragmented, flicking back and forth between her past and present. We gradually piece together her life but Mary remains somewhat unknowable. Her husbands and her friend Janice – with whom she rows in restaurant – are more fully realised.  It’s a really clever piece of writing by Moore, where as readers we don’t get to know Mary despite the first-person narrative, because she doesn’t know herself.

“ ‘You’re an ingenue type.’ It was my acting epitaph, although I did not know it at the time. And in real life it’s no different. I play an ingenue role, with special shadings demanded by each suitor.”

Mary is attractive and Moore demonstrates how her physicality means people project their fantasies on to her. Because Mary is so obscure to herself, she easily gets lost in other people’s versions of her. She believes her first husband when he calls her insatiable, and she believes her second husband when he says she is a cold virgin. She accepts an older woman with a crush calling her Maria and attempting a Pygmalion scenario, and a full obliteration of her name through her third marriage “I am introduced to everyone as Mrs Terence Lavery”.

But Mary is not wholly sympathetic. She doesn’t always behave well, or kindly. She uses derogatory terms that I’m pretty sure would have been outdated and offensive in 1968. She sheds friends like she sheds identities. She changes people’s names too: Jimmy, Hat, and Tee are her husbands’ abbreviated names; the older Miss MacIver becomes Mackie. A man with a long-standing crush is amazed she doesn’t remember a nickname she gave him.

Mary refers frequently to an evil twin throughout the day, the part of her that behaves badly which she attributes to PMS. She says things she doesn’t mean and shakes uncontrollably. Part of the ambiguity around Mary is that by the end of the novel, I didn’t know if she was having a really bad day compounded by PMS (or PMDD); or whether she was seriously unwell. I did enjoy this bitchy thought that popped into her head about the portraits in her husband’s study:

“When I think of it, the arrogance of a man who could do the trivial work he does under the scrutiny of the likes of Tolstoy and Yeats. Proust gave up a world for his work. Terence wouldn’t even give up a party.”

I Am Mary Dunne sees the narrator having an existential crisis, fearing obliteration without any idea of who is being obliterated.

“I am beginning to die because some future me cannot keep me in mind.”

Yet I didn’t feel particularly hopeful by the end that the assertion in the novel’s title was any further realised than at the start of the story. It wasn’t a depressing tale, but Mary still seemed to have no idea of who she was. It was one of those stories that left me wondering what happened the next day, after the novel finished…

“I am no longer Mary Dunne, or Mary Phelan, or Mary Bell, or even Mary Lavery. I am a changeling who has changed too often and there are moments when I cannot find my way back.”

To end, a song about shifting identities by a master of reinvention:

“Idleness is an appendix to nobility.” (Robert Burton)

A little while ago I saw an epidemiologist on tv saying that eventually everyone will have had covid. And I thought, ‘no thank you all the same’, and carried on distancing as far as I could and wearing a mask. You can guess what’s happened, Reader. This post is brought to you from my covid-addled brain, apologies in advance if it’s even more waffly and incoherent than usual…

This is a contribution to Reading Ireland Month 2022 aka The Begorrathon, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books. It’s a great event so do join in if you can!

I’ve chosen two late novels by Molly Keane for this post and I really enjoyed revisiting this author who isn’t like anyone else. Her evocation of moneyed families in early twentieth-century Ireland is so deeply strange and disturbing, I always feel a sense of trepidation opening one of her stories…

Good Behaviour was published in 1981, when Keane had not published a novel for 29 years and nothing at all since the play Dazzling Prospect 20 years earlier. It was a huge success and shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It is a blistering, dark comedy of manners, perfectly paced and sharply observed.

It begins:

“Rose smelt the air, considering what she smelt; a miasma of unspoken criticism and disparagement fogged the air between us.”

I knew from that line that I’d love Good Behaviour, and now having finished the novel I can say it sets up the story and themes brilliantly: the domestic setting, sense of things rotting, the odd power dynamics, the uneasy roles, the undercurrents of anger.

Someone dies early on, in a way that leaves the reader uncertain as to how far they were nudged towards it, and this sense of not quite trusting that we are being given the full story continues as we are taken back in time by Aroon St Charles, daughter of an aristocratic family living in Temple Alice, a decaying pile, with her indifferent mother and philandering father.

“Behind him the green luminous gloom of glass within glass retreated inside the doors of a breakfront cabinet that filled one end of the dining room. Mummie had lined it with grey linen, so that all the glass objects floated and were lost in its spaces. It was like water or air at his back, as though the end wall were open to air or water. The austere outdoor look I knew had melted from him into the air, like the glass in the cupboard. Sitting there, he seemed extraordinarily dulled, dulled and happy.”

The novel is Aroon describing her childhood and early adulthood amongst the trappings of her class in 1920s Ireland. This being Keane, of course there is hunting and horses, but aside from a few pages where I thought the litany of dead animals was never going to end, it wasn’t too bad for squeamish readers such as myself.

Aroon does not fit in: she is not her adored brother Hubert; she is not physically adept; she is not charming and witty; and she is not beautiful. She enjoys food and is tall, in a time where women were expected to be flat-chested and dainty. She is not rich and so no men are interested in her. Her father likes her but is absent in various different ways throughout her life; her mother is at best indifferent to her but often mentally abusive.

“I turned away, my loneliness walking with me, taller than my own height as a shadow is tall – and irremediable as my height was.”

Aroon is a complex creation. At times I felt she couldn’t possibly be as naïve as her narration would have us believe. Did she really think the housekeeper was rubbing her father’s missing leg under the bedclothes to relieve phantom pain? Does she really not realise her brother is gay and his best friend is his lover? Does she really think she is concussed rather than completely sloshed? This isn’t me viewing it with twenty-first century eyes; other characters are perfectly aware of her father’s behaviour, the full extent of the housekeeper’s role, and her brother’s sexuality. They try to tell her but she doesn’t hear it and blunders on regardless.

Whether or not Aroon is an unreliable narrator or just hopelessly naïve, this characterisation is a master-stroke by Keane in balancing out the pitch black comedy of Good Behaviour. Aroon’s voice is so credulous, the novel written with such a light touch, that it means you whizz through the story without becoming hopelessly depressed at how grim Aroon’s situation is or how deeply unpleasant many of the people are. Good Behaviour is both eminently readable and deeply disturbing.

Queen Lear (also known as Loving and Giving, which I tell you so you don’t make the same mistake as me and end up blissfully unaware that you own two copies of the same novel) was published in 1988. Like Good Behaviour it features a female protagonist, Nicandra (named after her father’s favourite horse “the first Nicandra”), daughter of gentry, lonely and unhappy.

The story opens with eight-year-old Nicandra doing a round of the enormous home she lives in, visiting her parents and servants, barely tolerated by all. Again, the opening is lovely piece of scene-setting, telling the reader all we need to know about the characters and setting.

Nicandra’s mother is glamorous and engaging, and entirely uninterested in her daughter:

“When she was absent, the shadow of her presence was the assurance of a world of love. To earn her displeasure was to forgo all delight; through the days Nicandra devised love tokens, as much to stimulate interest towards herself as to express her deep affection.”

In one particularly unpleasant scene, Maman ties Nicandra to a chair, not to be released until she eats the cold spinach she hates. Her Aunt Tossie rescues her, much to Nicandra’s dismay, who was trying to psych herself up to eating the spinach and making this sacrifice for her mother.

In a novel full of selfish, unpleasant people, Aunt Tossie was the nearest I got to actually liking someone:

“She enjoyed nearly everything, even widow’s weeds, as her married life had not been as exciting as she might have wished”

That day, her mother runs off with one of the servants. She doesn’t say goodbye to her child, and no-one explains to Nicandra what has happened.

“Whatever it was that had come over her family today, Nicandra could not guess at. She had done her utmost to excite, please, soothe, serve; yet everything had gone awry. Pigeons, butterfly, bantams, Maman, Aunt Tossie – she had given her all to each, only Dada was left.”

From these inauspicious beginnings, the novel jumps forward to Nicandra as a young woman in the interwar years. Unsurprisingly, she has grown up naïve and desperate for love. She remains almost wilfully blind to everyone else’s relentless self-focus, to the extent where it’s hard to feel for her. She seems so determinedly oblivious as to be as self-obsessed as everyone else.  

There are also repeated references to her childhood bullying of Silly-Willie, a child on the estate who initially seems to have learning difficulties, expressed in the derogatory terms of the 1920s/1930s. Despite these prejudices, he grows up to essentially run the entire estate – albeit in a dilapidated condition due to Dada racing through money. Nicandra struggles with this arrangement as “a little incident” between them, buried in the past, is something she feels extremely uncomfortable about.

Nicandra of course falls for the first charming bounder to show her any interest, desperately seeking his love as she once did her mother’s, with about the same level of reciprocity.

“Although in manners bound, he held and played with her hand for the rest of the drive home, he felt he could have done instead with a nice talk about hunting.”

With very little else to occupy her, Nicandra marries Andrew. He enjoys her beauty and money, as well as an affair with her best friend Lal (this isn’t really a spoiler as the prospect is introduced almost simultaneously with the awful characters).

There are some very nasty elements for a novel titled Loving and Giving:  the bullying, and Andrew’s crass and cruel suggestion of how Nicandra should procure money from her family for an abortion (that she doesn’t want) “say it’s to drain the West Bog”. Repulsive.

What stops Loving and Giving from being absolutely relentlessly bleak in its portrayal of “cheap and amusing” lives where “tragedy gets tidied away” is the humour. We aren’t supposed to take these characters particularly seriously, or think that they are admirable or lead remotely useful lives. I particularly liked this pithy comment on the butler’s behaviour:

“the slight upwards twist he gave to the bottle took the place of the wry smile he would never allow himself to give”

And this observation on family politics:

“Properly speaking, Aunt Tossie should have presented Nicandra at court, which she would have greatly enjoyed doing. Dada, however, raised every obstacle and objection he could think of to baulk this plan because, as he put it, (only to himself), the dear old girl might feel her oats and something unfortunate could happen.”

Molly Keane is pretty blistering in her characterisation of the upper classes and in portraying the lives they live. Her novels are almost Gothic – certainly there are ruined buildings, hauntings from the past, almost ghoulish characters – but no supernatural elements. I enjoy her original phrasing and sharp observation, I even enjoy her awful characters (some of them anyway) when I’m in the right mood. I do find I need a palate cleanser afterwards though!

To end, a song about a family house, albeit a very different one to the those which Keane’s characters live in, and which provided the title of last week’s post:

“Sometimes me think, ‘What is friend?’ Then me say, ‘Friend is someone to share the last cookie with.’” (Cookie Monster)

This is a contribution to the wonderful #ReadIndies2 events hosted by Kaggsy and Lizzy.

The two books for this post were buried in my TBR, so I’ve put them together as they are linked by the theme of friendship.

Firstly, Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (2004 trans. Brian FitzGibbon 2013) published by Pushkin Press (which I thought was an indie, then panicked that it had been bought by Penguin, but which Lizzy has helpfully reassured me is definitely an indie!)

I really enjoyed Miss Iceland by this author so I was looking forward to this. Like Miss Iceland, this novel has a central female protagonist whose voice is bone dry, determinedly going her own way.

At the start of the novel, the unnamed narrator returns home to her husband after a meeting with her lover, one of her translation clients as she speaks 11 languages. She doesn’t seem especially attached to either man:

“After we had slept together for the first time, he looked surprised when I handed him the bill with the VAT clearly highlighted.”

Her husband announces he is leaving, to be with his pregnant girlfriend. This doesn’t seem like any great loss, given that as he’s going, he details her failure to live up to his ideals of womanhood:

“‘The amount of times I’ve prayed to God to ask him to make you buy a skirt suit.’

‘Wouldn’t it have been simpler just to ask me?’”

She moves to a new apartment but her wet blanket husband keeps turning up, so she starts daydreaming of foreign travel somewhere warm. However, her best friend Auður is pregnant with twins, and needs to stay in hospital for the late stages of the pregnancy. This means she finds herself driving round the Icelandic ring road which circles the whole island, with Auður’s son Tumi:

“a deaf four-year-old clairvoyant boy with poor eyesight and one leg three centimetres shorter than the other, which makes him limp when he is only wearing his socks.” 

There seems little worry that Tumi will miss any education, as his teacher demonstrates ableism, gender stereotyping and racism, all within a remarkably short conversation.

The plan is to travel east to a prefab cottage that she won in a lottery for the Association for the Deaf. This involves her returning homewards, and we get glimpses of her past which may explain some of her detachment, although things are never fully explained.

What follows is a road trip story – funded by her and Tumi winning another lottery, which they split 50/50 –  whereby the two meet a variety of characters. My personal favourite was the Estonian choir who kept turning up. There are also some lovers, as predicted by a clairvoyant at the start of the novel:

“three men in your life over a distance of 300 kilometres, three dead animals, three minor accidents or mishaps, although you aren’t necessarily directly involved in them, animals will be maimed, but the men and women will survive. However, it is clear three animals will die before you meet the man of your life.”

The animals: suffice to say there were passages I had to skip. But skipping those didn’t detract from the overall story at all so I would still recommend this novel, even if you share my sensitivities.

Tumi is a sweet, self-possessed boy “He always stands at the back of the group, avoiding conflict.” and I thought his relationship with the narrator was nicely evoked without sentimentalism.

Looking on goodreads, the reviews for this are a very mixed bag. My tolerance from whimsy is pretty high and I don’t mind things left unexplained, so I enjoyed this novel, and I do really like Ólafsdóttir’s detached female voices.

“A relationship for me is all about the right body and the right smell, the home is a shell for the body, not a place for exchanging existential views and having discussions. Even though you still have to load the washing machine and cook for the body.”

Secondly, Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession published by Bluemoose Books, an independent publisher based in Hebden Bridge, whose manifesto explains “At Bluemoose our aim is to publish cracking stories that engage and inspire.”

I tried to read L&HP back in the summer and totally failed, but it had a lot of positive reviews in the blogosphere and so I gave it another shot. Now my reading is recovering somewhat I zipped through it with ease, so I’m sure my earlier troubles were indicative of my reading slump and not Hession’s writing.

The titular friends are men around their mid-thirties, who are easily overlooked. Leonard is grieving his mother, who he lived with in the family home until she died, never moving out because they got on well and there was no reason to. I found this relationship very touching. So often parent/child relationships are dramatized as being full of unspoken judgements and resentments, and it was a pleasant change to see someone who loved his parent, but also liked and respected them.

“Had he the courage, Leonard would have spoken up and said that his mother looked after everyone in her life as though they were her garden birds: that is to say, with unconditional pleasure and generosity.”

Leonard’s grief is of the quiet, ordinary kind where you still get up and go to work every day, carrying a deep sadness with you. In other words, the type pretty much everyone experiences.

“Leonard took off his noise-cancelling society-repelling headphones and went to the kitchenette for a mid-morning cup, even though he always disliked the awkward wait for the water to boil and the prospect of kettle-related time-killing small talk.”

I am with you Leonard.

Hungry Paul – whose attributive adjective is never explained – still lives at home with his parents, happy to bumble along, working as a casual postman and seeing Leonard regularly for their boardgame nights.

“He had no interest in, or capacity for, mental chatter. He had no internal narrator. When he saw a dog he just saw a dog, without his mind adding that it should be on a lead or that its tongue was hanging out like a rasher.”

Paul’s quiet stillness comes into its own when his mother insists he join her as a volunteer hospital visitor. While his extrovert mother chats away happily with one patient, Paul becomes the only one another patient will tolerate “He sat there calmly, simply sharing the moment with the woman.”

Not very much happens in L&HP but there is enough plot to pull the reader along. Paul’s sister Grace is getting married; Leonard begins a tentative romance; Hungry Paul enters a competition at the Chamber of Commerce. Really though, the novel isn’t so much about what happens as providing a glimpse into ordinary, quiet lives, and showing how they are worthy of attention:

“Their friendship was not just one of convenience between two quiet, solitary men with few other options, it was a pact. A pact to resist the vortex of busyness and insensitivity that had engulfed the rest of the world. It was a pact of simplicity, which stood against the forces of competitiveness and noise.”

I found L&HP to be a paean to the kindness and the gentleness found in the everyday small gesture:

“She was a person for whom kindness was a very ordinary thing, who believed that the only acceptable excuse for not having a bird feeder in the back garden was that you had one in the front garden”

(Or in my case, because you live in a London flat and the management company have banned them because the rats feast on them ☹)

It’s not an overly worthy novel though, there is plenty of humour. No-one is put down, but the absurdities of people are gently ribbed, such as Leonard’s colleague “Okey dokey. This will take just one minutiae. Take a load off, compadre,’ said Greg, unable to complete one conventional sentence.”

As an introvert who despairs at the relentless noise of modern life (why do shops think blaring out music will entice you to spend more time and money there? Why are cinema volumes now kept at ear-bleeding decibel levels?!) and who firmly believes in the meaning of the everyday, I was definitely the target audience for L&HP. If this sounds like you too, then I think you’ll enjoy this novel.

“We live in an age of cacophony.  Everyone talking and thinking out loud, with no space or oxygen left for quiet statements and silence.”

To end, one of the best TV theme songs ever, all about being a friend:

Novella a Day in May 2020 #2

From a Low and Quiet Sea  – Donal Ryan (2018) 181 pages

Last year I read The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan for NADIM and was so impressed by his writing. From a Low and Quiet Sea has absolutely confirmed this view. He is such an understated, sensitive and evocative writer, he’s fast becoming a real favourite.

The story begins with Farouk, and his decision to take his family and leave his homeland after the political situation becomes intolerable.

“He’d measured the weights of his conflicting duties carefully, he’d told his friend in the letter, and he’d measured and measured again, and he’d mourned the time when such duties weren’t in conflict one against the other but were all part of a good life and all given to the same end, but this was now how the world was, and he was left with no choice to get his daughter and his wife to safety.”

Unfortunately Farouk’s story plays out in a way that we would expect from watching the news. Ryan shows the devastation of political violence for this family without ever being mawkish or sentimental. It is unquestionably a tragedy, and it is insane that such tragedy has become predictable. Farouk’s PTSD is captured with tenderness and compassion:

“And late one evening he walked from the camp to the water’s edge and he stood beneath the smirking moon and looked out across the sea, and he wondered at the stillness of it, as though its breath were held, as though it were too ashamed to reveal anything of itself to him, to admit the violence latent in it, to the things it held”

The narrative then shifts perspective to that of Lampy, a young man living with his mother and grandfather. He is nursing a broken heart after the love of his life goes off to Dublin to study at Trinity:

“Twenty-three years old, in the name of God, and still being babied. His mother would be twisting a tea-towel in her hands, back and forth, as though trying to wring some peace from it, some way of settling herself.”

Lampy is somewhat lost. He never knew his father and doesn’t quite fit in with his family at home. His mother and grandfather adore him but are cut from very different cloth:

“His grandfather was wicked; when he was in form his tongue could slice the world in two.”

Lampy’s story is ordinary, but in his own way he is quite desperate, and this is the power of his story. Ryan demonstrates the deep pain that can lie behind the people we meet every day, leading routine lives.

Finally, John is reflecting on his past: his family’s grief for a brother who died suddenly, the bullying of his younger brother, and his life of violence and disappointment.

“My little brother Henry, who came along behind us as an afterthought, a tiny, soundless incarnation of a short renaissance in my parents’ feelings for one another. He was always scared, his smallness and his way of slinking about unseen, inhabiting the background like a soft hiss of white noise behind the ceaseless hum and hubbub of life.”

John is not likable, and nor is he meant to be. It is his story, of a man that causes disruption and disintegration wherever he goes, that brings all three men together.

Its extraordinary that in a short novel split into the three parts, the characterisation of Farouk, Lampy and John is so well developed and fully realised. The way the strands tie together is believable and not at all clunky.

From a Low and Quiet Sea is a stunning novella, perfectly crafted and intelligently written. Unflinching yet beautiful.

“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…

Image from here

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):

“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 😀

 

“Deep-versed in books and shallow in himself.” (John Milton)

Well, Milton’s got my number. My shallowness extends to books themselves –against conventional wisdom, I definitely judge by the cover.  Thank goodness I do, otherwise whole publishing marketing teams would be out of business.  This week I’m hoping other people aren’t as shallow as me as I’m starting a new job and I hope they overlook whatever gibbering first impression I make to see the hard-working-team-playing-but-definitely-not-a jobsworth- and-will-never-steal-your-lunch-from-the-fridge colleague within.

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I was also thinking about first impressions and book covers following an interesting post by Lady Fancifull a few weeks back, about a marketing campaign which played on this exact bias.  Earlier in the year, I was persuaded by another blogger, Cathy at 746 books, to stop being so shallow when I won a book in her giveaway, encouraged by her great review, although its cover meant I would never have picked it up normally. So in this post I’m going to look at the book I was lucky enough to win, and a book whose cover would have attracted me even if I wasn’t already a fan of the author.

Firstly then, Fallen by Lia Mills (2014). Here’s the cover:

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Yuck, right? Curlicues – seriously? I would never have picked this up, thinking it looked like a fluffy romance, which is not my taste at all. But while there is a love affair in Fallen, it is not romanticised. Mills is interested in the fallout from war on both those who served and those who remained behind (often women) and how a generation of young people were irrevocably damaged.

Katie Crilly is living in Dublin in 1915 and trying to find her way in a world where she doesn’t know what she wants, except that she definitely doesn’t want what others expect of her. Then her twin brother Liam announces he’s off to join the war effort.

 “He went into his room and shut the door. The latch clicked like a scold’s tongue, made me wish I’d a more generous heart. The silence on the landing was so deep I heard my own pulse tick.”

Liam dies, and Katie has to cope with profound grief, and the fact that her grief is commonplace:

“We’d heard that, in the Dardanelles, many of the Dublins were put off their boats into water that was too deep for them. Pulled under by the weight of their packs, they drowned, while Turkish bullets and mortar fire tore into their comrades and churned the sea red. The gas unleashed at Ypres, around the time that Liam died, was still claiming lives two months later. Every second person on Sackville Street wore a black armband, or a cuff.”

While all this is happening, the Easter Rising explodes onto the already wrecked population of Dublin. Katie finds herself stranded in the home of friends who are also giving shelter to a wounded soldier, Hubie, who knew Liam. Hubie, his wounds visible and invisible, is furious at the ignorance of those who have remained at home. Katie does not turn her face away from the horrors of war and recognises in Hubie a fellow haunted soul:

 “If you love someone, and that person dies, all that love becomes a burden, a weight accumulating, pooling inside you, with nowhere to go. What do you do with it? … Sometimes it gathered itself into a shape, a shadow, peeled itself off the ground and attached itself to my heel. It followed me and spoke, in Liam’s voice”

Fallen is about an ordinary life caught up in exceptional circumstances. It is about how to find meaning in a world where national events dwarf the individual. Ultimately it is a hopeful book, about how a fractured self can be rebuilt, whole but wholly different.

And it is very much about Dublin: Mills evokes a strong sense of place and Fallen was a perfect choice for Two Cities One Book, in the centenary year of the Easter Rising.

“There was something raw about the morning, as though layers of the city’s skin had rubbed off during the night.”

Secondly, The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami (2005, tr. Allison Markin Powell, 2016). I was excited to read this as I’d loved Strange Weather in Tokyo and was disappointed that none of Kawakami’s other work had been translated into English. The Nakano Thrift Shop was translated this year and like Strange Weather, the cover features one of Natsumi Hayashi’s beautiful levitating photographs:

Gorgeous, no? The pictures really capture the vibrancy, unpredictability and humour of Kawakami’s writing.

In The Nakano Thrift Shop, Hitomi takes a job at the eponymous business, uncertain of what she wants from life and hoping that the job will be undemanding:

“With its second-hand goods (not antiques), Mr Nakano’s shop was literally filled to overflowing…Mr Nakano would raise the shop’s shutter and, with a cigarette between his lips, he’d arrange the goods intended to tempt customers outside the front of the store…Sometimes ash from his cigarette fell on the turtle paperweight’s back, and Mr Nakano roughly brushed it off with a corner of the black apron that he always wore”

The owner has several ex-wives and a mistress. Despite his unprepossessing appearance, Mr Nakano has irresistible charm:

“I’d heard the phrase ‘a boyish grin’, but Mr Nakano’s grin was decidedly middle-aged. There was something scruffy about it. And yet, at the same time, it was also a winning smile. I suppose it’s the kind of smile that women, as they age, can’t resist”

Hitomi, Nakano, his artist sister Masayo and the driver Takeo form an unlikely quartet as they are thrown together. And really, very little happens. These four idiosyncratic, wholly believable characters rub along together in their day-to-day lives of triumphs and tragedies, some larger than others, explored through different objects in the shop. Takeo and Hitomi begin a tentative, on-again-off-again relationship that was heart-breaking, real and funny in its tenderness, misunderstanding, affection and frustration:

“I would eat a diet rich in vegetables, seaweed, and legumes, and every day would be sparkling and bright, my life brimming with health and vitality. While imagining this, I was again filled with a general sort of sadness. I definitely wasn’t sad because I was thinking about Takeo. Definitely not.”

This is not the novel to read when you’re in the mood for a heavily plotted, eventful story. Yet Kawakami captures the drama of everyday lives and their meaning. Her writing can also be startling, so while it is concerned with the ordinary it is never banal:

“The skin on Saskiko’s cheeks was glowing with an inner light. Just like the bottom of the gin jug, they reflected a dusky and beautiful radiance.”

The Nakano Thrift Shop is touching and life-affirming, but never sentimental. Fingers crossed for further translations…

To end, some shameless objectification of someone whose outward appearance has been my idea of perfection since 1981: