“I feel more and more the time wasted that is not spent in Ireland.” (Lady Gregory)

Here’s a contribution to Reading Ireland Month 2018, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Raging Fluff. I hope to get a couple more in before the month is out 😊 Do join in!

These first 2 choices I picked pretty much at random, but they actually have a lot in common. Both published in the last few years and both set in the 1990s, documenting a young woman’s time at university. This was the era when I went away to uni for the first time (embarassingly there have been many times since, I am the eternal student) and both absolutely captured that period spot on. To help take us back, here’s a 1990s ad break – Levi adverts were huuuuge in the 90s and this was my favourite, probably because I like being in water:

On with books. Firstly, Tender by Belinda McKeon (2015) which I read after being convinced by Cathy’s excellent review. Told from the point of view of Catherine, Tender details her relationship with James, a funny, delightful man who bowls her over from the start:

“Everything about him was so lit up by this brilliant, glinting comedy”

Their friendship becomes very intense, very quickly. Catherine has arrived in Dublin having led a sheltered life where her every move is reported back to her parents by neighbours. James has just returned from Berlin, whereas Catherine has never been on a plane.

“She had never heard a boy talk so sincerely, so emotionally, before. She had actually squirmed, listening to him. If he had been joking, if he had been being ironic, that would have been one thing, but this was not irony, this was strange, unafraid openness.”

However, James is not quite as open as he first appears. While Catherine comes out of her shell at uni, having sex, drinking, having fun, she gradually realises that glittering James has a secret. It’s unlikely that any reader will be as naïve and inexperienced as Catherine, so I don’t think its much of a spoiler to say James is gay, and he eventually comes out to her. McKeon brilliantly captures how this announcement causes Catherine-as-she-used-to-be to hit against Catherine-as-she-is-becoming:

“Widen her eyes; force them full of brightness. Show none of the riot going on inside; the bafflement, the confusion with all its stupid roars and plumettings, the astonishment, the weird temptation to stare….Nothing was more urgent now than to keep all of this out, to keep her face soft with calm and with intelligence and with openness, the face of someone wiser, someone better, the face of someone that she wanted, so badly, to be.”

James’ struggles may have (thankfully) dated, but his hurt and pain are fresh:

“I watch everyone Catherine, I watch them live their lives, and I watch them meet the people they can love, and I watch them go on their dates, and take over sitting rooms to have sex with them, and I – what am I supposed to do?”

The real strength of the novel is how McKeon captures the vulnerability, confusion and intensity of young adult lives without losing older, cynical readers like me. Catherine is immature, selfish and behaves appallingly at one point. And yet I really felt for her. However misguided, however possessive and unreasonable she is, she’s a young woman struggling to find her way:

“She wanted the brilliant, funny, vibrant James, lit up with enjoyment, teeming with it, and she wanted him to be only her friend. She did not want him to love the others this much, to take such unbridled pleasure in their presence.”

Tender brilliantly captures a specific time in the 1990s – all the pop culture references brought it flooding back to me – and a time in people’s lives that transcends the specific circumstances. McKeon’s psychological observations are acute but the novel never falters under the weight of this. The characters with all their flaws, their brilliance and their mundanities, have really stayed with me. Tender is a  moving novel, recognisable and touching.

Secondly, The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride (2016). McBride’s first novel, A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, used stream of consciousness and struggled for years to find a publisher as it was seen as non-commercial. It went on to have gratifyingly huge success. This, her second novel, also breaks down language and syntax, but I thought it was a bit less deconstructed than her first, possibly more approachable. Eily arrives at drama school in London from Ireland, terrified and excited:

“Remember people are blind to under your skin or. Under my skin now.”

“All the speculative friendships I, jealous, observe. It’s just space but I have so much distance to make and this seems a wistful world.”

McBride’s style perfectly suits the overwhelming confusion of feelings that come with being young, in a new city and reeling from all the new experiences and opportunities that are landing at your feet.

“Sun of the morning. London day. The banjaxed exhuming themselves from doorways. Buses and music. Spivs and Goths. New Age Travellers and leather coats and too-tight jeans and diamond whites. Everywhere heaves of fighting in the streets. This is the finest city I think and, no matter how awkward or bloodily I am in it now.”

She meets Stephen, an actor 20 years her senior, and the two of them begin a relationship. It is a long time before it is articulated as such, and in the meantime there are misunderstandings, jealousies and horrible sex with other people. Eily and Stephen are both deeply damaged and McBride picks apart their individual pain and the loving, difficult relationship they create together with perfectly paced plotting and telling detail. It is a heavy-going story at times without doubt, but there is humour there too, such as Eily’s speculation as to Stephen’s dating life:

“They’ll speak interestingly of the Royal Court at some elegant restaurant where he’ll footsie her up. Then go back to her flat. Pet her Siamese cat and spend the night inside because he’s the type who knows what’s good for him – women who give men what they want. Not me, with a band-aid in the hook of my bra, unable even to fake it and no idea.”

The Lesser Bohemians is a love story, but absolutely not romanticised in any way. Eily and Stephen come from deeply disturbed backgrounds and they both keep messing up, frequently. They are also both likeable, and so much more than their pasts. They are trying to move forward into rewarding, fulfilling lives individually and together. They have found each other and they love each other.

“I’ve pushed my fingers right through his skin, caught hold of his ribs and must now fall with him.”

McBride is a stunning writer and she can craft sentences of breathtaking beauty. Anything by her is a must-read.

To end, when I first went to uni I only had a few CDs (yes kids, my music was stored on discs!), one of which was Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? by Limerick band The Cranberries, featuring the beautiful voice of lead singer Dolores O’Riordan, who sadly died this year:

“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!

ireland-month

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.

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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: