“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:

“It’s always funny until someone gets hurt. Then it’s just hilarious.” (Bill Hicks)

I try to post once a week, and failed totally to do so last week.  This means the post I planned on funny books, to coincide with Comic Relief , was oh-so-topical last week but now is about as current as Christmas.  What the hell, I won’t let my ineptitude deter me from my course.  I’ve written in a previous post about my friend H insisting on lending me light reads, this week I’m going to look at two more books H hopes will encourage me to relinquish my default solemnity and embrace the sunny side of life (particularly difficult here in the UK at the moment as Spring refuses to be sprung and it’s snowing. There’s even talk of a white Easter, which is so unnecessary). I’m concerned this post is self-defeating, because humour is so personal that whether or not I found something funny is really irrelevant as to whether anyone else finds it funny, but let’s crash onwards, and hopefully I’ll be able to give you an idea of whether you want to read the novels or not.  Probably I should stop thinking about it all so seriously!

Firstly Small World by David Lodge (1984, Penguin).  H lent this to me because I am one of those nerds unable to function in the real world so I keep holing up in universities, refusing to leave until I develop book-fanciers lung (which is a disease I think I’ve just invented) from hanging out in libraries the entire time. Well, everyone needs a life plan….  So, Small World is set amongst academia, and mainly derives its humour from its portrayal of vain, self-serving academics competing with each other for a Chair of literary criticism post that only exists virtually – they don’t have to do any work for it, deliver lectures, or even use an office.  This forms the background to series of conferences where the cast of characters intermingle, bitch, gossip and have sex with one another. The nearest character to a hero is Persse McGarrigle, a ridiculously idealistic post-graduate who has spent too much time in books and too little in the real world (I obviously have no idea what that’s like). His thesis is on Shakespeare’s influence on Eliot, then on a whim he tells his fellow academics that its actually about Eliot’s influence on Shakespeare, a preposterous notion which rather than ridiculing, they all get terribly excited about. And so the foibles of contemporary academia are astutely satirised.  I say contemporary because although it was written in 1984, the following sentence convinced me of its relevance:

“How gratifying to encounter, in the dreary desert of contemporary criticism, an exponent of that noble tradition of humane learning, of robust common sense and simple enjoyment of great books.”

Unlike references to long-deceased shop chains like Rumbelows and Sketchleys, and Persse being completely confused as to what a karaoke bar is, this part of the book doesn’t seem to have dated at all.  Much as I enjoy my study (and therefore keep returning to it), many is the time I’ve sat in tutorials wishing I could just state that I liked something, without placing it in its post-modern, post-feminist, post-post-post framework to deconstruct its meaning to the point where you start to doubt your own sanity and whether you even know what a book is.

I have to admit I didn’t love Small World, I thought it was clever rather than funny, and it didn’t really engage me, but if you are involved in any sort of academia I’m sure you will recognise the characters and university politics and derive a few wry smiles of recognition at the very least.

But as I planned for the blog to be celebratory rather critical (and keep getting knocked off this course by the books H lends me, I may have to stop reading them, or at least stop blogging about them) I would like to balance this out by flagging up that David Lodge is an insightful critic as well as a novelist, and I highly recommend his The Art of Fiction. Each chapter takes a topic around creating fiction and uses an example as a discussion point, for example Defamiliarisation in Charlotte Bronte, Intertextuality in Conrad, and so on.  It’s really accessible, readable way of beginning to explore ideas, written in a non-pretentious way that his characters in Small World would be incapable of.

But The Art of Fiction is not fiction itself, and so I return to my second choice of novel, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde (Hodder & Stoughton 2001). This was Fforde’s first novel featuring his heroine detective, Thursday Next.  If you think that’s a bad name pun, here are a few more: Millon De Floss; Jack Schitt; Landen Parke-Laine (a British monopoly pun “land on Park Lane” which perhaps doesn’t translate as well as the others) and many more.  As the pun Millon De Floss shows, this is a silly, fun book for literature lovers.  The Eyre of the title is Jane, and in an alternative 1985, Thursday has to defeat the evil Acheron Hades (great name) who is taking first editions of books and removing characters from them, causing all subsequent copies of the story to change.  Thursday pursues him into Jane Eyre (literally, she enters the story), where she has to stop him wiping out the heroine of one of her favourite novels without changing the story herself.  Things don’t go exactly to plan, but then Jane Eyre in Thursday’s world doesn’t have the ending we know and love….

The story is great fun, and if you love literature there are plenty of jokes to enjoy.  Thursday works as a literary detective, and this is a world where literature is taken very seriously. Teenagers swop Fielding cards:

““I’ll swop you one Sophia for an Amelia.”

“Piss off!” replied his friend indignantly.  “If you want Sophia you’re going to have to give me an Allworthy plus a Tom Jones, as well as the Amelia!”

His friend, realising the rarity of a Sophia, reluctantly agreed.”

The literary dedication of the populace continues into adulthood, such as when the Baconians, a group concerned with proving Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare, have their meeting fire-bombed by the radical splinter group, the New Marlovians.

The idea of characters being kidnapped from fiction works really well, as Fforde is able to use examples of characters that are abandoned by their authors to support the premise.  For example, Christopher Sly, the drunkard from the start of The Taming of the Shrew, has been found “wandering in a confused state just outside Warwick”.  He did disappear from the play, so maybe he was kidnapped in this world also?!

There is a feel of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy about The Eyre Affair and if you enjoy Douglas Adams I think you’ll enjoy this. It’s very clever but it’s not out to prove its own cleverness, and while it could have done with a slightly more heavy-handed editor in places, The Eyre Affair is a pacey, joyous tale about what happens when characters really come alive. And if H is reading this: success!  It made me laugh, my friend.

Here are the books doing their bit for Comic Relief by donning this year’s deelyboppers and red noses:

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