A common theme in many Irish novels is emigration where new generations often go to settle in England or America, but not as many recent stories have been written about immigrants who come to Ireland. Ruth Gilligan’s new novel “Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan” is in part about a Jewish family from Lithuania who sail in 1901 expecting to arrive in New York City only to discover upon landing that they are in Ireland. And there they stay. The patriarch Moshe was a well-regarded playwright in his native region and strives to get his new play about a fifth province produced in Ireland. As there are four provinces in Ireland this refers to the literal translation of the Gaelic word for province which is fifth, but also an ideological space where cultural identity isn’t so rigidly defined. The meaning of this resonates throughout the novel which follows three distinct and engrossing stories over a century. Gradually these strands tie together to form a complex picture of Jewish life in Ireland.
Gilligan has an interesting and complex way of building a fascinatingly layered story. Moshe’s youngest daughter Ruth was only a young child when they first arrived in Ireland so feels thoroughly Irish and is determined to remain there. Shem is a mute teenager who has been admitted to a poorly run mental health facility by his parents in 1958. He’s made to share a room with the only other Jewish patient in the house: a cantankerous and legless man named Alfred who desperately wants his story to be recorded. In 2013, Aisling is an aspiring journalist from an Irish Catholic family who moved to London. When her partner Noah requests that she convert to Judaism she returns to her familiar Dublin family home for Christmas to contemplate this choice. The novel revolves between these three stories and builds in suspense as the reader discovers how each strand resolves itself and what the connections are between them. It also makes a larger statement about the attitudes towards the Jewish community in Ireland over the course of a century.
As a religious minority in the country, it's observed how levels of antisemitism vary from mild to extreme over time. For the Eastern European Jewish family who has long settled in Ireland it's observed “There had been other terms flung their way these past few years. ‘Bloodsuckers’ and ‘Moneylenders’. ‘Murderers’ too. ‘Jewtown’ the locals called their neighbourhood, though they claimed it was only an endearment.” In other instances a pelt of rashers are thrown on a Jewish doctor's car, “Kike” is shouted at a young man in a canteen and Catholic parents have a stony reaction to the news their daughter might convert to Judaism. Gilligan also recounts Zionist movements amongst the Irish Jewish population where established or native Jewish people would move to Israel. During WWII when a German bomb coincidentally falls on “Clanbrassil Street, right in the heart of Dublin's Little Jerusalem” there is a house which is perfectly split in two. This comes to symbolize the feeling of Jewish Irish identity – only ever half existing in the country. There is a prevailing sense that if you are Jewish in Ireland you are made to feel in a sense “other.” But the author builds a more complex sense of national identity and what it means to belong observing that “maybe we have all changed into something other by the end, whether we decide to or not.”
There are playful references to Ireland's literary history throughout the narrative where figures like James Joyce and Anne Enright loom large. School notebooks are covered with “a sketch of Martello Tower on the front as if to encourage every gobshite in the country to become the next James bloody Joyce.” Later a scene builds to a climax in imitation of Molly Bloom: “faster and faster, higher and higher until she felt. Herself. Say yes.” When Aisling is booking a flight to Dublin banner ads pop up for the novel “The Gathering” and the novel appears again when she's contemplating the state of being one who has left Ireland: “The various snippets of the annual rant in all its different forms, like how lucky they are to have escaped, but how bloody amazing it is to be home – The Gathering indeed – nostalgia and disdain all slurred into one, the emigrant's beautiful paradox.” This beautifully summarizes and adds meaning to the conflicted sense of national identity for people who have left their native country.
Gilligan has a talent for building highly dramatic scenes where images from the past are interspersed with dialogue. This is artfully done and adds meaningful depth to the action as it plays out. She also has a keen ability for descriptive detail such as this moment “I stirred my soup. The skin on the top puckered like an elbow” or when a character looks at the sky “Behind the flag the sky wore diamonds, a sparkle on black like a widow's throat.” These create a vivid picture in the reader's mind as well as setting the emotional mood in a way which is poignant and memorable. There are some moments when observations are made which powerfully resonate such as how “The silences a family is made up of, to try and protect one another; the silences which shove us apart.”
“Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan” is a deeply thoughtful novel. It's in turns dramatic, comic and heartbreaking making it highly readable. It poses challenging notions of how identity is commonly viewed in neat categories, but in reality who we are is much more complex than any one label. Legends and myths are passed down through generations making appearances in each part of the story where they find different resonance. In writing about what stories are remembered or forgotten over a century, Gilligan forms in this novel a powerful triptych of Ireland.