I came to a funny realization when I was a large way through reading “The Woodcutter and His Family” by Frank McGuinness; this is a novel about James Joyce and his family. That should have been obvious. The thing is I don’t often read the descriptions on books. I prefer to plunge in. On the back of this novel, it first describes it as a story about a writer dying in Zurich in 1941. I only read these few sentences before starting the novel itself but if I’d continued I’d have noticed the name James Joyce. As it was, I started reading and continued on while only occasionally thinking that these people sound similar to James Joyce and his family. But although I've read Joyce’s major books, I know little about the famous author’s life beyond that he had poor eyesight, lived in Paris and had a daughter who suffered from mental illness. However, before I finished this novel I was listening to an Irish podcast called Bookish which is run by two booksellers. They mentioned this upcoming novel about James Joyce and it suddenly clicked that this was indeed who I was reading about. Obviously this cast the story in a more sensational light given Joyce’s rockstar status as the godfather of Irish literature and one of the great Modernist writers of the 20th century. But it didn’t change my feeling of it being a beautifully written, tender and psychologically-complex story of family life.
In recent years, there have been a number of novels which take the reader “inside” the lives of the 20th century’s most lauded writers including “Arctic Summer” by Damon Galgut, “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald” by Therese Anne Fowler, “The Master” by Colm Toibin and “Mansfield, A Novel” by C.K. Stead. But, rather than focusing solely on Joyce’s perspective, Frank McGuinness gives equal space in his novel to son Archie, wife Bertha and daughter Beatrice (named differently from Joyce's actual family) before plunging into James Joyce’s point of view. Of course, each of these family members is defined in their relation to the great writer and reference his impending death so there’s no doubt that he’s the central focus of this story. However, the meat of each family member’s tale delves more into their own personal obsessions and feelings about other family members. These show a touching respect for the problems that each individual faced and created a composite portrait of the wildly different takes on family history each member retains.
No doubt, a lot of Joyce fans will enjoy this personal and poetic take on the lives of James Joyce and his family members. In particular, in James’ section it delves into his notoriously luke-warm personal interactions with Proust. Joyce hilariously refers to Proust’s magnum opus as “Cooking for Phantoms.” But it also lingers on Joyce’s strong feelings about his parents and his conflict with Bertha over Beatrice’s treatment. The section from Beatrice’s perspective is particularly fascinating for the idiosyncratic and coded way she views the world. While I’m not sure the final story of Joyce’s artful depiction of their family life was necessary, it nevertheless provides a moving ending. More than its depiction of the great writer, this is a novel which gracefully encompasses so much of what makes Irish literature mesmerising. “The Woodcutter and His Family” is suffused with a bewitchingly morbid sense of humour and voices which insist on being heard.