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The plot of “Night Boat to Tangier” isn’t what drew me to this book. Two aging Irish gangster wait at a Spanish port for a particular boat to arrive as they mull over the past and seek answers to what happened to one of their lost children named Dilly. Stories about gangsters usually put me off because many seem to revel in a kind of machismo that makes my eyes roll. But I enjoyed Kevin Barry’s previous novel “Beatlebone” so much that this is a writer I’ll eagerly follow no matter what subject he writes about. His writing feels quintessentially Irish. It plays with the meaning of language, draws sharp characterisations and evokes humour through a lot of dialogue, confidently navigates between the absurd and the alarmingly realistic, isn’t afraid of a dirty joke but also approaches life’s big questions with a lot of profundity, veers towards the melancholic and it lingers on the meaning of Irishness itself. Barry’s new novel even plays upon one of the greatest works of Irish literature of all time: Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’. It encompasses all this and a lot more while relating the story of Maurice and Charlie’s life as they sit on a bench in this strange liminal space.

I admire how poignantly Barry is able to construct a scene which contains a lot of funny discussion that’s also underpinned by more serious emotions which hang suspended in the background. He states how this works at one point when describing “They look into the distance. They send up their sighs. Their talk is a shield against feeling.” While long-term friends and colleagues Maurice and Charlie have a definite mission being at this Spanish port they also have a lot to discuss which hasn’t been said between them before. They sift through memories and jump between periods of the past to consider how they got to this point, the real value of all their drug smuggling escapades and how they’ve become so estranged from the people who matter the most to them. It’s a process of learning how to live with what they’ve lost rather than trying to forget it: “There comes a time when you just have to live among your ghosts. You keep the conversation going. Elsewise the broad field of the future opens out as nothing but a vast emptiness.”

The prospect of a novel which is largely a conversation that veers between topics like death and masturbation might sound too ponderous to many readers. But there’s a lot of tension in the story as their process of interrogating some people who pass through the port contains flashes of violence or the threat of violence. Many surprising revelations and twists in the plot occur as well while they consider periods of the past and how their relationship is much more complex than it first appears. I also enjoy how this foreign port is a location where they can consider their conflicted feelings of national identity. In some ways Ireland is a place they deeply resent: “Fucking Ireland. Its smiling fiends. Its speaking rocks. Its haunted fields. Its sea memory. Its wildness and strife. Its haunt of melancholy. The way that it closes in.” Yet, it’s also somewhere they’re fiercely attached to both in its people and its landscape contoured by a living past. The daughter Dilly takes the form of a new kind of global citizen still tethered to this vast Irishness which Maurice and Charlie wrestle with, but her radical self-creation is less likely to be crushed by its weight.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesKevin Barry
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Sally Rooney is a writer that stands out as the voice of young Ireland. The natural milieu of her characters are intellectual college educated women and men in their teens and twenties. From her first novel “Conversations with Friends” to her new Booker longlisted “Normal People” she presents their stories about grappling with relationships and finding a place in society with deceptively straightforward prose. While this runs the risk of appearing to have a parochial view of the world, it moreover reads as emotionally honest and engaging in a way that few writers can pull off. This new novel is the story of Marianne and Connell who come from very different socio-economic backgrounds. Connell's mother works as a cleaner at Marianne's family home. The differences in class seem an inconsequential part of their relationship at first, but as they get older it has more of an effect on how they connect to each other. The story charts the staggered journey of their bond from 2011 to 2015. You can read this novel for the insights it gives into modern life and the plight of a section of an emerging generation, but it's moreover a modern romance which meaningfully engages the reader in the characters' growth as individuals and tantalizes with the question: will they or won't they get together? 

Before I recently read this novel I went to literary event and bumped into the excellent writer Ruth Gilligan who remarked how it's not been remarked in many reviews how at its core “Normal People” works as a really gripping romance story. I wonder if literary critics are hesitant to acknowledge this fact out of a fear that Sally Rooney will appear like a less intellectual writer. It's something Rooney herself seems to grapple with as her character Connell discovers Jane Austen's novels and the pleasure of an old fashioned romance story. “Normal People” is really an updated version of “Pride and Prejudice” or “Emma” for the way it takes seriously the struggle to find a real emotional connection amidst societal influences. It asks questions such as to what degree does social perception factor into our private relationships? How does wealth and power influence our connection to each other? In what way are our current relationships hampered by the emotional baggage of our pasts? But these larger questions linger in the background without intruding upon the pleasures to be found in the plot of Rooney's story. Marianne and Connell's relationship is on a par with that of the great tortured romances in literature like Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler whose evident passion for each other is also stymied by circumstance and tragic misunderstanding. 

Rooney has a particular talent for writing about the quiet emotional core and inner conflicts of her characters without any flourishes or elaborate language. This struck me following the journey of her character Frances in “Conversations with Friends” and it's even more powerfully portrayed in Marianne whose complex toxic family situation is slowly revealed over the course of the novel. At one point she observes of Marianne that “She wants to tell him things. But it’s too late now, and anyway it has never done her good to tell anyone.” Rooney describes in this powerfully understated way how the most significant things are often left unsaid and how we hinder ourselves from forming lasting connections out of a fear of truly revealing ourselves. At the same time she shows how the nature of being dictates we are all locked in a struggle between our inner and outer realities: “In just a few weeks’ time Marianne will live with different people, and life will be different. But she herself will not be different. She'll be the same person, trapped in her own body. There's nowhere she can go that would free her from this. A different place, different people, what does that matter?”

It feels like Rooney is deeply suspicious of the elitism of some literary circles. At university avid reader Connell develops a desire to become a writer himself but he's wary that the apparent insights fiction appears to give might be false. As someone from a working class background he's especially cognizant of how class factors into who consumes literature. When attending a reading he observes: “It was culture as class performance, literature fetishised for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterwards feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about.” At the same time, literature is a method of creating a cultural dialogue that he still wants to participate in. But I wonder if this instance also gives an insight into why Rooney is so steadfast in writing about characters that are young, intelligent and Irish rather than imaginatively inhabiting the lives of people who are radically different from herself. I can't imagine Rooney writing about the plight of a Syrian refugee as Donal Ryan does in his accomplished novel “From a Low and Quiet Sea”. I imagine this would feel to her like an act for the sake of appearances and showily engaging in cultural dialogue. That's not to say Connell's feelings are necessarily her own, but that it's striking in the two novels Rooney has produced that she's stuck to writing about the lives and concerns of a limited set of people. This doesn't demonstrate a lack of imagination, but the conscious intent of a talented writer. 

Since Donal Ryan is also longlisted for the Booker prize, it also seems interesting to compare “Normal People” to another Irish longlisted title “Milkman” by Anna Burns. Rooney and Burns have very different styles of writing and focuses - “Normal People” is set in rural Ireland and Dublin while “Milkman” is set in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. But there's a striking coincidental parallel between the novels in that they both feature socially outcast female protagonists who read constantly to consciously escape their surroundings and develop relationships with men unwilling to label that relationship as committed. I don't know if this says anything significant about Ireland, modern social culture or the dynamic between men and women, but it's an interesting connection. While we can easily debate about the inherent worth of the Booker prize and the choices that the judges have made in their longlist this year, I enjoy how the prize has prompted me to read these new novels in close proximity to each other. But regardless of book prizes or literary culture in general, “Normal People” is a wonderfully engaging novel. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSally Rooney
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It's amazing when a novel can create such a strong sensory experience and all-encompassing atmosphere within its prose that you feel like you're imaginatively entrenched in this fictional world. There have been few books I've read in recent years that have done this as powerfully as Danny Denton's new novel “The Earlie King & The Kid in Yellow”. He describes a post-apocalyptic Ireland that experiences constant rain so that whole sections of the country begin sinking into the sea, the agricultural industry is destroyed and 92.46 per cent precipitation counts as the “thinnest and firmest in yonks. A bare tremble.” People can only witness the sun in videos, UV booths or sun rooms. One character keeps a slug as a pet. The seas are so polluted fish are poisonous and there are mutant green dolphins. There's an overwhelming sense of dampness and darkness and rot. Many pages of the novel are covered in sketches of rain and occasionally we're given sections from a play script which appears on the page like a water-soaked document. People in Dublin live in fear of a gang lord known as The Earlie King while the police look the other way. Believers flock to the West to worship a miracle statue of the Virgin that has foretold the end of the persistent downpour. Denton powerfully evokes this feeling of a drowning Ireland in order to dramatize a country in a state of crisis. In doing so he produces an immersive story as well as a striking commentary on institutional corruption and the information age.

In a way, it feels like this book has all the elements of a young adult novel. It's a kind-of post-apocalyptic fiction with an adolescent boy hero at its centre who seeks to undermine the oppressive powers that be. One of The Earlie King's underlings, a boy who is around 13 years old and wears a yellow rain jacket, plots to steal the King's granddaughter for reasons which only become apparent over the course of the narrative. But, like Sandra Newman's epic “The Country of Ice Cream Star”, this novel invents its own language rhythms and idioms in a highly sophisticated way. It's formed partly from current Irish dialect and partly from an invented slang to fit with a lingo appropriate to this dilapidated world. So rain jackets that must be worn constantly outside are known as “skins” and a form of television commonly watched is known as the TeleVisio. There are even invented alcoholic beverages and drugs which are frequently referred to. Meanwhile, The Kid in Yellow (whose true name we only discover towards the end) is a kind of repository of literature as he can recite from memory lines from Shakespeare, Goethe, Yates, Michael Hartnett and other poets. Although he doesn’t entirely understand the meaning of their lines, this language lives on through him as do numerous local fables. Storytelling is important throughout the novel, not least of all because (like Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”) the entire tale of “The Earlie King & The Kid in Yellow” is being told at some future point through the perspective of a local detective, “the last Irishman” who partially witnessed this catastrophic drama unfold.

A statue of the Virgin Mary stepping on a serpent foretells the end of the rain.

A statue of the Virgin Mary stepping on a serpent foretells the end of the rain.

Although we don’t see what the world has become in this future point where the primary tale has transformed into myth, it can be presumed that this new nation has moved beyond this gang-run society trapped in a glut of information. One of the themes Denton is preoccupied with is a current general belief that the information age will allow our society to progress to a state of peace and tranquillity. It’s as if we’ve been lulled into believing that the bounty of knowledge we can find through internet searches will allow us to achieve enlightenment. One character named Jeri has a theory that in seeking to know everything we discover that “knowledge didn’t produce an answer as to why we couldn’t find peace. Why we were here.” People find that they are just as confused, fragmented, discontent and alone as ever. Hence the constant rain is a kind of symbol for how clouded our vision remains despite this easy-access to knowledge: “There was so much in the world that was mysterious, all of it held just beyond the rain, or piped just beneath the city’s surfaces.” It becomes apparent that “This country is slowly disappearing. The whole world is falling to pieces. Time is accelerating and cracking apart, and after almost three thousand years of praying none of the organised religions has been able to stop that. None of the sciences either.” So the Kid in Yellow - as well as a vigilante arsonist, a local alcoholic mystic, a chronicler of the gang’s violence and a spectre known as Mister Violence – take steps to trigger a large-scale transformation to move society to a new stage.

Danny Denton is an invigorating and inventive debut author whose voice is a welcome addition to the chorus of new Irish writers making powerful statements about the current state of Ireland. It feels like a new wave in Irish fiction has been felt in full force since the property bubble burst and a financial crisis ensued after 2007. Writers such as Lisa McInerney, Lucy Caldwell, Gavin McCrea, Danielle McLaughlin, Colin Barrett, Gavin Corbett, Kevin Barry and Mike McCormack have creatively addressed different sides of the fallout of this economic downturn in their fiction which ranges from short stories to historical novels to more experimental prose. Now Denton has created a vision of the country which is struggling to find a way forward and seeks to find establish social systems which can represent and support all of its people – not just “the city’s rich or the city’s corrupt”. The original structure of his book frames this drama in such a fascinating way. But, most of all, “The Earlie King & The Kid in Yellow” is also a moving story of a tragic love affair and disillusioned youth.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDanny Denton
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I first read Henry James’ “The Portrait of a Lady” when I was in college, but reread it several years ago (one of the only “classics” I’ve ever reread) for a book club I was in. Part of me has always dreaded picking up a novel by Henry James because his style is so dry with complicated (albeit beautiful) sentences that demand a lot of concentration. On my second reading I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting James’ story about Isabel Archer who travels to Europe while batting away suitors, becomes an unexpected heiress and marries the wrong man. So I was fascinated to hear that one of Ireland’s greatest living writers John Banville wrote a sequel to James’ influential novel. “Mrs Osmond” picks up on Isabel’s story immediately after the end of “The Portrait of a Lady” where she’s gone to England to be beside her beloved dying cousin even though it’s against her husband Gilbert Osmond’s wishes. It’s entirely ambiguous in James’ novel whether she’ll return to her domineering husband, but Banville gives the answer in this story. But, more than resolving a plot point, this novel is a moving meditation on the meaning of personal independence.

Banville does something really clever and fun near the beginning of this novel. He writes about Isabel dining alone in London and how she becomes aware of a man across the room staring at her as if she were a portrait. Banville writes Henry James in to his story in this playful way and once she leaves the restaurant its like she’s been liberated from his authorial control: “It was as if she were an invalid making her feeble way over difficult terrain, who had found suddenly that a hand that had been sustaining her for so long she had ceased to notice its support had suddenly been withdrawn, leaving her to totter alone.” This is an ingenious post-modern trick as if the character has been granted independence - but, of course, it’s not really true because now James’ heroine has been absorbed into Banville’s artistic vision.

Nor does Banville try to liberate the story from James’ oracular style of writing which closely imitates The Master. His assimilation of James' manner of writing is an impressive feat, but also somewhat detracted from the experience for me. Banville’s typical prose are exquisite and, given the choice, I’d rather read a novel of his over Henry James. But this book is more James than Banville. When I read his last novel “The Blue Guitar” I noted how parts of it distinctly reminded me of Samuel Beckett; so although Banville is incredibly talented maybe he’s more like a talented mockingbird. However, I’m extremely glad I stuck with the density of prose in this novel for both the story twists and the way Banville expands Isabel’s character in a more dynamic way.

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Like in a Henry James novel, there is a scant amount of action in this story. Every journey Isabel takes and every meeting she has with someone is inevitably accompanied by the protagonist’s considerations about identity and society. As ponderous as these might become, there are real flashes of brilliance in some of these tangents ranging from thoughts about money “that must not be mentioned, that must be passed over in the strictest silence, if the necessary norms of civilised society were to be maintained and preserved intact” to the way we naively project ourselves into the people we fall in love with “What she saw was that it had not been Osmond she had fallen in love with, when she was young, but herself, through him. That was why he was no more to her now that a mirror, from the back of which so much of the paint had flaked and fallen away that it afforded only fragments of a reflection, indistinct and disjointed.”

Often where the story really shines are in the brief insights into Isabel’s character made by other characters particularly the rambunctious American journalist Henrietta Stackpole who remarks at one point “Oh, I know you, Isabel Archer. The most monstrous ghouls might parade before you,  clanking their chains and keening, and not a hair on your head will turn, but set you square in front of a looking-glass and you will start back from your own image with piercing cries of fright.” This is funny and there are some great bits of social humour in this novel especially in the way Isabel tries to awkwardly befriend her maid. But Henrietta also gets to the heart of Isabel’s real dilemma: not whether she should remain with her husband Gilbert Osmond or choose another suitor, but the degree to which she can escape the image she’s built of herself and pursue what she really wants in life. Banville provides some clever turns in the story which had me gripped to discover what happens. It takes a lot of courage to follow in Henry James’ footsteps and there are few writers such as Alan Hollinghurst and John Banville who are talented enough to do so.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJohn Banville
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It’s a challenging thing to write about ordinary modern life and daily interactions with friends without making it seem frivolous. Part of me was unsure what to feel about “Conversations with Friends” by Sally Rooney at first because so much of the story casually follows the lives of a group of relatively privileged friends. The novel is narrated from the perspective of introverted young poet and university student Frances. She and her performance poetry collaborator/ex-girlfriend Bobbi befriend journalist/photographer Melissa and her semi-famous/effortlessly handsome husband Nick. Frances describes her time with this group of people as they attend book/art gallery launches, parties or holidays in France – all while conversing about politics, popular culture and gossip about each other. In particular, the story focuses on Frances’ challenging affair with Nick and the effect this has upon everyone around them. The novel builds a subtle power as it traces the disconnect between what we say, how we act and what we’re really feeling. She shows how it usually takes time and distance to really understand the meaning of what we felt and our friends’ different positions. It’s striking the way Rooney captures the sense of alienation we can feel within friendships where we often struggle to converse about the things that really matter.

This novel reminded me somewhat of Belinda McKeon’s recent novel “Tender” about the tumultuous friendship/affair a woman named Catherine had with her primarily homosexual friend James during their university years. It also felt in some ways similar to Eimear McBride’s “The Lesser Bohemians” about a young woman’s heart-wrenching tryst with an older actor. All these novels meaningfully portray the voices of refreshingly new young female perspectives on modern Ireland, but use quite different styles and focus on very different ideas. While ostensibly about romance, these stories are about women who aren’t as interested in establishing a long-term partner or husband as relating to their sexual partners as friends. They also poignantly portray the realities of sex in new ways. As well as recording conversations, Rooney includes different kinds of text messages or emails some characters send to each other. It’s easy to read different things into the phrasing of these communications and it feels familiar how Frances spends time puzzling over their real meaning as well as composing, deleting or not responded to certain messages. It’s also poignant how Frances encounters real difficulties in her life such a painful medical condition, her father’s alcoholism and strained financial circumstances, but finds it difficult to confide these matters to her friends.

Something that struck me about this novel was the way Catherine quite often feels emotionally slighted by Nick, but seldom thinks to consider the feelings of her ex-girlfriend Bobbi and how this affair might be impacting her. It seems like we often default to a state of victimhood where we feel we’re not receiving the attention we believe we deserve yet don’t realize how emotionally neglectful we’re being about people close to us that we take for granted. This leads to a lot of darkly searching questions about the real meaning of friendship and its limitations which is something I’ve been thinking about a lot since also reading Lionel Shriver’s new novella “The Standing Chandelier” so recently. I really appreciated the way “Conversations with Friends” shows how we don’t often understand our own feelings until we’re confronted with trying to communicate them to someone close to us. It’s a challenging, ever-evolving process, but this novel movingly shows how it’s one which can help us to personally grow and connect to each other. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSally Rooney
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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.

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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.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Any tale that describes an American’s permanent move to the UK or Ireland will immediately grab my attention because of my connection to this experience. In Molly McCloskey’s novel “When Light is Like Water” Alice travels to Ireland to live and work there while she figures out what to do with her life. She ends up falling in love and setting there. It’s so difficult to resist the charms of Irish men! However, the majority of the novel relates an account of the dissolution of her marriage through an affair and her present life sorting through her emotionally-broken past. In doing so, McCloskey creates a powerful account of the complexities of Alice’s wayward love life and the difficult grief-laden process of moving forward when she’s lost the people who are closest to her.

The story of this novel is relatively simple, but the psychologically-insightful and evocative writing is what make this tale come vibrantly to life. McCloskey is highly attuned to relationships in communities, social groups and in romantic partnerships. She observes how "There is nothing like the presence of an outsider to heighten one's enjoyment of being an insider." This statement could readily be applied to a foreigner who enters a community or someone new that’s introduced to a circle of friends. It shows how our connections with others are reinforced by a kind of smug familiarity when an unknown entity enters the ring.

The primary focus is Alice’s affair with a man named Darragh and the emotional repercussions this causes on all sides. It’s presented as if this romantic betrayal was almost inevitable but the impact upon Alice and the way she processes it comes to her as a surprise: "I had always imagined adultery would feel shadowy and whispered, a world in black and white, all cobblestones and dripping eaves, but what it felt like was being always on the run, everything breathless and fractured and a little ridiculous." Rather than being caught up in the sensationalism of it, Alice is disarmed by how it’s exhausting and embarrassing having an affair. It tinges her retrospective account of her relationships with these two men with a special kind of melancholy as if this is an example of the inevitable solitary nature of life.

The author makes sharp observations about the way we are in some ways strangers within our own relationships. When describing her connection to her husband she states "there are currents that operate independently of us and of which we seem remarkably ignorant." When you’re part of a couple it so often feels like there is an energy to it which both participants are entirely unaware of as over time it moves between states of psychological/physical/sexual closeness and distance. Equally, the novel makes astute observations about the strangeness of encountering someone we once had a strong connection with: "Why is it that what we so often find on meeting someone we’ve loved seems not a residue or an after-image but a feeling more like foolishness?"

When reading this book I was strongly reminded of Anne Enright’s masterful novel “The Forgotten Waltz” which recounts a woman’s romance with a married man. Not only does Enright also dissect the moment by moment swings of emotion which accompany acts of infidelity, but she also shows how the Irish nation transforms in the background of her story. McCloskey does something similar as Alice witnesses the country change over a few decades. She observes how “Ireland at the end of the eighties often resembled was a place celebrating, insistently, its own collapse, and there was a certain dignity in that, a triumph even." and carries on through the early 2010s when the country experienced its ill-fated property boom. But McCloskey also casts her gaze further afield as Alice’s journalism takes her to Africa and her observations of society there make a sharp contrast to her impressions of Ireland.

“When Light is Like Water” is a deftly told story of painful heartache told as if looking through soiled panes of glass.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMolly McCloskey

Surely the Greek myth of warrior-king Agamemnon and his downfall must be the story of the most dysfunctional family in history. In his most recent novel “House of Names” Tóibín reenacts this dramatic tragedy, but doesn’t focus on the perspective of the great conqueror of Troy who horrifically sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to the gods in order to ensure his victory. Instead he flips between the accounts of Agamemnon’s scheming wife Clytemnestra, imperious daughter Electra and young son Orestes. Moving between their points of view he shows how their downfall is fuelled by their various ambitions and craven need for revenge. If you’re not familiar with the details of this myth I’d advise you not to search for their stories online prior to reading this novel (as I unfortunately did) or you’ll ruin the blood-soaked plot. However, the power of Tóibín’s invention isn’t in plotting out this ancient story (whose details he seems to mostly stay faithful to) but in how he vividly imagines the points of view of these more marginalized figures of the myth and letting their voices color the well-worn tale. 

It’s somewhat funny looking back to my last review of a Tóibín novel when I read “Nora Webster” a few years ago. In the first line I comment that “his stories seldom involve high drama.” It’s like the author took that challenge and recreated a story with nothing but wickedly sensational drama! Tóibín’s great talent has traditionally been in writing domestic dramas where nothing much happens but we feel the angst of the characters’ life decisions so intensely that their stories become utterly profound. However, in recent years, he’s changed his tactic by harkening back to classic tales to expand our understanding of these old stories and imbue them with a modern sensibility. This is what he did by taking on the daring and weighty task of writing “The Testament of Mary.” Strangely, this brief novel where the mother of Jesus gets to have her say had little impact on me - although I absolutely loved the staged monologue starring Fiona Shaw holding a live vulture! However, I was enthralled reading “House of Names” for both it’s fiery action and sensitive take on a family ripped apart amidst their power struggle.

Agamemnon mostly comes across as a blandly driven man who “was an image of pure will.” The real conflict exists with his wife and children who are understandably overwrought by emotions because of the heinous actions of their family members. It’s interesting how the stories of Clytemnestra and Electra turn to meditations on faith. They separately struggle with their belief in the gods and how the gods’ actions play upon human emotions. Clytemnestra considers how “they distracted us with mock conflicts, with the shout of life, they distracted us also with images of harmony, beauty, love… And when it ended, they shrugged. They no longer cared.” Whereas Electra thinks “Perhaps the gods keep the memory of death locked up in their store, jealously guarded. Instead, the gods release feelings that were once pure or sweet. Feelings that mattered once. They allow love to matter since love can do no harm to the dead.” Tóibín intensely portrays their struggle between being servants to the will of the gods and exerting their own willpower in changing the course of fate. The narrative also charts what seems to be a societal shift from a polytheistic civilization to one which is more atheistic – as well as a change from feudalism to one which isn’t so domineering towards serfs and slaves.

Pierre Narcisse Guerin's 1822 painting 'Clytemnestra and Agamemnon'

Pierre Narcisse Guerin's 1822 painting 'Clytemnestra and Agamemnon'

Probably the most sympathetic character in this drama is young Orestes who finds himself a pawn in his family’s scheming until he’s a bit older and takes things into his own hands. Strangely, his account is the only one which isn’t actually narrated in the first person. Like Madeline Miller’s beautiful novel “The Song of Achilles”, the character of Orestes allows Tóibín to highlight this character’s homosexuality (which is suggested in some versions of this myth, but which Tóibín makes overt). There’s no question that Orestes falls in love with a man in this story, but he’s unable to explore the romantic implications of this due to societal constraints. While it’s considered quite natural in this society for leaders to have late-night rendezvous with guards, these affairs are never carried out in domestic partnerships. Tóibín powerfully depicts the tragedy and isolation which results from this.

The most poignant aspect of “House of Names” is tied to its title. Amidst all the devastation and bloodshed in this society, people’s existence doesn’t end neatly with their deaths. Instead they literally carry on in ghost-like forms to haunt the spaces where the intense dramas of their lives occurred. The way in which Tóibín portrays this is unsettling and strange and much more subtle than the raucous and magnificently-rendered graveyard found in Saunders’ recent “Lincoln in the Bardo.” But while Tóibín’s characters are still alive they frequently emphasize and assert their names as if everything about their being is tied up in these monikers. If their names are lost or forgotten then they will be lost to history and this makes the characters question if their existence has any significance at all. Through this Tóibín meaningfully probes if it’s better to be remembered for your actions (whether heroic or hateful) or if living without notoriety and letting your name be forgotten is preferable. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesColm Toibin
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History must be filled with gay love stories whether they were lived in secret or in the open. Although literature and history books are filled with heterosexual love stories, few stories of same-sex couples have been passed down through generations. So I think one of the great opportunities of historical fiction can be to imagine the lives and stories which we have no record of and that have, most probably, been selectively left out of history. Recent novels such as “Hide” by Matthew Griffin and “A Place Called Winter” by Patrick Gale have meaningfully explored stories of long-term gay relationships and the unique challenges and opportunities they faced in their respective time periods. Sebastian Barry does the same in “Days Without End” with the story of an Irishman named Thomas McNulty who escapes the Irish famine to become a soldier in 19th century America where he meets another handsome soldier named John Cole. But Barry’s inspiration for this novel comes from a specific incident and takes a very unique slant on a historical gay relationship.

I saw Barry give a reading from this novel and he explained how some time ago he noticed that his son was becoming increasingly depressed. One day the son finally confessed to Barry and his wife that he’s gay and he experienced a lot of prejudice for this. So part of what Barry wanted to do in this story was imagine a time and place where his son could have a loving same-sex relationship, build a family and not have to live with the institutionalized prejudices of today’s society. This may seem contradictory when many Western countries have increasingly liberal laws about gay rights, but these values don’t always filter down into smaller communities - especially among teenagers. Barry feels that there were different kinds of opportunities for gay couples in mid-1800s America to live (if not entirely openly) more peacefully without today’s virulent prejudice. Of course, homosexuality wasn’t openly condoned and people faced many other life-threatening challenges during this politically turbulent time as he recounts in detail in the novel. Thomas states how “We were two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world.”

This is the first novel I’ve read by Sebastian Barry, but I understand it’s part of a group of books that deal with the McNulty family. It seems like a novel that can stand entirely independent on its own without having read the others. Thomas arrives in America without any connection to his relatives except for the memories of their slowly dying which haunts him later in the book. Here he must forge a future for himself entirely on his own and one of the few work opportunities available to a young man such as himself was to become a soldier in the US military. He’s sent to fight in the bloody battles of the Indian War and then later with the North during the American Civil War. The overwhelming impression of Thomas’ impassioned and vivid accounts of these conflicts is how they are populated by soldiers who are victims of their circumstances; they are fighting in wars not out of ideological convictions but because they have no other choice.

It’s particularly moving how Barry writes about the way Thomas is mindful of “the enemy.” He observes that “There’s no soldier don’t have a queer little spot in his wretched heart for his enemy; that’s just a fact. Maybe only on account of him being alive in the same place and the same time and we are all just customers of the same three-card trickster. Well, who knows the truth of it all.” Like all wars, the armies are filled with young men trapped in the conflicts of history. It’s easier for them to fight without conscience when the opposition is markedly different from them such as the Native Americans they fought against. However, Thomas takes a different perspective when battling against the armies of the South which were also in part made of young immigrants or the sons of immigrants: “It is not like running at Indians who are not your kind but it is running at a mirror of yourself. Those Johnny Rebs are Irish, English and all the rest.” Barry really movingly portrays the consciousness of this soldier caught in these battles who is in some fundamental way only killing other versions of himself.

The novel also gives a fascinating perspective on gender and sexuality. Hyper-masculine environments such as army camps and mining towns found improvised ways of providing men with romantic/erotic stimulation. Thomas and John join a sort of cabaret where they entertain audiences of men while dressed in drag. This allows for transformations to occur: “In Mr Noone’s hall you just was what you seemed. Acting ain’t no subterfuge-ing trickery. Strange magic changing things. You thinking along some lines and so you become that new thing.” There’s a kind of liberation in this where people aren’t constricted by traditional identity markers but can become what they want to be. It also provides crucial training for Thomas when later in the story he can utilize passing as a woman to disguise himself. Equally, it’s poignant how Thomas contemplates his own sexuality and feminine qualities where he considers these to be “Just a thing that’s in you and you can’t gainsay.” While the meaning of conflicts being fought in the battlefields remains ambiguous for Thomas, the conviction he and John feel about their desire and love for each other is certain.

History consists of a series of neatly organized dates. The American Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865 but you can’t begin to feel the experience by just reading this. One of the most powerful things about Costa Book Awards winner "Days Without End" is the extremely dramatic sense Barry gives to the soldier’s experience who doesn’t know when this conflict will end. For Thomas “World is just a passing parade of cruel moments and long drear stretches where nothing going on but chicory drinking and whisky and cards. No requirement for nothing else tucked in there. We’re strange people, soldiers stuck out in wars.” They are perpetually caught in an uncertain present. Barry writes strikingly about this sense a high-stakes moment with no end to it. The dramatic tension builds throughout the novel as the reader wonders if Thomas will have any future other than this.

Although I loved this novel, I retrospectively had some really strong feelings about the way the publisher presented and promoted it. You can watch my video discussing this here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=asWSOLCWKII

What place does art hold in our day to day lives? That's one of the questions at the centre of Sara Baume's second novel. Frankie is a twenty-five year old woman who has left her rented apartment in Dublin after studying art and working in a gallery. Finding it impossible to integrate into a working and social life as her uni friends have and concluding that “The world is wrong, and I am too small to fix it, too self-absorbed”, she retreats to her late grandmother's rural bungalow. She endeavours to create art on a daily basis and continuously quizzes herself finding thematic connections between incidents in her life and specific pieces of art. Her family come to visit and hover close by as they are concerned about her mental health. Frankie experiences depression and she becomes increasingly isolated because of her prickly demeanour. The author's debut novel “Spill Simmer Falter Wither” recounted the reclusive life of a man and his dog at the fringes of society. With this inventive and fascinating new novel Baume proves that she is the master of describing the intense poignancy of solitude within a noise-drenched world.

One of the things that makes Frankie so relatable is the way she internalizes snippets of recent news or things she sees in films. There are popular incidents from recent memory she notes such as published aerial photos of the last “uncontacted” tribe in the world and news of the Malaysia Airlines flight which disappeared. These incidents take on a special significance for her speaking to how she is disconnected from larger society. Also, she recounts watching Herzog's documentary Encounters at the End of the World which records the filmmaker's time with scientists in Antartica. There is a poignant moment towards the end of the film where a “deranged” penguin inexplicably wanders away from his colony to the mountains, isolation and death. Frankie seems to wonder if she is like this lone individual, an aberration of her civilization destined for loneliness. This reminded me strongly of Jessie Greengrass' short stories for their similar philosophical contemplation about the meaning of solitude within an icy landscape.

Each chapter recounts and reproduces the photographs Frankie takes in the countryside. She takes photos of dead birds and small mammals she encounters to reflect “the immense poignancy of how, in the course of ordinary life, we only get to look closely at the sublime once it has dropped to the ditch, once the maggots have already arrived at work.” It's somewhat shocking as a reader to be confronted with these photos of dead animals to consider their sentiment and macabre beauty. They are things which most people would turn away from if they encountered them on a ramble through nature. But Frankie sees significance in these and many other things she comes across, considering how they might be artistic expressions of deeper ideas about the state of existence.

It may sound like this novel is too ponderous or fixated on the grim facts of life, but there are also touches of dark humour that relieve it from being too bogged in seriousness. Frankie's perspective can turn surprisingly funny especially when she thinks about religion. At one time she recalls a priest she knew who seemed so “priestly” it was impossible to imagine him as human under his cassock and instead being like a Russian doll of clerical clothing. In another scene she gets her hair cut and reflects how the experience de-personalizes us: “Here in the hairdresser’s, we are all ill-defined, inchoate. We are all but ankles and shoes, wet necks and wet foreheads.” The usual conversational chatter the hairdresser tries to make is quickly rebuffed by Frankie. Her refusal to engage in social pleasantries often has a humorous effect for her brutal honesty when “people don’t like it when you say real things”, but it's also unsettling for how cruel she can be to a doctor at a mental health centre or to her own mother calling to wish her happy birthday.

Frankie sees in Van Gogh's  Wheatfield with Crows  "An angry, churning sky, tall yellow stalks, a grass-green and mud-brown path cutting through the stalks, tapering into the distance; a line made by walking."

Frankie sees in Van Gogh's Wheatfield with Crows "An angry, churning sky, tall yellow stalks, a grass-green and mud-brown path cutting through the stalks, tapering into the distance; a line made by walking."

There is something refreshingly inventive about Baume's writing which resists using traditional metaphors or descriptions. A pet peeve of mine is reading overused creative writing tricks that imbue objects with sensory feelings like calling a sponge “lemon yellow.” However, Baume describes a Christian leaflet that Frankie is given as “stomach-bile yellow” and a rising sun as a “a prickly auburn mound.” These meaningfully reflect her character's state of mind as well as showing a humorous contempt for trying to invoke pleasant imagery. Frankie also forthrightly declares herself outside the narrative of a novel or film stating “The weather doesn’t match my mood; the script never supplies itself, nor is the score composed to instruct my feelings, and there isn’t an audience.” This goes against the prevailing feeling of our age that we live our lives as if we're the stars of our own reality shows or that we're in a book or film where the sky is imbued with poetic descriptions and music accompanies the emotion of our encounters. Of course, ironically, Frankie can't escape the fact that she is a character in a novel: there are emotive descriptions of the sky and Frankie listens to Bjork on high volume while she's travelling.

Frankie's actions are extreme as she's experiencing a severe form of depression, but her thought process and inclinations are highly relatable. The decision to engage with or remove yourself from society is something many people wrestle with on a daily basis and we can shelter our inner being in a multitude of ways. The question of whether isolation is a more honest form of living or a surefire way to descend into madness is meaningfully explored in this novel and the recent novel “Beast” by Paul Kingsnorth. What's overwhelmingly touching about Frankie's view is her steadfast belief in the redeeming influence of art over any institutionalized belief system like psychiatry or religion. She feels “art remains the closest I have ever come to witnessing magic.” So she clings to this belief in the power of art to connect her to humanity and raise her out of the mire of existence no matter how deeply alone she becomes.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSara Baume
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Having read Boyne's heartrending novel “A History of Loneliness” a little over two years ago, I was extremely keen to read this new novel which is certainly his most ambitious publication thus far. At over six hundred pages “The Heart's Invisible Furies” follows the life of Cyril Avery from his dramatic birth in 1945 to 2015. It's a novel that's truly epic in scope as it incorporates significant moments in history from the 1966 IRA bombing of Nelson's Pillar in Dublin to the recent referendum to permit same-sex marriage in Ireland. Boyne captures climatic shifts in societal attitudes over this seventy year period. For those who experience Irish life from day to day and suffer terribly from the constrictive ideologies of its domineering institutions, it feels as if nothing will ever change. As one character puts it: “Ireland is a backward hole of a country run by vicious, evil-minded, sadistic priests and government so in thrall to the collar that it’s practically led around on a leash.” However, surveying the societal shifts over a full lifetime through Cyril's point of view, the reader is able to see how things do slowly change with time especially through brave individuals who make themselves heard.

The novel begins in 1945 when the local priest discovers that Cyril's sixteen year-old unmarried mother Catherine Goggin is pregnant. He publicly denounces her, physically throws her out of the church and orders her to leave their small farming town in West Cork. Inexperienced and nearly penniless, she bravely makes her way to Dublin where she decides to give Cyril up for adoption after giving birth to him. Cyril is raised in the home of Charles and Maude Avery who are two very different, charismatic and highly original characters. Charles is a wealthy and powerful businessman with many vices including gambling, womanizing and alcoholism. Maude is an irascible reclusive chain-smoking writer who produces a new novel every few years and delights in how few copies get sold “for she considered popularity in the bookshops to be vulgar.” In a hilariously memorable scene recounting her only public appearance, she reads her entire novel to the audience without stopping until everyone leaves the bookshop in exhaustion. Although these characters are an absolute delight to read about, they make frightful parents treating Cyril more as a lodger than a son and continuously reminding him that he's “not really an Avery.”

Each section of the novel leaps forward seven years showing Cyril’s development and struggles throughout his entire life. It’s speculated that our lives dramatically change in seven year periods of time. The philosopher and mystic Rudolf Steiner hypothesized that there are significant changes in human development in seven year cycles that are linked to the astrological chart. Scientists say that every cell in the human body is replaced every seven years meaning that biologically we become completely new human beings. One of the most touching things about “The Heart's Invisible Furies” and why it justifies its length is how it shows how orphaned Cyril is not limited to one set path in existence, but has multiple opportunities to grow and change over the course of his life. Sometimes he makes poor decisions and other times he realizes his full potential over these seven year strides. The priest who banished Catherine and her child borne out of wedlock condemned them to a life of shame and misery. Although they both periodically suffer throughout their lives, they survive and flourish. Their story is a great testament to how the human spirit overcomes the narrow-minded dictates of society.

Through Cyril’s perspective the novel gives a personal view of some the most horrific social and historic events in his lifetime including fatal homophobic beatings, a teenager kidnapped and mutilated by IRA members, concentration camp survivors, the sex trade in Amsterdam, the stigma of AIDS and its early epidemic in NYC and the September 11th attacks. These subjects are treated seriously and sensitively portrayed. However, the novel is nowhere as bleak as this list makes it sound. It’s often a very comic story with vibrant scenes and memorably idiosyncratic characters. Boyne uses a satirical wit and Dickensian social eye when writing about characters such as Mr Denby-Denby, a flamboyant civil servant, or Mary-Margaret Muffet, a conservative uptight Catholic girl, or Miss Anna Ambrosia who gets monthly visits from her “Auntie Jemima” and dismisses Edna O’Brien’s books as “pure filth.” These characters brilliantly reflect the social attitudes of their respective time periods and show up their ludicrous ingrained systems of belief. It’s moving how many characters reappear periodically throughout the years and Boyne shows how they either change or obstinately stick with their provincial points of view.

One of the most important aspects of the novel is Cyril’s homosexuality and the severe difficulty of growing up as a gay man in Ireland during his lifetime. Cyril develops an early love and lust for his boyhood friend Julian. But where heterosexual Julian can be flagrantly sexual and voracious in his female conquests, Cyril’s sexual experience is confined to cruising and he’s constantly terrified he’ll be found out. He feels an “overwhelming, insatiable and uncontrollable lust, a yearning that was as intense as my need for food and water but that, unlike those basic human needs, was always countered by the fear of discovery.” It forces him to make dishonest choices and romantically engage with women when he really longs for a relationship with a man. One of the greatest obstacles his character must overcome is learning to be honest about who he is, especially to people who will appreciate and value him regardless of his natural desires. Other gay characters in the novel have diverse ways of either concealing or expressing their homosexuality: “Ireland, a country where a homosexual, like a student priest, could easily hide their preferences by disguising them beneath the murky robes of a committed Catholic.”

Nelson's Pillar after the 1966 IRA bombing

Nelson's Pillar after the 1966 IRA bombing

Even as some gay characters begin to live quite openly in later years, Cyril struggles to freely express himself or confide in people he should trust. It’s touching how the long-lasting deleterious effects of being made to feel like an outcast or deviant in society manifest in the ways the characters relate to each other or shut each other out. It produces an overwhelming sense of isolation, something that Cyril recognizes when he encounters another character late in the novel: “It's as if she understood completely the condition of loneliness and how it undermines us all, forcing us to make choices that we know are wrong for us.” This movingly describes the way people who’ve been ostracised by society can hurt themselves and others. Yet, there are moments when characters can form a unique unity and bond over their estrangement when it’s acknowledged that “We're none of us normal. Not in this fucking country.”

The title of the novel comes from an observation that theorist Hannah Arendt made about W.H. Auden “that life had manifested the heart's invisible furies on his face.” It’s an apt way of describing this novel which is an intense, poignant and vivid account of a man’s hidden conflicts. His personal development fascinatingly coincides with that of his country. What’s especially impressive is the artful way that Boyne conveys an awareness of other characters’ inner struggles only through their action and dialogue. It makes for a convincing portrayal of a diverse social landscape with lots of dramatic and gripping scenes. It’s a breathtaking and memorable experience following Cyril’s expansive journey. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJohn Boyne
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There are two gripping mysteries at the centre of Emma Donoghue’s new novel “The Wonder”. An English nurse who trained under Florence Nightingale named Elizabeth “Lib” Wright is summoned on a special job to rural Ireland in the mid 1800s. Only during the journey does she discover that she’s charged to keep watch over a young Catholic girl Anna O’Donnell who claims to have subsisted for many months without any food. The girl, her family and the village believe she’s being kept alive purely through a divine power. This has made her a wonder that many devoted people make pilgrimages to see. Is this a religious miracle or a fraud? Lib’s job is not to make the girl eat but just to observe her to independently testify that she truly doesn’t consume anything. However, this nurse who served in the Crimean War has a troubled hidden past of her own: “Everybody was a repository of secrets.” When her atheist views clash severely with this deeply-religious village, great conflict ensues. This highly intriguing atmospheric story intelligently shows a clash between new and old world sensibilities, the complicated nature of religious belief and the malleable nature of identity.

Hanging over this novel is the Great Famine in Ireland which had ended only recently in the early 1850s. The girl’s refusal of any food and gradual wasting away is a grim reminder of the near quarter of the country’s population who unwillingly perished. Lib is well aware of this enormous loss so it’s even more baffling to her that a girl would deny herself food and that her family/community/priest would support her decision. Lib’s opinion of the Irish falls as she spends time in the rural village and observes their customs. Not only are there intricate old-fashioned religious practices which sometimes elevates after-life glory over mortal wellbeing, but she shows contempt for their customs/manner of living, homes made of mud and unpalatable griddle cakes. It leads her to generalize “What a rabble, the Irish. Shiftless, thriftless, hopeless, hapless, always brooding over past wrongs. Their tracks going nowhere, their trees hung with putrid rags.” Her increasing bias throws into question who the reader should morally side with. However, an intelligent reporter from Dublin named William Byrne who is also a believer adds a bridge between this clash in national identity.

Donoghue includes a rich amount of period detail that makes this story richly alive. Not only are there compelling descriptions of the customs of village life in Ireland from this time, but also details about the nursing profession and medical practices. Many local physicians’ methodology was steeped as much in religious or misguided evolutionary beliefs as in hard therapeutic facts. Lib represents a newfound approach to medical care with a more rounded view of ways to support the afflicted: “what nobody understood: saving lives often came down to getting a latrine pipe unplugged.” This leads to a fascinating portrait of changing sensibilities within this time period. Donoghue also strikingly shows the subversive way people with misogynistic views could be manipulated through the way they underestimate women.

As in her well-known novel “Room”, the author shows a respect for the canniness and resilience of children. Donoghue remarks at one point “Like small gods, children formed their miniature worlds out of clay, or even just words. To them, the truth was never simple.” Rather than a pious simpleton, young Anna is gradually revealed to be a fascinating character with complex motives. The novel gains a swift momentum as the truth about both Anna and her vigilant watching nurse Lib are revealed. Donoghue explains in her author’s note how this novel was inspired by multiple cases over the centuries of fasting girls who reportedly survived for long periods of time without food. She has a great talent for condensing multiple instances of an irregular social phenomenon into a story that says something meaningful about our culture and the nature of being. “The Wonder” is a finely-crafted and emotionally-charged story.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesEmma Donoghue

Every family has their own social rules and ways of communicating with each other. Often things are left unsaid or hidden, but the way each family works around these areas of silence is unique. As a terminally ill man only in his 30s, Patrick is at a stage where he doesn’t need to mince his words. He’s laid up in a hospital where the nurses quietly recognize he’s close to death. When family members such as his mother Sarah, his sister Margaret or her husband Robert come to visit he makes it very clear whether they are wanted or not. The novel is framed around the mystery of a missing local girl and her mother’s subsequent suicide. However, the majority of this novel is concerned with the different points of view of this Northern Irish family through three generations, how the Troubles impacted them personally and patterns of abuse which trickle down their bloodline. It shows how at this crucial stage in his life Patrick chooses to be radically honest. This novel artfully gets at the subtleties of family life: what’s left unspoken and the impact this has on relations over time.

Whenever a painting is described in a novel I’m reading I like to go on a pilgrimage to actually view this work of art myself whenever possible. This happened when I read Ali Smith’s novel “How to be Both” which led me to The National Gallery to see a painting by Francesco del Cossa. In “Inch Levels” there is an emotional confrontation between Patrick and his sister Margaret when he’s visiting her in London and they take a trip to Tate Britain. Here they see Pegwell Bay, a 19th century painting by William Dyce. So I went to see this painting for myself one morning. It feels significant to this novel for the way the painter portrays a family on a seaside trip engaged in their own activities. Many scenes in the novel (including a trip to a coastal area that gives this book its title) are described in a similar way where each member of the family is entirely consumed in their own world of emotion and aren’t able to connect with the family members around them. It’s haunting the way the painting suggests a family that is unified in their activity, but psychologically distant from one another.

A crucial character at the centre of this novel is a woman named Cassie. She’s an orphan who enters the family when Sarah was a girl and her mother died. Rather than find a new wife to help keep up his household, her father chooses to take in this girl who is described as simplistic and may suffer from some form of autism. She forms a crucial kind of centre for the family and sometimes becomes a confidant for the things which the rest of the family can’t confess to one another. There are also some wonderful touches of humour she brings – such as a scene when Margaret and Patrick are children stealing from the kitchen’s treat jar (which are treats meant for a pet). It’s interesting the way she offers a perspective on the family to the reader – even if she doesn’t often make her opinions known to those around her.

with William Dyce's painting Pegwell Bay at Tate Britain

with William Dyce's painting Pegwell Bay at Tate Britain

The changing political climate of the country serves as a backdrop for several parts of the novel. Sometimes characters are direct witnesses to conflict such as the Bogside Massacre and other times larger events make little personal impact such as a scene of national independence where Sarah finds “Her mind strayed from history: she worried about the stew Cassie had made and left for tea; gone too long and it would dry up.” Hegarty is skilful in the way he describes these larger events being absorbed into every day life such as frequently bombings where it’s felt “It was abnormal and it was normal, all at the same time.” It gives a powerful sense of the way we are both connected to and outside of the history we inhabit.

“Inch Levels” is a novel which becomes quietly absorbing over time as the intricacies of this family’s life and their relationships become clear. Rather than create scenes of high drama, Hegarty conveys deep levels of emotion through what is left unsaid and unacknowledged in the cramped parameters of family life.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNeil Hegarty

It was reported on RTE at the beginning of this month that the number of homeless families in Dublin has surpassed 1000 and the number of homeless individuals totals over 5000. The property crash in 2007 created an economic strain on the country which is still being felt today with many people being rendered homeless primarily because rental prices are rising to an unaffordable degree. Writer Kerrie O'Brien has witnessed the increasing amount of people living on the street in Dublin for years. She decided to take action raising money for Simon Communities, one of Ireland's leading homeless charities, by creating and editing the beautiful anthology “Looking at the Stars” which features fiction, poetry and nonfiction by some of Ireland's leading writers. All the money earned from selling this book is going to the Rough Sleeper Team at the Dublin Simon Community.

This writing gives a dynamic look at the condition of homelessness – from inside perspectives of children, families and individuals left without anywhere to live to people working on the front lines assisting those in need to ordinary citizens who witness its effects only peripherally. Not all the writing deals directly with homelessness, but considers different angles of loss, empathy or hope. There are several moving and thoughtful accounts written by people who have experienced homelessness themselves. A piece by Tara Flynn creatively addresses issues of safety and security. Some of the fiction gives vivid depictions of people in need. A mother and her baby are scammed out of money in Sarah Bannan's 'Because Privacy'. The story 'Louise' by Belinda McKeon gives voice to an eleven year old girl living with her family in emergency shelter at a hotel where she must learn the restrictive rules and policies which make them into second class citizens. Whereas Donal Ryan's 'Detached' shows a man trying to care for his family and explain to his children why their house now belongs to an American bank even though it will be left vacant. One of the most vivid accounts of the grimy harsh reality of homelessness comes in Sinéad Gleeson's 'Counting Bridges' which makes you feel the bitter chill and continuous humiliation of living on the street.

Anyone who has spent time in a city encounters homelessness in some form and it always creates a personal dilemma. You can reach out to someone obviously in need by offering some form of support or walk past them. Poetry by Afric McGlinchey confronts this awkward question. Mary O'Donnell considers how the homeless can become merely “shapes” to us. Although we have statistics about homelessness we never know how many people are truly in need because they might not be counted in these collated numbers. Madeline D’Arcy presents the story ‘Census’ about a boy who has gone off the grid, but ironically finds himself being counted anyway. Meanwhile, Jane Casey's tense story ‘Runaways’ shows girls whose home lives have become untenable and embark on an unknown journey. Similarly the protagonist of Danielle McLaughlin's ‘The Woman in the Bowl’ can no endure her home life so takes drastic and much darker action.

More troubling to consider are people in need who are understandably tempestuous from the considerable strain they live under. Colin Barrett presents an intense inner view of an irascible character's thought process when he's plagued by feelings of isolation and feels disconnected from others. Nuala O'Connor's story 'Eulogy' considers the problematic life of a woman who can no longer be saved. Similarly, Jaki McCarrick gives us the point of view of a character who only witnesses the aftermath of a troubled individual's life and recognises how “this sensation of life being weirdly 'alien' must worsen, deepen” when someone is plagued by mental illness or absolute poverty. Dermot Bolger's striking poem considers a more complex meaning for the word home whereas Patrick Cotter's inventive poem 'The View' gives an entirely different perspective.

Issues of faith come up in several pieces in this book. Stephen James Smith's poem ‘Relit Flame’ shows a faithless person seeking solace in a church because he/she has nowhere else to go. Similarly, Mary O'Malley finds that “Habit takes you to an empty church”. In 'Jamie' by Christopher McCaffrey the issue of extreme faith is considered from the perspective of a person who can't stop himself from helping the homeless. The story '1988, Sabina' by Kevin Barry shows how an ordinary object like leather police boots can become something sacred when it takes on a historic and symbolic personal significance.

In a society where the division between the rich and poor is widening it's shocking to consider how ostentatious wealth can sit so smugly alongside cruel poverty. Gerard Smyth looks at the way prized horses receive much better treatment than people in 'The Horses of Kildare'. Anne Enright writes a story about absolute resistance in the face of these untenable gaps in society. Rick O'Shea considers the reality of the situation by looking at developments on a particular street in his piece 'Molesworth Street' where he recognises “We're living in a time where things are going to get harder for those on the margins, not easier.”

It's heartening to see writers take direct action not only be creating an anthology whose profits will go to combat homelessness, but which also make readers consider the issue from so many points of view. As Kerrie O'Brien writes in her introduction “Our government is not doing enough for homelessness – so maybe we all need to do something as individuals – be it a gig, a bake sale, a sponsored run, anything.” Buying this book is certainly a good place to start and reading it will leave you enriched and inspired. You can find out more about this anthology, the Dublin Simon Community and where to purchase the book here: http://www.lookingatthestars.ie/

Over my winter holiday last year I read the anthology “The Long Gaze Back” and was enraptured by the quality of writing included. This book helped me discover writers such as Lisa McInerney, Maeve Brennan, Anakana Schofield and Lucy Caldwell whose books I’ve gone on to read and enjoy over the course of this year. But, as well as being a group of engaging stories in themselves, this anthology served as a self conscious attempt to give a necessary platform to Irish women writers in a canon dominated by male voices. Editor Sinéad Gleeson has now brought together a second volume “The Glass Shore” which only includes women writers from the North of Ireland. It’s a diverse array of fascinating short stories from over two centuries of writing that represent a plethora of authors from this region. It was wonderful reading this anthology from start to finish as I was treated to a wide variety of excellent stories with varying styles and subject matter. But I also gained a sense of the progressing ideas and issues female writers from Northern Ireland have dealt with in their fiction over time. The act of reading the stories in “The Glass Shore” together builds a cumulative mental portrait of this country from a variety of strong female points of view.

A beautiful arch is created from the first story to the last. The book begins with a fable-like story 'The Mystery of Ora' by Rosa Mulholland where a traveller comes upon a remote house with an astronomer who keeps a beautiful woman confined there. In the exuberantly enjoyable final story of the collection by Roisín O'Donnell there is also a spark of the supernatural; 'The Seventh Man' is about a woman who weds men over the centuries to sap them of their energy to keep herself alive. It’s a fitting way to end this collection which includes many female characters that demonstration inventive ways of eluding society’s conventional expectations for how women should live. In ‘An Idealist’ by Erminda Renoult Esler a woman recalls an incident in her life when she was sharply belittled by her sister only to grow to become a respected writer. Margaret Barrington’s majestic story ‘Village without Men…’ is a complex depiction of a community of women who have lost all their men to a ship wreck leading them to carry on entirely independently. Whereas 'The Devil's Gift' by Frances Molloy presents a girl from a large family who tries to join a nunnery but finds this community of women far from welcoming. By contrast, Lucy Caldwell’s heart-wrenching story ‘Mayday’ is told from the point of view of a girl at university trying to illegally deal with an unwanted pregnancy. When she contemplates the responsibility of the man who got her pregnant she reasons “It should be his problem too, but it just isn't, the world doesn't work like that.” Considering that the issue of abortion in Northern Ireland has been hotly debated in recent times, the story of this young woman’s precarious state feels especially relevant.

There are a large amount of vivid female characters in the stories, but there are also several stories narrated by male characters and consider many different aspects of masculinity. Ethna Carbery’s creepy and emotionally-compelling ‘The Coming of Maire Ban’ shows a man on All Soul’s Night hoping for a visit from his wife who died in childbirth. He’s accompanied by a friend who also loved his wife and through the night he comes to a realization about the reality of their relationship. Caroline Blackwood’s alternately hilarious and tragic story ‘Taft’s Wife’ is written from the point of view of a male social worker reuniting society woman Mrs Ripstone with the boy who she gave up for adoption. He remarks that “She had an unpleasantly over-ladylike accent that masked some coarser, underlying accent with unmelodious results.” Mrs Ripstone's increasingly flirtatious/superficial manner with him and dismissal of her son conceals the way she’s felt compelled to construct an identity and life which doesn’t include the reality of her child. ‘The Girls’ by Janet McNeill focuses on the views of a man taken to a tedious dinner reuniting his wife with her old friends and the way this forms a communion with our past and present selves. Sheila Llewellyn’s 'Capering Penguins' sees its male narrator return from war to visit the bookshop whose titles have an entirely different meaning for him now that he’s experienced the bitter consequences of battle. This creates a crisis within him which drives him to take shocking action.

Political conflict enters into the narratives much more as the stories progress through time and the bitter consequences of The Troubles affect the writers and their characters. Mary Beckett’s enigmatic story ‘Flags and Emblems’ shows the power of symbols in a community with sharp Unionist/Loyalist divides. The tense mood is so pervasive it feels like it influences the physical environment itself as in this poetic line: “The distant, lipping whisper on the sand and the sucking puffs of little breezes from the hills taunted her with their lack of violence.” There is a different slant taken on symbols in 'Cornucopia' by Anne Devlin where her narrator becomes a scholar working in Germany far from her Irish roots. The main character of Linda Anderson’s evocative story 'The Turn' has also left her homeland and is now confined in a Cambridge hospital. She thinks bitterly of Northern Ireland that it is “A fragment of a country, a blood-soaked tatter of a place with its 'peace walls' still standing, more than fifteen years after the ceasefires.” The couple in Jan Carson’s ‘Settling’ feel similarly disillusioned with available opportunities in Belfast and move to England, but the narrator eerily finds that the presence of her deceased grandmother has travelled with her.

Evelyn Conlon’s powerful 'Disturbing Words' gives an impression of the practical reality of new physical borders and individual resistance to regimental change. This is something which will no doubt be newly felt in Northern Ireland over the coming years as the government sorts out the mess of Brexit with its new borders. An act of individual protest also occurs in ‘The Mural Painter’ by Rosemary Jenkinson where a man commissioned to spray paint a mural for Armistice Day creates something entirely different from what his paramilitary employers want. Annemarie Neary presents social/political clashes abroad in her story ‘The Negotiators’ where a woman seeks capitalist opportunities in Algiers but isn’t prepared for the realities of the rapidly transforming playing field. An example of the more subtle long-lasting consequences of political conflict is shown in ‘No Other Place’ by Martina Devlin where an aging poet’s opinions clash with a police constable. Here you can feel a writer’s frustration with her work not being read, but she comes to the practical conclusion that “Perhaps it’s irrelevant if they listen or not – maybe what matters is the act of writing.” Luckily this anthology brings together this rich variety of writing to give a complex personal understanding of political turbulence within Northern Ireland.

While there are many interesting issues explored, I also highly admire the technical innovation and experimentation of form demonstrated in many of these stories as well. Polly Devlin gives a realistic take on a mythological story in her ‘The Countess & Icarus’ with tragic-comic results and some cracking lines such as “Martine’s crust now remained intact as far as Dora knew, but presumably had, once upon a time, yielded and oozed nicely for Victor.” Una Woods shows absurdist flair in her fascinating story 'The Diary: An Everyday Fable' which includes intense conversations about the purpose for being between metal objects. ‘The Cure for Too Much Feeling’ by Bernie McGill makes a woman’s lack of empathy into a medical condition where “She was laid low by other people’s misery, it sapped her energy, brought her out in a rash.” It forces her to become increasingly confined and cut off from society until she’s entirely isolated. The emotionally devastating story ‘The Speaking and the Dead’ by Tara West plays upon popular emotional and financial investments people make in the supernatural to deal with un-reconciled feelings of loss and grief. Many stories in the collection show highly creative ways for conveying complex ideas and emotions through forms of writing uniquely tailored to suit their subject matter.

I’m excited to read more from many writers included in “The Glass Shore”. Many of the contemporary writers included have novels and collections of stories published. It will also be thrilling to track down the books of some of the lesser known deceased writers in this book. I currently have on my shelves book published this year by Roisín O'Donnell and Annemarie Neary and I’ve been browsing through books by many more of the authors included. This anthology certainly stands on its own, but makes the most wonderful starting point for discovering writers I haven’t encountered before. While each story stands on its own, there is an intelligent flow from story to story which touch upon connected ideas, concepts or themes. The care and passion Sinéad Gleeson has shown in compiling this collection and the previous anthology is commendable. “The Glass Shore” is a necessary celebration of great women writers.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSinead Gleeson
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