The Good People by Hannah Kent

The story of a changeling…

😐 😐

the-good-peopleWhen her husband Martin suddenly dies, Nóra is left alone, except for the young grandchild she is looking after, the son of her dead daughter. Young Michéal was a healthy child for the first couple of years of his life, but now there’s something seriously wrong with him – he can no longer walk or talk and needs constant attention. Nóra finds him a burden and is ashamed of him, trying to hide him from the sight of the other villagers. But there is already gossip about the child – some believe he is a changeling, left by the Good People (i.e. fairies) in the place of the real Michéal whom they have stolen. And Nóra is becoming more willing to believe this too.

Kent uses Martin’s wake to introduce us to this small, superstitious Irish community in the early 1800s. The villagers share their belief between the teachings of the Catholic church and the older, more pagan, traditions, and see no real contradiction between them. But the Catholic church doesn’t feel the same way, and the new priest is determined to stamp out the old practices. The villagers operate a simple policy of pretending to go along with this, while still carrying out the old rites behind the priest’s back. In the woods lives old Nance, the village midwife and wise woman, to whom the villagers secretly turn when they need the kind of help of which the priest wouldn’t approve. Nance knows the ways of the Good People, and uses a mix of magic and herb lore to heal and cure. And she’s had experience of changelings before…

Kent’s prose is just as skilled in this as in her earlier novel, Burial Rites, and again she creates her setting brilliantly and believably. Unfortunately, the story of this one isn’t nearly as interesting and is dragged out for far too long, becoming ever slower and more repetitive as it goes along. It’s entirely monotone – misery all the way, with no glimmer of light amidst all the darkness. It’s crystal clear from very early on how it’s all going to play out – arguably, the same could be said of Burial Rites, but in that one although the ending is never in doubt, the interest is in discovering the reason behind the crime. In this one, the reason is obvious and particularly unpleasant, as are the descriptions of how awful Nóra found it to deal with this child.

Hannah Kent
Hannah Kent

Nance’s story is a little more interesting, if just as depressing, as we discover how she learned her lore about the Good People. And another character is introduced, young Mary, whom Nóra hires to help her with the child. I initially hoped that she would bring a touch of lightness into the story, but sadly not – she too is soon dragged down to the general level of desperation prevailing in the village. It feels authentic to a degree – people in rural Ireland were undoubtedly dirt-poor and superstitious in that era, so I imagine happiness wasn’t overflowing. But I bet it wasn’t entirely non-existent either, and I always dislike these books that simply invite us to wallow voyeuristically in other people’s misery and show nothing to contrast with it. Not only did I not care about any of the characters, I actively disliked them all, especially Nóra.

Sadly, I found at about the halfway point that I couldn’t stand much more of it, so flicked through the second half, dipping in and out to see if the tone changed, or if the story veered from the predictable path. But neither did, and I came away from it admiring the prose and the research, but disappointed in both the monotone style and the repetitive and over-long story. I’m sure it will appeal more to people who have a greater tolerance for this kind of unrelieved misery novel than I do – a mismatch between book and reader on this occasion.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pan MacMillan.

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Himself by Jess Kidd

Original and intriguing…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

himselfThere’s an unusual heatwave going on when Mahony arrives in Mulderigg, a “benign little speck of a place, uncoiled and sprawling, stretched out in the sun. Pretending to be harmless”. But then everything about Mulderigg is unusual, not least the fact that dead people are wandering all through it. Ghosts, but very human ghosts, looking and acting much as they did when they were alive. Mahony has been in Mulderigg before, when he was a baby, though he has no memory of it. Now he’s back to look for his mother, Orla, and to find out why he ended up in an orphanage in Dublin. But most of the people of Mulderigg don’t seem to want to talk about Orla, and those who do have nothing good to say about her. The story they give is that she left the village and must have abandoned Mahony – but Mahony won’t accept this, and nor does Mrs Cauley, an old woman who used to be an actress and now fancies herself as something of a Miss Marple. This unlikely duo set out to discover the truth, with the dubious assistance of the dead…

The book starts with a strangely off-kilter prologue in which we see a brutal murder carried out, but told in language that reads more as if what we are witnessing is a scene of beauty. And this sets the tone for the whole thing really – the writing is wonderfully crafted and full of beauty, while the story is ugly and the vast majority of the characters are pretty repugnant. It’s executed superbly for the most part, with a good deal of humour, some of it of the black variety. The setting is somewhere in rural Ireland – I’m not sure that we’re ever really told where – and the time is split between a “present” of 1976 and a past in the late ’40s and early ’50s. But the time is pretty irrelevant – this village doesn’t feel as if it exists in normal space and time. It has a Brigadoonish quality to it and, although there are references to the outside world, it seems almost cut off and entirely self-sufficient.

The plot, such as it is, is very stretched out and becomes increasingly far-fetched as it goes along. After I’d reached the end, I was left with a whole slew of unanswered questions and a general feeling that the author had got so carried away with the creation of her setting and quirky bunch of characters that she’d lost interest somewhere along the line in the actual story. There’s no doubt Kidd brings this odd, mystical village to life, though I couldn’t help feeling that sometimes it slipped from being Irish into Oirishness – I found myself thinking I wouldn’t be at all surprised to meet a leprechaun with a shillelagh at any corner, though I hasten to add that she stopped short of that. Personally, I could also have lived without the constant rather childish swearing and vulgarity – to have one fart joke is unfortunate, but to have several smacks of carelessness, or a need for dietetic advice. (FF’s Third Law)

Jess Kidd
Jess Kidd

I enjoyed the early part of the book a lot but gradually found that the style began to grate on me – somehow it feels overworked, every word polished and placed too carefully, giving the language itself precedence over the storytelling. The whimsical idea of the dead characters gains too much prominence in the end, so that every piece of dialogue or action is interspersed with endless descriptions of one or other of the ghosts doing something supposedly amusing in the background. And the extreme brutality of parts of the book feels like too great a contrast to the almost lyrical style in which they are told. This is clearly a deliberate stylistic choice, but one that I felt Kidd took too far, passing the point of acceptable shock to become distasteful.

Having said all that, I think this début shows more originality than anything I’ve read this year and the quality of the prose is extraordinary. It suffers a little, I feel, from a hangover from “creative writing” classes, but I’m certain Kidd has the talent to find a better balance between style and substance as her writing matures, and will learn the art of what to leave out. Despite my relatively low rating of 3½ stars, I would still recommend this one as an intriguing introduction to an author of whom I’m sure we’ll be hearing much more in the years ahead, and one whom I’ll be keenly watching.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Canongate Books.

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The Visitor by Maeve Brennan

Home is…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the visitorAnastasia King left her father’s home when she was 16 to live with her mother in Paris. Now, when she is 22, both her parents are dead and she has returned to Dublin expecting to live in her old home with her paternal grandmother. But old Mrs King is quite content to live alone with her memories of her beloved son and has never forgiven her daughter-in-law for bringing shame on the family by leaving him. And she’s no more willing to forgive Anastasia for choosing her mother over her father.

This novella is an early unpublished work of Maeve Brennan’s, discovered after her death in a University archive. The editor tells us that he has done some minor tidying up of the text, but that it is substantially as she wrote it. This begs the question why she never sought to, or perhaps failed to, have it published in her lifetime. It is a wonderful study of loneliness, self-absorption and selfishness, of thwarted love, both romantic and familial, and of a longing for that nebulous thing we call ‘home’.

She kissed her grandmother hastily, avoiding her eyes. The grandmother did not move from the door of the sitting room. She stood in the doorway, having just got up from the fireside and her reading, and contemplated Anastasia and Anastasia’s luggage crowding the hall. She was still the same, with her delicate and ruminative and ladylike face, and her hands clasped formally in front of her. Anastasia thought, she is waiting for me to make some mistake.

The writing is excellent – the story mournful and entirely absorbing. There’s a claustrophobic feel to it, with these two brilliantly created characters inhabiting the same space but never sharing it. Mrs King is cold and selfish even in her love for her son, perhaps having been the cause of the flight of his wife. She sees Anastasia as her mother’s daughter and shows no grandmotherly love for her, and no sympathy for her recent bereavement.

Where it would have been easy, and perhaps facile, for Brennan to show Anastasia solely as a victim of Mrs King’s cruelty, in fact she does something much more subtle and effective. As the story unfolds, we begin to see that this coldness and emotional detachment may be a family trait, that perhaps the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. While Mrs King makes no effort to ease Anastasia’s return to Dublin, Anastasia equally shows no concern over how her return may disrupt the settled patterns of this elderly lady’s life. Each selfish action is reflected back from the opposite angle, often reversing the reader’s initial perceptions. When Mrs King refuses to allow Anastasia to have her mother’s body brought home and buried with her father, is it Mrs King who is being selfish in refusing a reasonable request, or is it Anastasia failing to understand the shame her mother brought on her father when she ran away? Why, anyway, would Anastasia assume her mother would want to be buried with the man she left? Both characters see the world through narrow viewpoints, their own wishes always at the forefront.

As the story continues, both characters commit some acts that are chilling in their level of selfishness, made more so by the quiet, almost matter-of-fact way in which Brennan relates them. There is a third character, Miss Kilbride, an old friend of Mrs King’s, who serves as a contrast and catalyst. Having been dominated by her invalid mother, another selfish monster, Miss Kilbride still lives in her mother’s house, psychologically unable to think of it as her own and leaving everything as it was while her mother was alive. Unlike the two main characters, Miss Kilbride knows what it means to love someone unselfishly, making her the most sympathetic and likeable character in the book, whose story injects some much needed emotional warmth. The request she makes of Anastasia provides the climax of the story – a disturbing, shocking climax that forces the reader to reassess all that has gone before.

She walked out along the shallow path. At the gate she turned to look up at Miss Kilbride’s window. It was blind and closed, like a person sleeping. Like Miss Kilbride, lying on her back in difficult slumber. And later, waking to dream of a doubtful deathly union with her long-lost hero, with whom she had once struggled in valiant, well-dressed immodesty on a small settee, for love’s sake.

Maeve Brennan
Maeve Brennan

I was quite blown away by this novella. The amount of insight and depth of characterisation that Brennan packs into such a small space is amazing, and I became so engrossed in it that I read it in one sitting. Along the way, it made me gasp more than once, and I admit to a little sob too at one point. All three of these women became real to me in a way that many characters in much longer books have failed to do, and I doubt I’ll forget their story. I shall promptly be seeking out more of Brennan’s work – if she thought this one wasn’t good enough for publication, then I can’t wait to read the stuff she thought was good. Highly recommended!

I won this in Cathy at 746 Books’ Reading Ireland 2016 giveaway. Thank you again, Cathy – great stuff!

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Book 6
Book 6

Film of the Book: Brooklyn

Directed by John Crowley (2015)

 

brooklyn 1

From the book review:

This book, set in the 1950s, takes us from small town Ireland to Brooklyn in the company of Eilis Lacey, a young girl forced into economic migration through lack of employment and the expectations of her family. Though told in the third person, we see through Eilis’ eyes as we get to know about her life in Ireland with the mother and sister she loves, with friends and roots in a community she has known all her life; then we follow her as she is transplanted to Brooklyn, where she has the support of the Irish community, still strongly under the sway of the Roman Catholic church, but where she is so far away from her family, friendless and emotionally alone.

You can read the full book review by clicking here.

 

Film of the Book

 

 

I’m going to start by saying I think this is a wonderful film that gets Tóibín’s quiet emotionalism and gentle humour perfectly. The acting is brilliant all round and Saoirse Ronan’s central performance as Eilis Lacey thoroughly deserves all the awards nominations it has received. It’s beautifully filmed. Although I understand most of the Brooklyn scenes were actually shot in Canada, they nonetheless feel entirely authentic, but the Ireland scenes are fabulous, showing to full effect the gorgeous scenery and lush greenness of the Emerald Isle. It’s a special treat that some of the scenes are shot in Toibin’s own birthplace of Enniscorthy, the place where so many of his novels are set.

However, this slot is all about comparison and, although the film sticks very closely to the plot of the novel, for me there were some significant differences in emphasis that somewhat changed what I thought of as the central themes.

(There may be some fairly major spoilers ahead – I shall try to be oblique, but if you are proposing to read the book or watch the film in the near future, I suggest you may not want to read the rest of this post.)

Fiona Glascott, Jane Brennan and Saoirse Ronan as Rose, Mary and Eilis Lacey
Fiona Glascott, Jane Brennan and Saoirse Ronan as Rose, Mary and Eilis Lacey

There are four things in particular that I feel change the interpretation – the speed with which the film gets her to Brooklyn, Eilis’ family, the love affairs and, most of all, Eilis’ personality.

In the book, much more time is spent in Ireland before Eilis boards the ship for America, during which we see her as having very little say in her own future. It is the 1950s, opportunities in Ireland are scarce and many of the young people are forced away from the country to look for employment. Eilis herself, however, doesn’t want to go and isn’t consulted when her sister and mother decide what is best for her. It gives a real and believable picture of a society where young people were still expected to conform to decisions made for them by parents and community, before the rebelliousness and individualism of the sixties had begun. The film, constrained no doubt by time, hints too quickly at this, thus missing some of the deep sorrow of forced migration. It feels as if Eilis is going to America to look for opportunity, rather than going from Ireland because of lack of opportunity – a subtle difference but, I felt, an important one.

The wonderful Julie Walters is in fine form as Eilis' landlady in Brooklyn, Mrs Kehoe.
The wonderful Julie Walters is on fine form as Eilis’ landlady in Brooklyn, Mrs Kehoe.

In the film, Eilis’ family consists of herself, her mother and her sister. In the book, she has brothers, who have also been forced from home and are now living and making a life for themselves in Liverpool, as so many Irish people did. They don’t appear much in the book, but I felt they were important for a couple of reasons. Firstly, they provide a much wider picture of the Irish diaspora. Secondly, they are much closer to home and within relatively easy visiting distance. This means Eilis’ mother is not so solitary as the film makes her seem when tragedy strikes. She has family around her – it is, in fact, Eilis, so far away, who is completely isolated and alone. And when Eilis makes her final decision, in the film it seems so harsh because her mother is so alone, but in the book, her mother seems more selfish, and we see how it is daughters rather than sons who are expected to make sacrifices for their parents. (Also, the letter to Eilis from one of her brothers after the tragedy is the single most moving part of the book for me, and obviously it disappeared from the film along with him.)

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In the film, the love affairs are central – in the book, I felt they were less so. The focus of the book is on homesickness and the gradual creation of a new life. Obviously, Tony, the American love interest, is part of that, but Eilis is not bowled over by him the way she is in the film. Again the differences are subtle, but Eilis almost clung to Tony because of her loneliness and one was never quite sure of the depth of her feeling towards him. The same could be said about Jim – his plot purpose in the book was not to rend her heart between two lovers, but to provide a way for her to stay in Ireland.

Emory Cohen as Eilis' American love interest, Tony Fiorello
Emory Cohen as Eilis’ American love interest, Tony Fiorello

That may make Eilis sound cool and pragmatic, which would be about right. In the film she is a passionate, confident young woman. In the book, she is a passive heroine, a young girl, trying to please everyone, and constantly swayed by people older or with stronger personalities than her own. In fact, the book is exactly about her growing up, maturing to the point where she finally begins to make her own decisions – and, in both book and film, even her final decision is forced on her rather than being made of her own volition. In the book, that made sense because of the passive nature of her character – what else could she possibly have done? The book Eilis would never have considered withstanding a scandal – the film Eilis, it seems to me, could have found other options had she wanted. In the film, this is a girl torn between two lovers, but in the book, she’s torn between the circumscribed but safe certainties of life in her old country and the risks and opportunities in her new world. In the film, we know that love conquers all. In the book, as Eilis made her last voyage, this reader wasn’t so sure…

The differences are subtle, of tone rather than of story and, as always, come down to a matter of personal interpretation. None of the above should be seen as criticism, however. It is merely a comparison. I repeat – a brilliant film that gets my highest recommendation!

banner-brooklyn-Brooklyn_Film_844x476.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

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But for its added depth and subtlety

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

 

brooklyn cover

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THE BOOK!

 

 

Dubliners by James Joyce

All the living and the dead…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the dublinersJoyce’s collection of 15 stories takes the reader through the various strata of Dublin society of the early years of the twentieth century. The prose is of a uniformly high standard, though some of the pieces are too fragmentary and unresolved to be fully satisfying. When Joyce does tell a story, though, he tells it excellently, making me rather regret that he didn’t use standard prose and story-telling techniques more often.

The sum of the collection is greater than its individual parts, however, so that even the shorter character sketches add something to the reader’s understanding of Dublin and its citizens. Despite the wide range of class and circumstance Joyce addresses, each one has a sense of total authenticity, of a deep understanding of how this society intermixes. There is a common theme running throughout, of people trapped, either by circumstance or because of decisions they have made, and many of the stories focus on a moment in the central characters’ lives when they become aware of their trap. Drunkenness, violence and the stifling stranglehold of the Catholic church all play their part in showing a society where aspiration is a rare commodity, usually thwarted. I understand some of the stories were considered shocking at the time for their language and sexual content. Given the relative mildness of them to modern eyes, this fact in itself casts another light on how socially restricted the society was at the time of writing.

The prose is somewhat understated, with Joyce relying more on the penetrating examination of character rather than any flamboyancy of language or stylistic quirks, and that works well for me. He achieves a depth of characterisation with few words, acknowledging his reader’s ability to interpret and understand without the need to have everything spelled out. Just occasionally, this left me floundering a little in the couple of stories where he is addressing contemporary Irish politics or mores, but I accept that’s my weakness rather than his. In the stories where he is addressing more fundamental aspects of human nature, I appreciated his rather sparing style greatly.

dublin

Overall, I found the fully developed stories excellent, while the ones that are primarily character sketches are interesting if not wholly satisfying. However, as a collection, I thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing, the weaker parts being more than compensated for by the stronger.

* * * * *

Since it seems to be a Dubliners tradition to name favourites, here are a few of mine…

An Encounter – this story of two young boys ‘miching’ from school is primarily an oblique and unsettling description of their encounter with a man whom we would today describe as a paedophile. But what I loved about it was the young narrator’s recognition of his own ambivalent attitude towards his friend…

My voice had an accent of forced bravery in it and I was ashamed of my paltry stratagem. I had to call the name again before Mahony saw me and halloed in answer. How my heart beat as he came running across the field to me! He ran as if to bring me aid. And I was penitent; for in my heart I had always despised him a little.

* * * * *

A Painful Case – a man re-evaluates his life following the death, perhaps accident, perhaps suicide, of a woman to whom he was once close. This is a wonderful study of that high moral rectitude that can so easily slide over into hypocrisy, and seems to me to be something of a metaphor for the mechanical, unfelt religiosity of much of the society Joyce is portraying throughout the book.

What an end! The whole narrative of her death revolted him and it revolted him to think that he had ever spoken to her of what he held sacred. The threadbare phrases, the inane expressions of sympathy, the cautious words of a reporter won over to conceal the details of a commonplace vulgar death attacked his stomach. Not merely had she degraded herself; she had degraded him. He saw the squalid tract of her vice, miserable and malodorous. His soul’s companion!

* * * * *

James Joyce
James Joyce

The Dead – the longest and most developed story in the book, this ranges beautifully over the various guests attending an evening party, before finally focusing on one man who, in the course of the evening, falls in love with his wife all over again and then has the foundation of his marriage shattered by a sudden revelation. The writing in this one is superb, showing all the sense of community, all the close and distant relationships, that make up this society; but in the end reminding character and reader alike of the ultimate aloneness of the individual, of the unknowableness of even those closest to us.

His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

* * * * *

Eveline – this is a beautiful story, full of emotional truthfulness, and my favourite in the collection. Following the death of her mother, a young girl fulfils the promise she made to her to keep the family home together, despite her father’s drunkenness and violence. But now she has met a young man, a sailor, who wants her to come away with him to Buenos Aires. She must decide between love and duty – but on a deeper level, her choice is between courage and cowardice – escape through the open door or remain in the cage. More than any other story, this one seems to me to sum up the major theme of the book, and broke my heart in a few short pages.

She felt her cheek pale and cold and, out of a maze of distress, she prayed to God to direct her, to show her what was her duty. The boat blew a long mournful whistle into the mist…

A bell clanged upon her heart. She felt him seize her hand:

“Come!”

All the seas of the world tumbled about her heart. He was drawing her into them: he would drown her. She gripped with both hands at the iron railing.

“Come!”

begorrathon 2016

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In the Woods (Dublin Murder Squad 1) by Tana French

A good debut…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

in the woodsIn 1984, three children went into the woods in Knocknaree. Only one returned, with blood – not his own – in his shoes, so traumatised he is never able to remember what happened. The other two children have never been found. That traumatised child is now a detective on the Murder Squad, Rob Ryan. And when another child is found murdered in Knocknaree, he and his partner Cassie are given the case.

I’ve heard so many people rave about Tana French that my expectations were very high going into this, and to some degree they were met. I freely admit that I might have given up within a few pages though, if I had heard nothing about the book. The prologue is one of the most overblown, over-written pieces of pure purple I’ve come across in crime writing, and I barely made it through. Happily, however, having got that out of her system, her writing settles down for the most part to a consistently high standard, only occasionally reverting to purple.

The plot is complex, with several possible motives for why Katy Devlin was murdered. Something about the family seems a bit off, leading the detectives to wonder if there are hidden secrets there. Katy’s father is leading a protest movement against a new road and has been threatened by unknown people if he continues, so it looks like there may be a thread of political corruption there. Katy seems to have left her house in the middle of the night, so there’s a question of whether she knew her murderer and if so how. Or is it possible that the crime is somehow linked back to the earlier tragedy in the woods? Rob knows he should make his boss aware of his links to the earlier crime and step down from the investigation, but he is desperate to be involved, hoping that somehow his memories will return and he will finally know the truth about what happened back then.

begorrathon 2016

The characterisation is excellent on the whole, not just of the main players, but of the team around Rob and Cassie, and of the various people they come across during the investigation. The one exception, and it’s an important one, is the character of Rob himself. Unfortunately, his voice sounded irredeemably feminine to me, not just in his constant focus on emotions and poetic descriptions of his partner Cassie’s many perfections, but in actual use of words. (The thought of a straight male Dublin police officer describing one of his straight male colleagues as looking ‘adorable’ actually made me laugh out loud.) However, the quality of the writing and plotting was high enough to mostly carry me over this weakness.

Tana French
Tana French

A more serious weakness is the sheer length of the book in relation to its content. At over 600 pages (according to Amazon – I had the unnumbered Kindle version myself), the book is seriously overpadded. I reckon it could have lost 200-300 pages and been the better for it. While the story of Rob’s attempts to regain his lost memories is intriguing, it becomes repetitive after a while, with great swathes of the book devoted to discussing the same event again and again with very little, if anything, being added each time. No matter how well written these digressions may be, they merely serve to make the thing go at a snail’s pace – an elderly snail, at that. Even when the main solution is revealed, the book goes on for a further nearly hundred pages tying everything up, or not, as the case may be. And, as many reviewers have pointed out with varying degrees of dissatisfaction, the resolution is partial, with a bit of spooky woo-woo not really providing a satisfactory reward for 600 pages worth of reader perseverance.

However, the strengths – quality of writing, plotting, characterisation – undoubtedly outweigh the weaknesses – excessive padding, occasional drifts into purple prose, failure to resolve a major plot line. As a debut it is good, and I look forward to reading more of her work to see how her style develops as she progresses.

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The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Tóibín

Mothers and daughters…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

the blackwater lightshipHelen has had a strained relationship with her mother Lily and grandmother Dora for years. But now Helen’s brother Declan is dying of AIDS, and the three women are forced to come together for his sake. At Declan’s request, they all go together to spend some time at Dora’s home, resurrecting unhappy memories of the time Helen and Declan lived there as children, while Lily was in Dublin looking after their dying father.

Tóibín’s writing throughout is spare and beautifully controlled, always giving the impression of simplicity and integrity. He paints a very convincing picture of the small village of Blackwater, old-fashioned and conservative, also slowly dying as erosion from the sea gradually destroys the houses built on the coast. There’s no real plot; this is a study of the three generations of women, forced together physically by a shared grief but emotionally separate. And there’s a secondary strand as Declan’s illness allows Tóibín to look at attitudes towards homosexuality in Ireland in the ‘90s, through the reactions of the three generations of his family to his two friends who have come to stay with him. The book is told in the third person from Helen’s viewpoint and what we get to know about the other characters comes through that filter, and through the many conversations that take place as the long days and wakeful nights pass. As old resentments come to the surface, Tóibín takes no sides and apportions no blame, nor does he offer any easy resolutions.

“Imaginings and resonances and pain and small longings and prejudices. They meant nothing against the resolute hardness of the sea…It might have been better, she felt, if there had never been people, if this turning of the world, and the glistening sea, and the morning breeze happened without witnesses, without anyone feeling, or remembering, or dying, or trying to love.”

I’ve been reading Tóibín backwards in time, my first introduction to him having been the gut-wrenching and amazingly powerful The Testament of Mary (which I’m delighted to see on the Booker longlist). In this book, I can clearly see the potential that he fulfilled in the later one, but I found this book curiously cold. Although we learn a little about Declan’s friends, Declan himself remains underdeveloped – he’s really little more than a catalyst to bring the women together. The contrast of the emotional openness and competence of Declan’s friends with the frosty reserve and inadequacy of the women was, I felt, over-stated and a little too simplistic to be truly convincing.

Colm Tóibín
Colm Tóibín

The characterisation of the women is much deeper and their conversations and interactions ring entirely true. However, as we slowly learn what is at the root of the tensions amongst them, the reasons don’t seem to sufficiently explain Helen’s bitterness, and as a result she comes over as a rather selfish and unforgiving person, still focussed on her own childhood resentments and having learned very little from her own experiences of love and motherhood. And this, I think, is the reason that the book didn’t have quite the same emotional impact in the end as either Testament of Mary or to a lesser degree Brooklyn.

Overall, though, the themes of grief and family, the sense of place and time and the intimacy of the characterisation are all hallmarks of Tóibín’s work which, combined with the quality of the writing, make this an insightful and compelling read; and, despite my reservations around the emotional depth of the book, one that I would highly recommend.

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After the Lockout by Darren McCann

after the lockoutHeart and soul…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This very fine novel is so well written and accomplished that it’s hard to believe that it is the author’s first.

Victor Lennon, hero of the failed Easter Uprising of 1916, returns to his home town in Armagh to look after his drunken father at the behest of Stanislaus, the local priest. Through the microcosm of this small town, we are shown the various tensions existing in Irish society at this period – the iron rule of the Catholic church, those who desire independence from the English, those who are fighting alongside those same English in WW1, those who, like Victor, are inspired by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia to bring about a socialist republic.

Darran McCann
Darran McCann

But although there is much about religion and politics in this book, the author manages to keep it on a very human level. We see the growing strength of Victor’s relationship with his father, the tension between his love for Maggie and his dedication to his cause. We come to understand his antipathy to the Church in general and to Stanislaus in particular. On the other hand, we are also shown Stanislaus’ genuine concern for the moral welfare of his flock, his fears of what revolution may mean for the Church and his courage in standing up for his beliefs.

The author does not openly favour one side over the other – what we see are two fundamentally good but fallible men driven by circumstances to battle for the hearts and souls of the people. The use of language is excellent, in some parts almost poetic. There are a few occasions when the author falls into an anachronism, but not often or badly enough to spoil the flow of the story. I found the book uplifting in parts and deeply moving in others. A first-rate debut novel which I hope will be followed by many more. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

Absorbing and beautifully written…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

brooklynThis book, set in the 1950s, takes us from small town Ireland to Brooklyn in the company of Eilis Lacey, a young girl forced into economic migration through lack of employment and the expectations of her family. Though told in the third person, we see through Eilis’ eyes as we get to know about her life in Ireland with the mother and sister she loves, with friends and roots in a community she has known all her life; then we follow her as she is transplanted to Brooklyn, where she has the support of the Irish community, still strongly under the sway of the Roman Catholic church, but where she is so far away from her family, friendless and emotionally alone.

‘The letters told Eilis little; there was hardly anything personal in them and nothing that sounded like anyone’s own voice. Nonetheless, as she read them over and over, she forgot for a moment where she was and she could picture her mother in the kitchen taking her Basildon Bond notepad and her envelopes and setting out to write a proper letter with nothing crossed out.’

Tóibín’s prose is wonderful and his characterisation of Eilis is very convincing – a passive heroine from a time and a society when decisions were still made by parents and community, before the rebelliousness and individualism of the sixties had begun. Trying to please everyone, learning to hide her loneliness and homesickness, Eilis’ life is a small one – this is not a book full of dramatic plot twists and events; rather, it is a study of a gradual growing up as Eilis deals with the various changes that happen in her life and slowly starts to form her own opinions and make her own decisions.

brooklyn 2

The descriptions of the voyage to America, Eilis’ feelings of isolation and longing for her family, her gradual settling and her falling in love all ring very true. We see her at first lost amongst but then beginning to understand the various ethnicities that are gathered in Brooklyn, a sharp contrast to the monoculture of home. In particular, the passages relating to a bereavement and grief are beautifully written and enormously moving.

‘Eilis now wondered if there was any way she could return to the shop floor and stop this from having happened, or stop him from having told her. In the silence she almost asked Father Flood to go and not come into the store again like this, but she realized instantly how foolish that was. He was here. She had heard what he said. She could not put back time.’

As the book neared the end I found Eilis’ thoughts and actions became a little less convincing and they felt a little contrived towards paving the way for a neat conclusion. But this is a small criticism of a book that overall I found to be completely absorbing, beautifully written and a pleasure to read.

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