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Reading Ireland Month 2018

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March is almost upon us and for many people of the bookish community March is synonymous with Reading Ireland Month, organised by Cathy and Niall. I couldn’t participate last year due to the incredible amount of studying, essay writing and dissertation proposal preparing I had to do for my Master’s, but I definitely want to return to it this year and contribute even a little bit.

As usual, I don’t really want to make a long list of books I plan to read and films I plan to watch, because, we all know it by now, I will not stick to it. I do have some Irish cultural goodies in mind that I would definitely like to post about, though.

As far as books are concerned, I really want to finally get to In the Woods by Tana French, the first book in the Dublin Murder Squad mystery/crime series. I’ve been meaning to read this for the longest time and the Ireland Month event seems like the perfect incentive for me to finally do so. In December, I read a short story, ‘Mr. Salary’ by Sally Rooney and I really enjoyed her writing (much more than the ‘Cat Person’ for which everyone raved about..), so perhaps I will try to read her novel, Conversations with Friends. Emma Donoghue and Elizabeth Bowen are two more authors I’ve been meaning to read more of, so I will try to include them in my March reading, as well as one more play by my favourite Oscar Wilde – perhaps Vera; or, The Nihilists or An Ideal Husband.

I haven’t yet done all my research for Irish films I might watch, but one I definitely want to get to this year is Song of the Sea, since I loved The Secret of Kells so much when I watched it for the first Ireland Month 3 years ago (time flies so fast…). Other than that I plan to try and watch one classic and one contemporary film, for both of which I am open to recommendations 🙂

Are you participating in Reading Ireland Month this year? What are your plans for it? Let me know in the comments below 🙂

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‘The Little Red Chairs’ by Edna O’Brien ***

The Little Red Chairs marked my first foray into Edna O’Brien’s work of over twenty novels.  She is an author whom I have heard a lot of wonderful things about over the last few years, but reception for this, her newest novel for ten years, has appeared rather mixed.  Regardless, there are some wonderfully positive reviews splashed across the cover; The New Yorker deems it ‘Astonishing… A remarkable novel…  A vital and engrossing experience’, Claire Messud calls it ‘At once arduous and beautiful’, and Philip Roth thinks it ‘a masterpiece’.  The Little Red Chairs was also shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year 2016, and was a book of the year for the Sunday Times, the Observer, and the Sunday Express.

9780571316281The Little Red Chairs is set in a village on the west-coast of Ireland.  A faith healer, who calls himself Dr Vladimir Dragan, or ‘Vuk’ for short, arrives from the Balkans, mystifying residents and putting the community ‘under [his] spell’.  He attempts to ‘set himself up’ in the village as an ‘alternative healer and sex therapist’, which is a shock to the shrouded and traditional Catholicism of the place. One villager in particular, Fidelma McBride, ‘becomes enthralled in a fatal attraction that leads to unimaginable consequences.’

The opening description of the novel, in which O’Brien masterfully captures a wild river, and its effects upon the faith healer, is sweeping, and really sets the tone for the first half of the novel: ‘He stays by the water’s edge, apparently mesmerised by it.  Bearded and in a long dark coat and white gloves, he stands on the narrow bridge, looks down at the roaring current, then looks around, seemingly a little lost, his presence the single curiosity in the monotony of a winter evening in a freezing backwater that passes for a town and is named Cloonoila.’

The Little Red Chairs is at first largely quiet, involved almost entirely with people and their interactions, as well as their reception of the faith healer.  One gets a feel for the villagers immediately, along with their differences and similarities.  The way in which O’Brien tends to reveal characters at random, with Fidelma and Vuk as her main focus, is effective in this respect.  The plot seems a little sparse to sustain itself over the entire novel, but the twist which comes changes the tone entirely, and adds something rather sinister to the whole.  One can tell throughout that O’Brien is an accomplished author.

O’Brien’s novel rather chillingly begins with the following memorial: ‘On the 6th of April 2012, to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the start of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces, 11,541 red chairs were laid out in rows along the eight hundred metres of the Sarajevo high street.  One empty chair for each Sarajevan killed during the 1,425 days of siege.  Six hundred and forty-three small chairs represented the children killed by snipers and the heavy artillery fired from the surrounding mountains.’  The reasons for this become more and more clear as the novel goes on, and details of the faith healer’s past emerge.  I was a little surprised by some of the outcomes of the novel, but feel as though O’Brien handled the content with both sensibility and sensitivity.

Whilst rather disturbing in places, and surprisingly so, all of the story’s threads were well pulled together.  Unfortunately, there were a couple of instances in which it felt as though the plot had been rushed, or something had not quite come to a natural conclusion.  I very much enjoyed O’Brien’s prose, but the dialogue felt awkward at times.  Conversations were jarring and rather unlikely, often veering towards the pretentious.  I would definitely like to try O’Brien’s other work in future, and believe I may plump for some short stories next, to see how they compare.

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‘Black Lake’ by Johanna Lane **

Loving stories about old houses, and the families which live in them, Black Lake by Johanna Lane piqued my interest as soon as I spotted its blurb on my local library catalogue.  Despite Ireland being a country that I love to visit, I have found of late that barely any Irish literature has made its way onto my yearly reading lists.  Of course, I wanted to rectify this, and again, Black Lake ticked that box.

The Irish Examiner calls the novel: ‘A complex and beautifully structured story’, and the Irish Independent writes: ‘Lane’s prose is graceful, textured and her elegant style reflects the Campbells’ glazed retrograde world.’  John Burnside also praises the novel highly, 9780755396320deeming it: ‘A beautiful portrait of a family faced with unbearable loss.’

The Campbell family have lived on a sprawling estate named Dulough, the Irish for ‘black lake’, on the Irish coast of Donegal, for generations.  Like many families whose homes have been handed down, the Campbells have run out of money, and have little choice but to let the government take over the care and upkeep of the house, making it into a ‘tourist attraction’ in the process.  The family have to therefore move into a ‘small, damp caretaker’s cottage’ on the estate.  The ‘upheaval of this move strains the already tenuous threads that bind the family, and when a tragic accident befalls them, long-simmering resentments and unanswered yearnings are forced to the surface.’

Black Lake opens in autumn, when the family have opened up the house to the public, and moved into their new cottage.  The tragic accident described in the blurb has taken place at this point, and the family’s mother struggles to cope; she ends up taking her daughter, twelve-year-old Kate, from her boarding school, and locking her into the abandoned ballroom with her for long stretches of time.  At first unnamed, and without voices of their own, the initial chapter gives an insightful glimpse into the Campbell’s family dynamic.  As winter approaches, Lane describes the way in which, in her beautifully sculpted prologue: ‘The girl remembers when the snow began, flakes settling into the windowpane, muffling everything outside, even the wind.  The tourists were gone by then and it was just the sound of her father and the housekeeper moving about below, shutting up the house, covering the beds in dust sheets, rolling up the rugs, stowing away quilts no one ever slept under.  The girl missed the sound of the visitors, the guide herding them from room to room, story to story.  Surely, when the house was finally locked for winter, the father would say that they had to leave, too?’

Lane takes notice of incredibly small details; of the removal men, she writes, from the perspective of the Campbell’s eight-year-old son: ‘The men were older than his father; they had deep lines in their faces, like valleys, Philip thought.  He imagined tiny glaciers settling into their skin, the ice cracking and expanding.’

Whilst Black Lake is well structured, with different chapters following each of the characters in turn, there is a sense of detachment to the whole, which is exacerbated by the loose third person narrative voice.  I do not feel that Black Lake reached its potential; it was rather run-of-the-mill for a familial saga, and the writing was nowhere near as poetic as I expected after reading its prologue.  Unfortunately, Black Lake quite failed to hold my interest; it is not a bad book, but simply did not stand out enough for my personal liking.

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Reviews: ‘The Wonder’, ‘Merlin Bay’, and ‘The Upstairs Room’

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue *** 9781509818402
‘An eleven-year-old girl stops eating, but remains miraculously alive and well. A nurse, sent to investigate whether she is a fraud, meets a journalist hungry for a story. Set in the Irish Midlands in the 1850s, Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder – inspired by numerous European and North American cases of ‘fasting girls’ between the sixteenth century and the twentieth – is a psychological thriller about a child’s murder threatening to happen in slow motion before our eyes. Pitting all the seductions of fundamentalism against sense and love, it is a searing examination of what nourishes us, body and soul.’

The Wonder started off well, particularly with regard to its vivid sense of place, and its sense of intrigue. Donoghue weaves in Irish history and superstition very well, and the novel has clearly been well structured. The slow pace takes a little while to get into, but undoubtedly suited the story which unfolded. Regardless, I found the twists rather obvious (and I am no supersleuth), and the whole ended on rather a flat note, which rendered the whole far less impressive than I was expecting. I would have preferred some sense of ambiguity at the end of the novel; what was included felt far too twee for my liking. Whilst well researched and relatively interesting, The Wonder is certainly not my favourite Donoghue book.

 

Merlin Bay by Richmal Crompton ****
9781509810208‘So begins Mrs. Paget’s month-long holiday as she journeys with the rest of her family to visit her grown-up daughter Pen and her grandchildren, who have moved to Cornwall to reap the benefits of the fresh Cornish air. But teeming beneath the calm surface of seaside life lies a whole world of secrets, infatuations, hopes and dreams. Over the course of their stay, visitors and residents of Merlin Bay become entangled in each other’s lives, disrupting the stability of Pen’s seemingly calm domestic life. From the elderly Mrs. Paget, who visited the bay on her honeymoon nearly fifty years ago but who has never returned, to Pen’s teenage daughter Stella, struggling to find her place in the world and feeling her first pangs of desire whilst her younger siblings play innocent childhood games on the beach, Crompton skilfully depicts the trials and tribulations of British domestic life. Will the hopes and desires of each family member be realized by the end of their stay? And what secret will Mrs. Paget unearth? Richmal Crompton’s adult novels are an absolute delight and every bit as charming as her beloved Just William series. A nostalgic treat for fans of the gentler brand of interwar fiction, Merlin Bay is the perfect heritage read for fans of 1930s fiction at its best.’

Merlin Bay is a beautifully wrought, engaging, and rather underrated novel. I did not enjoy it quite as much as Richmal Crompton’s 1933 novel The Holiday, but it was filled with a cast of fascinating characters, and did throw up a couple of surprises along the way.  Merlin Bay is a charming, quaint, and rather funny read, which proved a perfect choice for a beautifully warm summer’s day.

 

The Upstairs Room by Kate Murray-Browne ****
‘Eleanor, Richard and their two young daughters recently stretched themselves to the limit 9781509837588to buy their dream home, a four-bedroom Victorian townhouse in East London. But the cracks are already starting to show. Eleanor is unnerved by the eerie atmosphere in the house and becomes convinced it is making her ill. Whilst Richard remains preoccupied with Zoe, their mercurial twenty-seven-year-old lodger, Eleanor becomes determined to unravel the mystery of the house’s previous owners – including Emily, whose name is written hundreds of times on the walls of the upstairs room.’

The Upstairs Room felt like rather a good book to read when I felt unwell, pulling me in as it did from the beginning. It was not as dark as I had anticipated, but is undoubtedly well structured. The character studies which Murray-Browne writes are subtle at first, and then deepen and become more complex as the novel progresses. The Upstairs Room was not quite the book which I was expecting, but it is a compelling page turner nonetheless.

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Reviews: ‘All We Shall Know’ and ‘The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales’

All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan *** 9780857524379
‘Melody Shee is alone and in trouble. Her husband doesn’t take her news too well. She doesn’t want to tell her father yet because he’s a good man and this could break him. She’s trying to stay in the moment, but the future is looming – larger by the day – while the past won’t let her go. What she did to Breedie Flynn all those years ago still haunts her. It’s a good thing that she meets Mary Crothery when she does. Mary is a young Traveller woman, and she knows more about Melody than she lets on. She might just save Melody’s life. Donal Ryan’s new novel is breathtaking, vivid, moving and redemptive.’

All We Shall Know is another title which I requested from Netgalley, from an author I’ve heard a little about but have never read.  I tend not to read much Irish fiction, especially that which is encompassed by the broad title ‘contemporary’, but the premise intrigued me, and I thought I’d give it a go.  I started it just by chance to see what it was like, and found it immediately engrossing.  The whole is gritty, and the prose is startling at times.  The narrative voice was realistic in a refreshing way; you’ll know what I mean if you read this.  I had no real idea throughout about the direction which the story would take, and was quite surprised at the sheer scale of the emotional depth in such a slim novel.

The drawback for me was that the Irish dialect used throughout was rather overdone.  I see its necessity, sure, but phrasing was repeated rather a lot, and such inclusion put me off reading at points.  The sections of conversation which lasted past two or three exchanges felt a little jarring to read.  I did not feel as though the novel was quite sustained throughout; its beginning was compelling, but the rest of the book just didn’t quite match it.  An odd story, but an interesting one.

 

The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales by Kirsty Logan *** 9781907773754
I borrowed this from the Mitchell Library (which is, frankly, the most incredible bookish place I’ve ever visited).  Having read both The Gracekeepers and A Portable Shelter, I already knew that I really enjoy Logan’s writing; she is creative and inventive, qualities which are often difficult to achieve, particularly in the field of contemporary fiction.

As with a lot of the strong short story collections which I have come across, I did not adore every tale here, but I did admire them all, both in the strength of their writing, and the use of literary techniques.  Sadly, some of the stories felt a little rushed or unfinished, and several ended a little too abruptly for my liking.  A couple of the tales had so much scope, but I do not feel as though their potential was fully realised.

As far as ideas go, The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales is fresh, but it is not quite what I was expecting, I must admit.  A lot of mystery is embedded into the stories, and much of the time, it was nowhere near as well wrought as it could have been.  The whole was rather intriguing, but it does not quite match up to my favourite short story collections, as I thought it may have done when I began to read.

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‘The Closet of Savage Mementos’ by Nuala Ní Chonchúir **** (Reading Ireland Month)

The last of my posts for Reading Ireland Month this year is going to be about The Closet of Savage Mementos, a truly wonderful novel by Nuala Ní Chonchúir. This is the second of the two novels I was lucky enough to win in one of Cathy‘s marvelous giveaways during the event last year, and I have to say that I enjoyed it thoroughly.

The Closet of Savage Mementos is a short novel of 190 pages, divided in two parts. One is set in 1991 and the other one is set 20 years later, in 2011. The story follows our main character, Lillis, who, after the death of a person very close to her, decides to leave Dublin and move to Scotland, in hopes of making a fresh start. Little did she know, however, that life is something you can most certainly not run away from. 21939118

It is very difficult to talk about this book, for many and various reasons. First of all, it is a book that tackles themes and issues that are delicate for some people, me included. Therefore, reading about death or broken families truly resonated with me, but precisely because the author presented those issues so vividly and Lillis’ emotions were given in such a raw manner, it almost felt like experiencing them along with her.

Also, when I began reading this book, it almost felt like nothing really happened. The writing was beautiful but slow, the plot not very eventful but still enjoyable. However, reaching the middle and end of the book, I came to realise that so many things had in fact occurred in the plot. And this is a great advantage Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s writing has – she presents her characters’ lives to the reader in such a calm and matter-of-fact way that at first I didn’t realise how many things had already happened. And I believe this is exactly how life is. So many things happen in our daily lives but we don’t always realise it until he sit down and think about them. This is exactly what happened to me with this book.

As Gerard Stembridge states in the cover of the book “Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s characters and their relationships have about them that most precious and elusive quality: the ring of truth”. In fact, some of the events in this books were inspired byt the author’s personal experiences.

Despite being short, this book manages to tackle so many themes at once, such as death and grief, family relationships, adoption, human relationships and the unpredictability of life. Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s writing is beautiful and lyrical and she manages to build characters that correspond perfectly to reality. Her characters do good things and they also do bad things but there are no inherently good or bad characters. Lillis was not predominantly good, and her mother or Struan were not predominantly bad. Everyone, as all human beings, have both qualities and there are reasons behind each action.

Overall, I’m very grateful to Cathy for giving me the opportunity to read this marvelous book. It made think, it made cry and it made me laugh. I had an absolutely wonderful time reading it and even though it dealt with some quite “heavy” themes, I daresay it was quite a relaxing read as it didn’t require much effort to get immersed in its world.

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‘The Great Hunger’ by Patrick Kavanagh *** (Reading Ireland Month)

Patrick Kavanagh is undoubtedly one of the most prominent figures in Irish literature, both as a novelist and as a poet. He was born in 1904 and died in 1967, having lived through wars and terrible times, which is something that has been instilled into his writing as well.

Having never read anything by Kavanagh before, I decided to commence my literary journey through his work with a poem of his, “The Great Hunger”. It was written in 1942 and it revolves around the life of a man named Maguire. As it is quite a lengthy poem, it consists of 14 parts and in terms of form it resembles more a prose-poem, since rhyming lines are scarce to non-existent.

Almost in its entirety, the poem describes the everyday life of an Irish man in those times, who, as a peasant/farmer, is  mostly preoccupied with agricultural activities. However, the poem has a very bleak and melancholic aura surrounding it, which is enhanced more and more as the poem progresses. Maguire lives with his mother, who seems to be a very bossy and authoritarian figure. Sometimes Maguire feels trapped in this kind of life that he leads, having to farm his land and do what his mother says, while news of his acquaintances’ success reach his ears.

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The futility of such a meaningless life is underlined constantly in the poem. As the years go by and Maguire grows older, he begins to realise that it may be too late now to actually make a change and create the life that he always dreamt of. Even when his mother is out of the picture, he doesn’t seem willing to progress and get rid of all those things that plague him and make him miserable. And that specific attribute of his character made me think whether it truly was his mother’s oppression which held him back and prevented him from moving forward and doing something useful and fulfilling in his life.

Kavanagh manages very skillfully to refute the idea of the “noble peasant” that had been created in Irish literature and ideology at that time, since his peasant character is far from noble and successful. Instead, he spends his life with activities that don’t offer him any kind of satisfaction and he is lost in his mourning of the things he never had the opportunity to have.

The depiction of the female characters in this poem is also noteworthy, I believe. The most prominent woman figure is certainly Maguire’s mother, who seems to be in control of everything around her. Another female figure is his sister, who is a spinster and also sad about her life. Therefore, even though Maguire is the main character of the poem, the rest of the characters also seem to be trapped in their situations and being unable to escape.

I also liked how the poem started and ended with images of soil and clay, since the Irish land itself could almost be considered a separate character of its own, as it is connected with both farming and all the agrarian activities the characters in this poem occupied themselves with, as well as with all the deaths that occured, serving as the final resting place for those tortured souls.

Ultimately, for me, the title of the poem referred to Maguire’s great hunger for life, for better opportunities and experiences. Sadly, this hunger, no matter how great it is, never seems to be saturated. I am certain that there are a lot more themes and nuances in this poem that I’ve missed, so I will probaby re-read it some time in the future. However, as it is really melancholic and leaves you with a sinking stomach by the end of it, I think I will have to be in the right mood for it. I did enjoy it, though, as a first contact with Kavanagh’s writing, and I’ll definitely seek out more of his work soon.

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