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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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‘The Ballad of Oisín in Tir na nÓg’ by Michéal Ó Coimín **** (Reading Ireland Month)

Myths, fairytales and legends from all over the world hold a dear place in my heart and fascinate and intrigue me to no end. They are always one of the first literary searches I conduct upon being brought in contact with a new culture, as they often contain so much precious information about the customs and mentality of the countries they originate from.

The Ballad of Oisín in Tir na nÓg is a book I stumbled upon whilst searching for some Irish mythology for the  Reading Ireland Month Cathy and Niall are hosting, and it made me delighted.

The character of Oisín and his adventurous travel to Tir na nÓg or The Land of the Young as it is often translated as, is an old Irish myth whose origin I couldn’t really trace, but in the edition I own it is written in verse form, in the tradition of most epic myths and legends, like The Odyssey, The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Song of the Nibelungs by Michéal Ó Coimín in 1750.

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Oisin and the beautiful lady travelling to Tir na nOg.

This epic poem basically consists of a dialogue between Oisín and St. Patrick, to whom our hero relates the circumstances surrounding his journey to The Land of the Young, how he got there and how he ended up returning back. As the legend has it, a very beautiful young lady appeared one day and asked to take Oisín with her to the Land of the Young, promising him youth, wealth, love and everything he could possibly ever desire. Oisín of course accepted this offer and he tells St. Patrick about all the adventures they had while trying to reach this much-promised land.

After his arrival Oisín enjoys his life there, but after a while he comes to miss Ireland, his home country, and asks of his beautiful wife to allow him to go back and see it once. His lady is afraid he will not return, so she tells him to go but make sure he doesn’t get off his horse, because the moment his feet touch the ground he will be unable to return to her Land of the Young.

I do not want to give out the ending (though I’m sure some of you know it already), but I think it’s pretty obvious in which direction Oisín’s story is going to move towards. I really enjoyed reading this legend/poem and picking out all the similarities and differences it has with other similar legends I’ve read or heard of.

In 2014, I spent a semester in Poland as an Erasmus student and I had the opportunity to take a splendid course about fairies in tradition and culture, in which our brilliant lecturer acquainted us with so many different manifestations of fairies and fairy-like creatures and their usual behaviour. From the myth of Sir Orfeo (with which Oisín’s story shares so many elements) to the Shakespeare’s plays and Tolkien’s elves, the fairy tradition can be found in so many places. Therefore, I cannot help but observe the affinity between the fairy queens of those legends and the beautiful young woman who suddenly appeared to claim Oisín as her husband and take him to her land, where all his wishes could come true.

The story of Oisín has inspired so many writers; even W. B. Yeats had written a poem called The Wanderings of Oisin, which I’m certain is a retelling of this myth, as both Oisín and St. Patrick are included and it is also written in the form of an epic poem.

I throroughly enjoyed reading this myth, in addition to enhancing my mythology/legend collection. The storyline may seem typical today (though I’m not entirely sure where it was first encountered) but the Irish elements and the Gaelic influences are more than evident.

Have you read or heard of this myth? What other similar myths do you enjoy? 🙂

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Monday Movie: ‘Brooklyn’ (2015) (Ireland Month)

Mondays are usually gloomy days, so I decided to brighten up mine by watching and writing about a movie I’ve been meaning to watch for a while now. That movie is none other than “Brooklyn”, based on the book of the same name by the Irish author Colm Tóibín.

The film follows a young girl, Eilis, who has been given the opportunity to move from Ireland to Brooklyn, America, in order to work and have a better life. She takes this offer with no hesitation, since as she says herself at some point in the movie, there’s nothing for her in Ireland. Her first days in Brooklyn are very hard, as she not only suffers from severe homesickness, but she’s also having a hard time adapting to her new way of life.

Her life is bound to change, though, when she meets an Italian guy and starts going out with him. He seems to be exactly what Eilis needed in order to get back to her feet, and her life becomes happier than ever. However, some news from her home town arrive to disrupt this happiness, and Eilis needs to make a very important choice. Where does her true home lie?

I completely adored the cinematography and everything about the era this film was set in. The shots of Ireland and later of Brooklyn in 1950s were really well made and the costumes and overall atmosphere transported me back to that period for the 2 hours this film lasted for. The music was also very nice and soothing, implementing those Irish elements when needed.

What confused me a little, though, and made me not fully enjoy the film, was Eilis as a character. She started out as the timid girl many of us can identify with and her character truly developed and grew throughout the movie. Her confidence after the first half was overflowing and she did become a woman able to stand for herself and go after what she wanted. No matter how confident she became, though, she was still unable to speak and say the things she had to in order for her to avoid some uncomfortable situations and I admit I felt frustrated with her choices and attitude in the last half of the film. I did feel that she made the right choice in the end, after all.

Some people have characterised “Brooklyn” as a “chick-flick set in the 50s”, and while I can see why, I believe it is much more than just a love story. It tackles themes such as home, growing up, family and, of course, love, but everything is put under a veil of nostalgia, in which the music plays a very important part. It’s not a superficial story and I felt that the final choice was more a personal choice of where one feels at home rather than a simple choice of love interests and partners.

I always enjoy seeing how Irish culture handles the theme of identity and home and this movie certainly had an input I hadn’t encountered before. It wasn’t an excellent movie, but it was definitely worth watching. However, I don’t think I will be reading the book any time soon.

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