5

The Book Trail: From ‘The Fire Starters’ to ‘Piranesi’

This edition of The Book Trail begins with a novel which I very much enjoyed when I read it last year; I found its depiction of The Troubles quite surprising, and also highly chilling at times. As ever, I have used the Goodreads ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ feature to generate this list.

1. The Fire Starters by Jan Carson
‘Dr Jonathan Murray fears his new-born daughter is not as harmless as she seems. Sammy Agnew is wrestling with his dark past, and fears the violence in his blood lurks in his son, too. The city is in flames and the authorities are losing control. As matters fall into frenzy, and as the lines between fantasy and truth, right and wrong, begin to blur, who will these two fathers choose to protect? Dark,propulsive and thrillingly original, this tale of fierce familial love and sacrifice fizzes with magic and wonder.’

2. Strange Flowers by Donal Ryan
‘In 1973 Moll Gladney goes missing from the Tipperary hillside where she was born. Slowly her parents, Paddy and Kit, begin to accept that she’s gone forever. But she returns, changed, and with a few surprises for her family and neighbours. Nothing is ever the same again for the Gladneys, who learn that fate cares little for duty, that life rarely conforms to expectation, that God can’t be relied upon to heed any prayer. A story of exile and return, of loss and discovery, of retreat from grief and the saving power of love.’

3. After the Silence by Louise O’Neill
‘Nessa Crowley’s murderer has been protected by silence for ten years. Until a team of documentary makers decide to find out the truth. On the day of Henry and Keelin Kinsella’s wild party at their big house a violent storm engulfed the island of Inisrun, cutting it off from the mainland. When morning broke Nessa Crowley’s lifeless body lay in the garden, her last breath silenced by the music and the thunder. The killer couldn’t have escaped Inisrun, but no one was charged with the murder. The mystery that surrounded the death of Nessa remained hidden. But the islanders knew who to blame for the crime that changed them forever. Ten years later a documentary crew arrives, there to lift the lid off the Kinsellas’ carefully constructed lives, determined to find evidence that will prove Henry’s guilt and Keelin’s complicity in the murder of beautiful Nessa. In this bold, brilliant, disturbing new novel Louise O’Neill shows that deadly secrets are devastating to those who hold them close.’

4. A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ni Ghiofra
‘A true original. In this stunningly unusual prose debut, Doireann Ni Ghriofa sculpts essay and autofiction to explore inner life and the deep connection felt between two writers centuries apart. In the 1700s, an Irish noblewoman, on discovering her husband has been murdered, drinks handfuls of his blood and composes an extraordinary poem. In the present day, a young mother narrowly avoids tragedy. On encountering the poem, she becomes obsessed with its parallels with her own life, and sets out to track down the rest of the story. A devastating and timeless tale about one woman freeing her voice by reaching into the past and finding another’s.’

5. Actress by Anne Enright
‘Katherine O’Dell is an Irish theater legend. As her daughter Norah retraces her mother’s celebrated career and bohemian life, she delves into long-kept secrets, both her mother’s and her own. Katherine began her career on Ireland’s bus-and-truck circuit before making it to London’s West End, Broadway, and finally Hollywood. Every moment of her life is a star turn, with young Norah standing in the wings. But the mother-daughter romance cannot survive Katherine’s past or the world’s damage. With age, alcohol, and dimming stardom, her grip on reality grows fitful and, fueled by a proud and long-simmering rage, she commits a bizarre crime. Her mother’s protector, Norah understands the destructive love that binds an actress to her audience, but also the strength that an actress takes from her art. Once the victim of a haunting crime herself, Norah eventually becomes a writer, wife, and mother, finding her way to her own hard-won joy. Actress is a book about the freedom we find in our work and in the love we make and keep.’

6. Weather by Jenny Offill
‘Lizzie Benson slid into her job as a librarian without a traditional degree. But this gives her a vantage point from which to practice her other calling: she is a fake shrink. For years she has tended to her God-haunted mother and her recovering addict brother. They have both stabilized for the moment, but Lizzie has little chance to spend her new free time with husband and son before her old mentor, Sylvia Liller, makes a proposal. She’s become famous for her prescient podcast, Hell and High Water, and wants to hire Lizzie to answer the mail she receives: from left-wingers worried about climate change and right-wingers worried about the decline of western civilization. As Lizzie dives into this polarized world, she begins to wonder what it means to keep tending your own garden once you’ve seen the flames beyond its walls. When her brother becomes a father and Sylvia a recluse, Lizzie is forced to address the limits of her own experience–but still she tries to save everyone, using everything she’s learned about empathy and despair, conscience and collusion, from her years of wandering the library stacks . . . And all the while the voices of the city keep floating in–funny, disturbing, and increasingly mad.’

7. Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings
‘In a small Western Queensland town, a reserved young woman receives a note from one of her vanished brothers—a note that makes question her memories of their disappearance and her father’s departure. A beguiling story that proves that gothic delights and uncanny family horror can live—and even thrive—under a burning sun, Flyaway introduces readers to Bettina Scott, whose search for the truth throws her into tales of eerie dogs, vanished schools, cursed monsters, and enchanted bottles. In these pages Jennings assures you that gothic delights, uncanny family horror, and strange, unsettling prose can live—and even thrive—under a burning sun.’

8. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
‘Piranesi’s house is no ordinary building: its rooms are infinite, its corridors endless, its walls are lined with thousands upon thousands of statues, each one different from all the others. Within the labyrinth of halls an ocean is imprisoned; waves thunder up staircases, rooms are flooded in an instant. But Piranesi is not afraid; he understands the tides as he understands the pattern of the labyrinth itself. He lives to explore the house. There is one other person in the house—a man called The Other, who visits Piranesi twice a week and asks for help with research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. But as Piranesi explores, evidence emerges of another person, and a terrible truth begins to unravel, revealing a world beyond the one Piranesi has always known.’

Have you read any of these books? Which of them pique your interest?

2

One From the Archive: ‘Needlework’ by Deirdre Sullivan ****

First published in October 2019.

I do not tend to gravitate toward young adult books, but Needlework by Deirdre Sullivan sounded quite original.  Whilst I had not read any of her fiction before picking up this tome, I have heard a lot of positive comments about her writing, and was eager to sample it for myself.  Fellow Irish YA author Louise O’Neill, whose fiction I enjoy, writes: ‘Reading Needlework is similar to getting your first tattoo – it’s searing, often painful, but it is an experience you’ll never forget.’
9781910411506

Our protagonist, sixteen-year-old Frances, is known as Ces.  Ces wants to become a tattoo artist, so that she can ’embroider skin with beautiful images.  But for now she’s just trying to reach adulthood without falling apart.’ She lives in Ireland, and has to work at a local newsagents in order to make ends meet.  She and her mother have left her violent father, and her mother often does not leave her bedroom during the day.  ‘She is a good mother,’ Ces tells us, ‘or she can be.  It’s just that she is broken and she knows I am as well but that doesn’t stop her breaking me even more.’

We learn, throughout, about Ces’ ‘meditation on her effort to maintain her bodily and spiritual integrity in the face of abuse, violation and neglect.’  She ruminates on the horrors which have been done to her, and the fear which she has of being seen as a victim.  She has a sexual relationship with the boy that lives next door in a house ‘mostly made of plywood and fag ash’, Tom, and recognises the deep-rooted problems at its heart: ‘There is something wrong with it, amoral even.  Not on my part, or on his, but kind of both.  I’m using him while also being used.’  Indeed, there is a volatility to each of the relationships in her life.

Sections of present-day narrative have been interspersed with poetic, rather mesmerising prose, which details tattoos and artwork. Ces is continually concerned with the body and the skin, and how it can be transformed into something beautiful, or just different.  The novel opens in the following way: ‘First prepare the skin.  Not the room, the tools you’ll use.  The skin itself, a mental switch to open you to something…  Needles, things that fascinate me always.  Much kinder and much crueller than are knives, a spindle-pierce through filaments and fingers.’  This continues throughout, pulling the whole story together, and often adding a little light relief to the dark subject matter.

The prose has some really gorgeous, textured writing to it, particularly when Sullivan explores tattoos, art, and marking oneself with something as permanent as a tattoo: ‘Your needle is a pen, and ink your pigment.  Fish-scale silver, saucy ketchup red.  Mute or lurid colour.  A whisper or a scream.’  The imagery which Sullivan creates is sometimes quite haunting.  She writes: ‘I drew an angry eye inside my book.  A woman made of snakes.  A crown of bones upon a kingly head.  A woman holding up a mirror to her decapitated neck.  A jar of honey filled with many bees.’

I found the narrative quite beguiling.  Ces is an unusual character in her outlook, and the way in which she tackles things.  She seems, in many ways, older than her years; she tends to be quite wise.  There is no real naivety to her, due to the situations which she has found herself in, and the way in which the agency of her body has been taken by others.  She is not always a loner, but she often feels alone.  She comments: ‘I am not liked.  People who do not know me automatically assume that I am a cold bitch.  That is the phrase they use.  Maybe it is true.  I find it difficult to warm to people.  I always assume that they pose a threat and gird myself accordingly.’

Ces’ observations of herself are suffused with pain; they are sometimes brutal, and often hard to read.  She does not hold out a great deal of hope for her future, either: ‘I sometimes see my life as a series of doors shutting loudly, one after another.’  I found her narrative voice entirely convincing throughout.  When she talks about her difficult past, and how it has affected her, she does so with a kind of gloomy beauty: ‘I thought Dad was the source of all my problems.  And now he is removed and things remain the same within my head.  I wish my brain was metamorphic rock.  Dark blue limestone changed to purest marble, wiping clean the dirt that lurks in pores.  Like a phoenix, rising from the heat, all new and perfect.’

Needlework is described in its blurb as ‘powerful, poetic and disturbing’; it is all of these things.  Its beautifully written prose is often bleak, and there are such vivid descriptions of violence and abuse within it that it should not be read by the faint-hearted.  Needlework is more hard-hitting than any other young adult novel I have encountered; there is so much within it that seems more suited to gritty adult fiction.  Sullivan has certainly tackled some difficult subjects here, particularly with regard to sexual abuse, and I would suggest that it is not an appropriate novel for those under the age of fourteen to read.  I, somewhat older than the novel’s intended audience, found myself wincing at points in the narrative.

Sullivan presents a raw, unflinching portrait of the real troubles that so many young girls are forced to go through, and Needlework is all the more unforgettable and striking for it.  This coming-of-age novel is painfully observed, and well worth picking up if you’re looking for something challenging to read.  Needlework did so much more than I was expecting, and I imagine that its powerful story will stay with me for a long time to come.

6

‘Being Various: New Irish Short Stories’, edited by Lucy Caldwell ****

I was thoroughly impressed by Lucy Caldwell’s short story collection, Multitudes, which I recently reviewed.  I was therefore even more keen than I had previously been to see which stories she had selected for an edited collection, entitled Being Various: New Irish Short Stories.

When skimming through the contents page of Being Various in my local library, I found a lot of authors whom I had never heard of; this is something which I love in thematic anthologies such as this one.  Amongst the new-to-me names were quite a lot of authors whom I already know and admire – Danielle McLaughlin, Louise O’Neill, Belinda McKeon, Eimear McBride, Sally Rooney, and Sinead Gleeson are particular favourites.

419wqpvllsl._ac_sy400_In Being Various, Caldwell was keen to bring together contributors from Northern Ireland and the Republic, all of whom have been published since the Good Friday Agreement.  The stories here have been specially commissioned for this anthology, and therefore cannot be found anywhere else.  In her introduction, Caldwell comments: ‘Ireland is going through a golden age of writing: that has never been more apparent.  I wanted to capture something of the energy of this explosion, in all its variousness…  Writers who are truly the inheritors of Bowen and O’Faolain, telling twenty-first-century stories with effortless elegance and grace.’

Caldwell goes on to reflect: ‘I thought about how far Ireland has come in my lifetime and how far it has to go.’ She wanted to highlight this, and welcomed tales of ‘subjects that have long been unspoken or dismissed or taboo, with a ferocity and unsentimentality that’s breathtaking.’  Indeed, the stories deal with a lot of pivotal and topical themes – puberty, separation, change, eating disorders, death; what it means to belong, and to grow up, and to feel.

There is some really beautiful writing to be found within Being Various.  In ‘A Partial List of the Saved’, for instance, author Danielle McLaughlin writes: ‘The last time they’d travelled this road it had been summertime, not a dull day like this one, but a glorious day with the sun beating down… and bodies, eerily pale, prostrate on lawns like pieces of salt cod left to dry.  Today the fields were shrouded in drizzle.  The light was otherworldly, silver on the distant surface of the bog lakes.’

I find Irish fiction entirely engaging, and this short story collection reminded me why.  There are so many moments of clear-eyed brilliance here; so many fully-formed characters; so much emphasis upon what makes up real life.  There are characters who move to Ireland and away, and some who return to it.  The focus of Louise O’Neill’s ‘Legends’ is a young girl with an eating disorder, her ‘waistbands skimming empty spaces where flesh used to reside, the number on the weighing scales decreasing every day’; Elske Rahill’s ‘Stretch Marks’ has at its heart a woman set adrift by her latest pregnancy: ‘The baby shifts under her skin, hooking a piece of itself into her rib – a hand or a foot.  It must be mid-afternoon at least.  Thursday afternoon.  Beside the bed, two slices of toast have cooled and warped.’

Being Various presents a bold collection of stories, the majority of them realist, but with a little magical realism creeping in from time to time.  Every single story captured my attention, and I found a lot to enjoy here, and a lot to admire.  Even those which I did not like as much were very good stylistically.  The stories are so diverse that they can be read one after another, and still be entirely memorable.  There is striking imagery, and a lot of hard-hitting content, and I cannot recommend Being Various enough.

0

‘Needlework’ by Deirdre Sullivan ****

I do not tend to gravitate toward young adult books, but Needlework by Deirdre Sullivan sounded quite original.  Whilst I had not read any of her fiction before picking up this tome, I have heard a lot of positive comments about her writing, and was eager to sample it for myself.  Fellow Irish YA author Louise O’Neill, whose fiction I enjoy, writes: ‘Reading Needlework is similar to getting your first tattoo – it’s searing, often painful, but it is an experience you’ll never forget.’
9781910411506

Our protagonist, sixteen-year-old Frances, is known as Ces.  Ces wants to become a tattoo artist, so that she can ’embroider skin with beautiful images.  But for now she’s just trying to reach adulthood without falling apart.’ She lives in Ireland, and has to work at a local newsagents in order to make ends meet.  She and her mother have left her violent father, and her mother often does not leave her bedroom during the day.  ‘She is a good mother,’ Ces tells us, ‘or she can be.  It’s just that she is broken and she knows I am as well but that doesn’t stop her breaking me even more.’

We learn, throughout, about Ces’ ‘meditation on her effort to maintain her bodily and spiritual integrity in the face of abuse, violation and neglect.’  She ruminates on the horrors which have been done to her, and the fear which she has of being seen as a victim.  She has a sexual relationship with the boy that lives next door in a house ‘mostly made of plywood and fag ash’, Tom, and recognises the deep-rooted problems at its heart: ‘There is something wrong with it, amoral even.  Not on my part, or on his, but kind of both.  I’m using him while also being used.’  Indeed, there is a volatility to each of the relationships in her life.

Sections of present-day narrative have been interspersed with poetic, rather mesmerising prose, which details tattoos and artwork. Ces is continually concerned with the body and the skin, and how it can be transformed into something beautiful, or just different.  The novel opens in the following way: ‘First prepare the skin.  Not the room, the tools you’ll use.  The skin itself, a mental switch to open you to something…  Needles, things that fascinate me always.  Much kinder and much crueller than are knives, a spindle-pierce through filaments and fingers.’  This continues throughout, pulling the whole story together, and often adding a little light relief to the dark subject matter.

The prose has some really gorgeous, textured writing to it, particularly when Sullivan explores tattoos, art, and marking oneself with something as permanent as a tattoo: ‘Your needle is a pen, and ink your pigment.  Fish-scale silver, saucy ketchup red.  Mute or lurid colour.  A whisper or a scream.’  The imagery which Sullivan creates is sometimes quite haunting.  She writes: ‘I drew an angry eye inside my book.  A woman made of snakes.  A crown of bones upon a kingly head.  A woman holding up a mirror to her decapitated neck.  A jar of honey filled with many bees.’

I found the narrative quite beguiling.  Ces is an unusual character in her outlook, and the way in which she tackles things.  She seems, in many ways, older than her years; she tends to be quite wise.  There is no real naivety to her, due to the situations which she has found herself in, and the way in which the agency of her body has been taken by others.  She is not always a loner, but she often feels alone.  She comments: ‘I am not liked.  People who do not know me automatically assume that I am a cold bitch.  That is the phrase they use.  Maybe it is true.  I find it difficult to warm to people.  I always assume that they pose a threat and gird myself accordingly.’

Ces’ observations of herself are suffused with pain; they are sometimes brutal, and often hard to read.  She does not hold out a great deal of hope for her future, either: ‘I sometimes see my life as a series of doors shutting loudly, one after another.’  I found her narrative voice entirely convincing throughout.  When she talks about her difficult past, and how it has affected her, she does so with a kind of gloomy beauty: ‘I thought Dad was the source of all my problems.  And now he is removed and things remain the same within my head.  I wish my brain was metamorphic rock.  Dark blue limestone changed to purest marble, wiping clean the dirt that lurks in pores.  Like a phoenix, rising from the heat, all new and perfect.’

Needlework is described in its blurb as ‘powerful, poetic and disturbing’; it is all of these things.  Its beautifully written prose is often bleak, and there are such vivid descriptions of violence and abuse within it that it should not be read by the faint-hearted.  Needlework is more hard-hitting than any other young adult novel I have encountered; there is so much within it that seems more suited to gritty adult fiction.  Sullivan has certainly tackled some difficult subjects here, particularly with regard to sexual abuse, and I would suggest that it is not an appropriate novel for those under the age of fourteen to read.  I, somewhat older than the novel’s intended audience, found myself wincing at points in the narrative.

Sullivan presents a raw, unflinching portrait of the real troubles that so many young girls are forced to go through, and Needlework is all the more unforgettable and striking for it.  This coming-of-age novel is painfully observed, and well worth picking up if you’re looking for something challenging to read.  Needlework did so much more than I was expecting, and I imagine that its powerful story will stay with me for a long time to come.

Purchase from The Book Depository

6

‘A World of Love’ by Elizabeth Bowen ****

I have read a few of Elizabeth Bowen’s books to date, but still have rather a lot of her oeuvre outstanding.  With this in mind, I could not resist picking up a copy of her novella, A World of Love, which was first published in 1955.  This is one of Bowen’s later works, and only two finished novels were written after it.

The premise of A World of Love is that a twenty-year-old woman named Jane Danby, 9781784873950living in a crumbling old house in County Cork, Ireland, finds a package of old letters in the attic.  This leads her ‘into the world of love’, in which a rather eccentric neighbour, Lady Vesta Latterly, ‘rich, promiscuous, parvenue Englishwoman… will play a part in Jane’s awakening.’  The house, Montefort, ‘harbours a group of people held together by odd ties of kinship or habit, and haunted by the memory of its former owner who was killed in France as a young man.’  Jane lives there with her parents, Fred and Lilia, and twelve-year-old sister Maud, ‘all of whom owe their domestic situation to Montefort’s owner, Antonia’, who inherited the house from her cousin Guy, who died during the First World War.  The Danby family’s place here is ‘uncertain, never secure, never defined.’

A World of Love takes place during a heatwave.  It begins on a sultry June morning.  Here, writes Bowen, ‘The sun rose on a landscape still pale with the heat of the day before.  There was no haze, but a sort of coppery burnish out of the air lit on flowing fields, rocks, the face of the one house and the cliff of limestone overhanging the river.  The river gorge cut deep through the uplands.  This light at this hour, so unfamiliar, brought into being a new world – painted, expectant, empty, intense.’  As I have come to expect with Bowen’s writing, her descriptions sing.  The way in which she writes about Jane, too, is unusual and exquisitely layered.  When she introduces her protagonist, she asserts: ‘Kindled by summer though cool in nature, she was a beauty.  The cut of her easy golden hair was anachronistic over the dress she wore: this, her height and something half naive half studied about her management of the sleeves and skirts made her like a boy actor in woman’s clothes, while what was classical in her grace made her appear to belong to some other time.’

Bowen goes on to explore the isolation which surrounds the house and its inhabitants.  The day before, she explains, ‘They had all been to the Fete, and a backwash from it still agitated their tempers and nerves – in the house itself residual pleasure-seeking ghosts had been set astir.  The Hunt Fete, which drew the entire country, now was the sole festivity of the lonely year, for Montefort the only annual outing – which, more and more each summer, required nerve.’

The Vintage edition of A World of Love is introduced by Selina Hastings.  She notes that this book was written soon after the death of Bowen’s husband, but does not perhaps encompass the depths of sadness which one might expect.  Instead, writes Hastings, ‘although the book is in a sense a ghost story, with the pervasive presence of the dead permeating both place and plot, yet its mood is lyrical and light, a spirited comedy of manners finely balanced over a more sombre subterranean level of betrayal, frustration and loss.’  Bowen herself, indeed, called this novella ‘a joy to write’.  Hastings praises Bowen’s protagonist; she notes that she ‘has an almost wilful independence of spirit very different from the other solitary young girls who people Bowen’s novels.’

The family dynamics at play throughout this novella are deep and somewhat complicated.  The letters which Jane discovers quite by chance, wrapped up in a muslin dress which she takes a fancy to in the attic, provide a crux in the novella, causing – or perhaps just providing a means for allowing – the characters to quarrel amongst themselves.  These letters are not overly interesting to Jane at first: ‘The ink, sharp in the candlelight, had not faded.  She could not fail, however, when first she handled them, to connect these letters with that long-settled dust: her sense of their remoteness from her entitled her to feel they belonged to history.’  They soon begin to grow with an almost mythic importance in Jane’s mind, however.

A World of Love is an opulent novella, written by the most observant of authors.  Much of the little action which plays out here revolves around the characters, and what they mean to one another.  There is often a great deal of tension embedded within their relationships.  Each of Bowen’s creations is unusual in some way; Maud, for instance, has an imaginary friend of sorts named Gay David, who is banned from entering the dining room, and Lilia has ‘a neurosis about anyone standing outside a door.’  Whilst not overly plot heavy, there is a lot to consider within A World of Love, and it is a novella which I am sure to be thinking about for a long time to come.

Purchase from The Book Depository

1

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 🙂

1

‘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.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

‘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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