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?


Two Novels: ‘The Surface Breaks’ and ‘The Householder’

The Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill *** 9781407185538
I have read a couple of Louise O’Neill’s to date, and really enjoy her writing style. She tackles a lot of important topics, particularly with regard to young women. I thought, on the surface of it, that The Surface Breaks would be rather different; it is, after all, a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s beguiling fairytale ‘The Little Mermaid’. However, O’Neill has managed to suffuse it with a lot of affecting issues.

Whilst I found this, and the way in which she tackled the story, interesting, I found that there was no subtlety whatsoever to it. From the first, feminism and the way in which the mermaid protagonist of her story is so oppressed, is explicitly mentioned; this continues throughout the book, and becomes a little repetitive at times. The narrator constantly questions herself, often asking herself the same things over and over again. As I read further on, the cliched characters and roles began to grate on me somewhat.

Elements of the original story were well interpreted and incorporated, but I found parts of it were executed far better than others. The Surface Breaks feels rather drawn out; there was perhaps a little too much build-up to the time at which she gains legs and loses her voice, which could have been edited for greater effect. O’Neill, whilst retaining the core ideas of Andersen’s stories, does manage to bring the story up to date. However, the novel is not quite as good as I felt it could have been.


9780393008517The Householder by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala ***
The Sunday Times calls Ruth Prawer Jhabvala ‘a writer of genius…  a writer of world class – a master story teller.’  Seeing that she has been on my radar for years, and I have read such praise as the above on many an occasion, it seems odd that it has taken me such a long time to get around to actually reading her work.  Whilst I didn’t love The Householder I’m so pleased I finally have an idea of her themes and writing style.

First published in 1960, The Householder is an ‘appealing story of a young schoolteacher trying to come to terms with marriage and maturity’, which is ‘much more than a highly comic vignette of a particular society – it is also a reflection of a universal experience.’  Prem is our protagonist, a young man who is ‘not too good at enforcing discipline’ in his role as Hindi teacher in a boy’s college.  He has recently married a woman named Indu, in a relationship arranged by his parents; he barely knows her, and feels adrift in their new home in Delhi.  Indu is also pregnant, something which is ‘a terrible embarrassment for him.  Now everybody would know what he did with her at night in the dark…’.

Prem is almost constantly at odds with himself; his life is not shaping up to be following the same course which he had imagined so vividly, and try as he might, he is unable to change it.  He cannot connect with his wife, no matter how hard he tries: ‘He felt so alone and lonely, shut up in this small ugly flat with Indu who cried by herself in the sitting-room while he had to lie and cry by himself in the bedroom.’  Prem is, essentially, at a point of crisis in his life.  Whilst I did not find him a believable protagonist, he is both believable and understandable in his thoughts and actions.

The way in which Jhabvala writes about Indian society is fascinating, particularly with regard to Prem; despite having little disposable income, he feels that he has to keep a servant-boy to maintain his public appearance.   Jhabvala deftly sets scenes, and gives one a feel for each of her characters in just a couple of sentences.  Her prose has a wonderful ease to it.  As a character study, The Householder is fascinating, but I did find that due to its rendering into the form of a novella, some important themes remained relatively unexplored.  From the outset, I thought that this would be a four-star read, but the ending does feel a little too rushed to fit with the quiet patience which the rest of the story has.  The Householder is unarguably transporting, however, and I look forward to visiting India again with Jhabvala very soon.

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