A History of Loneliness by John Boyne

Irish writer, John Boyne.

When you are born into a Judeo-Christian society you are a product of that society whether you subscribe to the belief system or not, and that goes for all societies that have a belief system at their core.

Belief systems have accompanied human existence since the year dot; they predate governments and were in fact human’s first taste of governance. It belies our history to denounce religious belief as irrelevant and purely a product of our human ability to imagine a truth even if that truth doesn’t exist. It would be equally absurd to denounce our artistic nature simply because it is another product of our imagination that also allows us to make up stories.

However, there is a difference, a big difference, between a belief system and the administration of that belief system. It is the synagogue, the temple, the mosque, the church that tells their followers what to wear, what they can eat and when to eat it, how to sing, what the god meant, and what they must do to get to a better place; to be blunt, it is the belief system that sustains its followers but the administration that damages them. And to be blunt again, this book is about how a good priest comes to terms with a bad one.

I’m avoiding using the word evil, which shouldn’t really exist as a noun, it is better used only as an adjective: people do evil things, and at the heart of every evil thing is a need. In some cases that need, and the person’s actions to satisfy that need, are distorted, sometimes outrageously so, but nevertheless a need that needs to be sated. In some cases that need isn’t understood even by the perpetrator of the resulting evil deeds which makes them all the more difficult, some say impossible, to judge, correct, or punish.

A History of Loneliness (2014) is the book before Boyne’s master-work, The Heart’s Invisible Furies (2017) – the book that introduced me to this author – and these two books are the only ones set in his native Ireland.

Obran Yates is an Irish boy with a malleable nature. He enters a seminary in 1972 at the behest of his mother because she tells him he has a calling, and we follow his education with its friendships and frustrations, his family with its joys and tragedies, and his work as a teacher and parish priest with its disappointments and sacrifices. In parallel with this history of priestly life is the shadow of sexual abuse at the hands of priests; a shadow that grows and darkens despite that administration’s attempts to ignore it.

We all know about this blight on our Judeo-Christian society. Names like George Pell and Malka Leifer remind us of it almost nightly between Covid-19 news updates.

The writing is assured, confident, and skillful and Boyne pulls no punches. He has confessed to having a hot anger against the Catholic Church for decades but he has channelled that anger to tell a story about a good priest who like most religious leaders do the right thing and sustain the believers in their care, but Boyne also makes it clear that the old response – don’t let a few bad apples taint the whole barrel – is a very poor one. Why? because the administration of christianity is rigidly hierarchical and fiercely insular in its protection of itself, to the point of betraying then abandoning those in its care. Speaking out against their own is not what priests do. They should and hopefully will.

The belief system says “Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God” and the administration of that belief system has completely reversed and blighted the meaning.

This is a book that needs to be read. It is also a great argument for the power of fiction to tell us the truth.

Here is an interview with John Boyne about A History of Loneliness.

You can purchase the book in various formats here.

A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom by John Boyne

Irish writer, John Boyne.

John Boyne has in his novelistic career stretched a life over two and a half centuries (A Thief of Time, 2000); channelled Buffalo Bill (The Congress of Rough Riders, 2001); Captain William Bligh (Mutiny of the Bounty, 2008); ghosts in 1860’s Norfolk, (This House is Haunted, 2013); Gore Vidal (A Ladder to the Sky, 2018); set the action in the Winter Palace of the Tsars (The House of Special Purpose, 2009); World War 1, (The Absolutist, 2011, Stay Where You are then Leave, 2013); 1930’s London (Next of Kin, 2006); Nazi Germany (The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, 2006); Ireland and the Church (The History of Loneliness, 2014, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, 2017); so a novel that stretches a life over two millennia and includes historical people and events we recognise is really just another slice from the vast John Boyne universe: testament to his wide interests, audacity, and skill. He is certainly ambitious. 

Here in A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom the unnamed narrator born in AD 1 has the novelistic trait of NOT aging with the years so that in AD 214, as he continues his own story, he is 10 years old.  Although events in the narrator’s life remain in his history no matter where the story takes him, and the story take him all the way to 2016 and on to 2080.  

However, there is a feeling of A Traveller … being squeezed into the gambit that Boyne has prescribed himself. A person throughout their lifetime doesn’t exist alone. Primarily it’s to do with the family: these people travel along with you. Boyne overcomes this by deeming that if the  protagonist linearly exists across centuries then his parents and siblings must also; names, except for their initial capital letter, change to suit the location; hence his brother Junius – in Palestine AD 1, becomes Jouni – Turkey AD 41, Juliu – Romania AD 105, and so on. Events also stay in our memory and can have repercussions in later life, these too are noted but the names of places and the principle players change similarly. This is acceptable and can be easily assimilated into the readers’ understanding of what the writer has defined; but all this has a cumulative effect: a distancing from the protagonist. And when magic, or is it divine intervention? intercedes to save our hero’s life – Greece AD 1223, an even broader distance is put between reader and protagonist; a protagonist that up to this point had been a centre of rationality, atheism and, to some degree, morality.

This did not change my enjoyment of the book, it’s still a fascinating, and unique read, but that enjoyment is skewed from my other experiences of Boyne’s work. There is not the same engagement I felt with the characters of his other work. This is a different book. So what is Boyne’s point here? 

Someday, we may build towers taller than the eye can see, fly through the sky on wings, even live among the stars. But know this much; the things that surround us may change, but our emotions will always remain the same.


Humans will always be human.


The cause and spread of the Black Death (The Plague) was not known until the 19th Century, certainly not in the 14th as described in the chapter Norway AD 1349. But, the reader can object to these aberrations, like little jumps – Hey! Hang on a minute! – or accept that the universe of the book need not be exactly the universe of the reader. However, the more the reader has to adjust their universe from the one expected the more removed they become from the text and the less chance of engagement.

I haven’t yet read all of Boyne’s work – that’s an on-going pleasure – but A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom is not the book to knock The Heart’s Invisible Furies (2017) from the No 1 spot of the best of Boyne’s work; nor A Ladder to the Sky (2018) from the No. 2 position … in this reader’s opinion.  

You can buy the book, in various formats, here

 

Normal People by Sally Rooney

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Irish writer Sally Rooney

Two introspective young people, Connell and Marianne,  find a mutual attraction, sexual and psychological, at school but their socio-economic differences, other people’s perceived opinions, and their own view of themselves, keep them apart. As they mature and they cross paths, along with new partners, they still feel the attraction: one that they don’t fully understand.

The dialogue is simple, sparse, inarticulate like the speakers – belying their intelligence. The narrator carries all the nuances, the real meaning, and the narrative.

It’s this role of the narrator that struck me as unusual. In genre fiction the narrator’s role is very narrow: an isolated voice, in the 3rd person, past tense, with god-like abilities – seeing into everyone’s mind, their desires, regrets,  and intentions, the past, present, and future, genderless, as if one minute sitting on the shoulders of characters gaining intimate knowledge of what they are thinking, planning, the next sitting on a drone just above the action seeing what is unfolding from all angles and from all points of view.

In literary fiction the role of the narrator is more varied; not only using the usual 3rd person voice, sometimes the 1st and even the 2nd, mixing past and present tense; or multiple voices, different narrators, some reliable, some not.

Rooney uses a narrator, yes with god-like abilities, but also as interpreter, explaining what the characters are thinking but do not know how to express. They are proto-adults, unaware of what is happening to them, and also unaware of why they do things, highly-strung and sensitive, feeling at odds with their surroundings and peers.

He tells her that she is beautiful. She has never heard that before though she has privately suspected it of herself, but it feels different to hear it from another person. She touches his hand to her breast where it hurts, and he kisses her. Her face is wet, she’s been crying. He kisses her neck. Are you okay? he says: It’s alright to be upset, you know. She lies with her face against his chest. She feels like a soft piece of cloth that is wrung out and dripping.

     You would never hit a girl, would you? she says. 

    God, no. Of course not. Why would you ask that?

    I don’t know.

    Do you think I’m the kind of person who would go around hitting girls. he says.

She presses her face very hard against his chest. My dad used to hit my mum, she says. For a few seconds, which seems like an unbelievably long time, Connell says nothing.

Connell and Marianne are sensitive to each other although Connell hurts her deeply, unaware of what he is doing; and she accepts the rebuke as indicative of how she sees herself: unworthy, unlovable, and possibly mentally disturbed. This ugly duckling turns into a beautiful duck but with all the feelings of ugliness she grew up with just under the surface. Her mother and brother were, and are, her greatest enemies, whom she gives into as her way of surviving them; just like she does to the various men in her life. Connell rescues her on several occasions only letting her drift away again, usually because of their educational opportunities. Academically they are both exceptional. As readers, onlookers to this on-going train crash of a relationship, we hope they will one day survive it and stay together. This is where the dramatic momentum comes from fostered by the time line: each chapter is several months into the future, although one chapter is five minutes into the future and the tension this creates is remarkable.

The joy of reading this book is the insight into her characters Rooney gives us. We’re watching them along with the narrator wishing them well, cursing their decisions, cheering with their triumphs. We desperately want them to be happy.

I loved this book.

“I found Henry James almost unreadable five or six years ago, and now I love him! Who knows what I might get into next?” Yes, we’d all like to know that.

Sally Rooney, at 29, has had two novels published, Conversations with Friends (2017) and  Normal People (2018), which was long-listed for the Booker 2018 and won the 2019 British Book Awards and will soon be on our televisions this year with a Hulu, BBC production penned by Rooney and directed by Lenny Abrahamson.
Here you can watch an interview with Sally Rooney from the London Review Bookshop in May 2019.
Here is the trailer for the up-coming TV series.
You can buy the book is various formats here.

 

Girl by Edna O’Brien

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Irish writer, (Josephine) Edna O’Brien

Girl is a first person account of Maryam, a very young girl, who with many others are kidnapped by members of Boko Haram, an ultra extremist sect of Islam in West Africa, although in the text it is only known as The Sect. She escapes, wonders aimlessly in the forest with her baby daughter, is discovered, returned to her mother who doesn’t recognise her. Does she also need to escape her family?

There’s an issue with this book that goes to the heart of what fiction is. O’Brien travelled to Nigeria twice to research this novel. She’s just turned 89. She said …

So one day I was in a waiting room (Doctor’s ) and I read a small item in a newspaper while I was waiting which said: A girl called Amina Something Something was found in Sambisa Forest wondering with her baby with nothing to eat, didn’t know her name and didn’t know where she was. And for some reason that’s inexplicable to me, I thought: I have to write that story. I didn’t think it when I first read about the girls, or when I heard about the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. There was something about the girl alone in a forest that resonated with maybe lived and maybe imagined experience inside me.

The book is difficult to read. Her kidnapping, multiple rapes, witnessing a woman stoned to death, treated like a slave, mistreated and ignored by other women (perhaps the saddest blow), rendered invisible, are described vividly, if not in detail, although the detail she does share is certainly enough. It is confronting to think that human beings can treat other human beings like this. Yet, she was treated like this because she was a girl. Her forced marriage comes almost as a relief. Even her escape with her baby daughter was treacherous, misunderstood, and almost unbelievable, as well as unbelieved. Her reunion with her mother is distressing: they don’t know each other any more.

It is written as fiction – the word fiction implies untruth – yet we are lead to believe that these things actually happened to the girls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria in 2014. O’Brien met them, talked to them, heard their stories, wrote them down. And yes, I believe these things did actually happen to those girls, so I suppose, my question is why did she choose the novel form to tell her story? She is a writer of novels so perhaps she thought of no other way.

If you are in any way squeamish about violence, extreme sexual violence, on the page don’t read this book, or if you are, but do, its fiction label may give you some reprieve.

In order to explain the abundance and importance of truth in fiction I have often used the line, Fiction is about truth but to make it clear one has to lie about it a little. This still holds true.

And, yes, as O’Brien admits in her Acknowledgments, Maryam, her creation is an amalgamation of ‘the imaginative voicings of many through one particular visionary girl.’

So yes, this is fiction, Maryam in untrue, but her story is not.

Edna O’Brien’s first, and most (in)famous book, The Country Girls, came out in 1960. She has been a writer all her adult life, but as she says, the first was easy, it had been welling up inside her all her young life, she wrote it in 3 weeks, but each book is harder than the previous one. This one took three years and it may be her last.

If you search for her on YouTube you will find many fascinating interviews. Here’s one from the early 1990s to get you started.

You can find various editions of Girl and her other works here.

Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry

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Irish writer, Kevin Barry

Get up, groan, write a bit, moan, eat breakfast, write some more, cycle my bike through the Sligo hills, make up country songs as I pedal along, sing them, have lunch, have a nap, groan, moan, write a small bit more, cook dinner, feed wifey, open a bottle, or several, slump, sleep.

I don’t quite operate within the realist mode. I kind of push the stories out towards the cusp of believability – that’s the area of interest for me.
♠♠♠
The style of Kevin Barry’s Night Train to Tangier (2019) feels like a play because it was originally conceived as one; but that was not what gave me pause when I read about him and this, his new book; it was the (many times) mention of Samuel Beckett and his play Waiting for Godot, and I thought, “Uh oh!” Vladimir and Estragon sit and wait under a dead tree for Godot who never comes. Maurice Hearn and Charles Redmond sit and wait in a ferry terminal for Dilly, Maurice’s missing daughter who never comes, maybe, maybe not.
These two guys are Irish drug dealers who made a shit load of money when they were younger, loved the same woman – since deceased, and now quite can’t get their old mojo back, although they try by intimidating and threatening strangers. You wouldn’t want to meet them in a back alley. It maybe that Dilly doesn’t want to be found. No spoilers here.

The conversation is sometimes repetitive, but the language is glorious, lyrical, and adventurous:

 

Charlie Redmond? The face somehow has an antique look, like a court player’s, medieval, a man who’d strum his lute for you. In some meadowsweet lair. Hot, adulterous eyes and again a shabby suit, but dapper shoes in a rusted-orange tone, a pair of suede-finish creepers that whisper of brothels, also a handsome green corduroy neck-tie. Also stomach trouble, bags like graves beneath the eyes, and soul trouble.

 

The pages are formatted with large gaps of white between sentences. One reviewer wrote, “The blank spaces that Barry inserts between paragraphs, the empty gaps in the text, seem to signify accumulated pain.” That’s kind. I’m of a more cynical bent; they seem to me to be the editor’s doing: if you’ve decided to print it between hard covers, you need more pages.

Almost all of the reviews for this book have been glowing, and it’s been long listed for the this year’s Booker Prize. However, I was disappointed. There are three elements of novel writing: description, dialogue, and narrative. Barry’s descriptions are poetic, imaginative, and surprising. He’s at his best with description (like the quote above). Dialogue? Well, firstly, his dialogue isn’t punctuated. That’s OK: dialogue usually sounds like dialogue, but sometimes it doesn’t and I don’t appreciate having to go back and check. Narrative? I found it shallow and, again, I had to go back a page or two and take another run at it to find out exactly where we were. Contemporary readers have to do more work, I know, but I don’t appreciate feeling left behind; it stops the reader being enthralled, and enthralled is where all readers want to be; and by enthralled I mean forgetting that your reading.

For this reader, Night Boat to Tangier is about parents and parenting, and how we usually get it wrong, or this from Dilly’s mother,

The fear of turning into our parents, she said, is what turns us into our fucking parents. 

I have to admit that it did grow on me a little but not enough to send me racing for his previous works, City of Bohane (2011) and Beatlebone (2015), both lauded and prize-studded.

You can buy the ebook, and other formats, here, and you can ‘look inside’ before you buy, or hear what sounds like Kevin Barry reading from the text.

 

The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright

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Irish Writer, Anne Enright. The Forgotten Waltz was the first book after her Booker prize: it doesn’t disappoint, although she goes on a  bit; but, I suppose you can do whatever you like after a Booker win.

Like The Gathering (2007), Enright establishes her story, this story, as having happened in the past but tells it in the present; or at least that seems to be the case as I finish page 1. I have a thing about page 1.

It is some years ago now. The house is new and this is my sister’s housewarming party …

Many readers I know have an aversion to narratives in the present tense but it gives the impression that the writer is telling you right now about a past event, but by telling it as if it is happening now gives the narrative the immediacy of gossip – and we all like gossip. It gives the reader a sense of it not having been written for you but of it being told to you, and only you, at this moment; even if the prose slips into the past at times.

They have mini-marshmallows on top. She goes to pop one in her mouth, then pulls back in surprise. 

‘Ooh, pink!’ she says.

I don’t know what I was waiting for. 

Not “I didn’t know what I was waiting for” (both verbs in the past) nor “I don’t know what I am waiting for” (both verbs in the present) but the first (do) in the present and the second (was) in the past.

It feels like there are two narratives going on here: the story itself (in the past) and the telling of it (in the present). But this is what I think we all do when we tell someone now about something that happened then, and by using this double-tense Enright is being conversational, conspiratorial, and so making us feel comfortable and special: a real friend. Readers love this.

I don’t think Enright is conscious of this nor does she sit down meticulously studying the verbs and deciding which tense they should be to get the effect she is after. My mentioning it is, however, a serious attempt to describe how a writer gets this conspiratorial, gossipy, tone into their writing. In order to get this particular tone the writer needn’t manipulate it- in fact, shouldn’t manipulate it –  but needs to be thinking in this particular tone so the tone in the head becomes the tone on the page.

Or you may think I’m being a wanker and why don’t I get on with it and just read the bloody thing? OK, I will.

On page one, line one, we are given the nut of it.

I met him in my sister’s garden in Enniskerry.

This is the first person account of a woman, Gina Moynihan, and her sexual obsession for a man, Sean Vallely, who like her, is married to someone else.

Enright writes Gina’s monologue as if she’s explaining, justifying at a crackling pace, to a … a … psychologist. She’s keen, this Gina, to tell us everything, but also to leave us guessing:

We managed to linger after everyone had gone, and the details of what corner we found and what we did; how we managed it, and who put what where, are nobody’s business but our own. 

and, of course, by NOT telling us the details our minds race frantically with all sorts of images of ‘doing it’ and ‘putting what where’ and in ‘whose corner’ and ‘managing it where?’ that we’re all in a lather anyway.

Her prose has a momentum that belies the action. There is action everywhere whereby reading it makes you feel exhausted; there’s a breathless tone to the reading, like a theatrical monologue some aspiring, or reviving, actor does of The Gospel According to Matthew. The Gospel According to Gina; where a simple static description is busy with verbs:

Lines of black posts marched down to the shoreline, small and smaller, overtaken, each in their turn by the shifting sand.” 

There’s ‘marching’ and ‘overtaking’ and ‘shifting’; so much happening, so many doing words, but it’s just the view of a bloody empty beach! The empty beach seems as busy as the sex in the corner.

Gina is self-possessed, or maybe just blind, but she has no thought that just as she has a keen sense of perspicacity other people might have a similar talent. She can see through everyone but she is certain no one can see through her. She thinks her secret is safe. This is the tension.

She’s not very likeable – in fact, I’d be very wary of having her at my lunch table, but you’re flattered that she’s confiding in you so much of what she’s thinking and feeling; it’s all so intimate, that you would have to admit your friendship with her even if only to bolster your own standing. Like admitting to a friendship with a Weinstein simply because he’s famous and he talked to you once.

There was a time when “Prefaces” or “Introductions” were mis-understood and not seen as part of the story – we couldn’t wait to get to Chapter 1, for the story to begin – which I think now has, thank god, changed, but Enright starts the book with a “Preface” that you MUST read as it pre-empts the story: Sean’s little troubled girl, Evie, sees Gina and he kissing and it is seen as the “first official occasion” of their love. Enright has used this devise – a child witnessing something very ‘adult’ – before, in The Gathering, and admits in an interview that after writing this preface scene says to herself,* “Oh God! I’ve done it again.”  But the pivotal scene is the pivotal scene and once it’s there, it must remain.

It’s not giving anything away to say that the book is about an affair; it’s not the affair, nor even its aftermath that interests Enright, what interests her is how Gina sees it, manipulates it, how a woman sees herself, loses herself, against a background of an Ireland where such a thing, not so long ago, would’ve been the end of her; the end of everything for her. It’s hard to think of the Ireland then, and the Ireland now with it’s same-sex marriage legislation, its abortion referendum (May 25, 2018), and it’s out, gay, Prime Minister of Indian parentage.

The affair is exciting, propelling, and with a momentum all of its own, because it isn’t, has nothing to do with, the domestic. The two adulterers – such a loaded term – know little about each other, hardly speak:

“All this. Have you done it before?”

“Well, you know,” he said.

Their affair progresses on “in its Friday pace,” and it’s this that Gina loves. It’s just about fucking every Friday. The ‘falling in love’ bit could ruin it all! But they do; or, at least. she does. The ‘wife’, Sean’s wife, Aileen, isn’t Gina’s nemesis, as one would expect, that role falls to Evie, Sean’s little ‘mistake’ of daughter. She’s enigmatic, chubby, but plain, and not at all healthy, but it’s the daughter that, if any atonement is to be got for Gina and her wild imagination – and all of it could just be that – then it will come via Evie; it’s Evie she also needs to woo.

This is the third Enright I’ve read in a row: an Enright-fest. She has rocketed to the top, well, near the top, of my favourite-writer list: Colm Tóibín still holds my #1 place although Enright, John Boyne, Patrick Gale, and Sebastian Barry are barking at his heels. She says she doesn’t know what she will write next; she’ll find out, I’m sure, and do it. Soon, I hope.

You can purchase the book, in various formats, here.

* The presenter and interviewer are a little boring, fast forward through them to get to the good bits: Enright, herself.

 

 

The Gathering by Anne Enright

 

Anne Enright pic
“None of the Irish writers I know are afraid of the pleasure of the sentence.”

If you read the blurb on the back cover you’d get the idea that this is a book about a family gathering for a funeral;  and, like me, you’d think you know what it’s about – it seems such a cliched reason for a book – but the actual ‘gathering’ doesn’t happen until Chap 30 (out of 39) and a lot of fabulous stuff happens before chap 30. This book has been unread on my shelf for four years because I thought I knew what it would be like. I was wrong.

Enright has employed this same idea recently in The Green Road, although in that book the event is a house-sale;  but still a family gathers. Anne Enright is big on families.

And this is Anne Enright on big Irish families:

There is always a drunk. There is always someone who has been interfered with, as a child. There is always a colossal success, with several houses in various countries to which no one is over invited. There is a mysterious sister. These are just trends of course, and, like trends, they shift . Because our families contain everything and, late at night, everything makes sense. We pity our mothers, what they had to put up with in bed or in the kitchen, and we hate them or we worship them, but we always cry for them – at least I do. The imponderable pain of my mother, against which I have hardened my heart. Just one glass over the odds and I will thump the table, like the rest of them, and howl for her too.

Both these books, The Green Road and The Gathering are similar in structure. She places an event at the nut of her tale and weaves around it threads of people, their plights and joys, pasts and presents until you have something like a doily of a story. A weave of narratives around a perfect whole. In one masterful chapter two of her characters, Ada Merriman, the narrator’s grandmother, and the man, Lambert Nugent, who has always loved her, and who she should’ve loved, but didn’t, touch. She a hand on his shoulder, he a hand on her hip; and the narrator, a writer, the granddaughter, Veronica, who admits to writing all this down, describes what might have happened had both their hands moved a little further, a little more truthfully until they were on the floor with him inside her. The reader certainly wants this to happen and Enright, having us in mind, gives it to us. It’s satisfying. It didn’t happen in the story, only on the page, but satisfying nonetheless.

Hovering above for most of the book, like a drone, is the little mystery Enright, (Veronica?) tells us in the very first line: something happened in Ada’s house when Veronica was eight and her brother, Liam, the corpse at the centre of this doily, was nine. Something happened that little Veronica shockingly saw.

The Hegertys are a big clan: the nine surviving children, there were more births than survivors, gather for the funeral of one of their own and Veronica needs to bare witness to an uncertain event. She remembers it but as something so improbable – she was very young -way outside her, then, experience that now, as an adult, it’s entirely possible, she thinks, that it might not have happened at all.

the Gathering Booker pic
Pleased as punch; and rightly so.

The Hegertys were “dragged-up”. They were entirely “free range”. But this is all pre-80s, pre-parenting, pre-how-to books, pre-child murders, pre-4-wheel-drives to school; pre-dry cleaning plastic as death-bags: pre-fear, when us baby-boomers were all “free-range”, and all “dragged up.” If you are over 50 you probably know what this is like. 
Anne Enright writes sentences chock-full of meaning, or insight, or revelation; and even her linking sentences between chock-full sentences are chock-full. But then she throws in a little doosey: It is like Christmas in Hades, and I laugh and think she is going to suck the universe dry of all the good lines leaving us in her wake scrabbling for left-overs.
She uses dialogue to re-assure us that these people are complicated, but real:
‘Thanks,’ he says.
‘What?’
‘Thanks for staying with me.’
‘Oh, for God’s sake.’
‘No. Really.’
‘I’ll be back in a minute.’
and prose for more meaningful and ‘under-the-surface’ revelations:
I thought about this, as I sat in the Shelbourne bar – that I was living my life in inverted commas. I could pick up my keys and go ‘home’ where I could ‘have sex’ with my ‘husband’ just like lots of other people did. This is what I had been doing for years. And I didn’t seem to mind the inverted commas, or even notice that I was living in them, until my brother died.
The doily book, The Green Road, was written in 2014, and it’s a book Enright calls “more of a proper book” insinuating that the other doily book, this one, The Gathering, written in 2006, is not. I know what she means. The Green Road is tighter, neater, more confident, and adventurous, the pattern more stable; this one is loose, equally compelling and recognisable, but free-range and at the same time narrow in its world; but for lovers of contemporary literary fiction, so rewarding.
So, yes, a lot happens to Veronica, the narrator, before the point of it all; and near the end the mystery is revealed; then the gathering itself; but Enright keeps a little ‘gasp’ to send you off into the last little chapters when, by the end, you realise it was all, not about a family, but about a woman, coming to turns with hers:
God, I hate my family, these people I never chose to love but love all the some.   
I’ve never read another author’s work back to back before. I have another Anne Enright book on my shelf: The Forgotten Waltz (2011); that might be next. It’s turning into a little Anne Enright Reading Frenzy. Read her yourself and see why.
You can find The Gathering in various formats, including audible and audio CD, here.

The Green Road by Anne Enright

Anne Enright pic
Irish writer, Anne Enright, won the Man-Boooker Prize for The Gathering (2007)

After the last page is turned, after you’re full to overflowing with this book you’ve just read, Anne Enright writes an Acknowledgements page, and she starts it like this: Thanks for the information used and cheerfully misused in this book are due to: and she lists a whole swag of people. That is the branding mark of a writer: once she knows something, then and only then, can she choose to change it.


With the very first sentence she grounds the story in the domestic:

Later, after Hanna made some cheese on toast, her mother came into the kitchen and filled a hot water bottle from the kettle on the range;

but it’s the very first word ‘later’ that made me jump: what?, this uncertainty, tension; something happened before the cheese on toast and the filling of the hot water bottle. But what was it? What?

And then on the 2nd page, this

He took them for rides in fast cars, up over the bridge, bang, down on the other side.

It’s the word, ‘bang’ that hit me this time. With that one out-of-place word, not a word, a sound; no quotation or exclamation marks, nothing but surety about the picture it conjured: a too-fast car, over a bump, where you hit your head on the roof and the sound of the car bouncing back to earth with the woop and cheer of kids, out where they shouldn’t be. Such a big picture from such a small sentence.

I smile to myself and think: I’m in the hands of a master, and I breathe a little sigh of relief: a very good feeling at the start of a read..

But then Chapter 2 opens 11 years later in the East Village, New York, with a gay male narrator among gay men torn between their right to be promiscuous and a stalking, discriminating death.

What Billy wanted was big, shouty unafraid sex with someone who did not cry, or get complicated, or hang around after the orange juice and the croissant. Billy was across the threshold and cheerfully out and he wanted men who were basically like him; sweet guys, who lifted weights and fucked large, and slapped you on the shoulder when it was time to swap around.

 Where did an Irish 50-something mother of 2, who looks like a little housewife from Central Casting, find authentic language like that? I was now severely impressed with this writer; and she can do that relaxed but spiky gay table-talk; sassy, arch, and funny.

I don’t want to give too much away because there is too much to enjoy about this novel; but it is neatly constructed. Divided in two, the first half assigns a chapter, each with a different narrator, at a different time for each of the four beautiful children of the difficult woman Rosaleen; and at the end of which is the reason that all of them are lured home to Ireland, County Clare, for Christmas in the family home that their prickly mother has decided to sell.

Bring on Part 2.

In a London Review Bookshop interview she describes the first half of the book, a ‘proper’ book, as getting to know the four siblings in a way that none of them could ever know about each other; in a sense this is dramatic irony on a large scale. We readers know more about each of them than any other family member knows about each other. They have gone off elsewhere (New York, Asia, Africa, Dublin) to care for, or sleep with, the lost, the undernourished and come back home full of themselves, their adult selves; but to the childhood home where their mother, Rosaleen, is waiting to be empathised with. That’s all she’s ever wanted. They go off to look after big-bellied African babies, or dribbling disease-ridden men but here she is not being looked after at home … alone. She has a point. The trouble it she doesn’t know how to accept it, or express it.

I foolishly avoided Anne Enright’s books, even though there they were on my bookshelf, and even though I’ve met the woman (twice!), I thought her books were all about families collected together at a funeral, a wedding, a last Christmas, and I thought, yes, I know what they’re like. I’ll get to them … one day. And this book is like that. Exactly like that; but at the same it is so unexpected, unpredictable and therefore rewarding, satisfying, and oh-so wise.

She got her hair done in a place so posh it didn’t look done at all,

and this is one of those rare books where you can believe what’s written on the cover: ‘brilliant’, ‘radical’ – don’t let that put you off, ‘beautiful’, ‘virtuosic’, and ‘hugely readable.’

I sincerely wish this book on everyone.

You can find the book in various formats here.

 

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

Sebastian Barry pic
Irish writer, Sebastian Barry.

Some years ago at the Ubud Readers and Writers Festival I was intrigued and entertained by a British writer called Jill Dawson who had the audience at her session in the palm of her hand, so I checked out one of her volumes in the festival bookshop. I place a lot of importance and insight into a book by its first page. It wasn’t long, still on page one, that I heard a faint gasp from my own mouth and a thunk as I put the book back immediately. Both actions were involuntary. I was alarmed; not by the content but by my reaction to the content: she was writing in the first person as a man. I was not aware that I held this prejudice. Since then I have tried several times to write as a woman; I mean, in a first person (and third person) female voice with mixed success. So, when it was clear that Barry’s first person narrator was a woman I did not act as before but thought it was time I faced my prejudice, although weakened since by my own efforts, and continued reading.

The narrative is, in fact, in two voices: one the old woman, Roseanne Clear, the dominant voice, and the other, Dr Grene, the psychiatrist who tends to her at the Roscommon mental hospital, St Malarky’s, where Roseanne has been living for as long as anyone can remember. Roseanne Clear is very old, maybe even a hundred.

I am only a thing left over, a remnant woman, and I do not even look like a human being no more, but a scraggy stretch of skin and bone in a bleak skirt and blouse, and a canvas jacket, and I sit here in my niche like a songless robin – no, like a mouse that died under the hearthstone where it was warm, and lies now like a mummy in the pyramids.

She writes out her life on “unwanted paper” and stashes it under a loose floorboard; not unusual as the building is falling apart. Barry gives her language that is poetic, articulate, melancholy, and wise but seemingly uneducated at times: “no more”, although this could be her Irish-ness peeking through. Yet she is in a mental hospital. This is usually a theatrical device, a character being one thing to the other characters, and someone else to the audience; a form of dramatic irony.  This is reinforced by conversations she has with Dr Grene where she gives simple answers or sometimes no answer at all, while telling the reader her reasons.

Her aim is to try and remember why she is where she is and whether memory, about a husband, then a non-husband, abandonment, expulsion, and a child, has any relation to reality. Is memory trustworthy?

Her story is one of Ireland: beginning with political unrest and genteel poverty as the daughter of a Presbyterian gravedigger in Sligo, western Ireland in the 1940s. Almost half of the book is devoted to her memory of her childhood with a father she adored, and you will too – even when be is reduced to work as a rat-catcher –  but with a mother who is as distant and silent as a housemaid, which she resembles. Dr Grene has a similar wife, blank, distracted, lonely and you wonder at times whose memory is the more reliable.

The themes here are literary-Irish through and through: the slap-dash care, easy-bitterness, and bloody-mindedness of family; the down-right intractability of a mean-spirited Church hiding behind the skirts of a dour and silent god; secrets of paternity; the hyper-critical branding based on any sexuality that isn’t church-condoned, but done in the dark, and never mentioned; and the dis-empowerment, subordination, and denigration of women.  It’s a very long way from the Ireland of today with its diminished religiosity, liberalism, and political leadership by an openly gay young man whose paternity is from India. However, as long as there are Irish writers who were damaged, but survived, their Irish past, as holocaust survivors survived theirs, there will be books like this.

The writing is luscious, and sometimes you need to re-read aloud a line, a paragraph, just to wallow in the words, to delight in the feel of them in your mouth; and since we read for pleasure – like we listen to music – there’s no need to engage the memory, this is a book for reading again.

The Secret Scripture was short-listed for the Man-Booker, won the Jame Tait Black Memorial Prize, and the Costa Award in 2008; which Barry won again in 2016 for Days Without End.

You can find the book in various formats, including audio book and audio CD, here.

The film version, directed and co-written by Jim Sheridan with Johnny Ferguson, was made in 2016 starring Rooney Mara (the love interest to Cate Blanchett’s title-character in Carol, from 2015) as young Rose, Vanessa Redgrave as old Rose, and Eric Bana as Dr Grene; it was released in the USA in October.  It will be in cinemas in Australia from December 7, 2017.

 

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

John Boyne pic
Irish writer, John Boyne.

Many years ago, on a small plane trip – the plane was small, not the trip –  as we were about to land in a provincial Queensland town, I continued to assiduously read my book. I was laughing so much, trying not to, but not succeeding, that my eyes were streaming, my nose running, and my face felt hot and red; the flight attendant broke the rules, unbuckled, and hurried to my seat to ask if I needed medical assistance. I just held up the book; I was unable to speak. She understood. Maybe she’d read it too. It was the hit of the season. The hysterical section was the Nativity Scene from A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. The next time I laughed out loud, many decades later (yes, decades), was with this book, and the (highly illegal) Dinner Party Scene, from early on in The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne. Ironically Boyne has dedicated this book to Irving.

Making people laugh via the written word, and only the written word, is an extremely difficult and hazardous task. You can’t under play it or over sell it, and you certainly can’t ‘back-explain’ it; it’s all to do with tone, and tone is like a law of physics: it only happens when the universal conditions are absolutely right. It’s as if you need to foster a certain psychological state of mind, and write the episode with as much truthfulness and sincerity as you possibly can – don’t elaborate – just tell it, and if the tone is right, it will be hysterical. If it isn’t you can’t go back and make it right, edit it funny, you have to delete it all and start again. A plane will only fly if all the necessary preparations and current circumstances, weather, wind, mechanical health, operational skill, and power source, are perfect.

The dinner party – and it’s impossible to explain why it’s illegal, you’ll just have to read it to find out – is on page 92, but the preparation for it, and the other laugh-out-loud bits, preparation for the tone, I mean, in true Irving-esque fashion, begins right from the first killer sentence; and by the way, the opening sentence of Owen Meany has to be the killer-opening-sentence in all literature. There was a time when I knew it by heart and it became my dinner-party piece for some time after. I can’t sing, tell a joke, or play the piano, you see.

Boyne considers Irving a mentor, and Irving should be chest-thumpingly proud.

It’s impossible for Boyne to escape the moniker of “author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” which he understands only too well, and he’s certain it will appear on his grave stone, so internationally popular was the book and film; but it changed his life making writing full time not only a possibility but a happy necessity.

Boyne was born in 1972. Ireland brought him up but the Church brought him down. He still suffers from its cruelty and hypocrisy. He’s not alone. His anger is present in this book but, much to his credit, he’s fashioned it into a cutting humour without lessening the truth of his understandable hatred.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies explains the life of Cyril Avery, although not a real Avery, from his pre-birth to two months before his death; from 1945 to 2015; and it is also the story of Ireland over that time; from a society dominated, straightjacketed, and suffocated by the Catholic Church, under the guise of strengthening morality, to one that legalises same-sex marriage. It’s a hell of a journey.

It’s full of surprising events, fashion, villains, extremely bad behaviour, political unrest, beauty, deception, selfishness, redemption, tears – yours as well as the character’s, death, forgiveness, love, birth in the midst of murder, politicians behaving badly, coincidences, literature, weddings, doctors behaving courageously, dreams – both fulfilled and dashed, sentiment, laughter, bigotry, violence, and even the ludicrous; in fact the entire palette that paints our lives that all conspires to prove that age-old adage, nobody’s perfect. And all these elements are wound around a cast of characters you won’t easily forget, and nor would you want to.

Boyne skillfuly uses many literary devices to tantalise and seduce his readers: he drops in an outcome before explaining how it happened; he triggers the reader’s memory before the character’s; and, best of the lot, dramatic irony: when the reader knows more that the characters do.

I love this book and I’ve recommended it to others, who too have loved it. I’m preparing a space on my bookshelf, between Jane Bowles and Peter Carey. You can get the book, in various formats, here.