The Outside Boy by Jeanine Cummins

American writer Jeanine Cummins

Like a lot of readers I discovered Jeanine Cummins via the controversy over her mega-selling fourth book, American Dirt (2020), which is a flight story of a mother and child fleeing the wrath of a drug cartel – they had murdered her journalist husband and 16 members of her immediate family – in Acapulco, Mexico for the safety of the USA. You can read my blog post about that book here. Latinx writers got very upset that a ‘white’ woman should deem to write, and successfully so, a Latina story; the phrase ‘cultural appropriation’ was used a lot in the ensuing brouhaha. I’m not completely sure why, but I usually tend not to read American writers; British, Irish, European, and Australian writers keep pushing the Americans down on my to-read pile. I’ll need to address this in a future post. A friend kindly sent me the book in the mail during the Melbourne lockdown – I was caught in Australia for most of 2020. I was surprised at how good it is: a cracking good read. Yes, it was a commercial success – helped along, no doubt, by Oprah Winfrey – but the writing is also good, authoritative, and compelling.

My lock-down host then gave me this, Cummin’s second book, The Outside Boy (2010). Although this too is a book set in a different culture to her own: Ireland, and a different time: 1959, no controversy erupted over this one. Cummins identifies as ‘white’, although she has a Puerto Rican grandmother; her husband is Irish which may account for the inspirational spark here.

It is a coming-of-age story of a 12 year old boy, Christy Hurley, a tinker’s son, a traveller, a pavee, told through his eyes, his words. The mashed grammar, misplaced syntax, and sometimes literal spelling all add up to the acceptable sound of a traveller’s boy, a gypsy youth who sees the world without any city notions of blame, cause & effect, and obligation.

“She’s my mother,” I said, and even though I was whispering, my words fell into the quiet room likes stones into a pond. They rippled out til I could see them on Missus Hanley’s face. She knew the weight of them words; she took them serious.

Cummins explains in an Author’s Note that she has not been entirely true to the traveller’s voice; a truly authentic pavee voice “would have rendered the book almost impenetrable to the American reader.” Her close writing and vocabulary choices are fundamentally apt and effective, although I think an unschooled gypsy boy in 1959 Ireland would not know the words ‘precarious’ or ‘choreography’, but this is a small point.

Christy is motherless. All he has of her is a mysterious photo from a partly burnt newspaper article. She died at his birth. “I killed her!” he often says. His father is frustratingly mute on the subject of the boy’s mother, but finding the truth of her becomes his, and the book’s, quest and narrative force.

The colourful world, language, and culture of the Irish travellers are major reasons that the book is such a joy to read. Like all good fiction a novel can take you out of your own world and show you how other people live, think, and carry-on regardless.

This is a highly entertaining and moving work. Highly recommended.

Here is a short video of Cummins talking about the inspiration and the writing of The Outside Boy.

You can buy various editions of the book here.

Carry Me Down by M. J Hyland

Maria Joan Hyland, born in Britain in 1968, educated in Australian, now teaches creative writing at the University of Manchester. UK.

Children often experience the world unfiltered. Their reactions to it can be mismatched, but they can also be honest and true: free from expectations, assumptions, and unconscious influences and gossip. Children tell lies from an early age, around three, but they usually don’t recognise lies in others until much later, usually due to an existential crisis: the destruction of childhood myths: the Tooth Fairy, Santa Clause, and the Easter Bunny.

John Egan, the 11 year old narrator of M. J. Hyland’s Carry me Down (2006) has just discovered he has a unique talent: he can recognise lies. He has physical reactions to them: vomiting, burning ears and he keeps a diary called the Gol of Seil. He is tall for his age and has an uncommon attachment to the Guiness Book of Records – maybe he can get into it with his lie-detecting ability – and a not-so-uncommon attachment to his mother. He stares at her too much. He lives with his parents, Michael (Da) and Helen (Mammy), his paternal grandmother (Granny), and a cat called Crito. But something is amiss in this cottage in southern Ireland.

The writing, in the present tense, is sparse and the syntax simple. Statements are bold and John notices the slightest detail.

She slurps her tea and smiles at me. She sticks her tongue out to greet the cup before each sip and, after she sips her tea, she smiles at me. There is only her slurping, and so much silence between us that, when a lorry passes, I am grateful for the noise and the distraction.

It becomes clear that the world and the people in it that John describes is distorted. John is not a reliable narrator; but then what 11 year old is? The reader needs to read between his lines to interpret what is really going on. This is one of the unexpected joys of this book.

Although John is an excellent lie-detector he self-justifiably becomes very good at telling lies himself until the contortions he puts himself through to balance the lies he hears and the lies he tells threaten to unseat his mind.

There is an ever-increasing feeling of unease. John hears later about the confrontation between Da and Granny which causes her to kick her son and family out: John and his parents move to Dublin into a bleak tenement where graffiti splatters every available surface and children defecate in the lifts.

But John’s discovery of another lie and subsequent truth splits the family. What almost unhinges the boy is that it was the truth that did the damage, not the lie. And the damage proves almost fatal. No spoilers here.

Slap-dash parenting of a willful and sensitive child can have devastating effects. The three adults, however, come to their senses, of sorts, and there is a feeling of a disaster averted, a life pulled back from the edge. However the final image is one of male friendship in a toy-like place where two men seek comfort in the domestic: rest in a warm place with tea to drink and toast and cakes to eat.

And the fire inside will warm their hands and faces. The door is open.

The ending is enigmatic but creates a feeling of the unknown; John may get another chance to be the grown-up he deserves. As with all teenagers, the door is open … although not for long.

M. J. Hyland has only written three novels and a small collection of short stories. I’m on a search for her first, How The Light Gets In, (2004) and latest, This is How (2009). A fourth book, Even Pretty Eyes, rumoured to have been released in August this year is now due for release, according to Amazon, in 2022. Her health may have something to do with the delay.

Here is her essay, Hardly Animal, which she wrote in response to being diagnosed, in 2008, with multiple sclerosis.

A short story, Even Pretty Eyes Commit Crimes, was shortlisted for 2012 BBC International Short Story Award. You can read it here.

M. J. Hyland answers a question: can writing be taught?

You can purchase M. J. Hyland’s books here. I urge you to read any of this writer’s work.

Old Filth by Jane Gardam

British writer, Jane Gardam.

First of all, the title Old Filth (2004) isn’t about anything untoward: it’s the acronym for Failed In London Try Hong Kong; and if it’s about anything it’s about how our childhoods create us adults.

We first meet Sir Edward Feathers, Old Filth, in his very latter life: a statuesque man, private, handsome, charming, brusque, and mildly famous. Gardam then cherry picks events from his life: birth, schooling, the War, but saves the most tantalising bit of news for the end. No spoilers here.

The book is a delight! Gardam’s economical prose – where most of the humour lies, and there’s a lot of that – and her wry eye for the eccentricities of the British character and, in particular, the blatant indifference and cruel incapacity of the British to care for their young make you smile, grown, laugh, sigh, and then shake your head in disbelief, all in the same paragraph. Children seem to appear by magic, get sent away from home as soon as possible and then become exactly like their parents whom they hardly know, but are expected to love and obey. Blood may be thicker than water, but water is far more versatile and doesn’t leave stains.

I was impressed with Gardam’s complete control over the reader, her confidence in her authorial voice: I would’ve followed her everywhere, anywhere and I believed whatever she wanted to tell me. Her close writing and sparse dialogue do most of the characterisation – dialogue is good at that – and Gardam also has a healthy respect for the reader. Time jumps around but she never lost me.

Highly recommended.

She has been quite prolific since she was first published in the early seventies, in her forties – she is now 92 – and her nine novels and ten short story collections (she also has written thirteen children’s books) leave a lot of searching, collecting, and reading to look forward to.

In 2015, a BBC survey voted Old Filth among the 100 greatest British novels.

I hate the idea of sequels,” Jane Gardam told The Guardian in 2011. “I think you should be able to do it in one book.” Nevertheless her The Man in the Wooden Hat came out in 2013 which is more of a companion piece and focuses on Filth’s wife Betty, a shadowy figure in this book. And then in 2013 came Last Friends, and again not really a sequel but another companion piece focusing this time on Filth’s arch-rival and later neighbour, Veneering, again briefly mentioned in Old Filth.

Here is a charming video of Jane Gardam reading the opening of Old Filth.

Here you will find Old Filth and other Gardam books in various formats including a boxed set of the so-called Old Filth Trilogy.

Normal People by Sally Rooney

Sally Rooney pic
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.

 

Starter for Ten by David Nicholls

David Nicholls pic
British novelist and screenwriter, David Nicholls.

I first encountered the work of David Nicholls with Us (2014) late last year. You can read my blog about it here. Starter for Ten (2003) is his first novel and there are many similarities with Us: the first person narrator, here Brian Jackson, like Douglas Peterson in Us, talks to the reader like you’re old friends, but – and here is where Nicholls shines – the hero is really a dork; yes, people call him names, especially his best friends, but you agree with them, Nicholls shows you, more than tells you, what he is really like: loveable but … for an intelligent university undergraduate he is clueless, particularly when it comes to women and himself, and that’s where most of the humour lies.

Brian Jackson has finally got to university and he heads off to engage with knowledge.

I want to know about Plato and Newton, Tolstoy and Bob Dylan; what the words ‘dialectic’ and ‘peripatetic’ mean; I want to know why people actually like jazz …

He is so enthralled with knowledge having been brought up on a diet of TV quiz shows whose list of questions has usually been introduced with the phrase ‘And your starter for ten is…’ i.e, your first question for ten points is … and his father has instilled in him at a very young age that getting it right is the ultimate point to everything.

He wants to join every student club there is but decides on the University Challenge team, well, he doesn’t quite get on the team, he’s given the standby spot. University Challenge is a nation-wide TV quiz show and he’s desperate to find an outlet, a successful outlet, for all that knowledge.

He also wants to be loved and fixes his sights on Alice Harbinson, the prettiest girl he has ever seen. Of course everything gets in his way, study, alcohol, friends, Alice’s parents, Alice, his Mum, and most importantly, his own view of himself – as well as his arms: what do you do with them when you’re sharing a single bed with someone?

It’s a laugh-out loud coming-of-age story, it’s become a Nicholls’ specialty, and framed by his ambition to be in the team for the coming-up new TV series of University Challenge. Yes, he gets places with Alice and yes, he gets on the team but that’s only a taste of the story. No spoilers here.

It’s highly predictable – but some unexpected twists – but entertaining and very funny.

On YouTube you can find an excellentHBO/BBC movie version (in English, you’ll soon get used to the Spanish sub-titles) made in 2006, penned by Nicholls, co-produced by Tom Hanks, with Sam Mendes as an executive producer, directed by Tom Vaughan, and  staring James McAvoy, Rebecca Hall, James Condon, and Benedict Cumberbatch.

You can buy the book, and other David Nicholls titles, in various formats here.