When a novel makes you laugh out loud it’s a great and wondrous thing.
Home, Ronan’s 6th novel from 2002, is a first-person narrative of a young boy, Coorg, born to an unwed teenager into the hippiest of hippy communes in 1963. These hippies throw the I Ching to decide if they should leave a rock concert early or not; they carefully remove a cabbage, roots, soil, and all, and carry it to a quiet place before chopping its head off so the other cabbages won’t get upset at the carnage; and their form of free love, wantonly and frequently exercised, is more about longevity than climax.
He spends his first six years with these people who care, stimulate and provide for him in a rural English paradise. They believe him to be the ‘messiah’ – also courtesy of the I Ching – or, as they call him, the ‘mage’. He is special and treated so. A boyish question about why a tree, next to a big rock, is dying will get an answer something like “The spirit of the rock and the spirit of the tree aren’t getting along at the moment.”
Then his grandparents suddenly show up and kidnap him (‘save him’) back to Ireland and plunge him headfirst into Catholicism, village politics, fish and chips, sausages, chocolate, and school with a new name: Joseph. The commune disbanded soon after this not because of the kidnapping of their ‘mage’ but because its self-styled mystic leader was caught eating a Snickers Bar in the High Street. Now for Joseph growing up in Ireland a boyish question would elicit an answer like “Stop asking such silly questions or the boogie man will cut your legs off and put you in his sack.”
He swaps one unreality for another.
“Is Baby Jesus Black?”
“Don’t ever talk about Our Lord like that.”
She raised her hand at me and I looked at it and realised what had caused the sting on the back of my legs when I vomited down the side of the car door.
“Baby Jesus couldn’t be black. He’s God.”
“Where is he now?”
“He’s on the altar. Behind the little curtain at the back there’s a gold door and he’s in there.”
“How do you know?”
“Because the lamp is lit.”
“Will he come out?”
“You have to wait for the priest to do everything, and the bell will ring and he’ll elevate the host, and if you’re good you can see God except if you’re good you’d be saying your prayers and not looking, and you have to make your Holy Communion first.”
“Is he a kind of wizard?”
“No. He’s God. He’s very, very holy.”
“Is that why you can’t see him?”
“Yes. And stop chewing that penny. A dirty black man might have touched it.”
Home is about belonging and it’s the first of a quartet although Ronan, on his website, warns us: “and the more you annoy me about it, the longer it will take to get on with the second”. He is obviously still being annoyed about it because nothing, novel wise, has appeared since 2002. However he is a keen gardener and talking about gardens and gardening will turn his usual laidback manner into one of wide-eyed enthusiasm. He also writes a monthly column in Gardening Illustrated and was a guest speaker at that magazine’s recent festival held in the Cotswold market town of Malmsbury last month; so gardening and writing about gardens, and not annoying readers, may be the reason the quartet is still only one book. His website (frankronan.com) seems equally unattended.
“I’m obsessed,” he says, “I can’t remember people’s names, but I can always remember plant names.”
For Ronan (born 1963) Ireland is ‘home’ but he lives in Worcestershire (“It’s the last bit of England worth living in”) where his partner commutes to London (“I hate London.”) but they spend weekends together.
His home town New Ross, not far from Colm Toibin’s home town of Enniscorthy, County Wexford, is where the young Coorg is taken and ‘rehabilitated’ and although the novelist swears he’s never stayed in a hippy commune there is enough evidence to suggest that the Irish growing-up of the young Joseph could be very much like the Irish growing-up of the young Frank; but then again there’s autobiography to some degree in every piece of writing.
Ronan’s humour, and there’s lots of it, doesn’t come from a child narrator’s misunderstandings and lopsided conclusions but from an adult narrator and so an adult’s sense of humour: “The pub turned out to be the manyplies of the village, where all the life missing from the street was being fermented into a state of contented excretability.”
Let’s hope that somewhere betwenn weeding, picking cabbages and writing about them he can find time for books 2, 3, and 4. I’ll read them.
Happy New Year and welcome to 2015: another year of reading and writing; but first the reading. As you can see from the picture my reading for 2015 begins with rather an eclectic batch. This was not planned, well, not all of it was planned. Here’s a little run-down on the list – to be read in no particular order – gleaned from the covers, a little Google search and information I’ve acquired through osmosis.
The Dinner by Herman Koch
I have a dear friend, an Irishman living in Brussels, who visits the island where I live twice a year and being a book-worm himself he brings me novels I wouldn’t otherwise have heard about. My to-read list contains several of his gifts, and The Dinner is one of them. I like to think of him as my Book Fairy. Herman Koch is a Dutch writer and actor and his sixth novel, The Dinner (2009), is his most successful, having been translated into 21 languages; it came out in English in 2012. Two couples meet at a stylish restaurant in Amsterdam for dinner. Each has a teenage son who, together, have committed a horrific act, caught on camera and beamed into living rooms all over the country. The New York Times reviewer called it “a clever, dark confection, like some elegant dessert fashioned out of entrails.” Australia’s Christos Tsiolkas, who, by the way, is doing very well in Europe since the great success of The Slap, is quoted on the jacket, “A riveting, compelling and deliciously uncomfortable read… This novel is both a punch in the guts and also a tonic. It clears the air. A wonderful book.” Can’t wait!
Home by Frank Ronan
Another from the Book Fairy, but this time from an Irish author, Frank Ronan who also writes a monthly column for the magazine Gardens Illustrated; Home is his 7th book and came out in 2002. “Born into a cabbage-growing, peace-loving 1960s commune, Coorg is declared, courtesy of a favourable reading of the I Ching, to be the new Messiah… startling and often hilarious,” says the blurb on the back courtesy of the Irish Times.
The Long Prospect by Elizabeth Harrower
I was shocked when a recent New Yorker edition arrived, and as usual, I checked out the “Books” section first, and I saw my favourite literary critic, James Woods, devoting a whole article to the re-release of the five novels of an Australian writer called Elizabeth Harrower, who, according to Woods, was alive and well and living in Sydney. She’s 84. I had never heard of her! The very next day I found The Long Prospect in my local second-hand book shop and in the new re-released edition by Text Publishing. Apparently she thinks of her fiction as something abandoned long ago and now can’t be bothered with writing. She wrote 5 novels between 1957 and 1971 but withdrew the last, In Certain Circles, some months before publication, lodged the manuscript with the National Library of Australia and washed her hands of the whole writing thing; until, Michael Heyward, of Text, came along and persuaded her to let him re-publish the lot in 2012. All five are about female characters trapped in tempestuous relationships with a charismatic bully; all male except for this one where the bully is female, the hateful Lillian Hulm.
The Cast Iron Shore by Linda Grant
Linda Grant is a British novelist and journalist and her first novel. The Cast Iron Shore (another from the Book Fairy) was her first, published in 1995. She has won numerous prizes (The Orange Prize for Fiction in 2000 for When I lived in Modern Times) and was on the long-list for the Man-Booker Prize in 2002 for her third novel Still Here and short listed for the same prize for her fourth The Clothes on Their Backs in 2008. Again, I’m ashamed to say, her name was new to me when the book landed in my hands only recently. It looks historical with a female protagonist who is raised ‘as an empty-headed fashion plate’ but a secret revealed during the Liverpool blitz of the Second World War changes her life and leads her to ‘a seedy hotel room in Hanoi’ and ‘a potato-chip factory in the prairies’, among many other locations, and ultimately to ‘a final choice’.
After Dark by Haruki Murikami
I’ve always been a little afraid of Murikami. I don’t read fantasy or science fiction – I’m a literary realist, I think – but I’ve always been drawn to him, curious, as well – he’s on everyone’s lips – but his books are so big. This one isn’t: I’m putting my toe in the water. It’s his 11th and came out in 2004. “A sleek, gripping novel of encounters set in Tokyo during the spooky hours between midnight and dawn.
My Dream of You by Nuala O’Faolain
I’ve just read Nuala O’Faolain’s (Noo la O fway lorn) famous memoir Are You Somebody? and fell in love with her way with words. This is a novel which came out in 2001 after her memoir and is about an Irish travel writer who leaves all that she has behind and returns to Ireland to write a book based on an old scandal of the mid-nineteenth century: an affair between the wife of an English landlord and her Irish servant, but what she really wants to understand is passion itself. I’m curious to read her fiction having only experienced her memoir.
The Moon of Jupiter by Alice Munro
Although I write short stories occasionally I don’t read them very often but when Alice Munro, a Canadian, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013 I thought it’s time: she is a prolific short story writer, mainly because, as she explains in her introduction to the Vintage edition of her Selected Stories, “When you are responsible for running a house and taking care of small children … it’s hard to arrange for large chunks of time … so I got into the habit of writing short stories.” I’ve read several since BF brought me this collection of her work, and she is not so much interested in the interior life of her female characters but more in the heady and extravagant thoughts around that interior life. One of her characters, Lydia, in a story called Dulse is forever judging, pitting, herself against pleasing the men in her life. Every man she meets she thinks in terms of what would it be like to be with that man; and then she meets a man who is nothing like any other, who is so self-contained ‘alone’ is all he can be. She envies him. “What a lovely durable shelter he has made for himself.” And yet another man, one she has fantasised about, gives her a parting gift “Yet look how this present slyly warmed her, from a distance.” The gift? Eatable seaweed: dulse.
The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
When my partner and I left Australia in 2010 we shipped 25 boxes of books, this one included, and not much else, but lost the lot so it’s good to get another copy to take its place. Thank you BF. I came to Paul Bowles via his extraordinary wife, Jane Bowles, whom Tennessee Williams called the ‘greatest writer of the English language’. Paul started out as a serious composer – studying with Aaron Copland – in New York in the 1940s (I’m playing his music as I write this) and this, his first novel, and most successful, came out in 1949. He died in Tangiers in 1999 aged 88. A story about three American travellers in the deserts and cities of North Africa after World War II, but it is really about how the American incomprehension of alien cultures ultimately destroys such cultures. It was filmed by Bernardo Bertolucci in 1990 starring Debra Winger and John Malkovich, and in which Bowles appears. Looking forward to revisiting this one.
Zeitoun by Dave Eggars
Every since Dave Eggars, an American writer, began his career with his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius in 2000, I believed the title. He’s a writer, publisher, screenwriter, editor, designer, philanthropist, journalist … Smarty Pants! He looms large. His books are so dense, heavy – in weight I mean, important, significant, worthy. Anyway, this one is non-fiction about a Syrian-American, a Muslim, who rides out Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. The theme is similar, I’m led to believe as Bowles’, The Sheltering Sky: the inability of white Americans to mentally process ‘the other’.
The Speckled People by Hugo Hamilton
Hugo Hamilton is another Irish writer and this is a memoir that came out in 2003 but apparently free of the Catholic victim-hood, poverty and misery of the Irish memoir popularised by the likes of Frank McCourt of Angela’s Ashes fame, and as Hermione Lee says in The Guardian, “it’s shaped like a fiction, told, as if naively, in the language of a child.” “To read The Speckled People is to remember why great writing matters,” adds Joseph O’Connor in the Daily Mail.
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
I’ve always wanted to read this book but have never got around to it. I would always pick it up in book shops, hold it, flick through it. An American, she began publishing in 1988 and this one came out in 1998, her eighth work and, I think, her most famous. I mentioned to a friend that I had seen it in the local bookshop. “Get it,” she said. “It’s great.” So I did. That’s all it took. I was primed. Another book about a white American NOT dealing with ‘the foreign’ but as told through the eyes of the women in the family of a stubborn missionary in West Africa in the 1950s.