from a low and quiet sea by Donal Ryan

Irish writer Donal Ryan

Right from the beginning I should tell you that the writing is assured and fine, but for those of you who want signposts to tell you who says what to whom you’ll be disappointed: the dialogue is imbedded in the prose, unpunctuated, so this one may not be for you.

This is proving to be popular with contemporary writers: the last three books I’ve read have been written with minimal punctuation and certainly no  dialogue punctuation. I was skeptical at first but once you read it, reading it as if it’s being read to you, it’s clear what is dialogue and what isn’t.

  It’s about three men: Farouk, his country torn apart by war attempts to save his family and then can’t believe the worst of reality; Laurence, Lampy, a young man with an old chip on his shoulder the size of the bus he drives, a bastard but there’s absolutely nothing he can do about that – but it might be why Chloe doesn’t love him; and John a man bewildered and damaged by idle patents and left with ‘a filthy soul’. The final chapter begins enigmatically and these three men and their relationship to each other become clear only in the last pages. It’s really three back stories before the final chapter sews them all together; a very different form of a novel.

Farouk’s and Lampy’s chapters, and the final one are written in the third person but with many a patch of close writing: third person writing that’s  a-l-m-o-s-t in the first; but John’s chapter is all in the first. I don’t think there’s anything significant about that; it’s just how it turned out. 

The prose, in every chapter, is strewn with very long, sometimes beautiful, sentences full of clauses separated by conjunctions that create a tense tone of urgency as if the speaker has to rush and get as much information into the sentence as possible before they run out of breath because there’s a full stop coming up and there’s more and more important things to say and there’s unease in the voice, which sets the tone, as if there might be failure ahead and the rush is to beat it before the full stop comes into view and there, it’s almost upon you but there’s just another very important thing to say and yet another one and here it comes and there it is.

Alex Clark in The Guardian in mid-2019 acknowledged the boom in Irish contemporary fiction writing and credited its rise to fearless publishers and writers. However, writers have always been fearless; it’s the publishers alone that should now deserve the credit. Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport (2019) which takes eight sentences to fill over a thousand pages, was on the Booker shortlist that year, and was picked up by a small publisher Galley Beggar Press (GBP) which also took Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2013). That took nine years to find GBP and is considered a ‘difficult’ book. Form and style have broadened literary fiction’s borders and I don’t just mean with the diminishing use of punctuation. Colum McCann’s Apeirogon (2020) on the Booker shortlist for 2020 is called ‘a novel’ on the cover but isn’t: it’s a great read but it’s definitely creative journalism. The only thing made-up about it is its form. 

from a low and quiet sea was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award and long listed for the Booker Prize (2018).

If it’s writing with characters deeply drawn and language that makes you read sentences out loud just for the joy of it then this one is for you. 

Here you can watch Donal Ryan reading from this book from a low and quiet sea.

You can buy the book here in various formats. 

Actress by Anne Enright

I love a first page. Page one of a book is like turning a corner in an art gallery and seeing the painting you’ve come all this way and spent all this money and used all this time to see. Enright on page one of Actress makes two things very clear about the first person narrator: she’s the daughter and she’s cynical.

And, yes, I have her eyes … indeed, whole paragraphs were penned about bog and field, when journalists looked into my mother’s eyes.

Not limpid pools, corn flowers, or the depth of her soul, but bog and field, which comes, fascinatingly enough, not at the end of the sentence but in the middle; I loved that, and had I not known anything about Anne Enright or her work and this book I’d picked at random from a bookshelf, that line alone would’ve demanded I buy it.
And then on page 7 this

…and I was already in love with you.

So it now appears that the daughter, Norah, is writing to someone. A lover, or seemingly, a past lover. A husband as it turns out.

However, I had to adjust my expectations; this is not a linear narrative, more like a cable-knit sloppy-joe of a book. Nameless and numberless chapters constructed as riffs on a memory, a character, an event with Norah sometimes daughter, sometimes omnipotent narrator. Character and place are important but not time; action and detail tumble over each other, Norah a child and then older than her mother would’ve been had she been alive. But anchoring everything is her mother, Katherine O’Dell, the famous Irish actress, but not her real name, and not Irish: she is her own self creation and from the moment she pops out of her mother, literally, on the most theatrical of sets: a staircase, to her most self-absorbed act, and the central event of the book, her shooting of Boyd O’Neill in the foot, she is a force.

Fundamentally it is a story of the interplay between stardom and domesticity told by Norah, a key player in both who is trying to understand how both came to make her the person she has turned out to be AND the truth about her mother.

One of the joys of Anne Enright’s writing is the writing itself. Here she describes her mother’s curtain call technique:

Her lingering, luvvie curtain call never changed – that clearing of her gaze as though realising the audience had been there – oh my goodness! – all along … It is all so surprising, Oh, there you are, a hand to the crowd. And, Yes! Here I am, the same hand at her breast.

(Although, her most memorable appearance, and the one that immortalised her, is not in a play or film but in a butter ad)

And here Norah describing one of her own sexual partners:

He had a way of swallowing a joke, with a little bobbing lift of his chin, as though agreeing with himself while tossing down a peanut.

The reader has all the freedom in the world to picture Enright’s characters in their size, clothes, and expressions but little descriptions of their eccentricities like this anchor them in your mind.

Detail has always been, and remains, the writer’s tool to elicit believability, but what works better is forgotten detail:

The ‘treatment’ [LSD] happened some time after the butter ad, apparently, but rack my brains though I might, I can not say it made any difference to her level of eccentricity at the time.

but then writing about not remembering something is detail nonetheless, just more effective.

This book is actually like a letter and like all letters it is in the 2nd person and it allows Enright to employ conversational aspects: asides, self-reflection, and pent up confessions. But it is also a novel and these peculiarities of letter writing could explain why the readers I’ve talked to said they didn’t like it or didn’t finish it, which is the same thing really, because they were expecting a story. But, although it isn’t written as a linear story, it is a story, and a satisfying one, you end up with, a bit like it’s a picture you end up with when you finish a jigsaw puzzle, you just don’t know what the story is while you’re reading it.

Enright’s last book The Green Road (2015) was her best thus far, although, surprisingly, it traced the same form and content of her Booker Prize winning novel, The Gathering (2007). Actress, is hewn with the same skills but it’s a very different creation, and I recommend those who didn’t finish it to try it again; just adjust your expectations.

Here is an interview with Enright talking about the creative process;

and here is an interview, back in March, hosted by Andrew O’Hagan for the London Review of Books about this work.

You can buy the book in various formats here.

Girl by Edna O’Brien

Edna Obrien pic
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.

A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne

John Boyne pic
Irish writer, John Boyne.

This is a masterful work as well as a bloody good story. Boyne uses several narrators, first person, third person, even second person to tell the blackening ambitious story of Maurice Swift, handsome, clever, manipulative, ruthless, and fiercely driven to be a writer. The only problem is his talent is limited, very limited; but this doesn’t stop him, although at great cost to those around him. At each section you wonder, ‘where is Boyne taking me now?’ It’s exhilarating to let yourself go, to totally trust the writer to never let you down; to give you insights into his literary world, and into the mechanisms of novel writing itself.

John Boyne is an Irish writer of some experience. He writes for young readers and for adults. His greatest success was his young-adult novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2006). I discovered him via his previous novel for adults, The Heart’s Invisible Furies (2017 ) another accomplished work of tragedy, love, and humour. He’s great with the comic, laugh-out-loud stuff. Check out my blog post on this remarkable book here.

Every book, by anyone, has its own universe. Most of the time the universe of the book is exactly the universe of the reader: our universe. However, this is not always the case. In ….Pyjamas, the central relationship is between the son of a Nazi Concentration Camp Commandant, and a prisoner-boy on the other side of the fence, the boy in the striped pyjamas. Some critics have accused Boyne of inaccuracies: in German death camps during WWII inmates would never come into contact with the families of the staff, as Boyne describes, even given a fence. This may be so in our universe, but in the universe as created by Boyne it is what happens. It is a universe of a different internal and external geography. Similarly the same criticism could be dished out to Boyne here, in Ladder … , but Boyne makes it easy to trust him. In the heady atmosphere of reading fiction there is an element of suspension of disbelief, exactly in the same way as it works in the theatre; as readers we need to let ourselves be beguiled. One of the signs of bad writing is when the writer does not do this. Good writing will always set you up effortlessly to allow you to boldly go where you have never been before; where you accept what may be unacceptable, or unknown, in your own universe.

And with so many narrators the reader is rewarded when the narrator becomes Maurice himself, but … beware! … you almost start to like him!

You won’t forget Maurice Swift for a very long time, but don’t get him confused with Highsmith’s Ripley; it could be easily done.

You can read a Q&A with John Boyne about this new book here.

It was released in many countries, including Australia, in August, 2018.

You can buy the ebook here.

I am keen to read whatever Boyne has written, and will write. I need to make some room on my shelves.

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.


Dubliners by James Joyce

james-joyce pic Intelligent

 Irish writer, James Joyce (1882-1941)

The first-person narrator, a boy, walks past the house of his dying priest night after night, wondering whether he is dead yet, but this night knows it to be true.

“Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word simony in the Catechism.”

So begins the first story, The Sisters, in James Joyce’s collection Dubliners (1914) but in it is a clue to the theme of the book itself. Joyce wanted to write about the people of Dublin because to him it was the “city of paralysis” and the shadow of this word permeates the whole collection. For Joyce “paralysis” meant the inability to life meaningfully. Joyce spent most of his life on the continent, far away from Dublin, so strong was his belief that the city was tainted.

Here the “paralysis” is both literal, in the case of a dying priest after his third stroke, and moral: “simony” takes aim at the Catholic church’s corrupting stranglehold on Irish society; “gnomon” is somewhat different, being more about form than content (a gnomon is a parallelogram with a section removed, as well as the shadow-casting part of a sundial). The word is a cryptic warning to the reader that these stories contain many absences, not least traditional plot, character and scene-setting. These absences are part of what Joyce referred to as the style of “scrupulous meanness” with which he wrote Dubliners, meaning the frugality he applies to language, image and emotion.

Freytag’s pyramid, or dramatic arc or structure, suggests that a clear beginning consisting of a proper introduction of the setting and the characters, a middle discussing the conflict that would lead to a climax, and an end that ties the story together with a denouement are indispensable to any written work of fiction.

So was the literary thinking in 1914 – and in some circles it still is today. Joyce ignored it all, which may be why it took him 6 years to get this collection published.

In the story A Little Cloud, a shy and fragile clerk, known as Little Chandler, since “he gave one the idea of being a small man” meets in a bar, after 8 years, his friend Ignatius Gallaher, who once “known under a shabby and necessitous guise had become a brilliant figure on the London Press.” Little Chandler yearns of becoming a famous writer and dreams about the rave notices he would get for his work. He is delighted to see his old friend and Gallaher shouts him several whiskeys and regales the little man with innuendo and suggestions of his racy experiences in London and Paris: no married life for him. Of course, Little Chandler is late getting home to his young wife and child and had not brought the tea and sugar she had urged him not to forget. “She was in a bad humour and gave him short answers” and decides to go out and get the tea and sugar herself. “She put the sleeping child deftly in his arms and said: ‘Here. Don’t waken him’.” Little Gallaher cradles the child and stares at a photograph of his wife wearing an expensive blouse he had bought her. The image of his wife weaves no comparison to the “rich Jewesses” with “dark Oriental eyes” of Gallaher’s salacious plans and stories. Little Chandler feels nothing but entrapment, paralysis, in his mean little cottage with debt-laden furniture and no way of writing the book that “might open the way for him.” He reads some melancholy verse by Byron while nursing the child and wonders where he can find the time to write like that; he has so much to say. The baby wakes and cries and will not stop no matter how hard he tries to sooth him. Everything is useless. He is “a prisoner of life!” He loses his temper with the child and shouts at him which scares the infant and causes him to scream and “sob piteously”. His wife arrives and rescues the babe and glares at her useless husband and he listens to the child’s sobbing grow less and less in the arms of his loving mother. The story ends with Little Chandler just standing there as “tears of remorse started to his eyes.”

The reader is left with a feeling of pity and yearning for this little man who did the right thing, that every man should do, marry, start a family, and work to keep and protect them; while his friend did the other thing: travelled, wrote and became famous and whored around in London and Paris. This is the ending that Freytag’s pyramid espouses but it is a thought, not on the page but in the mind of the reader.

This was radical for 1914, when this collection first appeared. However, is it true today that more and more writers of fiction are leaving aspects of descriptive, consequential, and circumstantial narrative out of the text and up to the reader.  This is so true that it is not the writer’s place any more to answer the question, “And what did you mean by writing that?” After a story is in print – or, for that matter any creative work that is finally in the public domain – the meaning of what the reader reads is all to do with the reader – it means what the reader thinks it means – and has nothing to do any more with the writer and what was meant by the writer in the first place.

Although Dubliners is considered one of the greatest short story collections ever written, it is Anton Chekhov, the Russian playwright, who is generally considered the father of the modern short story. “The revolution that Chekhov set in train – and which reverberates still today – was not to abandon plot” – or Freyberg’s Pyramid – “but to make the plot of his stories like the plot of our lives: random, mysterious, run-of-the-mill, abrupt, chaotic, fiercely cruel, meaningless”. Chekhov’s short stories had been available in English since 1903, but Joyce didn’t get Dubliners published until 1914. He claims not to have read them. Many critics think this a little implausible since Dubliners seems to owe a lot to the work of the Russian. However, Joyce finished the collection by 1907, and with Chekhov’s work having been available in English only for a few years when Joyce was working as a teacher in Europe, it is entirely possible that he did not read it. Although William Boyd, American novelist and short story writer asserts that Chekhov liberated Joyce’s imagination as much as Joyce liberated writers that followed and “that the Chekhovian point of view is to look at life in all its banality and all its tragic comedy and refuse to make a judgment”. The Joycean view seems to look at life from the inside of his characters: to chart his country’s “moral history” in Dublin; and he does this by turning the plot inwards. It’s the landscape of dreams, desires, hopes and disappointments that bind the 15 stories together into a whole, which in itself is unique, creating a form of a novel in fifteen disparate but morally interconnected chapters: the early stories are from childhood, the centre charts the middle years, and the final devastating story, The Dead, his masterpiece, culminates in a mature realisation of man’s insignificance in the universe. In fact, the first image of the first story: a boy looking up at a window behind which lies a dead man, is reflected in the last image of the last story where a man looks out of a window contemplating all the dead that have gone before him and which one day he will join. Images like bookends.

Joyce’s narrator varies from story to story: first person in the first, but usually in the third-person but not of the omniscient kind:

“…as he set himself to fan the fire again, his crouching shadow ascended the opposite wall and his face slowly reemerged into the light. It was an old man’s face, very bony and hairy.” (Ivy Day in the Committee Room). The narrator doesn’t know the face until it is seen as everyone else sees it, including the reader. It’s like the narrator and the reader see and know everything at the same time; as if you and he are watching the scene together.

It is the final story, The Dead, that marks Joyce a masterful writer and it is easy to argue that it is the best short story ever written. It is the quintessential modern story although it’s structure is almost classic. It opens with a scene featuring minor players in the story; a device used by Shakespeare in the opening scenes of many of his plays: it’s a way to introduce the scene and action before the principle players emerge, creating setting, background, and expectation. The bulk of the story is the colouring of the situation: the interconnecting relationships, the characters, the party as life’s metaphor, building tension and expectation, preparing the reader for what will happen.

Lily the house maid is “run off her feet” tending to guests as they arrive for the annual dance party given by the aging Misses Morkan, Kate and Julia, and their niece Mary-Jane, a music teacher to some of the “better-class families on the Kingstown and Dalkey line.” All eyes and ears are attuned to the arrival of Gabriel Conroy, the old ladies’ nephew, and his wife, Gretta, but they are also worried that the local drunk, the course-featured Freddie Mullins, might make a too-soon appearance and spoil the party. All arrive as expected and the party is in full swing; shoes shuffle and skirts swish and sway to the dance music on the polished floor of the upstairs parlor under the chandelier and a piano recital is given by Mary-Jane and songs are sung by the talented tenor, Mr Bartell D’Arcy. The strata of Dublin society are represented: the proud and successful Gabriel and his unhappy wife, Gretta; the Morkans drenched in their good-natured, middle-class hospitality cocooned in their well-established morality; and the likes of Freddie Mullins who prizes a drink over employment, filial duty, and nationalistic pride.

And then there are the galoshes. Gabriel wears them and urges his wife to, but she refuses. They are a symbol of modernity, recently arrived from London and “Gabriel says everyone wears them on the continent”. They are a sign of progress but, of course, the locals don’t wear them, much to Gabriel’s disappointment, thinking that he may have been able to bring the modern world into the lives of his community and family; Aunt Julia isn’t even sure what they are; Gretta thinks they’re funny and “says the word reminds her of the Christy Minstrels”. The social boundaries are clearly drawn.

On the dance floor, Gabriel, preoccupied with his forthcoming speech and worrying that his planed quotes from Browning “would be above the heads of his listeners”, is half-jokingly harassed by his dance partner, Miss Ivors, who “has a crow to pluck” with him. She chastises him for writing book-reviews for an English newspaper; refusing to holiday in his “own land” among his “own people” and to speak his “own language” and therefore labels him a ‘West Briton”.

Gabriel is a dignified man. He is angered by Miss Ivor’s assertions regardless of her light-hearted tone; considers Dublin, like Joyce, a back-water of pseudo-happy and ignorant people; looks to England and Europe for artistic, fruitful, and intellectual sustenance; but, despite all this,  tonight he is excited by the idea of Gretta and he spending the night, without the children, in a local hotel. Their marriage has soured over the past few years into something that he sees as all too common in this society. He is hoping for, maybe even lustful, but at least an intimate night alone with his wife.

After all the singing, dancing, and a minor ruffle between the Catholics and “the other persuasion”, the goose is carved at the head of a fine, happy, and plentiful supper table. Gabriel’s speech is a great success.  The champagne flows freely. The annual party is drawing to a close and Gabriel while putting on his coat asks after his wife. He finds her standing high on the landing in the semi-darkness gazing at nothing in particular but seemingly listening to something. There is a plaintive singing voice “in the old Irish tonality” and distant chords on a piano that seemed to render his wife transfixed. This is the peak of the drama. What is happening to Gretta, what is going on in her mind, will bring down the story’s protagonist. But Joyce stretches the tension. There is the walk with others into the city, then to the hotel, then to their room, and their preparation for the night. Here, he, all expectant and eager, is willed finally to ask why she is so melancholy. Her reply, his reaction, and the devastating realisation because of it, ends the story.

What begins as a classically structured tale of Dublin life, full of Chekhovian realism bolstered by detail, humour, character, emotional connections, and social hierarchy, the epitome of life itself, ends as a modern fable, not based on action, but internal thought. And like all good writers, Joyce ends with an image: a disappointed and humbled man gazing through a window on to a darkened city as snow gently begins to fall all over Ireland.

“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”


The works of James Joyce, Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegan’s Wake, are out of copyright and can be downloaded, via various formats, for free here.

hOme by Frank Ronan

Irish writer, Frank Ronan
Irish writer, Frank Ronan

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 ( 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.