Book Reviews


On Balance
Sinéad Morrissey

This is the sixth collection from the Belfast poet who has been nominated for the Forward Prize 2017. Sinéad Morrissey was Belfast’s first Poet Laureate and is currently Professor of Creative Writing at Newcastle University.
The balance in the title refers partly to the great feats of human engineering throughout our history and the epiphanic moment for the poet in Whitelessness ‘If its’s life that controls the geological machinery of the planet, rather than the other way round, we are neither new, nor tragic’ acts as a central motif as Morrissey examines our ecological and economic fragility in poems ranging from global warming to gender equality through timeframes of history.
The collection begins with The Millihelen, which the poet explains in a note is a fanciful unit of measurement meaning the amount of physical beauty required to launch a single ship. This she aptly applies to the launch of the Titanic into Belfast Lough in 1921: ‘Millihelen her beauty slathered all over the slipway…’, the temporary wobble before it and ‘the sun-splashed titled hills the railings the pin-striped awning in fact everything regains its equilibrium’.
On Balance, the title poem, is an anti-misogynistic piece taking issue with Larkin’s Born Yesterday and reminiscent of Yeats’ Prayer for My Daughter where he expressed fear for his daughter’s beauty in a world such as ours. Nevertheless Morrissey, however unwittingly, shares a quality with Larkin in her eye for telling detail where for example at a school Nativity play ‘stewed tea in too-thin plastic scalds our hands’, and she encapsulates in a wonderful simile the pride of parents doting on their children’s performances when the parents ‘turn as heliotropes to the sun to watch a hundred preternaturally tiny children…’ (Nativity).
The poems are mainly without punctuation and one or two of them initially appear somewhat cryptic and struggle to break through their opacity, but pay dividends in rereading. Perhaps the best poem is Collier, her tribute to her grandfather who toiled and sacrificed his health working in a coal pit, where he’d eat his Spartan bread and jam from greaseproof paper after eight hour stints ‘black as a bat/bar the whites and reds of eyes and his teeth’s gapped ivory.’ He listened for the ‘squeal of the wheel’ and the ‘cages singing’ and by ‘the fluted shaft’ he’d sing himself, knowing ‘eight-and-twenty ways to raise the roof’. There is a moving resonance from the word ‘cage’ as situated in the pit but also denoting physical degeneration as ‘his breath was a wounded animal pacing its ever decreasing circle underneath his rib cage.’ Her grandfather paid his coal bill with a heavy cost where there was no compensation for the searing sadness of a life cut short in the dark world of a coal mine. The poet’s granny ‘would preen and pick at the elderly man grown elderly early hunched across from her in his armchair. He’d turn himself into a tree and wouldn’t answer.’
But despite the poverty and lack of linoleum, their’s was a welcoming house where ‘they’d play host to strange familiar visitors/soft-landing expertly in amongst the furniture’.
In the Mayfly, a celebratory poem in honour of Lilian Bland, the first woman to design, build and fly her own aeroplane, the poet captures beautifully early aviation attempts where, in Morrissey’s interpretation of aerodynamics, ‘the nuts dance themselves loose’ in

‘biplane extravaganzas that had the ground
–gadzooks! – for a couple of minutes
only to wobble uncontrollably
in recalcitrant space and then nosedive…’

Many of the poems, like Mayfly, have narratives running through them and are set before the poet was born, recounting her ancestors’ lives as she eavesdrops on them from a modern perspective like a movie ‘they haven’t scripted yet’.
There is a delightfully humorous play on words in My Life According to You in which the poet christened her cat Morris Morrissey to match her mother’s Morris Minor. The same poem contains what must be the most succinct description ever of human bonding:

‘…I met a man in a bright
white classroom the darkest parts
of our eyes turned into swirls then question
marks then hearts so we got married…’

Some brilliant interlinking of natural and technological images are evident in The Singing Gates where the poet’s grandad tells his son war stories and they fall asleep with ‘clouds passing over their faces like zeppelins’. In Articulation she reimagines history through the skeleton of Napoleon’s horse Marengo, on show in the National Army Museum in Chelsea, and she captures the world’s vulnerability in Whitelessness where the ice grows increasing smaller until it becomes ‘lozenges dissolving visibly on the tongue’. And the big top of Duffy’s circus in The Wheel of Death takes on Armageddon-like proportions as the ‘wind lashes the outer awning/like the last of days’.
In The Photographer, the most lyrical piece where the world addresses the poet semiotically, Morrissey declares that she will make a map of her life ‘with holes for hideouts/ between birth and death’, and she concludes on a hopeful note by reminding us that God put a rainbow in the sky ‘as a promise/ that He’d never let the ocean rise again’.

Published in Books Ireland, September/October 2017, Issue No 375.

Before I was Yours
Virginia MacGregor
Rosie Keep and her husband Sam desperately want a child. She considers her inability to conceive as a kind of failure. She works as a midwife and bringing other people’s children into the world is her attempt at redeeming herself. Part of Rosie’s problem initially is she starts imagining an ideal child that she would like to adopt. This leads to disappointment and frustration in her efforts until her heart strings are eventually pulled when she slowly warms to Jonah, a child enigmatically dispatched from Africa by his prostitute mother, ironically named Grace, so that he can become ‘A True English Gentleman’.
MacGregor is good at capturing the universal innocence of childhood: When Mr Sir, who brings Jonah to the UK, repeats the word ‘shit’ after his assignation goes awry, Jonah remembers his mother saying ‘Words you use on the outside show people who you are on the inside.’ Although one wonders here does dissimulation not have a role to play in our lives? But you have to admire MacGregor for doing her homework in child psychology as exemplified when the children in the adopting centre are made to wear their names on their backs because, as Cathy the social worker explained, they were more likely to stay on as ‘children like to pick at things’.
Sam has a natural way with Jonah and the child warms to him as his adoptive father teaches him to sculpt in wood. Rosie’s approach however is marred by her neurotic and possessive nature in hankering for a child, and this is overdone and at times can be cringe-inducing. ‘He’s our child now, she keeps telling herself,’ and she imagines people whispering ‘the poor childless couple’ added to the quasi refrain: ‘they have a little boy and he’s theirs to keep’. Also the author’s language can be cloying, and the family cat and emotional chords used to draw the reader in seem at times almost a la Enid Blyton: ‘Jonah hears something padding into the room and then a warm bundle nestles onto the duvet against his side. He’s too tired to move. Hop now.’
The character of Jonah is sensitively presented, but occasionally he is made to use language in a higher register than that of a seven year old child. His friend Alice says to him ‘you’re an odd one’ for wearing his native scarf on a hot day. Jonah shrugs, ‘I’m odd?’ One feels especially with the italics this is the author intruding here, trying to score an ethnically cultural point. Or when Sam cuts his foot, Jonah tells him ‘the salt water will disinfect’ it. Also there are a couple of unfortunate typos in the book as when Rosie and Sam, who were not drug dealers, ‘were peddling (sic) along the cliff path’.
The mystery element works quite well. There is growing suspense and the story is unpredictable as we don’t know how things are going to turn out for Jonah in the end. As readers we are intrigued to find out more about Jonah’s mother and why she sent such a young son to the other end of the earth in the company of a man who deserted him as soon as they arrived in London.
Although the novel is over four hundred pages long, the author uses a very limited narrative palette and each chapter is introduced almost cinematically in the ubiquitous present tense and mainly in dialogue. Strands do knit together when we discover the sad circumstances surrounding Jonah. Despite milking sentimentality for its last drop¬¬—the debilitated Jonah dancing on the shore to catch the now flakes and Sam’s heart, on witnessing the wooden horse fashioned by his adopted son, ‘doesn’t shift this time: it breaks’— the novel does reach a satisfying conclusion.
Review published in the Irish Examiner 26/08/2017
James Lawless’ latest novel is American Doll;

Joe Joyce
New Island

German-speaking army First Lieutenant Paul Duggan is promoted to G2 Intelligence to investigate the activities of a German spy in 1940’s Dublin. Paralleling this is his uncle’s request for him to trace his missing daughter. The uncle, Timmy Monaghan, is a nationalist TD who believes his daughter may have been kidnapped.
This mystery story is low on tension and is not fast-paced or noir enough to be deemed a thriller. Nevertheless, the fears and tribulations engendered by the Emergency in Ireland are captured very well. The country at the time was divided into pro- and anti-German feelings. The Germans had steamrolled their way through France, forcing the British evacuation from Dunkirk. Many believed at this stage that Hitler would win the war. So the country was replete with spies and rumours that the IRA would join with the Germans to drive the British off the island.
Joe Joyce knows his history well and his knowledge of Dublin locations of the period is spot on, and an unscrupulous politician such as Monaghan, slipping into a church to receive Benediction before meeting Duggan to carry on with his machinations, is typically hypocritical and redolent of the times. But the author goes into far too much detail to the detriment of the narrative. And too much is made of cigarette smoking at the expense of more meaningful familial exchanges between Duggan and Monaghan, which are treated rather cursorily.
The writing is authentic and very visual as when Duggan, in his quest for his missing cousin, follows her friend Stella up the stairs to Nuala’s flat: ‘A strip of yellow linoleum ran up the centre of the steps, the black paint of either side greyed by ingrained dust.’
Some tension does arise but it is not till halfway through the novel when Duggan, following a lead to the whereabouts of the missing girl, is confronted by a man pointing a Webley 45 at him. The man is apparently looking for the ransom money offered by Nuala’s father. When Duggan mentions that the missing girl is his cousin, his captors, who are the IRA, appear not to know her, something which causes mystification to both the lieutenant and his abductors. Duggan is rescued by his accomplice Gifford from Special Branch. One feels that this is the moment where the novel could really have taken off but instead it sinks into vagueness with Duggan’s captors fleeing and the police platitudinously shouting: ‘Come out with your hands up.’
Duggan tried to think the conundrum through: ‘Nuala was supposedly kidnapped. Timmy paid a supposed ransom. Then sent some of his old IRA friends or contacts to get it back. Nuala gave back the money. Then her boyfriend was supposedly kidnapped by the IRA as a spy. Was that why she gave back the money? Someone had paid her back in kind. Timmy. Would have to have been him.’ There was a chance, Duggan concluded, that it was all a hoax, a nationalistic guise by Monaghan to score points against the old enemy England. Or in addition it could equally have been a warped revenge plan against his recalcitrant daughter because of a family feud as he told the IRA that her boyfriend was an English spy.
Another problem for the reader regarding the kidnapped girl, is that is very hard to feel sympathy for her when we hardly know her. Also Duggan himself comes across as rather flat with few compelling traits. An interesting romantic subplot could have been developed for example between the ebullient Gifford and Duggan in their competition for the attentions of the office girl Sinéad, but nothing comes of it.
Well into the novel, while in their pursuit of the German spy, Duggan, at Greene’s bookshop, runs after Gifford and declares: ‘I think we’re being followed.’ ‘Thanks be to God,’ Gifford says, ‘some excitement at last.’
James Lawless’ latest novel is American Doll;

Published in the Irish Examiner 01/07/2017

Trespass by Anthony J. Quinn

Irish Examiner, Saturday, May 13, 2017 Review: James Lawless


In the light of Brexit and the talk of soft and hard borders, this is a topical novel as it is set on the blackthorn-hedged borders of Northern Ireland and the Republic.

It is a deeply atmospheric and poetically written Emerald noir which examines crimes with roots dating back to the dark days of the Troubles.

Anthony J Quinn confesses to being ‘a thwarted poet’ who undertook to write crime novels to add plot to his themes.

He is good at juxtaposing the outer landscape of the border counties with the inner landscape of his characters.

Detective Celcius Daly, a divorced 44-year-old, wonders not only about his life in the police force but about life itself as he tries to avoid the ‘downward pull of the past’.

Quinn is good on silence and Daly’s struggle with his Catholic faith as he follows the solicitor Rebecca Hewson to a church.

There he resists the imploring face of Jesus on the cross where the detective’s ‘heart did not move… and the quietness of the church deepened’.

Daly has been relegated to court duty because he is under internal investigation for his possible involvement in the disappearance of a spy.

Daly’s own mother was murdered during those turbulent times, but the horrible impact of this on the son could have been brought out more and is only cursorily referenced throughout the novel.

The same applies to his scant reflections on his divorce and one wonders if maybe a new love interest could have enhanced the non-professional roundedness of his character.

When Hewson’s son goes missing from the court house Daly is tasked with the investigation. Suspicion lies with a group of Travellers and Quinn, a former social worker, shows great insight into the world of these marginalised people.

Daly himself, as one side-lined in the force and inhabiting his father’s old rundown cottage on the shore of Lough of Neagh, identifies with them: ‘His fear of uprootedness and not belonging; his inability to shake off the notion that deep down he was a stranger too’ in the wake of the long Troubles and his own involvement in them.

Despite his contemporaries buying new houses, contemptuously deemed ‘trophy properties’ by Daly and which Quinn indulges three pages in describing, the cottage was the only place in which Daly could feel at home.

It is interesting that the wealthy Traveller Thomas O’Sullivan, head of a trading empire, shared a similar feeling with Daly. O’Sullivan bought a lavish mansion in Duncannon but, unable to change his nomadic way of life, could not bring himself live in it. Quinn portrays O’Sullivan as a person of high ideals who may speak too well to be utterly convincing but shows a disdain for capitalism, putting family honour to the fore.

Daly lives a lonely life with no children for miles around and old farmers and their wives ‘floating along in their solitary routines like weeds trailing in a stagnant pond’.

His probing gets murkier as suspicion hovers over politicians and sectarian powers including the Strong Ulster Foundation who are intent on buying up border farms left vacant after the recession to ensure that no Catholics will come into ownership of them.

Matters become even more complicated when it is learned that the missing boy apparently went willingly with the Travellers.

While the prose is of a high quality generally, there are some unnecessary words such as ‘dark’ with shadows and ‘shoulders’ with shrugged and maybe one too many crows ‘hovered out of the leaden air’.

Also, sometimes there are author intrusions in the dialogue and circumlocutory passages slowing down the pace, but the plot speeds up as the sense of menace increases and there are exquisite moments of high tension as Daly makes his way through the night forest to locate the missing boy.

James Lawless’ latest novel is American Doll;


Anthony J Quinn

Head of Zeus, €21 hb/€9.50 pb;

€1.49 ebook


His Name is David
Jan Vantoortelboom
World Editions, £10.99

Saturday, March 11, 2017Review: James Lawless Irish Examiner

In Flanders during the First World War, David Verbocht, a young Belgian schoolteacher, stands before a firing squad, sentenced to death as a deserter. He lyrically prophesies: “I’ll be as cold as the earth, as the frost on the branches on the beech. As the air.”

In his last moments David reflects on his life and the circumstances that led to where he is now. How did he end up here? Is he the victim of circumstances or did he bring this on himself?

Jan Vantoortelboom’s beautifully written novel His Name Is David shows how guilt can ruin a life.

The light, poetic prose, disguising a heavy theme, consists of a series of vignettes hopping from past to present as it captures significant freeze frames in the protagonist’s life, from childhood, to school teacher and ultimately to soldier.

The telling is in the detail, as, for example, when the author describes farmer Verschoppen’s clothes as the same colour as the cobbles he was walking on, and his wife Godaleva, with whom David falls in love and who is the mother of the tragic Marcus, he observes as she pours coffee, “the gentle slope from her knuckles down to the wrists, the slightly tanned skin”.

The narrative treats of an angst-ridden young man grappling with the loss of his religious faith.

David teaches in a tightly controlled religious environment but does not believe in a life after death, and he thinks of his father, who taught him that faith was a weakness.

The visceral world witnessed by the sensitive David leaves its mark. As a boy he beheld the axe used by his father to chop the chickens’ heads off, and hearing the local butcher chopping through bone “went through me like a knife”.

And later as a teacher he finds himself admonishing a pupil to set a butterfly free.

Vantoortelboom, although he studied in Dublin, was possibly unacquainted with the writing of Patrick Pearse, but he shows a remarkable affinity with the patriot in their mutual poetic sentience of the world.

The sadness that lies in the beauty of the world which Pearse wrote about has echoes running as a motif throughout the Belgian’s novel.

David, an imaginative, impressionable child who the world treated to nightmares, understands the deepest recess of forests “where you could feel the wood itself take a deep breath”.

Whether he is friending a hedgehog which he delineates with Darwinian accuracy or detailing the effects of a wasp’s sting, the protagonist shows himself as an acute observer of the sensory.

Nature is setup in the novel as a parallel universe to the manmade world of violence and war. Not that David doesn’t recognise that nature can also be red in tooth and claw.

The difference is, while nature follows its inevitable universal and timeless laws, man imposes and interferes with the natural design of things.

Vantoortelboom recounts the tragedies that befall David: the suicide of his younger brother with the rather cold nickname of Ratface, his sensitive pupil Marcus whose death by drowning David blames himself for because he refused his embrace.

For a relatively young writer, Vantoortelboom strikes a powerfully emotive chord: the desperation some individual souls carry inside themselves.

The atmosphere of the First World War in Flanders is well conjured, down to the trains with “the click-clacking of rails and the whistling steam”.

The former sensitive boy shows courage as a soldier and is not afraid to use a bayonet. He wins the respect of his comrades in the trenches and even teaches some how to write so they can send letters to their loved ones.

Ultimately beset by too many chimeras and the memory of Marcus, David wanders away homewards, heading for the elusive finish line staring at whatever lies “hidden behind the clouds”.

James Lawless’ latest novel is American Doll;

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The opening story of John MacKenna’s Once We Sang Like Other Men is a modern reimagining of the gospel parable of Lazarus. The contemporary wit of the author becomes immediately evident in Laz’s phrase: ‘I’m not here to upset the apple tart’ and in the more foreboding comparison of him to Midas where ‘everything you touch turns to cold’. The humour is evident in other stories too, such as in Words, where the dead guy only known as Blue on his tombstone was ‘probably a porn reader in his day.’
Some of the stories’ openings are brilliant, as in Absent Children with the ominous line: ‘I moved away from the river when its invitation became too strong’. Places are mentioned cursorily – Barcelona, Ireland, USA, Russia, Palestine and the Black Sea, but the settings are largely unspecified, deliberately perhaps, in homage to the structure of the Gospel parables on which the stories are loosely based, but also perhaps for the sake of wider interpretation. The Captain was assassinated in a revolution which could be any revolution and his followers, who wind up in far-flung fields, try to come to terms with this.
At their last meal, an old story retold with refreshing clarity by the author, when the Captain tells his followers to eat his flesh and drink his blood, they take his words literally and, after his death, bring his body into the desert and cannibalise him. But no miracle follows and all they feel is guilt.

The poet in McKenna shines through in some beautiful lyrical writing. The father, for example, in the story Sacred Heart watches his daughter running along a beach, ‘her sun-bleached hair flying like a thousand short kite strings’. Or witness how the author allows the choirmaster in The Angel Said to capture something both physical and sacred in his search for Peter as he watches ‘the passing shapes of the figures in the street – quavers and semi-quavers with crochets in tow; figures of darkness and, occasionally, figures blessed by the light of the falling snow’.
Twenty five years after the Captain’s death his followers, many in fractious relationships, work at various occupations from fisherman to theatre producer to farmhand and car salesman without any great fulfilment. Their lives seem empty and futile in the absence of their leader. They are people who crave guidance and appear to be devoid of any teleological or autonomous existential sense.

Even Laz wishes that he might not come back second time round. Life is too much trouble. But the stories draw you on in the skilled hands of the narrator despite their despair. Sometimes the author is sparse in describing what his characters look like and, as short stories, perhaps there could have been a little less reverie and a little more dialogue which the playwright MacKenna would be well capable of delivering, but then that may not have fitted in with the overall plan of a book which, with its disparate parts, must be swallowed whole to be fully enjoyed.
MacKenna has a gift for conjuring deep pathos as in the tragic story of a dog in Buying and Selling, and he captures wonderfully the explosive undercurrents of unarticulated emotion in possibly the best story Absent Children, where the cuckolded husband ‘behaved as if a word would shatter whatever it was that held his world together’.

Like Thomas Hardy, MacKenna sees nature as red in tooth and claw, juxtaposing the human condition. In Buying and Selling the action of a cat consuming a dunnock is perceived as almost something preordained: ‘It seemed to be filled with joy when it flew into the cat’s… jaws,’ Thaddeus says. ‘It was singing.’
James Lawless
Sunday Indo Living 26/02/2017

A Hunt in Winter

Conor Brady

New Island, €14.95ahuntinwinter_large

THE setting is Victorian Dublin, as newly promoted detective inspector, Joe Swallow investigates an outbreak of sexual assaults on women.

Paralleling this is the British government’s attempt to undermine the Irish parliamentary leader, Charles Stewart Parnell, by trying to locate incriminating logs which Swallow and his superior, Mallon, are reluctant to reveal.

The description of “the fern-patterned frost on glass” captures well the winter scene, which is an atmospheric motif throughout the novel.

Victorian Dublin is caught authentically in the references to the beeswax, gas lights, Ormolu clocks, Webley Bulldog revolvers, and bentwood chairs.

The book shows great evidence of historical research, but sometimes it is overdone.

For example, when Swallow passes by St Catherine’s Church, in Thomas Street, we are given a potted history of the tragic Robert Emmet, and when this is repeated later, concerning a paper portrait, it make the author more like a tour guide than a narrator.

And do the Dublin Mountains have to be named individually?

But there are illuminating insights: the magistrates’ courts don’t sit on a Saturday and the author conjures up the shops of the time, such as Weirs and Pyms, and pubs like The Long Hall and the Royal Marine Hotel, in Kingstown, where the wedding reception of Swallow and his long-term girlfriend, Maria, takes place.

Here, however, there is as much wastage in the detail on the food consumed as there is in the unnecessary use of page space in between dates in short chapters.

There are no accounts of dancing, the wedding night is skipped over, and the period-accurate songs hardly constitute revelry. A lot of this space could have been more usefully spent in character development.

Swallow’s mother, for example, appears vague and ethereal in her scant delineation: “her relations with her son had been distant, cold almost, over the years since the death of her husband” could have done with elaboration.

And, while accepting Swallow is not much of a romantic, one would have preferred a nuanced build-up in the relationship between him and Maria. One wonders why she, as his new bride, is not at the forefront of his mind.

And the reference to Maria’s pub, in Thomas Street, which he has to oversee later, while she is in the maternity hospital, is treated as mere background material, and one would like to have witnessed one or two interpersonal scenes on these premises.

As well as being heavy on the sauce, Brady is also heavy on the adverbs: Elena Pfaus, (wife of Swallow’s counterpart in Berlin) “smiled contentedly” at Swallow, and the murder suspect Carmody “grinned mirthlessly”.

And having a Friar Lawrence arrange Swallow’s wedding sounded like the author had been reading Romeo and Juliet.

The story lifts off when the pregnant Maria is assaulted by Swallow’s rival, Major Kelly, head of the secret service, which is a a protected species by the British.

Kelly broke into Maria’s licensed premises, in search of the incriminating logs against Parnell. Swallow was in Berlin, arranging to bring back Carmody for questioning. The assault led to the death of their baby.

The stakes are high, now, and the story becomes gripping, as Swallow tries to deal with this.

What is interesting and daring is that the novel ends without resolution. The finger points to Kelly, also, as a possible sexual murderer, but Swallow is ordered by Balfour, the chief secretary for Ireland, not to charge him, and, as in Brady’s previous novel, The Eloquence of the Dead, the small man (Swallow in this case) loses out to the powers that be.

However, in doing this, perhaps the author is leaving room for the detective to return in a new book.

James Lawless’ latest novel is American Doll;

Published in the Irish Examiner 28/1/17

Neuland by Eshkol Nevo. Vintage, €24.90

The novel follows a dual pattern. Lenny Peleg, a veteran of the Yom Kippur War and erstwhile businessman, goes missing in South America. Dori his son, a history teacher, leaves his wife and young son in Israel to go in search of him.

Paralleling this is radio producer and aspiring writer Inbar, who impulsively leaves Berlin to go to South America to escape the grief of her brother’s death and a boyfriend she doesn’t love.

Although it takes nearly half the book for Inbar to finally arrive in South America, the two patterns eventually cohere when Dori and Inbar meet.

And this is where the story could possibly have started because it is only when they converge does the plot take off, as she helps him in his quest to locate his father.

His father’s own quest we learn at the end was for a utopian Jewish neuland or, as the promiscuous and down-to-earth Alfredo, employed to trace the missing man, saw it: ‘Mr Dori’s father wants to build something on a farm from a hundred years ago.’

The novel offers a lot in its epic proportions of more than 600 pages and shows great evidence of research, but it doesn’t quite deliver in engagement.

It is full of longueurs and in need of severe cutting and ordering.

Dialogues in particular are inclined to be drawn out and it sometimes treads tired and worn territory, for example, when Inbar’s mother tells her daughter that ‘not all Germans were Nazis’.

The book contains interesting and perhaps significant insights into modern Jewish culture, but more than that is needed to constitute a novel.

There are some good particulars about the characters such as the brown age spots on Inbar’s mother’s arms and some good descriptions of inner worlds effected through modern technology as when Dori, fearful of his growing feeling towards Inbar, wonders at his keyboard if he could turn the H on its belly and place it between them like a bridge.

But other details are repetitive or occasionally, as in the case of Inbar’s writerly reflections, squirm-inducing: ‘Pouring out your heart is sometimes just pouring out your heart’ or ‘writing in a journal is sometimes just writing in a journal’ or the inane ‘only the present is present’.

Some of the best writing lies in the portrayal of South America where one gets a real feeling of being in these places, as in the fraught insights about Lima where police were on every corner and the chemist had to dispense medication through bars.

Or as they move outside Buenos Aires the bleakness of the scene is captured very well: ‘birds perch on electric wires… that sink in the middle like hammocks,’ and ‘a rusty sign advertises a hotel which is not there’.

The best line perhaps belongs to Nessia, Inbar’s fictional alter ego, who was not attracted to writers because ‘they all take on the shape of a chair after a while and you’re always afraid they’re sleeping with you as part of their research’.

The narrative wanders into stream of consciousness as Lenny unfolds his hallucinogenic vision of a ‘community therapeutic space’ away from the trauma of living in Israel.

The weakest writing is in the description of the so-called utopia itself. It is vague and pseudo-hippy: Gardens had ‘a harmonious, balanced symmetry’ and ‘young people wearing heavy sweaters and woollen hats filled the lanes and the place bustled with vibrant, joyous life…’ It felt like we were going to see The Wizard of OZ.

Irish Examiner, 3/12/16

James Lawless’ latest novel is American Doll;

Hearing VoicesSeeing Things Cover

Hearing Voices/Seeing Things
William Wall
Doire Press

The title of this second collection of short stories by William Wall perhaps emanates from his essay Riding Against The Lizard (a line from a Sylvia Plath poem) in which he criticises the media for turning people into a complaining culture ‘where listening and looking drowned out hearing and seeing’. The role of the artist should always be one of dissent, according to Wall, and he is scathing of the state-funded artists’ organisation Aosdána for being ‘integrated into the fabric of power’.
This collection consists of twenty stories, some no longer than a few pages, but the quality is there in their laconic telling. It is mostly first person narrative, mainly male but occasionally female, by characters who are out of joint with the so-called acceptable norms of society. One would have liked to have read a few more stories maybe from a different point of view to broaden the palette such as The Clearing which is narrated in the third person. But notwithstanding, Wall underpins the short story as a powerhouse not so much of statements but of suggestion, which is what the best short stories are. He delivers tantalising sentences leaving the reader guessing the meaning or outcome, as in Paper Ashes the wife’s dead husband ‘had his pyjamas around his ankles’ and his character is summed up in the pithy line: ‘My husband left me penniless’. In the same vein in Bridey and Jim on Kodak the burgeoning love of the married Bridey for her American lodger forces her in a moment of impulse to kiss him and ‘He looked into her eyes and she could see he was not happy’.
Witness the feast of possible imaginative interpretations from I Bought a Heart: ‘My mother is coming out for the day on Thursday and she still likes hearts’, and in I Follow a Character savour the punchpacking ‘She buys a single fillet of plaice so I conclude she lives alone’.
This type of narration turns the apparently ordinary events of people’s lives into quirky happenings affording an interesting take on our perceptions of reality. It brings to mind John Berger’s ground-breaking book on semiosis Ways of Seeing and Desmond Morris’ Naked Ape. It prompts the question: does reality exist in its own right or is it only something which we perceive and therefore subject to personal interpretation?
There are some wonderful stories here. Etty Fitz and Jack Crowe, a story about middle-aged longing and missed opportunities to the beat of gradual human erosion, is reminiscent of the work of William Trevor.
Autobiographical touches are evident in some of the stories in the references to the oil refinery at Whitegate where Wall was brought up and to Stills disease which plagued part of his life. Also he sometimes uses hackneyed phrases satirically. For example ‘going forward’ in Statement Regarding the Recent Human Soul Experiments is repeated as a sort of chorus to drive home the rhetoric of the piece.
He is spot on with the argot of drug culture: ‘And Natalie has blow’ or ‘let’s just get faded somewhere’ occur in Torching Sam. When the oil refinery came in Bridey and Jim on Kodak he paints the picture for us: ‘the black hull of an oil tanker, unnaturally canted upwards out of the water like a breaching whale’. And in the same story Cobh’s cathedral spire in the setting sun is seen ‘like a pin pricking an orange balloon’. Within the fine writing Wall manages to slip in an occasional political statement such as about the egregious action of the oil companies to keep the prices up ‘by delaying the ships at sea for weeks on end…’.
He captures very accurately and movingly the sadism inherent in some boarding schools of the past. In Telling Wall shows great powers of observation with the caning priest’s modus operandi of holding ‘your hand in a special way with his thumb crooked over your thumb’. Similarly in The Mountain Road the effect of water on a suicide’s sinking car made it move ‘a little sideways as it sank’. Brilliant and unadorned images of perceived reality abound in this moving story as in ‘When old people go, death eases their pain and their faces relax into a shapeless wax model of someone very like them’.
The stories contain original and striking similes. In Signals the dying ‘Uncle Joe’s eyes were ‘as pale as shells’ and ‘his face greyed over like the seafront windows’ and in the same story the author displays evidence of having done extensive research into shipping and the British navy which, as the narrator idles through his uncle’s albums, comes across as the real thing:

‘All the ships tours were there: China Station 1936 or Crossing the Bar: The Arrival of Neptune, a hoary god that was Uncle Joe in the bow of a twelve- oar cutter, or Testing The Tubes, a snub torpedo leaping at the sea.’

To conclude on a slightly less buoyant note, one hopes that any future edition of this work will undergo a tighter editing to rectify the few but rather irritating typos that tend to detract from such a fine collection.

Published in Books Ireland Sept/Oct 2016, Issue No. 369

James Lawless’ latest novel is American Doll;

Death by Water
Kenzaburo Oe
Atlantic Books, €23.50

Review by James Lawless Irish Examiner 6/8/16

WATER is the metaphor and the phrase “taken by the current” is the recurring motif for going away and never returning, as happened to his fictitious father who drowned during a stormy night, in this autobiographical novel by Nobel prize winning Japanese author Kenzaburo Oe.

Kogito, a play on cogito ergo sum, is Oe’s doppelganger who feels guilty as he was supposed to accompany his father on that fateful night. Kogito idolised his father, considering him a hero in a fraught, war-torn Japan.
READ NEXT Book review: On The Other Side

His mother, however, had other ideas about the supposed gallant qualities of her husband and is unrevealing to her son about him, which results in the son falling out with her for many years.

Kogito is determined to find out more about his father by exploring a red leather trunk which he had left behind containing many of his papers.

It appears that the father was involved in a revolutionary plot to overthrow the emperor and may have lost courage before the event and fled by boat on a flooded river.

Oe uses the death of his father, who in reality did not drown, but died as a soldier in World War 11, as a trope to see through the prism of TS Eliot’s ‘Death by Water’ section from The Waste Land:

“A current under the sea/ Picked his bones in whispers. / As he rose and fell/ He passed the stages of his age and youth/ Entering the whirlpool”.

He coldly analyses the circumstances of his father’s death rather than engendering any emotional impact and elicits perhaps an unmoved or uncaring response from the reader.

Kogito intends to turn the information he gleans from the leather trunk into a final valedictory work called The Drowning Novel.

However, when he eventually gets to see the insides of the trunk, most of the material surrounding his father’s death has been removed, and he abandons the effort.

Other literary references, showing how literature weaves its way into our lives, include Frazer’s The Golden Bough, significant in seeking “a renascence of fertility in the world in calling for the killing of the living god”.

Kogito’s father interprets these words as a mandate to assassinate the emperor Hirohito.

The forest, home of Kogito’s childhood, is presented as a sort of prelapsarian state where “we were all together, happily unborn yet alive”, and there are wonderful poetic links between it and the sea, as the leaves of the trees in their undulations resemble the waves.

Despite the advancing years — both fictional and real narrators are 74 — and the possibility of writer’s block, Oe/Kogito never at any stage doubts his own worth as an artist. He gives instructions on how to interpret his work to the players of the adulatory Caveman Group who want to stage his novels.

The players for their part accept unquestioningly the value of the work “of such an eminent author”, which is something Oe reminds us of frequently.

And it is interesting that theatrical criticism is exemplified in some quarters of Japan by hurling stuffed animals— dead dogs— not at the artist but at the actors.

Such artistic awe may not be a totally bad thing as perhaps we are more critical of the artist’s role in society and less reverential in western culture.

However, on the downside, in western eyes this work could be viewed finally as a post-modern, self-regarding exercise in navel-gazing, all the time conscious of its own making.

Joe Joyce
Liberties Press, €13.99

IT’S 1941 and a US plane crashes in Co Mayo with goods destined for the US embassy in London. However, the goods are plundered and what also goes missing is the super-secret Norden bombsight, an advanced military hardware developed by Americans and which the Germans are after.

Special intelligence agent Paul Duggan is called in to investigate.

He is sent to Lisbon which is replete with spies and smugglers.

What follows is cloak and dagger politics with Duggan and Irish representatives negotiating with German and American diplomats and shady characters who are vying in a fraught contest to locate and seize the prized bombsight.

The book is strong on historical detail and the war-time geography of the cities of Dublin and Lisbon is atmospherically evoked.

However, sometimes the details weigh heavily on the narrative such as in the many references to brand names of cigarettes like Gold Flake, Sweet Afton, Lucky Strike and Pall Mall which keep popping up like punctuation marks to slow down the pace.

One wished for more of the little humour that the book possesses and which Joyce shows his talent to display as when a Polish representative got off the mailboat and asked the taxi driver to take him to Iveagh House.

The driver took him to the Iveagh Hostel instead “which was probably enough”, Duggan’s superior, commandment McClure exclaims, “for a representative of a homeless government”.

When he extricates himself from digressions and descriptive excesses and overlong dialogues, Joyce is capable of getting to the point quickly with short, insightful sentences such as

“Lisbon is now the crossroads of the world and anything can be bought”.

Some of his best writing surround the ships.

When the Lisbon-bound ship is pulling out from Dublin, clear word pictures are conjured up: “there were ships in the port all of them small, and the lines of cranes on the quay stood idle”.

In Lisbon itself we feel we are there as he describes the wooden memorial to the Portuguese explorers facing the water “like the prow of an enormous ship”.

However, we could have done with more of the suspenseful Hitchcock-like footsteps behind Duggan as he traverses the back streets of the Portuguese capital.

Back in Dublin the cutaway description and circumstances of the burnt-out shell of informant Benny Reilly’s lock-up garage in North Lotts heightens the intrigue.

Tension mounts in the latter half of the novel with the possibility of a U-boat torpedo threat or more closely of a bomb exploding in a suitcase on the return ship from Lisbon, and with Duggan scanning for bobbing mines.

The writing is original and concise here: ‘The thumping of the engine felt like their own heartbeats’ and the sea had ‘the colour and texture of freshly-poured concrete’.

But the novel overall is marred by too much historical detail and circumlocution, and there is little passion particularly as regards the supposed love of Duggan’s life, Gerda Meier, an Austrian Jew who escaped to America and was working in intelligence.

There are references to long lapses between her letters and Duggan’s, and in 1941 would one not have handwritten a love letter rather than coldly typing it as Duggan did?

To have read one or two of these letters, despite the possibility of their being censored, would have imbued a little emotion perhaps into their dry affair.

And when she is introduced in person near the end of the novel there is no build-up in her character, and one feels it is all happening too late.

Irish Examiner
Saturday, July 02, 2016

James Lawless’s latest novel is American Doll;


Everything To Play For
99 Poems about sport
(ed. John McAuliffe)
Poetry Ireland
€17.50 hardback

After the publication of the momentous Sport and Ireland: A History by Paul Rousse, Maureen Kennelly of Poetry Ireland is reported to have approached John McAuliffe, co-director of Manchester University’s Centre for Creative Writing, to consider compiling an anthology of sporting poems.
Sonia O Sullivan in the Foreword to this book tells us people watched her run ‘like poetry in motion’, and McAuliffe in his introduction talks of sport as ‘a kind of alternative national narrative’ bringing us out of ourselves into ‘an imagined community’ in providing us with ‘vicarious pleasures in the feats of sportsmen and sportswomen’.
Some sports are better represented than others in the book, which is understandable when hurling and Gaelic football are the two most popular sports in Ireland. But despite the modern national resurgence in rugby, that sport only accounts for two poems.
There is humour in some of the poems: Paul Durcan’s The 2003 World Snooker Championship is hilarious as the poet focuses on male snooker players’ bottoms; and there is wordplay on the dog Basil and basilica in Maurice Riordan’s Holy Land, as there is laughter in Michael Hartnett’s Reconstructionists ‘to build an Interpretive Centre to unbaffle Icelanders, Dutchmen, Danes and Turks… in Croke Park.’
Brendan Kennelly highlights the extreme of winning at all costs in The Madness of Football:
I’m shot through with the madness of football.
Run, hit, kick, score, win. Win. That’s all.

Sport is perceived as pilgrimage in Bernard O’Donoghue’s Croke Park or Ballylee, 1989, or even as futility in Peter Fallon’s Hay on the waste of Croke Park to ‘a world of hay’. And poetry itself is sometimes pitted against sport as in David Park’s’ George Best where the poet takes on the dancing footballer with words and loses. Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin steadies the boat in The Last Glimpse of Erin as she reminds us of our insular position:

The island trimmed with waves is lost to sea,
The swimmer lost in his dream.

The sports featured are to some extent portrayed in a sanitised form, clean and idealised. There is little reference to rough weather—so much a feature of Irish outdoor sports—or the muck of the field or dirty boots or the endless and often thankless job of washing filthy team togs. Tom French, however, in The Fathers Raising the Nets for the Last Game of the Season: a Triptych pays homage to the voluntary worker involved behind the scenes, one of whom continues to clip the crossbar ‘even though his son had been out with a hamstring for most of the season’.
Sometimes the sport is presented as otherworldly as in Greg Delanty’s After Viewing The Bowling Match at Castlemary, Cloyne, 1847 ‘where the bowl spins/ off, a planet out of orbit…’ and in Sinéad Morrissey’s Forty Lengths the swimmer becomes transcendent ‘wishboning through the stratosphere’.
Bernard O’Donoghue’s Munster Final is a moving poem about Gaelic football in memory of Tom Creedon who died in 1983 as he and other supporters went ‘trooping down the meadowsweet and woodbine-scented road… to see the white posts on the green! To be deafened/by the muzzy megaphone of Jimmy Shand/And the testy bray to keep the gangways clear.’ And the auditory and olfactory are strong senses in Noel Monahan’s The Football Field where ‘I can still hear their studs strut the stones/Smell the Wintergreen…’
Seamus Heaney in The Point compares sport to life in our expectations:

Was it you

Or the ball that kept going
beyond you, amazingly
higher and higher
and ruefully free?

The analogy is carried further in Matthew Sweeney’s The Yellow Golf Ball on the Lawn where golfers ‘walk in a certain way, hesitate/before making moves, take our bearings/from the sun, test the wind.’ And Pat Boran in Learning to Dive captures the thrill of diving ‘in the triumph of his simply letting go’.
John Fitzgerald encapsulates the ecstasy of hurling and reaching for the sliotar in Ecstasis ‘with body sprung from turf suspended… to reach for/ the impossible, when into my/ hand like a bird/ it came’.
Sometimes the side events entertain more than the main feature as in Tom Duddy’s The Racing Festival: ‘The reason I come here is not the horses… but these carnival odours of plastic and bruised grass…’ And love as sport is hinted at in Peggie Gallagher’s The Three Card Trick Man who turns to a girl in a red dress:

Impossible to say what passes between them—
a wager of innocent measure,
the small treacheries of love and its necessities.
Here I will leave them with everything still to play for.

There are a few poems in the anthology which appear to have been chosen more for their link to sport than for any intrinsic brilliance and, conversely, there are some good poems with rather tenuous connections to sport. It begs the question: what were the criteria for inclusion with dead and living poets mingling? And there are no poets represented in the Irish language or in translation and no poets from other countries or cultures other than Ireland. A short bio of the poets who are included would also have been useful.

Published in Books Ireland, May/June 2016, ISSUE NO 367

carlo 2016-04-02_ent_18283819_I1


The Wing Orderly’s Tales
Carlo Gébler
New Island
Carlo Gébler is a highly talented and underrated writer. At over 60 now he believes publishers are no longer interested in supporting writers who try to produce books when they are over 50/60 years.
‘For someone like me who doesn’t necessarily want to write a serious book but who wants to write seriously that is a disaster.’
Notwithstanding, his latest book is a collection of 12 authentic and tantalising short stories set in the fictitious North of Ireland prison of Loanend.
The searing honesty of these stories is not surprising when one considers that Gebler had first-hand experience of prisoners, having worked as a creative writing tutor in the early nineties in the Maze (Long Kesh) prison and later in HMP Maghaberry in Co Antrim.
These tales are narrated by wing orderly Chalky, a prisoner who was given 12 years for a violent crime. He is appointed to the job of orderly because he is not allowed visitors and therefore is available for duties 24/7.
The narratives bring to mind Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy for the visceral realism of their telling with human smells and noises like, as the author described in an RTE Arena interview, ‘a test tube with stuff foaming up around you’.
An orderly is a prisoner who, for a small weekly stipend and certain privileges, including cheap TV rental and access to tuck shop cigarettes (a bargainable currency), has responsibility for keeping the wing clean and tidy.
As he comes in contact non-confrontationally with staff and inmates from loyalist and republican backgrounds equally, he is the ideal person to tell the prisoners’ stories.
He is the Homer, as Gébler points out, vindicating the lives of these cast away and largely forgotten people. “They are us, they spring from us and will return to us very damaged. Nobody is just bad.”
The soul-destroying inertia of prison life is brilliantly captured: “That’s what jail does,” concedes Chalky, ‘it gets in you and then you do what they want automatically. Like breathing, it just happens.’
There is wonderful and imaginative writing here as when Chalky looks up from his cell window and sees the clouds: ‘One was like the exploding bag of soot and another looked like a lion’s head’.
And the narrow world gleaned from his Judas slit sometimes becomes bathed in red from the emergency light whirring above.
The dialogue is spot on: “All right Tiny?” I said “Yeah sweet, and you Chalky, how’s it hanging?” And the food which Chalky as orderly has to dish out is utterly convincing in its unpalatability: ‘Grey fish in brown batter and dry mushy peas and soggy chips and a choc-ice on a stick’.
The detailed insights into prison life such as old toothpaste used as glue to hold pictures up and the limitation of one pillow to a cell because of the necessity of two pillows to suffocate someone, mark this book out not only as a work of art but as an important sociological document.
As one reads these gripping tales, one senses danger lurking all the time with the threat to blacklegs or whingers as the paramilitaries try to run the jails and, failing, burn down wings in an attempt to reduce the system to anarchy.
And terrible things happen such as the horrendous murder of ‘the lifer’ Eskimo for owing drug money. Or the dreadful punishment of boiling water with sugar added to melt into the skin of a scab.
Or the grim reality of self-inflicted death as exemplified by the slow agonising suicide of the murderer SC who tied the noose around his neck and sat down because ‘you haven’t the drop in a cell when you hang yourself, so that’s what you do – you sit down to die and you stay sitting till you’re dead’.
Witness this sad but totally accurate portrayal of a prison drug-addict:
“Sweet Gene lifted his head. He’d grey eyes and a long face with scars around the edges. These were the sites of boils he’d squeezed until they burst and scarred into pits. It’s a common junkie thing. When they’re coming down they can’t help scratching the pustules that come with using?’
It is not all unrelenting gloom, however, as we are privy to occasional outbursts of humour such as the hilarious play on a Twix bar by the know all Maurice claiming its Latin etymology.
One or two of the stories involves the wing orderly himself playing a starring role, as when he agrees to swop his cell with the prisoner from cell 13, which was supposed to be haunted, and where he gets more than the Golden Virginia tobacco and phone cards he’d bargained for.
It is interesting that the book ends with the prisoners taking a creative writing class, but even that is fraught and not necessarily the panacea sometimes thought by ideologists outside the system.

James Lawless;
Sunday Indo Living 17/4/2016


The Prophets of Eternal Fjord
Kim Leine
Atlantic Books £14.9

Review: James Lawless

Published in the Irish Examiner 16/4/2016

IN OUR fast-paced world, one has to really trust an author to make a big commitment of time to surrender to the enormity of a novel such as this of nearly 600 pages. Is the investment worth it?

Despite the initial circumlocution and its rather drawn-out conclusion — the book could be shorter — it pays to persevere as one is sucked into its narrative.

We have to buy into the idea that the young priest Morten Falck, as part of his preparation for his mission to Greenland in 1787 to attempt to convert the Inuit to the Danish church, has to experience first-hand all the vagaries of sex, including an encounter with a hermaphrodite.

One of Falck’s texts interestingly is Moll Flanders, which he bizarrely gives as an enlightening read to the colony keeper’s wife in Greenland, whose confessor he becomes.

But Falck is more than a mere priest: he is a healer, a counsellor, a comforter and, as Magister, is invited to become the chronicler of these supposedly heathen people.

Despite the occasional verbose lapses, Leine’s descriptions are brilliant and the account of the fog as the priest’s ship berths is reminiscent of Dickens’ Bleak House:

“A person can sit and watch it come creeping in the evening and lay itself upon the water from shore to shore, pearly and lustrous, and so dense one feels able almost to step upon it and cross the fjord on foot.”

Falck is a restless individual at odds with the colonial authorities and sympathetic towards the rebellious Greenlanders of Eternal Fjord who appear to practise a truer type of Christianity than what he has been instructed to preach.

He has a fondness for quoting Rousseau: Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains, which acts as a running motif throughout the novel, and Danish conflict with the French means his borrowed French uniform renders him in danger of being arrested for espionage.

But it is with the people of Eternal Fjord that he feels at home.

He had left behind a comfortable bourgeois lifestyle in Copenhagen and an impressionable young fiancée, Miss Abelone Schultz.

However, when he returns from his mission 11 years later, he is racked with guilt on discovering that she has gone mad.

The conflagration at the climax of the novel, although based on the great fire of Copenhagen of 1795, is symbolic here.

The burning of the ancient gothic church where so many Danish births and deaths and baptisms were recorded for hundreds of years suggests the breakdown of Christianity.

“The church cannot be saved,” the people shout.

The fire also clears the Missionskollegium’s records on Falck, including his nude drawings to which he had a propensity, and the discovery of which he feared could have prevented his reappointment to Greenland.

As well as capturing superbly the harsh environment of the near-Arctic wastes, Leine also conjures up the atmosphere of 18th century Copenhagen very well.

The picture he paints is so clear, the reader feels he is there in the heart of the old throbbing city.

One senses the immediacy of life when “a careening carriage comes clattering at speed along Gammel strand” as the consuming fire threatens to destroy the city “dry as straw”.

And one can feel the quickening pulse in ‘people lugging chairs, chests, hatboxes, dressmaking dummies clad in finery, busts, cats, clocks, porcelain bowls.’

In contrast with the innocence of children chasing barrel hoops across the cobblestones.

This is a great, original novel with a rich polyphony of memorable places and events and resonating characters.

A work that will endure.

James Lawless is a poet and novelist;

BookASongOfShadows_largeA Song of Shadows
John Connolly
Hodder & Stoughton
£7.99 pbk

Published in the Irish Examiner 19/3/2016

The title of this novel appears generic and forgettable and almost indistinguishable from hundreds of others in the same field. However, the dexterous handling of plot and subplot complexities have to be admired. But despite that and the obvious comprehensive forensic and scientific research that went into the making of the novel, it is difficult to be drawn into this story with any degree of sympathy for the characters. Indeed some of the research on the Nazis as the platitudinous bad guys is so detailed that it distracts the reader and becomes almost an authorial rant in the middle of the work.
While it ticks many of the boxes of what constitutes a good thriller as adumbrated in studies such as John Scagg’s Crime Fiction, nevertheless as a reader one is conscious for most of its duration that this is a work being created before one’s eyes, a fabrication rather than a really credible account of human beings.
There are too many characters whose names are confusing initially and the narrative drive is frequently held back wih blocking technicalities: one senses the author is at times showing off and a little bit condescending as for example when he not only recounts but actually explains chief suspect Steiger’s ailments which included ‘hyposmia and hypogeusia—decreased abilities to smell and taste’.
The author’s striving to be ultra-modern with references to Netflix or to appear overly politically correct renders the writing twee at times as when Ron the househusband of chief of police Corry Bloom prepared the evening meal: ‘She’d told him that she’d be home well before six and he would have aimed to have food on the table at seven… she had a vision of a blackened meal and a sulking husband’.
Connolly shows an intimate knowledge of locale which in this story is the Maine town of Boreas, a German stronghold and haven for Nazi war criminals. But it all paradoxically seems far away and vague as if it is a composite of many towns wilfully Americanised which is the market the book is obviously targeting with its American spelling and uses such as ‘the fall’, ‘traveling’, and ‘realtor’. This is despite it being published in the UK by an Irish author who comes across as deracinated with the only touch of Irish perhaps rising in him subliminally in the Irish names of Walsh and Bloom
The story does pick up, however, and there are good moments of mounting tension in the gradual and tantalising exposure of the Nazi murder links as private investigator Charlie Parker tries to identify the suspects at the same time as Steiger, fearing discovery, prepares to move in on his prey. The ghosting references where some of the criminals take on a dead person’s identity constitutes a key element in the novel and work very well.
Concerning the prose, some sentences are so obvious they are downright corny, for example: ‘Empathy was not in his nature’ is inserted after we learn of the sadistic killings of Steiger. But Connolly can disclose a lyric side as Parker watched the daughter of his neighbour Ruth Winter and his own living daughter walking among the rockpools: ‘Fearless little purple sandpipers hopped among the rocks at their farthest point, where the waves still broke upon them, the winter yellow of the birds’ legs now almost entirely gone’. ,
As regards Parker, he is sometimes portrayed as a superhuman character: Bloom, referring to a previous escapade, ‘knew that his heart had stopped three times [no less] after the shooting’ and the supernatural references to Parker’s dead daughter, which end the novel, are hard to believe.

James Lawless is an award-winning poet and novelist.


The Boy at the Top of the Mountain
John Boyne
Doubleday, £11.99

The Irish Examiner, Saturday, January 23, 2016

Review: James Lawless

INITIALLY one is tempted to view this novel with its story of a young boy and a Nazi theme as a regurgitation of Boyne’s successful The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.

It’s an oft repeated motif that could appear tiresome, a field that has been tilled many times before. One can imagine a publisher whispering in the author’s ear: Give them more of the same, of a tried and tested formula.

But this story stands on its own, and the main character is far less naïve than the boy in the previous work. Here we are introduced to the seven-year-old Pierrot, who was brought up half French in Paris, and whose innocence is corrupted fast as he grows into the Germanic Pieter, connecting to the other side of his heritage.

In fairness, the author should be commended for his courage in risking the loss of readers for delineating a protagonist who grows in unpleasantness.

The details of a boy’s remembrance are credible: dropping water balloons from a top window, or his war-ravished father mimicking the sound of a horse as he carried him on his shoulders, or showing his love for his son by giving him his own ice cream when the son’s fell to the ground.

The culinary details of the time are authentic too: Madame Abrahams made the best gefilte and latkes, and there are references to limburgers and stollen.

But the happy memories are outweighed by the tragic as Pierrot’s father is killed beneath the wheels of a train and his mother dies of tuberculosis. The boy is eventually dispatched, after a spell in an orphanage, to be indoctrinated into the Hitler Youth.

Equally poignant is the airbrushing out of his memory of his deaf friend Anshel because he was a Jew. There are cameo roles of real historical figures such as the Duke of Windsor, Wallis Simpson, and Eva Braun.

Hitler has a more meaty part and is largely convincing, although his droning on about ‘pure breeds’ inclines towards the soapbox.

And sometimes the dialogue can appear stilted, more like historical summaries of events rather than real interpersonal interactions. For example when the duke was asked by Hitler did he regret abdicating his throne, he replied: “Couldn’t do it, you see. Not without the help and support of the woman I love. Said so as much in my farewell speech.”

And what is not convincing, and something the reader has to buy into, is the idea of a seven year old reading Mein Kampf and later, The Magic Mountain, and sometimes speaking in a manner beyond his years.

The transformative power of a uniform is well presented as Pierrot/Pieter is decked out in his Deutsches Jungvolk outfit, and the devastating symbolism of clothes such as the yarmulke is powerfully rendered.

The writing is simple and direct, ideal for a young reader with only rare lapses into sloppiness, as when the boy opens the brown parcel containing his uniform: ‘The strings came loose, the brown paper parted and Pierrot reached inside to remove what lay inside. Inside was a pair of black short trousers…’

The ending is jolting, the epiphany on the wrongness of the boy’s ways too brief, and the sudden leap from third to first person as Anshel reappears as the writer ready to write Pierrot’s story, is jarring.

But the book for the most part contains the best quality in children’s stories, where one looks forward with growing anticipation for the unfolding of each new chapter, affording an interesting way for a child to learn history.

James Lawless is an award winning poet and novelist.


The Lie of the Land
Elaine Gaston
Doire Press

Published in Books Ireland, November/December 2015, Issue No. 364

In The Lie of the Land, North Antrim poet Elaine Gaston makes great and spontaneous use of Gaelic-derived words incorporated in the language of ordinary country people which reminds one of the poetry of John Clare. By using such words she is helping to preserve them from the danger of their obliteration by Standard English. Their sounds are sweet to the ear: ‘He jeuked through a slap in the hedge’ or ‘She looked for him/ up the brae, at the sheugh’ (Mother’s Day).
In Keeping in Touch she clarifies what she is about:

‘And me over here no better, where I have learned
not only to write but also to speak the bare essentials:
yes please, no thanks, explain scunnered, snib or sheugh
- but ditch does not have the slap and ugh of a sheugh.’

In After Blackberry-Picking we are gifted a recipe to rival that of any celebrity chef on how to make blackberry jam. She acknowledges the influence of Heaney here and also marks a debt to his Bog Poems and Tollund Man in Old Croagh Woman. She delivers the same accurate description for the ritual of making strong tea, in Letting it Draw which invokes in the child poet:

‘teardrops, dark butterflies and love-hearts
Swirling in my cup.’

Like Patrick Kavanagh, she names the local people such as ‘old Sammy McCormack the farmer, making them come alive and speak in their own patois, of daily lives and dramas, simply told yet carrying depths, as when her revered father explains to her the mystery of death by means of the stars:

‘Think of it like this,’ he said,
‘when someone you love is dead,
they are gone,
but their light shines for years to come.
(My Father Explains the Universe)

She delineates people who kept their stories not written down but in their hearts, marking the chalk and cheese difference between the English and the Scot as she deliberately plays on the words:
‘Different as chalk on English downs
from the Ulster farmhouse cheese we bought.’
(Keeping in Touch)

Such word play is also evident in the pathos of Departure Lounge Heathrow to Belfast where the kneecapped man’s

‘…jeans stick up
in an awkward shape
where his knee-
cap used to be.’

And in Walking to Marconi’s there is more than a meteorological referent to ‘And the heavens open.’
In The Eel on the Farm, about her father’s declining memory, there is wonderful wordplay on the eel which he caught:

‘The odd memory can get a bit hazy
slips through the net, does not come,
while this one holds, will not let go of him.’
Her punning, however, is not always as strong as in the rather forced:
‘I did not want him to pay for my coffee,
even though it cost peanuts.

She writes of the half-forgotten things of her childhood: ‘the faded polaroid’ ‘the clapped-out Consul’ and the Ambre Solaire lashed on during sunny weather. And a smashed glass is powerfully symbolic of a broken relationship where: ‘we were in smithereens ourselves’ (Daylighgin). In one of her finest poems I Text Myself Before Bedtime she conveys the isolation of modern life in the title alone.
She capture the exhilaration of an Irish family’s seaside outing beautifully and accurately in the poem Dunseverick and of a boy in Mother’s Day embracing nature: ‘wild apples in his cheeks/north wind in his eyes.’
Again, like Kavanagh, she is fond of using place names and the magic and power they conjure:

‘names like rubies in my head
Port na Spania, Girona, Armada.’

Sometimes she views people mischievously, as if seeing through the imaginative eyes of a child:

‘Willie Scullion wore a winter hat
shaped like a Brown Batch, his face, the crust.’
(The Bread Man).

Or the vegetable man

‘was nothing like Willie Scullion,
he was an upside down scallion.’
(The Vegetable Man)

In The Library Van she uses a fine original image to blend the written word with the body’s action in reading:

‘Curled like a comma on the bed
On rainy holidays in Donegal.’

She records a witty retort to the old wall slogan Jesus is Coming which was the sign for her bus stop:

‘if he remembers to change at Dervock [sic].’
(What Would Jesus Say?)

The inevitable political intrusions of Northern politics into some of her work make for ‘engaged’ poems with their cries for justice for the Birmingham Six, and even the rain at times is politicised as in Storm Damage we witness:

‘bullets like rain on the window
breaking like the end of the world.’

In Plastic Bullet she highlights the unseen or less orchestrated damage done to ordinary people who bear their crosses uncomplainingly:

‘Sure I’ve a big hole in my head,’ she tuts,
‘an’ ye dinny hear me gurn.’

Gaston’s world, even when she is abroad, is charted by events in her native place, as evidenced by the title of her poem Getting to Chartres (During Peace Talks Back Home). Here she contrast the coolness of the French cathedral with the sweltering heat outside, intimating to us perhaps that church buildings can stand for something other than their obvious holy significance. In the stillness of the cathedral, it is not religious fervour she feels, but

‘…a moment like Stendhal’s
when everything stopped, film with no sound,
we were underwater or high above clouds
all our history washed clean,
as if walking into the mountain.’

This is an exciting collection, rich in variety and skilfully written.
James Lawless
Published in Books Ireland, November/December 2015, Issue No. 364

Books: Quirke is now centre of mystery
Even the Dead, Benjamin Black, Viking €14.99

James Lawless
10/08/2015 Sunday Independent

Although writing as Benjamin Black, the beautiful Banville prose images still abound in this, the seventh novel in the Quirke series. Attending the city hospital to examine a body found in a burnt-out car, the pathologist treads the familiar “toffee-brown rubber floor tiles that squealed underfoot,” while Dublin experiences a June heat wave with its “sunlight outside, heavy as honey”.

John Banville claims that in his writing he tries, like Virginia Woolf, “to blend poetry and fiction into some new form.” There are traces of that attempt even in this book, placing it above a mere ‘whodunnit’, when Quirke, by moonlight, observes swans in the canal “pale enough to be their own ghosts”. Banville would have made a fine poet.
We discover mental aberrations during some of Quirke’s conversations which suggest he may be suffering from brain injury as a result of a beating he received during a previous investigation. Also Quirke’s existential angst in “the seemingly aimless project that was his life” could be partly attributed to his having no mother to take care of him when he was growing up and a father he never knew. The dead seem to overpower him at times and, fittingly, half way through the book we reach its kernel where we learn that this is not so much a detective mystery but rather a mystery about Quirke himself. “What drove him he believed was the absence of a past . . . He didn’t know who he was, where he came from . . . and so he was here on the trail of another lost creature”.
Quirke has to determine with his sidekick, Detective Inspector Hackett, whether the dead man, Leon Corless, an up-and-coming civil servant, committed suicide or was murdered. A distraught girl called Lisa contacts Quirke’s daughter Phoebe for help and then mysteriously disappears. So far so good, but the story is slowed by these same conundrums and forensic findings being repeated verbatim and ad nauseam to nearly every character in the book. One feels a summary would have sufficed after their first iteration.
However, the narrative does pick up and becomes gripping as, with the aid of the pathologist and inspector, we try to fit the missing pieces of the jigsaw together. It reaches a riveting high point with the corrupt politician Costigan revealing he knows who Quirke’s father was.
The weakest character is Doctor Evelyn Blake, consultant psychiatrist who does not for this reader ring true. The dialogue between herself and Quirke is stilted or downright farcical with the reference to her “wonderful big bottom,” reminiscent of Father Ted. How could a world-weary Quirke fall in love with her so quickly after just one night in her company while, conveniently at the same time, his daughter Phoebe falls in love with her nephew? It’s a rushed package for an unsatisfying wrapping up. At times one feels Quirke is overstretching himself in his role as pathologist, and it is Hackett who should be investigating, for example, when withdrawing the newly-discovered ‘Lisa’ from the Mother of Mercy laundry. The inspector would have had more authority here than Quirke, but then it is not his story.
Sunday Indo Living

t_thetruthThe Truth & Other Stories
Sarah Clancy
Salmon Poetry
A good poem— and there are good poems here— is, as Dylan Thomas says, a contribution to reality. So these poems are not the truth but contributions to the ongoing debate. I initially had problems with the definite article in The Truth. I thought it could have been prefaced with Aspects of or Seeking after. It brought to mind Waldo Emerson’s ‘When I hold the truth in my hand I would let it go for the positive joy of seeking’, or Ortega y Gasset’s wonderful anti-totalitarian ‘No one has ever seen an orange’. The world is a sphere like an orange so our perception of it is limited. However that said, one can accept the title as a conceit which the poet, by adding the appendage and other stories, may have intended ironically.
These poems treat of the machine-induced alienation of modern life. They carry us through a world of ubiquitous motorcars, jilted lovers and oil slick industry with recessionary ghosts on a quest for what the poet perceives is true and authentic. We are quickly immersed into a poetry that is anarchic, rebellions, odd ball where she prays for ‘an end to my mind’s petty nationalisms’ (Pagan’s Votive).
The poems, for the most part, are strikingly original, fearless and important in their portrayal of the problems that beset us today. She resents being called a victim or being forced to sacrifice her dignity in her basic right to get a house
‘the oldest human endeavour
of seeking out shelter
has become shame-filled’
(And We Must Live In These Times)

In one of the best poems Industrialist she portrays the raw reality of recession where she is ‘besotted with flyovers, with underground carparks and empty office buildings with their rows and rows of blank windows’. There is pathos here as she feels abandoned noticing ‘the patterns that diesel makes on still water surfaces’. This poem is reminiscent of Hart Crane’s The Bridge (Brooklyn) in its poeticising of metal: ‘She loves uneven heaps of scrap metal’.
Clancy is like an upturned boat in her existential excavation of her myriad selves, unafraid of what detritus may surface. In Someone’s Always Losing Someone Else she takes a photograph of herself in a photo booth, not for any vain reason, but to prove she is still here, still existing and resignedly confesses that we have to put up with the world as it is, that we have no choice: ‘we must live in these times’. And she is bold; she challenges that fear that besets each individual, the deep recesses of our psyches, that fear that comes in the dark. In Serotonin she wanders insomniacally in city streets through ‘the beauty of rain on tarmac and headlights and neon signage seeping, of litter drifting on wind gusts in car parks’; it is a half wakeful, half dream world where she wishes for the narcotic of sleep to end her chimerical speculation.
She touches often on mental turbulence: the neuro-transmitter of serotonin or of a lover being lobotomised. This poet is a square peg in a round hole, the one who likes ‘the wrong things’. She wants us as readers to delight in her persona and she goes to great pains, occasionally perhaps overstating it, that we see her as someone ill at ease with modern society.
The harsh urban imagery can give way occasionally, as if she is being sucked back into nature almost unwittingly, when the industrial and natural images merge:

‘an acrid petrol smell
mingles with the wildflower, gorse
and wet earth fumes.’
The image in this poem of the gorse not fully burning but left half scorched is what we are, the human constitution; we are incomplete, we are neither one thing or another, lacking the ability to ever find complete self-fulfilment.
In Scrapes
‘she likes the nerves
when she walks home
at night time.’
One empathises with her vulnerability; at times she appears like someone who has been released from a hospital before being recovered and left to wander dystopian landscapes with all her pores exposed taking in the toxins and not sure what to do about it all.
Other times as in Shrinking she goes beyond the rational in her attempt to a find a truth in things: ‘Yesterday I was the same size as my wheelie bin/but today I cannot even reach its lid’.
Some of the titles of her poems are long and zany reminiscent of Paul Durcan’s poetry as in the final poem: Some Thoughts On the Prospect of Internet Dating During the Future Which is Taking Place, Despite Itself, Just a Few Short Years After Out Break Up. In this poem she mocks the perfect body images on the screen:

‘I’ll go through the profile photos and see
if I can spot anyone with uneven biceps showing
in their selfies.’

Rarely however the satire can be obvious as in There’s Only One Interchangeable Poem where she targets, all too easily, politicians as if they are a genus all the same.
In A Poem For My Son she tells him to find that one song that holds ‘the key to existence’. But one is left to wonder what if he fails to find that song? Maybe then he will be forced to do, as perhaps we all have to do ultimately in our own way, and compose it for ourselves.

Published in Books Ireland, March/April 2015. Issue No. 360

Born in Sarajevo by Snjezana Marinkovic

History at the coalface
In this absorbing memoir, the author talks about her vocation to be a writer and her struggles with her stepmother’s disapproval and through the horrors of the Serbian war. Her parents separated leaving her grandmother in loco parentis. She ran with her beloved Sasha through ‘the bullets hitting the ground like hailstones’. The crowded Sarajevo airport with people trying to get out was closed. There is a very moving account of the young Snjezana waiting in vain for her mother in her favourite dress and hair perfectly combed. It was a lonely childhood with a mother-in-law who did not like her.
There is a constant sense of impending tragedy throughout the book: she saw a hand with a ring on the TV and prayed it wasn’t her beloved grandma’s.
One learns of the war first hand here—the conflict from 92-95 with Bosnians being ‘ethnically cleansed’, of the trade sanction on Serbia to curb their intervention in Bosnia Herzegovina and the Serbs eventually yielding Sarajevo to the UN.
The author’s poetic calling shines through the prose: ‘night a trembling thread’, and the prose itself is peppered with her poems, including her award-winning Sarajevo. Her beloved park Cara Dusana was rendered naked, its beautiful trees chopped down for winter firewood. The library was bombed and a half million volumes and ancient books were destroyed. Snjezana is an example of an artist wounded into print
Sasha became the inevitable solder with the inevitable fatal outcome. She recounts her migration to Rumania and Hungary and in new cities she sees strangers selling things that once belonged to her family.
Her grandmother suffered through it all. There is a heart-wrenching account of her grandma’s half-burned dresses. She wound up in a psychiatric hospital and, when the light went from her eyes, Snjezana knew hope for her was gone.
Finally after much travail, Snezana is accepted as a refugee in the USA, and in 2008, twenty eight years after Tito’s death, Kosovo declared its independence form the Serbs.
Snjezana is a passionate writer who wants to wage peace, who believes that difference should not divide us but bring us together. She ends with the Indian legend of the girl who saves a spider’s life. The spider returned and build a web to catch all her bad dreams.

Published on Amazon and Goodreads, 24/11/14

Tickling the Palate
Gastronomy in Irish Literature and Culture
Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire and Eamon Maher (eds)
Peter Lang, 235 pages, €35

The book is divided into three sections: Literary Representations of Irish Gastronomy, Culinary and Dining Traditions in Ireland and Drink and Be Merry – Beer, Pubs and the Irish Psyche. The essayists approach the study through semiotics, sociology and tourism studies.
The ‘plain’ food of Ireland is contrasted by Dara Goldstein in his absorbing Foreword with the sophisticated French-influenced dishes associated with The Anglo-Irish elite. And Dorothy Cashman in her essay The Culinary World of Maria Edgeworth also shows the ascendancy class as always looking to England for cuisine models. This deferring to England was not without snobbery with Edgeworth commenting on the pretentious Irish meals of the upwardly mobile as nothing to the dinners of les nouveaux riches at Liverpool and Manchester; and the same fastidiousness was later evident in middle class people such as the Morkan sisters in Joyce’s The Dead.
An increase in affluence and travel and a decline in religion (no more enforced fasting) led some people to a hedonistic approach to food. This Babette’s feast type of eating, extolled by the oft-quoted Joyce, paralleling his logorrhoea, contrasted with that of his disciple Beckett in his pared-down prose and frugal eating habits. The latter habit echoes perhaps the working-class view that (Rhona Richman Kenneally suggests it is famine-induced) food was not a luxury to be indulged in but a no-nonsense basic requirement of survival.
Eugene O’Brien in his semiotic essay Bloom’s Day and Arthur’s Day brings Walter Benjamin into the fray to add weight to the discussion. But his hailing of Arthur’s Day as an institution on a par with Bloomsday was premature, as Arthur’s Day has now been discontinued, perceived by the powers that be as an excuse for drunkenness.
Michael Flanagan’s The Representation of Food in Popular Children’s Literature invokes English models and his imagination appears to have run away with him when he suggests that iced buns are almost sexual objects for Billy Bunter. More relevant than the cited Enid Blyton’s Famous Five or the works of Dickens to illustrate the frugality of poverty-driven eating habits of early twentieth century Dublin life would have been to refer to the books of Irish writers such as James Stephen’s The Charwoman’s Daughter or his searing and empirically-written short story Hunger.
Much is made of Guinness with visiting dignitaries to the country such as President Obama being asked to sample the brew. Are Irish dignitaries to the USA asked to sample Budweiser? Such parish pump parochialism is just one step above portraying the Irish in the clichéd manner of buffoons and drunkards.
Ham sandwiches are cited as working class fare in the stories of John McGahern. But the non-mentioned corn beef sandwich with margarine instead of butter was a clearer demarcator of class, like the penny looking down on the halfpenny, in fifties Dublin —butter had risen to three shillings from two shillings a pound in 1951.
It is an exaggerated claim by Tony Kiely whose essay, Reflections on the Culinary Practices of Dublin’s Working Class Poor in the 1950s, is the kernel of the book, that Dublin ‘could be considered the gastronomic capital of the British isles’ on the basis of merely two haute cuisine restaurants— Jammet’s and the Russell, and across whose thresholds the poor never ventured.
The hyped ‘sacramental’ preparation of a pint of Guinness served by a ‘curate’, is highlighted by Eugene of O’Brien as he quotes master brewer Fergal Murphy: ‘You never look down at a pint of Guinness… bring the glass to your lips and not you to the glass…’ Such alchemy is also felt in the churning transubstantiation of milk into butter by Sarah in Sebastian Barry’s Annie Dunne from Kenneally’s essay.
More people engaged in physical work in the past in contrast to the frequently sedentary work practices of today where there is greater awareness of health issues. Then, people heaped their meals with an -abundance ¬¬of sugar and salt paying scant regard to enhancing cholesterol levels from fries, red meat and full fat cheeses. Surprisingly, for an island, there was little consumption of fish, maybe because of its long association with religious penance.
There were few fridges in the 50s which meant that food had to be used on the same day, and going to the shops was an almost daily practice. The frequent and precarious dependence on absent earners and providers— nearly half a million people emigrated in the 50s— and large families encouraged by the Catholic Church, resulted in many mouths to feed. A housewife had to develop an art of ‘making do’; little was wasted: the various parts of sheep and the pig, tripe, tongue, crubeen and even the tail together with the bulking ability of bread—the staple diet, were used; coddles and stews with leftovers constituted frequent meals. All of this improvisation became a daily mindset and was time consuming.
With TV programmes bizarrely gripping the country now and elevating some chefs to celebratory status, and with holidays abroad and immigration from different ethnicities and the accessibility of the Internet, the spice of culinary difference appears to have vanished. There is increasing homogenisation with the globalisation of markets. And efforts to revert to authenticity are, Marjorie Deleuze argues, merely, as with Irish pubs abroad, ‘a reimagined “authenticity” destined for tourists’.

Published in Books Ireland, November/December 2014. Issue No. 358

Waiting for the Bullet,
Madeleine D’Arcy,
Doire Press, €12

Madeleine D’Arcy’s stories begin in medias res as good short stories should — ‘Fintan can smell warm chips as he enters the pub’ kickstarts the story Is This Like Scotland?

Notwithstanding a few clichés such as the predictable portrait of the elderly lady in Savage or the author’s fondness for the words weakly’ and weary’ or describing green fields as a patchwork quilt’, there lies herein a wonderful laconic telling of things: I never gave Terence a hard time for being straight, did I?’ contains in one sentence a multitude of intimations in the story A Good Funeral.

D’Arcy can write adeptly in either gender or in a different nationality — the American in Across the Duck Pond is convincingly drawn.

The prose is simple, realistic, but never pedestrian, engrossing and page-turning. We are left for the most part with pure story, easy to read clicking in the high emotions of love, loss and longing, yet hinting of deeper mysteries in our psyches in the passing reference to animals in The Fox and the Placenta or a swan in Across the Duck Pond. However, the reader could sometimes be disappointed reading these slices of life, engrossing as they may be, for their lack in the main of any lyrical description characteristic of some of the best short stories.

D’Arcy creates a sense of immediacy in her frequent use of the present tense and first person narrative which can be a bit overdone.

She is very good on locating telling details, such as the twine for carrying a parcel in Esmé’s Weekend or Fergus’s habit of rubbing the insides of Esmé palm with his thumb.

Toy guns, virtual pheasants on iPhones and dependence on mobiles all feature — she uses texting to brilliant effect to build up the marital tensions in The Wolf Note.

There is an occasional lapse in argot: Would Swedish Annika have really uttered the nuanced, She could have grown the tea by now,’ when commenting on a tardy waitress, while in another breath, albeit to humorous effect, she refers to Gougane Barra as Google Barry?

But D’Arcy knows her terrain well as she refers to the uneven felling of Coillte forests reminding Fintan of a bad haircut’.

The title story, about a toy gun which husband Turlough childishly brings home is the best. His wife turns the gun into something sinister at a party which has the effect of transporting her husband from his childish pranks into a terrifying adult realisation after a game of faux-Russian roulette.

It’s only a bit of fun,’ says Turlough of the realistic noise the toy gun makes when fired.

Despite this utterance becoming a bit tautological, the gun’s resonance, especially in the northern Ireland context, makes this a story worthy of Chekhov.

It is an epiphanic moment for the husband but also for the wife as she decides to keep the gun, knowing that as he weeps joined to her in bed, it endows her with emotional power over him.

These stories of ordinary human lives are so absorbing that one wants them to continue beyond the page, and feels a sense of loss when they jolt to their abrupt endings.

James Lawless

James Lawless’ latest novel is Knowing Women

Sunday Independent 22/06/2014

On Light and Carbon
Noel Duffy
Ward Wood Publishing

When Kurt Vonnegut posed the question: can a respectable writer claim to know how a refrigerator works, he was echoing a myth of a polarised division between science and art, disproved by scientist/writers such as Holub, Chekhov, McGovern and now Noel Duffy. A counter charge to Vonnegut of course was when Plato banished the poets from his ideal republic on the grounds that they were irrational or even effeminate

How we see the world surely is enriched by adding to our poetic vocabulary from the lexicon of science and the different perceptions that science brings through its microscope: the blending of the proofs, the certainty with the uncertainties of life captured in art, comprising in what Bacherlard called his theory of Approximates, citing science’s inability to reduce the mathematical symbol π to a whole number. To admit the incompleteness of knowledge is a sign, not of failure, but of objectivity. By relating the rational to the nonrational, in other words by combining science and poetry, and having an openness of approach, we can widen our conception of reality.

Noel Duffy is  a Dubliner whose first collection, the wonderfully titled In the Library of Lost Objects was shortlisted for the Strong Award. He is  published by Ward Wood, a small English press who produce quality work in prose and poetry by Irish writers as well as British. Duffy studied physics in Trinity College but found the research not completely satisfying, reminiscent of Walt Whitman who, on hearing the astronomer lecturing ‘with much applause in the lecture room/How soon unaccountable, I became tired and sick… and wandered off by myself/ in the mystical moist-air… and from time to time/Looked up in perfect silence at the stars’.

Duffy claims his artistic purpose is ‘to try to show the deepest aspect of our humanity and curiosity against the canvas and backdrop that science has provided us with’.

In his new collection On Light and Carbon he keeps faithful to his purpose. In the first poem Footprints on Lava he tries to trace the first man ‘carbon-dated to a time before memory’, something most of us at some stage wonder about—our first ancestors, our provenance and our ultimate destination. He seeks the ’tissue of order’ (Kinsella), the harmony where art and science concur as in Harmonic Resonance where ‘the pendulums swung in elegant unison/a single pure note witnessed, though silent’.

Sometimes he sees the world from a  distance, looking on the earth like an astronaut from the lunar surface, such distancing affording us a glimpse of the earth’s beauty, blind to the carveup, seeing the world anew and ‘porcelain cold’ (cf Kafka’s ice).

In Earthrise he proclaims his poetic calling: ‘the sea of me rising, aching to share/ the mystery of/ that vision’. He admits his vocation involves a form of loneliness, reminding one of Kavanagh. ‘I hadn’t expected an isolation so great’, he exclaims, recognising the necessity of the poet to cultivate solitude, the sacrifice made for artistic endeavour.

In Hide and Seek we see the poet in the making: ‘I watched/ the wood-lice at my feet/ make small patterns in the dirt.’ Out of such things, like Yeats’ ‘foul rag and bone shop of the heart’, are poems conceived.

In On Light on Carbon, the title poem, he poses the childlike question: ‘where did it come from the tree?’ ‘It came from the ground, the teacher said.’ How simple yet profound the question and the response. The childpoet is here transfixed by the world— ‘I was spellbound’. The experience reminds one of a Pasternak rapture or of Ó Direáin in his assertion that poems are recollections of childhood. It shows Duffy has a wide palette, and in The Faith Healer we witness the magic and innocence of childhood marred by adult reality.

Some of the poems are not as successful as others. A Painting and The Seeing are more anecdotal and prosaic than poetic. Classical Mechanics is a story poem joining art and science through the architecture of a university; and the brief encounter in Trinity Ball fritters away into vagueness as it does in Keepsake, a better poem, but where the amorous hope again is doomed by its own ephemerality.

Such ephemerality, however, is more than made up for in Two Coins where the husband’s love for his wife is so strong and enduring that he is prepared to give up ‘the treasure of centuries’— his cherished coin collection, to purchase a necklace for her. Also in Return the poet successfully uses the Biblical motif of Lot’s wife to recount the ups and downs of contemporary relationships, and in Old Shoes the end of an affair is beautifully captured by the symbolism of old shoes.

There’s a touch of the desert mystic in Duffy. In Encounter ‘I sat cross-legged… to contemplate silence,’ where ‘I had cast off my body and my thoughts /time retreating to stillness’. It represents a meditative preparation, à la Wordsworth, for poetic receptivity. He emerges with some of his finest poetry:

There was a sense of something

huge and present,
like a great, dark star
above which I hovered, irradiating
a force so wide and deep that
it encompassed everything
that is.
James Lawless
Books Ireland March/April 2014  Issue No. 354

Here in No Place
A. W. Timmons
New Island

When one reads that A.W. Timmons is a graduate of the MA creative writing course at UCD, one is made slightly wary of the putative danger of creating writing schools homogenising art and churning it into a certain bourgeois acceptability, and perhaps sanitising its individual edge.
The mimetic is evident in the work of this Wicklow writer: McGahern’s influence in the rough rural setting with male characters addressed by surname; and the small town gossip is reminiscent of Brinsley McNamara’s Valley of the Squinting Windows, while the idea of a stranger arriving in a small town reminds one of MacConmara’s An Coimhthíoch.
However that said, Timmons for the most part rises above the alleged homogenising and mimesis to present with his own voice in this largely impressive debut novel. The story is a recapturing of the past. Murt Doran’s life fell apart eighteen years previously when his wife Cathy was killed in a car which he should have been driving, and his daughter Gráinne was taken away from him and adopted. Credulity is stretched somewhat by our having to wait such a long time for Murt’s guilt to set in, and in his wish to contact Gráinne again, and one has to buy into how he spent his time in the interim in a caravan where ‘routine kept me alive’.
He returns to the town eventually where the tragedies occurred and where he used to work in a saw mill with low-life Sticks Foley who, later enigmatically, is made the adoptive father of Gráinne and becomes gentrified into the bargain to be known henceforth as Mr Christopher Foley. Murt survives in the town now as a handyman and resides in a guest house.
While Irishisms and colloquialisms abound and stereotypical people inhabit the inevitable pub in their nosiness and begrudgery, or stand staring when a car from a different county passes through as if they have nothing else to do or think about in these small places, one wonders initially if it is not all a bit outdated. Has the world not moved on, and are people today not too busy with their own lives and perhaps more indifferent to others than heretofore? However, such apparent platitudes are well made up for by the sometimes striking originality in the prose: ‘The place was like a sick aunt, sharp-tongued and pale with spite;’ and the rounds custom is brilliantly described with its supposed raison d’être of generosity leading some of its proponents to a life of alcoholism; or when Murt visits the city, he looks for gaps in the buildings, a metaphor for the gaps in his own life.
The story is not without humour as when the inebriated Ursula, who shares the guesthouse with Murt, enquired of him when he was restoring a carbide lamp in the shed, if it was a rocket he was building ‘to take you away from here’.
While we get intimations of Murt’s feelings for his dead wife, his feelings for his daughter by contrast seem at times distant, lacking the poignancy to drive the narrative forward; and one wonders did the law not have something to say about the ease in which the Foleys snatched Gráinne away from her father and seemed to have no difficulty in claiming her as their own adoptive daughter.
Also, one needs to suspend disbelief to accept the transforming maturation in the character of Cathy’s jealous sister Helen and how she wound up as Foley’s wife; and while one understands the author’s purpose here to show a non-one dimensional character—a villain with a redeeming quality, Foley’s confession of male inadequacy is not totally convincing.
Timmons captures the seasonal toil of rural life convincingly and blends the description of nature very well into the narrative’s mystery: ‘The mountains were alive, their backs arched as if in anticipation.’
Also the saw mill is authentically brought to life with its tumbling logs and chain saws in language as stark as the teeming imprecations of the workers. It is an interesting contrast to the softening of the prose when he is writing about the female characters with the use of their first names.
There seems to be a reluctance in the writer to name real places. The main setting for the novel is the fictitious village of Kiltuam. While we can guess the references to Glendalough and Bray from the descriptions, the only real geographical entity actually named is Roscommon and that occurs three pages from the end.
Despite all that, this work in the main is a gripping and page-turning mystery that holds a reader’s attention in its slow dripfeed to its satisfying conclusion. Murt, on beholding the wonder and freedom in his daughter, makes us reflect on what keeps us going in the end: the hope for future generations, that they might get it right.

Review by James Lawless in Books Ireland, May/June 2014. Issue No. 355

Two Croatian Books Reviews

A Handful of Sand
Marinko Koscec
Istros Books

The story in A Handful of Sand is about two lovers as separated hemispheres going the full circle of their lives with all their vicissitudes and coming ever closer to each other towards the end. This leitmotif, the author confesses, is derived from Plato’s belief that each of us mortals is unfulfilled, wandering as a half until we find our missing twin or maybe, more tellingly for this novel, endure ‘the passing of each other by for ever’; and this constitutes, whether subliminally or not, the purpose of our lives.

On reaching each other, the lovers attempt to coalesce and blend into one, the joy of the two halves united, even their voices sounding the same, ‘what fuses us together in verbal contour’, so nearly and ecstatically achieved until, rather too suddenly, it all peters out, and we realise ultimately it is not elusive love that dies but rather high emotion (captured in wonderful writing from the male gaze) ceding to diurnal ennui and satiated desire.

Gypo—the protagonist’s nickname—was putatively born out of wedlock after his mother’s dalliance with a Gypsy, a caprice she made up without explanation; and the female lover also we discover has questionable paternity after we learn of her mother’s extramarital affair. These uncertainties run through the story in perfect harmony with the themes of remembrance and the unrealised parts of ourselves like sands ever sifting.

Gypo’s mother, who was a music graduate, lost her job under the Yugoslav state because of her religiosity; Koscec, with irreverent humour, refers to her devotion to ‘the bleeder on the cross’ (the mot juste showing the pun was not lost on the translator Will Firth) and is wonderfully satirical about the receptions of gypsies in the ‘oh so refined Croatia’ where ‘few things were considered as barbarously Balkan as playing the accordion’.

The love story is treated poetically with deep insights: ‘all your loves will be a surrogate for the one you kill first…’ and in Gypo’s case becomes obsessional as it fuses with memory, drawing him again to his beloved’s house despite the fact that she has gone and the house is sold.

Much of the amorous pursuit is in the form of longing and a lot is left to the reader’s imagination as the lovers try to mark out a predestined path and seek an almost superworldly fulfilment in the quest to interlink their lives.

There are easy-to-visualise character sketches: one of the female’s lovers, Jeremy, is ‘made of nothing but muscle with a basilical frame and a blond ponytail down to his belt’; and some stunningly poetic prose, as with the female protagonist: ‘I sieved the sky in vain, searching for the angel of sleep’.

There are rare clichés: ‘I needed him like a hole in the head’, ‘beating about the bush’; and the description of cars as ‘aluminium monsters’ is almost adolescent; and the work contains occasional moments of gushy prose as with the male lover seeing his lovestruckness ‘in the astral blue of her eyes, in the silvered sea, in the cricket chorus in the cypresses’.

There is a dearth of dialogue (so token that it is rarely granted the status of inverted commas and rendered mainly in italics). The book has a lot of description, often laborious and over-detailed, as in the page-long description of a living room; and sometimes it is over-indulgent when for example one can sense the author delighting in his knowledge with copious explanations of the publishing world.

Because of the nature of this book, which is an ode to love and loss, it justifies a certain amount of musing and philosophising; but there is a danger of wandering into abstraction and generalisation, and occasionally one feels something practical and concrete could encapsulate the characters more clearly—something the author is capable of and demonstrates succinctly in sentences such as ‘Ines told me about her new antidepressant’; and the telling detail of the word ‘war’ in ‘I stuck in war earplugs’ reminds us pithily of where the new Croatia is coming from.

The female protagonist is drawn to the ‘weirdos’ of the world such as Jelenko who seems to come alive only when talking about death, and here the philosopher’s truth shines through, showing our mortal preoccupations whether we care to admit them or not.

Another thesis in the work is of seeing art as a suture for the pain of life as exemplified in the case of the disturbed Zoran. And this idea and preoccupation on the function of art in our lives is again debated towards the end of the novel by the sculptor mentor of the female lover who holds a strikingly original yet contradictory view to Zoran: that art is futile, believing ‘it sucked the life out of people instead of giving it to them’.

It is this mentor who strikes the central concern of the novel:

In devoting their creative urges to art, people were transformed into something like sand, which briefly came alive and created the illusion of a surrogate life—a much better life where everything was possible and reachable; but it was all made of sand. By stirring it up and wallowing in it, we came ever closer to turning to sand ourselves.

Will Firths’ translation is natural and contemporary in the main, only infrequently smacking of pedantry as in the description of the mental patient  Zoran, befriended by Gypo, who ‘radiated a vernal freshness, sweet and polliniferous’; or a slippage when Gypo was in awe of Zoran’s paintings and the absolute tranquillity they ‘emanated’— surely should read as ‘exuded’.

At the end of A Handful of Sand we are left as with a hypothesis—can true love really follow a predestined path or is it always meant to be elusive, always filtering away from those who seek it like sand through our fingers; an ideal perhaps is what Koscec is positing, an emotion so humanly fragile that it can never be fully realised.

What do you with the sand, the handful you are allotted? What do you do with your life? How do you structure it? And, as for those who build castles, they only last ‘until the first breezes come’.

ecovu knjigu iz 2005. objavio je ove godine u Londonu Istros Books a mi slijedom toga objavljujemo kritiku Jamesa Lawlessa.

To malo pijeska na dlanu priča je o dvoje ljubavnika, odvojenim hemisferama što u slijepom lutanju prolaze cijeli krug života da bi se prema kraju čim više približile jedna drugoj. Ovaj motiv, priznaje autor, preuzet je iz Platonovogvjerovanja kako smo svi neispunjeni smrtnici koji kao polovice tumaramo svijetom dok ne pronađemo svog blizanca ili možda, relevantnije za roman, podnosimo “mogućnost da se zauvijek mimoilazimo”, što, sublimno ili ne, predstavlja svrhu naših života.

Posežući jedno za drugim ljubavnici pokušavaju srasti i spojiti se u jedno, u sreću ujedinjenih polovica kojima čak i glasovi jednako zvuče kad žele “da ono što nas pripija sagledamo u verbalnom reljefu”, gotovo u potpunosti i ekstatično postignutom sve dok prilično iznenadno ne splasne. Tako na kraju shvatimo da ne umire neuhvatljiva ljubav već jake emocije (napisane prekrasnim jezikom iz muškog kuta) ustupaju mjesto dosadi svakodnevice i zadovoljenoj požudi.

Cigo – nadimak glavnog lika – rođen je izvan braka nakon majčine afere s Ciganinom, hir učinjen bez objašnjenja, a otkrivamo da i ženski lik ima upitno porijeklo nakon što saznamo za majčinu joj izvanbračnu avanturu. Ove neizvjesnosti protječu kroz priču u savršenoj harmoniji s temama sjećanja i neostvarenih dijelova sebe kao pijeska koji sipi bez prestanka.

Cigina majka, muzikologinja, izgubila je posao u Jugoslaviji zbog svoje religioznosti. S bogohulnim humorom Koščec za njezinu pobožnost kaže da je “vidjela svojeg Boga” (prevoditelju Willu Firthu nije promakla igra riječi) te s prekrasnom satirom govori o poimanju Cigana u “rafiniranoj Hrvatskoj” gdje je “graničilo (…) sa životnom opasnošću znati svirati harmoniku”.

Ljubavna priča ispripovijedana je poetično i s dobrim zapažanjima: “sve će ljubavi biti (…) surogat one koju ubiješ prvu”, a u slučaju Cige postaje i opsesivna kako se miješa s uspomenama koje ga ponovo privlače kući svoje drage usprkos činjenici da je ona otišla a kuća je prodana.

Dobar dio ljubavne potrage ima oblik čežnje i dosta je prepušteno čitateljevoj mašti koja se poigrava dok ljubavnici pokušavaju označiti unaprijed određenu stazu i pronaći gotovo natprirodno ispunjenje u nastojanju da isprepletu svoje živote.

Prema opisima likovi se lako vizualiziraju pa je jedan primjerice “…sazdan od samih mišića, trobrodnih ramena, plave kose koja mu, svezana u rep, seže do stražnjice…”; proza je na mahove iznimno poetična pa tako protagonistica “bluni nebom ne bi li kojim slučajem ugledala anđela sna”.

Nailazimo, doduše rijetko, na klišeje poput “zijevam kao riba na suhom”, ili “poznavala (ih je) kao svoj džep”, a opis u kojem su automobili kao “aluminijski monstrumi” gotovo je adolescentski. Povremeno nas zatiče i pretjerana rječitost kao kad ljubavnik vidi svoju zaljubljenost “u zvjezdavom modrenju njezinih očiju, u srebrenju mora, u zrikanju čempresovih grana”.

Dijalog je toliko oskudan da se rijetko pojavljuje u navodnicima te se većinom prikazuje kurzivom. Knjiga obiluje opisima, često teškim i detaljnim poput opisa dnevne sobe koji se proteže preko cijele strane, a autor ponekad samodopadno uživa u svom znanju detaljno objašnjavajući svijet izdavaštva.

Zbog prirode romana, ode ljubavi i gubitku, opravdana je izvjesna količina promišljanja i filozofiranja, ali uvijek postoji opasnost od zastranjenja u apstrakcije i generalizacije te čitatelj povremeno osjeća da bi nešto praktično i konkretno jasnije zaokružilo likove – nešto za što je autor sposoban i demonstrira nam sažeto u “Ines priča o svojem najnovijem antidepresivu”, dok nas snažan opis novogodišnje noći s pucnjavom “bilo je ugodno zamisliti da se to građani međusobno ubijaju na ulicama” precizno podsjeća otkud dolazi nova Hrvatska.

Protagonista privlače ‘luđaci’ poput Jelenka koji oživi tek kad govori o smrti; ovdje prosijava filozofska istina i pokazuje naše ovozemaljske preokupacije željeli ih mi priznati ili ne.

Druga teza u djelu je viđenje umjetnosti kao šava za životnu bol što je oprimjereno slučajem poremećenog Zvjezdana. Pred kraj romana ovu ideju i preokupaciju funkcijom umjetnosti u našem životu iznova propituje mentor protagonistice koji ima vrlo originalno mišljenje, ali suprotno od Zvjezdana, to da je umjetnost jalova. On vjeruje da ga “ona (…) isisava iz ljudskog života umjesto da mu ga daje”.

Upravo je mentor taj koji iznosi središnji problem romana:

Predajući joj što ima u sebi, čovjek se ukapa u nešto kao pijesak, koji nakratko oživi, stvarajući iluziju zamjenskog života, i to savršenijeg, u kojem sve je moguće, sve dohvatljivo, ali sve je od pijeska. Komešajući ga, u njemu se koprcajući, samo pomažemo vlastitom pretvaranju u pijesak.

Prijevod Willa Firthsa uglavnom je prirodan i suvremen, tek povremeno se naslućuje pedantna opsesivnost poput opisa mentalno oboljelog Zvjezdana koji postaje Cigin prijatelj a “oko sebe širio (je) nešto proljetno, neku peludnu, slatkastu svježinu” ili propust kad se Cigo divi Zvjezdanovim slikama i apsolutnoj mirnoći kojom ‘odišu’ – zasigurno je trebalo stajati ‘zrače’.

Na kraju knjige ostajemo s hipotezom – može li prava ljubav zaista slijediti unaprijed određenu stazu ili je uvijek neuhvatljiva, uvijek izmiče onima koji je traže poput pijeska među prstima? Možda je ono što Koščec postavlja ideal, osjećaj tako ljudski fragilan da se nikad ne može uistinu realizirati?

Što učiniti s pijeskom, s tom šakom pijeska koja nam je dodijeljena? Što učiniti sa svojim životom? Kako ga strukturirati? A što se tiče onih koji grade kule, one traju samo “do prvog povjetarca”.

Za Booksu: James Lawless
Prijevod: Miljenka Buljević


James Lawless (Dublin) autor je pet romana. Dobitnik je umjetničke stipendije za studiju modernog pjesništvaClearing The Tangled Wood: Poetry as a Way of Seeing the World (2009) te brojnih drugih nagrada. Objavio je i pjesničku zbirku Rus in Urbe za Doghouse (2012). Piše književne kritike za Irish Independent i druge novine i časopise, te za Istros Books (


Pogled izvana: ‘To malo pijeska na dlanu’


Our Man in Iraq
Robert Perisic


Robert Perisic tells us in a blog by Tim Judah that the title Our Man in Iraq, derivative of Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, affords him a motif to consider ‘something of the chaos of war’. However, the war in Iraq is really only a guise as we learn the man in question is Boris, a cousin of the protagonist Toni. Toni is a journalist who prefers to stay at home in Croatia with his actor girlfriend Sanja and, on the pretext that his cousin speaks Arabic, he rather irresponsibly sends an all too willing and naive Boris to a war zone without considering the consequences or his relative’s inexperience. When Boris  goes missing, Toni writes the dispatches pretending they are still coming from his cousin. Boris’ mother Milka, however, who had a longstanding sibling rivalry with Toni’s mother, exposes her nephew to the media, and Toni and his boss Pero are brought down on charges of nepotism and impersonation.

Perisic as an author is quite à la mode and is willing to show off his knowledge in side references to art (Delacroix), literature (Kerouac), films (De Niro).  And while the book is also good in highlighting the controlling power of  the media in society, the author frequently makes his own mistake of reducing some of the novel to journalese and rants on social issues, meandering himself into media speak. The early part of the book suffers from this and is quite fragmentary in its narrative thrust. We have to wait until we are half way through the book to get to the kernel of the story which is about family conflict  and how all elements, including the love affair between Toni and Sanja, hinge on what way Boris’ mother Milka will react after learning how Toni treated her son. This conflict is the human story that is the novel; this is what we as readers crave to hear more about: the universal and timeless story of love and jealousies and internecine rivalries as perennially engrossing as the early Greek sagas.

Milka and the family feud are very well delineated and these disputes constitute the best part of the book. If they had been developed more maybe at the expense of some of the soapbox rants, we could be reading a better novel.

Things begin to fall apart for our protagonist after Boris goes missing as the phoney reports Toni produces deepen his implication in the mess. Meanwhile Sanja’a star, as an actor, rises at the same time as Toni’s, as a journalist, declines, which raises the issue of modern man and gender roles: Toni can’t accept being inferior to Sanja, and this contributes to the breakup in their relationship.

The love story between Toni and Sanja initially appears realistic and very modern— they behave almost as bohemian lovers— and is empirically derived as the author admits from the circumstances of his own divorce. The dialogue between the two is authentic and the description in the buzz of their daily lives comes across convincingly. Their physical relationship is treated graphically and sometimes humorously as in the amorous scene in the men’s toilet cubicle where, out of sight, they listened to men’s sexist comments about Sanja as an actor. But when Toni loses his job and media accusations, particularly the charge of nepotism (affording one of many opportunities for Perisic to satirise Croatian society), are levelled against the journalist, the relationship takes a nose dive, and one feels it could have been made of sterner stuff. It makes Toni’s character come across as somewhat shallow, and we have seen already how he was also irresponsible concerning his cousin. Toni, it appears, is all  too easily frightened away from commitment in a relationship when the going gets tough; he becomes slothful after being sacked finding it ‘difficult to get out of the armchair’, and one is left to wonder were his feelings for his girlfriend merely based on physical desire (the very thing he satirised the media for in their attitude to Sanja) rather than something deeper.

Things worsen for Toni when his RIJB-R-A shares plummet and he gets mugged. The mugging is done by ‘microregionalists’, members of a political opposition who obviously held a grudge against the journalist and apparently were blaming him and his newspaper for their loss in the election; but this episode is vague with no specific article to illustrate the cause of their particular antagonism towards him.

Notwithstanding, Perisic is a witty and insightful commentator and captures the zeitgeist of the age very well as he admits, Toni may ‘have placed too much hope in rock and roll’; and when the journalist is looking to rent a flat and trying to read the expression of the landlord, he comes out with: ‘You can’t read anything from the face of a morally righteous person, that’s why everyone here wears a mask’.

He is particularly scathing on literary elites ‘who attend all cultural events, although they don’t like anything,’—something struggling artists around the world can identify with.

Boris is far from the ‘madman’ Pero perceives him to be and his original and spot-on analogy for anarchy marks Perisic out as a writer who is able to successfully combine the literary with the political: ‘It would be like a never ending sentence and you’d look in vain for a full stop or an ending, ask God, ask the Law, ask the Next Policeman, and so on until you run into someone who bashed you on the head, you don’t know where the end is…’

Our Man in Iraq is a hip novel, due in no small way to the excellent translation of Will Firth who makes the prose transfer seamlessly from the Croatian into natural English with up-to-the-minute jargon and idioms of contemporary mores about the new Croatia emerging out of war and socialism to what Perisic considers the sell-out of capitalism. One is left to wonder what the author’s opinion will be on what lies in store for his country now that they have joined the EU.


Pogled izvana: ‘Our man in Iraq’

Perišić je duhovit i pronicljiv komentator koji vrlo dobro hvata duh vremena.

Rober Perišić, Our Man in Iraq (London, Istros books, £7.99)


Na blogu Tima Judaha Robert Perišić govori o tome kako mu je naslov Naš čovjek na terenu, izvedenica od Našeg čovjeka u Havani Grahama Greena, dao motiv za promišljanje ‘ratnog kaosa’. Međutim, rat u Iraku u stvari je samo krinka jer saznajemo da je čovjek o kojem je riječ Boris, rođak glavnog lika Tonija. Toni je novinar koji radije ostaje doma u Hrvatskoj sa svojom djevojkom, glumicom Sanjom, te pod izlikom da mu rođak govori arapski, u ratnu zonu prilično neodgovorno pošalje nabrijanog i naivnog Borisa, bez razmišljanja o posljedicama te ne vodeći računa o njegovom neiskustvu. Kad Boris nestane Toni nastavi pisati izvještaje pretvarajući se da i dalje dolaze od rođaka. No, Borisova majka Milka, koja je u dugogodišnjoj svađi sa sestrom, Tonijevom majkom, raskrinka svog nećaka pred medijima te Tonija i njegovog šefa Peru optuže za nepotizam i lažno predstavljanje.

Kao autor Perišić je prilično trendy i rado se razbacuje znanjem u usputnim referencama iz područja umjetnosti ((Delacroix), književnosti (Kerouac) i filma (De Niro). Iako dobro naglašava kontrolirajuću moć medija u društvu, autor i sam često čini pogrešku svodeći dijelove romana na novinarenje i jadikovke o društvenim problemima u samom stilu medijskog govora. Početak knjige boluje upravo od toga. Također, prilično je fragmentaran u svom narativnom zamahu. Moramo čekati do polovine knjige kako bismo saznali suštinu priče koja govori o obiteljskoj svađi te kako bismo shvatili da svi elementi, uključujući ljubavnu vezu između Tonija i Sanje, ovise o tome što će Borisova majka Milka učiniti kad shvati kako se Toni ponašao prema njezinom sinu. Ova svađa je ljudska priča koja je u stvari roman, to je ono o čemu čitatelj želi saznati više; univerzalna i bezvremena priča o ljubavi, ljubomori i međusobnom rivalstvu vječno zanimljiva još od grčkih mitova.

Milka i obiteljske prepirke vrlo su dobro ocrtane i te svađe predstavljaju najbolji dio knjige. Da su malo razrađenije, nauštrb nekih sapuničastih žalopojki, mogli smo čitati bolji roman.

Našem se protagonistu stvari počinju raspadati nakon što Boris nestane te nakon što ga lažni izvještaji koje piše dodatno upetljaju u nevolje. U međuvremenu, dok Toni tone kao novinar, Sanja postaje glumačka zvijezda, što postavlja problem modernog muškarca i rodnih uloga: Toni ne može prihvatiti da je neuspješniji od Sanje što pridonosi prekidu veze.

Ljubavna priča između Tonija i Sanje na početku izgleda realistično i vrlo moderno – ponašaju se gotovo kao boemski ljubavnici – a oslanja se na iskustvo iz autorovog vlastitog razvoda. Dijalozi su vrlo autentični a opisi užurbanog života uvjerljivi. Fizička ljubav opisana je grafički i ponekad komično (kao u ljubavnoj sceni u muškom wc-u gdje skriveni od tuđih pogleda slušaju muške seksističke komentare o glumici Sanji). No, kad Toni izgubi posao te kad se na njega obruše medijske optužbe, naročito za nepotizam (što Perišiću daje još jednu priliku za satiru hrvatskog društva), veza krene nizbrdo i čitatelj shvaća da je mogla biti sazdana od jačeg materijala. Zbog ovoga Tonijev lik ispada pomalo plitko, osobito nakon što smo vidjeli kako je bio neodgovoran prema rođaku. Čini se da se Toni suviše lako uplaši obaveza u vezi kad stvari postanu kompliciranije. Postaje lijen nakon što ga otpuste te mu se ‘teško dići iz fotelje’ pa se čitatelj pita jesu li njegovi osjećaji prema djevojci bili temeljeni samo na fizičkoj želji (upravo ono zbog čega satirizira odnos medija prema Sanji) a ne nečemu dubljem.

Stvari za Tonija postanu gore kad mu dionice RIIB-R-A potonu i kad ga opljačkaju ‘mikroregionalisti’, članovi političke opozicije koji očigledno zamjeraju novinaru te njega i njegove novine krive za gubitak na izborima. No, ova epizoda ostaje nejasna bez nekog određenog novinskog teksta koji bi ilustrirao uzrok takvom antagonizmu.

Bez obzira na sve, Perišić je duhovit i pronicljiv komentator koji vrlo dobro hvata duh vremena, kad priznaje da je Toni možda “previše nade polagao u rock and roll” ili kad, tražeći stan i pokušavajući skužiti izraz gazdinog lica, kaže: “Ništa se ne može pročitati s lica pravednika, zato svi nose tu masku”.

Naročito je kritika književne elite (“to su ljudi koji posjećuju sva kulturna događanja, iako im se ništa ne sviđa”) nešto s čime se umjetnici širom svijeta mogu poistovjetiti.

Boris je daleko od ‘luđaka’ za kojeg ga Pero smatra, a njegova originalna i precizna analogija s anarhijom izdvaja Perišića kao pisca sposobnog uspješno spojiti književno s političkim: “To bi bilo kao rečenica bez točke, di je točka, di je kraj, pitaj Boga, pitaj Zakon, pitaj Obližnjeg Policajca, i tako – sve dok ne naletiš na nekoga tko te lupi po glavi, ti ne znaš di je kraj…”.

Naš čovjek na terenu moderan je roman nemalo zahvaljujući i izvrsnom prijevodu Willa Firtha koji tekst glatko prenosi iz hrvatskog u tečni engleski koristeći moderni žargon i idiome općih mjesta o novoj Hrvatskoj koja izranja iz rata i socijalizma te ide prema onom što Perišić smatra prodajom kapitalizmu. Čitatelj se pita koje je autorovo mišljenje o budućnosti te zemlje nakon njezinog ulaska u Europsku uniju?

Za Booksu: James Lawless
Prijevod: Miljenka Buljević
Foto: The U.S. Army (flickr)

Kritiku iste knjige Booksinog kritičara Saše Ćirića pročitajteovdje.


James Lawless (Dublin) autor je pet romana. Dobitnik je umjetničke stipendije za studiju modernog pjesništvaClearing The Tangled Wood: Poetry as a Way of Seeing the World (2009) te brojnih drugih nagrada. Objavio je i pjesničku zbirku Rus in Urbe za Doghouse (2012). Piše književne kritike za Irish Independent i druge novine i časopise, te za Istros Books (

The Eloquence of the Dead by Conor Brady (New Island, €14.99)

The idea of a world-weary alcoholic detective may appear cliched, but Conor Brady in this sequel succeeds in making Joe Swallow into a credible character.

One can feel the book wooing one into the world of Victorian Dublin from its first pages as Swallow sets out on the trail of a pawnbroker’s murderer, which fans out from the Pale to Trim, Galway and England.

The underlying resentment towards Swallow of rival Major Kelly, head of the secret service group, adds an edge to the narrative, and Swallow’s amorous ambivalences towards Maria, a pub-owner, and Katherine, the Jewish girl who shared his interest in art classes and whom he saves by shooting dead a burglar in her father’s jewellery shop on Capel Street, heighten the tension and foreboding.

Swallow, due to his drinking, blew a career in medicine, inducing guilt in him because of sacrifices made by his parents. Herein may lie the weakest part of the novel in the mere passing references to his mother. More of a build-up of her character would have been preferable perhaps at the expense of some of the myriad ancillary characters that populate the work.

Similarly the character of his patriotic sister Harriet (in a loyalty conflict with her brother) is a stock delineation of nationalists of the time.

There are some quibbles with the prose. Typos, such as suffering a “safe” fate instead of “same” fate, or Phibsboro losing and gaining its “ugh”, and the detective’s feeling for Maria are expressed in over-sentimental tones: “He felt part of her, drawn in completely into a union of the flesh and the spirit that he had never known before.”

But such writing is more than made up for later by the moving account of Swallow’s hovering around his former lover’s abode on the eve of his departure for England. Also when he visits the Ulster office, he noticed the sentries had been issued with their greatcoats and “autumn was tightening its grip”. One can sense here what Brady called the “buttoned-up” prose of his journalistic days flowering into a more novelistic style.

There is evidence of great research in the interspersing of history into the novel, particularly into the legal ramifications of the time — how informants would sometimes send a child to Exchange Court to collect their undercover reward. The corruption in the land transfers process is brilliantly drawn and kernel to the narrative in the plan to defraud the Treasury. This sort of writing is in keeping with the author’s hope that his fiction would also carry with it sociological insights, which indeed it does also in its touching upon the role of women in society or the teaching of Freud, albeit coupled with the hindsight of historical perspective.

Swallow’s forensic knowledge is superb, equalling Holmes, or that of any sleuth, with his logical mind in establishing by means of knots that there were two presences at the scene of the murder, and the account of the graphite used to detect fingerprints is convincing. There is occasional humour too, as when the criminal Vanucchi claims kinship “with that fella who done the last supper”.

Outside the criminal underworld, Brady also captures the soirees of middle-class Dublin society of the time, although the reference to WB Yeats and his Vision as a source for locating missing persons doesn’t seem plausible.

Overall this book is an engrossing read. One feels a real empathy for Swallow, especially towards the end, as he tries to confront British duplicity. If there is a message, it seems to be: You can nab the little man in crime but corruption in high places continues. Plus ca change…

  • James Lawless’ latest novel is Knowing Women.


Sunday Independent 12/01/14

JAMES LAWLESS – Sunday Independent, 04 AUGUST 2013

Nine ways to solve a mystery, not counting cliches

A Vicar Crucified

Simon Parke

Darton, Longman and Todd, €11.50

A black vicar is crucified in the erstwhile sleepy coastal English town of Stormhaven. This fictitious place, as we are informed in an author’s note, is based on the real town of Seaford, whose inhabitants can hardly be pleased with Parke’s description of their ancestors as ‘cormorants’ who, in the hope of booty, lured ships to their destruction.

Abbot Peter is enticed back from a monastery in the Sinai when a relative he’d never known leaves him a house in Stormhaven and he is invited to assist his niece, Detective Inspector Tamsin, in the murder investigation. Tamsin is another relative the abbot was unaware of, and she, for her part, did not know of her grandfather, the abbot’s father, and his quest for the source of the Enneagram, an ancient and dubious system of character analysis.

This is the weakest part of the book as family relations are skirted over and stretch credibility.

It would have been better perhaps if the harridan Tamsin, a polar opposite to her calm and reflective uncle, had not been related to him at all.

Initially, the abbot seems smug as he appears to consider the grotesque murder merely as a puzzle suitable for his Enneagram diagram. This diagrammatic system, we are told, reduces people and their motives to nine types and is about as convincing as the 12 houses of the zodiac.

However, as a ploy in a thriller, it is clever and works prototypically, but don’t expect real individual characters to jump out from the pages.

Cliches crop up such as ‘passing like ships in the night’, and the pseudo-poetic overuse of cloud analogies: “surprising as a cloud in November” or “like dark clouds giving way to sun”, are irking. Notwithstanding, Parke is highly imaginative in his recounting in a parallel narrative a quest for the source of the Enneagram in 19th-century Afghanistan.

Also, as a former scriptwriter for Spitting Image, his wit frequently shines through, but sometimes the humour is ambiguous and perhaps unintended, as in the vicar’s rejection (before his death) of the amorous advances of the curate Sally: “Anton pulled back leaving Sally distraught, and subsequent hours on her knees availed little”.

Accepting it in its genre, this book can be read as an engrossing page-turning thriller, propelling the reader through its multiple twists and turns and keeping one guessing until the final unpredictable – yet satisfying – denouement.

James Lawless’s latest novel is ‘Knowing Women’.


Sunday Independent


A Thousand Pardons

Jonathan Dee
Corsair, €18.75

Jonathan Dee’s previous novel, The Privileges, was Pulitzer nominated, so one expected high standards from his new work, A Thousand Pardons. It begins with New Yorkers Helen and Ben Armistead about to divorce. Ben, an attorney, is suffering a putative midlife crisis and claims his wife is boring. In his disturbed state he commits a sexual transgression with a too-knowing intern, who ironically takes legal action against him. Later, he drunkenly crashes his car, and is thus disgraced and after a short imprisonment, where we are supposed to believe he has mended his ways, he seeks forgiveness from his wife. Helen, meanwhile, who hadn’t worked outside the home for 14 years, in order to provide for their adopted daughter, secures a job in a PR firm in which she demonstrates a sudden miraculous talent for crisis management. Her method of getting erring clients to openly apologise for their wrong-doing parallels her own personal story with Ben.

Initially, it is difficult to understand whose story this is. It starts out as Ben’s and, when he disappears for a large section, it becomes Helen’s story, and then it shifts to their teenage daughter Sara and her romance with the undesirable Cutter. The author also introduces a backstory about a movie star, Hamilton Barth, a childhood friend of Helen’s whose life of celebrity and drunkenness blurs with her husband’s as both men seek anonymity, if for different reasons. The novel’s constant shifting of POV is jarring and disconcerting, particularly in such a short work, and fails to anchor the story, thus preventing the reader from getting involved with any of the characters in a meaningful way.

While the novel is good on small town satire in the character of Helen’s first PR employer, Aaron Harvey as the incompetent down-at-heel businessman, he is just another character all too fleetingly delineated and conveniently killed off in the early part of the book. There are too many insubstantial types such as Mona and Nevaeh, the rather idle secretaries who provide mere patter for Helen in Harvey’s PR firm and who could be reduced to one character or eliminated altogether; and Helen’s delayed and unresolved work for the Catholic Church, with its sex scandals, is more sensational than relevant and peripheral to the main thrust of the narrative, which ultimately is the seeking of forgiveness in a marriage.

There is some inspired writing with original turns of phrase: “the solipsism of his depression” referring to Ben; “sad sacks whoring out their dignity on reality TV” on the image question; a graphic description of the exhausted Helen after work, falling asleep in front of the TV where her chin would “sink down toward her chest, snap up suddenly, and then sink again for good”.

In many cases, however, the prose is pedestrian and could have done with more attention. There are many repetitions. When Sara “shrugged”, the same word is repeated two lines later, the author lazily accepting the repetition rather than using a synonym.

Also the narrator intervenes into the voices of the characters and, while he is psychologically insightful into teenager Sara in her hot and cold relationship with her parents, one feels all too often the authorial presence dominating. When Sara closed her eyes “not because she was upset but just to try to get her thoughts in order”, one senses the thought and action of an older person here, in the same way as her boyfriend Cutter used adult words such as “deracinated” unconvincingly.

Finally, the reader is left to ponder, did this book need to be written or is it just one of hundreds of bland, semi-literary novels easily forgotten?

James Lawless’ latest novel is ‘Knowing Women’.

Sunday Independent 16 June 2013


Glimpse of a mischievous and surprisingly saucy Austen

SHATTERED BLISS: Elizabeth Bennet, portrayed by Keira Knightley in the 2005 film of 'Pride<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />  and Prejudice', has her new life disrupted by a murder in 'Death Comes To Pemberley'
SHATTERED BLISS: Elizabeth Bennet, portrayed by Keira Knightley in the 2005 film of ‘Pride and Prejudice’. 

JAMES LAWLESS’ review in Irish Sunday Independent  – 17 February 2013

The Real Jane Austen Paula Byrne Harper Collins, €12.50

Is it possible to know the real Jane Austen? For the sake of family decorum, Jane’s sister Cassandra destroyed nearly 3,000 of the letters between them, keeping a mere 60 or so innocuous or censored ones to tell us little beyond their humdrum domestic lives.

Paula Byrne approaches the question in an original manner, differing from previous biographers in that she begins each chapter with an object connected to the life or work of the author: a silhouette, a barouche, a cocked hat, a velvet cushion, a Topaz cross, a vellum notebook, among others.

The effect is to give intimacy, to draw the reader into Jane Austen’s world, to mingle with the household, as it were. Byrne does all this in a readable and elegant style and, whatever about Jane Austen’s life being putatively boring, the ancillary lives lived by many of her relatives, recounted brilliantly by Byrne, are the stuff of high drama and make riveting reading: the cocked hat alerts us to her brother Henry’s career in the Oxfordshire Militia; lace prompts an insight into Austen’s kleptomaniac aunt Jane Leigh-Perrot, who was imprisoned for stealing a card of lace, and the account of her cousin Eliza’s husband, Jean Capote Feuillide, a captain in Marie-Antoinette’s regiment of dragoons, guillotined in the month of Ventose in Year 2 of the French Revolutionary calendar, makes one speculate if we are reading about the world of a different author.

Another object used, the Bathing Machine, illustrative of female demureness of the time, affords the writer an opportunity to adumbrate Austen’s love of the sea.

Byrne posits three major theses which she claims as new or fresh insights into the commonly viewed lifestyle of Jane Austen. Firstly, she refutes convincingly that Jane Austen was a mere retiring, religious spinster aunt. Byrne’s research shows that Austen had a saucy wit in, for example, her references to ‘rears’ and ‘vices’ in the admiralty and her humour comes through in spotting a friend Dr Hall from his carriage “in such very deep mourning that either his mother, his wife, or himself must be dead”. Austen was also a bit of a prankster when younger, and wrote the names of imaginary husbands for herself into her father’s parish register; and, far from being retiring, she was frequently a sought-after and fun-loving aunt who played shuttlecock with her nephews and nieces.

The second thesis that Byrne posits, however, is problematic – that Austen did not shy away from the great historical events of her time: the Napoleonic War, the British wars in India, the slave trade. That Austen was cognisant of such events Byrne proves persuasively, but to say she embraced them (think of Tolstoy and his embracing of history in War and Peace) constitutes revisionist hyperbole, as only trace elements of such happenings can be found in her novels. Austen may have been aware of these events but she chose in the main, apart from references in her Juvenilia writing, not to engage with them artistically.

Admittedly, she does question the provenance of Mansfield Park, which was built on the spoils of slavery, but she does not pursue the matter, no more than she pursues her father’s possible complicity, albeit indirect, in the opium trade.

The third thesis, that the writing of Jane Austen treats of ordinary life, is also open to question. What is ordinary? Are the lives of landed gentry ordinary, or of her wealthy brother Edward or of the Leigh family on her mother’s side with their 690 acres at Stoneleigh Abbey (confiscated from the Cistercians under Henry VIII) or of another brother James riding to the hounds with the Prince Regent? And the duchesses and ladies who saw their lives mirrored in her novels while bedecked in their Regency regalia at tea parties and balls are a far cry from, say, Dickens’ city urchins.

And Jane herself, although never possessing a lot of hard cash, did not have to worry about family or children or employment. She was time-rich with the privilege that endowed to dedicate herself wholly to her writing. She may not have had a room of her own, having to write in a busy sitting room; but in a way such an environment could have been a boon to a novelist with her ears pricked to the conversations and comings and goings of her family and friends, providing fecund material for her stories in what Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey called “a neighbourhood of voluntary spies”. And even if privacy was a rare luxury, she was able to survive contemporary conventions with solitary walks and sojourns by the sea.

Nevertheless, in the limited world Austen inhabited, holding, in the words of Virginia Woolf, “a candle to life on a country house stairway”, a life in miniature she portrayed with great accuracy.

A realist refusing, as Byrne points out, to be carried away by the romantic excesses characteristic of the time, she could describe a beautiful evening without deferral to the moon. And perhaps most importantly, her innovative device of using free indirect speech to convey the internal ‘disordered feelings’ of a character such as those of Anne Elliot in Persuasion, could be premised as a precursor of the stream of consciousness technique of the modernist movement as practised by Woolf and James Joyce.

Where Byrne succeeds in this book, published to coincide with the bicentenary of Pride and Prejudice, is she manages, in a scholarly yet reader-friendly way and with the restricted material allowed to her, to bring to life a dedicated artist of her time in her human attributes.

Sunday Independent, October 21, 2012

A Possible Life
Sebastian Faulks
Random House €25.52

Sebastian Faulks’ new novel A Possible Life consists of five disparate stories searching for a connection. In a pre-publication video, the author talks of this work as a symphony with distinct voices which hopefully will cohere and show that we are more than mere individuals in the cosmos and in different eras — that we are all connected in a way perhaps like Jung’s collective unconsciousness, although it is our awareness rather than unconsciousness that Faulks emphasises as our link with one another.

The stories, which are set in various locations and different times, have themes as diverse as the horrors of an extermination camp where a young English man is imprisoned during the Second World War; a Victorian tale, Dickensian in its depiction of a workhouse; a futuristic story of loneliness and science; a fable of an illiterate maid in 19th-Century France; and finally, a stand-alone tour de force about the power of music which is set in 1970s America.

So does Faulks pull it off? Does he link all these stories? Not really. There are some resonances of war and mental hospitals and cricket (perhaps overdone) and the Bible and Jews and — possibly the most moving reverberation — of meeting a loved one after a long absence and imagining the person unchanged.

But such echoes are tenuous. Maybe the consistent link that Faulks is showing us is in ourselves as humans and even in our parts with the foreknowledge of our own annihilation which separates us from animals.

Ultimately, however, as Marcel in A Door into Heaven points out, not even the philosopher knows the working of the human mind, for when he saw a man’s brain on the battlefield he declared, “It looked just like something in the butcher’s shop in Treignoc”.

But does it matter if there are no obvious, overt links? It is a book of engrossing short stories, although sometimes the pace is so hectic that events are skimmed over, particularly in the first story A Different Man which at times is reminiscent of a Readers’ Digest Condensed Book: “Geoffrey had been a schoolmaster for only a year when war broke out and he went to ask Long John Little permission to volunteer.”

And the same character’s stay in a mental hospital after the war where a nurse absurdly says to him, “Pull yourself together” is skipped over with “three months later Geoffrey was out, discharged”.

Such abbreviating could be interpreted as a weakness in the delineation of character (no time for freeze-framing here, which is symptomatic of most of the characters in this book); there is simply no opportunity to reflect, and there is a definite link here in that they all, privileged and poor, appear to accept stoically whatever life hurls at them.

However, the quality of the writing for the most part is far superior to anything condensed. Faulks has a botanist’s eye for trees and shrubs such as acanthus and oleander and an epicure’s taste (‘anchovy essence’, ’tisane’), and who could not be moved by the telling succinctness of the sentence, “Parts of human were dropping on him” when Geoffrey was trying to soften the blows with his French language while translating the harsh German orders for the doomed prisoners.

Faulks shows great versatility in his wide-ranging writing — the fluctuations in time and sequence bring to mind John Fowles‘ The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

The words of the songs in the story You Next Time are wonderful and he shows technical skill in his knowledge of the music industry:

We said goodbye to Larry Becker and sent a tape back to John Vintello in New York. We’d have to go back to listen to an acetate on lots of different speakers — plastic bathroom radio, automobile rear shelf — and fiddle around with sound quality on the master…

It is thorough research that gives his narrative authenticity and spine-chilling accuracy.

For instance, in A Different Man, when the number being killed was more than the gas chambers could process, the gassing time was cut to 10 minutes with the result that some of the ‘corpses’ that Geoffrey had to incinerate were still living.

Despite the predominant morbidity in the stories, they are not without humour as when the most rounded character, Anya the singer, retorts to her concerned manager, when he thought a pervert was looking up her short dress to get a view of her panties, with, “Don’t worry, I wasn’t wearing any”.

All the imagined people that one can be as an artist is perhaps what Faulks, approaching 60 now, is about here in this rumination on mortality: the purpose and maybe the consolation is to be able to define oneself by subdividing oneself time after time into a multiplicity of possible lives.

James Lawless’ latest novel Finding Penelope has just been published by Indigo Dreams.



The Long Falling
Keith Ridgway
Faber, paperback 1998
305 pp. £11.50. 0-571-19171-1

The novel opens in a mimesis of Joyce’s, The Dead (the litany of snow falling all over Ireland) but this time it’s rain that is falling on Cavan ad Monaghan and on lakes and roads… but there is nothing imitative in the description of the gravestones at Cootehill sticking into the soil ‘like blunt knives’. The atmosphere is set; the sense of dread that permeates the book established, despite its early revelations (like a lot of literary novels) of the plot in advance, which leads of course to the inevitable working back, the teasing out, the use of memory as elaboration and clarification in the minds of the two main characters. Grace Quinn is English, middleaged, living on a farm in Monaghan with a brutal husband who blames her for the accidental death of their first son Sean. The husband’s drinking causes him to kill a little girl while driving. He gets away lightly with six months imprisonment. When he is released he takes his frustrations out physically on his wife. The other son, Martin, nineteen, tells his parents one evening that he is homosexual. The father assaults him. Martin leaves for Dublin. After receiving a brutal beating (Ridgway spares nothing in the graphics department here), Grace winds up killing her husband by crashing the car into him on the road where he is supposedly praying (is there an unwitting homage to Hamlet here: killing someone at their orisons, and consequently sending their soul to heaven?) at the same spot where he had killed the young girl. Grace escapes to Dublin and locates her son. At first Martin makes her welcome, but when his lover Henry comes home from Paris he finds her presence intrusive. And when she tells Martin that she killed his father, Martin turns against her. This could be problematic for some readers: the mother/son relationship had been built up by the author with reveries of Martin’s childhood with his mother, their loving walks together, the snatched moments of happiness from the tyrannical father. It is difficult it accept that he could turn away from her so suddenly. Also, the narrative changes focus frequently with different character chapters putting a strain on the reader. We are left to wonder who is the central charter, and even secondary characters are given entire chapters to themselves which weakens the narrative thrust. We also lose some sympathy for Martin in his moaning about Dublin beggars; the sense of foreboding is lost (he would have got them off his back if he had simply given them something, which is what his mother did).

The geography of Dublin and its streets are captured very well even if there is perhaps a little too much striving for effect with the many references to the ‘grey rain.’ And although Ridgway writes with a searing honesty about gay life in Dublin, he never explores the mother’s attitude towards her son’s gayness; it’s something that’s just accepted without words; she even goes to the gay bar with her son and his friends with whom she seems to become familiar all too quickly, as if he’d known them all her life, despite the age and cultural difference. Also the X case motif which runs through the novel (with references to it on the news on radio and televisions) about a raped girl seeking the right to travel for an abortion, doesn’t quite work; it belongs to a different story. There are characters waiting at the wings that need development instead of having the author distracting the reader with the X case: Philip, who seems to become Grace’s bosom buddy almost over night, is a cardboard cutout: a handsome goody two shoes. What motivates him to come to the assistance of a middleaged woman, a mere acquaintance? We are not told. And Sean, another of Martin’s friends, the investigative journalist, working on the X case, recording a confession from Grace, thinking he’s on to a big scoop, then tearing up the tape and disappearing from the scene. What was he supposed to represent? Some sort of secondary guilt in causing Grace to leave his flat in disarray? All the worrying of these characters for Grace does not convince  –  they don’t know her well enough to have such empathy. The problem is that there are too many characters. Philip disappears from a huge chunk of the novel only to reappear in cameo  towards the end. We could have learned more about Detective Brady. Why is he sympathetic to Grace? Apart from being from Grace’s home place, what does he know about the father and the family background? There are hints but elaboration here could have added more poignancy to the story. Instead he’s just a shade like most of the others. And Henry  –  all the expectation built up about him with phone calls  –   can one say one really knows him?

In fairness, the tension is effectively built up in atmosphere and action. Detective Brady, who has sent  the Quinn car to Forensics, has followed Grace to Dublin. She caught a glimpse of him in the gay bar but wasn’t sure; he looked like her dead husband. Leaving Sean’s house after her confession she  wanders disorientated in the city. Sean tells Martin that his mother killed his farther. There then follow flashbacks with the two main characters going over those dramatic moments that we already know about; this works well enough. We learn that Grace confessed to Sean because she couldn’t face Martin directly; she knew Sean would tell Martin, but after her city wandering she returns to Martin’s flat and confesses herself to Martin. So why bother having her tell Sean in the first place? Unless perhaps to illustrate the disorientation in her mind, just as she confessed later to the landlady Mrs Talbot in whose house she winds up. We are lost a bit in Martin now as he breaks down in tears and asks her why she killed his father. She says she had no choice but Martin doesn’t buy this and it is hard to accept Martin here who had been defending his mother against the father as both of them suffered brutal assaults at his hands. Could he not understand her motive? And when the police call to Martin’s flat he says straight out to them without their even having to probe, that his mother killed his father.

There seems to be a great hurry to confess crimes as Mrs. Talbot listens to the details from Grace’s mouth. (Would the pathos have been greater if Grace had to bear these secrets alone?). And even this Mrs Talbot, are we convinced that she could be such  a willing accomplice to a murderer? And then we’re subjected to all the details about Mrs. Talbot, about her sister and her accident, and her late husband, what befell her family, and we know this is authorial wandering, taking our attention away form the main thrust of the story, just as the X case itself has done in it’s striving for a cleverness which doesn’t come off (even the ambiguity in the ‘let her go, let her go,’ chant of the placard bearers to allow the rape victim to go to England detracts from the murder case in Cootehill which comes only as a secondary news item). There should be more delving into Grace and into Martin, particularly into his sudden turn around in his attitude towards his mother. She would do anything for her son: if giving herself up would bring his love back, she would do that, but she would not wail for her dead husband. But the realisation, despite the distraction of the X case or Mrs Talbot’s wandering talk, does eventually dawn on Grace as the police close in on her, that the killing of her husband did not free her (is that perhaps what Martin was implying by his hostility towards her?) but rather tied her to him ‘more than I ever was. I wanted to spit him out and swallowed him instead’ (P.300). This story, despite its flaws, is moving in its portrayal of a mother and son.

Reviewed by James Lawless for Poetry Ireland online book reviews.



By David Butler
Wynkin deWorde, paperback, 2005. 245 pp. No price given.


This is the story of Francis Troy, ‘The Bomber Priest’ who was shot dead as he set out with 600 kg of explosives in a van to destroy Stormont and with it the Good Friday Agreement. The story is told posthumously onto a tape (the Dictaphone shutoff is a clever chapter ending) by his nephew to a journalist by means of his uncle’s journals. The nephew at the age of twelve indirectly caused the death of his parents and baby sister by failing to report faulty Christmas lights and, thus orphaned, came to live with his uncle. The nephew slowly and teasingly unfolds the complex nature of his uncle to the journalist, and in so doing attempts to understand what motivated such extreme actions in a human being.

The narrative commences when Frank is on the point of ‘leaving’ the priesthood. He is delusional; he was never ordained, despite claiming he was by Cardinal Conway. He is recovering from a breakdown in Saint John of God’s clinic. He comes across as a very erudite character quoting long passages from various European languages. These passages without translation presume an erudition beyond that of a general reader.

The use of a second person narration may be jarring for some readers initially but one grows to accept it as one deepens into the novel. The author, who is also a poet, is very good on some contemporary descriptions:

‘To the right, the orange city is spread out beneath, unreal, tilting on the inclined                                                           table of the bay. It has the shape of a great crab’s claw, traced in neon stitches that                                                     are embroidered, in yellows and reds, onto the wide black landscape. Between the                                                      points of the claws, the empty maw of the sea. Two hungers.’

Or the description of the face of the clock as ‘paralysed at 12.10’.

However, despite these illuminated moments, far too much of the language in the novel is stilted and almost archaic: ‘thrice’, and favourite repeated words ‘entrails’ and ‘visceral’, and tautologies: ‘halt, lame’. There are wandering, complex sentences in the passive: ‘With the violent contraction of abdomen that had raised me up, my sunglasses had fallen away.’ There are too many abstractions and the dialogue lacks an authentic immediacy: ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you might conjecture….’ Who speaks like that? It smarts of Biblical sermonising rather than normal conversation. One could equally apply to the author what the journalist says of the nephew’s mode of delivery: ‘You’ve a queer way of circumlocuting about the subject.’

Suspense in the novel is generated effectively by the looming threat of Alban Breathnach and his men (the IRA) as they go in pursuit of Frank’s journals. The story is engrossing as we learn slowly of the complex mind of Frank, the narrative interrupting intermittently with streams of consciousness. He is no mere nationalist. He gets beaten up by the Republican left for questioning their ethos.

Although the story is essentially Frank’s, the nephew’s part is not totally convincing. He dismisses his father in a one liner as a bit of a Puritan who left him financially sound. Was there no love there? one wonders. There is little mention of his mother and little emotion or remorse over their deaths or over the death of his baby sister for which he has to be held to blame. One feels the nephew is merely a conduit through which the story of his uncle is meant to flow.

The kernel of meaning in the title of the novel is to be found when Frank, the polyglot and the last European, decries the homogenisation within Europe. The new Europe is no longer a place of uncertainty, the uncertainty that drove men such as Copernicus, Columbus or Cortes to make their discoveries. ‘What faith now,’ he asks ‘when difference is to be effaced in the name of ethical and economic harmony?’ A more important question, however, the reader must answer is, does all this rhetoric really gel with the character of Frank and does it have real relevance to the plot of the novel? I find the thesis interesting and I agree with Butler about the danger of homogenisation within Europe, but this is thesis stuff, and I am not at all sure if it tallies with the character and plot of the story. No more than the apocalyptic dust jacket design of Roger Derham with its doom-laden images from Dante; they are anachronistic and offputting for a modern reader.

As the novel progresses, the characters of Frank and the journalist and the nephew tend to blur into each other. There is no clear differentiation in their voices. And the code names for characters PT1, T2 etc. are confusing and overdone, disconcerting the reader.

However, there are some poignant moments in the novel where Butler removes his mantle of erudition, and striving less for effect, shows his true talent as a writer. Such a moment occurs where, towards the end of the novel, he attempts very convincingly to justify hatred. It is where a woman pathetically tries to rouse a corpse, a casualty of the Northern violence, and a dirty child in the corner faces into the wall:


She is pummelling the chest with her fists. She is screaming all about her. She is so                                                  furious that no one dares to approach her and the dirty child is too terrified even to                                                    cry.”


 Review in The Stinging Fly, issue 3/volume two, Spring 2006


The Echo Maker
Richard Powers
Vintage, £7.99

In this his ninth novel, Richard Powers, in a blend of science and myth, tells an intriguing story. On a winter’s night in Nebraska Mark Schluter suffers a near fatal accident when his truck overturns. He is left with Capgras syndrome, believing that his caring sister Karin is an impostor. Karin engages a cognitive neurologist, Gerald Weber, to help her brother. While the book sags a little under its weighty middle, it builds up to be a thriller as discoveries are made particularly about the circumstances of the accident, which alter the lives of these three people. Part of the myth element in the novel is based on the spring migration of sandhill cranes who, in revealing the wildness of simply being, force Weber into a meaning of life crisis. The manner in which Powers fuses the disparate elements from our wired world to the chaos of the universe in an attempt to show the connectedness of all living things is an astonishing achievement.

James Lawless

Review in The Irish Times, 15/03/08.


Pure by Timothy Mo
Turnaround, €23.10

It is over a decade since Timothy Mo — a three-time contender for the Booker Prize — wrote his last novel. In his new work, Pure, which he describes as a “distillation… where its principals have not always been exigent”, the title plays as much on the impurities of race as it does on the cocaine which the main character Snooky, a Thai transvestite, ingests.

Snooky is a nickname from the Thai word sanook meaning fun, and which the English-educated hedonist in his pink beret and leather trousers prefers to his real name Ahmed. (“Who wants to be fricking Ahmed?”).

This provides Mo with a vehicle through Snooky to poke fun at fundamentalism.

The story — character-driven, as Mo insists — starts slowly with some encyclopaedic and peripatetic musings on diverse themes, not all terrorist-linked, which seem to jar slightly with his professed reverence for the laconic Jorge Luis Borges.

But Mo is a cerebral writer and, while he may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it pays to stay with him.

Although somewhat obsessive about people’s intelligence and whether they got “a first” or not, his insight into education — “It is not important to be right, it doesn’t matter at all if you’re wrong: only keep an open mind” — links well into the satire on the self-righteousness of zealots and the futility and self-contradiction of religious wars.

Mo, through the mouthpiece of Snooky, doesn’t mince his words: he is equally scathing when attacking the “harridan” Thatcher or the “cretin” Reagan or when referring to “Yah Royal Heinous” Diana or vanity-published authors whose “misconstructions, infelicities and frank paroxysms of incorrect grammar could reduce us to helpless hysterics”.

Snooky is a film critic and Mo makes use of this to show off his considerable film knowledge and apply it wittily to question staid concepts of East and West and to show that there are similarities in what are normally perceived as polarised cultures; for example Hollywood Westerns, Snooky illustrates, share many of the techniques of Eastern tales.

The narrative cranks up eventually when Snooky is caught in a drugs bust, and is blackmailed to infiltrate a pondok or religious school which acts as cover for jihadists planning to set up a caliphate in South East Asia.

On one of the islands they visit in pursuit of this aim, a perceptive Snooky observes that, while the authorities can scan their bags for bombs, they can’t scan their heads for subversive ideas.

Snooky’s handler in this enterprise is Victor, an old Oxford (Brecon in the novel) don and MI6 veteran.

The email interplay between him and Snooky is a good set piece with the spine-chilling refrain: Your message has been sent.

But the horror of mass destruction, so tellingly adumbrated in the book, is balanced by humorous interjections: “For God sake, Victor, you’re going to kill an undergraduate one day”. “Cull one would be the word,” Victor replies; or Snoopy in a bookshop browsing — “something cows and the intelligentsias do”; or George with whom Spooky liaised “was an economist (the modern witchcraft) and a canny Scot”.

We glean some of Mo’s prose mastery in his description of the half-blind Imam Umar, assistant to Shaykh, the jihadist leader: “His coffee-brown complexion set off the snowiness of his beard as if the latter was a cameo carving on shell but his nacreous orbs glowed in that dark face like the eyes of an alien, albeit a sociable one.”

With its fresh and imaginative insights into our contemporary multicultural world, this book is of the moment and coupled with nuances and puns, Joycean at times in their occasional stream of consciousness, it could be fourth time lucky and the Booker year for this talented author.

Review by James Lawless in Sunday Independent, May 27, 2012

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