Theory of Bastards
This story concerns social anthropologist Frankie Burke who receives a Foundation grant from a prestigious research institute to attempt to prove her theory of bastards by studying the behaviour of bonobos, an endangered species of apes who are exceptional in that they do not war with rival groups and have never been known to kill. With its repeated recording of the pre-prandial sex acts of the bonobos, the book comes across occasionally as more voyeuristic than the scientific research it purports to be. But despite that, the story does eventually grow on one in a strange sort of way. We wonder how the animals will fare in the wake of a far-fetched apocalypse, and how the growing closeness of Frankie and Stotts, her research assistant, the good guy ex-Marine who acts initially as a mere chorus to the goings on, will develop
But the plot is plodding at times and there is far too much boring repetition, pages long, about the functionality and behaviour of the bonobos. And because the dénouement of the human characters in contrast is so sketchy and predictable, and because the research throughout the book and indeed judging by the thoroughness of the Appendix, is so thorough, one wonders if its contents would have been better served as non-fiction. In places there is a bulldozing quality in the way Schulman pushes some of her characters on us rather than allowing readers to take them on board in their own ways and in their own time. The debilitating illness Frankie suffers from is briefly named as ‘endo’ which presumably is endometriosis, a painful disorder of the uterus. But the illness has little bearing on the plot, and one wonders what is the point of it in the story except perhaps as a device to elicit sympathy from the reader or to heighten her vulnerability among the primates whom she is studying. Also in her preoccupation with her ailment, there is a touch of arrogance in her refusal to take medical surveys and as as she tries to justify herself: ‘Through her years of being a patient, Frankie had earned the equivalent of a doctorate in how to make the medical system meet her needs.’
However, there are moments where Schulman shows that she has skills, not only as a scientific writer, but also as a writer of deep human insights when, in a moment of reflection and unhampered by statistics, she glimpses Stott drinking a glass of lemonade: ‘In this moment she had a glimpse of him as an organism, a multicellular creature pumping liquid into his alimentary canal, an animal wrapped in clothes and balanced on his haunches. Civilization is based upon a charade, such careful theatre. Each of us buttoning up our costumes, hiding our fur, living in carefully sculpted sets, while we pretend we’ve never pooped or had coitus. The illusion broken each time we tighten into death or squeeze a baby out our hoo-ha or fall in love.’
Although rather abrupt and, despite irritating reiterations of a pet word ‘knuckled,’ Schulman delivers a satisfying ending where animals and humans and emotions all come together in a heart-wrenching conclusion: ‘She no longer thought of “home” as anything to do with drywall or a door… She listened to his (Stotts’) heart. His thumb ran down her spine. Goliath rolled over and draped an arm over both of them. Marge patted Stotts’ head. Id and Tooch nursed on their thumbs with an audible suck. The slow respiration of them all.’
James Lawless is a poet and novelist; http://www.jameslawless.net
Published in the Irish Examiner, 24/11/2018.
Bridge of Clay
Markus Zusak, after critical and popular success with his debut novel The Book Thief, is reputed to have spent twelve years in writing the much-anticipated Bridge of Clay. It involves five Australian brothers, the Dunbars, who have to rear themselves among pet animals with Greek names after their mother dies while they are still young and their father absconds. The story is related by Matthew the eldest boy who equates his father’s abscondment with murder as he punches out the narrative on an old Remington typewriter. This book, like the Odyssey, which the boys loved from hearing Homer’s story from their mother, takes us as readers on an emotional roller-coaster journey in a unique circumnavigatory style, blending past and present until we reach its heart-wrenching conclusion.
Before he married, the father, the previously staid Michael Dunbar, worked in the mines and painted part time. But his first love, the restless Abbey, whose portraits he delighted in depicting, eventually grew distant from him and, rising above her class towards friends ‘who had clean fingernails,’ abandoned him.
Some years later Penelope Lesciuszko landed on Australian shores as a refugee from the Eastern Bloc. She cried ‘stray, silent tears’ as she had to leave her father who wanted her to have a better life. On her arrival in Australia, while struggling to install a piano which her father had taught her to play, she was helped by Michael Dunbar whom she fortuitously met on the street. There is a wonderful description of an immigrant’s battle with an adoptive language here as Penelope, attracted to Michael who later became her husband, tries to plant her own words in the middle of her sentence to invite him to visit her. The once bitten twice shy Michael on the other hand was naturally, initially apprehensive. ‘When he kissed her he tasted Europe, but also the taste of not-Abbey’, and he wasn’t so much afraid of being left again ‘as condemning someone else to second best’.
Once married, Penelope proceeds to bring up her children with love of music and story until her untimely and painful death from cancer. The deep affection Michael and the boys feel for Penelope and she for them six months before she dies is captured movingly by Matthew: ‘I see the boys and tangled arms. I see our mother cloaked around them…when boys were only that, just boys, and murderers still just men’.
Zusak is a master of foreshadowing when, for example, the other brothers were prepared to sell their ramshackle home, Clay the fourth brother wanted to keep it as a memory as ‘one night he would find beauty there. And commit his greatest mistake’. This tantalising, repeated non-telling throughout the novel ratchets up the suspense in short snappy sentences and the prose sings with spunky originality. Matthew observes a pink and grey sky as ‘the best graffiti in town’. And the author, who is fond of triads also juxtaposes animate and inanimate like a metaphysical poet when, for example, through the voice of Matthew, he refers to Penelope first setting foot in Australia ‘with a suitcase and a scrunched-up stare’.
The father returns out of the blue years later to ask the boys to help him build a bridge over a river on his land. Clay agrees to do this and the symbolism is clear: in building the bridge he is trying to heal the rift between father and sons. And Clay is prepared to make a supreme sacrifice in so doing. Indeed if there is a theme in the novel, that would seem to be it: there is always hope that things broken can be made good again.
Published in the Sunday Independent, 14/10/2018.
In this book, which is an emotional journey of her eleven formative years in New York city, Meg Fee describes herself as ‘a small universe in bloom’ and suffers bouts of self-pity while losing friends ‘as if through a sieve’. She engages in casual affairs, unfulfilling and vacuous which never seem to develop or be going anywhere with a Jack or an Eric, a David or a Harry, who all appear to meld into one unattainable person. While not slow in coming forward to attempt to initiate a relationship and sometimes reaching the ‘almost’ in a bonding but never quite getting there, one wonders is she too hard to please. Is there really something wrong with everyone she meets or does she perhaps need to examine her own self and her own attitudes? In fairness she does worry at times if ‘there is something about me that is simply too much’.
Nonetheless the book, which is written in the form of short essays with New York street names for most of their titles, becomes addictive and one wants to keep on rooting for Meg in her existential quest. One feels for her in her loveless vacuum and the apparent nihilism of her life in a huge uncaring metropolis where even bedbugs act as catalysts in the breakup of fragile friendships, and one senses her loneliness as she buys a latte ‘just for the warmth between my hands.’ The book is like the best of a story collection and some of the pieces are so brief and lyrical they are almost like poems such as On Home, IV. They are in the main thought-provoking and satisfying like a new genre as poem/story/essay mould themselves into a new entity in their metaphysical succinctness
One empathises with Fee in her tribulations, for example her efforts to lose weight she gauges ‘like some sort of barometer of happiness’. She finds consolation in writing which she claims is ‘a way to make peace with that which is flawed’ and she uses beautiful and emotive words to describe unrequited love: ‘I held my tongue because I’d nearly forgotten what joy felt like… and I sat there because I couldn’t figure out how to un-choose this person’.
One feels. however, despite her searing honesty and her realisation that ‘love stories aren’t always linear’, in trying perhaps too hard for a liaison to work, she fails to face the fact that in the longterm one has to accept the humdrum and ennui of quotidian life.
The melancholic in Meg is evident when she admits she is ‘sad in a way that is overwhelming and ever-present, untraceable to neither person nor thing’, and
she captures the universality of human longing as lying in bed alone she feels the need for ‘a person to be quiet with, and sad next to’.
Her candidly presented vignettes are humane and all too real such as the story in Thomson Street where she reveals her vulnerability and non-capricious nature while suffering at the mercy of an unscrupulous person. Indeed, she is not afraid to expose the city itself, often obscured by its bright lights, and some of her accounts are heart-wrenching as time after time she tries to reach out from her urban loneliness, flitting ‘at the edge of every image, threatening and ever-present’, only to recoil once again often wounded and disappointed from her efforts.
Meg Fee’s sojourn in New York was not wasted, as she grew and learned ultimately that ‘we will all many times over have to reconcile the life we planned for with the life we’ve got’.
Published in the Irish Examiner, 8/9/18
James Lawless is a poet and novelist; http://www.jameslawless.net
The Pharmacist’s Wife
When Rebecca Palmer’s first and true love Gabriel went away to foreign parts, she did not think she would hear from him again. Fearing she would be left an old maid at the age of twenty eight, she agreed to marry the handsome pharmacist Alexander and purportedly live a life of a well-heeled gentlewoman in Edinburgh’s Victorian society. However, her marriage to the pharmacist proves disastrous as she learns of his infidelities and strange sexual desires. But by the time Rebecca realises her mistake in her choice of partner, the deceitful Alexander has her hooked on the experimental drug heroin which he uses to keep his wife pliant. The essence of the plot concerns how Rebecca tries to overcome her addiction and eventually free herself from such a villain.
The conversations about the administration of this drug from which Alexander hoped to make money and achieve fame with his crony, the appropriately named Mr Badcock, sounds contrived. Besides, it is not made clear why a healthy woman such as Rebecca would so readily agree to be subjected to it on the spurious pretext of appearing too ‘eager’ sexually to her husband. Although when she does become addicted, Tait’s description of Rebecca’s craving and withdrawal symptoms are convincing: as ‘…her skin puckered up in painful shivers… ‘ and ‘her elbows ached with irritation, as if insects were shaking out their wings.’ And when Rebecca does with dogged determination eventually overcome her addictions, there are flashes of inspirational writing as ‘the sky leached the colour from the houses’ and ‘the oppression had lifted from her crown as a black hat might lift away, and now she felt this new thing – happiness.’
It is saucy read in places as in the references to Alexander’s shoe fetish, and the discovery of a lady’s’ red shoe in his study introduces suspense and whet’s the reader’s appetite to discover its owner. This part of the book is page turning as one is sucked into the seedy world of Victorian Edinburgh.
With the exception of Lionel the pharmaceutical apprentice, however, and Gabriel, there is nothing salutary about the male characters. And Gabriel’s account of his journey among the Bedouins is as far fetched as Alexander’s so-called scientific analyses of Rebecca’s drugged condition. But Gabriel does return later in the flesh with a crucial role to play in a gripping finale as the former maid Jenny, who was sexually abused by Badcock, escapes to her mother’s highland croft; and it is here that Rebecca also finds refuge from the increasingly menacing Alexander. But these men are presented for the most part as one-dimensional in their evil and Tait doesn’t lose any opportunity to take a dig at them and indeed at men in general: ‘…men like to make this business (pharmacy) seem complicated’ and ’tis a woman’s trick to make all the articles you sell look as attractive and neat as possible.’ This propagandist writing coupled with occasional plodding prose and some unfortunate sentences such as ‘Alexander poured himself a glass of water from the windowsill’ can make for frustrating reading at times. However, it is offset by evidence of excellent research into the period capturing the Scottish patois of the time with words such as cuckquean (which Rebecca is forced to become) and gooseiron and tupping and cordwainers and threepenny uprights and cigares de joy and journals which literate women read such as The English Woman’s Journal or Alexander’s Scientific Dialogues or The Playbook of Science.
While there are a lot of things to admire in this work, one feels that more art and less agenda would have made it a better novel.
Published in the Irish Examiner, 01/09/2018
From war-torn Syria to small-town Ireland
Fiction Review: From a Low and Quiet Sea, Donal Ryan, Doubleday Ireland, €14.99
March 26 2018 2:30 AM
Former civil servant Donal Ryan now lectures in creative writing in the University of Limerick. He received 47 rejections before his novel The Spinning Heart was published and won The Guardian First Book Award in 2013. His work, which is sui generis, gives hope to struggling writers who don’t fit neatly into the glove of narrow genres.
This, his fifth work, is a story of three disparate people: a refugee doctor Farouk, his heart torn apart by his warring country and his missing wife and daughter, a local boy Lampy Shanley, underachieving and unlucky in love, and John, a former lobbyist and manipulator of people seeking redemption in his final years. Their stories unite at the end resonating with profound issues, such as diaspora and the nature of family.
Ryan shows he is a sharp observer of contemporary life as in the description of a nosy Limerick barwoman, where the scheming John, caught off guard, ‘felt the intensity of her wondering about me wafting from her like a pungent breeze; it almost had a smell, a taste, that craving for knowledge about the intimate things in others…’ Ryan has the gift of being able to create characters by adding brick upon brick of apparent ordinariness until you say, yes I know that person in all his or her proclivities. This is typified in the case of old Mrs Coyne who looms large before our eyes out of an hilarious stream of consciousness centring on her handsome physio and his ‘wife eye’.
Occasionally, however, there appears to be a slight blurring of characters – the insecure John for example dithering in the confessional or imagining a different world by closing his eyes could believably be Lampy. And sometimes Ryan’s sentences flow into page long paragraphs with lots of conjunctions (reminiscent of the style of Javier Marias). But despite the long sentences, the chapters in contrast are short, compelling the reader to stay with the author’s emotional rollercoaster ride.
There is poetic writing starting with the beautiful opening about trees – their patient communication with each other and their mutual caring, acting as a moral exemplum for humanity. And the sea with its ebbing and flowing acts as a symphonic refrain throughout the novel: the sea which carried Farouk’s wife Martha and his daughter on a different tide, and which, with its syncopated beats, provided comfort to Lampy and his grandfather.
Ryan writes well of youthful infatuation as he describes the physical effect the dreamy Lampy’s true love Chloe had on him: the lump in his throat, the trouble breathing, the heart beating hard, and closing his eyes and opening them again and seeing the world in colour. Lampy works in a modest job as a bus driver and some of the best parts of the book are the vignettes Ryan paints of the old folk that Lampy transports: Mr Collins to hydrotherapy, Mrs Coyne to physio, Mr and Mrs Chambers to their daughter’s house where they had dinner every Friday and the poignant crying of Mrs Chambers as she got back into the bus pleading: ‘Why can’t we stay?’
And Lampy wondered would he do this forever, drive old people around while they waited to die. But in his quest ‘to find the measure of a man’ Lampy learns wisdom from some of the old people such as the knitting woman who reassures him that ‘All you have to do is be kind and you’ll have lived a good life’. Such empathy shines through the work of Donal Ryan.
Published in the Sunday Independent, 25/03/2018
Weidenfeld & Nicolson
This novel recounts how famous singer Cass Wheeler suddenly disappears from the public limelight and delves into the reasons for her ten year reclusivity with each chapter marked by a song as a spur to her past life.
Delivered as a densely written book of nearly five hundred pages, it is tough going in places but becomes engrossing when the emotions ratchet up as we learn why Cass shunned society like a ‘wounded animal’: the violence of her broken marriage, the disavowal of her by her adored father, the vicar, in his embittered twilight as he rants against his unfaithful wife and blaming Cass for the state in which he is left. But the supreme tragedy in the novel is the death of Cass’s own daughter Anna, a victim of her parents’ unhappy marriage, and it is here that the reader’s sympathy is firmly caught.
Cass was born in 1950 and spent her so-called successful years as a performer in endless roadtrekking across the world to gigs and concerts. She remembers her teenage years as early as1964 when she ingested purple hearts and learned of street-wise girls with fellows ‘rumoured to have gone all the way’. And in the seventies she was the kohl-eyed singer in velvet and silk being offered hash brownies at the post-gig parties.
Barnett encapsulates this period authentically with depth of insight into life on the road and the psychology of human relations. It is quite an achievement for an author born in 1982. She captures brilliantly the unglamorous reality of a nomadic singer spending most of her nights awake ‘watching the unspooling road (interstate, motorway, autobahn, autostrada: each one different, each one exactly the same), and scribbling scraps of lyrics in her notebook’.
Despite all her bestselling songs, however, Cass questions the meaning of success as she reflects on ‘the featureless succession of hotel rooms…the next city; the next town; the day’s ever-changing schedule of commitments replacing the free, formless landscapes of her dreams’. And the more she travels the more her breakdown looms as her nerves, which she sees as ‘formless shadows’, try to block her from performing on the stage.
The sensitive Cass understands and empathises with the people she meets as they try to become famous singers: plumbers and butchers and young married performers with children and mortgagees, who believed all that separated them from the lives they had dreamed of ‘was a hair’s breadth of luck and hard work’.
The theme of the book, despite the tragedies, is ultimately the passing of time in its ‘measured drip-feed…siren-like, issuing its relentless rhythm’. The singer captures the zeitgeist in the Cohen-like questioning of her songs, seeking meaning and life’s answers from the darkness of nights among suitcases and crates illumined by tealights and the lighted tips of joints. It is a seemingly endless, peripatetic existence with the makeup artist applying the heavy foundation to cover the bruises inflicted by Ivor, and the silent-suffering and worn-out Cass longing for a place to call home.
The story picks up dramatically in the final quarter as Cass shares vicariously the pain suffered by her mentally-unhinged daughter. The various strands in the novel eventually gel: Cass remembers her father in better times in one of his sermons enjoining our hearts not to be troubled, and she thinks of her beloved artist Larry’s box cubed white city which she decides will be used as the cover for the forthcoming album of Her Greatest Hits.
The insightful Cass, on witnessing the fickleness of some pampered celebrities sipping champagne while lecturing the world on homelessness, is inspired to write her best song:
Home is a house
Where the windows are open
Where music is playing
And soft words are spoken…
Sometimes you just need a home.
Published in the Irish Examiner, 13/1/18.
James Lawless’ latest novel is American Doll, a searing story of how 9/11 impacted on an Irish-American family, in paperback and Kindle at
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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
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; www.jameslawless.net
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; www.jameslawless.net
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; www.jameslawless.net
Anthony J Quinn
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His Name is David
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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; jameslawless.net
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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.’
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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; jameslawless.net
Published in the Irish Examiner 28/1/17
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; jameslawless.net
Hearing Voices/Seeing Things
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; www.jameslawless.net
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.
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.
Saturday, July 02, 2016
James Lawless’s latest novel is American Doll; www.jameslawless.net
Everything To Play For
99 Poems about sport
(ed. John McAuliffe)
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
The Wing Orderly’s Tales
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; www.jameslawless.net
Sunday Indo Living 17/4/2016
The Prophets of Eternal Fjord
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; www.jameslawless.net
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. www.jameslawless.net
The Boy at the Top of the Mountain
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. www.jameslawless.net
The Lie of the Land
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.
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
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
The Truth & Other Stories
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.
‘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,
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’ latest novel is Knowing Women
Sunday Independent 22/06/2014
On Light and Carbon
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