Bryan Washington’s debut collection of short stories Lot won the 2020 Dylan Thomas Prize and was hailed by Barrack Obama as one of his favourite books. So the author’s first novel Memorial was awaited with great anticipation in 2021.
Washington calls his novel ‘a gay slacker dramedy.’ It recounts the love affair between two twenty something gay men from Houston Texas: Benson, a black daycare teacher, and Mike, a Japanese-American cook. Mike’s estranged father Eiju moved to Osaka and opened a bar there. And Mike flies out to him when he hears he is dying from cancer. Ironically, this happens at the same time that Mike’s sharp-tongued mother Mitsuko decides to visit. So Mike leaves her with Benson to share a flat and develop an awkward relationship in the ensuing months. But strangely, a compatible and even caring rapport develops between them.
The story is told alternately by Benson and Mike, but the tone of voice appears similar at times between the two narrators as the narrative flips back and forth in a somewhat disjointed fashion from Osaka to Houston with frequent flashbacks to childhoods and early relationships.
One wonders initially if the reader will really care about these characters with their dysfunctional and promiscuous lives, and where white kids are presented as a sinister or remote species who sometime ‘invade the block’. But as the novel progresses they grow on one in their clipped, uncommunicative ways and non-sequiturs.
The book is written in a modern, pared-down style. There are minimal descriptions, no inverted commas for speech, random question marks and paragraphs sometimes as short as one line. The book is full of street patois and text messages and emojis and current abbreviations and acronyms, almost instructing the reader to take note that this stuff is on the button, real and raw.
Although descriptions are brief, some of them pack a punch with lots of implied information. For example, on the break-up of the relationship of Mike’s parents, his father didn’t leave the house for a while:
He mostly sat on the porch
He started saying please.
Having incompetent parents can lead to humour as it falls to Benson’s sister Lydia to teach him the ways of the world, growing up, as she tries unknowingly to instruct her unwilling brother on how to kiss a girl.
Washington is very accurate with location, rendering Mike’s stay in Osaka quite visual. His father’s bar for example ‘sat a few minutes from his busted walk-up in Tennoji, beside a bakery and a tattered bookstore and another walk-up and two parking lots and like sixteen love hotels’.
Cooking plays a major role in the set scenes where there is a huge concentration of dialogue and showing Mike as particularly fond of preparing exotic dishes such as ‘udon cooked in a hot pot, beside abura-age and kamaboko…’
The sex scenes, while frequent, are not graphic and are presented almost distantly and in summary. The sex between the two often took place after an argument and would consist of ‘biting and clawing and crying. Squeezing each other until we were breathless. Afterward we lay on the mattress’.
The character of Eiju is wonderfully drawn. He is a tough old bird, uncompromising and refusing to go maudlin despite his slow disintegration. But his son remembers his kindnesses and gentleness towards him as a child: touching his hair, carrying him on his shoulders on a trip to San Francisco.
The ending of the novel is left loose with Mitsuko returning to Japan and the possibility of Mike following her later. And, as for Benson, we have to surmise whether he will join them or not.
Published in the Irish Examiner, 3/4/2021
We Are Not In the World
Guilt-ridden for having abandoned his daughter when his marriage broke up, middle-aged Irishman Paddy embarks on a haulage truck journey through France. The purpose of the journey, ostensibly to deliver a load of condiment sachets bound for Wolverhampton, is really to try to restore his relationship with his twentysomething rootless daughter whom he brings illegally with him. The daughter had gone AWOL and Paddy persuaded her to come back to him. His daughter’s lack of ease with the world is graphically illustrated by a tattoo of barbed wire on her arm. But she is not without humour in the frequent banter with her father as she chides him for example on St Paul’s Letter ‘to the chrysanthemums’.
As the truck ploughs the AutoRoute with its tasteless take-away food, ‘their cup of time forever full forever lukewarm,’ the rhythm of the journey unfolds stories and deeply emotive fragments of family history joltingly captured in the stop and start manner of trucking.
The dialogue of the fractious relationship between father and daughter is interspersed with incomplete sentences stabbing at our imaginations. And there are lots of simulated square boxes of text messaging in the novel to synchronise with the clipped prose as his boss Carl texts instructions about tachographs and deadlines, or his brother texts about the whereabouts of his god daughter.
Sometimes the narrative jars as it jumps from second to third person and occasionally there can be confusion as to whether Paddy is referring to his mother or his daughter, as both are named Kitty.
His brother Arthur, the favoured son, was sent to boarding school, effectively leaving home at twelve. This enabled Paddy to spend a lot of time with his mother with whom he shared a very tactile relationship, hinting of the risqué. And as he drives his truck he longs for those lost intimacies of their ‘mutual littoral solitude’ when he used to go swimming with her. But his mother was not always of this world and could be ‘lost in Proust’, which has reverberations for Paddy as, on the road, he weaves in and out of his own past life. Paddy’s brother, a successful businessman, and executer of their mother’s will, was the ‘responsible centre’ to Paddy’s ‘sleazy periphery’. He addresses Paddy as Fredo like Al Pacino’s ill-fated brother in The Godfather. When he coldly puts their aptly named family home Tír na nÓg up for sale, it invokes moments of nostalgia from Paddy.
It is left to the reader to fill in the obvious gaps in the prose. They are there partly to avoid clichés perhaps: ‘Your father would be grateful for a moment of your precious.’ In an interview O’Callaghan said: ‘As writers, trying to write—heaven help us—real literature, as Frost says, “that they can’t get rid of too easily,” the job is not to be competent in what you know you can already do. The job is to actually find a whole new level of selfhood in which, in a way you never knew you were capable of.’ And true to that dictum, in this novel there is original and almost Joycean playfulness with words such as abstract nouns for example being used as activators ‘Every togetherness would arrive…’ and O’Callaghan, an outstanding poet of collections such as The History of Rain and winner of the Patrick Kavanagh award, shows his poetic skills here with Paddy on the fringes endowed with some wonderful insights: ‘Our elders are the buffers between us and our own mortality. Once they’re gone, we’re next. And yet in spite of that, perhaps because of, we’re hardwired to daydream their non-existence into being’.
Published in the Sunday Independent, 21/02/2021
This novel is based on the experiences of Angie Cruz’s mother when she immigrated to New York from the Dominican Republic as a young girl in the nineteen sixties. The fictionalised protagonist Ana Canción is only fifteen when, prompted by her ambitious mother who considered her daughter’s beautiful green eyes a ‘a winning lottery ticket’, she marries a man Juan Ruiz, twice her age. She does not love this man but he offers a way out of the poverty and political turmoil of the Dominican Republic for her family by bringing his young bride to New York with the promise of a better life and of facilitating the arrival of all her family there later. Juan turns out to be an abusive and unfaithful husband who was often ‘too drunk to know the difference between a dress and a potato sack’, and sometimes calls out the name Caridad, his other woman, when he is in that state. Ana is forced to live almost like a prisoner on a sixth-floor apartment in Washington Heights. She has no autonomy. Juan controls the key to the apartment, gives her little money and, as she has no English, she is afraid to go out. Longing for freedom, she is at the mercy of her husband but is prepared to sacrifice her own happiness for the sake of her family.
When Juan temporarily returns to the worsening situation in the Dominican Republic to secure his family’s assets, he leaves his promiscuous younger brother César to take care of Ana. She forms an attachment to César who affords her glimpses of freedom as he takes her on outings to Coney Island, the World Fair and to the Audubon dancehall. She begins to take English lessons in a church with a nun and we learn that Ana’s journey was not only geographical but also one of self-discovery as she unearths in herself inner resources of selflessness and loyalty in combat with her own longing for fulfilment. She at one point is about to escape on a bus from New York and her marriage when César persuades her to return. And although she puts her family first, she emerges from this book not as a victim but as a survivor and proves herself to be strong, bearing a nine-pound baby, and resilient as she had ‘learned a lot from growing up with animals’.
She begins to earn money by selling on the streets fried pastelitos, a delicacy of ground meat and raisins, a recipe learned from her native country. She hides the money in her ceramic doll Dominicana which she had bought at Santo Domingo airport. But she feels in New York with its cold and indifferent streets ‘ant small among all the skyscrapers’, and she grippingly records her terror at being lost in a place that doesn’t love her: ‘The ground beneath me spins. The faces of strangers enlarge.’ However, she is prepared to adapt. Her family eventually arrive and she goes to buy chocolate for them in a Puerto Rican shop. Alex the owner, eyeing her up says, ‘New York looks good on you. You planning to stick around?’ Glancing back to see her family eagerly awaiting her she replies, ‘Yes, I am.’
This book is an insightful and vibrant examination of what it means to be an immigrant. The narrative is presented in very short present-tense chapters which can have a jarring effect on a reader, but equally can have the effect of forcing one to sit up and take notice that something real is happening here, like César finding the heater coughing as if ‘it had fur stuck down its throat’.
Published in the Irish Examiner, 28/11/2020.
When Robin Wolfe, an Irishman teaching in a comprehensive school in Clerkenwell in London in 1995, meets Special Needs Assistant Ruth Lennon, he becomes immediately infatuated with her. Ruth however is more tentative towards him. But, when Robin introduces her to his erratic and artistic boyhood friend Joseph Kazargazof, Ruth embarks on a passionate liaison with Joseph.
The novel then flits to Dublin 2017 where we witness Ruth and Robin married with a son Sid on the point of going to Berlin to try to be a DJ. The remainder of the narrative is involved in filling in the gaps as the ‘courteous, twitchy marriage’ is haunted by the ghost of Joseph. While competently done, one irritating consequence of this method of flashback writing is the almost constant use of the pluperfect tense. However, it is very readable and page-turning despite a little sag in the middle where perhaps there is too much emphasis on food.
There are on-the-button descriptions such as the meteorological accuracy of some Irish summers’ where ‘the sun waits until you’ve given up on it entirely before it flashes it brilliance and then disappears altogether’. And the atmosphere of London in the nineties is wonderfully captured. Robin liked the city because there he could think freely ‘on the grey edges of its disregard.’ And when Ruth shared with three Irish nurses in Streatham, she listened to the harrowing stories they brought back every night from the hospital. And one of nurses, the reliable Helen ‘like durable grouting’ harbours a secret love for Robin. But it is ‘a pebble-sized love that you could turn over in your pocket without anyone at all being aware of its weight in your hand’.
Fannin is a fine writer with an original turn of phrase. She renders brilliantly an epiphanic moment for Robin when as a child he encounters Joseph’s mother topless and entertaining a man in the marram grass on a West Cork beach. For up to this he had thought of mothers merely as people who ‘had faces, mouths that opened and closed in butchers’ shops and eyes that squinted on sidelines’.
In London Ruth felt separated ‘from the husk of herself’. While at home Ruth’s mother measured out her days visiting her dying husband in hospital, and with her ritualistic washing of his pyjamas was ‘treating death with an excessive politeness, as if it was an exhaustingly powerful guest’.
The novel is interspersed with great touches of humour. Ruth on one occasion says to Robin ‘I’d better go before you eat me, Mr Wolfe’. And there is comical play on words in the mishearing of ‘fine art framer’ for ‘fine art farmer’. And Fannin shows her eye for exact detail when Robin hands an emotional Ruth a tissue with the warning that there might be chutney on it.
You can make an identity and name it, Ruth reflects thinking of Robin towards the end, but you cannot forget the past. And still thinking of Joseph she comes to the conclusion with perhaps the best line which encapsulates the kernel of the book: ‘You cannot monogamize memory’. For memory after all is ‘just layers and layers of colour and tricks of light’.
Fannin lassoes perfectly the nuances of feelings that make us. When Ruth was sensing the affair with Joseph was finally expending itself, she ‘looked beyond him’ as he excitedly beheld her. She felt a weariness ‘with his shoes arranged side by side at the foot of the bed, with the dampish underground smell, with the drawings tacked to the wall’.
Hilary Fannin has written award-winning plays and a well-received memoir Hopscotch. This is her first novel. It is an impressive debut.
Published in the Irish Examiner, 12/09/2020.
The happenings in this novel occur in an Ireland of 1996 with a rather disjointed fast forward towards the end to a photographic exhibition in New York in 2018 which exhibits a gruesome murder. One needs to buy into the premise of this story to make it plausible as it is grounded in a medieval widow’s curse concerning the manual slaughtering of cows. It requires eight men to do the slaughtering and if it’s not done properly a pestilence can befall the land. The butchers are away from their families for eleven months of the year travelling throughout the country fulfilling the ritual among those who still have faith in the old ways. It is hard to believe that with today’s motorised commuting practices on a small island they would not have contact with their families during that period. And besides, what modern spouse would put up with such a long absence?
However, the ritual is falling out of fashion as Ireland moves into the twenty-first century with media references to the divorce referendum and the decriminalisation of homosexuality. The latter links in with one of the butchers, Fionn, and his son Davey with his burgeoning sexuality. The problem for the butchers becomes compounded with the outbreak of BSE or Mad Cow Disease in the UK which leads to the smuggling of tainted beef and even live cattle across the border from the North. Fionn takes part in this allegedly to pay for medical treatment for his wife who is suffering from a fatal lump in her brain which he believed was his fault as a result of punching her when he was drunk years ago. The butchers have to disband when one of their eight is found mysteriously murdered in a shed, hanging upside down by his feet from a hook. And the photograph of this atrocity later becomes the ‘standout’ piece of the aforementioned exhibition in New York.
The main protagonist appears to be Úna, the twelve-year-old daughter of one of the butchers. She wants to follow her father’s vocation even though it is exclusively male. And it is she ironically who is entrusted ultimately with the role of avenging the murder of the man suspended from the hook. Tarnished for belonging to that ‘freak’ tribe she suffers bullying in school. She hates her sprouting breasts and practises the age-old ritual on an unfortunate mouse. Still, as she wonders if it would be wrong to kill a cow that had a blossom in its hair, we arrive at what is perhaps the fundamental question posed by the novel: who has the authority to decide when one tradition is right and another wrong?
The details adumbrated by Gilligan relating to the slaughtering and all things bovine are so gory in their authenticity as to make one consider veganism as an option. She is an original writer with a striking turn of phrase and has a refreshing way of looking at the world. When the hay was cut and rolled ‘the fields looked like a blonde woman’s head with her hair wrapped up in giant curlers’. And the dark outline of trees blend into the narrative seamlessly wearing ‘a suck of ivy right up to their necks, covering their modesty’; and the night ‘bled on’ and treacherous water ‘had opinions of its own’. She is also capable of a demonstrable punning wit as when Úna, reflecting on the dead man’s boots, thought ‘how strange it was that shoes had tongues’. But the final words must go to Grá, Úna’s mother, when she comes to the realisation that ‘what we believe and what we assume and what we know are never really the same’.
Published in the Irish Examiner, 08/08/2020
Micah Mortimer is an oddball. In his mid-forties with a poor posture he lives alone in a basement flat which offers him free rent in return for his caretaking. Growing up in what he considered a chaotic family household among five noisy sisters with ‘their boundless tolerance for clutter’ may have encouraged his eccentric solitary lifestyle. What could be bordering on OCD behaviour, he follows a rigid daily discipline of putting out bins and allotting times for various domestic duties in his quest for an orderly existence. Monday is floor-mopping day and in the evenings he plays solitaire, but not with an audience or houseguests because ‘they seeped into all the corners’.
His brittle involvement with lady friends leaves him wounded and he feels now any new relationship detracts from the previous one making him more impoverished emotionally as a result. So he comes to the conclusion that it is safer to live a blinkered life with minimal human contact. It is not that he is unkind; he is affable to everyone he meets and even goes out of his way to help the terminally ill Luella Carter in apartment 3B.
Micah set up an IT company called Tech Hermit and even wrote a manual called Fist, plug it in. He does call-outs to various clients in the neighbourhood but, while polite at all times, he does not really relate to people. And so immersed is he in his own self he even fails to pick up on flirtatious overtures from some lonely ladies whose computers he repairs. This myopia is evident even in his daily morning jog where he confuses a red water hydrant for a person. Hence the title of the book: Redhead by the Side of the Road which seems to contain Tyler’s message for the reader. When Micah repeatedly makes the same mistake with the water hydrant, in a semi-epiphanic moment, he berates himself at how repetitious all his thoughts were and ‘how his entire life ran in a rut’.
When Cassia Slade, a fourth-grade teacher and Micah’s current girlfriend, is evicted from her flat over an incident with a cat, he fails to understand her dilemma. Instead of inviting her to stay with him, as she often did, he unwittingly offends her by offering his room instead to a stranger, a young college guy called Brink. The latter claims spuriously that Micah could be his father on the basis of a relationship Micah had years ago with an old college friend, Lorna.
The ensuing attempt to disprove Brink’s claim highlights how fundamentally vulnerable and naïve Micah really is; and it is perhaps these qualities which could endear him to readers more so than his odd ways. He remembers witnessing Lorna kissing another fellow at the time in question and ‘she hung onto his arm with both hands’ when they were walking, as if that were the incriminatory action in Micah’s eyes.
Micah is so lacking in confidence with the opposite sex, he asks Lorna during a quiet moment after she comes with her corporate lawyer husband to claim back her son from Micah’s flat, if she knows what it is about Micah that turns women off? She expresses surprise when he tells her how all his relationships eventually dissolve; how his women friends start acting kind of distracted like ‘they remember somewhere else they prefer to be’.
Although this is a little book of less than 200 pages, it packs a punch in a perceptive and humorous way. It may inspire the reader to tackle some of Anne Tyler’s longer and prize-winning novels.
Published in the Irish Examiner, 01/08/2020.
This work is based on a series of talks and lectures which John F. Deane delivered as Teilhard de Chardin Fellow in Catholic Studies at Loyola University, Chicago in 2006. It must have presented a challenge to the author to decide who to include and who to exclude based on the book’s subtitle: The response, in poetry, to the question (of Christ) Who do you say that I am? In his Foreword, Deane claims to limit his study to poetry in English. However, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Simone Weil, who are included, were German and French respectively. On that basis one could make a case for more than the scant reference afforded to such a powerful and universally acknowledged mystical poet as Saint John of the Cross. Not all the commentary is written by the author. He intersperses essays by others, including work of some of his students, but regrettably the book lacks an index.
Deane tells us: ‘My study has been Christ: my living has been love and poetry’, and in Loyola he claims to have shared the study of both together. Such a high-minded statement makes one wonder was there ever any doubt or wavering along the way. Deane’s tenet is that based on our right relationship with a cosmic power, man will find his salvation. The problem there is with the semantics of the words, right and salvation, which could be interpreted as vague or theistically polemical. The religious message is foisted on one initially as he proffers his thesis with many biblical quotes, haranguing and too much presumption. Teilhard de Chardin is Deane’s knowledgeable source and anchor to whom he frequently refers: ‘Teilhard knew (rather than believed) that divine love was at the heart of creation’. Such certainty allows little room for questioners in this scheme of things.
The author in fairness does admit later, quoting Bonhoeffer, that the church can have too much ‘ballast’ with too many rules and regulations and false hopes and consolations. And the author is more convincing when he is enquiring rather than asserting as in his chapter on the Waterford poet Patrick J Daly, and in particular his poem The Last Dreamer which claims that ‘our dream was flawed’. ‘Wherein, then, lay the flaw?’ enquires Deane. ‘Perhaps in that assumed certainly, a stiff and persistent settling for dogma and ritual without a base of personal study and reading, a Church that demanded assent rather than thought and individual responsibility.’
Deane is particularly incisive when writing about the punning brilliance and authenticity of the poetry of John Donne: ‘These poems read like rehearsals for the real thing; they move like intellectual exercises, punctuated by a self-conscious wit…. Donne becomes a watcher on the battlements of himself.’ And aptly, in a world of global viruses, from The Holy Sonnets, Donne hints of Armageddon: ‘What if this present were the world’s last night? But there are irritating repetitions in some of the author’s rhetoric. Referring to Donne’s poem Hymn to God my God, in My Sickness where Donne is preparing for his own death, Deane exclaims ‘this is high seriousness to begin with, high seriousness…’ and again, despite his pointing out that this poem is really delivering a sermon to himself, does he have to over-emphasise the point with the ‘it is a warning’ and again ‘a warning’, or use the cliché of what the poet must have felt ‘in his deep heart’s core?’ There is also a questionable, suggested synonym where Deane extols the poet for overcoming ‘his sensual and sinful self’. Surely the senses are fundamental to all of us, especially poets.
The author’s argument of Christ as an outlaw or outsider (with whom he sees a parallel with a poet) is well made as evidenced from the Gospels where Jesus frequently challenged the status quo. And with George Herbert as a medium, Deane calls on a Christ of love rather than sacrifice: ‘The emphasis on love in spite of guilt already placed Herbert’s Christ in the then invidious position of being outside and beyond the legal pretensions of the Church.’ This makes for a convincing argument for Christ as an outsider or outlaw. He sat down and dined with the poor and sinners and maimed people, the outcasts of Jewish society, and, as Deane points out, was ostracised by the rich who refused to come to the wedding feast because they knew He would be there.
Deane’s insistence that evolution and creation are not dichotomous is music to the ears of a religious doubter. But an attempt to fit evolution into the Christian pattern is a more difficult undertaking, and is stated rather than developed.
However, his arguments against a seven-day creation theory and the concept of original sin are well made. Following on de Chairdin’s ‘every human body is made from cosmic dust birthed in the interior of ancient stars that long predated our planet and solar system’, Deane contends: ‘This does away with the old notion of humanity having to repay a debt from the Garden of Eden. It clears away the mist and dust of the old notion of “original sin”, that we are all born inheriting the consequences and the guilt of sin, a notion originating with Saint Augustine and causing distress and negativity in Christian faith since Augustine’s age.’
Another poet he gives a chapter to is the seventeenth century Hertfordshire poet Thomas Traherne. Although his poem The Preparative has echoes of Vaughan, for the most part, Traherne prefers to concentrate on the real world and the present moment and express himself in simple language devoid of ‘curling metaphors,’ and ‘painted eloquence’ to allow the soul to see its ‘great felicity’ and know the bliss to which it is heir. This, Deane maintains ‘chimes with the twenty-first century Christian awareness, that of our human destiny and that of all of Creation alongside us.’
One of the most refreshing poets Deane devotes a chapter to and which he rhapsodically hails as The Very Voice of God, is John Clare, the ‘peasant poet’. Attuned to nature and the open countryside, Clare detested The Enclosures which were introduced into Britain in the early part of the nineteenth century to facilitate greater production with fenced-in fields and No Trespassing signs:
‘Each little tyrant with his little sign
Shows where man claims earth glows no more divine.’
And Gerald Manley Hopkins who felt a great pang on the felling of an ashtree and who saw the world ‘seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil’, could be declared the patron saint of the Green movement for, as Deane points out, humankind has a duty to care for the earth and be aware.
The reclusive Emily Dickinson, possibly as a reaction to her father’s strict Calvinism, abhorred organised religion, and perhaps in a moment of self-pity deemed herself rather irreverently ‘The Queen of Calvary’. She thrillingly makes use of dialogue in her attempt to get to know Christ:
‘Unto Me?’ I do not know you –
Where may be your House?’
And The Word, a poem by the Welsh priest RS Thomas is also written in an honest enquiry, reminiscent perhaps of Beckett:
‘Enough that we are on our way;
Never ask of us where.’
However, it is James Harpur’s wonderful pilgrimage poem The White Silhouette which perhaps best answers Christ’s question, as it concludes in the magnificent lines:
‘My face becoming your face
My eyes your eyes
I you us I you us
Published in the Irish Examiner, 11/07/2020.
James lawless is the author of Clearing The Tangled Wood: Poetry as a Way of Seeing the World; https://jameslawless.net
Sorry for Your Trouble: Stories
This latest collection of short stories by Richard Ford contains nine stories, one of which The Run of Yourself at fifty-eight pages is more like a novella. Some of the stories with their rootless characters appear ‘missionless’ like the black characters observed in Leaving for Kenosha. Here are people often hanging out in roadhouses or restaurants in their understated quest for life’s meaning. Their little epiphanies sometimes merge into a sameness of homogenous lawyers and divorcees grieving and wandering, in their slow moving like the rivers frequently referenced, letting life happen to them rather than the opposite.
There is lot of geography to wade through as the narratives flit between Ireland and America paralleling lives, but despite the various settings none of the characters seem to feel at home anywhere. In Crossing, an American travels to Ireland to finalise a divorce from an Irish woman, and the journey invokes memories. In The Run of Yourself, Ford creates a wonderful picture of small-town American life with its bitchiness and petty crimes all recorded in the local organ Amity Argonaut, the disdain for which is shown by using it to start a fire.
A key card failing to open her hotel room door is the spur for a female teacher’s epiphany in A Free Day as she conducts an affair in Dublin. In the perfectly titled Second Language Jonathan, a married man, was ‘not feeling very married’ which leads to an existential crisis as he tries to create a sense of what marriage is. Ford is very good on body language. The enigmatic Ms Nail in Nothing to Declare ‘raises her chin as if to challenge’, showing how important a part of the story actions can be when words prove inadequate.
There is a little too much reportage in some stories such as Happy, but then when dialogue is employed it can be very incisive: ‘We don’t want anyone else once we’ve learned who we are,’ says Sandy in Nothing to Declare. Ford is a master of philosophical insights and pithy wisdom which are interspersed into the narrative. The ever questing Jimmy Green in the eponymous story comes to the conclusion that ‘here was never precisely the point you’d attained’.
Sometimes there can be a whiff of patronisation or stereotyping about the characters. ‘The Irish look’ in Crossing refers to the Irish Patsy with her ‘chin slightly incomplete’ and ‘two plump hands’. In fairness, Ford is not averse to stereotyping his own country at times, asserting in The Run of Yourself that Boyce, ‘being from New Orleans’, could be scapegoated if he had declined the rental of his house to a black family.
Ford declared when judging the Davy Byrnes Stories in 2009, ‘I could have done with a few more laughs.’ The same is true of this collection. When the humour does occur, it is striking and deadpan. The old dog wags its tail ‘as if someone had spoken to it’ in the meandering The Run of Yourself. And Charlotte in Second Language tells her ailing mother when she visits her in hospital that she thought she would be asleep. ‘My eyes are open,’ the feisty lady replies. ‘If I’m asleep, they’re closed.’ But there is not enough of this in what are predominantly solemn stories. However, there are glimpses of vintage Ford in many observationally acute descriptions of our human condition, such as those of the dying Breezy whose breathing ‘had nothing much to do with anything going on inside her body’, and her mouth ‘gapped and went down, and her face relaxed from smiling and looked lopsided, as if the vitality that made it a face had subsided.’
Published in the Sunday Independent, 17/05/2020
The Memory Police
This novel which was published in Japanese in 1994, and now in a seamless translation by Stephen Snyder, took twenty five years to reach the English-speaking world. It is still a relevant and sinister story posing questions about who controls us as human beings because, according to Ogawa, our possessions, our thoughts and even our constituent parts are compelled by outside forces to ultimately disappear. It’s deceptive fairytale quality, written in a restrained, unadorned language where chapters mesh effortlessly into the broader narrative, serves to make its sinister aspects all the more frightening.
The drama unfolds on a remote, unnamed island and is narrated by an unnamed central character whose mother was taken away because she did not lose her memory and hoarded objects in a dresser in an attempt to prevent their disappearance. The central character is a novelist and is trying to hold onto memory in a book she is in the process of writing, but the books are fading too and the bookstores nearly deserted, and eventually novels themselves disappear.
Her editor and mentor R is immune to memory loss and as a result is in danger. With the help of an old man she has befriended, the protagonist hides R in a basement in her house. As it is the duty of the Memory Police to enforce the disappearances of things and the memory of them, there is a great build up of tension here as they search the house. The protagonist worries if they will notice one corner of the rug which was turned up and which hid the trapdoor to where R is hiding. This claustrophobic atmosphere is reminiscent of Anne Frank’s Diary which in an interview Ogawa acknowledges as an influence on her writing.
While this is a dystopian parable on a par in its satire on totalitarianism with George Orwell’s Animal Farm or 1984, it is more vague in its delivery. We are not told exactly why things disappear or who the Memory Police, (imitative of Orwell’s Thought Police perhaps) are, and what their goals are specifically. As the story progresses it becomes in places more surreal and lacks the clarity of vision of those previous classics.
The story is set in a pre-computer or mobile phone or word processing era where perpetual snow acts as an atmospheric backdrop, and later an earthquake and the threat of a tsunami heighten the sense of foreboding. There is a macabre twist in the tale when the protagonist’s typing teacher imprisons her and voices are trapped inside the typewriters, and she terrifyingly realises she can no longer recall the sound of her own voice.
R tries to reassure her. Memories are not really gone, he says. ‘They’re just floating in a pool where the sunlight never reaches.’ But things continue to go missing and culminate in the final terror when parts of the protagonist’s body begin to disappear. But she struggles and manages to finish her manuscript with the hope she can leave some trace of her existence behind her.
The islanders inexplicably are pliant. It is as if they are comatose or had consumed Aldous Huxley’s soma from Brave New World. Even one of the islanders, in a supreme irony, rejoices in such bodily loss because now half the arthritis in her knees has gone, and the protagonist herself will have the consolation of no longer having to worry about tears flowing, once her cheeks have disappeared. And when entire bodies are gone no one seems particularly upset as ‘they danced lightly in the air like clumps of dried grass blown along by the wind.’
Published in The Irish Examiner, 18/01/2020
In a deceptive start to this novel, translated from German, there is beautiful lyrical writing where young Hans Stickler lives idyllically in a forest in Lower Saxony with his parents. However, the narrative takes a sudden and more dramatic turn, after their tragic deaths when Hans is only fifteen. From here on in the writing becomes rather stilted as if Würger cannot make up his mind whether he is attempting a coming-of-age novel or a contemporary thriller.
Hans is sent by his English-residing aunt Alex to a Catholic boarding school. There the timid boy is trained by a monk to box to defend himself against school bullies. This is not exactly an original trope in fiction, but in this debut novel it is handled well by Würger, who is an experienced boxer himself as well as being a journalist with the German magazine Der Spiegel.
After finishing boarding school, Hans is offered a place in Cambridge University through the machinations of his aunt, a lecturer in Art at the university, on the condition that he infiltrate and expose the goings-on in the Pitt club. This is a dining club exclusive to males whose members past and present are part of the English Establishment. Females are invited only on the basis of their looks, and their drinks are reportedly spiked. It is interesting to note Würger himself attended Cambridge University for a while before dropping out and was a member of the Pitt Club which actually exists.
Hans, feeling friendless and lonely and ‘dreaming of belonging somewhere’, accepts his aunt’s offer. She falsifies his name and assigns him a trumped up bio. But Hans soon feels out of place among fellow students with superior airs and sense of entitlement. The aunt introduces him to one of her students, the beautiful and enigmatic Charlotte Farewell and they soon become an item. Through the intercession of Charlotte’s father Sir Angus, a powerful financier and former member of the Pitt club, Hans is nominated and accepted into the group.
When they discover his boxing skills, Hans is lionised by the club members and is asked to box for Cambridge against old rival Oxford. On wining his match, he is invited to join a secret sect within the Pitt Club known as the Butterflies.
When Hans witnesses Josh, a Butterfly with psychopathic tendencies, take away a drugged ‘golden girl’ from a dinner party, he does not intervene. Instead he hides in a toilet and only after the violation does he act. With the aid of Charlotte, he collects the names of the Butterflies, including that of her father and Hans’ own false name.
When the story of the Butterflies is published in a British newspaper, Angus Farewell knows the game is up. Realising the shame hanging over his own life and anxious to exact revenge for the violation of his daughter, he takes the inevitable and predictable course of action.
While the book is short and easy to read, myriad characters jump in and out of the narrative addressing the reader in monologues. Some of these characters are mere caricatures, sketchily delineated and make the story disjointed.
Also at times, the plot feels agenda-driven and purposefully topical within the remit of the Me Too movement. Charlotte appears as a prototype of a strong woman who survives abuse, and the depressed aunt Alex, who suffered at the hands of Angus many years ago, and in seeking revenge through her nephew, wants her abuser ‘to feel what I had felt. The feeling of being an object… It should feel what it meant no longer to have any control over your own life.’
Published in the Irish Examiner, 28/12/19
Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments
Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments which is subtitled Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, examines the lives of various oppressed black women in Harlem and Philadelphia during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many of these women were part of a fugitive movement of descendants of former slaves fleeing from the plantations of the south to the city in their quest for freedom.
Hartman is a thorough researcher and she culls stories of the lives of these women from rent collectors, surveys and monographs of sociologists, trial transcripts, slum photographs, reports of vice investigators, social workers and parole officers, all presenting, as the author rightly points out, as ‘problems’. She is not happy with the archives which she delves into because in the main they deal with one-sided accounts of the dominant over the dominated. Blacks were bartered as fungible commodities and treated hardly as human, and the self-righteous moralising of white people, which often condemned black people as licentious, ring hollow when you consider the poverty and hardship of their lives. Many of them were married but had no documents to prove it as they struggled in tenement dwellings with congestion, ‘the flesh-to-flesh intimacy that would make most white folks recoil’.
While many of Hartman’s insights are illuminating, the constant drumming of the same points time and time again in a repetitive and circumlocutory style of writing sometimes has the opposite of its intended effect and deadens the natural empathy of the reader, and is somewhat like watching endless reruns of the assassination of JFK or the 9/11 disaster. Also Hartman, no matter how well meaning she may be, makes many suppositions by attempting to enter the minds of these oppressed women in presuming to see what they see, or know what they think, as if she has a monopoly of their imaginations. Sometimes one wonders if the black women themselves had been allowed to tell their harrowing stories without the constant authorial interjections or at least with more understatement, would they have had greater impact, and it would have made for a tidier book.
But despite the tautology, there is no denying the harsh and unjust treatment of many of the black women of the time. ‘They were treated less kindly than a stray dog, handled less gently than a mule.’ They were brutalized and abandoned by the law who could arrest a black person for even walking the streets or for what policemen deemed ‘taking up public space’. And ‘jump raids’ were a commonplace where plainclothes officers without a warrant broke into the homes of black people whom they considered suspiciously.
There is too much guessing however. For example a young woman Mattie’s migration from Virginia to New York prompts the author to suppose all the things she ‘would’ have done. And a whole chapter dedicated to the explanation of the word manual is insulting to a reader’s intelligence as if he or she could not figure out the nuances of meaning in the word. Cinema offered an opportunity to imagine a better world, and indeed some of the women did in fact make it as actors. There were some offers of work in the Lafayette Theatre but only if you were a h.y. —a high yellow as the degrees of blackness were coded. And some made it as dancers or singers such as Billie Holiday who with natural talent were able to free themselves from the ghetto where music and jazz in particular articulated the pain and pathos of their lives.
Blues, please tell me do I have to die a slave?
Do you hear me pleading, you going to take me to my grave.
Published in the Irish Examiner, 21/12/19
The Secrets We Kept
The CIA employed women during the Cold War with the Soviet Union as Swallows or Carriers. A Swallow was a woman who used her wiles to gain information and a Carrier was one who delivered messages to strategic locations and people. American-born Irina Drozdova becomes a Swallow when she is picked from the typing pool. She is well suited for the task with good looks and, being of Russian origin, has a command of the Russian language.
Paralleling her story is that of Olga Ivinskaya, the real person on whom Boris Pasternak’s Lara in Doctor Zhivago is based. She suffers as his muse, preferring to be incarcerated and tormented rather than betray her censured lover. Although Pasternak falls foul of Soviet authorities, Stalin, who professes to like his translations of Georgian poetry, has a soft spot for the man he deems ‘the cloud dweller’ and provides him with a spacious dacha in Peredelkino. There are graphic accounts of the travails and privations Olga suffers in prison where calluses form on her hands from manning a pick, but she is allowed to receive post from Pasternak and learns of his heart attack and how he spent months in a hospital bed fearing he would never see her again.
Boris met Olga while both were working for Novy Mir, the influential literary magazine and organ of the Writers’ Union of the the USSR. The affair is treated almost matter-of-factly by Prescott: her account does not deal with the moral qualms of adultery and shows little consideration of how the affair affects Pasternak’s family. Pasternak confides in Ira, Olga’s daughter. He tells her his affair with her mother is over and that he wants to stay with his own family now. But when he meets Olga seven years later, she is still beautiful and he falls for her charms once more, and one can feel the emotional tug as he promises never to leave her.
While this is going on, the Russians, as Prescott informs us, in 1957, are orbiting the earth in their satellite Sputnik II. But the CIA do not stand idly by. They have many of Russia’s banned books, and their goal is to emphasise how the Soviet system does not allow free thought—how the Red state hinders, censors and persecutes even its finest artists. Their tactic is to get the banned material into the hands of Soviet citizens by any means. They stuff proscribed matter, including literary magazines, into weather balloons and send them over borders to burst behind the Iron Curtain, and they mail banned books back to the Soviet Union with different covers.
These actions may have had some limited effect in altering the mindset of the targeted people, but the mission that will change everything and become internationally known occurs when they discover the novel Doctor Zhivago. This was banned in the Eastern Bloc due to its critiques of the October revolution and its so-called subversive nature. Despite on the surface appearing as a tragic love story between Yuri Zhivago and Lara Antipova, the internal memo describes Doctor Zhivago as ‘the most heretical literary work’ by a Soviet author since Stalin’s death, adding it has ‘great propaganda value for its passive but piercing exposition of the effect of the Soviet system on the life of a a sensitive, intelligent citizen.’ This is not just a book, as Prescott points out, but a ‘weapon’ which the Agency must get their hands on so they can send it back to Russia for its own citizens to detonate.
The opportunity to carry out this mission presents itself when the Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli sends his literary agent Sergio D’Angelo to Peredelkino to seek permission from Pasternak to publish his book in the West. Prescott clearly did her research here and shows the build-up to the meeting between Pasternak and D’Angelo in great detail, although sometimes she overdoes the sensitivity of the poet in twee phrases such as ‘Boris brushed a mosquito from his arm, careful not to kill it’. After a lot of persuasion by Sergio, Boris eventually yields and hands him the manuscript with the near- prophetic words: ‘You are hereby invited to my execution.’
When Olga hears of what has happened and, knowing the dangers inherent for her lover, especially when the Cultural Department demands the return of the novel, she meets with D’Angelo and tries in vain to dissuade him from publishing the book.
Meanwhile Sally, the experienced Swallow who trained Irina, finds herself falling for the younger woman. As this could become fraught in the context of the time and circumstance, she welcomes the ‘distraction’ offered when the Agency sends her to Milan to meet Feltrinelli where the Italian publication of the novel is being celebrated. Her job is to get a copy of the book and hand-deliver it to the Agency so they can have it translated into English and decide if it really is the propaganda weapon they hope it will be. Later Irina, a fully fledged spy by this stage, is sent to the UK to obtain the original Russian version which had been smuggled there, so the Americans can check on any inaccuracies in the Italian translation. The plan is to arrange with a new York publisher the layout and design of the manuscript and prepare proofs that can’t be traced back to American involvement, and then ship it for publication to a European publisher ‘to erase any Company fingerprints’ and to have the greatest impact on the Soviet reader so that it will not be dismissed as American propaganda and reduce the risk to the author.
When rumours of the relationship between Sally and Irina reach the authorities, Sally is deemed as no longer ‘a desirable asset,’ and in the interest of maintaining the highest standards of the Agency she is dismissed. In the interim Irina, disguised as a nun, continues the mission and flies to Brussels to discuss with agents and a Belgian publisher how to maximise global publicity for Doctor Zhivago. It is decided that the Expo 58 World Fair in Vienna will be the best place to distribute hundreds of copies of the book to get it back to the USSR and to incite an international uproar over why it was banned.
In Russia Pasternak is being branded a Judas who has sold himself to the West, and is prevented from travelling to Sweden to receive the Nobel Prize. Despite receiving letters of support from Albert Camus, John Steinbeck and the Prime Minister of India Nehru, Pasternak declines the prize rather than be ostracised from his country of birth.
This book is a clever manipulation of history and politics with occasional telling insights into quirky Soviet regulations such as reserving the middle lanes of Russian roads for government vehicles, echoing Orwell’s ‘some more equal than others’ communist mantra.
But the book is of limited literary value in its own right. Its themes have already been dealt with effectively and accurately in factual works such as Peter Finn’s and Petra Couvée’s The Zhivago Affair and Anna Pasternak’s Lara: The Untold Love Story and the Inspiration for Doctor Zhivago. However, that said, Lara Prescott’s book is to be welcomed for highlighting the great artist that Pasternak was and, hopefully, it will encourage a new generation of readers to appreciate his original work.
Published in the Irish Examiner, 14/12/2019.
Erasmus Levine’s mother, believing her son was destined for great things, named him after the famous humanist, Erasmus of Rotterdam. His talent for encryption is recognised at an early stage and he is recruited to train at West Point and later is sent to join a newly created team with the purpose of saving the world after the attacks of 9/11. He is appointed as the carrier of a briefcase containing nuclear codes and ordered to stay at the side of the President of the United States of America at all times.
Erasmus’ operational boss is Edelweiss who gives daily briefings, and he in turn is subject to a higher authority, the mysterious Alpha. All the proceedings are shrouded in secrecy with a president supposed to be committed to nuclear disarmament.
The threat of a nuclear Armageddon hangs like a pall over the narrative where two thousand of the world’s warheads are at their highest state of alert to engage with or against each other, and where the combined explosive force of American missiles alone can wipe out mankind.
Erasmus’ talent for encryption is almost like an affliction as he throws up on several occasions on discovering the seriousness of his discoveries. And unable to bear the tension anymore, he goes AWOL, the apparent shock of possible global destruction and the realisation that the world’s nuclear weapons could be harnessed and then rerouted, confirming his so-called pacifism.
The characters in the novel are larger than life. The supposedly sensitive Erasmus, for example, clinically smashes a new recruit’s head into a metal floor ‘not once but repeatedly’ when puzzling over an encryption. And Erasmus’ wife Amba and family are too sketchily delineated with his children given the unlikely names of Unity, Duality and Trinity, as if they are mere configurations. And there are irritants in this translation from the Swedish when the protagonist is addressed repeatedly as ‘my treasure’ by Ingrid Oskarsson, the cryptologist and Erasmus’ old academic supervisor.
With the possible intention of adding gravitas to the thriller element of the book, the author inserts many cultural references. Russian spies using Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass as a ciphering tool for instance had a profound influence on the young Erasmus, and Hollywood films are used as codes in speeches. There is a lot of wandering through nuclear history and Erasmus dreams of Oppenheimer and being a survivor of the Enola Bay. And his thesis in philosophy, The Atom: A Moral Dilemma, is used as a trope bringing in references to the Bhagavad Gita and the ‘destroyer of worlds’ and Brueghel’s sixteenth century prophetic masterpiece The Triumph of Death, based on the Plague. This juxtaposition of history with the present seems rather contrived.
The sense of foreboding, however, is well captured where one feels that even the security codes are not really secure with many moles lurking. But at times the pursuit of Erasmus, as in the skiing chase, appears like a pastiche of a James Bond movie. The denouement towards the end suffers from the feeding of too much information and back story all at once which would have been better served filtered through the narrative in small doses earlier on, and would have maintained interest in the story’s unfolding.
The author, a Swedish cultural journalist based in Stockholm, has written two previous non-fiction books on technology and his knowledge in that area shows clearly in this his first novel. But for the average reader it could appear as information overload at the expense of narrative drive and the sacrificing of well-rounded characters. The supreme irony is at the end when Erasmus shuns all the technology and uses old parchment to pen his story.
Published in the Irish Examiner, 30/11/19
One Hundred Miracles
A Memoir of Music and Survival
Growing up in 1930’s Czechoslovakia, Zuzana Ruzickova fell in love with music, in particular the work of Johann Sebastian Bach. She revived an interest in the harpsichord, an instrument which had gone out of fashion, having been largely replaced by the piano, because of the many pieces recorded by her mentor Bach on it. But her promising career in music was postponed dramatically by the advent of war and the rise of Hitler. Her father felt his own country was betrayed by England and France with whom they had treaties of defence in case of invasion, and he was outraged when the so-called allies signed the Munich Agreement and ceded Sudetenland (part of Czechoslovakia) to Germany in the vain hope of appeasing Hitler. Despite carrying a wound from the previous war, her father enlisted in the Czech army as the Nazis invaded. This prompted Zuzana to join a Zionist movement, and she started to learn Hebrew, believing then that Jews were a persecuted race and the only answer was for them to form their own state.
The ‘transports’ started in 1941 when 6000 Jews were sent east to work for the Third Reich. Few of them returned and a Czech ghetto north of Prague called Terezín was created for the remaining 75000 Jews. Zuzana with other young people was ordered by the Gestapo to deliver ‘invitation cards’ to Jewish families, informing them of their transport numbers and which amounted to virtual death sentences. Indeed, when she arrived at one apartment she discovered the entire family had gassed themselves.
Zuzana was an only child born in Plzeň in 1927. The family was prosperous. Her father, who had spent some time in America, came home and ran two successful toy shops. Zuzana was educated by governesses in Czech, German and English. She was particularly encouraged in English by her father who read stories to her and taught her English songs. She claims she derived her rhythm in music from hearing her father’s voice reading the Greek epics to her. But it was while sitting enthralled in a family theatre box for the spring festival of opera, something her grandmother took a box for each year, which led to Zuzana’s decision to become a musician: ‘I would get myself so wound up about seeing a new concert that I almost made myself ill from the excitement and, sitting in that box, I sometimes even forgot to breathe.’
Although she was Jewish with a gypsy surname, there had been a great openness and religious tolerance among the people in her town before the German invasion. As a child, Zuzana liked every type of ceremony. As well as attending Jewish rites, she also attended the Catholic Corpus Christi procession and delighted in receiving the wafer, ‘the body of Christ’. She even received a blessing from a bishop after bearing flowers to the altar. No one tried to curtail her, least of all her parents, as they believed they were all part of a community.
Zuzana developed tuberculosis in 1935 but recovered after spending six months in a sanatorium in the Austrian Alps It was there she heard the name Hitler for the fist time: her father who was visiting her was singing one of his favourite patriotic Czech songs and was ordered to stop, as he was told ‘Chancellor Hitler would not like it’. This happened not long after the Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss had been assassinated for banning the Nazi Party in Austria.
In 1936 Zuzana became gravely ill with pneumonia, and her mother, almost despairing, promised if she got well she could have anything she desired. Piano lessons, she said. Her mother kept her promise and Zuzana, with fresh determination, recovered—one of the hundred miracles referred to in the book. Her teacher known as Madame, a graduate of the Prague Conservatory, not only taught her the piano but encouraged her in her love of Bach to take up the harpsichord, an instrument on which Bach had composed twenty four of his preludes and fugues.
This memoir, related in her own words before her death in 2017 to Wendy Holden, is constructed in chapters which are not sequential and alternate between the horrors of the concentration camps, her post-war struggles under a communist regime and her ultimate success as a world-renowned musician with the support of her husband, the Czech composer Viktor Kalabis. The Gentile, Viktor, another of her ‘miracles’, showed no fear of being labelled a ‘White Jew’ for associating with her, and he was determined that they would marry despite the wave of anti-Semitism in 1950’s communist-ruled Czechoslovakia.
Before all that however, with her tag number around her neck and no longer allowed to use her name, the teenager Zuzana was crammed into a cattle wagon bound for Terezín. There she witnessed the glum sight of wooden carts laden with bodies headed for the crematorium where the smell of tinged hair and burned flesh filled the air. And later transported to Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen she suffered from hunger and physical exhaustion. The internees had to endure plagues of lice and fleas and rats which brought on epidemics of typhus, meningitis, jaundice and even encephalitis, a disease which Zuzana herself contracted.
There are harrowing accounts of the painful death of her father from volvulus and the heart-wrenching separations from her mother in the various camps. Zuzana was prepared to accompany her to her death which seemed increasingly likely because of her age and infirmity, as they lined up naked to be selected to go links for the gas chamber or rechts for the work detail. Zuzana’s faith in humanity was tested to the quick, and the despair of some of the internees was palpable when ‘their whole expression, especially the eyes would be dead,… a sort of utter resignation to one’s fate… which left them unable to regenerate mentally’.
In 1944 as the Germans retreated, they were moved to Hamburg where allied planes bombed the city, killing many of the prisoners. Zuzana was sent to help repair damaged oil pipelines, and it was while loading ships with salvaged bricks and rubble that she finally ruined her hands. They were not given gloves and in the cold ‘our skin became chafed and scored by the relentless passage of wet brick until our fingers split, cracked and bled, becoming extremely painful’.
Although she and her mother ‘miraculously’ survived the camps, the ending of the war did not bring any great joy to Zuzana or to her country. It was just swopping one dictatorship for another. For, while Zuzana was rebuilding her strength and relearning with her damaged hands how to play music again, the soviets in a 1948 putsch, which led to the murder of the foreign minister and resignation of the country’s president, declared Czechoslovakia a communist state.
However notwithstanding poor health, Zuzana showed great resilience in later years as she travelled internationally to perform her music, even though the communist regime took up to eighty percent of her earnings.
Despite being under constant surveillance, she also selflessly promoted her husband’s compositions as she worked on her own project which was to create the complete recordings of her beloved Bach. This she finally achieved in 1974.
Published in the Irish Examiner, 17/08/2019.
Samir, a young German boy of Lebanese descent, adored his father Brahim who with his wife had escaped from war-torn Lebanon in 1982 to set up a life in Germany. His father delighted his young son by telling him bedtime stories veiled as fairy tales but really with secret roots of his own experiences of Lebanon. When Brahim disappeared one night after receiving a mysterious phone call, the emotional impact on his son is rendered palpable as the next morning the distraught boy discovers ‘his shoes still weren’t in their usual place in the hall, and his jacket was missing from its hook.’
The effect of his father’s disappearance on Samir as he grew up was that he became a loner. He could not hold down jobs and engaged in relationships with girls that did not last: ‘The thought of being abandoned makes me do things I hate myself for.’ His whole life became steeped in memories of his father: ‘here’s where he bought me ice cream… here’s where he lifted me up on his shoulder.’
There is a saving element nonetheless as Samir matures in his slow realisation of love towards Yasmin, the daughter of his father’s friend and fellow exile Hakim, and this is wonderfully conveyed. Samir had kept a box of letters he had written to Yasmin over the years but his shyness or lack of certainty in himself prevented him from posting them.
However, when Yasmin visits Samir’s room, she is dismayed to discover all the walls festooned with newspaper clippings about the war in Lebanon. She can’t tolerate this entrapment in the ‘vortex of the past’ and issues an ultimatum to Samir to live in the present. Knowing that the only way Samir can do that is to find out what happened to his father, she encourages him to go to Beirut and wishes him well in his quest.
A photograph of his father standing beside Bashir Gemayel, leader of the Christian Forces Libanaises and who was one of the key figures in the bloodshed in Lebanon up to 1982, was all Samir had to go on initially. Later the discovery of Brahim’s diary also gives him clues as do the stories his father had told him, as he witnesses their materialising into reality.
While Jarawan mostly maintains the tension of Samir’s search in slow teasing revelations, sometimes, however, the book can appear more factual than fictive and could perhaps have done with a bit of shortening. There is too much detail for example in meandering accounts of Beirut’s two-tier educational system which is not really intrinsic to the plot, and some descriptive accounts of that city smack a bit of a tourist guide in places.
And while Yasmin is a character who is very well drawn, less convincing is the portrayal of Samir’s younger sister Alina, who comes across as rather shadowy and insubstantial. Samir’s ‘throat constricting’ at the thought of her and later his leading her to the altar on her marriage day, rings a little hollow when one considers he had little to do with her upbringing. Also Jarawan’s attempt at humour while Samir is in Beirut with his taxi chauffeur Nabil, acting out roles of Philip Marlow or Sherlock Holmes, seem rather strained.
That said, the natural rhythm of English prose is brilliantly rendered in this excellent translation from the German by Sinéad Crowe and Rachel McNicholl. The book is constructed in short compelling chapters, fluctuating from present to past and for the most part driving the narrative forward, building up the suspense and keeping the reader on tenterhooks until its final heart-wrenching denouement.
Published in the Irish Examiner, 20/07/2019.
The three main characters in this engrossing book were real people. Henry Irving, world-renowned Shakespearean actor and owner of the Lyceum Theatre in London. Bram Stoker, Dubliner and later author of Dracula, then unknown. An ardent fan of Irving, he goes to London, putting his marriage in jeopardy, to manage the Lyceum Theatre for his tempestuous idol and in the hope of advancing his own literary career. And thirdly Ellen Terry, the beautiful and most sought-after actress of her generation. She joins the Lyceum as a regular player, and both men fall under her spell.
A clever ploy is used by some fiction writers to latch on to historically famous characters which brings their own work into a more global reach with a ready made plot. Indeed O’Connor himself also did this in a previous novel about John Millington Synge. Some readers may have difficulty with such liberties being taken in the fictionalising of real people, but in fairness to O’Connor he does confess to his poetic licence and directs readers to factual accounts of these historical personages in an Acknowledgements at the end of his book.
That said, this work is a mesmerising read, meticulously researched with beautiful prose true to Victorian idiom and patois. Influenced by Stoker’s own style of writing, the book itself is constructed in the form of letters, diary entries, newspaper clippings and phonographic transcripts, all adding to the authenticity of the story which is essentially an adumbration of the formative factors contributing to the creation of Dracula. Irving may be perceived as the prototype of the Count, sometimes staying in bed till nightfall: ‘Hate waking up twice on the same day, like a waterfront tart’, and when he rises, tall, broad and in a cape, saying he has known Stoker for 700 years and ‘doesn’t bite’. The atmosphere of London acts as the the backdrop to the story with its veiled setting of fog and gaslight and people living in fear of Jack the Ripper. O’Connor has the gift to conjure up convincingly any location, and indeed his knowledge of London here appears as intimate as that of Dickens.
In a supposedly haunted attic in the theatre known as Mina’s Lair, Stoker would snatch some moments from his frantic managerial job to write. There is wonderful suspense and true Gothic horror a la Wilkie Collins in the eerie atmospheres here engendered as Stoker with trepidation initially explores this attic: ‘from a rafter dangled a family of leering marioinettes.’ And he finds a box resembling a coffin on the lid of which strange figures were carved.
The long years of loyalty however to Irving in London took its toll on Stoker’s marriage and family life. And it makes one question the almost automatic familiarity and closeness portrayed between Stoker and his son Nolly, in Stoker’s declining years, and his estranged wife Flo’s reference to him as a ‘besotted father’, when there were such long absences between them.
Nevertheless despite the weight of the themes in the book, O’Connor’s humour finds a way of making an entry. While the ageing Bram sits in his nursing home listening to the complaints of residents at supper bemoaning their failing kidneys, livers and hearts, Tom the orderly declares the proceedings ‘The Organ Recital’.
But the ultimate sadness of this story I believe lies in the realisation that many flowers are born to blush unseen. The talent of Bram Stoker was not recognised in his lifetime, and his wife Flo had to sue for posthumous royalties. The life of some artists.
Published in the Sunday Independent, 09/06/2019.
The Horseman’s Song
Bitter Lemon Press
The title is taken from Federica García Lorca’s poem Canción de Jinete and the poet’s work permeates the novel as a motif and it is his unsolved murder which sparks off the plot of this thriller. However initially, there’s a sort of fug of too many characters: nationalist, internationslist and Spanish, blocking the story from freeflow. There are longeurs and consecutive streams of minutiae such as page-long descriptions of rolling a cigarette. And, regarding a minor character a volunteer from Catalonia Josef Aixala, do we need to know that ‘the rows of buttons studding the breeches gave his calves the strange outline of an overgrown insect’? Such writing is over-indulgent. However it is worth persevering to the final third of the novel when emotions and tensions are ratcheted up as two detectives on opposing sides go in pursuit of the murderer of Lorca.
It is July 1937 when Martin von Bora, a German agent and detective is assigned to the nationalist side in the Spanish Civil War. A lover of Lorca’s poetry, he is shocked when he discovers the body of the poet on an Aragonese mule track with a bullet wound in the back of his neck. Mystified, he proceeds to investigate. The more he does so the more he begins to question his nationalist colleagues and suspects they have had a hand in the poet’s death. They were suspicious of Lorca’s possible republican sympathies, and as the poet was gay, other motives for his killing could have been attributed to homomphobia.
Parallelling this on the republican side is American volunteer and war veteran Philip Walton who had befriended Lorca when the poet visited New York in 1929. Apparently the two men were to meet the night the poet was murdered, and Walton too commences to probe—for detailed factual insights into the circumstances of the death of Lorca one should consult Ian Gibson’s monumental biography of the poet. With their common goal the inevitable meeting of Walton and Bora takes place and, despite their opposing ideologies, a strange chemistry evolves between them. They make love to the same woman: the strange Remedios who is reputed to have prophetic powers and is referred to locally as a bruja or witch. Also with their mutual admiration of Lorca, both men begin to question the morality of war itself. ‘Little black horse/where are you taking/your dead horseman’ Bora says, quoting the poet. One feels however that there is sometimes a forced gravitas imposed by the author on the novel and not entirely earned with Bora, who also quotes from philosophers such as Kant, in his existential preoccupations written in random diary entries.
Ben Pastor is the pen name of Maria Verbena Volpi. She was born in Italy and lived and lectured for many years in America. Writing in English, she is capable of some wonderful lyrical descriptions in the novel particularly of the arid Spanish landscape and shows profound knowledge of historical and military matters pertaining to the Spanish Civil War. She is also gifted in being able to perceive the world in its sensuality through male eyes. For example, when Bora is with Remedios and, fearing he is going to die, he finds ‘her waist, her hip, a curve like a snowdrift he could huddle against and be safe’. Although what is unconvincing is, after his infatuation with Remedios for whom he would ‘scale mountains’, Bora will just up at the end and return to marry his little known German girlfriend Dikta on the basis of scant communication and only one letter received from her while he was away.
This memoir springs from the the break-up of Deborah Levy’s marriage and the death of her mother. Things fall apart, Levy says echoing Yeats. But she doesn’t want to hold it together. She is prepared to embrace the chaos that surrounds her, to dive into the storm and enter the unknown when conventional ways have failed her: ‘the house we are mortgaged to, the person who sleeps by our side’. And striking out for independence she comes up with some wonderful insights about life: ‘To become the person someone else had imagined for us is not freedom—it is to mortgage our life to someone else’s fear.’The brief chapter of her journey to England at the age of nine from her country of birth, South Africa, is poignantly related. She admits she has ‘a lot of rage’ from her old life, and tends sometimes to pigeonhole people, especially males with preconceived notions. She criticises men who do not refer to their wives by name and yet, ironically, we never hear the name of her own husband, the father of her children. And she is strangely lacking in empathy towards her ‘best male friend’, also unnamed, who is in the throes of marital conflict, and all she can think of is how she can fit him into a ‘character’ in a film script.
But when she holds back on some of her rather bitter anti-male rants, her prose rises accordingly. She moves to live in a hut with her two daughters under an apple tree on a London hill. One night on her way home she stops to catch her breath at the gates of a local cemetery. Here she conveys wonderfully, with a sensuous feeling of place, her own condition: ‘The night smelt of moss and the wet marble of gravestones. I did not feel safe or unsafe, but somewhere in-between, liminal, passing from one life to another.’
As regards her two daughters, she has the ability to sum up with a few deft strokes teenagers’ lives in a one parent family: ‘There’s lots of shouting and hormonal stormy weather all round and doors slamming regularly and many bills.’
She puts up on the wall of her hut an African shield from her childhood which looked like a full blown flower. ‘I needed a shield to defend myself. I suppose I could say that I was shielded by a flower.’ And by capturing the contradictions in her own life, she touches on the paradoxes of all human life: ‘Did I mock the dreamer in my mother and then insult her for having no dreams?’
She quotes freely from other writers such as Proust, Camus and Simone de Beauvoir who inspired her towards a freer life, and Marguerite Duras became her muse because of the film maker’s preoccupation with repressed memory. But Levy is capable of producing gems of her own in her practical approach to the writing life: ‘Staring into flames doesn’t help the word count.’
There are humorous touches when the chicken she had bought fell off her e-bike and was run over by a car and therefore had been ‘killed twice’. And she is not afraid of being the butt of her own joke when she meets film producers with muddy leaves from the apple tree stuck in her hair.
But she is at her inquisitive best when she sits beside a woman on a train who is learning French on her laptop. Here Levy speculates on the bizarre and perhaps random nature of gender differentiation: Why is a chair feminine and hair masculine?
Published in the Irish Examiner, 11/05/2019
I first came across Hanif Kureishi in print form in his short story collection Midnight All Day (1999) with its seductive Faber green cover of long, wrap-around female fingers and uninhibited story titles such as The Penis. Immediately one became drawn to the uninhibited urban (London) sexual landscape reinforced by film versions of novellas such as Intimacy and all this preceded by the multicultural (mainly Pakistani) dramas of My Beautiful Launderette (1984) and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987) and the riveting four part BBC dramatisation of his novel, The Buddha of Suburbia in 1993. So much for the sex, but is the writing good? What is it about Kureishi that draws one in? Is it the openness, the clinical analysis of the human body and soul? (Another collection in 2000 is entitled The Body and Seven Stories). It’s like what you see is what you get. It’s in your face but the writing is very good with philosophical insights (he studied philosophy at Kings College) into racial tensions in England dealing with problems which we are only beginning to face in Dublin; it should make him compulsive reading. Also his ability to dramatise social issues makes him equally at home on screen or in book. He is perhaps what Joyce would have been had he lived with that master’s fondness for film and the city. Kureishi was born and brought up in Kent of an Indian father. This memoir traces the growth of a successful writer: the son, at the expense of the failed writer: the father, the one who never quite made it. The wellspring of the memoir is Hanif’s discovery of his father’s abandoned manuscript of his childhood in Bombay encapsulating the political and religious upheaval of India at that time and the division of the country which resulted in the renaming of his family not as Indian but as Pakistani.
Hanif begins his journey of discovery through the eyes of his father as he abandons his comfortable lifestyle in Bombay to take up ‘pukka employment’ as a minor official in the Pakistani embassy in London, and all the time hopeful of literary recognition. There are exquisite insights into what it means to have a literary calling, as in the poignancy of the old and sickly father commuting two hours daily on a crowded second class train, dedicatedly snatching at book words in motion. And the son visiting his uncle conversing in a mixture of Urdu and English, realising that conversation was not merely an expression of information but an imaginative and creative exercise.
‘You don’t really go looking for your parents until middle age,’ Hanif tells us, so the memoir becomes a quest for the son’s place in the father’s story, how a particular adult life is a response to childhood. The book contains wonderful anecdotal gems, for example to his grandfather cricket was political: ‘it was when the British could be beaten at their own game.’ But we soon get to the kernel of the young Kureishi’s interest: Tantra, that all energy is libido, which helps to explain the high sexual charge of his prose. The wound (racism) the father tried to overcome by becoming a writer. And failing, he wanted like all fathers to see the success in the son. His father was a good cricketer and tried to teach his indifferent son who frequently erupted in tantrums, and this rage, the smashing of things drew him to the destructive quality in art (Pete Townsend’s guitar smashing on stage) ‘when discourse broke down and stories exploded into chaos’ (the opposite of the norm: finding form out of chaos), illustrated in the vast anomie of city landscape (cf. Intimacy), the consumer society (he’s very strong on the damage of Thatcherism) replacing everything including love. ‘What does self consist of?’ he asks. ‘I feel inhabited by others, composed of them.’ He is the artist divided in himself: ‘how imitation, differentiation and opposition never stop inside oneself.’ The racial bullying he suffered in school. The outlet: the music of the Rolling stones. He proffers an explanation for English racism: ‘deposed rulers feeling they may be robbed of what remained.’ And the parallel for Dublin: the racism of graffiti, the multicultural city, the Muslim bus driver, the Bengali manager of the take-away. One senses Hanif delighting in all of this despite the criticism, he would have it no other way, the city’s allure prompting his teenage flight from his suburban home. And reflecting on artistic sacrifice; his father’s life formed by publishers’ rejections, conditioning him to failure as the norm. And his theory of the amoral self: education is for nothing more than ‘to satisfy a curiosity’; but his assertion that being happy is more important than being good begs one to consider the corollary: can one be truly happy without being good? Or indeed what does good mean? Essential questions so often tabooed or silenced he is not afraid to ask: where does sex begin and end? Sex, as he points out, is more often the memory and the fantasy and the anticipation. Writing divided his father from his mother. But could he ask his father, even if a failure, to give up his dream? (We remember how Don Quixote’s death followed after he relinquished his dream). If not death, Hanif was convinced in his father’s case, it would have at least led to mental illness. Writing offered the possibility of living another life, the what if of our fantasies. Halfway through the memoir Hanif is suddenly beset by family guilt. ‘What am I doing, opening up my father like this? He realises the good fortune he has which his father had not: because of Hanif’s success, he never had to suffer his father’s fear of not being able to provide for his family. But his father’s influence holds sway. The draw to fiction: ‘reading a novel was like being with a fascinating person who was showing you their world.’ He puts forward one of the best arguments for reading fiction (even feels he’s missing it now as he writes the memoir): that it ‘can increase the possibilities of consciousness, showing that there is more meaning and interest in the world than you might have thought.’ And he wonders how important are dreams. Are they wish fulfillment (Freud) or anxiety demarcators (Wittgenstein)? He consider the writer as the investigator of the forbidden. He agrees with Nietzsche when he says: ‘every extension of knowledge arises from making conscious the unconscious.’ Who does our mind really belong to? You have to follow it as it finds it own routes, its own tracks. (How often is it derailed, makes one ponder the word).
But back to the father, a life dissected, his influences, his fears, the unconscious parts made conscious. He slips his dad’s manuscript back into its green folder, placing it under a pile of papers. The action suggestive: trying, in opposition to himself, to return it to the hidden.
Copy received from Faber, to review for Laura Hird online.
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; https://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
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
Books Ireland March/April 2014 Issue No. 354
Here in No Place
A. W. Timmons
When one reads that A.W. Timmons is a graduate of the MA creative writing course at UCD, one is made slightly wary of the putative danger of creating writing schools homogenising art and churning it into a certain bourgeois acceptability, and perhaps sanitising its individual edge.
The mimetic is evident in the work of this Wicklow writer: McGahern’s influence in the rough rural setting with male characters addressed by surname; and the small town gossip is reminiscent of Brinsley McNamara’s Valley of the Squinting Windows, while the idea of a stranger arriving in a small town reminds one of MacConmara’s An Coimhthíoch.
However that said, Timmons for the most part rises above the alleged homogenising and mimesis to present with his own voice in this largely impressive debut novel. The story is a recapturing of the past. Murt Doran’s life fell apart eighteen years previously when his wife Cathy was killed in a car which he should have been driving, and his daughter Gráinne was taken away from him and adopted. Credulity is stretched somewhat by our having to wait such a long time for Murt’s guilt to set in, and in his wish to contact Gráinne again, and one has to buy into how he spent his time in the interim in a caravan where ‘routine kept me alive’.
He returns to the town eventually where the tragedies occurred and where he used to work in a saw mill with low-life Sticks Foley who, later enigmatically, is made the adoptive father of Gráinne and becomes gentrified into the bargain to be known henceforth as Mr Christopher Foley. Murt survives in the town now as a handyman and resides in a guest house.
While Irishisms and colloquialisms abound and stereotypical people inhabit the inevitable pub in their nosiness and begrudgery, or stand staring when a car from a different county passes through as if they have nothing else to do or think about in these small places, one wonders initially if it is not all a bit outdated. Has the world not moved on, and are people today not too busy with their own lives and perhaps more indifferent to others than heretofore? However, such apparent platitudes are well made up for by the sometimes striking originality in the prose: ‘The place was like a sick aunt, sharp-tongued and pale with spite;’ and the rounds custom is brilliantly described with its supposed raison d’être of generosity leading some of its proponents to a life of alcoholism; or when Murt visits the city, he looks for gaps in the buildings, a metaphor for the gaps in his own life.
The story is not without humour as when the inebriated Ursula, who shares the guesthouse with Murt, enquired of him when he was restoring a carbide lamp in the shed, if it was a rocket he was building ‘to take you away from here’.
While we get intimations of Murt’s feelings for his dead wife, his feelings for his daughter by contrast seem at times distant, lacking the poignancy to drive the narrative forward; and one wonders did the law not have something to say about the ease in which the Foleys snatched Gráinne away from her father and seemed to have no difficulty in claiming her as their own adoptive daughter.
Also, one needs to suspend disbelief to accept the transforming maturation in the character of Cathy’s jealous sister Helen and how she wound up as Foley’s wife; and while one understands the author’s purpose here to show a non-one dimensional character—a villain with a redeeming quality, Foley’s confession of male inadequacy is not totally convincing.
Timmons captures the seasonal toil of rural life convincingly and blends the description of nature very well into the narrative’s mystery: ‘The mountains were alive, their backs arched as if in anticipation.’
Also the saw mill is authentically brought to life with its tumbling logs and chain saws in language as stark as the teeming imprecations of the workers. It is an interesting contrast to the softening of the prose when he is writing about the female characters with the use of their first names.
There seems to be a reluctance in the writer to name real places. The main setting for the novel is the fictitious village of Kiltuam. While we can guess the references to Glendalough and Bray from the descriptions, the only real geographical entity actually named is Roscommon and that occurs three pages from the end.
Despite all that, this work in the main is a gripping and page-turning mystery that holds a reader’s attention in its slow dripfeed to its satisfying conclusion. Murt, on beholding the wonder and freedom in his daughter, makes us reflect on what keeps us going in the end: the hope for future generations, that they might get it right.
Review by James Lawless in Books Ireland, May/June 2014. Issue No. 355
Two Croatian Books Reviews
A Handful of Sand
The story in A Handful of Sand is about two lovers as separated hemispheres going the full circle of their lives with all their vicissitudes and coming ever closer to each other towards the end. This leitmotif, the author confesses, is derived from Plato’s belief that each of us mortals is unfulfilled, wandering as a half until we find our missing twin or maybe, more tellingly for this novel, endure ‘the passing of each other by for ever’; and this constitutes, whether subliminally or not, the purpose of our lives.
On reaching each other, the lovers attempt to coalesce and blend into one, the joy of the two halves united, even their voices sounding the same, ‘what fuses us together in verbal contour’, so nearly and ecstatically achieved until, rather too suddenly, it all peters out, and we realise ultimately it is not elusive love that dies but rather high emotion (captured in wonderful writing from the male gaze) ceding to diurnal ennui and satiated desire.
Gypo—the protagonist’s nickname—was putatively born out of wedlock after his mother’s dalliance with a Gypsy, a caprice she made up without explanation; and the female lover also we discover has questionable paternity after we learn of her mother’s extramarital affair. These uncertainties run through the story in perfect harmony with the themes of remembrance and the unrealised parts of ourselves like sands ever sifting.
Gypo’s mother, who was a music graduate, lost her job under the Yugoslav state because of her religiosity; Koscec, with irreverent humour, refers to her devotion to ‘the bleeder on the cross’ (the mot juste showing the pun was not lost on the translator Will Firth) and is wonderfully satirical about the receptions of gypsies in the ‘oh so refined Croatia’ where ‘few things were considered as barbarously Balkan as playing the accordion’.
The love story is treated poetically with deep insights: ‘all your loves will be a surrogate for the one you kill first…’ and in Gypo’s case becomes obsessional as it fuses with memory, drawing him again to his beloved’s house despite the fact that she has gone and the house is sold.
Much of the amorous pursuit is in the form of longing and a lot is left to the reader’s imagination as the lovers try to mark out a predestined path and seek an almost superworldly fulfilment in the quest to interlink their lives.
There are easy-to-visualise character sketches: one of the female’s lovers, Jeremy, is ‘made of nothing but muscle with a basilical frame and a blond ponytail down to his belt’; and some stunningly poetic prose, as with the female protagonist: ‘I sieved the sky in vain, searching for the angel of sleep’.
There are rare clichés: ‘I needed him like a hole in the head’, ‘beating about the bush’; and the description of cars as ‘aluminium monsters’ is almost adolescent; and the work contains occasional moments of gushy prose as with the male lover seeing his lovestruckness ‘in the astral blue of her eyes, in the silvered sea, in the cricket chorus in the cypresses’.
There is a dearth of dialogue (so token that it is rarely granted the status of inverted commas and rendered mainly in italics). The book has a lot of description, often laborious and over-detailed, as in the page-long description of a living room; and sometimes it is over-indulgent when for example one can sense the author delighting in his knowledge with copious explanations of the publishing world.
Because of the nature of this book, which is an ode to love and loss, it justifies a certain amount of musing and philosophising; but there is a danger of wandering into abstraction and generalisation, and occasionally one feels something practical and concrete could encapsulate the characters more clearly—something the author is capable of and demonstrates succinctly in sentences such as ‘Ines told me about her new antidepressant’; and the telling detail of the word ‘war’ in ‘I stuck in war earplugs’ reminds us pithily of where the new Croatia is coming from.
The female protagonist is drawn to the ‘weirdos’ of the world such as Jelenko who seems to come alive only when talking about death, and here the philosopher’s truth shines through, showing our mortal preoccupations whether we care to admit them or not.
Another thesis in the work is of seeing art as a suture for the pain of life as exemplified in the case of the disturbed Zoran. And this idea and preoccupation on the function of art in our lives is again debated towards the end of the novel by the sculptor mentor of the female lover who holds a strikingly original yet contradictory view to Zoran: that art is futile, believing ‘it sucked the life out of people instead of giving it to them’.
It is this mentor who strikes the central concern of the novel:
In devoting their creative urges to art, people were transformed into something like sand, which briefly came alive and created the illusion of a surrogate life—a much better life where everything was possible and reachable; but it was all made of sand. By stirring it up and wallowing in it, we came ever closer to turning to sand ourselves.
Will Firths’ translation is natural and contemporary in the main, only infrequently smacking of pedantry as in the description of the mental patient Zoran, befriended by Gypo, who ‘radiated a vernal freshness, sweet and polliniferous’; or a slippage when Gypo was in awe of Zoran’s paintings and the absolute tranquillity they ’emanated’— surely should read as ‘exuded’.
At the end of A Handful of Sand we are left as with a hypothesis—can true love really follow a predestined path or is it always meant to be elusive, always filtering away from those who seek it like sand through our fingers; an ideal perhaps is what Koscec is positing, an emotion so humanly fragile that it can never be fully realised.
What do you with the sand, the handful you are allotted? What do you do with your life? How do you structure it? And, as for those who build castles, they only last ‘until the first breezes come’.
ecovu knjigu iz 2005. objavio je ove godine u Londonu Istros Books a mi slijedom toga objavljujemo kritiku Jamesa Lawlessa.
To malo pijeska na dlanu priča je o dvoje ljubavnika, odvojenim hemisferama što u slijepom lutanju prolaze cijeli krug života da bi se prema kraju čim više približile jedna drugoj. Ovaj motiv, priznaje autor, preuzet je iz Platonovogvjerovanja kako smo svi neispunjeni smrtnici koji kao polovice tumaramo svijetom dok ne pronađemo svog blizanca ili možda, relevantnije za roman, podnosimo “mogućnost da se zauvijek mimoilazimo”, što, sublimno ili ne, predstavlja svrhu naših života.
Posežući jedno za drugim ljubavnici pokušavaju srasti i spojiti se u jedno, u sreću ujedinjenih polovica kojima čak i glasovi jednako zvuče kad žele “da ono što nas pripija sagledamo u verbalnom reljefu”, gotovo u potpunosti i ekstatično postignutom sve dok prilično iznenadno ne splasne. Tako na kraju shvatimo da ne umire neuhvatljiva ljubav već jake emocije (napisane prekrasnim jezikom iz muškog kuta) ustupaju mjesto dosadi svakodnevice i zadovoljenoj požudi.
Cigo – nadimak glavnog lika – rođen je izvan braka nakon majčine afere s Ciganinom, hir učinjen bez objašnjenja, a otkrivamo da i ženski lik ima upitno porijeklo nakon što saznamo za majčinu joj izvanbračnu avanturu. Ove neizvjesnosti protječu kroz priču u savršenoj harmoniji s temama sjećanja i neostvarenih dijelova sebe kao pijeska koji sipi bez prestanka.
Cigina majka, muzikologinja, izgubila je posao u Jugoslaviji zbog svoje religioznosti. S bogohulnim humorom Koščec za njezinu pobožnost kaže da je “vidjela svojeg Boga” (prevoditelju Willu Firthu nije promakla igra riječi) te s prekrasnom satirom govori o poimanju Cigana u “rafiniranoj Hrvatskoj” gdje je “graničilo (…) sa životnom opasnošću znati svirati harmoniku”.
Ljubavna priča ispripovijedana je poetično i s dobrim zapažanjima: “sve će ljubavi biti (…) surogat one koju ubiješ prvu”, a u slučaju Cige postaje i opsesivna kako se miješa s uspomenama koje ga ponovo privlače kući svoje drage usprkos činjenici da je ona otišla a kuća je prodana.
Dobar dio ljubavne potrage ima oblik čežnje i dosta je prepušteno čitateljevoj mašti koja se poigrava dok ljubavnici pokušavaju označiti unaprijed određenu stazu i pronaći gotovo natprirodno ispunjenje u nastojanju da isprepletu svoje živote.
Prema opisima likovi se lako vizualiziraju pa je jedan primjerice “…sazdan od samih mišića, trobrodnih ramena, plave kose koja mu, svezana u rep, seže do stražnjice…”; proza je na mahove iznimno poetična pa tako protagonistica “bluni nebom ne bi li kojim slučajem ugledala anđela sna”.
Nailazimo, doduše rijetko, na klišeje poput “zijevam kao riba na suhom”, ili “poznavala (ih je) kao svoj džep”, a opis u kojem su automobili kao “aluminijski monstrumi” gotovo je adolescentski. Povremeno nas zatiče i pretjerana rječitost kao kad ljubavnik vidi svoju zaljubljenost “u zvjezdavom modrenju njezinih očiju, u srebrenju mora, u zrikanju čempresovih grana”.
Dijalog je toliko oskudan da se rijetko pojavljuje u navodnicima te se većinom prikazuje kurzivom. Knjiga obiluje opisima, često teškim i detaljnim poput opisa dnevne sobe koji se proteže preko cijele strane, a autor ponekad samodopadno uživa u svom znanju detaljno objašnjavajući svijet izdavaštva.
Zbog prirode romana, ode ljubavi i gubitku, opravdana je izvjesna količina promišljanja i filozofiranja, ali uvijek postoji opasnost od zastranjenja u apstrakcije i generalizacije te čitatelj povremeno osjeća da bi nešto praktično i konkretno jasnije zaokružilo likove – nešto za što je autor sposoban i demonstrira nam sažeto u “Ines priča o svojem najnovijem antidepresivu”, dok nas snažan opis novogodišnje noći s pucnjavom “bilo je ugodno zamisliti da se to građani međusobno ubijaju na ulicama” precizno podsjeća otkud dolazi nova Hrvatska.
Protagonista privlače ‘luđaci’ poput Jelenka koji oživi tek kad govori o smrti; ovdje prosijava filozofska istina i pokazuje naše ovozemaljske preokupacije željeli ih mi priznati ili ne.
Druga teza u djelu je viđenje umjetnosti kao šava za životnu bol što je oprimjereno slučajem poremećenog Zvjezdana. Pred kraj romana ovu ideju i preokupaciju funkcijom umjetnosti u našem životu iznova propituje mentor protagonistice koji ima vrlo originalno mišljenje, ali suprotno od Zvjezdana, to da je umjetnost jalova. On vjeruje da ga “ona (…) isisava iz ljudskog života umjesto da mu ga daje”.
Upravo je mentor taj koji iznosi središnji problem romana:
Predajući joj što ima u sebi, čovjek se ukapa u nešto kao pijesak, koji nakratko oživi, stvarajući iluziju zamjenskog života, i to savršenijeg, u kojem sve je moguće, sve dohvatljivo, ali sve je od pijeska. Komešajući ga, u njemu se koprcajući, samo pomažemo vlastitom pretvaranju u pijesak.
Prijevod Willa Firthsa uglavnom je prirodan i suvremen, tek povremeno se naslućuje pedantna opsesivnost poput opisa mentalno oboljelog Zvjezdana koji postaje Cigin prijatelj a “oko sebe širio (je) nešto proljetno, neku peludnu, slatkastu svježinu” ili propust kad se Cigo divi Zvjezdanovim slikama i apsolutnoj mirnoći kojom ‘odišu’ – zasigurno je trebalo stajati ‘zrače’.
Na kraju knjige ostajemo s hipotezom – može li prava ljubav zaista slijediti unaprijed određenu stazu ili je uvijek neuhvatljiva, uvijek izmiče onima koji je traže poput pijeska među prstima? Možda je ono što Koščec postavlja ideal, osjećaj tako ljudski fragilan da se nikad ne može uistinu realizirati?
Što učiniti s pijeskom, s tom šakom pijeska koja nam je dodijeljena? Što učiniti sa svojim životom? Kako ga strukturirati? A što se tiče onih koji grade kule, one traju samo “do prvog povjetarca”.
Za Booksu: James Lawless
Prijevod: Miljenka Buljević
James Lawless (Dublin) autor je pet romana. Dobitnik je umjetničke stipendije za studiju modernog pjesništvaClearing The Tangled Wood: Poetry as a Way of Seeing the World (2009) te brojnih drugih nagrada. Objavio je i pjesničku zbirku Rus in Urbe za Doghouse (2012). Piše književne kritike za Irish Independent i druge novine i časopise, te za Istros Books (www.jameslawless.net).
Our Man in Iraq
Robert Perisic tells us in a blog by Tim Judah that the title Our Man in Iraq, derivative of Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, affords him a motif to consider ‘something of the chaos of war’. However, the war in Iraq is really only a guise as we learn the man in question is Boris, a cousin of the protagonist Toni. Toni is a journalist who prefers to stay at home in Croatia with his actor girlfriend Sanja and, on the pretext that his cousin speaks Arabic, he rather irresponsibly sends an all too willing and naive Boris to a war zone without considering the consequences or his relative’s inexperience. When Boris goes missing, Toni writes the dispatches pretending they are still coming from his cousin. Boris’ mother Milka, however, who had a longstanding sibling rivalry with Toni’s mother, exposes her nephew to the media, and Toni and his boss Pero are brought down on charges of nepotism and impersonation.
Perisic as an author is quite à la mode and is willing to show off his knowledge in side references to art (Delacroix), literature (Kerouac), films (De Niro). And while the book is also good in highlighting the controlling power of the media in society, the author frequently makes his own mistake of reducing some of the novel to journalese and rants on social issues, meandering himself into media speak. The early part of the book suffers from this and is quite fragmentary in its narrative thrust. We have to wait until we are half way through the book to get to the kernel of the story which is about family conflict and how all elements, including the love affair between Toni and Sanja, hinge on what way Boris’ mother Milka will react after learning how Toni treated her son. This conflict is the human story that is the novel; this is what we as readers crave to hear more about: the universal and timeless story of love and jealousies and internecine rivalries as perennially engrossing as the early Greek sagas.
Milka and the family feud are very well delineated and these disputes constitute the best part of the book. If they had been developed more maybe at the expense of some of the soapbox rants, we could be reading a better novel.
Things begin to fall apart for our protagonist after Boris goes missing as the phoney reports Toni produces deepen his implication in the mess. Meanwhile Sanja’a star, as an actor, rises at the same time as Toni’s, as a journalist, declines, which raises the issue of modern man and gender roles: Toni can’t accept being inferior to Sanja, and this contributes to the breakup in their relationship.
The love story between Toni and Sanja initially appears realistic and very modern— they behave almost as bohemian lovers— and is empirically derived as the author admits from the circumstances of his own divorce. The dialogue between the two is authentic and the description in the buzz of their daily lives comes across convincingly. Their physical relationship is treated graphically and sometimes humorously as in the amorous scene in the men’s toilet cubicle where, out of sight, they listened to men’s sexist comments about Sanja as an actor. But when Toni loses his job and media accusations, particularly the charge of nepotism (affording one of many opportunities for Perisic to satirise Croatian society), are levelled against the journalist, the relationship takes a nose dive, and one feels it could have been made of sterner stuff. It makes Toni’s character come across as somewhat shallow, and we have seen already how he was also irresponsible concerning his cousin. Toni, it appears, is all too easily frightened away from commitment in a relationship when the going gets tough; he becomes slothful after being sacked finding it ‘difficult to get out of the armchair’, and one is left to wonder were his feelings for his girlfriend merely based on physical desire (the very thing he satirised the media for in their attitude to Sanja) rather than something deeper.
Things worsen for Toni when his RIJB-R-A shares plummet and he gets mugged. The mugging is done by ‘microregionalists’, members of a political opposition who obviously held a grudge against the journalist and apparently were blaming him and his newspaper for their loss in the election; but this episode is vague with no specific article to illustrate the cause of their particular antagonism towards him.
Notwithstanding, Perisic is a witty and insightful commentator and captures the zeitgeist of the age very well as he admits, Toni may ‘have placed too much hope in rock and roll’; and when the journalist is looking to rent a flat and trying to read the expression of the landlord, he comes out with: ‘You can’t read anything from the face of a morally righteous person, that’s why everyone here wears a mask’.
He is particularly scathing on literary elites ‘who attend all cultural events, although they don’t like anything,’—something struggling artists around the world can identify with.
Boris is far from the ‘madman’ Pero perceives him to be and his original and spot-on analogy for anarchy marks Perisic out as a writer who is able to successfully combine the literary with the political: ‘It would be like a never ending sentence and you’d look in vain for a full stop or an ending, ask God, ask the Law, ask the Next Policeman, and so on until you run into someone who bashed you on the head, you don’t know where the end is…’
Our Man in Iraq is a hip novel, due in no small way to the excellent translation of Will Firth who makes the prose transfer seamlessly from the Croatian into natural English with up-to-the-minute jargon and idioms of contemporary mores about the new Croatia emerging out of war and socialism to what Perisic considers the sell-out of capitalism. One is left to wonder what the author’s opinion will be on what lies in store for his country now that they have joined the EU.
Pogled izvana: ‘Our man in Iraq’
Perišić je duhovit i pronicljiv komentator koji vrlo dobro hvata duh vremena.
Rober Perišić, Our Man in Iraq (London, Istros books, £7.99)
SPAJANJE KNJIŽEVNOG S POLITIČKIM
Na blogu Tima Judaha Robert Perišić govori o tome kako mu je naslov Naš čovjek na terenu, izvedenica od Našeg čovjeka u Havani Grahama Greena, dao motiv za promišljanje ‘ratnog kaosa’. Međutim, rat u Iraku u stvari je samo krinka jer saznajemo da je čovjek o kojem je riječ Boris, rođak glavnog lika Tonija. Toni je novinar koji radije ostaje doma u Hrvatskoj sa svojom djevojkom, glumicom Sanjom, te pod izlikom da mu rođak govori arapski, u ratnu zonu prilično neodgovorno pošalje nabrijanog i naivnog Borisa, bez razmišljanja o posljedicama te ne vodeći računa o njegovom neiskustvu. Kad Boris nestane Toni nastavi pisati izvještaje pretvarajući se da i dalje dolaze od rođaka. No, Borisova majka Milka, koja je u dugogodišnjoj svađi sa sestrom, Tonijevom majkom, raskrinka svog nećaka pred medijima te Tonija i njegovog šefa Peru optuže za nepotizam i lažno predstavljanje.
Kao autor Perišić je prilično trendy i rado se razbacuje znanjem u usputnim referencama iz područja umjetnosti ((Delacroix), književnosti (Kerouac) i filma (De Niro). Iako dobro naglašava kontrolirajuću moć medija u društvu, autor i sam često čini pogrešku svodeći dijelove romana na novinarenje i jadikovke o društvenim problemima u samom stilu medijskog govora. Početak knjige boluje upravo od toga. Također, prilično je fragmentaran u svom narativnom zamahu. Moramo čekati do polovine knjige kako bismo saznali suštinu priče koja govori o obiteljskoj svađi te kako bismo shvatili da svi elementi, uključujući ljubavnu vezu između Tonija i Sanje, ovise o tome što će Borisova majka Milka učiniti kad shvati kako se Toni ponašao prema njezinom sinu. Ova svađa je ljudska priča koja je u stvari roman, to je ono o čemu čitatelj želi saznati više; univerzalna i bezvremena priča o ljubavi, ljubomori i međusobnom rivalstvu vječno zanimljiva još od grčkih mitova.
Milka i obiteljske prepirke vrlo su dobro ocrtane i te svađe predstavljaju najbolji dio knjige. Da su malo razrađenije, nauštrb nekih sapuničastih žalopojki, mogli smo čitati bolji roman.
Našem se protagonistu stvari počinju raspadati nakon što Boris nestane te nakon što ga lažni izvještaji koje piše dodatno upetljaju u nevolje. U međuvremenu, dok Toni tone kao novinar, Sanja postaje glumačka zvijezda, što postavlja problem modernog muškarca i rodnih uloga: Toni ne može prihvatiti da je neuspješniji od Sanje što pridonosi prekidu veze.
Ljubavna priča između Tonija i Sanje na početku izgleda realistično i vrlo moderno – ponašaju se gotovo kao boemski ljubavnici – a oslanja se na iskustvo iz autorovog vlastitog razvoda. Dijalozi su vrlo autentični a opisi užurbanog života uvjerljivi. Fizička ljubav opisana je grafički i ponekad komično (kao u ljubavnoj sceni u muškom wc-u gdje skriveni od tuđih pogleda slušaju muške seksističke komentare o glumici Sanji). No, kad Toni izgubi posao te kad se na njega obruše medijske optužbe, naročito za nepotizam (što Perišiću daje još jednu priliku za satiru hrvatskog društva), veza krene nizbrdo i čitatelj shvaća da je mogla biti sazdana od jačeg materijala. Zbog ovoga Tonijev lik ispada pomalo plitko, osobito nakon što smo vidjeli kako je bio neodgovoran prema rođaku. Čini se da se Toni suviše lako uplaši obaveza u vezi kad stvari postanu kompliciranije. Postaje lijen nakon što ga otpuste te mu se ‘teško dići iz fotelje’ pa se čitatelj pita jesu li njegovi osjećaji prema djevojci bili temeljeni samo na fizičkoj želji (upravo ono zbog čega satirizira odnos medija prema Sanji) a ne nečemu dubljem.
Stvari za Tonija postanu gore kad mu dionice RIIB-R-A potonu i kad ga opljačkaju ‘mikroregionalisti’, članovi političke opozicije koji očigledno zamjeraju novinaru te njega i njegove novine krive za gubitak na izborima. No, ova epizoda ostaje nejasna bez nekog određenog novinskog teksta koji bi ilustrirao uzrok takvom antagonizmu.
Bez obzira na sve, Perišić je duhovit i pronicljiv komentator koji vrlo dobro hvata duh vremena, kad priznaje da je Toni možda “previše nade polagao u rock and roll” ili kad, tražeći stan i pokušavajući skužiti izraz gazdinog lica, kaže: “Ništa se ne može pročitati s lica pravednika, zato svi nose tu masku”.
Naročito je kritika književne elite (“to su ljudi koji posjećuju sva kulturna događanja, iako im se ništa ne sviđa”) nešto s čime se umjetnici širom svijeta mogu poistovjetiti.
Boris je daleko od ‘luđaka’ za kojeg ga Pero smatra, a njegova originalna i precizna analogija s anarhijom izdvaja Perišića kao pisca sposobnog uspješno spojiti književno s političkim: “To bi bilo kao rečenica bez točke, di je točka, di je kraj, pitaj Boga, pitaj Zakon, pitaj Obližnjeg Policajca, i tako – sve dok ne naletiš na nekoga tko te lupi po glavi, ti ne znaš di je kraj…”.
Naš čovjek na terenu moderan je roman nemalo zahvaljujući i izvrsnom prijevodu Willa Firtha koji tekst glatko prenosi iz hrvatskog u tečni engleski koristeći moderni žargon i idiome općih mjesta o novoj Hrvatskoj koja izranja iz rata i socijalizma te ide prema onom što Perišić smatra prodajom kapitalizmu. Čitatelj se pita koje je autorovo mišljenje o budućnosti te zemlje nakon njezinog ulaska u Europsku uniju?
Za Booksu: James Lawless
Prijevod: Miljenka Buljević
Foto: The U.S. Army (flickr)
Kritiku iste knjige Booksinog kritičara Saše Ćirića pročitajteovdje.
James Lawless (Dublin) autor je pet romana. Dobitnik je umjetničke stipendije za studiju modernog pjesništvaClearing The Tangled Wood: Poetry as a Way of Seeing the World (2009) te brojnih drugih nagrada. Objavio je i pjesničku zbirku Rus in Urbe za Doghouse (2012). Piše književne kritike za Irish Independent i druge novine i časopise, te za Istros Books (www.jameslawless.net).
The Eloquence of the Dead by Conor Brady (New Island, €14.99)
The idea of a world-weary alcoholic detective may appear cliched, but Conor Brady in this sequel succeeds in making Joe Swallow into a credible character.
One can feel the book wooing one into the world of Victorian Dublin from its first pages as Swallow sets out on the trail of a pawnbroker’s murderer, which fans out from the Pale to Trim, Galway and England.
The underlying resentment towards Swallow of rival Major Kelly, head of the secret service group, adds an edge to the narrative, and Swallow’s amorous ambivalences towards Maria, a pub-owner, and Katherine, the Jewish girl who shared his interest in art classes and whom he saves by shooting dead a burglar in her father’s jewellery shop on Capel Street, heighten the tension and foreboding.
Swallow, due to his drinking, blew a career in medicine, inducing guilt in him because of sacrifices made by his parents. Herein may lie the weakest part of the novel in the mere passing references to his mother. More of a build-up of her character would have been preferable perhaps at the expense of some of the myriad ancillary characters that populate the work.
Similarly the character of his patriotic sister Harriet (in a loyalty conflict with her brother) is a stock delineation of nationalists of the time.
There are some quibbles with the prose. Typos, such as suffering a “safe” fate instead of “same” fate, or Phibsboro losing and gaining its “ugh”, and the detective’s feeling for Maria are expressed in over-sentimental tones: “He felt part of her, drawn in completely into a union of the flesh and the spirit that he had never known before.”
But such writing is more than made up for later by the moving account of Swallow’s hovering around his former lover’s abode on the eve of his departure for England. Also when he visits the Ulster office, he noticed the sentries had been issued with their greatcoats and “autumn was tightening its grip”. One can sense here what Brady called the “buttoned-up” prose of his journalistic days flowering into a more novelistic style.
There is evidence of great research in the interspersing of history into the novel, particularly into the legal ramifications of the time — how informants would sometimes send a child to Exchange Court to collect their undercover reward. The corruption in the land transfers process is brilliantly drawn and kernel to the narrative in the plan to defraud the Treasury. This sort of writing is in keeping with the author’s hope that his fiction would also carry with it sociological insights, which indeed it does also in its touching upon the role of women in society or the teaching of Freud, albeit coupled with the hindsight of historical perspective.
Swallow’s forensic knowledge is superb, equalling Holmes, or that of any sleuth, with his logical mind in establishing by means of knots that there were two presences at the scene of the murder, and the account of the graphite used to detect fingerprints is convincing. There is occasional humour too, as when the criminal Vanucchi claims kinship “with that fella who done the last supper”.
Outside the criminal underworld, Brady also captures the soirees of middle-class Dublin society of the time, although the reference to WB Yeats and his Vision as a source for locating missing persons doesn’t seem plausible.
Overall this book is an engrossing read. One feels a real empathy for Swallow, especially towards the end, as he tries to confront British duplicity. If there is a message, it seems to be: You can nab the little man in crime but corruption in high places continues. Plus ca change…
- James Lawless’ latest novel is Knowing Women. www.jameslawless.net
Sunday Independent 12/01/14
JAMES LAWLESS – Sunday Independent, 04 AUGUST 2013
A Vicar Crucified
Darton, Longman and Todd, €11.50
A black vicar is crucified in the erstwhile sleepy coastal English town of Stormhaven. This fictitious place, as we are informed in an author’s note, is based on the real town of Seaford, whose inhabitants can hardly be pleased with Parke’s description of their ancestors as ‘cormorants’ who, in the hope of booty, lured ships to their destruction.
Abbot Peter is enticed back from a monastery in the Sinai when a relative he’d never known leaves him a house in Stormhaven and he is invited to assist his niece, Detective Inspector Tamsin, in the murder investigation. Tamsin is another relative the abbot was unaware of, and she, for her part, did not know of her grandfather, the abbot’s father, and his quest for the source of the Enneagram, an ancient and dubious system of character analysis.
This is the weakest part of the book as family relations are skirted over and stretch credibility.
It would have been better perhaps if the harridan Tamsin, a polar opposite to her calm and reflective uncle, had not been related to him at all.
Initially, the abbot seems smug as he appears to consider the grotesque murder merely as a puzzle suitable for his Enneagram diagram. This diagrammatic system, we are told, reduces people and their motives to nine types and is about as convincing as the 12 houses of the zodiac.
However, as a ploy in a thriller, it is clever and works prototypically, but don’t expect real individual characters to jump out from the pages.
Cliches crop up such as ‘passing like ships in the night’, and the pseudo-poetic overuse of cloud analogies: “surprising as a cloud in November” or “like dark clouds giving way to sun”, are irking. Notwithstanding, Parke is highly imaginative in his recounting in a parallel narrative a quest for the source of the Enneagram in 19th-century Afghanistan.
Also, as a former scriptwriter for Spitting Image, his wit frequently shines through, but sometimes the humour is ambiguous and perhaps unintended, as in the vicar’s rejection (before his death) of the amorous advances of the curate Sally: “Anton pulled back leaving Sally distraught, and subsequent hours on her knees availed little”.
Accepting it in its genre, this book can be read as an engrossing page-turning thriller, propelling the reader through its multiple twists and turns and keeping one guessing until the final unpredictable – yet satisfying – denouement.
James Lawless’s latest novel is ‘Knowing Women’. www.jameslawless.net
JAMES LAWLESS – 16 JUNE 2013
A Thousand Pardons
Jonathan Dee’s previous novel, The Privileges, was Pulitzer nominated, so one expected high standards from his new work, A Thousand Pardons. It begins with New Yorkers Helen and Ben Armistead about to divorce. Ben, an attorney, is suffering a putative midlife crisis and claims his wife is boring. In his disturbed state he commits a sexual transgression with a too-knowing intern, who ironically takes legal action against him. Later, he drunkenly crashes his car, and is thus disgraced and after a short imprisonment, where we are supposed to believe he has mended his ways, he seeks forgiveness from his wife. Helen, meanwhile, who hadn’t worked outside the home for 14 years, in order to provide for their adopted daughter, secures a job in a PR firm in which she demonstrates a sudden miraculous talent for crisis management. Her method of getting erring clients to openly apologise for their wrong-doing parallels her own personal story with Ben.
Initially, it is difficult to understand whose story this is. It starts out as Ben’s and, when he disappears for a large section, it becomes Helen’s story, and then it shifts to their teenage daughter Sara and her romance with the undesirable Cutter. The author also introduces a backstory about a movie star, Hamilton Barth, a childhood friend of Helen’s whose life of celebrity and drunkenness blurs with her husband’s as both men seek anonymity, if for different reasons. The novel’s constant shifting of POV is jarring and disconcerting, particularly in such a short work, and fails to anchor the story, thus preventing the reader from getting involved with any of the characters in a meaningful way.
While the novel is good on small town satire in the character of Helen’s first PR employer, Aaron Harvey as the incompetent down-at-heel businessman, he is just another character all too fleetingly delineated and conveniently killed off in the early part of the book. There are too many insubstantial types such as Mona and Nevaeh, the rather idle secretaries who provide mere patter for Helen in Harvey’s PR firm and who could be reduced to one character or eliminated altogether; and Helen’s delayed and unresolved work for the Catholic Church, with its sex scandals, is more sensational than relevant and peripheral to the main thrust of the narrative, which ultimately is the seeking of forgiveness in a marriage.
There is some inspired writing with original turns of phrase: “the solipsism of his depression” referring to Ben; “sad sacks whoring out their dignity on reality TV” on the image question; a graphic description of the exhausted Helen after work, falling asleep in front of the TV where her chin would “sink down toward her chest, snap up suddenly, and then sink again for good”.
In many cases, however, the prose is pedestrian and could have done with more attention. There are many repetitions. When Sara “shrugged”, the same word is repeated two lines later, the author lazily accepting the repetition rather than using a synonym.
Also the narrator intervenes into the voices of the characters and, while he is psychologically insightful into teenager Sara in her hot and cold relationship with her parents, one feels all too often the authorial presence dominating. When Sara closed her eyes “not because she was upset but just to try to get her thoughts in order”, one senses the thought and action of an older person here, in the same way as her boyfriend Cutter used adult words such as “deracinated” unconvincingly.
Finally, the reader is left to ponder, did this book need to be written or is it just one of hundreds of bland, semi-literary novels easily forgotten?
James Lawless’ latest novel is ‘Knowing Women’. www.jameslawless.net
Sunday Independent 16 June 2013
Glimpse of a mischievous and surprisingly saucy Austen
JAMES LAWLESS’ review in Irish Sunday Independent – 17 February 2013
The Real Jane Austen Paula Byrne Harper Collins, €12.50
Is it possible to know the real Jane Austen? For the sake of family decorum, Jane’s sister Cassandra destroyed nearly 3,000 of the letters between them, keeping a mere 60 or so innocuous or censored ones to tell us little beyond their humdrum domestic lives.
Paula Byrne approaches the question in an original manner, differing from previous biographers in that she begins each chapter with an object connected to the life or work of the author: a silhouette, a barouche, a cocked hat, a velvet cushion, a Topaz cross, a vellum notebook, among others.
The effect is to give intimacy, to draw the reader into Jane Austen’s world, to mingle with the household, as it were. Byrne does all this in a readable and elegant style and, whatever about Jane Austen’s life being putatively boring, the ancillary lives lived by many of her relatives, recounted brilliantly by Byrne, are the stuff of high drama and make riveting reading: the cocked hat alerts us to her brother Henry’s career in the Oxfordshire Militia; lace prompts an insight into Austen’s kleptomaniac aunt Jane Leigh-Perrot, who was imprisoned for stealing a card of lace, and the account of her cousin Eliza’s husband, Jean Capote Feuillide, a captain in Marie-Antoinette’s regiment of dragoons, guillotined in the month of Ventose in Year 2 of the French Revolutionary calendar, makes one speculate if we are reading about the world of a different author.
Another object used, the Bathing Machine, illustrative of female demureness of the time, affords the writer an opportunity to adumbrate Austen’s love of the sea.
Byrne posits three major theses which she claims as new or fresh insights into the commonly viewed lifestyle of Jane Austen. Firstly, she refutes convincingly that Jane Austen was a mere retiring, religious spinster aunt. Byrne’s research shows that Austen had a saucy wit in, for example, her references to ‘rears’ and ‘vices’ in the admiralty and her humour comes through in spotting a friend Dr Hall from his carriage “in such very deep mourning that either his mother, his wife, or himself must be dead”. Austen was also a bit of a prankster when younger, and wrote the names of imaginary husbands for herself into her father’s parish register; and, far from being retiring, she was frequently a sought-after and fun-loving aunt who played shuttlecock with her nephews and nieces.
The second thesis that Byrne posits, however, is problematic – that Austen did not shy away from the great historical events of her time: the Napoleonic War, the British wars in India, the slave trade. That Austen was cognisant of such events Byrne proves persuasively, but to say she embraced them (think of Tolstoy and his embracing of history in War and Peace) constitutes revisionist hyperbole, as only trace elements of such happenings can be found in her novels. Austen may have been aware of these events but she chose in the main, apart from references in her Juvenilia writing, not to engage with them artistically.
Admittedly, she does question the provenance of Mansfield Park, which was built on the spoils of slavery, but she does not pursue the matter, no more than she pursues her father’s possible complicity, albeit indirect, in the opium trade.
The third thesis, that the writing of Jane Austen treats of ordinary life, is also open to question. What is ordinary? Are the lives of landed gentry ordinary, or of her wealthy brother Edward or of the Leigh family on her mother’s side with their 690 acres at Stoneleigh Abbey (confiscated from the Cistercians under Henry VIII) or of another brother James riding to the hounds with the Prince Regent? And the duchesses and ladies who saw their lives mirrored in her novels while bedecked in their Regency regalia at tea parties and balls are a far cry from, say, Dickens’ city urchins.
And Jane herself, although never possessing a lot of hard cash, did not have to worry about family or children or employment. She was time-rich with the privilege that endowed to dedicate herself wholly to her writing. She may not have had a room of her own, having to write in a busy sitting room; but in a way such an environment could have been a boon to a novelist with her ears pricked to the conversations and comings and goings of her family and friends, providing fecund material for her stories in what Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey called “a neighbourhood of voluntary spies”. And even if privacy was a rare luxury, she was able to survive contemporary conventions with solitary walks and sojourns by the sea.
Nevertheless, in the limited world Austen inhabited, holding, in the words of Virginia Woolf, “a candle to life on a country house stairway”, a life in miniature she portrayed with great accuracy.
A realist refusing, as Byrne points out, to be carried away by the romantic excesses characteristic of the time, she could describe a beautiful evening without deferral to the moon. And perhaps most importantly, her innovative device of using free indirect speech to convey the internal ‘disordered feelings’ of a character such as those of Anne Elliot in Persuasion, could be premised as a precursor of the stream of consciousness technique of the modernist movement as practised by Woolf and James Joyce.
Where Byrne succeeds in this book, published to coincide with the bicentenary of Pride and Prejudice, is she manages, in a scholarly yet reader-friendly way and with the restricted material allowed to her, to bring to life a dedicated artist of her time in her human attributes.
Sunday Independent, October 21, 2012
Random House €25.52Sebastian Faulks’ new novel A Possible Life consists of five disparate stories searching for a connection. In a pre-publication video, the author talks of this work as a symphony with distinct voices which hopefully will cohere and show that we are more than mere individuals in the cosmos and in different eras — that we are all connected in a way perhaps like Jung’s collective unconsciousness, although it is our awareness rather than unconsciousness that Faulks emphasises as our link with one another.The stories, which are set in various locations and different times, have themes as diverse as the horrors of an extermination camp where a young English man is imprisoned during the Second World War; a Victorian tale, Dickensian in its depiction of a workhouse; a futuristic story of loneliness and science; a fable of an illiterate maid in 19th-Century France; and finally, a stand-alone tour de force about the power of music which is set in 1970s America.So does Faulks pull it off? Does he link all these stories? Not really. There are some resonances of war and mental hospitals and cricket (perhaps overdone) and the Bible and Jews and — possibly the most moving reverberation — of meeting a loved one after a long absence and imagining the person unchanged.But such echoes are tenuous. Maybe the consistent link that Faulks is showing us is in ourselves as humans and even in our parts with the foreknowledge of our own annihilation which separates us from animals.Ultimately, however, as Marcel in A Door into Heaven points out, not even the philosopher knows the working of the human mind, for when he saw a man’s brain on the battlefield he declared, “It looked just like something in the butcher’s shop in Treignoc”.But does it matter if there are no obvious, overt links? It is a book of engrossing short stories, although sometimes the pace is so hectic that events are skimmed over, particularly in the first story A Different Man which at times is reminiscent of a Readers’ Digest Condensed Book: “Geoffrey had been a schoolmaster for only a year when war broke out and he went to ask Long John Little permission to volunteer.”And the same character’s stay in a mental hospital after the war where a nurse absurdly says to him, “Pull yourself together” is skipped over with “three months later Geoffrey was out, discharged”.Such abbreviating could be interpreted as a weakness in the delineation of character (no time for freeze-framing here, which is symptomatic of most of the characters in this book); there is simply no opportunity to reflect, and there is a definite link here in that they all, privileged and poor, appear to accept stoically whatever life hurls at them.However, the quality of the writing for the most part is far superior to anything condensed. Faulks has a botanist’s eye for trees and shrubs such as acanthus and oleander and an epicure’s taste (‘anchovy essence’, ’tisane’), and who could not be moved by the telling succinctness of the sentence, “Parts of human were dropping on him” when Geoffrey was trying to soften the blows with his French language while translating the harsh German orders for the doomed prisoners.
Faulks shows great versatility in his wide-ranging writing — the fluctuations in time and sequence bring to mind John Fowles‘ The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
The words of the songs in the story You Next Time are wonderful and he shows technical skill in his knowledge of the music industry:
We said goodbye to Larry Becker and sent a tape back to John Vintello in New York. We’d have to go back to listen to an acetate on lots of different speakers — plastic bathroom radio, automobile rear shelf — and fiddle around with sound quality on the master…
It is thorough research that gives his narrative authenticity and spine-chilling accuracy.
For instance, in A Different Man, when the number being killed was more than the gas chambers could process, the gassing time was cut to 10 minutes with the result that some of the ‘corpses’ that Geoffrey had to incinerate were still living.
Despite the predominant morbidity in the stories, they are not without humour as when the most rounded character, Anya the singer, retorts to her concerned manager, when he thought a pervert was looking up her short dress to get a view of her panties, with, “Don’t worry, I wasn’t wearing any”.
All the imagined people that one can be as an artist is perhaps what Faulks, approaching 60 now, is about here in this rumination on mortality: the purpose and maybe the consolation is to be able to define oneself by subdividing oneself time after time into a multiplicity of possible lives.
James Lawless’ latest novel Finding Penelope has just been published by Indigo Dreams.
The Long Falling
Faber, paperback 1998
305 pp. £11.50. 0-571-19171-1
The novel opens in a mimesis of Joyce’s, The Dead (the litany of snow falling all over Ireland) but this time it’s rain that is falling on Cavan ad Monaghan and on lakes and roads… but there is nothing imitative in the description of the gravestones at Cootehill sticking into the soil ‘like blunt knives’. The atmosphere is set; the sense of dread that permeates the book established, despite its early revelations (like a lot of literary novels) of the plot in advance, which leads of course to the inevitable working back, the teasing out, the use of memory as elaboration and clarification in the minds of the two main characters. Grace Quinn is English, middleaged, living on a farm in Monaghan with a brutal husband who blames her for the accidental death of their first son Sean. The husband’s drinking causes him to kill a little girl while driving. He gets away lightly with six months imprisonment. When he is released he takes his frustrations out physically on his wife. The other son, Martin, nineteen, tells his parents one evening that he is homosexual. The father assaults him. Martin leaves for Dublin. After receiving a brutal beating (Ridgway spares nothing in the graphics department here), Grace winds up killing her husband by crashing the car into him on the road where he is supposedly praying (is there an unwitting homage to Hamlet here: killing someone at their orisons, and consequently sending their soul to heaven?) at the same spot where he had killed the young girl. Grace escapes to Dublin and locates her son. At first Martin makes her welcome, but when his lover Henry comes home from Paris he finds her presence intrusive. And when she tells Martin that she killed his father, Martin turns against her. This could be problematic for some readers: the mother/son relationship had been built up by the author with reveries of Martin’s childhood with his mother, their loving walks together, the snatched moments of happiness from the tyrannical father. It is difficult it accept that he could turn away from her so suddenly. Also, the narrative changes focus frequently with different character chapters putting a strain on the reader. We are left to wonder who is the central charter, and even secondary characters are given entire chapters to themselves which weakens the narrative thrust. We also lose some sympathy for Martin in his moaning about Dublin beggars; the sense of foreboding is lost (he would have got them off his back if he had simply given them something, which is what his mother did).
The geography of Dublin and its streets are captured very well even if there is perhaps a little too much striving for effect with the many references to the ‘grey rain.’ And although Ridgway writes with a searing honesty about gay life in Dublin, he never explores the mother’s attitude towards her son’s gayness; it’s something that’s just accepted without words; she even goes to the gay bar with her son and his friends with whom she seems to become familiar all too quickly, as if he’d known them all her life, despite the age and cultural difference. Also the X case motif which runs through the novel (with references to it on the news on radio and televisions) about a raped girl seeking the right to travel for an abortion, doesn’t quite work; it belongs to a different story. There are characters waiting at the wings that need development instead of having the author distracting the reader with the X case: Philip, who seems to become Grace’s bosom buddy almost over night, is a cardboard cutout: a handsome goody two shoes. What motivates him to come to the assistance of a middleaged woman, a mere acquaintance? We are not told. And Sean, another of Martin’s friends, the investigative journalist, working on the X case, recording a confession from Grace, thinking he’s on to a big scoop, then tearing up the tape and disappearing from the scene. What was he supposed to represent? Some sort of secondary guilt in causing Grace to leave his flat in disarray? All the worrying of these characters for Grace does not convince – they don’t know her well enough to have such empathy. The problem is that there are too many characters. Philip disappears from a huge chunk of the novel only to reappear in cameo towards the end. We could have learned more about Detective Brady. Why is he sympathetic to Grace? Apart from being from Grace’s home place, what does he know about the father and the family background? There are hints but elaboration here could have added more poignancy to the story. Instead he’s just a shade like most of the others. And Henry – all the expectation built up about him with phone calls – can one say one really knows him?
In fairness, the tension is effectively built up in atmosphere and action. Detective Brady, who has sent the Quinn car to Forensics, has followed Grace to Dublin. She caught a glimpse of him in the gay bar but wasn’t sure; he looked like her dead husband. Leaving Sean’s house after her confession she wanders disorientated in the city. Sean tells Martin that his mother killed his farther. There then follow flashbacks with the two main characters going over those dramatic moments that we already know about; this works well enough. We learn that Grace confessed to Sean because she couldn’t face Martin directly; she knew Sean would tell Martin, but after her city wandering she returns to Martin’s flat and confesses herself to Martin. So why bother having her tell Sean in the first place? Unless perhaps to illustrate the disorientation in her mind, just as she confessed later to the landlady Mrs Talbot in whose house she winds up. We are lost a bit in Martin now as he breaks down in tears and asks her why she killed his father. She says she had no choice but Martin doesn’t buy this and it is hard to accept Martin here who had been defending his mother against the father as both of them suffered brutal assaults at his hands. Could he not understand her motive? And when the police call to Martin’s flat he says straight out to them without their even having to probe, that his mother killed his father.
There seems to be a great hurry to confess crimes as Mrs. Talbot listens to the details from Grace’s mouth. (Would the pathos have been greater if Grace had to bear these secrets alone?). And even this Mrs Talbot, are we convinced that she could be such a willing accomplice to a murderer? And then we’re subjected to all the details about Mrs. Talbot, about her sister and her accident, and her late husband, what befell her family, and we know this is authorial wandering, taking our attention away form the main thrust of the story, just as the X case itself has done in it’s striving for a cleverness which doesn’t come off (even the ambiguity in the ‘let her go, let her go,’ chant of the placard bearers to allow the rape victim to go to England detracts from the murder case in Cootehill which comes only as a secondary news item). There should be more delving into Grace and into Martin, particularly into his sudden turn around in his attitude towards his mother. She would do anything for her son: if giving herself up would bring his love back, she would do that, but she would not wail for her dead husband. But the realisation, despite the distraction of the X case or Mrs Talbot’s wandering talk, does eventually dawn on Grace as the police close in on her, that the killing of her husband did not free her (is that perhaps what Martin was implying by his hostility towards her?) but rather tied her to him ‘more than I ever was. I wanted to spit him out and swallowed him instead’ (P.300). This story, despite its flaws, is moving in its portrayal of a mother and son.
Reviewed by James Lawless for Poetry Ireland online book reviews.
THE LAST EUROPEAN
By David Butler
Wynkin deWorde, paperback, 2005. 245 pp. No price given.
This is the story of Francis Troy, ‘The Bomber Priest’ who was shot dead as he set out with 600 kg of explosives in a van to destroy Stormont and with it the Good Friday Agreement. The story is told posthumously onto a tape (the Dictaphone shutoff is a clever chapter ending) by his nephew to a journalist by means of his uncle’s journals. The nephew at the age of twelve indirectly caused the death of his parents and baby sister by failing to report faulty Christmas lights and, thus orphaned, came to live with his uncle. The nephew slowly and teasingly unfolds the complex nature of his uncle to the journalist, and in so doing attempts to understand what motivated such extreme actions in a human being.
The narrative commences when Frank is on the point of ‘leaving’ the priesthood. He is delusional; he was never ordained, despite claiming he was by Cardinal Conway. He is recovering from a breakdown in Saint John of God’s clinic. He comes across as a very erudite character quoting long passages from various European languages. These passages without translation presume an erudition beyond that of a general reader.
The use of a second person narration may be jarring for some readers initially but one grows to accept it as one deepens into the novel. The author, who is also a poet, is very good on some contemporary descriptions:
‘To the right, the orange city is spread out beneath, unreal, tilting on the inclined table of the bay. It has the shape of a great crab’s claw, traced in neon stitches that are embroidered, in yellows and reds, onto the wide black landscape. Between the points of the claws, the empty maw of the sea. Two hungers.’
Or the description of the face of the clock as ‘paralysed at 12.10’.
However, despite these illuminated moments, far too much of the language in the novel is stilted and almost archaic: ‘thrice’, and favourite repeated words ‘entrails’ and ‘visceral’, and tautologies: ‘halt, lame’. There are wandering, complex sentences in the passive: ‘With the violent contraction of abdomen that had raised me up, my sunglasses had fallen away.’ There are too many abstractions and the dialogue lacks an authentic immediacy: ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you might conjecture….’ Who speaks like that? It smarts of Biblical sermonising rather than normal conversation. One could equally apply to the author what the journalist says of the nephew’s mode of delivery: ‘You’ve a queer way of circumlocuting about the subject.’
Suspense in the novel is generated effectively by the looming threat of Alban Breathnach and his men (the IRA) as they go in pursuit of Frank’s journals. The story is engrossing as we learn slowly of the complex mind of Frank, the narrative interrupting intermittently with streams of consciousness. He is no mere nationalist. He gets beaten up by the Republican left for questioning their ethos.
Although the story is essentially Frank’s, the nephew’s part is not totally convincing. He dismisses his father in a one liner as a bit of a Puritan who left him financially sound. Was there no love there? one wonders. There is little mention of his mother and little emotion or remorse over their deaths or over the death of his baby sister for which he has to be held to blame. One feels the nephew is merely a conduit through which the story of his uncle is meant to flow.
The kernel of meaning in the title of the novel is to be found when Frank, the polyglot and the last European, decries the homogenisation within Europe. The new Europe is no longer a place of uncertainty, the uncertainty that drove men such as Copernicus, Columbus or Cortes to make their discoveries. ‘What faith now,’ he asks ‘when difference is to be effaced in the name of ethical and economic harmony?’ A more important question, however, the reader must answer is, does all this rhetoric really gel with the character of Frank and does it have real relevance to the plot of the novel? I find the thesis interesting and I agree with Butler about the danger of homogenisation within Europe, but this is thesis stuff, and I am not at all sure if it tallies with the character and plot of the story. No more than the apocalyptic dust jacket design of Roger Derham with its doom-laden images from Dante; they are anachronistic and offputting for a modern reader.
As the novel progresses, the characters of Frank and the journalist and the nephew tend to blur into each other. There is no clear differentiation in their voices. And the code names for characters PT1, T2 etc. are confusing and overdone, disconcerting the reader.
However, there are some poignant moments in the novel where Butler removes his mantle of erudition, and striving less for effect, shows his true talent as a writer. Such a moment occurs where, towards the end of the novel, he attempts very convincingly to justify hatred. It is where a woman pathetically tries to rouse a corpse, a casualty of the Northern violence, and a dirty child in the corner faces into the wall:
“‘…JESUS CHRIST, MITCH!!’
She is pummelling the chest with her fists. She is screaming all about her. She is so furious that no one dares to approach her and the dirty child is too terrified even to cry.”
Review in The Stinging Fly, issue 3/volume two, Spring 2006
The Echo Maker
In this his ninth novel, Richard Powers, in a blend of science and myth, tells an intriguing story. On a winter’s night in Nebraska Mark Schluter suffers a near fatal accident when his truck overturns. He is left with Capgras syndrome, believing that his caring sister Karin is an impostor. Karin engages a cognitive neurologist, Gerald Weber, to help her brother. While the book sags a little under its weighty middle, it builds up to be a thriller as discoveries are made particularly about the circumstances of the accident, which alter the lives of these three people. Part of the myth element in the novel is based on the spring migration of sandhill cranes who, in revealing the wildness of simply being, force Weber into a meaning of life crisis. The manner in which Powers fuses the disparate elements from our wired world to the chaos of the universe in an attempt to show the connectedness of all living things is an astonishing achievement.
Review in The Irish Times, 15/03/08.
Pure by Timothy Mo
It is over a decade since Timothy Mo — a three-time contender for the Booker Prize — wrote his last novel. In his new work, Pure, which he describes as a “distillation… where its principals have not always been exigent”, the title plays as much on the impurities of race as it does on the cocaine which the main character Snooky, a Thai transvestite, ingests.
Snooky is a nickname from the Thai word sanook meaning fun, and which the English-educated hedonist in his pink beret and leather trousers prefers to his real name Ahmed. (“Who wants to be fricking Ahmed?”).
This provides Mo with a vehicle through Snooky to poke fun at fundamentalism.
The story — character-driven, as Mo insists — starts slowly with some encyclopaedic and peripatetic musings on diverse themes, not all terrorist-linked, which seem to jar slightly with his professed reverence for the laconic Jorge Luis Borges.
But Mo is a cerebral writer and, while he may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it pays to stay with him.
Although somewhat obsessive about people’s intelligence and whether they got “a first” or not, his insight into education — “It is not important to be right, it doesn’t matter at all if you’re wrong: only keep an open mind” — links well into the satire on the self-righteousness of zealots and the futility and self-contradiction of religious wars.
Mo, through the mouthpiece of Snooky, doesn’t mince his words: he is equally scathing when attacking the “harridan” Thatcher or the “cretin” Reagan or when referring to “Yah Royal Heinous” Diana or vanity-published authors whose “misconstructions, infelicities and frank paroxysms of incorrect grammar could reduce us to helpless hysterics”.
Snooky is a film critic and Mo makes use of this to show off his considerable film knowledge and apply it wittily to question staid concepts of East and West and to show that there are similarities in what are normally perceived as polarised cultures; for example Hollywood Westerns, Snooky illustrates, share many of the techniques of Eastern tales.
The narrative cranks up eventually when Snooky is caught in a drugs bust, and is blackmailed to infiltrate a pondok or religious school which acts as cover for jihadists planning to set up a caliphate in South East Asia.
On one of the islands they visit in pursuit of this aim, a perceptive Snooky observes that, while the authorities can scan their bags for bombs, they can’t scan their heads for subversive ideas.
Snooky’s handler in this enterprise is Victor, an old Oxford (Brecon in the novel) don and MI6 veteran.
The email interplay between him and Snooky is a good set piece with the spine-chilling refrain: Your message has been sent.
But the horror of mass destruction, so tellingly adumbrated in the book, is balanced by humorous interjections: “For God sake, Victor, you’re going to kill an undergraduate one day”. “Cull one would be the word,” Victor replies; or Snoopy in a bookshop browsing — “something cows and the intelligentsias do”; or George with whom Spooky liaised “was an economist (the modern witchcraft) and a canny Scot”.
We glean some of Mo’s prose mastery in his description of the half-blind Imam Umar, assistant to Shaykh, the jihadist leader: “His coffee-brown complexion set off the snowiness of his beard as if the latter was a cameo carving on shell but his nacreous orbs glowed in that dark face like the eyes of an alien, albeit a sociable one.”
With its fresh and imaginative insights into our contemporary multicultural world, this book is of the moment and coupled with nuances and puns, Joycean at times in their occasional stream of consciousness, it could be fourth time lucky and the Booker year for this talented author.
Review by James Lawless in Sunday Independent, May 27, 2012