Book Review: Northern Irish Writing After The Troubles

northern irish writing

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“The body is our tool for understanding our social world, and the texts in this study not only foreground the complex ways in which our bodies come into contact with others and are ‘read’ but also help us interpret the situations in which we find ourselves.”

Northern Irish Writing After the Troubles is an academic textbook. Its author, Caroline Magennis, is Reader in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Literature at the University of Salford. She wrote the book as part of Bloomsbury Academic’s ‘New Horizons in Contemporary Writing’ series. All this is to say that it is not a publication I would normally be drawn to read. It offers a detailed study and critique of contemporary fiction by writers from the North of Ireland focusing, as the strapline suggests, on intimacies, affects and pleasures. As an avid reader of Irish authors, and having reviewed books for close to a decade albeit as a hobbyist, I found her reading and interpretations of books I was familiar with fascinating and educative.

The introduction explains the author’s aims in writing the book, and her criteria in selecting the fiction featured.

“The texts in this project have been chosen because they speak to the central concerns of the monograph: how small moments of intimacy can be transformative. They begin to rewrite and reshape the representation of intimate life in Northern Ireland.”

The various stories, so carefully considered, were written around twenty years after the signing of the Good Friday agreement. Although ‘post-conflict’, they reflect a community that continues to live in the shadow of decades of violence and societal repression. Northern Ireland’s politicians have ensured that the province retains outdated laws that limit and condemn certain choices and intimacies.

The first section of the book considers intimacy further.

“This chapter will argue that recent novels and short stories demonstrate the richness of intimacy as a way to re-examine the experiences of Northern Irish people in the twenty-first century.”

Texts studied include Michael Hughes’s Country, Wendy Erskine’s Sweet Home, Jan Carson’s The Fire Starters, Phil Harrison’s The First Day and Lucy Caldwell’s Intimacies. I say studied. The author offers a close reading but this is not the dissection readers may recall from school English classes. Having read three of these books I was captivated by aspects of the stories that I had missed.

Wendy Erskine has stated,

“I want to write about people living their everyday lives, going to their jobs and doing their dishes or whatever but dealing with quite complex and profound sorts of issues.”

Magennis explores within each text concepts such as: home, family, desire and its relationship with violence. Northern Irish children are described as “unfortunate heirs of someone else’s spite”.

The second section of the book considers pleasure. Texts studied include Billy Cowan’s Still Ill, Glenn Patterson’s The Rest Just Follows, Lucy Caldwell’s Here We Are and Rosemary Jenkinson’s Wild Women.

“The focus will be on the depiction of pleasure, particularly sexual, to see whether these texts offer new ways of being an erotic subject in the changed political climate”

Appetites for pleasure face the restrictions and repression of ingrained moral conservatism. Opponents of change employ guilt and shame alongside the violence endemic in a patriarchal society.

It is noted that

“critics want literature to do things that politicians in Northern Ireland seem unable or unwilling to do”

In Northern Irish writing, “the expression of sexual freedom often comes at a cost”. Of course, there is hypocrisy, such as the Orange Order member who condemns prostitution yet visits brothels. Ian Paisley preached that the lusts of the flesh were sinful. One wonders at the quality of his personal life.

The third section, Skin, builds on aspects highlighted in previous chapters. Texts studied include David Park’s Gods and Angels, Rosemary Jenkinson’s Aphrodite’s Kiss, Bernie McGill’s Sleepwalkers, and Róisín O’Donnell’s Wild Quiet.

Jenkinson’s writing in particular appears explicitly erotic. She writes of female agency, of access to medical treatment, of loneliness. She gives voice to thoughts and actions traditionally shamed.

Anna Burns’ Milkman is given its own chapter, presenting as it does “the central themes that this study has been organised around: intimacy, touch and pleasure.”

“Burns examines the communal experience of shame, a public emotion which is particularly corrosive to self-esteem and which is monitored and policed by the community”

Living within a narrow neighbourhood where expressions of joy are regarded with suspicion, mental health issues intolerable (sufferers should catch themselves on), voicing of emotional states taboo.

Again, Ian Paisley preached that dancing was sinful, an opinion that has seeped through consciences resulting in what Jan Carson described as a tightness in her body, a constraint, that the Wee Sisters in Burns’ book had yet to inherit.

“To move your body out of pleasure is to assert that you think your body matters. That you matter. It is an assertion of pleasure, of pride and of autonomy.”

As someone born and raised in Northern Ireland this came across as radical – that women can matter in themselves.

The book is concluded with a short chapter titled Open Endings in which the author adds further context to the detailed yet always accessible study she has written. There is a reminder that more writers are producing work each year, and that younger writers will draw on different autobiographical elements when creating fiction, a progression from those who experienced life during the decades of sectarian violence. She voices an interest in the impact of The Troubles legacy across the next generation.

“As critics who have ‘skin in the game’, we must move away from centring the voices that we know and respond to because their experiences mirror our own and pay attention to the new writers who will reshape the cultural landscape”

A coda enables the authors whose work is featured to write of the intimacy, in its varied forms, that they included within their work.

I stated earlier that I found this study fascinating. Although detailed and academically rigorous it is not heavy. For those of us who indulge in careful consideration of the stories we choose to read it offers a lesson in how to do so better.

Any Cop?: With much fine writing currently emerging from Northern Ireland this is a companion work well worth looking out for when it becomes more economically available, as it will.

Jackie Law

Book Review: A Passage North

passage north

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“…she wouldn’t have been able to hear the music, which such films relied upon so heavily to set up the emotional valence of the scene, to tell the audience whether they should be sad or hopeful or anxious or fearful. She couldn’t have had any sense of the plot, any sense of why something was happening and what consequences it would have for the characters … to watch a film without listening to it was to experience it at a remove…”

A Passage North is an intensely introspective account of a few days in the life of Krishnan, a young man who has moved back to his family home in Colombo and is living an unfulfilling existence. The story opens with an evening phone call in which he is informed of the death of Rani, his grandmother’s former caregiver. Earlier that day Krishnan had received an email from an ex-lover, Anjum, her first attempt at communication since their relationship ended several years ago. It is around these two strands that the unfolding tale is constructed.

Krishnan moved to Delhi to complete his education and then study further. It was here that he met Anjum and started an affair that appeared to mean more to him than to her. She is an interesting character but the reader sees her only through Krishnan’s eyes. With hindsight he can observe that his hopes for a life with her could never have been fulfilled.

“…his response to Anjum was no different from that of so many people, men especially but women too, who seeing someone whose external appearance could sustain all their fantasies, proceeded to project everything they desired onto this person, acting surprised when they realized, weeks or months or years later, that the actual person was different from the image they’d formed, that the actual person had a history and an identity of their own that would not remain silent, responding to this discovery with indignation, as if they’d been lied to or misled…”

While Krishnan was living in India, a war was raging in the north of Sri Lanka that culminated in mass killings of indigenous Tamil people. Rani lost her two sons in this conflict, scars she couldn’t recover from. Krishnan decides he will travel to Rani’s home village to attend her funeral. It is during the train journey he takes that many of his ruminations are shared. The reader learns the detail of how Rani came to work for the family following a marked deterioration in the grandmother’s health.

Dissonance and guilt are described as Krishnan, a Tamil living abroad, learns of atrocities happening in a place he considers home while he remains safe far away. When his relationship with Anjum flounders he takes a job in the north of Sri Lanka, perhaps an attempt to prove his worth after his student dissipations. When this does not provide what he is looking for he moves south where he is now sleeping in his childhood bedroom.

The author employs long sentences in the narrative that go into huge detail on what Krishnan is thinking. As well as events impacting his family, and his relationship with Anjum, he reflects on poems and stories that, at a time in his past, affected him. This isn’t a glimpse into a young man’s thought processes so much as excavation.

In many ways Krishnan is so self-absorbed as to lack empathy. Habits appear almost child-like, such as the pleasure he derives from the rationed cigarettes he permits himself, his smoking of them carried out illicitly. While in Delhi his chosen behaviour was more openly accepted by him – drugs a common feature of social gatherings. Anjum comes across as taking more pleasure in the moment whereas Krishnan is seeking something he cannot quite grasp – experiencing at a remove without appreciating the nuances of his surrounds.

Although undoubtedly well written in a literary sense, the story has more density than depth. Krishnan may elicit sympathy with his lack of direction and unmet desire for fulfilment but he looks inside himself more than at the impact of what is happening beyond. He admires a landscape for what it makes him feel. He observes Rani’s funeral with almost scientific detachment. The philosophical ideas explored in the text are interesting to consider but the story lacks the element of engaging entertainment.

Any Cop?: A book that can be admired yet failed to captivate. Perhaps a worthy candidate for the Booker Prize but this reader would prefer a more enjoyable story to win.

Jackie Law

Book Review: An Island

an island

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

An Island tells the story of Samuel, who is seventy years old when the tale opens. For the previous twenty-three years he has tended a lighthouse on a rocky islet, where he cultivates vegetables and keeps chickens. Requested supplies are delivered by boat each fortnight. Other than these brief visits, he lives alone.

Occasional bodies are washed up on his shores, refugees who have perished and who he buries. The authorities have no interest in those whose skin colour and facial features mark them as foreign.

The book is structured across four days that unfold in short segments with many flashbacks. On the first day Samuel finds the body of a man who turns out not to be as dead as he first appears. Although unwelcome, Samuel cannot bring himself to leave the incomer to perish. With some difficulty he moves the inert form to his cottage. When the man recovers consciousness they struggle to communicate as neither speaks the other’s language. Samuel grows paranoid about the stranger’s intentions, especially when he starts to make himself too much at home.

Samuel’s backstory is gradually revealed when incidents remind him of events from his past. As a boy he and his family were driven from their rural valley smallholding by colonisers – the end of his peaceful and happy time. Those who survived the clearance fled to the city where they joined the ranks of beggars making trinkets to sell. At best this provided a subsistence living.

The unnamed African country goes through further periods of turmoil. The colonisers are replaced by a dictator who makes promises of improvement but feathers only the nests of himself and his supporters. Any who are caught speaking out against him are punished severely.

As a young man Samuel wanted to find a tribe he could belong to, latching on to a group of petty criminals and then a gathering of rebels. Neither, however, truly welcomed him. Given his circumstances and behaviour, it was no surprise to learn he ended up in prison for a time. Samuel had aspirations but little opportunity. However much he may have longed for acclaim, to make a difference amidst the poverty and turbulence, if he was to survive he could not be a hero.

“The films showed lovers, dance clubs, drugs and traffickers, as though that was all of it, everything. As though there were no history, and all the past was something that happened elsewhere, to be remembered by others.”

The brush strokes of Samuel’s past life help explain why he sought a solitary existence and struggled with trust. After his many challenging experiences, the island became his hard won refuge. When the stranger is thrust upon him he shows a degree of mercy but cannot set aside his ingrained fears, exacerbated by how hard he has worked to create a home. As the story is told only from Samuel’s point of view, the stranger remains an enigma. This works well in making him any man from elsewhere.

The author has crafted a subtle yet piercing portrayal of the costs of human subjugation and repeated rejection. Fear of the other has been inculcated, encouraged by those wielding authority. The writing is spare and evocative, the reader trusted to understand the whys and wherefores. Samuel’s island existence is rendered skillfully, his fears understood however abject.

Any Cop?: This is a fine literary achievement with which engagement is effortless. A thoughtful and lingering story that deserves its Booker Prize longlisting.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Beethoven

beethoven

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“I do not write for the multitude – I write for the cultured!”

Ludwig van Beethoven has been described by some as the greatest ever composer of Western classical music. Numerous biographies of the man have been written, creating an image of an eccentric genius. Laura Tunbridge states that she wished to cut through the myths and place Beethoven’s life in its historical context. She employs a structure of nine of his compositions, exploring not just the Vienna in which he lived and worked but also the audiences available at the time, whose willingness to promote and attend musical performances was key to building renown. Beethoven harboured a lifelong desire for cultural acclaim alongside the practical support of wealthy patrons.

The book opens with three introductory sections. These set out: the financial struggles Beethoven faced, caused mostly by the Napoleonic Wars; musical terms employed in his compositions; the musical and family background in Bonn that shaped him, including his father’s wish that Ludwig be a prodigy in the manner of Mozart. On his first visit to Vienna, Beethoven captured the attention of the much lauded Mozart but then had to leave due to his mother’s final illness. He returned to the city for a second time to study under Haydn and did not return.

In Vienna, the ‘van’ in his name was wrongly assumed to be equal to the ‘von’ used in Austria – of noble birth. This suited Beethoven well. From early on he believed that the music he created was of a high order and deserving attention. He cultivated friendships that granted him access to those he needed to impress to raise money and build prestige. He wished to be heard by ‘educated listeners’ who would appreciate the difficulties inherent in playing his compositions. He had no interest in creating ‘crowd pleasers’.

“the practice of using the arts to assert cultural supremacy has been around for a long time”

There are marked differences between Beethoven’s early works and those from his later period. Some of this was down to changes in instrument design, allowing for greater range and a more robust sound. He worked through the ‘transition from creating music of ‘feeling’ to ‘art’’.

“Music was no longer to be merely an entertaining or interesting diversion but something more substantial”

Beethoven embraced this change fully, challenging what was possible. Given that performances at the time required musicians who would only have one or two rehearsals before playing to a captive audience, this approach could result in cacophony.

“His music could quickly reach the point when those who do not understand its rules and enjoy its difficulties would find no pleasure in it … complexity for its own sake”

The nine sections in the book offer as much musicology as exploration of the composer’s character and motivations. The history of the time is interesting but to fully appreciate the study of the music discussed one may need more of a background knowledge and interest than I possess. At times the discussion of musical terms and form became soporific.

The man himself does not sound appealing. Described as ‘sensitive, irritable and suspicious’ he comes across as arrogant and hypocritical. For example, he frequented brothels yet condemned his sister-in-law for sleeping with men she was not married to. He fought in the courts for custody of his nephew yet treated him terribly, resulting in the boy running away on several occasions.

As Beethoven’s music became ever more dense – and he, internationally famous – acquaintances would offer platitudes and practical help to gain access and curry favour by association. Others were more pragmatic, willing to offer criticism as audiences walked out of performances due to the chaotic and incomprehensible noise being made.

“its difficulty became a sign of its greatness. Effort had to be put in not only to play this music but to understand it too”

Unlike certain of his patrons, Beethoven was neither pleasant nor humble. He would sell exclusive, advance rights for his compositions to multiple sources. Money was a driver for this but also his belief in his own artistic worth – that it deserved greater recompense. Of course, an artist doesn’t have to be ‘nice’ to be lauded a genius – especially by the self-appointed arbiters of taste and artistic appreciation. I pondered if, as now in many creative spheres, certain fans and critics saw in his art what they thought they should.

Beethoven relied on unpaid helpers as well as his numerous if not always reliable patrons. He fell out with many of his contemporaries due to the way he treated them. One may question if his musical output was heavy, dense or brilliant. At the time, much of his later work was too difficult to play so was not well received by audiences and performers in a changing demographic.

The author is honest in her portrayal of an artist who remains something of an enigma, a construct built from myths propagated over centuries. The reader gains a picture of a man frustrated in his personal life and believing himself undervalued. He was not unappreciated in his own lifetime but the plaudits poured on him rarely appeared enough to please.

Any Cop?: In picking this book to read I did not expect there to be quite so much parsing of the chosen musical compositions. This detail aids understanding of classical structure but I suspect I am not the intended reader. Nevertheless, I gained a better understanding of Beethoven’s life, character and motivations in what is otherwise an engaging tale. That I didn’t find anything to like in the man is neither here nor there.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Unwell Women

unwell women

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

I read my way through Unwell Women in a prolonged and barely suppressed rage. Women and girls the world over know we are routinely demeaned – effectively silenced – and this account of historical treatment lays bare the toll it has taken on our health, mental and physical. The author presents the facts clearly, maintaining engagement and never shying away from topics rarely discussed openly – ‘women’s problems’ and how we are expected to go through life quietly, grinning and bearing. I pondered if male readers would have any interest or dismiss this well researched and presented account as a rant, females still being regarded as overly emotional – hysterical – and in need of calming down, by whatever means.

Divided into three main sections, the first of these explores how medical knowledge developed from the time of the Ancient Greeks to the nineteenth century. Throughout most of this period, women’s bodies remained a mystery. Each month they would bleed. They grew babies. They complained of pains men didn’t experience so were probably imagined. As their father’s and then their husband’s property, it mattered that females remained amenable, attractive, modest and faithful. They were vessels for men’s sexual satisfaction and, most importantly, procreation.

“They were seen as weaker, slower, smaller versions of the male ideal, deficient and defective precisely because of their difference to men … in writings that would become the foundations of scientific medical discourse and practise, unwell women emerged as a mass of pathological wombs.”

The required modesty cost lives. Women were made to feel ashamed of their bodies – sinful temptresses. In the powerful Christian world it was, after all, the first woman, Eve, who ‘ruined everything because of her desirous and disobedient ways.’ Girls and women were expected to remain covered even when seeking medical treatment, untouched by the always male physician. Ingrained shame and ignorance in medical matters led to them being regarded as unreliable narrators of their own bodily suffering. An early pamphlet written in the thirteenth or fourteenth century stated ‘the female body is inherently flawed and defective in many of its functions.’

Female healers and midwives existed. Educated women worked tirelessly throughout history to improve care but were routinely dismissed by men who retained the power to effect change.

“the male writers espousing this nonsense understood only too well that women had to be exempted from the hallowed halls of medicine if they themselves were to maintain their stranglehold.”

A great many aspects are covered in this comprehensive and gripping history, much of it disturbing and, at times, horrifying. When physicians were eventually permitted to examine women (their reproductive physiology was considered an inverted version of men’s) treatments offered for a plethora of misunderstood problems included operations to cut off clitorises and crush ovaries. Alongside the need to suppress female excitability – bad for the nerves in already nervy creatures – the ideologies of eugenics were emerging in medical aims and practice.

The second section of the book, covering the late nineteenth century to the 1940s, saw the slow emergence of hard fought for advances in women’s rights as well as medical knowledge. Doctors still regarded women as sexual objects and child bearing machines. Birth control was frowned upon, abortions illegal and therefore carried out in secret. Women reporting gynaecological pain were regarded as overly sensitive – neurotic and requiring rest away from any form of stimulation. Typical treatments offered for common ailments such as uterine fibroids, and cancers in reproductive areas, were often as dangerous as the problems they claimed to cure. Doctors were keen to further their reputations – for financial reasons as well as ego. Women – particularly those not valued, such as sex workers and the criminalised – were useful subjects for experimental procedures. Troublesome wives and daughters were readily presented for surgical interventions.

The final section covers 1945 to the present day. Although much more was now understood about how a woman’s body functioned, many female complaints still couldn’t be explained and were dismissed as psychosomatic.

“In an era when a mentally healthy woman was a serene wife and mother, almost any behaviour or emotion that disrupted domestic harmony could be interpreted as justification for a lobotomy … And the success of the lobotomy was measured according to how obligingly she resumed her household duties.”

Although much of the book focuses on the way privileged, often white, women were treated by the medical establishment over the centuries, chapters also cover attitudes towards Black and ethnically diverse women. There are accounts of how slaves were believed to have higher pain thresholds, and how entire communities in economically deprived regions were enrolled in clinical trials without being informed of potential side-effects. There may have been a need for family planning to improve maternal health, but birth control was regarded as a means of limiting procreation amongst those deemed eugenically undesirable.

I mentioned the rage I felt reading this book. Despite the impressive progress in medical treatment and knowledge, so many of the attitudes detailed here are still recognisable and widespread. They manifest as: banter, mansplaining, paternalistic teasing, bafflement when women do not appreciate a well meant gesture, anger when men feel underappreciated or disrespected. Women want to be treated as fully human, not simply a vessel available for sex and procreation.

I pondered the choices parents around the world make when offered the chance to gender select an unborn child. Boys are still widely chosen more often than girls. Biomedical research funding focuses on finding treatments for ailments suffered by men. Clinical trial subjects have, over decades, mostly been white and male. Unexplained chronic pain reported by women – even that with testable biological markers – is often dismissed with ‘withering glances, eye-rolls, smirks and heavy sighs.’ It can take years of suffering before tests are offered and treatment made available.

The medical histories detailed here are mainly USA and UK based. In these supposedly forward thinking countries, women still struggle to maintain autonomy over their bodies. Access to abortion requires a doctor’s permission and is not available in certain places, such as Northern Ireland. Many of women’s illnesses remain a mystery and are not taken seriously.

The first step in finding a solution is recognising there is a problem, making this an important work. What we need though are advocates who will be heard, not silenced as shrill and hysterical. If history tells us anything it is that the treatment of unwell women is of little interest to men while their needs continue to be met.

Any Cop?: Read this book and be aware of how ingrained and widespread the prejudices are – then learn to listen when unwell women speak.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Things Are Against Us

things are against us

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“But when do women get to dream? How about allowing us a few whims too once in a while? How about indulging women in the belief that we look okay, or that we’re okay mothers and daughters, or that we have okay things to say or do?”

Lucy Ellmann has strong opinions and is not afraid to say what she thinks. In this collection of fourteen essays she rails against the damage caused by patriarchal systems of governance, especially to the natural world and its less powerful or privileged inhabitants. Her solution to the competitive idiocy inflicted by men is to pass over control of all money to women. Her arguments are caustically persuasive – eruptions of rage and despair at what the males of our species have been allowed to get away with. If this sounds too philippic fear not; the essays are as full of wit as wisdom.

The book opens with the titular essay, an amusing riff on how THINGS make life so much more frustrating and difficult in a plethora of ways readers will recognise.

“Your alarm clock will often disturb a good dream. At other times, its battery will die and you’ll miss an appointment. The milk goes off. A water pipe will whine, or burst, and there’s not a THING you can do about it. No matter how old you are, grapefruit will always spit in your eye. The aim of those THINGS is uncanny.”

Next up are a couple of essays that focus on America, where the author was born and lived until she was a teenager. It will come as no surprise to anyone that she despises Trump and his gun-toting sycophants.

From here there is a natural segue into her arguments against the patriarchy. The sixth essay, ‘A Spell of Patriarchy’, will likely be enjoyed most by those who have watched the many classic films referenced. I have not but could still enjoy the read.

Unlike Ellmann I have never found pleasure in reading Dickens. I have, however, enjoyed some crime fiction. Ellmann really doesn’t rate crime fiction, a view she explains in ‘Ah, Men. Certain readers may take offence at this but, if they can get past what they may feel are attacks on their art or choice of entertainment, the essays herein are cleverly constructed and poke fun at many accepted behaviours.

Whilst I may not agree with all the author’s opinions, I did on the points she makes about descriptions of outward appearances in ‘Third Rate Zeroes’. She ponders how fixated so many are on what someone looks like given this is a ‘minor, accidental, and temporary achievement.’

“How much time in life and in literature has already been wasted on mean, irrelevant, and soon outdated notions of beauty? You know, so what if Cinderella was beautiful and her step-sisters weren’t? Is this really really the key to an understanding of human capacity? Is it fair? Is it even entertaining?”

‘Morning Routine Girls’ explores the disturbing growth of young girls promoting beauty products on their YouTube channels. This follows ‘Bras: A Life Sentence’. Both essays may make female readers question why they have accepted the supposed need for either cosmetic intervention.

Ellmann has a soft spot for the Little House series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, writing of this in ‘The Woman of the House. Although referring to the softening of certain hardships endured for Wilder’s intended young readership, Ellmann doesn’t mention the erasure of Laura’s dead siblings from the story, those who perished at birth or as infants. I shared her enjoyment of these books growing up but not her view that this simpler existence was, ‘Not a bad way to live, on the whole.’

Neither would I now wish to live without electricity as she considers in ‘Sing the Unelectric!‘ I do, however, concur with her views on wastefulness. The lack of longevity of many modern goods and devices is a growing concern now that mechanical operations have been replaced by computer controlled sealed units whose manufacture and disposal is so damaging to the environment. So many points made by Ellmann deserve consideration however much detail may be agreed with.

My favourite essay in the collection is ‘The Lost Art of Staying Put in which the author questions why humans choose to travel for so called pleasure. It is expensive, bad for the planet, and many tourists demand that locals not only speak their language but also provide food and accommodation to match the quality they are used to from home – why leave?

“Travel kills as much knowledge, taste and culture as it purportedly spreads. The compulsion for sameness has an insidious effect: languages, costume, dialects and accents start to die out as soon as the Coke and jeans and T-shirts arrive.”

I enjoyed that the home city focused on was Edinburgh (where Ellmann lives) rather than London or Paris – a refreshing change in literary musings.

For readers who enjoyed Ducks, Newburyport, many of these essays include lists (although also a variety of punctuation). The tenacity of the writing is familiar if more succinct.

Ellmann admits to being a tad glib at times but this approach enables her to get across the points she wishes to make pithily. She despairs of the world men have made and seeks change. Many of her observations and opinions may appear tongue-in-cheek but should not be dismissed as unintended to be taken seriously.

Any Cop?: A much enjoyed read however much may or may not be agreed with. Urgent, angry and often very funny.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Whereabouts

whereabouts

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Jhumpa Lahiri is a multi-award winning author who had somehow passed under my radar. I am pleased to have now rectified this. Another reviewer described her writing style perfectly: “Lahiri spins gold out of the straw of ordinary lives”.

The narrator of the story is an accomplished and independent woman. Due to a mix of life choices made and circumstance, she lives alone in her Italian city flat. Her day to day existence is ordered and materially comfortable. The routines she has developed keep her grounded, although at times she mulls possibilities missed through roads avoided.

“Is there any place we’re not moving through?”

Structured in short chapters, the reader is taken on a journey through the woman’s daily habits and wider experiences. She shares observations on: her surroundings, her thoughts on those encountered, herself and how she reacts. There is an underlying melancholy to many of the musings. Insights shared are succinct and candid, raising issues of interest alongside personal history.

The narrator’s childhood generated an abiding dislike of her parents. She still visits her mother but derives little pleasure from the older woman’s company.

“In spite of how she’s clung to me over the years, my point of view doesn’t interest her, and this gulf between us has taught me what solitude really means.”

There are regular catch-ups with a variety of acquaintances, although the narrator can be scathing about those they introduce her to. On meeting a childhood friend’s husband for the first time, when the couple visit the city with their child, she writes of his pomposity, considering him ill-mannered.

“He mentions that his father was a diplomat and that he was raised all over the world. […] The city doesn’t enchant him, after just two days he’s complaining about our haphazard way of life. […] And I wonder, what exactly did he learn about the world after living in all those different countries?”

Mentions of past lovers attempt to normalise that some were married. There is a brief temptation to take a platonic relationship with the husband of a friend further. Mostly she accepts her solitude and the freedom it brings to live as she chooses. Her life is notably one of comfort and privilege, as are the lives of those she mixes with.

One chapter describes a vacation at an empty country house, offered by the owner as a pick-me-up when the woman goes through an unexplained hard patch. There is a visceral description of her reaction to a decapitated mouse – how the mind can induce absurd terror from unexpected minor upsets. Such insights are presented with consummate clarity.

The honesty in the writing at times includes negative traits. These are dissected with the same candour as all other thoughts and feelings shared. The narrator exhibits a selfishness she is free to nurture as she lives alone and may choose who to spend time with – and when.

Despite her attainments, the woman lacks confidence in certain areas.

“I’ve always felt in someone’s shadow, even though I don’t have to compare myself to brothers who are smarter, or to sisters who are prettier.”

Unlike most of the writing in this tale, the gender divide inherent in this thought grated.

The woman describes herself as disoriented, bewildered and uprooted yet she comes across as solidly able – capable of thinking through experiences and expressing herself clearly. This begs the question what has been omitted – what aspects she has chosen not to share.

The final chapter provides an excellent metaphor for the sadness of the ingrained detachment she has cultivated – of moments missed through her unwillingness to step outside the comfort zone created. The narrator is aware of this shortcoming, and that the bricks on which a life is built often crumble. She ponders the possibility of change.

The short vignettes provide a window into the woman’s world but are far from a complete back-story or description of her current situation. This adds to the story’s skilful pacing and how strands are woven together.

Any Cop?: A spare yet evocative study of a chosen existence presented with impressive lucidity. A reminder that lives move forward, ripples intersecting, ramifications rarely predictable.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Intimacies

intimacies

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Intimacies is a collection of eleven short stories that delve, with exquisite and piercing insight, into the lives of young Irish women at home and away. Many of the protagonists in these tales have chosen to leave the isle but retain the shadows of their upbringing. Motherhood features strongly – the impact of having, wanting or not wanting children.

The opening story, ‘Like This’, is a stomach twisting freefall evocation of the fear a mother feels when she realises her child may have been abducted by a stranger. The everyday problems encountered when taking both a toddler and baby out, in an attempt to entertain them, are laid bare. The taut prose is all the more powerful for how viscerally the unfolding situation is conveyed. It is a masterwork in the art of succinct storytelling.

After such a strong beginning the reader may wonder how momentum may be maintained. Have no concerns. Each of the following stories offers depth and erudition, weaving important topics that colour women’s lives and relationships into their everyday experiences. Alongside the mothers exhausted by the demands of beloved children are women suffering miscarriage, and those seeking abortion in a country where this is still illegal. The author ably demonstrates that shock tactics are unnecessary when traumas in regular life have been normalised, admitting to them made shameful.

‘People Tell You Everything’ is set in a contemporary Shoreditch workplace. It explores misunderstandings – the humiliation that can be experienced when love is unrequited. The characters view each other through a lens in which their personal desires are reflected. When reality bites the hurt can become hard to live with.

Marriage is portrayed with poignancy but also humour.

“It was Friday night so we were having a glass of wine while we looked at our phones.”

Men may be secondary characters but they are permitted to be good people.

‘Words for Things’ is quite brilliant. Two young mothers – long time friends – are discussing Monica Lewinsky, how as teenagers they judged this twenty-two year old employee caught in the web of a lecherous American president. The story offers a perspective on how people change as their understanding deepens.

“Tonya Harding, Amy Winehouse, Shannon Doherty, Britney Spears. Because the thing was, it wasn’t just Monica Lewinsky. It was all the other women too, who used to be sort-of laughing stocks, and who – you suddenly realised – turned out to be something else entirely.”

Religion, of course, warrants a mention. ‘Jars of Clay’ is set around the Irish vote to legalise abortion under certain circumstances. An earnest if blinkered church group from America have travelled to Dublin to try to persuade people to vote against this proposed change. Their arguments are well rehearsed but even the eager young believer in their midst cannot entirely tamp down her doubts about their mission when confronted by the reality of lived experience.

The Children’ is a powerful tale of the bond between mothers and their children told with reference to Caroline Norton – a 19th century activist – whose callous husband used his legal powers of ownership to ensure severance when she left him after a series of life affecting beatings.

“Cut off from her children after an acrimonious split, she went about changing the law for wives and mothers.”

In the contemporary timeline the narrator is concerned for the viability of her own pregnancy. Each of these stories offers up multiple, entwined issues for consideration.

‘All the People were Mean and Bad’ is set during a flight from Toronto to London. A young mother struggling with her baby is assisted by an older man sitting next to her. There are many layers to peel back in what is a story of marriage and parenthood.

The collection ends with ‘Devotions’ – a reminder of the intensity of love for a child at each stage of their growth, and how quickly the emotional detail of moments that felt so precious fade as lives move inexorably forward.

Several of the characters in these stories muse that their young children will not even remember the events that cost their mothers so much effort and anguish, that what children do remember is often that which caused them pain rather than pleasure.

The writing is seriously impressive – incisive, heartfelt, and always engaging. At times while reading it had me in pieces as I recalled my own experiences as a young woman and mother, but it provides so much more than relatability.

Any Cop?: A mighty collection in which each and every story deserves to be savoured. If you have not yet discovered Lucy Caldwell’s fiction, start here.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Bitterhall

bitterhall

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Bitterhall is a story of intersecting lives and the effects of childhood experiences on how a person manages relationships. It is also a ghost story of sorts, including a murder mystery. Set in contemporary times but with disturbing undercurrents from the past, the narrative offers three perspectives on events that occurred over some weeks one autumn in recent history.

The first key character to be introduced is Daniel – thirty-six years old and one of three tenants living in a large house in a northern city. He works at the local university where his innovative work is nearing fruition. He has recently stolen an historic diary from a long time friend.

Daniel is attracted to the most recent tenant to take up residence in the house share. Tom is handsome, works in marketing, and is in a new relationship with Órla, a PhD student. Daniel discovers he has an affinity with Órla that he rarely enjoys with anyone. It is these three who recount the unfolding tale.

The third tenant, Badr, appears more centred than the rest. Also living in the house is Minto, the reclusive owner of the place.

In the opening section of the book there is a suggestion of suppressed violence in Daniel’s behaviour. He worries about how he appears to others, often choosing his own company as less stressful. His recollections focus on the insular – observing but rarely empathising.

Órla lives in another house share but stays over with Tom regularly. She is already waiting to have her heart broken, trying hard to tamp down this expectation.

“I loathed this being the one running after; I wanted to be the one people chase.”

When Tom starts reading the stolen diary, his behaviour notably changes. Órla grows worried but has little idea how to help.

“He has succeeded where I haven’t in becoming plural. And it’s not just down to me it happened – he split himself. He was split. Something clawed at him and he let it in and in the process let himself out. Selfletting, like bloodletting.”

By the time narrative shifts to Tom’s perspective it has become clear that some uncanny force has manifested. Órla turns to Daniel for help.

Tom lives his life in cycles, accepting that each will end. He is currently at the start of a new sexual cycle with Órla. His current job has lost its appeal and he desires change. He is disturbed by his reaction to Daniel and this is exacerbated by the diary’s effect on him. Is the force it unleashes obsession or possession?

“Everyone is drenched in ghosts – there are so many more dead people than alive – so it takes a cut to let them get in.”

There is an oblique quality to each of the character’s remembrances that, while building depth to events recounted, remain skewed by personal perspectives. The stealthy progression will lead the reader to examine what they believe.

The story starts at the housewarming party organised when Tom moves in. A second party, held at the home of the owner of the diary, is pivotal. The denouement is masterfully rendered exposing a truth many may try to avoid accepting. Spectres are raised over how much control anyone can have over their own feelings and behaviour – and how much they can influence the actions of those they care for.

Within each character’s sections the book is structured in short chapters with intriguing headings. Although this bite sized approach maintains pace, I found chapters meaty, requiring pauses for digestion. I was fully engaged but could not rush the reading.

Any Cop?: A skilfully shadowed story that will creep into the reader’s psyche inducing a questioning of possibilities. An exploration of the power of the mind – how difficult it can be to control when personal fears are triggered.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Fragments of an Infinite Memory

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“I’m thirty-seven years old; I went online for the first time when I was nineteen; I can still say I’ve lived more than half my life without the internet, though this ratio will soon tip the other way.”

Maël Renouard is a French writer and translator. He has taught philosophy at the Sorbonne and the École Normale Supérieure. In this, his latest book, he muses on how day to day life has changed due to ease of access to the internet – smart phones providing a plethora of knowledge, news and entertainment on demand.

Across eleven chapters, the author offers short opinion pieces and recollections – vignettes that look at how sites such as YouTube, Wikipedia, Google Earth and Facebook have changed how people curate their lives and memories.

“Who hasn’t gone on the internet looking for past loves and friends one hasn’t seen in years? Time lost in search of lost time.”

He posits that views of the world and self have changed, and that internet apps have altered how we interact as well as how we anticipate and then record experiences.

The second chapter opens with a list of comments left below YouTube videos of hits from a number of past decades. The nostalgia evoked is, with almost equal frequency, a source of sadness and joy for users.

Such digital repositories have revised how people learn and live. And yet, there remains a hankering for what went before.

“someone told me that a few months earlier he had created a start-up that offered to print out SMS conversations on little scrolls (and perhaps soon bind them into books as well, he added); his business was flourishing beyond all hopes.”

As users move from physical to digital, what had once seemed commonplace becomes rare, such as letters sent by post. The author mentions the worry he had when required to send a paper document and, holding the sealed envelope, experienced doubt that he had included the necessary item. With email he could simply check attachments in his ‘Sent’ folder.

In later chapters there are musings on the rich man’s dream of achieving immortality by downloading brain contents – whatever that may involve. It is pointed out that this has largely been achieved already. Online we leave writing, recordings and images that others may access and interact with. He assumes these will still exist after we die.

The author discusses the idea that artificial intelligence is nothing like intelligence in humans – the latter requiring consciousness and intentionality. Articulating what this means can be challenging.

“In a sci-fi film, a police officer says to an individual he has just unmasked as a humanoid robot: “You can’t write a novel or a concerto.” The robot replies: “Can you?”

Our wariness at the prospect of artificial intelligence possibly rests upon an even greater fear than that of being annihilated, enslaved, replaced etc. by machines (though we are quick to portray this as an irreparable loss to the universe): the fear of being unmasked as ‘feeble, humdrum creatures, mostly incapable of creating anything at all.’

On memory, there are reminders that fears existed in ancient times, following the invention of writing, that human capacity to memorise may be adversely effected.

The internet may be a repository for: knowledge, recordings, and images. Only the individual retains the entirety of self.

Chapters explore how and what we photograph now that smart phones offer immediate access to captured images where once analogue film would have required expensive and delayed processing. Before we visit a place the internet can provide us with pictures of what we will see, that we may then photograph to prove we have been there and immediately share on line with ‘friends’ we may never have met. Examples are provided of how Facebook affects users, even its detractors.

“More and more, we compare reality to images, instead of comparing images to reality.”

There exist people who have created their desired personas through internet entries. It is even possible for a person to exist online but not in real life. The possibilities offered by the internet are reflected in works of fiction, with stories changing markedly when set after the years when use became ubiquitous.

Chapter nine, a favourite of mine, offers up a series of highly enjoyable contemporary tales written in a style reminiscent of the ancients. These provide salutary lessons, of those seeking recognition believed to be unfairly denied, or those who deign to be above using online means to promote themselves – by mentioning this they do so anyway.

Some of the thoughts, ideas and conjectures are more complex but by presenting them bite sized they are easily digested.

Any Cop?: Although sometimes rambling and digressive, this is an interesting perambulation through internet usage and the changes generated. A playful yet well considered explication of a modern marvel so many rely on and now take for granted.

 

Jackie Law