Book Review: Small Things Like These

small things

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Every now and then a novel comes along that is a gift to readers such is the beauty of the language and the way the author captures the essence of family life and community in ways that are profound. Solar Bones by Mike McCormack comes to mind and now Small Things Like These. Although the latter has a more conventional structure, both focus on family men who understand and appreciate how fortunate they are. It is not that they are huge successes but their mix of good character, luck and hard work has offered them a chance to build a stable home life they value. The pacing is measured but never slow, the story told affecting in its honesty.

The protagonist here is Will Furlong, a coal and timber merchant living in a quiet Irish town. It is 1985, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and times are hard with increasing job losses. Will is married to Eileen and they have five daughters. The family is well respected locally, with Will, especially, trying to offer kindnesses Eileen fears they can ill afford.

Will was raised by his single mother, suffering others’ attitude to this but cushioned by the benevolence of his mother’s wealthy employer. When he encounters the victims of the Catholic Church’s ‘laundry’ system while delivering coal to the local convent, it brings home to him what could have been his mother’s fate.

The Catholic Church in Ireland ran the schools and also many sideline ‘businesses’. What this involved was broadly known but most avoided thinking on it. Girls and women who became pregnant out of wedlock were derided as fallen, their families hiding them away for fear of the shame they would bring on those associated with them. Will considers all this from the point of view of his mother’s experiences but also as a father of five daughters who he is doing his best to raise well.

The threads of damage wreaked on communities by a powerful church are skillfully rendered as Will goes about his day to day business. Eileen may be considered the more pragmatic of the couple but each must live with the decisions they make. These have repercussions not just for them but on their daughters who are currently benefiting from what the church offers.

Here we have an author who weaves words together to form a beautiful tapestry of a story that is both powerful and poignant. The various lives depicted in the community may appear ordinary but behind this is an acceptance of a darkness that people avoid looking at for fear the shadows cast could damage them and theirs.

Any Cop?: Although exploring within the story how Mother and Child Homes and Laundries could continue for so long in plain sight, the writing is far from polemic. Rather it is a hauntingly lyrical account of one man’s conscience when doing right might damage the prospects of those he loves. In taut and piercing prose the author offers up a social history of rare acuity. It is a reminder that for evil to flourish, it only requires that good men do nothing.

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

Robyn Reviews: Felix Ever After

‘Felix Ever After’ is a delightfully moving coming-of-age story. It grapples with themes of identity, purpose, class divides, and marginalisation, managing to weave together a tale that’s both heartwarming and bittersweet. The ending is simultaneously satisfying and ambiguous, suiting the narrative perfectly. This is a must-read for any teenager grappling with their identity and what they want from life.

Felix Love is struggling. At seventeen, he wants nothing more than to get into Brown College to study art – but his father can’t afford the fees, so his only chance is to get his school’s scholarship. Unfortunately, his worst enemy – Declan – is also after the scholarship, and whilst he might be an asshole he’s an exceptional artist. Meanwhile, Felix is watching all his friends get into relationships and fall in love, while he himself – despite his surname – has never been in love. Can anyone fall in love with him when he isn’t even sure he loves himself? At the same time, Felix is grappling with his own identity. He’s identified as a trans man for several years, but he isn’t sure that label is right for him anymore. His struggles are thrown into the spotlight when someone carries out a transphobic attack at school. With so much growing on, Felix feels like his life is falling apart – but could his happily ever after be just around the corner?

The best thing about Felix is he feels so much like a teenager. His struggles, his attitude, his mistakes – all of them feel so genuine and believable. Felix is a bit self-centred and lazy, but only in the way that all teenagers are as they figure out their place in the world. At the end of the day, Felix is a great guy with a big heart and a huge amount of loyalty – he’s just emotionally fragile and prone to rash overreaction. At the start of the book, Felix can be a little hard to like. Some of his actions are questionable, and he leaps to conclusions without any evidence. However, as time goes on, it becomes clear why he is the way he is, and his true character starts to shine through. Felix isn’t perfect, and it’s this humanness that makes him such a brilliant protagonist.

A core part of the book is Felix’s relationships – with his friends, with his family, and romantically. His relationship with his father is fascinating, with both clearly loving each other yet having serious issues. Felix resents that his father hasn’t fully embraced him as his son rather than his daughter; Felix’s dad struggles with his son pulling away and trying to take so much independence at seventeen years of age. Neither communicates clearly with the other, and the way this falls out is cleverly written. In contrast, Felix’s relationship with his best friend, Ezra, seems amazing on the outside. The two care for each other deeply, with a level of physical and emotional comfort only seen between the closest friends. However, as the story goes on, it becomes clear how much they’re both hiding from the other, and cracks start to develop and widen. Once again, all the friendships feel incredibly authentic of teenage friendships, with a level of intensity and desperation. Felix’s difficulty as friend groups and those within them change is well-handled, and the ending is lovely.

There is a love triangle – not something I usually like in books. The love triangle here is obviously unbalanced, and the ending is always relatively clear. That said, whilst its inclusion isn’t entirely necessary, the way it ends does add an element of sadness and dissatisfaction inherent to life, and it fits the realistic vibe of the rest of the story. There are always those who are unhappy in love and in life. The love triangle is my least favourite part of the story, but I’ve read far worse.

This is not always a happy story. The ending is heartwarming, and there are cheerful elements throughout, but there’s also a dark plotline about transphobia and bullying that hits hard. I found this exceptionally well-done, adding to the realism and making the ending even sweeter, but readers should be warned that they may find parts difficult to read.

Overall, ‘Felix Ever After’ is a brilliant coming of age story that captures a slice of contemporary teenage life. A highly recommended read.

Thanks to Faber Children’s for providing an ARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Faber Children’s
Paperback: 18th May 2021

Book Review: An Artist of the Floating World

An Artist of the Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro, is set in Japan in the years just after the Second World War – which ended with the country’s surrender. It is narrated by Masuji Ono, a widower with two grown up daughters. His only son died in the hostilities. Resulting changes in the country are a challenge for the older generation as they watch their offspring embrace more western ideals.

Ono is a retired artist who trained with traditional painters – producing works featuring geishas and hostesses visited in the pleasure district. He and his fellow students indulged in the drink, drugs and sex on offer. He came to prominence, however, when he changed his style to support the rise of militarism. He wished to highlight the injustices wreaked by wealthy businessmen and their puppet politicians.

“In the Asian hemisphere, Japan stands like a giant amidst cripples and dwarfs. And yet we allow our people to grow more and more desperate, our little children to die of malnutrition. Meanwhile the businessmen get richer and the politicians forever make excuses and chatter. Can you imagine any of the Western powers allowing such a situation?”

Ono subsequently enjoyed influence and respect, particularly from his own students. He advised those now in power – regarded as loyal to his Imperial Majesty the Emperor. This went against the views of many of his peers who believed art should focus on beauty – not be political. Ono wished to make a difference through his work,.

“a patriotic spirit began somewhere further back, in the routine of our daily lives, in such things as where we drank and who we mixed with”

Under the new regime, traditional pleasure seeking came to be frowned upon. Changes were enforced and Ono approved.

“the new spirit of Japan was not incompatible with enjoying oneself: that is to say, there was no reason why pleasure-seeking had to go hand in hand with decadence.”

Following the war what had seemed to him a step forward for his country is viewed, particularly by the younger generation, as traitorous. The previously respected elders are blamed for sending young men to their deaths needlessly. Ono is trying to arrange a marriage for his younger daughter. He comes to believe that his prior actions could scupper her chances.

The bones of the story are Ono’s interactions with his daughters as the marriage negotiations proceed. His elder daughter is already married with a young son, her husband changed by his own war experience. Both daughters now treat their father with thinly veiled disdain. As Ono considers their interactions he thinks back on key moments in his past, his life story revealing the changes Japan has gone through over just a few decades. He went against the wishes of his parents in pursuing his career as an artist. Now his daughters are behaving in ways that do not respect him.

The rigid manners considered polite in Japanese society colour all conversations. On the surface are the endless self-effacing compliments and apologies, false laughter a device to mask criticism. Ono tries to unpick meaning from his recollections. He is an old man assessing the worth of his life’s work, ascribing value that others may not now agree with.

The author captures Japanese society in both style and substance. The tale is written to portray the nuances of interactions, the grudges held and pride felt that cannot be displayed. The changes in the pleasure district over the years reflect the changes Ono must deal with personally. Although very much a story of Japan, it is also a story of the decline of influence that comes with age.

The story is delicately wrought, fine brush strokes revealing surprising depth. There is much to think on – of societal change and aging. Although offering much to commend, the ponderous pace detracted somewhat from fully enjoying the read.

An Artist of the Floating World is published by Faber & Faber.

Robyn Reviews: Normal People

There are some books which are so poorly written they make you cringe. There are some books which are so clever that they make you grin in delight; some that make you laugh out loud; some which are so beautifully written you want to sit and read the same sentence over and over again until it’s imprinted onto your soul. Then there are books like ‘Normal People’ – books which, from the outside, don’t seem that special, but which are so visceral and real that they alter your entire worldview. Reading this leaves you a different person when you put it down to when you picked it up.

This is not a happy story. It’s not a sad story, either – it’s life, distilled into under 300 pages of pure emotional turmoil. Marianne and Connell are intimately relatable protagonists – we aren’t all like them, but we know people like them, and it’s so easy to see how people could become them. This is a coming-of-age story unlike anything else I’ve ever read. There’s no huge drama, because life isn’t full of huge dramas: life is full of little dramas, many of which we create ourselves, that pile up and up until they seem like huge, insurmountable obstacles. This reflects that. There are twists and turns that you always see coming, because life is predictable and people behave in predictable ways. It’s completely excruciating in the best way watching Marianne and Connell fall into the traps that everyone falls into, despite the fact that they’re completely avoidable.

Are Marianne and Connell likeable? Yes, and no – they’re people. Normal people, as it says on the cover. Marianne is from a wealthy Irish family near Sligo who don’t like her very much. Her father passed away and her mother is rarely around – and when she is, her interactions with her daughter are strained. Her brother is a bully who considers his sister to be a weirdo. Marianne drifts through life trying to be completely herself, but her apparent confidence masks an attitude of deep self-loathing from a life of never quite being good enough. She’s the slightly different girl at school who everyone looks askance at, never sure if they hate her or admire her.

Connell, in contrast, is the only child of a cleaner – Marianne’s family’s cleaner. His mother had him as a teenager and raised him alone. They’re poor and very much not the sort of family to be associated with – except that Connell is the smartest person in his class and the football teams star centre forward. He’s a nice guy, effortlessly popular, drifting through life on the coattails of that popularity. He knows Marianne because his mum works for hers, but he can’t associate with her in public – Marianne is Not Cool, and without being Cool Connell has nothing.

Their relationship is both inevitable and doomed. It’s the epitome of first love – needlessly dramatic, messy, beautiful in places but hollow where in matters. Reading about it is excruciating but you can’t look away. At times you want to scream at them or just shove the obvious in their faces – but equally, you can remember a time when you were like that, or your friend was like that, and know that it won’t help.

The writing is brilliant – not overly fussy, just poignant and real. There’s no need for lyrical prose or florid descriptions – instead, Rooney perfectly captures humanity with the thoroughness of her characters. It’s a spectacular achievement and deserves all the praise it’s garnered.

Overall, this is a must-read book. It’s not always conventionally enjoyable, but it’s powerful and moving and poignant and captures feelings on paper in a way that few authors are capable of. The resonance lasts long beyond the final page. I don’t hesitate to call this a masterpiece.

Jackie’s thoughts on Normal People can be found here

Published by Faber & Faber
Hardback: 28th August 2018
Paperback: 2nd May 2019

Robyn Reviews: Rebel of the Sands

‘Rebel of the Sands’ is a young adult fantasy novel that truly embodies its genre. It features all of the standard tropes and characters reminiscent of those from many other novels – but for all of that, it’s a highly enjoyable read and proof that novels don’t have to do something different to be great fun.

Amani Al-Hiza grew up in the backwater town of Dustwalk. She’s a gunslinger, and a good one – with near-perfect aim – but she knows she’ll never be able to escape, instead winding up either married to a local boy or dead. Her family dreams of making an advantageous match, while Amani desperately tries to save enough money to pay for a train ticket to her cousin in the city. Enter Jin, a strange – but handsome – foreigner on a mythical horse, who might just be the escape route she’s always dreamt of. Suddenly, Amani’s thrust into the middle of a rebellion and grappling with desert magic she previously took to be a myth.

Amani is a bundle of cliches – an orphan in a small town who dreams of escape, a strong heroine fighting against a patriarchal society – but she’s undeniably a likeable and fun protagonist. Her dreams are relatable, and whilst she’s exceptionally skilled she also makes a lot of mistakes and has a great deal of naivety. She also has a fiery temper and a smart mouth which constantly gets her into trouble. It’s impossible not to root for her and get drawn into her journey.

Jin, equally, is the classic handsome stranger who comes to rescue the heroine – even if the heroine is more than capable of rescuing herself. He’s a mysterious figure, but fortunately Alwyn Hamilton reveals just enough details to make him into a three-dimensional character rather than simply a plot device. I’m not the biggest fan of his relationship with Amani – the development is rushed, always a risk in a shorter fantasy novel – but Jin himself is a nice character with clear potential for future books.

The setting and world-building is where ‘Rebel of the Sands’ stands out from its peers. Inspired by a mixture of Middle Eastern mythology and the US Wild West, it’s set in the desert nation of Maraji. There are towns with weapons factories and shooting competitions in local taverns, but there’s also the desert – the home of vengeful spirits and skinwalkers and other things which go bump in the night. The intersection works perfectly and the magic feels right at home amongst the more traditional Western influences. There are no in-depth explanations, but this is the first book in a series so that wouldn’t be expected at this stage.

Overall, ‘Rebel of the Sands’ is a solid young adult fantasy novel that exemplifies all of the tropes of the genre done well. If you’re looking for an easy but enjoyable fantasy book, this might just be the one for you.

Published by Faber & Faber
Paperback: February 4th 2016

Book Review: All the Beggars Riding

“Even our own stories, we’re unequipped and essentially unable to tell”

All the Beggars Riding, by Lucy Caldwell, is a tale told by thirty-eight year old Lara Moorhouse, an agency carer who has lived in London all her life. She is writing down her memories as a way to come to terms with how she was raised, and the effect this has had on her life since. What prompted the project was a television documentary Lara watched, on Chernobyl, made a decade after the disaster and focusing on survivors. Lara has been taking one of her patients to a weekly creative writing class where she listens in to the advice given. She finds that she learns a great deal about herself and her wider family by recreating their past selves.

The book is divided into sections that focus on: the inspiration for the story; Lara as a child; her mother, Jane; what happened next. As Jane died a year previously much of the narrative is an imagined account of events. Lara comes to realise is that all memoir is essentially fiction.

“it’s going to be impossible to get inside the past, to really be true to it. We can only see it from the outside, squinting back at it, and it changes utterly depending on the mood and circumstances and point from which we happen to be regarding it.”

Although trying her best to tell her story in a manner that makes sense to the reader, Lara struggles to write a linear narrative. There are too many interdependencies and unknowns. Children rarely understand their parents as people rather than in relation to themselves – and vice versa.

“lives aren’t orderly, and nor is memory; the mind doesn’t work like that. We make it so, when we narrate things – setting them in straight lines and in context – whereas in reality things are all mixed up, and you feel several things, even things that contradict each other, or that happened at separate times, or that aren’t on the surface even related, all at once.”

Lara and her little brother, Alfie, lived in a flat in Earls Court until Lara was twelve. Their mother was mostly their sole carer as their father, a surgeon, worked in Belfast more often than at the private clinic in Harley Street that employed him. It drew in wealthy patients wanting ‘an Irish surgeon’ for the skills learned in Belfast due to the Troubles.

The summer Lara turned twelve her family went on their only ever holiday – to Fuengirola. It was not a success. The fallout from this was that Lara learned the truth of her parents’ relationship. Her father, Patrick, had another family in Belfast. When, four months later, he was killed in an accident, the Earls Court flat was sold by his wife and the Moorhouses were cast adrift.

Lara’s anger at her parents for raising their children in this way colours her subsequent development. In confronting her memories and trying to piece together why Jane and Patrick acted as they did she seeks closure but also understanding. All her mother ever told her was that she loved their father. Lara needs to unravel how and why their family set-up lasted as long as it did without change.

The writing is fluid and piercing, getting to the heart of easily fractured relationships between parents and their children. All are individuals yet rarely treated in this way within a family unit. Alfie has reacted to the same circumstances very differently to his sister. Jane and her mother also had a troubled relationship that proved difficult to bridge. Across the generations, concern and expectation hammer in wedges. When Lara tried to talk to her mother, just before she died, she was met with resentment.

“You’re trying to trap me, aren’t you? Trap me with my own words.”

Parents cannot fully know at the time the lasting impact their actions will have on their children. Children cannot fully know the personal factors at play that drove decisions made.

I thoroughly enjoyed this story, both its voice and structure. A gratifying and resonant read that makes me want to seek out more of the author’s work.

All the Beggars Riding is published by Faber and Faber.

Book Review: A Pale View of Hills

A Pale View of Hills, by Kazuo Ishiguro, is the debut novel of an author who would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. It is a poignant if somewhat oblique tale set in rural England where a woman is remembering her early life – spent in Nagasaki in the aftermath of the Second World War. An undercurrent of unease permeates prose that paints a picture of a protagonist trying to move forward despite memories shadowed by regret.

The story opens by introducing Etsuko who is being visited by her younger daughter, Niki. They do not mention the elder child, Keiko, immediately. The adult sisters had left the family home some years previously, moving to London and Birmingham respectively. The reader quickly learns that Keiko recently committed suicide and Niki did not attend the funeral. There are tensions in the family.

During Niki’s shorter than hoped for visit her mother recalls a woman, Sachiko, who she knew briefly during the early years of her first marriage, when she was still living in Nagasaki. The city was rebuilding following the devastation of the bomb, although the Americans had not yet all left. Etsuko and her husband, Jiro, lived in one of the newly built apartment blocks and were expecting their first child. The surroundings were wasteland, abutting a river. A few old houses remained and Sachiko moved into one of these with her truculent young daughter.

During this time Jiro’s father, Ogata, was visiting for an unspecified length of time. The reader learns that, traditionally, generations of family in Japan would have lived together.

Ogata is a retired teacher and expresses concern that a former friend of Jiro’s has written an article criticising Ogata and the education system the older man bemoans has been replaced by American style teaching. Ogata believes a son should be defending his father, something Jiro appears keen to avoid – although he does not admit to this.

“We devoted ourselves to ensuring that proper qualities were handed down, that children grew up with the correct attitude to their country, to their fellows. There was a spirit in Japan once, it bound us all together. Just imagine what it must be like being a young boy today. He’s taught no values at school – except perhaps that he should selfishly demand whatever he wants out of life.”

Father and son are in agreement over the role of women – that they should be subservient. Etsuko is living in the manner expected and claiming she is happy. Women who know her question this assertion.

The plot progresses quietly through day to day activities yet offers a depth that resonates. Etsuko is concerned by Sachiko’s apparent neglect of her daughter. Sachiko is eager to leave Japan and is consorting with an American in the hope of achieving this. Her daughter is unhappy with the proposed changes and the turbulence of her mother’s promises and plans.

Scenes from the lives of each character provide evidence of attitudes in Japan at this time and how quickly and radically these had changed. So many in the city had lost family members in the war. Dialogue demonstrates how little could be directly expressed due to ingrained cultural behaviours.

Etsuko’s recollections are shaded by time that has passed and knowledge of where her actions led. Now she finds herself emotionally distanced from Niki and, once again, unsure of how to proceed.

It is impressive how such a short novel can convey so many facets of desire and behaviour – the cost of attaining an outcome and then living with the consequences. Although story development can at times appear cryptic, I found this an affecting and satisfying read.

A Pale View of Hills in published by Faber and Faber.

My copy of this book was borrowed from my local library.

Book Review: Being Various, New Irish Short Stories

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Being Various is the sixth volume of Faber’s long-running series of new Irish short stories. In her introduction to the anthology, guest editor Lucy Caldwell ponders what makes a writer Irish. Must they be born on the island? Live there? Have parents who raise them to identify with their Irish heritage? She writes:

“I wanted to look, too, at where the new ways of Irish writing might take us. The fresh narratives, perspectives and multiplicities that are coming from immigration to a place so long and persistently defined by emigration.”

Each fiercely intelligent tale from the impressive who’s who of contributors offers a window into the differing impacts Ireland has on those steeped in its culture and prejudices. All the stories were commissioned especially, from writers whose work was first published after the Good Friday Agreement. It is a showcase of contemporary Irish literature.

There are tales that draw the reader in then leave them with ambiguous endings. ‘Stretch Marks’ by Elske Rahill tells of a difficult pregnancy that causes the suffering mother of four to feel she is a failure. ‘BrownLady12345’ by Melatu Uche Okorie looks at modern dating from the perspective of an immigrant who is lonely but unsure what they are looking for or how to achieve the desired connection. ‘The Swimmers’ by Paul McVeigh contains a disturbing undercurrent as a son tries to please his father. The reader is left to interpret each thread of suggestion for themselves.

Clarity is captured through Magic Realism. ‘Pillars’ by Jan Carson explores mental health following marital breakdown, when acquaintances are uncomfortable acknowledging such issues, even when they are made glaringly obvious. ‘The Lexicon of Babies’ by Sinéad Gleeson offers a picture of segregated privilege through state accepted competitive parenting – this odd little tale is beautifully fable-like. ‘Echo’ by Stuart Neville is poignant yet fierce – the story of a family unravelled by grief and the subsequent conspiracy of silence, violently enforced by a mother whose culpability remains veiled. ‘The Eclipse’ by Darren Anderson employs powerful imagery to portray the last days of an elderly woman whose mind has inexorably deteriorated. The love and care provided by her relatives is rare amidst so many depictions in this collection of the damage caused by family. ‘The Adminicle Exists’ by Eimear McBride is an emotive cry for help from a woman whose partner needs care yet poses a threat to her safety. ‘Wings’ by David Hayden is a painfully sad tale of the conspiracies and denials surrounding childhood abuse. ‘Lambeth’ by Jill Crawford offers an excellent depiction of the complexity inherent in an area’s gentrification. There are levels of wealth and poverty, threat and safety. Change may be resisted but is, and always has been, inevitable. ‘Alienation’ by Arja Kajermo is an unusually honest portrayal of Ireland from the point of view of a foreigner. Visitors may be welcomed but those who choose to stay face: prejudice, passive aggression, rejection for looking or acting different. ‘Colour and Light’ by Sally Rooney is fabulous story telling. Set in a seaside town it tells of two brothers, close in some ways yet rarely sharing anything of themselves, and a woman who briefly passes through their lives.

There are tales within this anthology that particularly resonated and others enjoyed but with less impact. Only one struck me off key – ‘The Downtown Queen’ by Peter Murphy. Its subject was memories – of a time when the narrator was part of an in-crowd enjoying sex, drugs, rock and roll. He interacted with famous musicians and their coteries in the early, raw days preceding meteoric careers. The tale felt to me to be trying too hard to be knowledgeable and artful – something that may appeal more to those with an interest in the 70s music scene. My negative reaction may be a dislike of the protagonist as much as the writing. I am rarely impressed by those who name drop for anticipated audience effect.

Any Cop?: For a collection of twenty-four stories, to enjoy all but one is pleasing. The quality of the writing is high, the subject matter piercing. There is humour amidst the darkness and a clear reflection of the Irish spirit in all its shades. This is as good a collection of short stories as I have read this year.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Milkman

Although I have a few on my TBR pile, it has been several years since I read a Booker Prize winner. This year I couldn’t resist. Not only is the author from my hometown of Belfast but her story is set during the early years of The Troubles – the era that I grew up in. Also, I enjoyed her debut, No Bones, so was confident I would get on with her writing style. The final push that encouraged me to seek out Milkman was a respected fellow reviewer telling me this was my sort of read. All the stars aligned when my local library was able to provide me with their newly shelved copy.

Milkman should not be rushed. It is not a difficult read but the stream of consciousness narrative imparts a great deal of information that benefits from unhurried digestion. By the time I was around sixty pages in I had also realised that this story is packed full of dark humour. The community portrayed is recognisable and authentic but their accepted behaviour can, with my now comforting distance of time and place, be regarded as risible.

Very few people are named throughout the tale. Rather, they are referred to by their position within families or how they are alluded to by neighbours. The narrator is middle sister, one of ten siblings, and she is looking back on events that occurred when she was eighteen. Her age is significant. Although an adult and working she is not yet old enough to view the world outside her personal cocoon through the lens of lived experience. She copes with the relentless violence and oppression that surrounds her by not paying attention.

Middle sister likes to read while walking, behaviour that is regarded by her community as beyond the pale. When an older, married and powerful paramilitary – Milkman – makes it known that he is stalking her she has no idea why he has singled her out or how to get rid of him. Rumours quickly circulate that they are having an affair.

Middle sister’s mother is appalled, although she can’t quite work out if this is because her daughter isn’t yet married or because she is now the subject of gossip which ripples out to include her other non-standard behaviours. Like most matriarchs in the locality, mother has lost children to the political situation, or due to their transgressions from the strict code of conduct demanded and enforced by casually violent men. Women are expected to marry young and then produce lots of babies. Until they do this, the men feel justified in claiming they can’t help but try to claim the women’s time and attention.

“they don’t see you as a person but instead as some cipher, some valueless nobody whose sole objective is to reflect back onto them the glory of themselves.”

As well as reading while walking, middle sister attends an evening class in the city centre. Her teacher tries to broaden the pupil’s horizons but such thinking is viewed with suspicion. In a small and introverted society, admitting to the possibility of alternative ways of living is dangerous.

Middle sister’s late father had suffered from depression, an illness his wife found embarrassing.

“Ma herself didn’t get depressions, didn’t either tolerate depressions and, as with lots of people here who didn’t get them and didn’t tolerate them, she wanted to shake those who did until they caught themselves on.”

Stoicism is expected as the community exists within an atmosphere of entrenched pessimism, a loss of trust and hope. To be happy was a risk because how then to cope when the cause of this happiness was removed, as would inevitably happen. The country is regarded as having a long heritage of darkness, fear and sorrow. Those few who do not feel downtrodden, who are not compliant, are exceptions.

“it was hard to deal with the threat she posed by going about completely holding her own.”

When middle sister protests that she is not having an affair with Milkman, that he has approached but never touched her, she is not believed. In this time and place any young women complaining, ‘he did this to me while I was doing that’, would be regarded askance and have demanded of them, ‘and why were you doing that?’

As the rumours gain momentum and start to affect her health, middle sister notices that there is more going on around her than she has been aware of in her short, blinkered existence. The trouble she had feared bringing down on her secret, maybe boyfriend and on her family if she didn’t comply with Milkman’s demands are not the only dangers they all face.

In amongst the constant surveillance and violent, often botched reprisals from both sides of the political divide are the amusing antics of the youngsters, particularly the three wee sisters. Hospitals are feared so the older women, who may appear at times absurd in their behaviour, come together when needed. A fledgling feminist group is viewed with contempt but also bewilderment. All of these threads add colour and depth to the streets that middle sister must navigate.

The writing is witty and perfectly pitched to both challenge thinking and to entertain. Although plainly set in the Ardoyne area of Belfast in the 1970s, the place is not named. Thus the depiction may be more widely representative of any closed and judgemental community. The author shows her skill in making this tale uplifting despite the many negative behaviours it observes in passing. It is a meaty, delicious and satisfying read.

My copy of this book was borrowed from my local library.