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.

Book Review: Normal People

Normal People, by Sally Rooney, is a refreshingly linear story set between January 2011 and February 2015. It has two protagonists, Connell and Marianne, who get together during their final year at school. Connell is popular, sporty and intelligent, enjoying his place within his wide circle of friends. Marianne is bullied and derided, a loner who somehow copes as her homelife is worse. They agree to keep their burgeoning relationship secret. Connell does not wish to lose his social standing by association.

The ebb and flow of these two young people’s love affair is explored in forensic detail over the years. The setting moves from their hometown of Carricklea in Galway to the city of Dublin where they attend a prestigious university. Here the affluence of Marianne’s family offers her a stepping stone to acceptance. Connell feels out of place and almost friendless, unmoored by his change of circumstances. Both had hopes of escape and reinvention. The realities of changing a personality prove hard to sustain.

Marianne’s simmering hurts manifest in ways that appall Connell at a time when he has found a degree of peace elsewhere. When a mutual friend is found dead the importance ascribed to seemingly significant decisions is brought into relief. Each is questioning their recent past and where they can go next.

Through the years the two friends come together and drift apart, their confidences and social circles changing. The story is an exploration of intimacy, influence and the causes of dissonance. Marianne expresses a wish to be normal but cannot shed the demons of her upbringing. The supporting cast of characters demonstrate differing perceptions and what normal means.

The writing is honest in its portrayal of university students with their shallow convictions and closely guarded fears. Marianne and Connell may have something special between them, including a rare ability to discuss emotions, but they are still individuals and not mind readers. There are passions and jealousies, ambitions that they dare not articulate for fear of ridicule.

A novel that shivers with the traumas caused by the experience of living. A meticulous and compelling rendering of love and its shade.

Normal People is published by Faber & Faber

Book Review: Days Without End

This post was written for, and originally published by, Bookmunch.

Days Without End is a tale of war, between men and against hardship, yet is narrated with a lyrical optimism even from within the worst of the carnage portrayed. Set in nineteenth century America, where white settlers are intent on removing the indigenous population before turning on each other in the Civil War, the voice of the narrator, Irishman Thomas McNulty, is richly authentic. He understands that the world cares little for the lives of the dirty poor such as him, but that life still has a value for all who can find a way to live.

McNulty spent his early years in Sligo, Ireland where he watched his mother, sister and then father die from starvation due to the potato famine. Alone and desperate, he crept aboard a ship bound for Canada, somehow surviving the hunger of the voyage and then a deadly fever on arrival. He makes his way south where, sheltering under a hedge in Missouri, he meets another young wanderer named John Cole. From then on they face their hardships together.

“I only say it because without saying I don’t think anything can be properly understood. How we were able to see slaughter without flinching. Because we were nothing ourselves, to begin with. We knew what to do with nothing, we were at home there […] Hunger is a sort of fire, a furnace. I loved my father when I was a human person formerly. Then he died and I was hungry and then the ship. Then nothing. Then America. Then John Cole.”

The boys find work in a saloon before joining the army. For a set of clothes and the promise of food they do whatever is ordered. This mostly involves killing Indians, living under threat of attack, or passing time playing cards. Life on the frontier is one of peril – from enemy, weather and deprivation – but this is familiar and to be endured.

When released from the army Thomas and John travel to Michigan to join a minstrel show being run by the former saloon owner. They take with them Winona, a young Indian girl whose family they helped slaughter. These three set up as a family, until the major from their former unit asks the men to join a new regiment he is setting up in Boston to fight for Lincoln against the southern confederate army.

Although the fighting is barbaric, the day to day conditions endured also take many lives. The men must find ways to survive alongside those who consider the Indians, the people of colour, even the Irish to be vermin, better for all if eradicated. Thomas’s love for Winona, who he regards as his daughter, will cost him dear.

A tale of men and fearsome battles, yet the quality of the writing proves it worthy of a wider audience than may take interest in such base subject matter. The characters, period and locations are vividly painted; the brutality but also the beauty of existence emotively portrayed.

Any Cop?: This is a fine literary achievement worthy of its Booker longlisting. Despite this I am not entirely convinced it attains sufficient reach to be the winner.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Quiet Man

The Quiet Man, by James Carol, is the latest thriller in the author’s Jefferson Winter series and the first of his books that I have read. The protagonist is a former FBI profiler, now travelling the world as a freelance consultant assisting in hunting down serial criminals. Winter’s backstory as the son of a killer and possessing an unusually high IQ makes him an interesting creation. In this story, set in Vancouver, he teams up with Laura Anderton, a former detective turned private investigator.

Anderton headed up the police team tasked with investigating a series of murders in her city, carried out annually on 5th August. Each of the three victims to date was gagged, strapped to a chair, and left alone wearing a bomb which, when triggered, tears them apart. The method of triggering is this killer’s modus operandi yet conflicts with serial killers’ understood ways of working.

With 5th August approaching once again, Anderton has requested Winter’s help in the hope that they can prevent another death. Having been forced out of the police by a negative media campaign she is eager to solve this case for herself.

Anderton and Winter are being payrolled by Nicholas Sobek, a wealthy and controlling businessman whose beautiful young wife was the killer’s first victim. Initially Sobek was a suspect but the subsequent murders made this difficult to prove. He is intense and determined, his aim being to punish the man who took what was his.

The writing is engaging with many twists and turns offering the reader chances to guess at motive and connections. Winter is not afraid to take risks that the police could not countenance for fear of compromising their ability to present evidence necessary to secure a conviction. This is not so much a high action thriller as a deadly game played by cold cunning and methodical intelligence. There is little emotion in the narrative and this strengthens the intrigue.

The varied cast of characters adds interest with interactions affected by attraction and repulsion yet remaining professional. I was impressed that the author felt no need to inject romance, common in crime fiction yet often unnecessary for plot progression.

I enjoyed this book and would now like to read previous instalments in the series. It is a compelling and entertaining read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Faber and Faber.

This post is a stop on the Quiet Man Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Book Review: The Contract

The Contract, by JM Gulvin, is the second book in the author’s John Q series of crime thrillers. You may read my review of the first one here. Set in 1960s America, the protagonist, John Quarrie, is a fearless and determined Texas Ranger. He is a modern day cowboy with a strong sense of justice for all, in a country still divided by race.

The book opens with a robbery at a gunstore in small town Texas. This leads to a shoot out and car chase. To save his own life, Quarrie takes down an assailant. When he investigates the perpetrators he finds another dead body with links to New Orleans. Flying there to follow up on one of his few leads, Quarrie becomes embroiled in a secretive plan that involves many in the state’s law enforcement agencies. He struggles to work out what is going on and why. His presence and the methods he employs while out of his juridiction are resented by many. Quarrie suspects he is being manipulated but does not know by whom. There is nobody he can trust.

Although the reader is offered snapshots of all those involved, the extent and reasons are only slowly revealed. There is a large cast of characters with a variety of links. I struggled at times to follow the numerous threads.

Having said that, this is a compelling read. The action remains tense throughout and is rarely predictable. The story is written in a voice that is original and engaging. There are links to historical events of the time and to a variety of conspiracy theories. Given today’s political situation, the attitudes of many of the characters is chilling.

The reveals at the end provide a good mix of the unexpected, some satisfying if a tad dodgy come-uppances, and a few loose ends in keeping with the story arc created. Quarrie gets things done the old style Texas way, which is not always appreciated. His methods do, however, provide an entertaining read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Faber and Faber.

This post is a stop on The Contract Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Book Review: Say Nothing

Say Nothing, by Brad Parks, is a crime thriller written from the point of view of an unusual protagonist – an American federal judge. These powerful justices are appointed for life, unless deemed unfit for the role due to breaking their oath of impartiality and fairness under the law. They may sentence as they consider appropriate. Rulings may be grumbled about but are rarely questionned.

The Honorable Scott Sampson enjoys the privileges of his elevated position to the full. He can take time out every Wednesday afternoon to go swimming with his children, six year old twins, Sam and Emma. Their home is a secluded farmhouse on the banks of the Chesapeake river with a broad swathe of woodland protecting them from public roads. His beautiful wife, Alison, holds down a challenging and worthy job working with children too intellectually disabled to attend mainstream schools. A foreign student, Justina, provides childcare in exchange for accommodation in a cottage on their land.

The story opens on a swimming day. Scott receives a text from his wife to tell him the twins have a doctor’s appointment so she will collect them from school. That evening, when she returns home, she is alone. They get a call informing them that if they ever wish to see their children again they must follow instructions that will be sent regarding a case due before the judge the next day. They are to say nothing to anyone about what is happening. If the kidnappers even suspect that they have sought help they will start chopping off the children’s body parts.

Scott feels that he has no choice but to comply. He also understands that he is only useful to these criminals if he can retain his position. Thus begins an intricate web of deception during which he must convince his colleagues that he is fit for his role whilst obeying the diktats being sent to him. Always he is trying to work out who is behind this nightmare scenario, and how to reach an end game that will see his kids returned to him unscathed.

The pressure Scott is under throughout is well evoked. He scrutinises everyone he knows in a desperate attempt to uncover how the kidnappers acquired access to his family along with a wealth of private information. His marriage is put under strain as he and Alison each suspect the other of indiscretions. At work his unusual behaviour must be convincingly explained.

The reader is offered snippets of what is happening to the twins but the mystery is what final outcome the kidnappers desire and why. Seen through Scott’s eyes, trusting anyone becomes a challenge. The pace of this unusual crime thriller gradually increases towards a shocking denouement.

Although there are cliches within the story – a picture perfect wider family, male ‘banter’, a beautiful wife, a professionally successful man who still finds time for his young children – the strength of the writing took me beyond these and wound me in. This was an engaging and pacy thriller. A fine UK debut for an author I would happily read again.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Faber and Faber.