Book Review: Her Mother’s Daughter

Her Mother’s Daughter, by Alice Fitzgerald, tells the story of a woman’s unravelling from the points of view of both her and her young daughter. It is a tense and often uncomfortable read yet is chillingly compelling. The depiction of the mother as seen through her daughter’s eyes will likely give any parent pause for thought as they try to instil in their offspring what they consider acceptable behaviour.

The tale opens in 1997. Clare is ten years old and her little brother, Thomas, is six. They live in London with their mummy, Josephine, and their daddy, Michael. It is nearly the summer holidays and Clare is counting down the days until they travel to Ireland. Each year they go to stay with her daddy’s relatives, spending long, carefree days playing with their cousins. This year they are also to visit her mummy’s parents for the first time. Clare is excited about meeting grandparents as those on her daddy’s side are dead.

Josephine is considered beautiful but has put on weight since she had her children. She is constantly dieting and frets over Clare’s girth. Determined to raise children she can be proud of she berates them for any ill-mannered or exuberant behaviour. When they show happiness at being with their daddy, who allows them treats and to relax and play as they wish, Josephine feels sidelined and resentful.

Clare is on constant alert for her mother’s moods which are volatile and oppressive. She enjoys the evenings they spend as a family when her parents drink, dance and appear happy. Michael does what he can to help his wife but must work long hours to provide for his family. He tells the children that the holiday in Ireland is just what they all need.

The timeline goes back to 1980 when Josephine left Ireland. She carried with her a memory from the night her little brother was born, a terrible secret she tried to share with her mother at the time but was told never to talk of again. Free from the drudgery inflicted on her as the eldest sibling, by a mother who never showed her the love she longed for, Josephine relishes her new life in London. When she meets Michael she determines to create for them the home she craved.

The fallout from that pivotal night in Ireland is hinted at but never fully explained. Likewise exactly what Josephine tells Michael before they marry remains hazy. What is clear is that Josephine feels she is shouldering a burden that nobody else acknowledges or understands. She feels underappreciated in the home she has worked so hard to make clean and desired.

In attempting to warn Clare of the darker side of life as a woman, and to encourage her daughter to show some gratitude for the sacrifices Josephine considers she has made, the mother frightens her child and transfers many demons. Josephine appears blind to the unfairness and potential damage caused by her behaviour, so caught up is she in her own discontent.

The holiday in Ireland is mostly fun for the children whilst with Michael’s family but turns sour when Josephine must confront the parents and siblings she has not seen for seventeen years. Clare and Thomas struggle to fathom the darkening atmosphere, and then the crisis that follows them back to London. Their mother struggles to hold in her anger at the gift of a puppy she didn’t want but is expected to care for.

“All day it’s at it. Clawing for a piece of me, like the rest of them. There will be none of me left.”

Although Josephine’s parenting may appear toxic it is hard not to feel some sympathy. The question remains as to what damage it will have inflicted on Clare.

The child’s voice is mostly well done for the ten year old depicted. The underlying tension is well balanced with moments of happiness which are transient and brittle. Neither Michael nor Thomas are fully developed – the story is about the women.

This is a deft evocation of the damage caused by family. It is a disturbing yet engaging read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Allen & Unwin.

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Book Review: Levitation

Levitation, by Sean O’Reilly, is a collection of eleven short stories narrated in a distinctly Irish voice. They are raw and often unpleasant in their imagery. The characters lack empathy and emotional intelligence. They are self-absorbed and eager to indulge in whatever provides personal gratification. In the minds of the men, sex conveys a type of ownership and is given priority over what would generally be regarded as common decency. The author describes in detail acts I would have preferred not to have pictured in my head.

The collection opens with Hallion, a story that later continues with Hallion #2. Although not drawn to the tale initially, these turned out to be amongst the more palatable offerings in the book. The writing style took some getting used to as slashes replace more regular punctuation. Hallion tells of a man desperately trying to find someone, anyone, to care for his baby son that he may keep an appointment for a kneecapping. Hallion #2 deals with the aftermath. As stories these work. They draw the reader in to the accepted violence of the lives being lived.

Free Verse introduces a poetry writing barber named Clyde who has done time in prison. On release from this incarceration he published a book of verse on the advise of his therapist. The woman who inspired him, and to whom he dedicated the book, is not impressed. She wished to forget he existed and resents the reminder, given to her by a journalist. She confronts Clyde with an ultimatum that he struggles to accept.

The barber shop, in Capel Street, Dublin, along with its staff and clientele link each story in the collection. With a sizable cast of characters it was, at times, a challenge to keep track of their various relationships.

Rescue tells of a marriage under stress. Portia and Tiernan, a couple who seem ill suited except, perhaps, in bed are separated when one of their dogs attacks a child at a social gathering. Portia flees with the creature, angering her husband as his carnal needs are not now being met. He turns to drugs, a habit she had previously demanded he breaks. Eventually he follows her to the countryside. Tiernan is angered that his wife will not put his needs first.

The Cavalcade offers further degeneration. Two young people and an older man act out some sort of dominant/submissive sex game. Each are emotionally damaged. Graphic details of their encounters are provided. I found this sickening to read, pornographic in nature.

Downstream is also crude. Sex games are played, actions described, little understanding displayed between the players. Again, it was unpleasant to read.

The Three Twists offers more of a story, although with violent undercurrents. It provides little relief.

Love Bites/Dark Horses has a younger cast but the plot is somewhat opaque. Older family members have been caught misbehaving. There may be an abortion being dealt with. A young girl turns to the church but fears voicing her secrets.

Despite the sex, drugs and violence, many of the characters do still attend the Catholic church. Such hypocrisy added to the distastefulness rather than providing anything of depth.

Ceremony is set around a naming ceremony for a baby. It portrays men who feel hard done by, damaged to an extreme, if the women they want to have sex with do not act as they wish. For no reason I could fathom details of flatulence and the need to defecate are included. The characters are unlikable enough without the need for such typically schoolboy particulars.

Critical Mass II is described as an abandoned work and is written in this style. Again, unpleasant details detract from the story arc. A sister smears spit across her brother’s mouth, her bad breath repeatedly mentioned. The boy appears to be a sacrifice or seer. It is, as titled, unfinished.

Levitation is set in the barbers shop and includes many of the characters from the previous tales. It has a story arc but not one made entirely clear. As the final offering in a collection I was not enjoying reading, I had hoped for something stronger in this, the longest tale. It was not to be.

As mentioned, these stories include copious drug taking and sex. I became bored by the repetition, searching behind these porn inspired, teenage tropes for whatever meaning the author intended to convey. In the end it all became too murky. If there is brilliance it has been shadowed by the discomfort of the prose’s leering gaze.

Levitation is published by The Stinging Fly Press.

Book Review: Selected Stories

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

Selected Stories is a collection of twelve short stories written in spare, understated prose that resonates with poignancy and perception. Many are set in or link back to the same small corner of Gaeilge speaking north-west Ireland. Time frames differ but the characters harbour familiar hopes, joys and despairs. These are tales of small yet complex lives as lived inside individual’s heads where experiences are curated to fit personal ideals. Resulting disappointments or absurdities are sympathetically rendered. There are few surprises as the plots develop but portrayals are replete with insight.

The collection opens with ‘Blood and Water’ which explores a family’s treatment of an aunt, regarded as odd yet fortunate to have been born in a time and place that accepted atypical behaviour without need for scientific labels or state sanctioned treatment. There are kindnesses and cruelties dealt. Neglect is passive if selfish, discomfortingly familiar.
Family and how members regard each other’s behaviours is a recurring theme. Duty visits assuage guilt more than helping the afflicted. Those who leave are expected to desire a return, their reasoning regarded as insignificant. The difficulty of understanding other’s feelings shines through.

In ‘The Pale Gold of Alaska’ two sisters travel to America to take up positions as housemaids. The younger decides en route that she will marry instead. Particular challenges of tying one’s life to another are deftly depicted. The sisters believe they have each made the better choice and must thereafter continue to convince themselves.

‘The Day Elvis Presley Died’ explores a relationship between an Irish and an American student on holiday with his parents. The first shine of lust has worn away revealing still unacknowledged differences.

“She heard him, and understood what he was saying. But she went on imagining another story for herself”

‘The Banana Boat’ is also set during a holiday and explores the precariousness of life and randomness of death. It is told from the point of view of a mother trying to involve her teenage boys in family activities, which could too easily go awry.

The latter stories in the collection revolve around writers and their literary world. They explore the value of the craft, the possibility of originality, and how quality can or should be measured.

‘Literary Lunch’ offers an acerbic look at those who select the recipients of grants and prizes. There is sycophancy and favouritism alongside the desire for recognition. Those continually passed over become increasingly venomous. The consequences of revenge are ironically dealt with in the following tale.

‘The Coast of Wales’ provides a fine conclusion, dealing as it does with the impact of a death. Despite the morbid setting and subject matter it is an uplifting read.

Any Cop?: These stories are richly satisfying with a voice that is distinctly Irish yet universally relevant. It is fluent, effective storytelling.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Solar Bones

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Solar Bones, by Mike McCormack, is the most accurate adherence to stream of consciousness style writing that I have come across. The entire novel, all 223 pages in the edition I read, is presented as one continuous sentence. Do not let this put you off. Despite its apparently mundane subject matter it is an engaging and compelling read.

The narrator is Marcus Conway, a native of the county of Mayo in Ireland. When the book opens Marcus is standing in the kitchen of his family home listening to the Angelus bell ring out from the village church a mile away.

We learn that Marcus has been married for twenty-five years to Mairead, a teacher at a local school. They have raised two children – Agnes who is an artist, and Darragh who is casually working his way across Australia. The committed parents have adjusted to the initial emptiness felt when their grown-up children first moved away. They have settled into a comfortable routine.

Marcus looks around him recalling history as he has lived it through familiar places, possessions and significant events. He is an engineer by profession working for the local council on infrastructure projects. He is frustrated by the influence self-serving politicians exert on the decision making process. He takes pride in his ability to work to a standard.

Raised on a farm he remembers his childhood and then the deaths of his parents. His relationships have at times been rocky as life sometimes is. Mostly though he feels grateful for the chances he has been given. In many ways his is an ordinary life, as he wished it to be.

It did not take long to slip into the cadence of the writing. Its beauty is in the detail, the observations made and insights given. The reader is drawn into the intricacies of this man’s everyday pleasures and irritations. Not a single turn of phrase is dull or misplaced.

A haunting elegy that captures the battles and the beauty of existence. This is an extraordinary, life-affirming read.

Book Review: A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing

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A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing, by Eimear McBride, is a rare and challenging journey into the mind of a young Irish woman raised by her deeply religious mother. The protagonist’s brother survived a brain tumour as a child which left him slightly damaged. Their father could not cope with the stresses this brought and walked away before the girl was born.

Living in a remote part of Ireland the children are close, driving their mother to distraction amidst the tuts of neighbours and wider family who disapprove of their exuberance. When they move from country to town the teenage children must find a way to fit in to this new way of life. They cope but not always well.

A visit from an aunt and uncle changes the girl, driving a wedge between her mother’s beliefs and her own ability to find personal acceptance. She seeks freedom from the constraints in which she has been raised but struggles to shed the expectations of family and the shackles of inbred guilt. Her choices, although liberating, teeter on the precipice of self-harm.

The narrative is not straightforward. It is a stream of thoughts, stuttering and juddering through significant events that shape the girl’s perspective. Being inside the head of someone trying to live with this shade of damage and rejection is a powerful experience.

Not the easiest of reads but absolutely worth the effort. This is a literary triumph, harrowing but impressively original.

 

Book Review: The Heart’s Invisible Furies

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The Heart’s Invisible Furies, by John Boyne, tells the life story of Cyril Avery, a man born into an Ireland that I recognised all too well. I don’t think I have ever laughed so much at what is, at times, a heart-breaking story. In places the style of writing brought to mind the work of John Irving, to whom the book is dedicated, but this is a much more nuanced, hard hitting yet always compelling read.

Cyril Avery is born in 1945 to Catherine, the sixteen year old, unwed daughter of a Cork farmer. As soon as her condition becomes known she is condemned as a whore by the village priest in front of his entire congregation. He assaults and then banishes the teenager, with the full cooperation of her large and present family.

Catherine makes her way to Dublin where she sets about creating a new life for herself. She understands that, alone and financially insecure as she is, this will not be possible with a child. The convents, well used to dealing with ‘fallen women’, take her son when he is three days old and offer him to a wealthy, married couple who have asked for a baby to adopt. Cyril is accepted, although regularly reminded throughout his life that he is not ‘a real Avery’.

Charles and Maud Avery raise the boy in comfort but not perhaps as conventional parents would. Although never in material want, he feels bereft of affection. When Cyril is seven years old he meets Julian, the handsome and charismatic son of Charles’ solicitor. Julian is unlike anyone Cyril has previously known and he is immediately smitten. The boys become room mates at boarding school and have various, sometimes risqué, adventures. Cyril though has a secret that he cannot bring himself to tell even his best friend.

Ireland in thrall to the Catholic Church. Its sanctimonious attitudes, rampant hypocrisy and mysogeny are brilliantly evoked. Its preoccupation with other people’s sex lives and the indoctrination of guilt lead to horrifying cruelties and acceptance of widespread and very public vilification when those who do not conform to narrow behaviours are found out.

When Cyril’s secret is revealed he travels abroad but can never quite escape the bullies intent on forcing their flawed beliefs on all. Prejudice and related intolerance are damagingly widespread.

At moments in his long life Cyril does find happiness. He also makes mistakes and at times causes suffering for others. He sees the way the world is changing and regrets that he was born too soon to benefit.

The author is an impressive story teller and this ambitious work is masterfully crafted. With just a few lines he can touch the heart of an issue yet is never didactic. Events recounted are sometimes horrifying, but by not dwelling on the misery what comes across is the strength of those who stand up for what is right, and the benefits to society of increased empathy.

I loved this book. It is a powerful, poignant and beautiful tale. It will, I hope, be widely read.

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

Book Review: Citizens

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Citizens, by Kevin Curran, captures the voice of the young, disaffected in Ireland, some of whom choose to emigrate in the hope of a better life, and juxtaposes their story with one from a century before, when their forbears rose up to fight those who were running their country for personal gain. It is unsettling in its clarity. In the contemporary timeline the elderly look to the young to stay and defend what they consider was hard won by their parents, unable to recognise that their own motives are selfish; they wish to keep their family around them for company and control. The historical chapters illustrate that a revolution is not successful or complete until a new set of oppressors consolidate their power.

Neil is twenty-six years old, unemployed, and living from weekend to weekend that he may get wasted on drink and drugs, and party with his friends. His girlfriend has recently emigrated to Canada. What was meant to be a new start for both of them has been delayed due to the death of Neil’s grandfather and the promise of an inheritance. Neil now joins his aunts and uncles in looking after his elderly grandmother while he tries to unearth what it is that he has been bequeathed.

Neil lived with his grandparents after his mother died so is close to the old lady. When he is with her she asks him to read letters from her father who, when he was Neil’s age, was a part of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. This man, Harry Casey, captured images of the historic event on his Pathé hand cranked 35mm motion picture camera. His involvement with the insurrection is detailed in the letters Neil reads but it is believed that the film itself was lost in a fire. As the story unfolds Neil finds clues that suggest this may not have been the case. He wonders how much such rare archive footage could be worth. 

We are offered the story of Neil and the story of Harry side by side. Neil believes that Ireland has let his generation down, that his country is a lost cause to which he owes nothing. He is desperate to cash in on the letters, to find the film if it still exists and sell it to the highest bidder. Harry, it would appear, had been willing to die for the betterment of his country. Neil’s grandmother believes that her children and grandchildren should feel duty bound to remain in deference to the sacrifices made by him and his peers.

The tightly woven narrative is written in a voice that is distinctly Irish. Neil’s frustration with his life, his love for his grandmother, his impatience with her ideals, emanate from each page. The greed of her children and her knowledge of this add poignancy. The aunts and uncles see an investment, not a home; valuable assets rather than treasured momentos. Their mother cannot comprehend that they do not share her experiences which are what make these possessions so valuable to her.

The supporting cast are deftly presented to provide alternative voices. Enda appears as the antithesis of Neil with his love of history and culture. Neil looks to his girlfriend, Kathy, to save him from the drudgery of his life but struggles with the price she demands. The simmering discontents within the family are razor sharp. The hubris of the politicians is all too recognisable in both eras.

A skilfully crafted montage that vividly brings to life two periods of Irish history. Whilst it does not attempt to offer answers, it will urge the reader to ponder the issues explored.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Liberties Press.