Book Review: The Spirit of the River

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“I don’t have to understand nature to appreciate it – to do that, I only have to look around me.”

The Spirit of the River, by Declan Murphy, is taglined A Quest for the Kingfisher. While the author’s desire to observe this beautiful bird is an important aspect of the unfolding tale, there is much more to explore and enjoy than his study of the habits of a single species. While searching for the kingfishers’ nesting site, he also finds the nesting sites of dippers and woodpeckers. His days by the river are filled with wonder as he moves between locations, noting the various birds’ behaviour along with that of other flora and fauna in their vicinity. Combined, they have made the river and its banks suitable for these creatures to mate and raise their offspring. There are also predators to watch out for. Over the months detailed, the birds – and the author – must deal with attacks that threaten their existence.

“In nature, there is always something that wants to eat you.”

The story is set in County Wicklow, Ireland. Much of the action takes place over a spring and summer. The narrative often reflects on how the author’s interest in nature was nurtured by his patient and loving parents and siblings. The youngest of four children, he has always got on better with wildlife than with people. He approaches his subject with a warm and childlike wonder. He has learned strategies for observing without upsetting the subjects in which he is most interested.

“the time spent looking and searching for any animal or plant is only part of the experience; the immersion of oneself in nature and its surroundings and the indulgence of the senses, is the reward for effort. I feel sorry for people who search unsuccessfully for a particular aspect of nature and feel the time was wasted.”  

In opening his tale, the author writes of nature’s patterns – mathematics – and nature’s movement – physics. The evolution of the natural world is as complex as the human brain; the interlinks within its ecosystem as little understood by man, who wreaks damage with his ill thought through invasions. The author considers all his studies to be opportunities to learn, noting when assumptions he has made prove incorrect. He recognises that while behaviours follow a pattern, much remains unforeseeable.

“Rivers are like people. They have different life stages, unpredictable moods and erratic personalities.”

The stretch of river he explores is one he has long been familiar with having returned to it year after year to observe its residents. This is his way of coping with life and its inherent challenges. Although describing himself as sociable, he finds human behaviour is too often baffling. The creatures at the river live in ways that make more sense.

“What was left to see? At its simplest, I watched because I enjoyed being part of their world – theirs and every other creature that shared it with me. There was always something new to learn”

The writing employs a gentle cadence with observations intricately explained while maintaining the excitement of what is happening and what this foretells. The sinuous dance steps of the birds’ behaviour bring forth new life and aid survival. Their actions prove endlessly fascinating to anyone willing to pay attention.

This is a book filled with wonder, acknowledging the dark times but always moving forward – the only direction possible in life, whatever one’s species. In reading it feels like walking alongside the author as he pursues his quest for the kingfisher. Although he writes that he does not understand those who lack the curiosity to find out more about natural habitats, prior knowledge is not necessary to enjoy what he shares here. 

A glorious meditation on nature filled with detail and appreciation. A soul enriching and recommended read.

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

Book Review: Now Legwarmers

Now Legwarmers, by Pascal O’Loughlin, is set in a housing estate in Ireland that is expanding over rural fields. It is written from the point of view of John who is nearly fourteen and has been living in one of the newly built corporation houses for a few months with his mother, Peggy. John’s father was killed in a road traffic accident and Peggy had not wanted to stay in the flat they shared. Concerned at her son’s lack of friends she bribes him to attend a local youth disco. Here he meets Angela who is a year older than him and lives in a bungalow built on farmland some distance from the estate. She has an older sister, Marion, who goes missing before she and John can meet.

Angela introduces John to kissing and smoking and David Bowie. They discuss books, music, films, and the stories of the people who live or once lived in the places they explore as they hang out together. John has a vivid imagination which helps him to process the grief he feels at the loss of his father, and his concerns for the feelings and changes in his body that he sometimes struggles to understand and deal with.

John is intelligent but attends an all boys’ school where he is expected to conform, especially to the religious tenets of the time and place. His lack of skill or interest in sport adds to his inability to fit in.

“I never knew what a boy was actually supposed to be like and I still don’t. Even now at school I watch them running around, and sometimes I’m running around too, but always it’s a bit like I’m pretending to know the rules to a weird game I don’t actually know how to play.”

John’s father had encouraged him to play football but memories of their visits to the pub are recalled with more pleasure. Peggy disapproved of her husband’s drinking and socialising, wanting him to spend what free time he had after work improving their home.

“she wanted everything to be brand new all the time and spick and span like she didn’t want what she already had at all, as if as soon as you had a thing that you wanted then it was no good. So she always wanted new things or to paint things or to put up wallpaper.”

Peggy is concerned that John is overweight. He hides from her the food he disposes off after pretending it has been eaten.

Angela also hangs out with two of her sister’s ex-boyfriends, Paul and Tony. She tells John of the rows her parents have and how they prefer Marion to her. She talks of the terrible things Paul and Tony have done, although the details sometimes change. Their conversations worm their way into John’s dreams when he is both asleep and awake.

John must also deal with his mother’s burgeoning friendship with a local man, Mr Daly. His feelings ricochet.

All of this is told in a stream of thoughts over several weeks in a dreary winter. John’s life is in many ways ordinary but by viewing it from inside his head the issues and concerns are shown to be idiosyncratic and a challenge for him. The author captures the angst and vernacular of a boy in his situation. The adults around him are well meaning but exist at a distance, unable to reach or empathise with someone his age.

“‘She misses Daddy’, I said.
‘You’re the man of the house now so you have to look after her’
I said nothing. I knew what the man of the house was and I wasn’t that. I was the son.
‘You’re a good lad,’ he said, but I didn’t believe him and the look on his face said something else, it said he didn’t know who I was at all”

The story is quietly devastating in its portrayal of small town life and the invisible lacerations caused by the expectations of family. It is an impressively told reminder that young people think for themselves. A poignant, arresting and satisfyingly original read.

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

Book Review: Last Ones Left Alive

Orpen has been raised on the island of Slanbeg, off the west coast of Ireland. She has known only two other people in her life – Mam and Maeve. From reading old papers and listening in on conversations she has gleaned that these two women once lived in Phoenix City but managed to escape. They have instilled in her the knowledge that the mainland holds many dangers. There are the skrake – powerful, crazed, half dead beings who hunt the living and whose bite will turn their victim into one of them. There is hunger because, since the Emergency, the plentiful supplies of foodstuffs people once took for granted are now scarce. And there are men. Neither Mam nor Maeve have explained exactly why but Orpen understands that men are to be feared.

Last Ones Left Alive opens with Orpen taking a bitten Maeve east in the hope of finding Phoenix City. Mam is dead. Orpen brings with her a crate of chickens and her dog, Danger. She has been trained since she was seven years old to tackle the skrake. Nevertheless she is afraid – she has been raised to fear this place. The island was safe but also lonely. She has a deep anger that Mam and Maeve refused to answer her burning questions and now it may be too late. They regarded her as a child to be protected when she felt a need to understand the reasons the world changed.

The Ireland in which this story is set is a dystopian future with many familiar elements. The rules appear to favour the suppression and control of women. The skrake are the stuff of nightmares.

Told from Orpen’s point of view, the timeline jumps between the girl’s past and present difficulties. It could be a coming of age tale. Dig deeper and it is a study of loneliness, trauma, grief, and the power of determination. Orpen feels anger that Phoenix City, a place where other people may live, has never been explained to her. All but alone now in her world, she is afraid it may not exist.

The writing is taut and vivid with a strong sense of place including a lingering Irish vernacular from the young narrator. Encounters throughout add volatility. Alongside the violence is the risk inherent in trusting, and the mental difficulties of solitary living.

At times I questioned the direction of the plot but the denouement provides a satisfying conclusion. Not all questions are answered but plenty is inferred and a circle is completed. This could easily be the start of a series.

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

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: The Groundsmen

The Groundsmen, by Lynn Buckle, is a brutal and disturbing story about an Irish family caught up in a generational cycle of abuse. It is told from five points of view. The protagonists are all victims of a community unwilling to confront the actions of those living within their midst. Dark secrets fester but are kept.

Louis is a successful IT manager who moved his wife, Cally, and their daughters, Andi and Cassie, to the newly built suburbs of Dublin before the Celtic Tiger economy collapsed. Now Cally spends much of her day in bed. Teenaged Andi resents that she is left to look out for her little sister. Five year old Cassie copes with the familial disharmony by pretending to be a dog, burying objects that represent hurtful behaviours in the garden. Louis’s brother, Toby, is a regular visitor. Louis and Toby have always been close but the truth of their relationship is toxic.

The story opens on a typical weekend. Louis and Toby are getting drunk watching football on TV, internally fantasising about what they would do to women they know. The violent degradation inherent in their thoughts is sickening to consider.

Cassie is in the garden burying the remote control. Andi is checking the personal treasures she hides in her wardrobe.

Cally has escaped upstairs and is thinking with disgust of what her husband has become – the rank smell and diseased skin that he regularly forces on her.

When Cassie becomes too lively inside the house she is punished. She copes with the pain by going elsewhere in her mind, thinking of all the items on her childish want list. Her family cannot understand that much of her behaviour is a cry for love, regarding her as weird and a nuisance.

Andi seeks love on line, posting photographs of herself at the behest of a boy. Toby has noticed how his niece’s body is developing.

The following Monday Louis oversleeps making him late into work. On arrival he discovers that Toby has been sacked. Inappropriate images were observed on his computer. There is to be an investigation. Louis struggles to make sense of what he is being told. As the story progresses the reader comes to understand that these adults operate in a state of denial about consequences. Damaging behaviours have led to a spiral of sordid desires which they refuse to acknowledge.

Louis regards women as objects available for his pleasure, resenting any agency they acquire. Cally recognises that she should act to protect her children but, inured to a life of submission, is overwhelmed. Louis will do whatever it takes to hold onto what he believes is his by right. Toby has his own agenda.

The subject matter and detail made this a challenging story to read. The author remains resolute in portraying the extent of the degeneracy and wider culpability. This is savage social realism, the twitching net curtain torn asunder. It is searing in its plausibility.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher époque press.

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.

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.