Book Review: Amongst Women

Amongst Women

“‘Be careful’, Moran advised when he kissed each of them in turn as they were ready to leave. ‘Be careful never to do anything to let yourselves or the house down.'”

Amongst Women, by John McGahern, tells the story of an Irish farming family over a few decades in the twentieth century. It is bookended by the demise of the elderly patriarch, Michael Moran, a widower whose second wife, Rose, was welcomed by his teenage children for the relief it brought them. Moran is unpredictably temperamental, with strong views on how his family should behave. He has kept them distanced from the local community, something the children accept.

“Maggie looked at this isolation he had built up around them as distinction and strength. In her heart she felt that Rose was a little common in knowing so many people.”

Moran adheres to the rituals of his religion, with daily prayers – graces and rosaries – recited by the family together. Having fought and distinguished himself in the Irish War of Independence, he is now disappointed at how the new country turned out. He bought his farm with money received when he left the army, and turned the land into a living. Having done the best he knew how to raise his children, the sense of loss felt as each chooses to leave cuts deep. He had hoped that one of his sons would run the farm after him but neither were interested.

The slow peeling back of Irish family life is affecting if unrelenting in its honesty. Moran may be a difficult man to live with but there is a great deal of love and respect for him within the family circle. This doesn’t mean the children are always happy with what he demands of them. In their own way, each quietly rebels against imposed strictures. The choices they make are not always for the best.

“The whole empty strand of Strandhill was all around them and they had the whole day. There is nothing more difficult than to seize the day.”

When the children do need help they turn to each other. The obligations towards family are deeply ingrained. This is also true of the wider community, although perhaps not as powerfully as amongst the Morans.

“Such is the primacy of the idea of family that everyone was able to leave work at once without incurring displeasure. In fact their superiors thought the sisters’ involvement was admirable.”

The story offers snippets from the past: Moran’s fighting days; his courtship with Rose; how he treats his children and the limitations this incurs as they reach adulthood; his acceptance if not respect for the partners they choose, who each carry their own family baggage. That the children continue to visit Moran regularly, despite his outspoken views and behaviour, says much about the duty instilled.

The writing is taut and spare yet richly evocative of the time and place. It is hard to like Moran – the way he treats both family and neighbours; the cruelties he inflicts on Rose; his tightness over money when he is not poor – yet he elicits sympathy for doing what he believes best for his children.

There is a poignancy in the denouement that he did not recognise the loyalty of his family. His authoritarianism was, after all, of its time in Ireland.

“‘Who cares anyhow?’ Moran said. ‘Nobody cares.’
‘I care,’ she said passionately.
‘That doesn’t count.”

While in many ways a troubling story, the depth of feeling conveyed will linger. A remarkable achievement in a slim yet satiating read.

Amongst Women is published by Faber & Faber.

Book Review: Foster

foster

Foster, by Claire Keegan, is narrated by a young girl sent to stay with a couple she does not know, having last met them when she was a baby. The husband and wife are from the child’s mother’s side of the family, farmers living in rural Ireland, like her parents, but doing better financially. The girl’s father is a drinker and gambler, proud to have sired a large brood but unable to fully support them.

“I wonder why my father lies about the hay. He is given to lying about things that would be nice, if they were true.”

The girl’s mother is worn down by her work and coping with multiple, hungry children. A new baby is due imminently so she sends her eldest away to be cared for elsewhere.

The story opens with the girl being driven to this strange new place and then left with just the clothes on her back and feelings she cannot articulate.

The couple who have agreed to take her in – the Kinsellas – are happy to have her. They show a rare good sense and insight in their parenting skills. The girl adapts and fits into their household routines, trying hard to get past the troubling emotions she feels.

Over the coming weeks the girl is well fed, clothed and learns how to be of help, though this is not demanded. She is offered affection for the first time she can remember. She is told there are to be no secrets kept in this house, that secrets bring with them shame. She also learns that when questions are asked, particularly by those looking to gossip or criticise, silence is an option.

The girl feels the undercurrents of adult behaviour more than she understands the reasoning.

“Kinsella’s eyes are not quite still in his head. It’s as though there’s a big piece of trouble stretching itself out in the back of his mind.”

Neighbours are curious about who the girl is and are not always kindly in their motives. Nevertheless, the girl finds she is happy in this place which leads to conflicting loyalties.

“Kinsella takes my hand in his. As soon as he takes it, I realise my father has never once held my hand, and some part of me wants Kinsella to let me go so I won’t have to feel this. It’s a hard feeling but as we walk along I begin to settle and let the difference between my life at home and the one I have here be.”

The writing is exquisite – pared down prose that conveys much using words conjoined to perfection. Although the girl senses more than she understands, as the weeks pass certain elements of the adult world are revealed to her. This is conveyed with a rare skill, the reader picking up the nuances not just from conversation but from the way the girl is advised and protected by the Kinsellas.

A beautifully told story that sheds light on life in rural Ireland – the positives and negatives of close knit community and the myriad challenges of child bearing and rearing. Seen through the lens of a young girl adds poignancy but there is no schmaltz in the telling. This is a recommended read.

Foster is published by Faber & Faber.

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: Source

Source

“the book was musty, as if all the old words had gone off a bit, unused and trapped inside. Let us out! they might whisper. And the words in it might well be the key to unlocking the past. But the odour the trapped words gave off seemed to hold within it an accusation that it was the past itself that was tainted, no matter which words were chosen to describe it.”

Source, by Rosemary Johnston, is a short and beautifully written novella about a woman returning to her childhood home on the west coast of Ireland, to clear it out after the deaths of her parents. She is accompanied by her daughter who knows little about the toxic atmosphere that drove her mother to escape as soon as she felt able. In spare and evocative prose the author explores how our past haunts and shapes us, and how the words we use to communicate have a power of their own.

The woman, Kate, intends to throw away the contents of the old family farmhouse, wanting no reminder of the mother she grew to resent after her father left them. She values only a couple of books that had belonged to the father, who she remembers fondly. These fostered in her a lifelong love of language. Kate’s daughter, Lavinia, is both fascinated and appalled by the state of the house and its surrounds, struggling to imagine her London based mother living in rural Connemara. As the days pass Kate finds herself drawn back to childhood memories, and the repercussions of events she worked hard to put behind her.

The sense of place is skilfully rendered, as are the shadows cast by parents when they turn on offspring. It is shown that leaving home is only possible physically. Just as words carry their etymologies, so people cannot free themselves from their roots and memories, experience moulding but from a set base.

“[words] contain our histories. They tell our stories, our stories are written in them. Like genes, words give instructions. They can send the right or wrong message. Like genes, words mutate.”

What is a simple and engaging tale of family history rises above the ordinary with its brevity and depth. There are moments of tension but also redemption. A fine example of original storytelling that I wholeheartedly recommend.

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

Book Review: Emmet and Me

emmet-and-me

Emmet and Me is Sara Gethin’s second novel for adults (I review her first, Not Thomas, here). Although exploring dark themes, both novels are narrated by children and she captures their views and understanding of the world with skill and care. Adults often forget how insular a child’s perspective can be, that the lens through which they observe their surroundings is coloured by limited experience and childish interpretations of behaviour and overheard conversation. They have not yet developed the language or emotional intelligence to convey their deeply felt desires or concerns.

This latest story opens in Cardiff where ten year old Claire lives with her parents and two brothers – twelve year old Will and toddler Louis. Their volatile mother has long made it clear she regards her children as nuisances. She blames them for driving her to regular outbursts of anger. On the first weekend of the summer holidays, when she starts flinging crockery at the walls, the youngsters lock themselves in the bathroom to keep safe. They are rescued by their uncle, Jack, who takes them to his grubby lodgings to sleep while their dad tries to sort matters at home. When they return the next day their mother has left. Unable to care for his children alone, their dad decides they must go to his mother in rural Ireland, despite not having spoken to her since he was Claire’s age.

Set in 1966, the remote cottage in Connemara has few modern conveniences. Grandma does her best for the children but, with only one elderly neighbour within walking distance, they must make their own entertainment in the surrounding fields. When the holidays end and there is still no prospect of returning to Wales, Claire and Will are sent to local schools. Run by the Catholic church, these are domains of casually cruel nuns and priests.

It is clear from early in the story that there are key elements of family history that Claire is unaware of. These are gradually revealed to her as the plot progresses – mostly foreshadowed so with few surprises for the reader. There is poverty and tragedy leading to lifelong guilt and resentments. All of this is presented with a poignant clarity and pleasing lack of mawkish embellishment.

The titular Emmet is a boy from one of Ireland’s industrial schools. Claire meets him when she finds a place to hide from the girls in her class during lunchbreak. Claire has always struggled to make friends, longing to be noticed by the popular girls and thereby missing out on chances to befriend others – a thread that is handled particularly well in this tale. In Emmet she finds a child who, like her, has a vivid imagination and appreciation of the escapism to be found in stories. Thrilled by their similarities, she is blind to his obvious suffering and deprivation.

Will has his own issues to deal with at school, his name and provenance making him a magnet for bullies. Being older he has a greater awareness of his parents’ behaviour and is attuned to the background that led to them abandoning their offspring. He is caught between protecting Claire from the truth and advising her when she appears insensitive of issues faced by her peers.

Although certain chapters open with thoughts from an older Claire looking back on this summer, the story told is mostly linear. The writing flows but with an underlying tension – a feeling of impending disaster to which Claire remains oblivious, caught up as she is in her own concerns. Each of the characters is developed well, adding depth to the various plot threads. The way poor and orphaned children are treated by church and state is heartbreaking, especially knowing how factually true this aspect is.

Young Claire’s denouement is a bildungsroman of sorts, although the author avoids the pitfall of making everything too tidy. There is then a postscript that offers a window into the life of the older Claire, a bittersweet consequence of pivotal events recounted.

It is notable that the least likable characters are those presenting what many regard as an admirable veneer – be it beauty or vociferous piety. Grandma understands that the church must be pandered to but recognises its dark underbelly. She does not keep a mirror in her cottage, although it and its occupants are kept clean without fussiness. Claire’s life may at times appear challenging, but not when compared to Emmet’s and those in similar circumstances to his.

I read a great many books that experiment with form and development. Although these can be impressive, it was refreshing to read a story told clearly from beginning to end. That said, the author has included so many thought-provoking themes there is plenty to consider. All have their place and add depth to the evocation of time and place.

A page turner that I nevertheless had to walk away from at times, fearful of what was about to be revealed. The pleasure some take from damaging children for their own gratification remains incomprehensible. The author captures the essence of childhood with aplomb and crafts a tale that cannot fail to move every reader. A deftly rendered, recommended read.

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

Book Review: The Spirit of the River

spirit of the river

“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.