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.

Book Review: Eden Burning

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Eden Burning, by Deirdre Quiery, is set in early 1970’s Belfast, and brought home many memories. I was raised in the city in this troubled time, although not around the inaccurately named peace line. My home was in a newly built suburb on the opposite side of town. From the Castlereagh Hills I could look down over the city and see the Cave Hills beyond. I would hear the deep boom of the bombs but knew only a few who were injured or killed. It wasn’t until I went up to the university that I met those from the ‘other side’.

After my first trip into the Ardoyne, where much of this book is set, I was phoned by a friend and warned that the security forces had noted the presence of my car. I ignored their advice to stay away. I wanted to understand why we were required to live apart.

Eden Burning takes the reader into the heart of this conflict and, by introducing the reader to two families on either side of the sectarian divide, goes some way to explaining the background to the personal vendettas which fueled the bloodshed for so many years. The hatred was bred into the children as they grew. With large numbers of schools and residential areas still segregated by religion, too many still feel this way today.

The protestant family in the book has William McManus as its patriarch. He remembers the Easter Rising, the introduction of Home Rule, and the Republic of Ireland being granted full independence from Britain:

“it was one of the darkest days of William’s life. William felt that he had lost something. Something had been stolen from him which was a warning of worse to come.”

William and his elder son, Cedric, fight for God and Ulster. In the late 1960’s they burned Catholics out of their homes. They pick up random Catholics in their black taxi and murder them, deriving pleasure from watching them die. With the help of another man, Sammy P, they plant car bombs to breed fear, to damage and kill.

William’s wife, Eileen, does not question where her husband and son go or what they do. Her younger son, Peter, is still at school and has dreams of being a doctor. His father wishes him to join the family firm.

The Catholic family is headed by Tom who grew up in the Great Depression. He recalls scouring the pavements for dropped coins that his family may buy food. His father had his mother locked away in the Purdysburn mental hospital, quickly remarrying when she died. Tom treasures his memories of his mother, embracing her willingness to forgive.

Tom married Lily but they were not blessed with children. After his sister Catherine’s death they cared for her daughter, Maria, and then later for Maria’s daughter, Rose. Tom, Lily and Rose were burned out of their home on Glenbryn Park near the Ardoyne so took a house on the Crumlin Road opposite their church. Rose falls asleep at night to the sounds of riots in the street outside. She is secretly friends with a British soldier, and goes to school with Clara whose father, Ciaran, is a killer for the IRA.

As the story opens we learn that Cedric and William plan to murder Rose. Tom has gone to the priest to ask for a gun that he may protect his family. What unfolds is how each of the characters got to this point, and what happens next.

There are vivid descriptions of the mindsets of the time. The undercurrent of hatred that William and Cedric carry for all Catholics is well evoked. Alongside the violence, destruction and random bloodshed on both sides of the divide are descriptions of everyday life. Whatever else is going on the families offer welcoming cups of tea, soda bread, tidy homes and concern for their loved ones. Breakfasts are cooked and pints drunk in the pub.

One scene that felt eerily familiar occurred when Cedric asked the barmaid, Jenny, out for dinner. Almost as soon as they arrive at their destination Jenny wonders why she agreed to come:

“Jenny smiled weakly, feeling slightly uncomfortable and not knowing why. Maybe it was because Cedric seemed to not so much smile at her but rather to leer at her. His voice was unusually sugary sweet. She began to wish she hadn’t said yes to this date.”

I have been on that date with that man, only my experience was with someone from the other side. As well as taking me to dinner he took me to a party and proudly introduced me to his friends in the IRA. I was not impressed.

Perhaps I should not be reviewing a book that feels so close to my own experiences as it will inevitably colour my views. However, this is a story about people and place, written to draw the reader in whatever their own lives may be. I can confirm that what is written feels real, terrifyingly so.

Perhaps because it is so close to home I did not feel satisfied by the denouement; it was the only part of the book that I could not empathise with. I enjoyed the twists and turns which drew these two families together, but found it hard to believe that such embedded hatred could be so quickly diffused.

I left Belfast because I could not bear to live with the attitudes lurking beneath the surface of so many otherwise lovely people. I could never understand how the hating could be done in a God of love’s name.

For those who are curious about The Troubles this book is an interesting read. It is also a fine and well written story. Any conflict requires the support of ordinary people. In this tale they are brought vividly to life.

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

 

Book Review: Black Lake

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Black Lake, by Johanna Lane, is a story of a place and the effect it has on a family. Set in the fictional Dulough estate in remote Donegal, which the author has loosely based on Glenveagh, its beauty and isolation have been ingrained in the psyches of each member of the resident family. At the time of the tale they are being forced to move from the big house to a small cottage in the grounds for financial reasons. The estate is to be opened up for tourists. The effect that this change has on each of them is profound.

The Campbells have lived in the rambling and now crumbling big house for generations. John brings his new wife, Marianne, to live there after they graduate from Trinity College, Dublin. She had lived in this city all her life. She struggles to cope with the changes brought about by marriage and the move, with the history, remoteness and grandness of her new home; it takes some time for her to settle. John does not tell her that money is tight.

With the arrival of their two children Marianne determines to fit in to the place which is starting to work its magic on her. She finds solace in the gardens. Where once she was a prospective teacher she now uses her skills to home school the children. They are unaware that their unusual but settled lives are about to be sundered.

The isolation of the place is mirrored in the isolation of the family members. The tale is told from each of their perspectives bringing home how little even those close to us know of each other’s thoughts. Assumptions are made about why individuals act as they do. The children are young but still think and feel in ways their parents do not comprehend. An apparently innocuous incident leads to tragedy and this mutual lack of understanding is laid bare.

Loss, grief, guilt and the effect of imposed decisions are powerfully explored. Marianne resents that John has not shared his knowledge of Dulough and his concerns for its future with her. His motives may have been sound but were never explained. Neither parent appreciates the impact the changes in their lives have wrought on their children.

These universal themes are an undercurrent to a fascinating story that weaves one family’s history into a contemporary tale of the complexity of relationships. It is gently told but offers much food for thought. At just over two hundred pages the book did not take long to read. The feelings evoked will linger for much longer.

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

Book Review: The Dead Ground

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The Dead Ground, by Claire McGowan, is the second book in a series of crime thrillers featuring a forensic psychologist named Paula Maguire. I have not read the first in this series and was unaware that police forces in Britain, let alone Ulster, employed forensic psychologists. Having been born and raised in Northern Ireland where the book is set, I was interested to see how the author, also a native of the province, would deal with the ingrained beliefs and prejudices of the indigenous population, some of whom may be unwilling to accept the usefulness of such a crime fighter.

The plot centres around a series of abductions and murders. Someone in the small, rural community is taking very young babies, murdering those associated with them, even cutting them unborn from their mother’s wombs. It is a blood soaked, grisly tale with few clues as to who the perpetrators may be. There are undercurrents of religion, sectarianism and fanaticism, but at its heart this is a tale of motherhood and loss.

Alongside the main plot runs the unfolding story of Paula Maguire, whose personal life is a mess. Throughout the book she seems to be on the verge of collapse, a woman badly in need of a substantial meal and a good night’s sleep. I was unclear why a forensic psychologist would be so key as to require waking early every morning by colleagues needing her to attend to some critical matter, especially as she seemed to be something of a novelty within the police force. Ireland has indeed changed if its upholders of law and order now value the input of psychologists so highly.

Putting this view aside, because to enjoy a book it is often necessary to just go with the flow, this is a well written crime novel. The plot is complex but credible, the many twists and turns prevent it becoming too predictable. The ties of family are well portrayed, with some relishing the closeness and others desiring an escape from the stifling expectations of familial bonds. I recognised this Ireland and liked that it was portrayed without being overly judgemental.

The crimes depicted are gruesome and the desperation of the police to stop those involved before more blood is shed palpable. The coldness of the winter weather, remoteness of the locations, fear within the local population as the number of crimes escalates, are all vividly described. At every stage I wanted to know what would happen next and, despite the clues, could not guess exactly how all the loose ends were to be tied.

If you enjoy reading crime thrillers then give yourself a treat and get to know this author’s work. In such a popular genre it is a challenge to find such a fresh voice.

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

Tolerance in adversity

When I was at school the exams that we sat at sixteen were called ‘O’ Levels. I sat the usual mix of arts and science subjects and particularly enjoyed History, mainly because I could relate to the curriculum which covered key events in Europe in the early to mid twentieth century. It was the first time that I was told the historic reasons for the trouble in my home land, and it encouraged me to read much more widely on the subject.

Growing up in Belfast I was exposed to the rhetoric of the local politicians almost daily as they were interviewed on the television news bulletins following the bombings or shootings that were commonplace at the time. Protestants and Roman Catholics lived in different parts of the city and went to different schools so, although my family did not discuss the political situation a great deal, I absorbed the biased reactions from my peers and their families. Some had very strong views.

When, at fifteen, I started to study for the first time why the fighting was happening, I was perturbed to discover that I didn’t necessarily agree with the side I was supposed to be on. I wasn’t at all sure how to deal with this. From my very naive start point it looked as if both sides were fighting for a lost cause. I did not see how there could ever be a winner when the arguments had been brewing for so long, and so many atrocities had been perpetrated by both sides.

Whatever the cause, when fighting occurs with guns and explosives there is going to be injury and death. Parents are going to lose their beloved children; lives are going to be changed forever. I can see very few causes that can be worth this terrible cost. Armchair generals have long sent their troops into battle and counted the cost by number; lives lost versus territory won. Political protests can follow much the same approach; collateral damage is measured against progress made in achieving concessions by the activists who encourage the dissent from their supporters.

I left Belfast before the current, uneasy peace was achieved. On my occasional visits I notice a huge change for the better. It is not just the removal of the barbed wire, search barriers and army patrols in the streets; the young people seem to mix much more freely which can only help to encourage understanding and tolerance. There is still an undercurrent of violence that manifests itself around seemingly foolish things such as when to fly a flag from a public building or which streets to march down when publicly parading allegiances; each side will still loudly and bitterly blame the other for provoking or reacting inappropriately.

I am very uncomfortable with extremism. There is no easy solution to the situation in Ireland which has been centuries in the making. Neither is there an easy option to sort out the insidious political problems in this country which have developed over the last few decades. Deciding whether the rot started with Margaret Thatcher or with her predecessors and the arrogance of the unions at the time makes for interesting debate, but is now largely academic. Attaching historical blame does not help to improve our current situation.

When trying to enter into a political discussion there are some who will try to take ownership of policies that most will support at a basic level, even if they disagree with the best way to implement them. One does not need to be a socialist to wish to help the needy and vulnerable; capitalists are not the only people wishing to benefit personally from the work they do.

If a country is to support those in need then it requires resources which most often come from taxes. For taxes to be paid, businesses need to be allowed to flourish and provide employment. There was much debate last year about large, successful businesses that had managed to avoid paying tax in this country. This was not tax evasion (illegal) but avoidance. I do not know anyone who would willingly pay more tax than they had to. If a company is able to avoid tax then it may be that tax legislation needs to change. If the company is acting within the law then I can understand it wishing to minimise it’s tax liabilities. I would do the same.

Wishing to pay only legally required tax does not mean that I am against helping those in need. I may not always agree that some needs are vital enough to require support from the public purse, but I agree with feeding the hungry, housing the homeless and treating the sick. I would like to see a much simpler system of taxation and support, a lot less waste in state run organisations and a lot less interference in how I live my life, but none of this precludes me from wishing to offer state support to those who truly need it.

Sometimes my socialist friends seem to suggest that their ideals have a monopoly on compassion. They are no more willing to pay additional tax or offer their spare bedroom to a homeless stranger than I am. They wish to be paid for the work that they do and then to be free to spend their money for their own benefit. This does not make them bad people any more than my political allegiances make me a bad person. We can generalise and point out individuals with similar views who may not be admirable, but it is possible to do good from many stances.

The real difference between how my friends and I think becomes more apparent when considering wider issues such as how best to fix the mess that the country’s economy is currently in. Like the problems in Ireland, I do not believe there are straightforward answers, but life will be better for all if we can manage to move forward with a compromise solution that may not offer anyone exactly what they want but will keep the peace.

Of course I would like to see real change in support of my views, just as my socialist friends would like to see real change in support of their views. I think I could cope with either though if we could have honest politicians representing the people rather than their own interests, who were voted in on policies that they would then implement. The deception that pervades the higher echelons of power is much harder to accept than any honest ideal. It is unfortunate that the one thing that is obvious from studying history is that power corrupts.

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