Book Review: Young Farmers

young farmers

Let’s start by saying that Young Farmers, by Jan Carson, is a short story printed as a limited edition chapbook. It was included in goodie bags given to attendees at recent launch events for The Raptures, the author’s most recent novel. I was delighted to be sent a copy as I have enjoyed reading every book Carson has had published.

The story recounts an incident in the life of one of the children featured in The Raptures. Bayani is the son of a local farmer – who insists on calling the boy Ben – and his Filipino wife. Being of mixed race, Bayani stands out in Ballylack, the village where he was born and raised. When his father takes him along to a Young Farmers’ Club meeting, the regulars regard him as foreign and therefore unwelcome.

Bayani has no interest in farming but, at ten years old, has little agency. The young farmers he is forced to spend an evening with are teenagers who end each meeting drinking beer together. The unexpected arrival in their midst adds an extra dimension to their routine entertainment.

“They don’t know exactly what they want. In the rush of it all – the slip quick moment between, here’s a mad idea, and actually firing the boy in with the bull – the Young Farmers have lost the run of themselves. Even the sober ones feel drunk and the truly pissed have surrendered to some baser need. If you asked what the Hell they’re playing at, you’d not get any sense out of them.”

The denouement is particularly poignant and pleasing, a fitting end to a somewhat disturbing escapade. Bayani’s dad is set up well for how his character is developed in the novel.

Carson has a knack for capturing the vernacular and character of the Northern Irish with wit and sympathy. Their flaws, of which there are many, are mined for humour rather than criticism. Prejudices are made clear but it is left to the reader to recognise how this limits and shadows choices and experiences.

A short story that stands on its own merits but also slips seamlessly into the world portrayed in The Raptures. A fine addition to the author’s publications, all of which are worth reading.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.


Book Review: The Raptures

the raptures

“The shame of it. She’s hot with shame. Hannah has been brought up to believe the fault is always with her.”

The Raptures, by Jan Carson, is set in the summer of 1993, in the fictional one street village of Ballylack, County Antrim. It focuses on Hannah Adger, an eleven year old girl whose parents are strict, evangelical Christians. Hannah knows she doesn’t fit in with her peers. She’s not permitted to watch the television shows they enjoy or listen to the popular music they dance and sing along to. When Hannah is not at school, her life revolves around the church where they: speak in tongues, preach on the saving of souls, and pray long and earnestly. She remains stoic about the limitations imposed by her parents. She believes in their God, but would also be happier if she had friends.

As the final school term of her primary education ends, Hannah is anticipating the long summer holiday, much as in previous years, although at its end she will start at the big school in the nearby market town. Expectations change when she is visited by one of her classmates who has died unexpectedly of a mysterious illness. The village mourns the young lad’s passing. Sadness turns to fear when other children start to suffer the same symptoms.

The story takes the reader inside the homes of the eleven children who made up the village school’s outgoing P7 class. When the layers of conformity are peeled back they are a disparate group. One lass is being raised by her grandparents after her mother was caught in one of the bombings common during The Troubles and blown to pieces. Another girl is the daughter of the local Chinese restaurant proprietors so is marked by her facial features as different. Although a deeply traditional, generational farming community, one of the fathers took a foreign wife and now struggles to love his son, exacerbated by how different the boy looks to him. The author presents these prejudices with her trademark wit but this never detracts from the depth of long term damage such views cause.

Carson has a knack for quietly articulating the essence of an upbringing in which little of note is ever discussed yet everyone knows what is expected of them and only a rare few will dare to stray – beyond a touch of minor rebellion. There is ingrained fear of opprobrium from the community that would bring shame on one’s family, to dare to have notions they have no right to in other’s view.

“He fears God, though he’s not sure he believes in him. Oh, but the fear’s real enough, and the shame and the guilt.”

As more children succumb to the illness, the authorities and media take an interest. This adds to the tension in the village. Meanwhile, Hannah is struggling with the knowledge that she is likely to die, quite a burden for an eleven year old, especially when the adults around her are avoiding such talk in an attempt to protect her. Only she is aware that the dead kids now exist in an alternative place where they may do as they wish.

Although a tale of young children dying, there is much humour within these pages. The author adds asides that sympathetically poke fun at the quirks of the Northern Irish. In doing so through the eyes of a child there is an honest naivety that is easy to enjoy.

“I’m pretty clever for a girl. Obviously I’d never say this out loud. It’d sound like I was being prideful. Pride’s one of the worst sins you can do. Only murder and adultery are worse. I’m not exactly sure what adultery is. I think it’s when you act more grown up than you actually are: drinking wine and playing cards or maybe giving your parents lip.”

In an attempt to control the developing situation, a crisis-management officer is drafted in. Seán Donnelly may be an expert but he is from the South and a Catholic. Nevertheless, as the death toll climbs, the locals are growing desperate and are willing to have someone who sounds as if they know what they are doing take charge. When he arrives to deal with a potentially confrontational situation at the Adgers – the tension cut through with silent rage born of barely held together stress – Donnelly’s skills come to the fore.

“Seán’s eye lands on granny. She’s his in. He can tell just from looking that she’s a talker … He addresses his question directly to her. ‘Fill me in, Mrs Adger. What exactly’s happened here?’
It’s as if he’s flicked the detonator. Granny draws breath and out it all comes in one incessant, angry blast.”

The story offers a fascinating snapshot of a rural community in which the religious divides and judgements of Ulster Protestantism place barriers within and without families. Stews and tray bakes are offered alongside prayers that focus on blame. If the wages of sin are death then the parents of these children will look to their past behaviour. Hannah may believe that she has a friend in Jesus but he is being awfully quiet now she really needs him.

The writing flows beautifully with carefully structured changes in focus maintaining engagement. A deep seam of issues is mined with the lightest of touches – any who have lived in the province will recognise the complex and stunted beliefs portrayed.

This is somehow a gloriously affirmative tale despite the grief riddled subject matter. An entirely satisfying and recommended read.

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

Random Musings: On Mattering

dance cartoon

I recently reviewed an excellent and highly readable academic textbook by Caroline Magennis, Northern Irish Writing After The Troubles. One of the quotes I pulled from it set me thinking.

“To move your body out of pleasure is to assert that you think your body matters. That you matter. It is an assertion of pleasure, of pride and of autonomy.”

This was on dancing, which Ian Paisley preached was sinful. Growing up as I did in Northern Ireland, many pleasurable activities were regarded this way. Sex was the obvious one. At home, at school and at church it was drummed into girls that to indulge in sexual activity would be to bring down not just the wrath of God but also shame on the family – one of the worst things it was possible to do. No mention was made of consent. Short skirts were an indication that the girl was up for it. Boys were portrayed as creatures incapable of controlling their urges. Looking at pictures of myself as a teenager, I often dressed like a middle aged woman.

At this point I will admit that, having escaped to England and lived to be a middle aged woman, I now regularly wear short skirts. It took a long time for me to understand that my sex life should be nobody else’s concern.

What really hit me in the quote above was that it alleged a woman could matter. This, to me, was radical thinking. Women existed to serve – the family, the Lord, husband and children. To consider self was selfish, frowned upon.

In Belfast I was expected to be a good girl, to keep secret any behaviours deemed suspect such as drinking alcohol. This, despite the fact my parents and their friends were regular imbibers. Many aspects of how we lived were certainly never to be mentioned when duty visiting the wider family. It made it hard to have natural conversations with them.

It was expected that, in time but while still young, I would marry a nice boy from a similar background. Not too rich as his family’s affluence would make my parents feel inferior. Not too poor as my parents had successfully risen from this. And definitely not a Catholic, although no other religion was even considered a possibility.

It was vital that, on marriage, I hold on to my husband. To this end, staying thin was more important than academic or professional attainment. Throughout my life, my mother expressed more delight when I lost weight than any other of my achievements. I was expected to be submissive and pleasing – in looks and behaviour.

At a work team building event I was once asked to share with the group something I was proud of achieving. I could think of nothing except pride was a sin. In many ways I had done everything my parents asked of me, other than stay in Ireland. I could never shake the need to please – not a bad thing in itself, of course, but beneath that is the belief that my needs and desires do not matter greatly.

My English mother-in-law had an unshakeable belief in the rightness of her opinions. This attitude entirely flummoxed me. Women deferred, took up as little space as possible, whilst ensuring others’ wishes were met without fuss. When I occasionally pushed back, refusing to do something that was expected of me as I recognised it would be personally damaging, my perceived selfish intransigence caused rifts that may never fully heal.

To matter requires that one be valued. To this day I struggle to accept that I am worth anything more than the services I provide. I know I am loved but am less sure of being intrinsically valued for what I am as an individual. Being of use brings me pleasure, but to be able to dance through life without being derided must feel amazing.

Another book I reviewed recently, Aurochs and Auks, placed humans in the wider context of our planet – just one species among many, although highly damaging in our behaviour. This chimed with me. It matters how we behave because of the potential damage caused by self-entitlement, to our life support system and also each other. My upbringing focused on being pleasing for the benefit of church and family. Perhaps to add value, and therefore to matter, is to live more in tune with our place in all the spaces we impact.

Book Review: The Sun is Open

sun is open

“Around noon, the girl took her
auntie by the hand to the rows
of rose bushes where her father

“Around noon, the men sent out
for fish and chips and as they sat
eating they watched the lunchtime
news to find out if they had
killed their target”

On the morning of March 6, 1984, Gail McConnell’s father was shot dead outside his home in front of his wife and three-year-old daughter. This poetry collection provides an innovative and powerful account of the affect this had on the author in the years that followed. It is built from memories and personal archive material taken from a ‘Dad Box’ she created. Several of the entries are wrapped around direct quotes from items stored therein, including: newspaper clippings, William McConnell’s student diaries, Beryl McConnell’s Statement of Witness.

Each page makes use of white space and indentation to effect. There is no punctuation and few capital letters. This approach serves to focus the reader’s attention. Meaning is clear. The stream of memories and violent imagery is gut-wrenching to consider.

The poems are more factual than political, emotive given context but never mawkish. By drawing on what was reported at the time, a picture of the terrorist mindset sits alongside a young girl growing up in the shadow of the void their actions created. And yet, no judgement is made here. Her father’s perceived character – “a man of high morals, honest, loyal, dedicated” and also “giving prisoners a hard time in Long Kesh” – sits alongside the man who made his young daughter a Wendy House, took her to the beach and created music with his guitar.

In a segregated society sides will be taken, community support provided even for killers.

“the stuff of thrillers wigs washed
in the kitchen sink two pairs
of rubber gloves burnt in the
yard the briefcase tucked up in
the attic sub-machine gun snug
inside clean towels for everyone
the spinner going on third
time that afternoon”

The author’s family are church goers, the child’s social life lived amongst Christian youth groups and protestant schoolfriends. The bible is quoted frequently, the bizarreness of some of its commands and stories quietly highlighted.

The strangeness of being a major news item is remembered, or rebuilt from items kept. In time, the author is cautioned against playing her ‘murder card’ to get her way.

“it’s what dislodges in my body
when I hear balloons pop pop the
birthday party I spent in the
corridor outside the room”

As an adolescent there were small rebellions but also a pulling in of what had been absorbed, the fallout from such a pivotal childhood event. The hurt from such a loss need not be explicitly stated to provide the undercurrent and occasional riptide in choices made. That the author avoids any call for sympathy in her writing – although obviously deserved – is to be commended.

The poems are both beautiful and poignant to read, the language employed all the more compelling for its concise simplicity. Depth is conveyed through what was considered ordinary for a girl in Northern Ireland – how strange the accepted behaviours are to look back on. And yet, it is not necessary to understand life during The Troubles to appreciate the schism caused by the sudden death of a parent. This collection provides a window into a life that perforce continued. It is an arresting and deeply moving read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Penned in the Margins.

Book Review: Milkman

Although I have a few on my TBR pile, it has been several years since I read a Booker Prize winner. This year I couldn’t resist. Not only is the author from my hometown of Belfast but her story is set during the early years of The Troubles – the era that I grew up in. Also, I enjoyed her debut, No Bones, so was confident I would get on with her writing style. The final push that encouraged me to seek out Milkman was a respected fellow reviewer telling me this was my sort of read. All the stars aligned when my local library was able to provide me with their newly shelved copy.

Milkman should not be rushed. It is not a difficult read but the stream of consciousness narrative imparts a great deal of information that benefits from unhurried digestion. By the time I was around sixty pages in I had also realised that this story is packed full of dark humour. The community portrayed is recognisable and authentic but their accepted behaviour can, with my now comforting distance of time and place, be regarded as risible.

Very few people are named throughout the tale. Rather, they are referred to by their position within families or how they are alluded to by neighbours. The narrator is middle sister, one of ten siblings, and she is looking back on events that occurred when she was eighteen. Her age is significant. Although an adult and working she is not yet old enough to view the world outside her personal cocoon through the lens of lived experience. She copes with the relentless violence and oppression that surrounds her by not paying attention.

Middle sister likes to read while walking, behaviour that is regarded by her community as beyond the pale. When an older, married and powerful paramilitary – Milkman – makes it known that he is stalking her she has no idea why he has singled her out or how to get rid of him. Rumours quickly circulate that they are having an affair.

Middle sister’s mother is appalled, although she can’t quite work out if this is because her daughter isn’t yet married or because she is now the subject of gossip which ripples out to include her other non-standard behaviours. Like most matriarchs in the locality, mother has lost children to the political situation, or due to their transgressions from the strict code of conduct demanded and enforced by casually violent men. Women are expected to marry young and then produce lots of babies. Until they do this, the men feel justified in claiming they can’t help but try to claim the women’s time and attention.

“they don’t see you as a person but instead as some cipher, some valueless nobody whose sole objective is to reflect back onto them the glory of themselves.”

As well as reading while walking, middle sister attends an evening class in the city centre. Her teacher tries to broaden the pupil’s horizons but such thinking is viewed with suspicion. In a small and introverted society, admitting to the possibility of alternative ways of living is dangerous.

Middle sister’s late father had suffered from depression, an illness his wife found embarrassing.

“Ma herself didn’t get depressions, didn’t either tolerate depressions and, as with lots of people here who didn’t get them and didn’t tolerate them, she wanted to shake those who did until they caught themselves on.”

Stoicism is expected as the community exists within an atmosphere of entrenched pessimism, a loss of trust and hope. To be happy was a risk because how then to cope when the cause of this happiness was removed, as would inevitably happen. The country is regarded as having a long heritage of darkness, fear and sorrow. Those few who do not feel downtrodden, who are not compliant, are exceptions.

“it was hard to deal with the threat she posed by going about completely holding her own.”

When middle sister protests that she is not having an affair with Milkman, that he has approached but never touched her, she is not believed. In this time and place any young women complaining, ‘he did this to me while I was doing that’, would be regarded askance and have demanded of them, ‘and why were you doing that?’

As the rumours gain momentum and start to affect her health, middle sister notices that there is more going on around her than she has been aware of in her short, blinkered existence. The trouble she had feared bringing down on her secret, maybe boyfriend and on her family if she didn’t comply with Milkman’s demands are not the only dangers they all face.

In amongst the constant surveillance and violent, often botched reprisals from both sides of the political divide are the amusing antics of the youngsters, particularly the three wee sisters. Hospitals are feared so the older women, who may appear at times absurd in their behaviour, come together when needed. A fledgling feminist group is viewed with contempt but also bewilderment. All of these threads add colour and depth to the streets that middle sister must navigate.

The writing is witty and perfectly pitched to both challenge thinking and to entertain. Although plainly set in the Ardoyne area of Belfast in the 1970s, the place is not named. Thus the depiction may be more widely representative of any closed and judgemental community. The author shows her skill in making this tale uplifting despite the many negative behaviours it observes in passing. It is a meaty, delicious and satisfying read.

My copy of this book was borrowed from my local library.

Books: Northern Ireland through fiction

Last Thursday, from my safe Tory seat in rural Wiltshire, I voted with hope for a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn. What the country got instead was Theresa May so desperate to cling on to power that she is trying to get into bed with Northern Ireland’s DUP. When I saw that my old homeland had returned MPs only from the two extremes of the sectarian divide my heart wept a little. That one of these parties should now have the means to influence UK decision making is a serious worry. The peace, such as it is, remains fragile and to help broker disputes Westminster is required to remain impartial.

Recent events in Manchester and London have triggered talk of a fear of terrorists amongst my English acquaintances. I remember how it was to grow up in The Troubles, with terrorist incidents an almost everyday occurrence. The British army wielded their guns on the streets of Belfast with intent. They drove around in their armoured vehicles as a warning and a threat. The local police routinely carried guns and had the power to hold suspects without explanation. Of course, the illegal organisations were well armed as well. They killed and they maimed with their bombs and their shootings, and when they took their fight to the mainland were paid attention.

In the past week that attention has returned. Questions are being asked about why Northern Ireland’s residents cannot vote for the same political parties as the rest of the UK. Questions are being asked about why they are not afforded the same choices and rights.

Much has changed since peace was agreed but religious inspired intolerance remains. There is the opposition to abortion and same sex marriage. There is also insistence on provocative marching that incites violence every year. Just as homes were set alight to drive out Catholics or Protestants back in the day, attacks are now aimed at immigrants. Although integration has improved there is still religious segregation in many areas, of housing and schools. It may no longer be necessary to subject shoppers to bag checks and body frisking before allowing access to the city centre but a few simple questions about background will still quickly reveal upbringing. Walls of all kinds remain.

Shankill Road peace wall

Fiction is a fine way to better understand cultural difference. For those interested, the following books offer windows into the lives of those living in the province. They are also excellent reads.

Children’s Children by Jan Carson (Liberties Press)
Vinny’s Wilderness by Janet Shepperson (Liberties Press)
Multitudes by Lucy Caldwell (Faber and Faber)
The Good Son by Paul McVeigh (Salt Publishing)
Eden Burning by Deirdre Quiery (Urbane Publications)
Postcard Stories by Jan Carson (The Emma Press)

I have heard that The Glass Shore (New Island Books), which is a short story anthology by various Northern Irish women writers (edited by Sinéad Gleeson), is also excellent. I cannot verify how strong its sense of place is as I have yet to source a copy to review.

For all the negative attitudes being highlighted by the past week’s politics, Northern Ireland remains an attractive place to visit. Warm welcomes are the norm for those who are passing through and recent development has provided much to see and enjoy. It would be a tragedy if Theresa May’s legacy was to break the hard fought for peace that has enabled such progress. As on the mainland, movement should be forward towards tolerance and inclusivity. Adherance to any religious lifestyle should be a personal choice.


Book Review: Postcard Stories

Postcard Stories, by Jan Carson (with illustrations by Benjamin Phillips), is a collection of fifty-two short stories, one for each week of a year. They were originally written on the back of postcards and then mailed individually to the author’s friends. Set in or around contemporary Belfast they capture the attitudes and vernacular of their subjects with wit and precision. As with Carson’s previous work, there is at times an injection of magical realism which beautifully offsets the dry humour of her candid observations.

To tell a story as short as these the prose must throughout remain pithy. The author presents the quirks and poignancy of little moments in everyday life with warmth and affection. These small snapshots of the ordinary become extraordinary when painted with her words.

The stories in which elderly people feature offer a wry yet sympathetic account of life from their perspectives. All the characters are recognisable, their foibles presented with gentle perceptiveness.

From Ulster Hall Belfast (Week 34), where the narrator is mourning her increasing forgetfulness:

“There was not even a way to say that I had forgotten these things; only a jumble of words too long or too short for the job and a clenching of fists when the words would not come.”

From Armagh (Week 8)

“A provincial Northern Irish library, early evening, and the usual suspects have gathered for a creative writing workshop: two amateur poets, a sci-fi guy in a black t-shirt, a lady who writes letters to her sister in Australia, and that one elderly gentleman who’s working on a biography of someone you’ve never heard of.”

Writers feature as many of the stories appear personal.

From Whiteabbey (Week 9), which tells of a gathering of friends:

“Three writers and a much more useful person gathered for a dinner party. They ate aubergines and couscous impregnated with tequila. Like Jesus, they kept the good wine for pudding. Later, they ended their evening with Bob Dylan and cheese so ripe it might have been shoes.”

From Linenhall Street, Belfast (Week 29), where the author talks of making a robot of herself:

“The robot of me will not be funny or write stories or be good at conversation with wine. I will be particularly careful to ensure the robot is a dull dinner party guest for fear that my friends might begin to prefer its company over mine.”

One of my favourite tales in the collection was Albertbridge Road, Belfast (Week 27). It starts:

“The Tall Ships arrived in Belfast yesterday. They were not as tall as we’d been led to believe. We thought you might be able to see them from space or, at the very least, Cave Hill.”

Another I particularly enjoyed was Linenhall Street, Belfast (Week 50) where the narrator ponders bible stories and the characters who do not feature:

“which made me think of the shepherd who went off for a quick wee at exactly the wrong angelic moment, and all the people who, upon hearing there was only one portion of loaves and fish to split between so many, went home to fix their own sandwiches”

Both of these feature a last line so perfect I had to stop to savour the effect before rereading from the beginning. The length of each story allows for this. In many ways they are akin to poetry.

There are tales that play with word meanings: a consideration of happiness prompted by a sign in a coffee shop; a museum as a place to take the old things that remind the narrator of events they would prefer to forget. There are stories which deal with meetings and misunderstandings, arrivals and departures, loneliness and the throwaway comments that lodge in memory, endlessly chewed over yet remaining difficult to swallow.

The collection is ideal for dipping into. It is an attractively presented, slim volume with illustrative sketches for a number of the tales. Perfect for slipping into a bag or a pocket, this is a sagacious and entertaining read.

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

Book Review: Angel Bird


Angel Bird, by Sanjida O’Connell, tells the story of Niall, a zooligist who travels to a remote town on the north east coast of Ireland to study the behaviour of magpies. Niall’s father and grandfather were also zooligists and he feels he needs to prove his worth. Niall believes that much of any creature’s behaviour is genetically ordained and lives his life accordingly. When being in Ireland triggers forgotten memories from childhood he is forced to confront the reality of the choices he makes.

Niall moves into a small rented house in a town where everyone knows everybody else’s business. He discovers that magpies are seen as harbingers of doom in this place, the devil’s bird. Undeterred he sets up the bounds of his research, content to live a spartan life as he studies his subjects. To supplement the meagre fare he prepares for himself at home he cycles out to a restaurant once a week where he meets a young chef named Eddie. Although drawn, he waits for her to come to him.

Eddie moves in with Niall and fills his home with her clutter. This irritates Niall at times but he accepts the unasked for change. He has embarked on a clandestine affair with the daughter of a wealthy businessman who rides her horse through his research area. He acts according to instinct rather than sense.

Niall is suffering nightmares, flashbacks to images of a child who is drowning and a woman surrounded by blood. As his research and personal life start to unravel so too does his grip on reality. He flees what he believes to be a perilous situation, unable to differentiate between hallucination and what is happening in real life.

The writing is vivid with sinister undercurrents. Niall comes across as detached, suppressing emotion and accepting what is offered despite misgivings. The setting is evoked with detailed imagery. There is an assumption that the reader will have a knowledge of nature that I struggled with at times but this sets the scene for the important role the magpies have in the tale. The author has captured the sense of the place and the vernacular of the people. The detailed descriptions of food suggest she has a mastery well beyond mine.

The cruelties of nature are portrayed in sometimes sickening detail. I wondered why it was harder to read of the avian suffering than that of the people. All of this adds to the layers being unpeeled as Niall’s past is revealed and the reasons for his conduct become clear. We start to see him through other’s eyes as he begins to look candidly at himself.

An enjoyable read that offers much to consider regarding human behaviour. This is a love story but so much more. The science was intriguing adding an unusual but fascinating dimension. I will never look at magpies in the same way again.

Book Review: Children’s Children

Children's Children Front for Web

Children’s Children, by Jan Carson, is a collection of fifteen short stories exploring the concept of legacy and the influence of one generation upon the next. Many are set in and around particular streets in Belfast. They capture the cut and concerns of the people of this city to perfection.

The author writes with a distinct and original voice. Her prose is rich and satisfying offering up the humour and poignancy of the folk she creates with heart-rending perceptiveness. She inhabits their troubles allowing the reader to get to know their true selves better than they would ever be comfortable with. Their cultural reticence and need to be seen in a certain way is as darkly comic as it is tragic, yet they are presented in a way that cannot help but create sympathy for the situations they must survive.

Each of the stories offer insight into typical family dilemmas: ageing, bereavement, guilt, resentment, the misunderstandings that exist between the sexes and the generations. Some of the tales are told in a straightforward style whilst others stray into allegory and surrealism. Always the prose is beautifully structured, the words invade the senses. These are snapshots of ordinary lives being lived in all their glorious, wretched humanity.

It was pure pleasure to read these tales. The author has an eye and a zest for what is behind the facades people present to others, and can capture these observations with turns of phrase that delight. I could quote again and again but out of context the acuity may be lost. Buy this book and enjoy for yourselves.

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


Book Review: My Father’s House by Bethany Dawson

Recommended to me by a friend from my school days who still lives in the province, this book is set in contemporary Northern Ireland but spends much of the story looking back. Having grown up in Belfast, many of the places mentioned were familiar. It did at times feel rather too spread out for the distances that those living in the rural communities depicted would have felt comfortable travelling. Although the six counties are small, the people lived insular lives and travelling further than a town or two away with any regularity would have been unusual. The way everyone knew everyone else and gossip was rife was picked up well though.

It took a while for me to synch with the cadence of the book. At first the language felt stilted, but it soon started to feel correct for the characters portrayed. The author captures the balance between expectation, duty, geographical closeness and the topics that remain guessed at yet unspoken within families with an accuracy that made me feel disturbed and uncomfortable. There is no doubt that this book affected me very personally.

The plot revolves around a family whose father is dying of cancer. Life in rural Ulster is described with an uncanny realism although I did feel there were a few flaws. The mother had left the father and somehow managed to finance a new home. How she did that was never explained. As a wife of twenty or so years she did not work outside of the family home and farm. To suddenly leave her husband would have been highly unusual; to be able to afford to do so in such a comfortable way struck me as unlikely.

None of the characters were particularly appealing. Their flaws were well portrayed but not their better qualities, which must have existed in some form for them to have got to where they were. The underlying tensions between siblings and the way children see their parents as always old were well described. I found the second half of the book easier to read as we were shown glimpses of the people the parents used to be and understood better why they had got together. As a parent myself I find it frustrating that my children cannot see me as an individual but only in relation to themselves.

I found the denouement satisfying. Given the picture that had been painted in the previous two hundred or so pages I felt that any other ending would have felt false. There is very little in this book that did not feel all too real. It is full of raw emotion with no glossing over weaknesses and flaws.

The book disturbed me, probably because so much of the tale felt too close to home for comfort. I consider a book that can get to me in this way to be powerful. For those who cannot relate to the intricacies of the time and place, it is a well written family saga. There are no great shocks or changes of direction, but the book is a page turner and a satisfying read.

I am left with a few questions that I would have liked to have had answered by the end of the book, such as why the father sold his land and where the money went. It was, however, a story about people and their tales were tidied to believable and generally satisfying conclusions. For me then it was not a comfortable read due to the thoughts and memories it provoked. I am glad though to have read it and would recommend it to others who enjoy this genre.