The latest addition to my website is Anne Enright‘s The Green Road. Enright is definitely making a claim to be the best living Irish novelist and this novel will only add to her reputation. It tells the story of a contemporary, somewhat (but not too) dysfunctional family, the Madigans, who live in West Clare. At the start of the novel, Pat Madigan is dead and his widow, Rosaleen, is finding it difficult to adapt. The first part, called Leaving, is divided into five sections, one each for Rosaleen and her four children, Constance, Dan, Emmet and Hanna. As the title says, they are all on the way out, though not necessarily just yet, as the first section is devoted to Hanna, who is twelve in 1980, the period when her section is set. In each section a key but not necessarily life-changing event happens to the protagonist of that section. In Hanna’s section, we learn that her older brother, Dan, has decided to become a priest, to his mother’s horror though Hanna (and Dan’s girlfriend) do not seem overly concerned. By the second section, eleven years later, Dan has given up the priesthood and is dabbling in the New York gay scene. Emmet is in Mali, working for UNICEF, starting and ending a relationship, while Constance is married, caring for her mother and children and facing a lump in her breast. The second part sees them in 2005 reunited, unusually, for Christmas at the family home, which Rosaleen is planning to sell. Inevitably, tensions surface. Enright does a first-class job of dissecting a fairly ordinary Irish family which, by its own admission, has been far from successful, whether financially, professionally, personally or romantically.
It was my plan to read around twenty Russian novels one after the other but, in the meantime, a few books arrived that I really wanted to read, so there is now a brief interruption to the Russian reading, which will be resumed shortly. The latest addition to my website is Máirtín Ó Cadhain‘s Cré na Cille (The Dirty Dust). This is the classic novel written in Irish and one I have long been wanting to read. I even tried reading it in the original Irish but it was too much of my struggle for my basic Irish, so I was really glad when Yale University Press decided to publish it in English. This is a very funny but very blunt satire, in the Irish tradition of satire, against the country people, their obsession with status and money and land. All the characters in it are dead, as it is set in a graveyard, where the dead are buried and their spirits live on beneath the ground, carrying on their gossiping, story-telling and oneupmanship, in the way they did when they were alive.
The main character is Caitriona Paudeen. (Sadly, the translator anglicises the names; in the original she is called Caitríona Phaidín.) She has just died, aged seventy-one, as the novel starts. She is highly critical of everyone but, in particular, she hates her younger sister, Nell, and her daughter-in-law, known only as Nora Johnny’s daughter. She is always trying to do better than her sister but the real enmity started when Jack the Lad married Nell instead of Caitriona. In the long run, she feels that she has done better but is disappointed that Nell is now likely to inherit the estate of their unmarried sister and the land of their cousin Fireside Tom. We follow her story, told through gossip and backbiting, as well as the stories of the other residents of the village who are now dead. Most of them have little good to say about any of their friends, relations and neighbours and clearly take death as an opportunity to air their grievances (how the publican cheated them, how Caitriona did not pay back the money she owed, how the postmistress opened their letters). But they also talk about sport, politics, agriculture, going to England and, occasionally, the war. There is a rich array of colourful characters in the graveyard, who are not afraid to use colorful language and air their views. All of them await the arrival of news from the new arrivals, but, in particular, Caitriona, who cannot wait to hear bad news about her sister and daughter-in-law. It is a wonderful, lively and satirical work, which is long overdue an English translation and we must be grateful that it is now available at last.
The latest addition to my website is Eimear McBride‘s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. McBride has been hailed as a genius for this novel and it has received quite a few positive reviews, though some less positive. I am afraid that I am in the latter camp. It is written in a stream of consciousness style, starting in the womb and therefore written in baby talk. McBride has said that she was writing the images she saw in her head as she tells the story of an unnamed girl, who comes from a poor background in rural Ireland. Her father runs off and then dies and her mother is somewhat useless. Her brother, whom she is very fond of, gets a brain tumour and though he initially recovers – he will get worse later in the book – he is not the same as he was. She is sexually assaulted by her uncle (her mother’s brother) when she is thirteen. She does badly at school and leaves to become a shelf-stacker, living on her own and having numerous casual sexual relationships, including with the abusive uncle, and drinking and misbehaving, till her brother gets worse again. It seems to be me – and McBride has more or less admitted this – that this book just trots out the usual Irish stereotypes – drink, religion, sex and sexual abuse, drugs and so on – and while, obviously, this could be the basis for a fine novel, I do not think this one is. All power to McBride and her publisher, the very small Galley Beggar Press, for publishing this novel but it just did not work for me.
The latest addition to my website is Audrey Magee‘s The Undertaking, one of the books on the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. This is Magee’s first novel and a fine novel it is. The hero is Peter Faber, a German soldier in World War II, who is fighting on the Russian front. He has been allowed to marry a German woman remotely. A pastor marries him and a photo of the woman (Katarina Spinell) in Russia while, at the same time, she marries a photo of him back in Berlin. The advantage for him is that he gets three weeks leave back in Germany. The advantage for her is that, if he is killed, she gets a widow’s pension. Peter’s father, when he finds out about the marriage later, thinks that it is merely part of the German breeding programme. On his leave, the two get on well and after he returns, she finds that she is pregnant. Meanwhile, he has met his parents-in-law and a friend of his father-in-law, Dr Weinart, who is both a medical doctor as well as a senior Nazi official. Dr Weinart takes Peter out at night to hunt out Jews, which Peter does. After Peter’s return, the Spinells are given a much nicer flat, taken from a Jewish family. However, back in Russia things are not going well for the Germans and Peter and his comrades are cold and hungry. Once they get to Stalingrad, things get worse and, as we know, the soldiers are soon abandoned by their generals. Meanwhile, things are not going well in Berlin either. While this certainly is a well-written and enjoyable novel, I do not see it winning the Women’s Prize for Fiction.
The latest addition to my website is Colm Tóibín‘s The Testament of Mary. I have generally not enjoyed Tóibín’s work and this was no exception. Indeed, I only read it because it was on the Man Booker shortlist. It is the testament of the Virgin Mary, writing long after her son’s death, speaking not as a divine figure but as a human and, above all, as a mother. She is sceptical of her son’s divinity and feels that he has been manipulated for political ends, a view she continues to hold long after his death. She is critical of the disciples and tells the gospel writers, to whom she is telling her tale, what she thinks about them. While it is well written and could appeal to both Christians and non-Christians, it did not work for me.
The latest addition to my website is Colum McCann‘s Let the Great World Spin. This is a superb novel, with its central theme revolving around the other key event involving the World Trade Center Twin Towers, namely Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the two towers on 7 August 1974. McCann tells the stories of several people in New York, whose stories touch on Petit’s as well as on the fictional story of a thirty-eight year old African-American prostitute, Tillie Henderson, her daughter, Jazzlyn, and Jazzlyn’s baby daughters. The themes of Petit’s walk – its quasi-mysticism, its impact on New Yorkers and its challenge to authority (Petit was arrested after the walk) – and the theme of the story of the prostitutes – survival in the grim New York world – affect a lawyer and his wife who have lost a son in Vietnam, as well as other mothers who have lost sons in Vietnam, a couple of artists who have been heavily into drugs and, in particular, an Irish worker priest and his brother. McCann links up the stories and themes in a brilliant way, giving us a first-class novels of the pre-9/11 New York and its twin towers. If you are interested in knowing more about Petit’s walk, there is a a film of it.
The latest addition to my website is Colum McCann‘s TransAtlantic. This novel was longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. The novel is in two parts. The first part tells of three sets of people travelling from North America to Ireland – Alcock and Brown, the first to fly the Atlantic non-stop, Frederick Douglass and Senator George Mitchell who was a broker for the Northern Ireland Good Friday Agreement. In all cases, they meet a fictitious Irish woman and, as we learn in the second part, all these women are related – mother, daughter and granddaughter. We follow their stories, from Lily Duggan who walked from Dublin to Cork and then on to Cobh, in order to get a ship to the United States, and then her subsequent life – she works as a nurse in the US Civil War and then she and her husband make a success in the ice business. Her daughter, Emily, is a journalist reporting the Alcock and Brown take-off and Emily’s daughter, Lottie, plays tennis with Senator Mitchell. We even have a McGuffin in the form of a letter given to Brown to take on his flight, which he fails to deliver, and is passed from daughter to daughter, unopened. However, though it is an interesting idea, overall it did not really work for me, with the historical characters being flat.
The latest addition to my website is Liam O’Flaherty‘s Insurrection, another of O’Flaherty’s novels set against the backdrop of Irish history. The history in this case is the 1916 Easter Rising, a spectacular failure from the military point of view but which had profound political repercussions later on. O’Flaherty focuses his story on a small group of people involved in the rising – a small unit sent to defend the Dublin-Dun Laoghaire road from the expected British troops, as well as the mother of one of the unit members. O’Flaherty shows how the rising was both badly planned and badly executed and doomed to failure early on but many brave men stuck it out, knowing that things were not going well. It is certainly not a great work but still worthwhile, whether you are interested in Irish history or not.
The latest additions to my website are two Anne Enright novels. The first is What Are You Like?, an earlier novel. Frankly, this story of two young women looking for their origins did not really work for me. I found that, while Enright’s writing is, as always, superb, the plotting was somewhat unstructured and wooly and did not awaken my interest as the two women, Maria Delahunty and Rose Cotter, just drifted around. I could not feel any great sympathy for them or, indeed, any interest in them, despite their need to know where they came from and who they were.
The Gathering, however, is a different matter. It deservedly won the Man Booker Prize, apparently unanimously, despite not being the favourite. It is a wonderful story of Veronica Hegarty, one of twelve, whose brother, Liam, eleven months her senior, has just killed himself. Why did he kill himself and what was the role of Ada, her grandmother? The complex nature of large and somewhat dysfunctional families is examined. While, as in What Are You Like?, she jumps around, you always have the feeling that she is focussed on the main issue, Liam’s death, Ada’s role and the problems of large families, unlike in What Are You Like? where the focus seems to drift away from the main issue. This is definitely a book worth reading
The latest addition to my website is Liam O’Flaherty‘s Famine, a harrowing account of the Great Irish Famine of the mid-1840s, which resulted in at least one million deaths and that number or more emigrating, primarily to the United States. There have been several excellent historical books on the subject and the complete failure of the British government and the landowners to do anything to mitigate the famine but O’Flaherty’s personalised account is a very powerful novel and one well worth worth reading, even if it does make for distinctly unpleasant reading, as he spares us few details. This is the third of his books to appear on my site and others will follow. He is very much a realist writer and many of his books recount fictionalised episodes of Irish history.