The latest addition to my website is Austin Clarke‘s The Singing Men at Cashel. This is a novel that was published eighty years ago but was never reprinted (partially because it was banned in Ireland) and is now quite difficult to obtain. Clarke was part of the Celtic Twilight movement, which saw Irish writers looking back to both their historical and legendary past, particularly in the period soon after independence. Poets and dramatists were to the fore, such as Yeats, Synge and Lady Gregory (Clarke was better known both as a poet and dramatist) but there were some novels, even though they have been generally been forgotten. This novel tells the story of Gormlai, a tenth century queen of Ireland. She was known as a poet and an intellectual. She also was married three times, the first two being failures. Her first marriage was to Cormac, an intellectual and ascetic, who believed women to be the root of all evil. The second was to Carrol of Leinster, a rough, bullying, warlike man. Finally, at the very end of the book she runs off with her stepbrother, Nial. The language is flowery and often archaic and the main characters often somewhat basic. It is easy to see why the novel has not been reprinted but, nevertheless, it is interesting to see how novelists handle this subject matter.
The latest addition to my website is Eimear McBride‘s The Lesser Bohemians. Many critics raved about her first novel, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, which won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. I did not share their enthusiasm, finding her disjointed sentences distracting and annoying without adding anything to the book. This novel starts off in the same way but, fortunately, it gradually becomes more conventional. However, I still find sentences that stop half way and arbitrary fragments to be distracting. The story is straightforward. In 1994, Eili, an eighteen year old Irish woman, has come to London to study at drama school. She meets a man twenty years older than her, who is just becoming a successful actor. She yields her virginity to him and they start an on again off again on again off again affair. Both have demons but he, in particular, has major ones that prevent him having a straightforward relationship with a woman. Both have several flings during the relationship and both use drugs and alcohol to excess. Can the love of a good woman (with her own demons) save him? It is not a bad book but nor is it the great book that some critics have made it out to be.
The latest addition to my website is Michael Hughes‘ The Countenance Divine. This is an apocalyptic vision of England with the story told in four periods. In the first period we follow John Milton and his secretary, with the story culminating in the Great Fire of London. The second part features the poet William Blake and his visions of England, with Blake making a talking homunculus out of Milton’s rib. The third section features additions to the From Hell letter, a letter allegedly written by Jack the Ripper and enclosing half of the kidney of one of his victims, with Hughes adding a whole lot more of these letters, each more macabre than the last. The final section (where the book actually starts) features a fictitious group of people working on the Y2K bug, though one of them is involved something much more sinister. The stories do link together and give us as a whole a highly imaginative apocalyptic view of England.
The latest addition to my website is Lisa McInerney‘s Glorious Heresies. The novel is about what McInerney calls the arse end of Ireland. It is set in a grim part of Cork. All the main characters, without exception, are variously drunks, drug addicts, drug dealers, abusers, rapists, prostitutes, murderers (at least three of the main characters commit a murder in this book), arsonists (one actual and two potential in this book), petty criminals and the like. While some may have the occasional redeeming characteristic and many are clearly victims of Ireland’s economic crisis and their own grim circumstances, none of them can be said to be likeable which, of course, is McInerney’s point. The story revolves around an accidental murder – a woman kills an intruder – and how this murder involves, directly or indirectly, all of the main characters. The woman is the mother of a gangster who enlists a petty criminal, widower, father of six and drunk, to help him dispose of the body but others learn of the story and the gangster feels that this is a problem he has to deal with and he does or at least tries to. It is not a pretty story nor, for that matter, enjoyable but clearly McInerney feels this is what her country has come to. The novel has just won the the 2016 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction . Frankly, I would have given the prize to the favourite, Anne Enright‘s The Green Road, a much better novel in my opinion.
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.
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