Tag Archives: Irish fiction

The Feast of Lupercal: Brian Moore

“He’s just like a lot of Irishmen I know. He pretends to be a wild Celt  but he’s frightened to do anything his neighbours wouldn’t approve of.”

Brian Moore’s The Feast of Lupercal, is arguably, a companion novel to The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. Both novels concern middle aged lonely protagonists who live in Belfast. In the latter novel, spinster Judith Hearne, a piano teacher in her 40s moves into a boarding house. Judith’s life is on the descent. She nursed a horrible aunt until she died, but now that crutch/burden is removed, Judith, who likes booze a bit too much, is on the slippery slope. The Feast of Lupercal, concerns Diarmuid Devine, a lonely, repressed English teacher who works at a Catholic school. He’s a fading nondescript 37 and has a tiny basement flat furnished with items from his now deceased parents’ home. Even his bed “was one he had slept on since he was a boy.” Whereas Judith is clinging, desperately to the shreds of respectability, Diarmuid is entrenched in respectability and conformity, seeing his last chance at love and intimacy slipping away.

The feast of lupercal

It’s usually a blow to our self-image when we learn people’s true opinions about us. At school one day, Diarmuid overhears a bathroom conversation in which he hears himself called an “old woman.” It’s as though that conversation turns on a switch, and for the rest of the day Diarmuid begins picking up hints that’s he’s aging. He’s not viewed as much of a young eligible bachelor anymore (if he ever was); somehow he’s passed that line and is seen part of the aged/neutered crowd. He attends a party to celebrate the engagement of a young couple, and the host, a sixty year old, refers to Diarmuid as a peer. Following this blow, Diarmoud finds himself mingling with the elderly. The leftovers.

Here were the old ones. Tim Heron’s mother and his wife’s father, an aged uncle, a solitary aunt. Five or six unmarried females, elderly, out of things. All of them dressed in their Sunday best, wondering what to do with themselves. For they had so looked forward to this party, and now, as usual, they were not enjoying it. They sat in a stiff oval on the sofas and chairs, trying to think of small, useless remarks. Unwanted, even by each other, they were the kind of relatives who must be invited to every function because, being the least noticed, they were the quick to take offence. Someone had given them glasses of sherry and there were a few small biscuits of  a plate. They waited for supper, like children for a treat.

There’s one exciting aspect of Diarmuid’s life, amateur theatre, but even this is regulated by the church. Still, in his better moments Diarmuid can imagine that he’s a bit dangerous, a tad exciting, and that night at the party, he meets Una Clarke, a young protestant girl who’s moved from Dublin in a cloud of scandal and hopes to attend nursing school in Belfast. Diarmuid is attracted to her, and he begins to think this is his chance for love….

This is a closed, claustrophobic society in which everyone knows everyone else and gossip floats freely in the air. In this sort of atmosphere, people like Diarmuid can never escape the perceptions and judgments of others. Una is smart enough to know she has to escape to fresh pastures. She’s clearly someone who has her own mind and admires those “who defy people and do what they think is right.” An acquaintance describes Diarmuid as a “fella that wouldn’t say boo to a dead duck.” so this timid schoolmaster isn’t exactly her type. On one hand Diarmuid’s attracted to her, yet on the other he worries what people will think–that the “authorities” will think. She’s a curious choice for Diarmuid. He’d probably be better off going for a Catholic wallflower, but he selects Una partially because she is ‘dangerous’ but also because she’s open and not stigmatized by the rigidity of religion. But is he also interested in Una, perhaps, because, it’s not likely to work?….

The Feast of Lupercal examines one man’s struggles against himself, and author Brian Moore cleverly sets up the plot so that Diarmud eventually, finds himself in a tragic, moral dilemma. Diarmuid must face that fork in the road– who he is and who he’d like to be.

While this is an excellent novel, this isn’t my favourite Moore. I struggle with passive characters, and I struggle with characters whose lives are dictated by religion. I much preferred The Doctor’s Wife and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne.

In some ways, The Feast of Lupercal reminded me of a Wharton novel (The Age of Innocence) in which characters are suffocated and influenced by the society in which they live.

Here’s Jonathan’s review.

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The Hotel: Elizabeth Bowen (1927)

“An hotel, you know, is a great place for friendships.” 

It’s 1920, WWI is over, and a motley assortment of British travelers find themselves in a hotel on the Italian Riviera. With each new arrival, the guests shift into different formation, adding and subtracting people into various groups. There’s Mrs Kerr whose languid presence and “vague smile” dominate a certain set. She’s always perfectly calm, and young Sydney Warren, who travels with her cousin Tessa Bellamy, spends far more time with Mrs Kerr, observing Mrs Kerr or looking for Mrs. Kerr, than attending her cousin. There’s Miss Pym and Miss Fitzgerald who travel together, room together, and have spats. Then there’s Dr. Lawrence and his three boisterous daughters, a widow the Honourable Mrs Pinkerton and her sister-in-law, Miss Pinkerton, Colonel and Mrs Duperrier, and the Lee-Mittisons. “Nearly everybody here was English.” 

The Hotel

The glamorous Mrs Kerr is an enigma to the other guests. She “took fashion in and subdued it and remained herself.”  She spends her days doing very little: sitting on her balcony enjoying the view for hours on end (much to the disgust of the other English ladies who keep themselves busy with a range of hobbies). Mrs Kerr will occasionally, languidly stroll to the tennis courts to watch the physical activities of others. Nothing ruffles her, and while she seems to expend very little energy on living, she manages to fluster most of the other women who speculate on her marital staus. Sydney is possessive of Mrs Kerr and rather upset when she learns that Mrs Kerr’s only child, Ronald will join her.

Most of the guests are couples or families, but there’s another solo guest, the lonely middle-aged clergyman, Milton who, upon arrival, makes the horrible faux pas of using a hotel bathroom that has been sequestered for the exclusive use of Mrs and Miss Pinkerton. Both of the ladies are horrified by his (inadvertent) effrontery and Miss Pinkerton is “prostrated” by the knowledge that some rogue male is using her bathroom (and seeing her underthings). This early uproar underscores the divisions of the male-female world: “The best type of man is no companion.” Poor Milton’s arrival and departure are both marked with ignominy. Unmoored from his usual position he stumbles into one mess after another. There are more young women in the novel than young men–after all it’s 1920 so just a few years post WWI. One of the guests is Victor who is “unable to find a job since the War” and is “said to be suffering from nervous depression.”

While Colonel Duperrier finds himself plagued with vague longings and fancies, his wife keeps an eye on him from afar. The Lee-Mittisons are a rather bizarre couple who are horribly boring. Sydney certainly finds them tedious, but scratch the surface here and you find Mr Lee-Mittison who marches, literally, all the attractive young girls into his ‘expeditions’ while his wife, rather like a trained sheepdog herds them. “He did not care for young married women, while widows depressed him–poor little souls.” Mrs Lee-Mittison’s job is to be amazed, repeatedly, at all of her husband’s well-worn tales. as he “tell[s] graphically of life in the East, bearing his descriptions out with photograph albums.”  She’s his biggest fan and if any of the young girls try to skip out of the hikes, she pimps for him. She’s “at pains to waylay anybody in whom Herbert might be interested.”

After the underwhelming The Little Girls  which seemed rather pointless in the end, I thoroughly enjoyed The Hotel. While there’s no solid plot, the book follows the shifting relationships of the hotel guests who find themselves thrown together and thus select relationships–sometimes yes by who’d they rather be with but also by who they’d rather avoid.

There are some wonderful descriptions here. One of a trip to a now deserted villa owned by Russians (probably now dead) and another of a cemetery. Both of course underscore the transient nature of life.

The cemetery seemed quite deserted. Gashes of over-charged daylight pressed in through the cypresses on to the graves: a hard light bestowing no grace and exacting such detail. In the shade of the pillared vaults round the walls what already seemed like the dusk of evening had begun to thicken, but the rank and file of small crosses staggered arms wide in the arraignment of sunshine. In spite of the brooding repose of the trees a hundred little shrill draughts came between them, and spurting across the graves made the decorations beloved of Cordelia creak and glitter. A wreath of black tin pansies swung from the arm of a cross with a clatter of petals, trailing colourless ribbons; a beaded garland had slipped down slantwise across the foot of a grave. Candles for the peculiar glory of the lately dead had stuck in the unhealed earth; here and there a flame in a glass shade writhed, opaque in the sunshine.

The opaque quality of The Little Girls is also found in The Hotel, and when I finished the book, I pondered the toxic undercurrents of Sydney’s relationship with Mrs Kerr. One of the many things I carried away from this brilliant book is the letter writing which takes place within the novel. It’s a long lost art these days. Will there one day be a book ‘The Collected texts of  … ‘(fill in the name of a famous author). A bizarre thought.

 

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The Little Girls: Elizabeth Bowen (1963)

“And yet now, this minute, with you sitting there opposite, I quite distinctly see you the way you were. You so bring yourself back that it’s like a conjuring trick.”

Is it wise to revisit the past? This is the question asked in Elizabeth Bowen’s novel, The Little Girls.  Dinah, a woman in her early 60s, assisted by Major Frank Wilkins, constructs a time capsule; she’s “asking people for things.” This all takes place at Applegate, a 1912 “substantial villa“–a splendid dwelling which includes incredible workmanship, “lush green woods,” “the rolling Somerset landscape” and a cave. The process of gathering objects stirs Dinah’s memories back to 1914 when she was 11. Her school friends were Clare Burkin-Jones and Sheila Beaker. But that was fifty years ago. Where are they now?

The little Girls

A rather aggressive series of advertisements, which carry hints and possibly even threats, bring Clare and Sheila from the woodwork. What does Dinah want and how will her two friends react after decades of silence?

The book’s first section brings these three women back together, and it only takes a few minutes in each other’s company for the old relationships to slide back into place. These may be women in their 60s, but suddenly they are 11 once more with all the old rivalries in place–except now there are some nasty comments to toss around.

Sheila has married well but somewhat predictably and she’s immersed and concerned with the appearance of respectability. Clare, who is now a successful businesswoman, hasn’t aged well.

Her forehead, exposed by the turban, was forever scored by the horizontal lines into which it rolled up when she raised, as she often did, her comedian’s eyebrows. Bags underhung her eyes; deep creases down from the broadened lobes of the nostrils, bracketed her mouth. Her pug nose and long upper lip (which she still drew down) should have been recognizable features, had the whole of her not so paralyzed Sheila’s eye. Strictly, she was massive rather than  fat: her tailor-made, tailored to contain her, did not minimize (as she sat at the table) shoulders, chest, bust or rib-cage. Clare had arrived, you might feel, by elimination at the one style possible for herself, and thereafter stuck to it. It did not so much fit her as she it. 

So 3 women who’ve lost touch are now back in the same room, and as you’ve probably guessed it’s a mistake. They don’t want to be reminded of who they were, and yet they find themselves rapidly slipping back into the old groves (including old nicknames). And what is the deal with Dinah’s snoopy servant, Francis?

The book’s first section brings the three women back together and then in the second section, we’re in 1914, and some languid days right before the eruption of WWI. Part 3 brings us back to the present.

The first and second sections of the book were fairly strong, but unfortunately the third section is a disappointment. There are hints of some horrible secret which are never fully realized, and the book is far stronger when it details the relationships between the girls, the women they become, and the poignant scenes of 1914. Of note, however, are the descriptions of the garden which made me see and smell the flowers:

As they mounted the steps, the temperature rose. Above ground, the steamy flower-smells filled the air (more, still, that of a lingering August than of September) as the three followed a spongy serpentine grass path towards the house. On each side, the path was overflowed by a crowded border. Mauve, puce and cream-pink stock, Double, were the most fragrant and most crushingly heavy; more pungent was the blue-bronze straggling profusion of catmint. Magnificently gladioli staggered this way and that–she was an exuberant, loving, confused and not tidy gardener; staking and tying were not her forte. Roses were on enough into their second blooming to be squandering petals over cushions of pansies. Flowers in woolwork or bright chalk, all shades of almost every colour, zinnias competed with one another. And everywhere along the serpentine walk where anything else grew not, dahlias grew: some dwarf, some giant, some corollas like blazons, some close fluted, some velvet, some porcelain or satin, some darkening, some burning like flame or biting like acid onto the faint dusk now being given off by the evening earth,.

That paragraph gives a sense of Bowen’s sometimes convoluted style. But above all, this author must have been a gardener.

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The Luck of Ginger Coffey: Brian Moore

“Fifteen dollars and three cents. He counted it and put it in his trouser-pocket. Then picked up his Tyrolean hat off the dresser, wondering if the two Alpine buttons and the little brush dingus in the hatband weren’t a shade jaunty for the place he was going. Still, they might be lucky to him. And it was a lovely morning, clear and crisp and clean. Maybe that was a good augury. Maybe today his ship would come in.”

Brian Moore’s The Doctor’s Wife and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne concern female protagonists. The former novel is the story of a married woman who falls into an affair when her husband decides to not join her on holiday. The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is the story of a spinster in her 40s, a piano teacher, who moves into a shabby boarding house where she meets the landlady’s shifty brother. Both novels are 5 star reads.

the luck of ginger coffey
The Luck of Ginger Coffey
centres on an Irishman who’s moved to Canada. When the novel opens, it’s 1956 and 39-year-old Ginger Coffey has run out of luck… Ginger, his long-suffering wife, Veronica and daughter live in a third-rate boarding house. So far, Ginger has had a number of lucky breaks. When he left the army, his wife’s family pulled strings to get him a job at a distillery. In a huff, Ginger resigned and so began an odyssey of different jobs in different towns.

Another lucky break: Ginger’s father, a solicitor, died and left his son 2,000 pounds and so Ginger used that money to move to Canada ostensibly as a representative for a distillery. Ginger runs through his inheritance, and now there’s a pittance left. Sensing disaster, Veronica wants him to use the money they have left to return to Ireland where at least relatives “would not let you starve so long as you were one of them.” Trouble is there’s not enough money for the tickets, and Veronica is unaware of this.

The novel follows Ginger’s humiliating attempts to find employment. Since he’s not really trained for anything, he has to start at the bottom and most employers consider him too old for jobs they hire kids for. At first Ginger takes a grandiose stance but soon he’s ready to take whatever comes his way.

He went into the living room with the Montreal Star but he was too upset to read it. He went back into the kitchen and brought out two quarts of beer. Last of the last. He poured himself a glass, lay down on the sofa and switched the radio on, trying to salvage something out of this miserable bloody evening. He searched for music, for music hath charms and had better have, because, looking back on the day, he had a savage bloody breast on him, all right. Hat in hand to younger men, wife sniveling to strangers, asked to lie his way into some job he’d be caught out in, and what else? Oh, a savage bloody breast.

Ginger’s charm worked in his youth, but now he comes across as sad and pathetic. He dresses somewhat inappropriately and the charm that got him places for all those years now seems tired, stale, and inappropriate.

“Hello there,” Coffey said, jovially advancing with his large hand outstretched, the ends of his mustache lifting into a smile. And Beauchemin took the proffered hand, his mind running back, trying to place this guy. He could not recall him at all. A limey type and, like most limey types, sort of queer. Look at this one with his tiny green hat, short bulky car coat and suede boots. A man that age should know better than to dress like a college boy, Beauchemin thought.

Ginger isn’t a bad man; he’s feckless, happy-go-lucky and convinced that he’s upper-management material. Basically Ginger has to suffer humiliations and grow up; his charm has worn thin, and since the day of reckoning has been delayed for over 2 decades, there are a lot of mortifying experiences along the way to his enlightenment. The underlying argument, of course, is that painful life lessons must be learned and the sooner the better. This is a much slighter novel than the other two I read from this author. I liked it but it wasn’t as powerful. The best parts of the plot concern Ginger’s working life at the newspaper and his camaraderie with fellow employees who all refer to their “Scottish Beelzebub” eagle-eyed boss as Hitler.’

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When All is Said: Anne Griffin

“I’m here to remember–all that I have been and all that I will never be again.”

In Anne Griffin’s novel When All is Said, 84 year-old Maurice Hannigan sits at the bar of at the Rainsford House Hotel, Ireland, and recalls his life. It’s been a long life full of its joys and tragedies. Maurice is now alone; his wife Sadie is dead and his son Kevin is far way in America. Maurice, a very wealthy man who grew up in dire poverty, has sold his house, given away his dog,  and is in the brink of moving into a nursing home, but what is really going on here?

Over the course of the evening, Maurice recalls the five most significant people in his life: including his long-dead older brother Tony,  his still-born daughter, and his wife.

When all is said

84 years is a long time, and as Maurice recalls his life, we see how the world has changed. Maurice grew up in a large poor family, and his education was interrupted when, at age ten, he went to work at the Dollard estate where his mother worked in the kitchen. The scenes at the Dollard house are miserable with the lord of the manor beating and humiliating his son, Thomas, which has a trickle-down effect to Maurice. These episodes are a reminder of how the world of employment of servants, a world in which servants had to tolerate everything dumped on them, has changed, well at least in some countries–not all.

I was fascinated by the trajectory of … not exactly revenge… no the novel isn’t bitter enough for that. No, the novel has a trajectory of “payback,” re-balance & the settling of old scores. Maurice’s beatings harden him, yes, but they don’t turn him into a ball of rage and revenge. This is a man who remembers the slights and injustices of his past and then singlemindedly triumphs over his humiliations and those who caused them. Maurice isn’t proud of all his actions, and there’s an incident in his past involving a missing valuable coin which has repercussions throughout his life.

The scenes with Maurice and his brother were touching. Here’s Maurice now at age 84, an extremely wealthy man, and yet he grew up in the harshest poverty, with meat a scarce treat. Now Maurice could buy his way out of the problems of his youth, but time doesn’t allow those sorts of second chances.

One of the most poignant episodes of the novel involves Maurice and his acquaintance with Jason, a young man who marries into the Dollard family.

I’d seen Jason around the village over the years since our showdown.  He’d nod in my direction or mouth a very curt hello. Always in a rush somewhere. In return I’d raise my index finger not too high mind. Regret is too strong a word, but I wish I’d made an effort to know him. There was something trustworthy in his bravery the night he’d stood at my our front door asking me to give more money for the Dollard land. But even if I had reached across the divide and stopped for a chat on those days we passed each other by, I doubt he’d have given me the time of day. I wouldn’t have, had the shoe been on the other foot. In the end, he possibly came out the better man. 

Some of the memories were moving but others (for this reader) were on the maudlin/wallowing side. There’s a lot of melancholy and misery here, and Maurice’s overwhelming sense of ‘being done’ is evident. The author makes it clear that Maurice is an interesting individual with many stories to tell but he’s been reduced to the those stereotypical roles: Old Man: the one who talks too much, who’s a bit of a nuisance, the one who’s sidelined as a ‘character’ by those who still have their own lives to live. Very sad.

Review copy

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Smile: Roddy Doyle

Roddy Doyle’s novel Smile explores the disappointments of middle age through its first person narrator, Victor. When we are first introduced to 54-year-old Victor, he’s in Donnelly’s, a pub he’s decided is his local. We know right away that Victor’s life is in transition. Gradually, through Victor’s reminiscences and a bizarre relationship he strikes up with another pub denizen, we discover that he was married to TV personality Rachel, the founder of Meals on Heels. They met years earlier when they were both on their way up. She was a one-woman catering business, and Victor wrote for magazines, planning to write a book in the future.

SMile

Victor was “happy pretending to be Dublin’s Lester Bangs,” but we know that Victor’s life hasn’t gone the way he planned.  He’s no longer with Rachel. Although the details are vague, there’s the implicit idea that as a highly successful woman, she’s moved on, while Victor admits he’s “between things.”

I was used to being alone. I don’t think I felt lonely. I missed being married but I’m not sure that I missed Rachel. The aloneness was cleaner now. I wasn’t surrounded by her world. I didn’t have to hide. 

Victor spends a lot of time in denial: he’s not lonely (hopes to be included in male friendship at the pub), doesn’t miss Rachel (stalks her Facebook page), and thinks it would be “sad, a man of my age going back to some wrinkled version of his childhood. Looking for the girls he’d fancied forty years ago.” And yet he obsesses on the sister of fellow drinker, Fitzpatrick wondering what she’s like, if she still fancies him.

It’s a sad situation: where did Victor’s life go wrong? Why did his career never take off? Rather pathetically, he lives just a couple of miles away from his old primary school. He’s lost Rachel, their life together, the home they shared abroad. This is a life in transition, and where it’s headed looks bleak.

Buried underneath the narrative, there’s a strain of something peculiar. Victor tries to avoid Fitzgerald, an unpleasant man who claims to know him from the school they both attended which was run by priests. Victor has no memory of Fitzgerald, and yet Fitzgerald remembers Victor all too well, frequently bringing up incidents that Victor would prefer to remain buried:

-What was the name of the Brother that used to fancy you? he said.

He patted the table.

-What was his fuckin’ name?

His shirt was pink and I could tell that it had cost a few quid. But there was something about it, or the way it sat on him; it hadn’t always been his.

-Murphy, he said.-Am I right?

-There were two Murphys, I said.

-Were there?

-History and French.

-Were they not the same cunt?

I shook my head.

-No.

-Jesus, he said.-I hate that. The memory. It’s like dropping bits of yourself as you go along, isn’t it?

The sad, lonely reminiscences of Victor as he spends nights at the pub are well done. Victor is accepted by a small circle of other men as long as he buys rounds, and these rejected middle-aged men perk up when the women in their 40s enter the pub. These wonderful scenes evoke the teenage equivalent–one side aware of the other but desperately appearing to be oblivious of the opposite sex. This time the game is minus impetuosity, minus energy–just imagine a deflated, wrinkled balloon.

So far so great, but the novel’s denouement was disappointing. The rug was pulled out and instead of a lonely middle-aged loser, we have something entirely different. I wouldn’t have minded the general idea, but in its entirety, I couldn’t help but feel a little cheated. Looking at other reviews, I seem to be in the minority opinion on this.

Review copy

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Bodily Secrets: William Trevor

William Trevor’s Bodily Secrets is a collection of 5 short stories in Penguin’s Great Loves series. As you’d expect, the topic is love, but the selection here offers a wide range of aspects on this complicated topic. We see the end of love, a love that cannot endure poverty, compromises in love, and a love that is destroyed by shame.

Bodily Secrets

In The Day We Got Drunk On Cake, Mike is persuaded to spend a night out on the town with a disreputable acquaintance:

Garbed in a crushed tweed coat, fingering the ragged end of a tie that might have already done a year’s service around his waist, Swann de Lisle uttered a convivial obscenity in the four hundred cubic feet of air they euphemistically called my office. I had not seen him for some years: he is the kind of person who is often, for no reason one can deduce, out of the country. In passing, one may assume that his lengthy absences are due in some way to the element of disaster that features so commandingly in his make-up.  

That’s the opening paragraph of the story. “Swann is a great one for getting the best out of life,” and he persuades Mike to ditch work and join him in a pub for the afternoon. Swann has arranged to meet two women, “Margo and Jo, a smart pair who drew pictures for magazines.” Margo starts complaining about her husband Nigel who keeps bringing home gangs of elderly women, and somehow or another, Mike is strong-armed into becoming involved. During the hours that pass, Mike is supposed to call Nigel and harass him about his old ladies, but instead, at first at least, he calls a woman named Lucy. He’s in love with Lucy and finds any excuse he can to pester her on the phone, but she’s clearly moved on…

This is one of my two favourite stories in the book. It’s a funny story but bitter-sweet. Mike realises that in this precious moment in time, he still loves Lucy, but he knows that time will eventually blur those feelings.

Lovers Of Their Time concerns a married travel agent, Norman Britt who begins an affair with Marie, a girl who works at the chemists. I won’t say anything much more about the story, but I will mention his marriage to Hilda, a woman who works at home making jewelry. Hilda is a bit of a dark horse:

‘All right then?’ she said when he carried his tray of food into the sitting-room and sat down in front of the television set. ‘Want some V.P., eh?’

Her eyes continued to watch the figures on the screen as she spoke. He knew she’d prefer to be in the Fowlers’ house or at the Club, although now that they’d acquired a Tv set the evenings passed easier when they were alone together.

‘No, thanks,’ he said in reply to her offer of wine and he began to eat something that appeared to be a rissole. There were two of them, round and brown in a tin-foil container that also contained gravy. He hoped she wasn’t going to be demanding in their bedroom. He eyed her, for sometimes he could tell.

‘Hi,’ she said, noticing the glance.’Feeling fruity, dear?’ She laughed and winked, her suggestive voice seeming odd as it issued from her thin, rather dried-up face. 

Lovers of Their Time explores the idea that the 60s intoxicated the behaviour of the middle-aged–not just the young. A sort of Pandora’s Box of possibilities, and one that Norman opens. This is an affair, like most affairs, that has a glamour that’s removed from the details of day-to-day life, such as dried out rissoles from the oven. What’s also fun here is Norman’s assumption that he’s the only one with longings.

The next two stories are nicely contrasted. Bodily Secrets is the story of a middle-aged, wealthy widow who flouts convention when she decides to marry one of the family’s employees. Honeymoon in Tramore concerns a young couple who get married–she’s pregnant by someone else, and her new husband is an employee on the family farm.

In Love With Ariadne is the story of a young medical student who falls in love with the daughter of his landlady. This is another bittersweet story of a love that’s nursed for years and that survives in memory.

If you’ve never read Irish author William Trevor before, Bodily Secrets is a wonderful introduction. The gentle humour tinged with bittersweet poignancy, it’s all here.

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Paula Spencer: Roddy Doyle

“And the good things kind of glide past you. You can take them for granted. But the bad things, the regrets. They fuckin’ sting.”

After reading Roddy Doyle’s wonderful novel, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, I turned to the book’s sequel: Paula Spencer. We met Paula in The Woman Who Walked Into Doors on the day she heard about her estranged husband’s death, and most of the novel, told in the first person was a retrospective look at Paula and Charlo’s violent marriage. Fast forward almost a decade, and Paula is a widow, still living in the same house she lived in with Charlo, still making a marginal living as a cleaner. The lives of Paula’s children have changed: Nicola is successful, Leanne is an alcoholic, Jack, a teenager still lives at home, and John-Paul, who was mostly just a memory in the first book, is a recovering heroin addict.

So between the spousal abuse, the alcoholism and the drug dependency we have two novels that tackle some tough issues, but in spite of the weighty issues, Paula’s story is told with a light humour.

Paula Spencer

When this ultimately optimistic sequel novel begins, Paula is now 47 and dry. That’s not to say that she doesn’t think about drinking … she does .. all the time, but accompanying the longing for a drink are shameful memories of her vomiting, passing out dead drunk in the house, and even being drunk in the supermarket.

She remembers going through the supermarket with a trolley full of six-packs and mixers and the rest. She couldn’t make the trolley go straight. Jack was in the carrier part. She was afraid the whole thing was going to topple over. Leanne was pulling on the other side of it, asking for every biscuit and family pack they passed. And she actually-did she?-she smacked Leanne, until she let go of the trolley.

One of the interesting aspects of the novel is the question raised about guilt: Paula feels guilty for the sort of mother she was, but occasionally she chafes against the guilt. She knows she’s right to feel guilty about being a drunk, but at times her children seem to forget or ignore the fact that Paula was driven to douse her fears in alcohol. Is there ever to be an end to the guilt? And what of Charlo whose absence, violence and irresponsibility somehow has removed him from the guilt equation?

Paula Spencer is set during the Celtic Tiger, so we see a different Ireland. Paula’s sister who owned a caravan on the coast in the first book is now talking about about buying a place in Bulgaria. Paula, however, is still on the bottom of the economy, still stuck as a cleaner–although now she’s a manager, managing foreign workers who seem to pop up everywhere.

That’s another big change, maybe the biggest. The men do the cleaning work. Nigerians and Romanians. She’s not sure if they’re legal. she doesn’t want to know. She’s not paying them. They come and go. They’re grand. They’re polite. She feels sorry for them. It’s not work for a man; she’ll never think different. The African lads come in dressed to kill, like businessmen or doctors. They change into their work clothes and back into their suits before they go home. Ashamed. 

The world is changing and Paula makes the decision to move along too. She makes the gigantic move of opening a bank account, has a television, a giant fridge, and in one wonderful scene she makes a list with “a mad woman’s pen.”

It’s a good fridge, though. It takes up half the kitchen. It’s one of those big silver, two-door jobs. Ridiculous. twenty years too late. She opens it the way film stars open the curtains. daylight! Ta-dah! Empty. What was Nicola thinking of? The stupid bitch. How to make a poor woman feel poorer. Buy her a big fridge. Fill that, loser. The stupid bitch. What was she thinking?

The Woman Who Walked Into Doors was told in the first person, so we entered Paula’s mind. For some reason Paula Spencer is told in the third person so we lose that intimacy, and Doyle’s elliptical style is quite marked here. On the down side,  Paula Spencer is quite disjointed. Time and space can leap from one sentence to the next, so the sequencing of events is disorienting at times. One minute we’re in Paula’s house, and in the next sentence, she’s in a caravan going nuts, pacing up and down obsessing about a drink. But that aside, it was well-worth revisiting Paula’s life and her problems.

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The Woman Who Walked Into Doors: Roddy Doyle

The protagonist of Roddy Doyle’s 1996 novel, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors is 39-year-old Dublin mother of four, Paula Spencer. When the novel opens, a Guard arrives at Paula’s door. This is not an unusual event as the police frequently come knocking at the door looking for Charlo, a man with a criminal past, but this time is different…

From that moment, Paula recalls her story of life with Charlo, how they met, their torrid courtship, her father’s strong disapproval, and the highlight of Paula and Charlo’s life together: the wedding. From here, things go downhill, and reader, I’m going to insert a spoiler here, the novel includes some flashback details of domestic abuse.

The woman who walked into doors

The novel goes back and forth from the present to the past as Paula recalls her marriage. In the present, Paula, an alcoholic (and we gradually learn how that happened) is a cleaner. She cleans a bank in the early evenings, and during the day, she cleans the houses of women her age who are considerably better off.

I like seeing into other people’s houses. Funny, I hardly ever feel jealous. And I should, because some of the houses are incredible. Huge. Some of the stuff in them, I wouldn’t want most of it myself but it must have cost a fortune. Dark furniture, flat-screened tellies, CD players with tiny little speakers. I love music. There’s one house I do on Mondays, in Clontarf; they’ve a great collection of CDS, all the seventies stuff. I got her to show me how to use the CD player. There was no problem. I like her, the owner. Miriam. We’re the same age. We both went to the same dances when we were kids. I don’t remember her. She married a doctor. I married Charlo. 

Paula’s story is intimate: she talks to us of her adolescence, burgeoning sexuality (you were either a “slut or a tight bitch,”)  her harmless married fantasy life (at one point, she had a crush on a bus conductor), her relationships with her family,  Charlo’s intimidating family, and her children. All through these memories, Charlo appears, almost as though he enters and exits the door, looking for his meals, his clean, ironed clothes and someone to absorb his violence. Author Roddy Doyle convincingly shows Paula’s reluctance to admit how bad her marriage became, how she lost an entire decade somehow.

Paula tells her story with vibrancy, tenacity, and intense humanity. There’s also the sense that it’s an underground voice, swelling from behind closed doors, and emergency room visits that hide the true nature of her injuries. She meets other women shepherded in to the ER by their supposedly caring, concerned husbands. Yes the number of ‘clumsy’ women at the emergency room are legion. No one asks awkward questions, no one looks directly into the eyes of the victims, but everyone goes along with the stories that these women have fallen down the stairs or, as the title states, ‘walked into doors.’

A word on style. I read some reviews complaining about the author’s style. This was very readable, but without quotation marks if that bothers anyone. The sentences are sometimes very short as they mirror speech, and Paula is speaking to us here, so sometimes she corrects or expands her thoughts with one word. The domestic abuse is recalled with a surreal quality that echoes the rapidity and illogical circumstances of Charlo’s violent rages. So in other words, it’s not blow-by-blow but rather the violence is impressionistic.

Finally, a quote about the wedding day which was one of my favourite scenes in the novel.

The Spencers were in charge now. My crowd were huddled in a corner, sipping their drinks and waiting for going-home time. The Spencers had taken over. They even took the instruments off the band, got in behind the drums and started messing with the knobs on the amplifiers. The brothers. Liam, Thomas, Gregory, Harry, Benny and Charlo.

The wedding was over. I was married now, one of them. They were finished with my family. Not just the brothers. His mother and father, all his aunts and uncles and cousins. They took over the whole place. they kept on singing.

-I’m in lurve-huh-

I’m all shook up-

My crowd started leaving. They crept along the walls. there were cousins whispering behind me; a fight going on in the men’s toilets. Harry started bashing the guitar on the floor. The Virginians stood beside their gear and pretending it was a real gas. 

Of course, we all cheer for Paula, a likeable woman who feels very real and who’s survived adversity with the scars to prove it.

 

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The Old Jest: Jennifer Johnston

Jennifer Johnston’s short novel, The Old Jest, a coming of age tale, takes place over a number of days in 1920. The main focus is an 18-year-old girl named Nancy, and when the book opens it’s her birthday. On the cusp of adulthood, Nancy has finished school and plans to attend Trinity in the autumn. There’s not enough money in this faded Anglo-Irish gentry family to send her to Oxford university–plus there are rumblings of “a war with England.”

Nancy is an orphan. Her mother died some years earlier, and she never knew her father, a man who remains a mystery figure. She’s been brought up by her Aunt Mary who bears the burden of the household since her brother, Gabriel died at Ypres. Nancy’s grandfather, General Dwyer is “potty,” but these days we’d probably say he has Alzheimer’s. One of the biggest dramas in Nancy’s life is her crush on a young man named Harry who has his eyes on the bigger prize of the heiress Maeve.

the-old-jest

Nancy’s diary entries make up some of the novel, so we see her confessional thoughts, and her desire that her grandfather die “before we become damaged by his decay.” She’s still a girl, and yet she’s supposed to act like an adult. Nancy chooses her moments to flip back and forth as if she can’t quite accept the responsibilities and polite behaviour of adulthood.

Outside of the safety and security of Nancy’s home, civil unrest occasionally washes up on their doorstep. There’s mention of the Black and Tans, but life in the household is mainly untouched by what goes on in the outside world until Nancy meets an IRA man who’s hiding out in an abandoned beach hut she frequents. He calls into question everything she’s been taught to believe:

“After all,” he said gently, “Your grandfather was a killer too, and no one makes sarcastic remarks at him for that. Not at all. They gave him medals and a pension, He wasn’t even killing to defend his own fatherland, indeed the very opposite. He was taking other people’s land away from them. Creating an Empire for a little old lady with a thing like a tea cosy on her head.”

There’s a sweetness hovering over the novel that partially comes from Nancy’s innocence and zest for life. (Some readers found Nancy annoying–I did not.) Some of the sweetness comes from the idea that we are glimpsing the last days of a particular lifestyle–although Nancy is initially unaware of the truth of the family’s circumstances.

I liked this novel, which has the feel of a well-fleshed out short story, for its bittersweet glimpse at Nancy’s life; by the time the book concludes, it’s easy to see that her world has irrevocably changed. Her innocence is gone, and so her childhood passes away, leaving her to face an uncertain adulthood.

Review copy

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