Tag Archives: Irish fiction

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.

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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.

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The Glorious Heresies: Lisa McInerney

“You just collect religious souvenirs to use as murder weapons, is it?” 

The Glorious Heresies, a debut novel from Irish author Lisa McInerney portrays a handful of lives immersed in crime, drugs, and violence. Over the course of a five-year period, these characters intersect, criss-crossing back and forth over a murder. This is Cork post Celtic Tiger, an Ireland populated by characters whose troubled lives rankle with conscience for past deeds and current acts, and yet turning to the church or family brings no answers.

the-glorious-heresies

The book has a bit of a dodgy opening with fifteen year old Ryan about to have sex with his girlfriend Karine for the first time. Ryan, already a very successful drug dealer, initially feels that he has few choices in life, and as the plot continues he becomes arguably the most interesting character in novel. Ryan’s boss, a man with “an arctic disposition punctuated by explosions of lurid temper,” treats the boy like a “pet.” Ryan lives with his violent, abusive, alcoholic father, Tony Cusack whose “charming laziness […] had morphed into dusty apathy.” Cusack is a pitiful creature whose Italian wife died in a car accident some years earlier leaving Tony to raise their six children on his own. Tony who hits the bottle and Ryan regularly, isn’t doing at all well with this monumental responsibility. It’s hardly a happy home:

Tony Cusack’s terrace was only one of dozens flung out in a lattice of reluctant socialism. There was always some brat lighting bonfires on the green, or a lout with a belly out to next Friday being drunkenly ejected from his home (with a measure of screaming fishwife thrown in for good luck), or squad cars or teenage squeals or gibbering dogs.

Then there’s Georgie, a drug-addicted prostitute who tries to find religion but runs foul of crime boss Jimmy Phelan. Meanwhile tough guy Phelan may terrify everyone else in Cork, but his mother Maureen is the bane of his existence.

The book has a strong emphasis on fractured familial relationships (Ryan and his father, Jimmy and his mother, Maureen), and we see how family structure has failed these characters, and how that old reliable fall back, religion, seems impotent in today’s Ireland.

McInerney argues that her characters, running foul of various vices, pressured by economic realities, are still capable of making moral choices, even though they think otherwise. At one point in the novel, a maturer Ryan argues that “there’s always a choice,” and while at one point in Ryan’s life, he abdicated from the notion of personal responsibility, ultimately he must make a stand.

Although the writing spits with raucous life through, the novel’s plot sagged a little after the halfway point. There’s one scene in which Jimmy’s mother Maureen, angry that she was forced to give up her baby years ago, takes on a priest, and her long speech (extract here) seems forced and not up to the author’s very natural style:

I might have died in your asylums, me with my smart mouth. I killed one man but you would have killed me in the name of your god, wouldn’t you? How many did you kill? How many lives did you destroy with your morality and your Seal of Confession and your lies. 

It’s hard not to love McInerney’s troubled, flawed, vice addled characters, and it’s harder still not to hope that they will manage to turn their lives around before the last page. There’s a character here, shit-stirrer Tara Duane, whose malicious meanness separates her from the rest of the troubled, wounded cast.

The bitch had always maintained she didn’t have a bob to her name but with only one kid and a frame that suggested she only ate on Thursdays, it was obvious she was hawking the poor mouth.

McInerney’s writing and characterization seem so well-assured, it’s hard to believe that this is her first novel, and in spite of the novel’s flaws, I loved the writing style. I hope we see a second book soon.

Maureen was seeking redemption.

Not for herself. You don’t just kill someone and get forgiven; they’d hang you for a lot less. No, she was seeking redemption like a pig sniffs for truffles: rooting it out, turning it over, mad for the taste of it, resigned to giving it up. 

Thanks to Gert for pointing me in the direction of this book in the first place.

Review copy

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Time Present and Time Past by Deirdre Madden

Deirdre Madden’s Time Present and Time Past is a quiet, moving novel about the constant presence of time and memory in the lives of two Irish siblings. For once this is not a dysfunctional family, and what a refreshing change it is to read about people who have differences but who still maintain (mostly) healthy relationships in spite of opinions and past history. I’ll get to the one testy relationship later, and it’s by far the best of this excellent novel.

The issue of time appears constantly throughout the novel, and with one exception, it’s never overdone. The characters are members of a Dublin family: middle-aged Fintan Buckley, his wife, Colette, their three children, Fintan’s sister, Martina, Aunt Beth, and Fintan’s irascible mother, Joan. While not a great deal happens in the novel in terms of dramatic plot, instead this is a novel in which memories of the past are in the present as we follow our characters through their daily lives.

time present time pastThe novel begins with this passage:

Where does it all begin? Perhaps here, in Baggot Street, on the first floor of one of Dublin’s finest restaurants on a day in spring. It seems as good a place to starts as any.

This simple passage sets up the idea of the continuum of time, and as we see as the novel continues, the past and even the seeds for the future are here in the present. While the past is with us through memories, the novel hints at an entirely different presentation of time with the past and present right there in front of our eyes, and while we can’t access the past or the future, all three sectors of time are invisibly connected.

It’s spring 2006, and Fintan, in middle age, experiences moments of disassociation–familiar objects seem bizarre; he tunes out of a conversation with someone as he no longer pays attention to the spoken words but instead feels as though he’s “watching a film with the sound turned down.” These incidents involving “hallucinations and strange shifts of perception” open Fintan’s mind to a greater awareness of the past–specifically though an interest in photography.  He become fascinated with a photograph of an unidentified ancestress, and at one point also notes that the sky looks a certain way one day, and “it was also how it would have looked in certain days in the eighteenth century.” The notion of passing time is clear–photographs may “preserve” a moment, but our lives are brief and fleeting.

While Fintan begins to discover the history of early photography, his sister Martina emerges as the second main character in the novel who wrestles with the past but for entirely different reasons. We know there’s some dark secret involving her sudden panicked flight from London years earlier and her return to Dublin. Martina now lives with her Aunt Beth in a wonderful home that seems to exist in some sort of time warp. On the surface, Martina, who owns a small, successful clothing shop seems to be a very collected, organized business woman, but as Fintan notes, “you could spend a lifetime looking at Martina and wondering who she was.”

The quiet joy of this book is in the details of life and family. Fintan and Collette have two sons: Rob, who “while still in his cot [he] had the thousand-yard stare of a hostile banker,” and Niall, a vegetarian with a “highly developed social conscience.” While Niall is “somewhat ascetic,” Rob, who brings home “a succession of trophy girlfriends” develops “expensive tastes and habits.” These early-established differences and behaviours are sign-posts for the future, and in one slightly awkward chapter (the only thing I’d fault in this otherwise exquisite novel), we get a glimpse of the future of this family, post boom.

More than anything else, the members of this average Irish family, for this reader, seemed extraordinarily vivid and quite real. There’s one wonderful scene when Fintan takes his daughter and her friend to the zoo, and collects the other girl from her divorced father–a man Fintan recognizes as being a younger, sadder version of himself:

This is domestic chaos on an industrial scale. He can just about find space on the island for his Pooh mug amidst the wreckage of a week’s worth of rushed breakfast and lousy dinners. The jacket of yesterday’s suit hangs over the back of a chair; the silk snake of the tie lies coiled on the floor beneath it. The apartment is so coolly minimalist in its design, and yet so unrepentantly squalid, that Fintan cannot help but admire the other man for his sheer chutzpah in having comprehensively trashed the place, as a revolt against being forced to live there. Fintan salutes his refusal to be reasonable; his rejection of this chilly box as his home.

The novel establishes Fintan’s relationship with his mother, Joan, fraught with its ritualistic landmines, almost immediately, and we know that there’s more to come. The novel’s finest moment has to be when Fintan visits his mother and he layers the visit with the element of a game, rewarding himself with an “extra cake” if his mother tramples onto already well-abused territory:

“Such flowers! They’re like the sun itself! They’ll light up the room for me.” They exchange pleasantries and small talk as he follows her down the hall to her ground-floor apartment, and he asks himself, as he sometimes does initially when they meet why he had dreaded so much going to see her, although he wonders how long it will be before the first signs of conflict appear. Almost immediately, the slow attrition begins.

“And don’t you have Lucy with you?”

Fintan says no, that Colette has taken her to the hairdressers.

“Well that’s a disappointment, I had been looking forward to seeing her.”

One-nil. As he sits down on the sofa he realises that he is still holding the paper bag with the fish in it, so he hands it to her.

“Smoked salmon. You couldn’t have brought me anything more welcome.”

An equalizer in the second minute. She takes the packet of fish from the bag and waves it at him sternly.

“Now if you could get that son of your to eat some of this, it would do him good. He can’t be getting the protein he needs from those nuts or greens or whatever it us that he lives on.”

Two-one.

That scene, my favourite in the book, is painfully real, yet author Deirdre Madden doesn’t create monsters or villains here (well, ok, one deep in the past); these are moments pulled from life, and later on in that same scene, we see Joan isn’t just a repetitive mouthpiece, she’s intelligent and thoughtful, and quite ready with “gloomy predictions” about Ireland’s future. Because of scenes such as this, the reader is allowed into the lives of some incredibly human characters. I’ve seen reviews complaining about this book in which ‘nothing happens,’ and I’ve seen other reviews praising the book highly. I’m of the latter opinion. This is a graceful tale of the passing of time and the ephemeral qualities to our lives. Madden’s quiet, yet emotionally powerful tale argues that we should cherish every precious second because that moment won’t return again.

Review copy

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The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

But  there were seven years there where you could build houses out of cardboard and masking tape and they’d be sold off of the plans. People queued all night to buy boxes of houses all crammed together like kennels. “

Fresh from Claire Kilroy’s humorous fictional look at the Irish financial crisis,  The Devil I Know came Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart.  The Devil I Know is a lively interpretation of financial malfeasance and the subsequent Irish housing boom, and while I enjoyed the novel, I was a little troubled by its take the forces behind the irresponsibility. The Spinning Heart’s focus is on the fallout from the collapse of one dodgy contractor, Pokey Burke–a man whose name alone should stain the houses he’s built. But now the economy has collapsed, Pokey has buggered off to somewhere in Europe, leaving behind angry unpaid employees and unfinished houses. Even the ‘finished’ houses are falling apart. So this then is a ground-eye view of the average Irish man and woman touched, in one way or another, by Pokey’s actions in this novel told through 21 connected voices–all residents of one village.

The first voice is that of Bobby, a son who hates his father, a man living in a cottage fronted by a gate which includes the spinning heart of the title. While the spinning heart is a literal element in the life of Bobby Mahon and his father, it’s also figurative. The metal heart is rusted and neglected, and it’s symbolic of the emotional states of many of the characters here who lead lives of bitter disappointment with parenthood, love and trust often ill-afforded curses in this harsh world.

the spinning heartBobby, who worked as Pokey Burke’s foreman, opens the story dramatically with a statement that lets us know just where he stands with his father. Bobby goes “every day to see [if] he is dead and every day he lets me down.” Bobby stands to inherit the cottage and the two acres left from drinking away the proceeds from “Granddad’s farm.” Bobby’s father, who’s never drank before in his life,  inherited and then self-destructively “drank out the farm to spite his father.” Bobby is convinced that his father stays alive to “spite” him, and there’s definitely that element at play between father and son, and the cyclical dynamic of hate, spite and delayed revenge. Bobby’s tale also introduces the character of shifty contractor, Pokey Burke, a man who’s shafted his employees by withholding taxes and keeping the money, but at least Pokey’s Irish employees were paid–even if they were ripped off. Pokey never paid his immigrant sub-contract workers, and now Pokey’s angry, cheated employees can’t find him–he’s “sunning himself in only god only knows where, hiding from the bank and the taxman.” The Pokeys of this world always manage to slide through.

Many voices in the book suffer in various ways from Pokey contagion. Pokey’s father, Josie, who’s deeply ashamed of his son’s actions asks in a continuation of the toxicity of parent-child relationships: “who’s to blame when a child turns out rotten?” Another voice belongs to Brian, a construction worker who’s decided to chuck it all and try his chances in Australia.

So I’m going to Australia in the context of a severe recession, and therefore I am not a yahoo or a waster, but a tragic figure, a modern incarnation of the poor tenant farmer, laid low by famine, cast from his smallholding by the Gombeen Man, forced to choose between the coffin ship and the grave.

While most of the characters are emotionally stunted human beings, Lily the local “wanton,” never refuses a man as a lover unless they “really and truly disgusted” her. Lily’s generosity of body extends to the generosity of her heart and she alone seems to be capable of emitting uncomplicated love–although that uncomplicated love boomerangs back with painful personal and social ramifications.

While the novel is well constructed with one voice picking up the narrative from another angle and at a different place in time some of the voices are not as convincing as others. Vasya, “the Russian,” immigrant worker, for example, struck a discordant note for this reader with his description of his origins, “my mother’s mother spoke that way, in a dialect of a tribe of reindeer herders from far North of my family’s ground.” I almost gave up at that point, but I didn’t and I’m glad I persisted.

Other voices are much stronger. Single mother Réaltin, for example, lives with her son in a house built by Pokey Burke. The house was bought by Réaltin’s father and it’s in one  of the many ‘ghost’ estates–dozens of unfinished  houses stand in various states of repair. Réaltin’s father cuts the grass of every house on his daughter’s street in an attempt to create a feeling and look of normalcy. Labourer Seanie Shaper, “a pure solid madman for women,” thinks he is the father of Réaltin’s son, Dylan, and rather poignantly and pointlessly attempts to carve a place for himself in Réaltin and his son’s lives.

Donal Ryan’s voices create a picture of a harsh world in which painful familial relationships are tainted with destructive bitterness, and even in this small village, surely a microcosm of the larger panorama of Irish society, it’s a tough dog-eat-dog world. Here’s Seanie Shaper remembering how Pokey hired a crew of immigrant workers:

He took on a rake of Polish subbies and screwed the poor pricks and we all thought it was a laugh. The whole subbie thing was a right con job. Then he screw the rest of us and we laughed on the other side of our faces.

Thanks to Kevin for reviewing this book and getting my interest. Like Kevin, I liked the book’s structure even though some of the voices were much less convincing than others (the child, the dead man, the Russian), and the brevity of those narratives undermined character development–although I could also argue that character development was not the point as the novel is a glimpse of a segment of Irish society in the aftershocks of the financial crisis.  Another weakness of the novel was the distracting, implausible dramatic event that occurs and distracts from, rather than adds to, the narratives. Coincidentally I am currently reading another novel with multiple narratives but its focus on the actions of one woman allow a creative, multi-faceted approach to character that works very well indeed.

Review copy

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The Devil I know by Claire Kilroy

“Money kills the imagination. It makes us want the same thing.”

Those of us who’ve had front row seats to the recent real estate bubble grasp that we’ve lived through fantastic times that will make the history books; the big question is: how will that history will be told? Articles about the real estate bubble in North America often present this period as a time of insanity–as if some sort of virus swept through the land, taking the form of national madness as household after household, suddenly under water, fell to re-fi (leveraging your equity), ‘creative financing,  or the ‘real estate as investment’ bug. Actually that attitude annoys me because it avoids the obvious truth regarding responsibility–that people were active participants and that segments of the financial world largely avoided accountability.

The devil I knowBecause of my attitude towards the real estate bubble, I loved parts of Claire Kilroy’s novel, The Devil I Know, but at the same time due to its Hoffmanesque undertone, it buys into the myth of the bubble. Although adding macabre, other worldly elements may be as good a way as any other of explaining the insanity of the real estate bubble, and to Kilroy’s credit, her unique approach to the subject certainly works here.

The emphasis in The Devil I Know is in Ireland, on the powers behind the bubble and not on the average homeowner, and we know, of course, the final outcome of those heady days of financial excess. The book opens with Tristram Amory St. Lawrence, the thirteenth Earl of Howth testifying in a 2016 court case regarding the Celtic Tiger and his role in the disastrous real estate bubble which took place in the mid 1990s until the collapse in 2008. With Tristram directing his apologia towards Fergus (Justice O’Reilly) and fielding the occasional question, the story builds over the course of a few days as Tristram, a recovering alcoholic, recalls how, in 2006, his plane, en route to Florida, was unexpectedly diverted to Dublin. He stayed away from his home for “unspeakably personal reasons,” and as soon as he lands it becomes clear why he didn’t want to return.

Within a short period of time, Tristram, who’s been thought dead by everyone who knew him (“that was another Tristram St Lawrence,”) is being pestered by low-rent contractor Desmond Hickey, the coarse bully of Tristram’s miserable school days. Years may have passed, but little has changed; Desmond is still a bullying Neanderthal, an “indigenous short-arse,” who insists that Tristram, upper-class and educated, is gay, and that “he’s scared to bend over” around Tristram. Desmond, however, may be just a small-time contractor, but he’s a man with vision, and more importantly, a man with large appetites and ambition. After learning that Tristram inherited Hilltop, a gorgeous neglected eight acre estate from his mother, and that Tristram has access to financing through his mysterious benefactor/acquaintance/sponsor, M. Deauville, Desmond insists that Tristram get financing as the newly appointed director of Castle Holdings. Castle Holdings is a “shell company. It bought nothing, sold nothing manufactured nothing, did nothing … yet it returned a profit of 66 million that first year.”  But “who better to direct a shell company than a shell of a human being?” And Ireland, is, after all, a “low-taxation jurisdiction with benevolent regulation policies.” And so the madness begins….

Desmond’s first plan is to build on land zoned for industrial use. Re-zoning is no problem, and Minister Lawless, a gray, grimy little man is only too happy to reconsider zoning when presented with packet of cash. Desmond borrows the money to buy the land with its price tag of 10 million. Within six weeks, the land is worth sixty million: “a profit of over one million a day, ” and here’s Desmond in one of his portakabins as he pours over his ridiculous plans:

Displayed on a board like a wedding cake was the scale model of a modern urban residential and commercial development typical of and appropriate to, say, a downtown waterside location in an East Coast US city: eight towers of glass clustered in a crystalline formation.

The plans include a hotel, a leisure centre, a crèche, an underground car park, and apartments, and here’s Desmond Hickey inspecting the architect’s  “computer-generated shots”  with his “chip-shop fingerprints.”

Along a glittering limestone avenue with Ireland’s Eye in the background a man walked a bichon frise.

“Who’s this prick?” said Hickey. “He looks bent.”

Morgan leaned in to consider the photo.

“With apartment developments in wealthy areas, our firm find it’s advantageous to include representation of at least one member of the gay community. It’s a sector of the population with a high disposable income.”

“Keep him so,” Hickey decreed, “but no leezers.” He passed me the offending image. It was a man in a pair of calf-length shorts and a polo shirt. The man looked neither gay nor straight, he just looked preposterous. They all looked preposterous. Every last one of them was dressed for a Mediterranean summer. Sunglasses and shorts and sandals. This development promised another climate.

Desmond, a crude, opportunistic bully, is the perfect man for these excessive times. His marketing strategy for his grotty little apartments is brilliant and shows his understanding of the darker side of human nature. Is he a product of the real-estate madness or did his kind help fuel the boom? You have to love that word ‘boom’ because you know there’s going to be a big explosion somewhere in the not-too-distant future, and of course even as things spiral out of control in Tristram’s world with crazier and crazier real estate transactions taking place–flipping a hotel in London and “shifting a shopping mall in Dubai,” momentum gathers in the sinister, incautious power brokers of the Golden Circle–the men with ‘the terrible hunger in them, the insatiable drive to acquire,” until … well the collapse.

Most of the book’s humour (and there’s a great deal of it here,) in this very entertaining book comes from Desmond and not our narrator Tristram–two men of vast contrasts with the implied idea that Desmond is the ‘new’ man who needs the use of the gentry to open doors that once were closed to him while Tristram is a passive tool.  One of the very best scenes which epitomizes the insatiable hunger of Desmond and his cohorts takes place at Desmond’s ranch where gluttony, savagery and excess is the mantra for the day.

Hickey had built a mock-colonial ranch on the side of the East Mountain. He had cultivated the gorse and heather into lawn. A row of floodlit palm trees delineated the end of nature’s dominion over the moors and the beginning of the reign of the developer.

While for this reader the other world elements detracted from the novel, it’s still fairly easy to see why the author opted for this approach. I’ve listened to many people over the last few years complaining how they re-fi’d their modest homes to carry triple the original debt and then complain as the perceived value sinks beneath the horizon. One man told me with disgusted disbelief in his voice that “the banks are trying to tell me that I owe $450,000 when the house next door sold for $110,000. Now that’s nerve.” I did not point out to him that he’d re-fi’d several times and taken out over $300,000 in new mortgages. Where did that money go? No one switched mortgages on this fellow. He signed the papers and took the dough. Anyway the god-whatever-being-you-worship model meshes with the idea that the devil makes us do bad things which rather allows us to step from personal responsibility and lean on temptation/wickedness.  For this reader, the bubble was all about stepping away from personal responsibility & putting off the day of reckoning: the banks that agreed to fishy loans, the lenders who fudged income, the financial wizards who advised people to re-fi and “invest,” and the experts who now say that there was no way to predict the collapse.

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The Guts by Roddy Doyle

For fans of the much-loved book and film,  The Commitments, Jimmy Rabbitte, the man who managed the Dublin soul band, is back, but Roddy Doyle’s latest novel finds Jimmy Rabbitte, in his late forties, leading a middle class life and facing a recent diagnosis of bowel cancer. The novel opens with Jimmy at the pub breaking the news to his dad. Doyle cleverly constructs this scene so that Jimmy’s dramatic announcement is meshed with Jimmy Sr’s attempting to catch up with the modern world–more specifically to grasp the concept behind Facebook.

-D’yeh do the Facebook thing?

-What d’yeh mean?

-They were in the pub, in their corner. It wasn’t unusual anymore, having a pint with his father. In the early evening, before he went home after work. he’d phone, or his da would phone. It wasn’t an organized, regular thing.

It had started the day his da got his first mobile. His first call was to Jimmy.

-How’s it going’?

-Da?

-Yeah, me.

-How are yeh?

-Not too bad. I’m after gettin’ one o’ the mobiles.

-Great. I’m usin’ it now, like.

-Congratulations.

-Will we go for a pint? To celebrate.

-Grand. Good. yeah.

In between Jimmy Sr trying to understand exactly how someone “gets off with older women on Facebook,” his son drops the bomb of the cancer diagnosis. Jimmy has told his dad first and from that moment he has to break it to the rest of his family–his wife Aoife and their four children, and his business partner,  Noeleene.  Along the way with his battle with cancer (which includes chemo and surgery) he reconnects with back-up vocalist from The Commitments, Imelda Quirk  (“a few kilos heavier“), Outspan (another character from The Commitments) who’s even worse off than Jimmy, finds his long-estranged brother Leslie, decides to take trumpet lessons, and begins a project to track down some Irish songs from 1932.

the gutsThe Guts is essentially a mid-life crisis novel with the twist being a serious life-threatening (and altering0 experience instead of just the standard affair which grows from ennui, and in spite of the subject matter, the book manages to keep light and positive. It’s all in the attitude, Jimmy seems to think, which probably explains why he keeps telling everyone he’s “grand.” But of course he really isn’t, and Doyle depicts the swings that occur within Jimmy–the bitter and the sweet moments of life as he tries to carry everyone through his experience.

While the novel drifts into sentimentality at times, I’d argue that this is also an aspect of facing one’s own mortality–it’s a bitch to grasp, and the effort comes with understandable self-pity and a little teariness. Doyle was spot on to include sentimentality here, and it serves to reinforce the situation. Jimmy’s search for distractions and goals also seems real–a serious diagnosis leads to a self evaluation and a determination to re-direct one’s life, and we see that force here through Jimmy whose life was drifting along pleasantly enough until the diagnosis. But more than sentimentality, the novel is a nostalgic trip for fans of Doyle’s earlier work. Our hero, Jimmy has managed to surf the boom, the bust and internet commerce through his company, which sells old punk songs for download, and while the book may ostensibly be about disease and aging, on the flip side, it’s also concerned with showing the importance of living every wonderful moment given to us.

Roddy Doyle originally wrote The Commitments as the first part of The Barrytown Trilogy. The Snapper, and The Van (also both turned into film) form the rest of the trilogy. Doyle’s addition to the series now makes this a 4-parter.

review copy

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