Two Book Reviews by Frank O’Shea
Joseph O’Connor. Shadowplay. Harvill Secker. 2019. 310 pp
If we are to judge by output and continuing popularity, Bram Stoker is a fully-qualified member of the elite group of Dublin-born writers from the turn of the twentieth century. When we consider that his contemporary fellow-Dubs included George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, W B Yeats and James Joyce, that is exclusive company indeed. Stoker did not enjoy the success that each of those had in various measures during their lifetime, but his Dracula has gone on to sell more than ten million copies and the Count has appeared in one guise or another in more than 200 films.
Shadowplay is a work of fiction based on the life of Stoker. It is known that he was for many years the manager of the Lyceum Theatre in London, owned by Henry Irving, the foremost Shakespearean actor of his day. Another who worked at the Lyceum was Helen Terry, the leading actress in Britain at that time. Joseph O’Connor’s book takes the reader inside the minds of these three characters with particular treatment of the difficulty that Stoker as theatre manager would have in managing the tantrums and humours of two flamboyant thespians.
The book is written in seemingly disjointed episodes, told in the form of letters, newspaper articles, diary entries and straightforward narrative, a style that is an imitation of the Dracula book. Those who know that book will no doubt find many clever ways that O’Connor references it. The language also imitates writings of the age, luscious and wordy, with a tendency to a kind of longwinded bombast that a modern reader might find tedious.
The monotony of this type of storytelling is broken by delightful phrases or snatches of dialogue that pull the reader up short. Here, for example is Henry Irving explaining to Stoker that the Brontës were really Irish. ‘They were ‘Prunty’ over there. Daddy P changed his moniker at Cambridge. Added the umlaut as an aftertouch, rather stylish disguise don’t you think. Of course, every Irishman ever born is a fraud.’
Or here is Helen Terry with her report on men, ‘… And that is before we approach what happens in the marital bed – why are they so much nicer at it when they are not married to you? – on which rare but sadly not rare enough occasions one recalls the verdict of Hobbes on life: Nasty. Brutish. Short.’ Or one more: this answer to a journalist who asked Irving why he was taking his group to Scotland, ‘Because Macbeth is not set in a public lavatory on the Earls Court Road, my little love, familiar as you might be with such a locus.’
This is the first book by Joseph O’Connor for some time. His earlier historical novels like Star of the Sea and Redemption Falls were international successes as were his previous ones about the Irish Male. It appears that he has been involved in writing plays for stage and television which explains his understanding of the theatre world in Shadowplay. The book won the 2019 An Post Award for Novel of the Year.
There is much to delight in this book, particularly if you are the kind of reader who is taken as much by the polished prose as by the underlying story. You might even call it art, except that, early on, the author tells us that, ‘… the use of the word ‘art’ by anyone who is not a painter always betrays the user as a posturer who deserves a good kicking.’ An opinion with which this reviewer enthusiastically agrees.
Shadowplay was the winner of the An Post Irish Novel of the Year 2019
Orlagh Collins. All The Invisible Things. Bloomsbury 2019. 356 pp
The word that comes most quickly to mind to describe All The Invisible Things is scary. Not scary as in ghosts and spirits, or even suggesting murder, war or mayhem, but scary in its exposition of the life of today’s teenagers. If a reader happened to have seen the Australian drama The Hunting (SBS), the world is the same, except that here there is no adult of significance in the story.
The central character was given the name Helvetica – christened would probably not be the correct word to use – by her trendy parents, her mother having a liking for that type font; her younger sister was named Arial. Her childhood friend, living across the street, is called Peregrine, still suitably trendy, but of a more upper class stripe. Fortunately, the names are shortened to Vetty and Pez respectively so that the reader can forget their origins as we follow their pathways through the teenage years.
Any psychologist could, and many do, make a good living dealing with the troubles that humans experience as they go through the transition from child to adult. The role played by the new technologies in those changes is what this book is about, and here the similarity to the situations in that SBS drama mentioned above become almost uncanny. People send each other nude photographs of themselves and these are, by design or by chance, passed on to others, with predictably disastrous results.
The situation here is made more problematic because Pez is obsessed by pornography and Vetty ‘discovers’ that she is sexually attracted to young people of both genders. Almost all the characters in the story are teenagers and their talk is dominated by sex, as apparently is their private bedroom existence. The result varies from uncomfortable to frightening and the reader is given little opportunity to escape into what might be called ordinary life.
The book is probably the kind that appeals to today’s young people and indeed would have relevance for parents, especially those with children approaching or going through adolescence. However much the reader may long for the old-fashioned binary days of boy-girl or male-female, the truth is that we now live in an age of multiple gradations of gender and sexual preference. That is the world examined here and it is a reminder of how fortunate we are if we can call ourselves old.
Orlagh Collins was born and educated in Dublin, moving to England to begin a career in film and television production. This story is set mostly in London, described in some places in almost street directory detail.
Perhaps ‘grim’ would be a better word than ‘scary’ to describe All The Invisible Things.
Frank O’Shea is a member of the editorial team of Tinteán