New Irish Fiction

Book reviews by Frank O’Shea

STRANGE FLOWERS. By Donal Ryan. Doubleday Ireland. 230 pp. Sept 2020. $22.95

First, a comment on the physical layout of the book. After you open and flip through the pages, you notice that there are no breaks between lines, no obvious dialogue, in fact it looks like you might expect a learned academic thesis to look. Then you start to read, ‘All the light left Paddy Gladney’s eyes when his daughter disappeared; all the gladness went from his heart’ and of course you are hooked.

In fact, there is plenty of dialogue throughout as you would find in any book, except that it does not need special punctuation or line breaks, a saving of perhaps 60 pages in what is probably Donal Ryan’s longest book yet.

In the other book reviewed here, I complain about the proliferation of characters. There is no such problem here: there is just Paddy and his wife Kit, their daughter Moll and her husband Alexander and son Joshua. Add Ellen Jackman, the wife of the Gladney’s landlord and you have pretty well all the major characters, each at some stage the focus of one of the chapters. That attention is not because they have done something either heroic or malevolent, but because we are learning about their internal lives and their loves. All are reticent about love, some try to refuse it or turn it away. By the novel’s end, we realise that they are all good people, whose only fault is a kind of shyness or inability to show their feelings.

The other strength of the novel is its setting in rural Tipperary, beginning in the early ‘70s and progressing twenty years or so in discontinuous jumps. Irish readers will delight in Ryan’s portrayal of a small village, the relationships between the residents, the gossip and small cruelties, the focal role of the priest and the Garda sergeant and the small shopkeepers. No one represents small town Ireland more accurately than Ryan; he does it with gentle understanding and affection, as if these are real people with their own problems and idiosyncracies, but with little malice.

John McGahern wrote about rural Ireland, but there seemed to be an edge to his depictions, as if he sought out the troublemakers for his story. Ryan doesn’t do this; his are people you will know if you lived in Ireland half a century ago in the times when it was slowly transitioning to its current cosmopolitanism. If I say that in this he belongs at the same high table as Niall Williams, readers of my reviews will realise that I have no higher praise.

Why Paddy and Kit’s daughter Moll suddenly disappeared we learn only towards the very end, and you won’t read the reason here. Her actions were entirely logical and were not brought about by conflict; she was a young woman working her own way through what was a very modern difficulty. Her husband is a kind, loving black man, uncommon in rural Ireland at the time; he and Paddy form a close friendship as he makes a living with his own landscaping business.

When Donal Ryan started his writing career, he was a public servant; now he runs a Creative Writing course at the University of Limerick. What a privilege for those students to have their work critiqued by Ireland’s premier novelist. This, I believe, is his best book yet – and as the cover reminds us, we are speaking about someone twice longlisted for the Booker Prize.

The release of the book was held up in Ireland earlier in the year, but is now available in Australian bookshops.

THE ABSTAINER. By Ian McGuire. Scribner. Sept 2020, 359 pp. $32.99

In 1867 three Fenians were hung for the killing of a Manchester policeman. They would become known as the Manchester Martyrs and every Irish schoolkid knew their names because the song that followed their hanging, God Save Ireland, became the unofficial national anthem of the country. (It was changed to the current anthem in 1926, because the words were considered too close to the similar prayer for the monarch!)

It is tempting to give the names of the three unfortunate Fenians except that they might confuse the reader who has to put up with a veritable directory of Irish surnames in the first hundred pages of the book. There is Jack Riley, Peter Rice, Michael Sullivan, Robert Neill, Thomas Flanagan, Willie Devine, Kelly, Magee, Neary, Slattery, Byrne, not to mention the two main characters Joseph O’Connor and Stephen Doyle.

Doyle is an American, a survivor of their civil war, sent to England to help the Fenians in their mischief. O’Connor is a Dublin policeman and the person who gives the book its title. He has been sent to Manchester as an alternative to being sacked for his drinking; his job is to find someone among the Irish in his new city who will tell him what the Fenians are planning. He has plenty of names to choose from, most of them pathetically incompetent and full of boozy stage-Irish blather.

The Fenians were an oathbound and highly secret group of ruthless killers, who were much more adept than those presented here. Mind you, the English – non-Irish surnames, thankfully – are equally hopeless and it is difficult to take either group seriously.

Just when you are getting in to the story, another group of Irish are introduced: Malone, Dixon, McArdle, Devlin, O’Toole, McDonnell. And Riley is back in the action: what was he again? Towards the end, the story moves to New York where new characters are introduced mercifully not all with Irish surnames, one of whom has the dubious honour of having the last chapter to himself.

The book reads like half a dozen stories, loosely connected, a bit of romance here, a lot of killing there, some history in between. I have one gripe in particular: although the story is set in the middle of the nineteenth century, the language is strangely modern. Were the f-words and c-words used as indiscriminately in the mid-1800s as they are today because the dialogue here is the kind you would expect among the rougher elements in contemporary Dublin or Manchester?

Despite often polished prose, this is a tedious and longwinded read.

Frank O’Shea is a member of the editorial collective of Tintean.