New Irish Fiction

Book reviews by Frank O’Shea

THE GOOD TURN. By Dervla McTiernan. HarperCollins 2020. 386 pp.

ISBN: 978 14607 5679 9

RRP: $32.99

If what you want is a story that grabs you from the opening line and keeps you away from the television and exiled from house duties, here is the book for you. Dervla McTiernan is originally from Cork and now lives in Western Australia; surprisingly she sets her books in Ireland, specifically Galway where she attended university. This is the third of her stories featuring Detective Sergeant Cormac Reilly, supported by the kind of younger colleagues that would give any police force a good name.

The story starts innocently enough: a young girl, walking her West Highland terrier, is snatched from the road and stuffed into the boot of a car. The episode is seen and captured on his tablet by a young lad home from school with bronchitis. Unfortunately, the Gardai are busy, helping the drug squad watching for a drug importation expected near Spiddal, so the only person free to follow up on the abduction is detective Peter Fisher. Hard work persuades him that it has been carried out by a man named Jason Kelly; they have a confrontation and Kelly is shot dead by Peter.

All fine, except that the missing girl turns up safe at home, after which Peter is banished to distant Roundstone with the threat of a murder charge hanging over him and his boss Cormac is suspended for not supervising him properly. And we are still only at page 80.

The remainder of the book is taken up by alternating chapters in which each of the two men tries to clear his name. It turns out that there is much more involved than the failed attempt to abduct a young girl, just as there are shenanigans involving those leading the chase for drugs. The entire story takes place over a ten-day period in early November where snow drifts and icy roads hamper the work of all those involved, criminals as well as Gardai.

The tying up of all the loose ends in the final chapters may stretch coincidence beyond an elastic limit, but by then you are too closely involved in the lives and troubles of the characters to allow yourself too many questions or demurs. Cormac’s wife, who appears in one of the earlier stories, has a brief spot here, but do not be surprised if future books may have him looking for new female company.

Roll on those future books.

THREE LITTLE TRUTHS. By Eithne Shortall. Atlantic 2019. 391 pp.

ISBN: 978 1 78649 621 8

RRP: $29.99

The action of this book by Dubliner Eithne Shortall is set in a fictional cul-de-sac called Pine Road on Dublin’s inner northside. The inhabitants include Bernie, Edie, Trish, Martha, Robin, Fiona, Ellen and Carmel; they each have a husband or partner, but these have only minor roles in the story. There is also Ruby and Rita Ann, and children Sinead, Orla and Sylvie. None of the characters is in any way attractive and if the author was a man, he could expect to come under serious attack from angry feminists.

The characters keep in touch through WhatsApp and regular poker sessions – women only, we presume – and try to upstage each other in whatever way they can. Bernie rules the roost, until she is supplanted after a problem at the local school involving her daughter.

It takes some time to work out what the story is all about and any attempt to do so here might confuse. Sufficient to say that some time before the action in the book, Martha and her family were the victims of a tiger raid where they were tied up while the husband was supposed to bring a large amount of money from the bank where he worked. That was in Limerick and, even with all of those characters, it stretches coincidence to make that action have an influence on Pine Road and its inhabitants.

It is tempting to suggest that the book might work well as a sequence of articles in a women’s magazine, where a reader could have some relief from the confusion and each succeeding instalment could summarise where the story has reached at this stage.  

Published in October 2020, the book was voted Daily Mail Popular Fiction Book of the Year and was among the Irish Independent Best Books of the Year. The reason for such accolades escaped this reviewer.

THE NARROW LAND. By Christine Dwyer Hickey. Atlantic Books, 2019. 370 pp. €29.99

ISBN: 978 1 78649 672 0

RRP: $29.99

Christine Dwyer Hickey’s book has received much praise, notably a strong encomium in the Irish Times. Set in Cape Cod in 1950, it introduces a cast of characters who seem to be in constant conflict with each other. It is not entirely clear who the central character is, and since the point of view changes from one to the other with little warning, the central theme of the story is not clear.

Michael is a ten-year old German boy, adopted from the wreck of the European war by a working-class couple in New York. He is shipped off to the wealthy Kaplan family in Cape Cod for the summer, in the hope that he will form a friendship with a boy of his own age. That family has its own problems, one of which is their relationship with a neighbouring artist and his nagging wife.

Much of the action of the story appears to take place in the minds of the characters. All seem to have endless problems with their past or their present, their loved ones or their casual contacts. They dream a lot, it seems, and it is not always clear whether an action is taking place in their head or in the real world. Things are not made easier by the author’s habit of letting the addled reader work out for himself who is the current focus of the action. “She stands up from the bench …”, we read, but it is a further two pages before we are told who she is.

A major element of the story is the difficulty an artist has about deciding what his next painting will be. At least in the end, that is decided and the result is a success. However, Michael and his proposed pal do not hit it off.

This is not a book for the beach or a casual weekend read; you will require complete and focused attention. The author, Christine Dwyer Hickey from Dublin, is an elected member of Aosdana, the Irish Academy of Arts.

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