New Irish Fiction

Book Reviews by Frank O’Shea

YOU HAVE TO MAKE YOUR OWN FUN AROUND HERE. By Frances Macken. Oneworld. 275 pp. $29.99

For a long time there were no writers from Roscommon and now we have a second one to join the established Caoilinn Hughes. Don’t be put off by the long title of Frances Macken’s first novel, because it is a wonderful story, told in a refreshingly sequential way. Modern critics might describe it as old-fashioned, but it is a relief to find a book that starts at the beginning and then allows the story to take the reader in a straight line from beginning to end without flashbacks or detours or showy flamboyance.

It should be said that even though the setting is modern, the characters, like the narrative, are also more than a little old-fashioned. The three girls at the centre of the story, are aged ten when we meet them first, the story following them to their mid-twenties. Katie is the first-person narrator; her friends are cousins Evelyn and Maeve. Evelyn is the boss in the little clique, full of ideas and dismissive of any suggestion that her companions are worth taking seriously. Fifteen years later, as the story ends, that has not changed.

When they are in their teens, another girl named Pamela joins the school and tends to take attention from our three, in particular from Evelyn who has become conscious of her attractiveness to boys. The story at this stage has echoes of Normal People, set in nearby Sligo, except that there is no sex. However, Pamela is not afraid to flaunt herself and her relationship with the captain of the football team. Then she disappears; the guards do what they are supposed to do, but she is never found, her absence remaining a background to the remainder of the book.

After school, Katie goes to university in Dublin, but her two friends remain in their home place, working in a local factory. The relationships between the three become less and less important until Katie is not successful in her advertising job and returns to her home place. The friendships and various tensions between the three girls are revived, though they seem to be not dissimilar to how things were when they were ten years old. As the story closes, Katie is about to leave for New York and a beginning job with a media professional.

It does not appear to be much on which to base a full novel, but Macken has created a realistic set of events that show all three girls and their male friends as flawed. There are few attractive characters in the story, even among the parents, and the reader is often likely to want to sit them down and tell them to grow up. There is little to suggest that if we were to go forward another ten years, things would be much better.

The book is set in a fictional place named Adrigule, small-town Ireland at its least attractive; if you came from there, you would be thankful for getting away from it. It may of course be a good portrait of how things actually are in many such places, but the contrast with somewhere like the fictional small towns created by writers like Niall Williams and Donal Ryan is striking. This is not to criticise Macken’s writing or her story: what she has created here is completely believable, not least because she is careful not to exaggerate or to build up to obvious wickedness. A most promising first novel.

ALL THE INVISIBLE THINGS. By Orlagh Collins. Bloomsbury. 356 pp. $14.99

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 font in her writing; her younger sister was named Arial, another font. 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.

HUDSON’S KILL. By Paddy Hirsch. Corvus. 314 pp. $29.99

It is New York 1803. Recently settled, the town is effectively controlled by three gangs: one black, one Irish and one nativist. The idea of a police force has not yet been invented, though a few of the more farsighted residents realise that some form of non-military policing will soon be needed.

The story begins as follows, “Kerry O’Toole pushed the big iron key into the brass lock of the African Free School.” She is one of the two central characters in the story, a reformed pickpocket, well able to survive in the lawless city. Her father is the senior enforcer in the Irish gang that controls one section of the city; she is also a cousin of the man who oversees the black shebeens and whorehouses.

The other main character is named Justy Flanagan, one of five Mayor’s Marshals who try to keep on top of crime. As a young man, he survived a number of skirmishes with the Redcoats before and during the 1798 rebellion in Ireland, “shaking scythes at cannon”, as Seamus Heaney put it. He seems to have had some kind of relationship with Kerry O’Toole in the past, quite possibly in an earlier book by the same author.

The story concerns the attempts by Kerry and Justy to find the killers of a young woman whose mutilated body is found in a back alley. In the course of their investigations, they come up against a gang of Arab criminals whose business model involves stealing young white women, getting them pregnant and then selling the offspring, an undertaking that pays considerably more than the normal, slam-bang-thankyou-ma’am brothels in the area.

A feature of the book is the use of words and phrases from the time, and there are a number of pages at the end forming a kind of dictionary of early nineteenth century words. Here, for example, is someone describing to his boss what has taken place, “Some simkin went and pulled down the front of Tanny’s libben. Looks like a nob. Says she buzzed something precious out of his kit. The boys have him outside.” Tanny is a person’s name, also described as a bunter or burick, a young woman whose sole means of survival is selling herself for sex.

There is no shortage of dead bodies and no attempt to soften the various forms of depravity and corruption, both personal and communal. There are far too many characters in the action, so that the reader is easily confused and in truth, you would be justified in reprimanding yourself for spending precious time on the book. 

Frank is a member of the Tintean editorial collective