New Irish Fiction

Book reviews by Frank O’Shea

WHO WE WERE. By B. M. Carroll. Viper, 2020. 322 pp. $29.99

Sometimes, all you require from a book is that it tells a story that keeps you wanting to get back to it. Ber Carroll’s Who We Were is a good example; it catches you early, and once you come to know the characters, you are hooked. The author hails from Blarney Co. Cork and now lives in Sydney where this story is set.

The title refers to the cliques and in-groups, the affections and animosities among the graduating class of 2000 in a high school on Sydney’s northern beaches. The head girl, the school captain, was Annabel. She was pregnant when she sat the HSC, the father another boy in the class; they married shortly after and are still together 20 years later when the story is set.

Katy Buckley is another girl from that same class, ‘plain and studious. Perennially mocked for being such a try-hard’. She is now back teaching science at the same school and is trying to organise a twenty-year class reunion. Unusually for a modern book, Annabel and Katy share the role of central character, though we also meet Luke, Zach, Grace, Melissa, Robbie, Jarrod and their families. All except Robbie have done well since leaving school and all receive messages poking fun at how they described themselves and their ambitions in the Yearbook of 2000.

Then the mysterious messages become sinister and threatening and the police have to be called in. One of those mentioned above is killed and we realise that we have left the feel-good world of class reunions and moved to a world of danger and menace. We are also given many possibilities about who might be behind the threats and murder, each character having their own idea of who it might be. The old rivalries and factions from school are revisited and we realise that there are many possible reasons for each of the characters to be the source of the trouble.

As the story progresses, we see the family lives and love lives of Annabel and Zach and the others. At times, the story veers towards contrivance and cliché, but the writing keeps your interest because the characters are well meaning and serious and their attempts to work out what is happening does not need to call on coincidence or extravagant heroics.

Don’t be put off by the large cast of characters; this book manages to mix sinister and sweet, light and dark, in a compelling story. Recommended.

THE WILD LAUGHTER. By Caoilinn Hughes. Oneworld, May 2020. 196 pp. $26.99

The black and white front cover is striking, with the author’s name given the same font and size as the title, though you may find yourself wondering what it has to do with the story. The spelling of the author’s given name is a reminder of the old rule from Primary school, ‘caol le caol agus leathan le leathan’ which explains that seemingly redundant letter in the middle.

Almost 200 pages later, your overriding thought is that you need to go back and read the book all over again, in the hope that it may mean more the second time around. The central character and first person narrator is Doharty Black, usually shortened to Hart, a farmer’s son from Roscommon: a good start because there are not many books set in Roscommon. Hart is framed for the manslaughter of his father, known as Chief, the set-up organised mainly by his brother Cormac and their mother Nóra, who comes with a síne fada.

The action takes place in the dying days of the Celtic Tiger. The strongest writing is the description of some of the lurks that were going on in Ireland in those times – ‘there were wheels on the mobile home for tax purposes.’ Whether such references would be understood by a non-Irish reader is doubtful. So is the occasional drop into the Irish language, usually translated, and the inference that Galway is the place where upwardly mobile Roscommon folk would go.

Cormac seems to be the main villain in the piece, firstly for his bullying of his younger brother and then for his shameless success in some shonky business schemes. We learn that he is a champion hurler, probably plays for his county, though it is doubtful whether a reader would understand that this is similar to saying that someone played in the front row of the Ballarat rugby team.

The writing is witty, sharp, clever, but at the expense of the story and of the reader’s patience. The advice that it should be read a second time is given in full seriousness.

It is a shame that what seems like a good story is spoiled by modernist showiness, the implication that here is something new and the reader must get used to these new writers and their gimmickry. If publishers are charging money for a book, surely they have some responsibility to their customers to see that what they market is readable. 

GROWN UPS. By Marian Keyes. Penguin, 2020. 637 pp. $32.99

One thing you can say about this Covid19 thing is that it forces you to finish reading a book you would otherwise have thrown in the trash after a hundred pages. And, truth be told, there is a story in Grown Ups, which, even with a bit of speed reading, you are happy to find resolved in the final few chapters. Your reaction is likely to be relief and some self-congratulation at having finished it, for it is tedious and slow and without even one character with whom you might feel some sympathy.

An aside here. Paul Howard is not well known by his tax office name, but his alter ego Ross O’Carroll-Kelly has written some 20 satirical novels about his life and times as a near-illiterate former rugby player. His column appears weekly in The Irish Times, taking the mick out of the imagined residents of Foxrock and South Dublin, all with their own form of Dort-speak. His prose has a kind of galloping humour that draws the reader in to his imagined world, imitating the phrases of his characters. I mention that because coming to Grown Ups after one of O’Carroll-Kelly’s articles will find you reading with the same kind of accent and language and you wonder whether the book is intended to be a satire.

But the impression soon wears off because you are supposed to have some understanding for the situations in which the characters find themselves. There is little in the way of flowery prose and the story is mainly carried in dialogue. There are words like ‘nouvy’, ‘bougy’, ‘morto’, ‘blem’, phrases like ‘that’s my bad’, ‘say what’, ‘back atcha’ and lots of people needing to ‘process’ something or other. The two principal characters are celebrating their fiftieth birthday and they address each other as ‘babe’; other marrieds are a few years younger but still are ‘babe’ to each other. These characters are not teenagers and you wonder whether Ireland has really descended to this level of childish language.

And the childish slang is not the worst of it. These married couples – three Casey brothers and their wives – don’t make love. They do something beginning with the letter ‘f’. It is a word that appears throughout the book in various forms – verb, noun, adjective, participle past and present – and where O’Carroll-Kelly can use the vowel ‘o’ to indicate Foxrock pronunciation of the word, this book has no such qualms. The Ireland presented here is not a place you would want to visit and the people are not ones you would like to meet.

Tiresome, wearying, repetitive, the main question is whether the Irish government should make some kind of quiet effort to stop a book like this being exported.

Frank is a member of the Tinteán editorial collective