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 100 pages in what is probably Donal Ryan’s longest book yet.

Sometimes, a reader can get confused when a book has a large cast of characters. No 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 he belongs at the same high table as Niall Williams, readers of these reviews will realise that there is no higher praise.

Why Paddy and Kit’s daughter suddenly disappeared we learn only towards the very end, and you won’t learn the reason here. Her actions were entirely logical and were not brought about by conflict; she was a young woman working her own way in 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 one of Ireland’s premier novelists. This, I believe, is his best book yet – and as the cover tells us, we are speaking about someone twice longlisted for the Booker Prize.

The release of the book was held up in Ireland earlier in 2020, but it is now available in local Australian bookshops.

SCENES OF A GRAPHIC NATURE. By Caroline O’Donoghue. Virago. 339 pp

Caroline O’Donoghue was born and grew up in Cork. Now in her early thirties, she has lived and worked in London for ten years. That brief bio is necessary because, most unusually, the extra pages at the front and back of her novel do not tell us anything about her.

The central character in the story is Charlie Regan, a budding film maker – we are some pages in before we realise that Charlie is actually Charlotte. She is an only child and has the normal rows with her mother, both of them worried about their father/husband who is dying of cancer. Charlie also has rows with her film-making partner Laura and their maybe-or-maybe-not affair is an ongoing component of the story.

The central element of the novel is the death of a teacher and her class of 19 children from carbon monoxide poisoning. That event happened in 1963 in the fictional island of Clipim off the coast of Kerry. The only survivor of the tragedy was Charlie’s father and he tells different versions of what happened. He went to England and never returned to Ireland and discourages Charlie from going there. ‘Clipim is three old men with four teeth between them,’ he tells her.

Charlie and Laura fly to Cork where their film It Takes a Village is being shown as part of a festival. There they meet a man who suggests that the full story of what happened in the schoolhouse in Clipim almost 60 years earlier may have been quite different from what was reported: suggestions of the IRA and of a local farmer enriching himself. As it happened, JFK visited Ireland a few weeks later, taking the story off the front pages. The girls decide to visit Clipim to try to work it out for themselves; from here, the remainder of the story takes place on the island.

The attempts by the two girls to find out what happened is amateur and blundering, their discoveries as much a result of accident or throwaway islander comment as of proper investigation. The story also deviates into the love lives of the two women, Charlie a lesbian and Laura in an open relationship with her English boyfriend. Many of the clichés of historical English-Irish disputes are found here as are the cartoonish depictions of small town residents. The final explanation of what happened almost 60 years earlier comes from one of the incidental characters in the book.

 Some of the best writing in the book is found in the girls’ experiences of the countryside and later of the island. Here is Charlie on the drive into Kerry, ‘Straight, commuter roads that offered endless assistance – this way to Galway, that way to Lidl – become narrower, greener. The bars of reception on my phone go from five to three to one. Blue-grey mountains that blot the horizon begin to move closer to us, as if politely coming to meet us halfway.’ Later, as they approach Waterville on the narrow Ring of Kerry road, she puts her hand out the window to ‘tug at the chunks of yellow flowers growing by the roadside, bringing a petal to my face, inhaling the joyously improbable smell of coconut.’

Part story of love between young women, part reminder of the days of Magdalen laundries and baby deaths, the reader sometimes wishes the writer would get on with her story. But that same reader will find it hard to put the book down. 

STRANGE HOTEL. By Eimear McBride. faber & faber. 149 pp.$27.99

The hotel of the title may be strange, but that is nothing to the story, if that is the correct word to describe this book. The central character is a woman, identified only as ‘she’ until the final 30 or so pages where the voice changes to the first person ‘I’. She is in a hotel room somewhere. In the beginning it seems to be in France – Paris or Avignon perhaps – but then changes to Auckland and finally to Austin.

The opening and closing pages of the book consist of a series of names of towns and cities, some with a small letter ‘x’ beside them. It is a letter that reminds of what your maths teacher called ‘the unknown’ and it may be that school algebra is the most sensible explanation of those mysterious letters. But there was a time when you understood algebra, however fleetingly, which is more than you can say about this rambling meander through self-analysis. And even that last is a guess as to what the author is on about. 

It appears that the woman is in her late forties. At some time in the past, she jumped from a height for some reason and appears to be contemplating doing it again from her hotel balcony. Which would be a relief, except that she tells us that she is on the first floor. And despite this fixed location, there are whole pages describing a ride in the hotel elevator.

In the first person part of the narrative, we read the following, ‘I do like all these lines of words but they don’t seem to be helping much with keeping the distance any more.’ All that this poor reader can add is that those words are not doing much for him either. There is a phrase somewhere about a night’s ‘miscarriage of fun’, but there is not much fun in this tedious novelette.

In fairness, it may help to read it through in one sitting. There are no obvious gaps or clear indications that we are now in a different hotel or a different city. Indeed, at one stage, the action moves from inside a closed room to the speaker getting wet, with only the one word ‘Out’ to indicate that she has now left the room.

I reviewed Eimear McBride’s first two books here, describing A Girl is a Half-formed Thing as ‘a bravura performance’, though I was less enthusiastic about her follow-up The Lesser Bohemians. Each dispensed with many of the conventions of modern writing, but here she seems to have thrown out the rules completely. Shouldn’t editors and publishers have some responsibility for a decision that would require people to pay money for a book like this.

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

One more from Kevin Myers, this time about Knock Airport

[Monsignor] Horan shrewdly played the two leaders off against each other. Haughey promised boundless bounty to honour the Virgin Mary, and he would certainly have put her on the state payroll, with a generous pension, if he could have. Fitzgerald, a barely less ambitious individual than Haughey, was nonetheless curtailed in his munificence towards Knock by a residual – if flickering – devotion to the principles of fiscal prudence. Horan got his runway, yet even this was then turned into proof of the world’s conspiracy against Ireland according to that Official Balladeer of Irish Victimhood & Perpetual Sorrow, Christy Moore.

 Possibly referring to
From Fatima to Bethlehem, from Lourdes to Kiltimagh,
There’s never been a miracle like the airport up in Knock

Note: Kiltimagh is pronounced Kill-chee-moch