New Irish Fiction

Book Reviews by Frank O’Shea

ANN DEVINE READY FOR HER CLOSE-UP. By Colm O’Regan. Transworld Ireland, 2020. 353 pp. $22.63

First, have a look at the cover. You may think that the author is Ann Devine and the title of the book is Ready for Her Close-Up. But in fact, Ann Devine is the central character and first-person narrator in this delightful novel. The author is Colm O’Regan, a native of Dripsey near Cork City, who hides his name away on the spine and in the fly-leaf. We are told at the end that ‘He had a good job and a degree and everything, but gave it all up to try and be a comedian.’

We cannot vouch for O’Regan’s success as a comedian, but as a writer, he is magic. Edna O’Brien and John McGahern and Ross O’Carroll-Kelly are among those who have written about Irish society, but their writing carries a sting, their criticism is open, sometimes pitiless. O’Regan, on the other hand, is gentle, almost apologetic, trying to find excuses for his characters. Where O’Carroll-Kelly uses a wrecking ball on South Dublin, O’Regan tickles the midlands with a feather-duster.

The author has created the fictional town of Kilsudgeon and peoples it with ordinary men, women and children. The central family is the Devines: Ann and her husband Denis, her daughters Deirdre and Jennifer and niece Freya and some other members. Ann works as a home carer for a number of patients and has to put up with a boss who bases things on the System.

‘We are a systematic, holistic, end-to-end care facilitator, Ann, operating in a highly competitive market committed to driving efficiencies.’

And you know she barely got honours in the Inter Cert.

One of Ann’s patients is John ‘Flash’ Jordan who needs to have a dressing on his leg changed regularly. Here’s how one session goes.

You’ll be out in no time, Flash.

‘Oh, I’m fierce sorry, Ann,’ he says to me as I do the dressing.

‘Sorry for what, Johnny? Oh, I see.’

Poor Johnny has become visibly excited by my manicured hands changing the dressing on his leg.

‘Ah, don’t mind it, Johnny. I’ve seen a lot worse.’

‘And better, says you. I’m fierce sorry, Ann. It’s just these tracksuit bottoms are too roomy altogether. My normal trousers would keep me under control more.’

As the story progresses, Ann is nominated by her daughter to be vice-chairperson of the committee preparing Kilsudgeon for the Tidy Towns competition. One of her home patients is so pleased with this that he tells her he will be leaving one of his fields, two acres with a fairy rath, to the town to be used as a focus for the Tidy Towns. Unfortunately, that is blocked by the man’s sister Oona who comes home suddenly from America when she hears that her brother is near death. Here are Ann and her teenage niece Freya discussing Oona.

‘Oona, that American woman, such a dick move. Total patriarchy thing.’

‘Patriarchy? But she’s a woman, Freya.’

‘They’re the worst, Auntie Ann. When you’re a hostage to the patriarchy you can become an internalized misogynist. Self-haters. It’s a thing.’

I’m finding it hard to keep up. It was easier when men were supposed to be a shower of shites and we were in the right. Which wave was that again? Freya tells me there were four in total.

The local TD, a shady character named Patsy Duggan, becomes involved also and here the author is particularly sharp. It would be easy to portray him as a complete crook, but the locals know that many of the facilities they enjoy are down to his behind-the-scenes scheming, so they elect him to the Dail every time. One of his successes is persuading a film company to use Kilsudgeon to make a TV series about Cuchulainn and Fionn Mac Cumhail and the Celts, though the whole thing collapses at the end.

The other character who is beautifully described is Ann’s husband Denis who drives a cement truck. Where many stories might portray him as a slob or a bully, this does not happen here. His problems are simple. ‘Them festivals are always a dead loss. It’s just an excuse for putting pints in plastic glasses. And then they’re not even the full pints.’ Towards the end, Ann is concerned about a new romance involving a lodger and the couple’s grownup daughter, home from London.

’And I’d be grateful, if this goes any further, that you’re not … active in this house.’

‘Mammy, you know we’re all active. What difference does it make where it happens? And you’re active. Why can’t we all be active?’

‘I just don’t want to know. I don’t want to think about it. OK?’

‘Mammy, don’t think about it and you’ll be fine. Put it out of your mind.’

The cover uses words like ‘warm … charming … hilarious.’ For once, they do not exaggerate. This is a must-read. If you can’t get it where you live, ask your Irish friends to send you a copy.

THE NOTHING MAN. By Catherine Ryan Howard. Corvus. 2021. 343 pp. $28.25

Purely by coincidence, I watched the movie Zodiac on Netflix before starting this book. The film was nominated for almost 20 awards, but the only one it won was the Dublin Film Critics’ Circle. That film deals, as this book does, with a serial killer who has gone unpunished for more than 20 years.

Dubliner Catherine Ryan Howard has cleverly written two stories, one an account of the killings as recalled by fictional character Ava Black who was twelve years old when her parents and younger sister were victims of the killer. Now in her thirties, she is advised that the best way to catch the murderer was to write a book recalling her own memories of what happened and retelling the stories of the other victims or of other people interviewed by the Gardai at the time. The hope would be that some reader might recall a detail from the time which would open up the case.

That is the book within a book, the latter being the story of the man who did the killings. Now in his sixties and married with a teenage daughter, he is working as a security guard in a large shopping centre where he is upset by the publicity being given to Ms Black’s book. When he reads it himself, he realises that he left small clues behind that he was not aware of at the time, but which someone might now, twenty years later, be able to connect to him. In particular, he feels that Ava is a loose end that needs to be dealt with.

The story is set in Cork and gives a feel for the city and surrounding towns – Carigaline, Fermoy, Mallow – but could be set anywhere. It deals realistically with the effects of crime on victims and is sympathetic to the Gardai in their work. You are left with the feeling that things like this could happen.

The idea of a book within a book is probably not new and some readers may find it off-putting. But Ryan Howard has done it brilliantly. The text moves easily from the voice of Ava to the third person description of the life and work of the killer, now married and respectable. Towards the very end, we learn that Ava is now happily married, but we are not told who the husband is until we come to the kind of two-sentence statement which Ryan Howard herself gets in the outer covers.


THE DARK ROOM. By Sam Blake. Corvus. 2021. 390 pp. $29.99

Sam Blake is the pseudonym for Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin, who is described as ‘Ireland’s leading literary scout.’ This is the fifth book in the Blake series and, truth to tell, it is unlikely to have the reader looking too seriously for the earlier ones.

The two main characters are Caroline and Rachel. The former is an investigative journalist, based in New York. She is temporarily stood down by her editor who thinks she has been sleeping with said editor’s husband, so she takes two weeks off and heads for Hare’s Landing, an isolated hotel in West Cork. Meanwhile, Rachel who works in London as a scout for film producers, is persuaded by her partner to leave the city after he was run over by a car and their boat/apartment was vandalised. She also heads for Hare’s Landing.

The two young women are from Dublin and Wicklow originally, so they are not completely lost in the wilds of West Cork. They finally meet about one-third of the way through the story, and from then on, they try to establish what happened in Hare’s Landing some thirty years earlier. On that occasion, a woman took her own life and two teenagers disappeared. The connection between those two events is not entirely clear, but it keeps the book ticking over for many pages.

The problem is that, because the two women are about the same age and both work in the media, the reader has to remember which one has come from New York and which from London. The problem is not made easier by the short chapters, each devoted in turn to one of the two girls. Rachel brings a dog with her – a retired police dog – so that helps for a while to distinguish one from the other but inevitably Caroline and the mutt get fond of each other and you are not sure which one it belongs to.

The resolution is more than a little messy and not at all convincing, and in truth a reader may find the whole thing more than a little tedious.

More from Kevin Myers.

People he did not like:

Haughey – hypocrite, crook, tribal bigot and one of the founding financiers of the IRA. … Inevitably, I would encounter Haughey’s mistress, Terry Keane, around Dublin. She embodied all the hypocrisy and deceit of this foul era.

Sean Mac Stiofain – deracinated English Protestant psychopath who became an Irish Catholic chief of staff of the IRA

the cackling assassin Vinny Byrne.

The Irish Times Washington correspondent Sean Cronin – a manifold traitor  … regularly promoting the general cause of the IRA and its foul auxiliary NORAID.

Nuala O’Faolain – She had been flagrantly promiscuous at a time when Irish agony aunts were proclaiming that any female interest in lustful sex was perverted, deviant and un-Irish. So, clearly, in liberational matters, I admired her, not least because she was now involved in an open lesbian relationship with the feminist Nell McCafferty. … However, it soon became evident that O’Faolain was both a fraud and deeply neurotic. … In time, with perfectly predictable perfidy, she publicly betrayed and disavowed her former lover, Nell McCafferty.

Gerry Adams – a narcissistic egomaniac.

Glenn Barr – unrepentant Protestant paramilitary leader and, like most of his ilk, a congenital thief.

Saddam Hussein – irredeemable psychotic.

Sean MacBride – that homunculus of depravity

Markievicz – self-styled countess and remorseless snob.

The conjoined power of Romanism and Fenianism were gruesomely evident in the funeral of that devious little goblin Sean MacBride. As The Irish Times was to report: Gerry Adams and Sean Mac Stiofain received communion from the Bishop of Galway Eamonn Casey.

And some he did like

[Essayist] Hubert Butler – the greatest and bravest intellectual Irish critic of totalitarianism.

John Waters – the most important journalist to emerge in Ireland at that time, and the fate that awaited him was emblematic of the terrible era that we were now entering

[Former Roscommon footballer] Dermot Earley – That very great soldier Major General Dermot Earley

Bertie Ahern – Despite our many differences, I like Bertie, perhaps because we are both idiots.

Christopher Hitchens – that gallantly dogmatic atheist.

[Former GAA Director] Liam Mulvihill – a fine man and a very great patriot.

Group Captain Leonard Cheshire – the most mesmerising, purposeful, valiant man I have ever met, an extraordinary synthesis of mental intent and neat, anatomical purpose.