New Irish Fiction

Book Reviews by Frank O’Shea

AS YOU WERE. By Elaine Feeney, Harvill Secker. 2021. 391 pp. h/b €16.99

Normally, you might expect to be disappointed by a book whose front cover contains approving words like ‘Thrilling’, ‘Superb’, ‘Amazing’, provided by fellow-novelists. While I would take exception with the first of these adjectives, it thoroughly deserves the last two. But while this is indeed a superb piece of writing, there is one other word it could attract: it is different.

Elaine Feeney, who lives in Athenry Co Galway, has written three books of poetry and there are times when this book slips into poetry also. But the main thing that sets it out is the non-standard form of paragraphing. Sometimes these are only one line, or one word, sometimes they are monologues covering pages, and the publisher has kept faith with the author by using double-spacing between paragraphs.

The central character and narrator is Sinead; as the story opens, she has been told that she has cancer, but the only living being she lets in on this information is a fat magpie ‘shiny and serious on the bonnet of the Volvo.’ Some time later she is taken to hospital in an ambulance, arriving naked as her carers try to work out what caused her collapse. The remainder of the book is set in the ward of that hospital.

In time, Sinead gets to know her fellow-patients. Margaret Rose is a mother of two daughters who has a husband who keeps another woman. Then there is Jane, a retired teacher, who doesn’t realise that she is suffering from dementia, though much truth comes through in her talk. There is also Mr Hegarty, referred to as Hegs, a former councillor or politician of some sort. The ward is attended by a Polish man and a young Melbourne woman, with occasional visits from important medical people.

All of this seems a flimsy structure on which to hang a story, but each of the principal characters has sufficient background in their lives to provide interest. At times, the colloquial talk – Galway accents, though there seem to be hints of an Ulster twang also – makes the story difficult to follow, but the reader is brought along by the almost galloping prose and the way that the story continues to unfold.  

It would be easy to imagine that the book is an indictment of some traditional Irish ways, like the role of the church and of men, and the ill-treatment of women, especially if they become pregnant. But that element seems incidental as the reader gets to understand the lives of the participants in the story. Their problems, in and out of the hospital ward, are told with a kind of wry humour that allows you to forget that the action is taking place in a room where two characters die.

Original and refreshing and new. And different.

A WEEK TO REMEMBER. By Esther Campion. Hachette. 323 pp. $32.99

Another story set in West Cork, but this time really remote West Cork: Crookhaven, Goleen and Barleycove to be precise, the kind of places that are so near the edge that they would be in severe danger if an earthquake hit anywhere in the Atlantic ocean. These are real places, and from what this reviewer can recall of a summer once spent in Skibbereen, the epitome of remote beauty. A house in Crookhaven has been converted to take visitors; it is called Lizzie O’s – the surname more common in neighbouring Kerry – and the story deals with its first four visitors.

Mick and Aisling have come from Tasmania on a trip paid for by Mick’s family; they are from the area originally, but their marriage is going through a bumpy phase. Declan Byrne has come from Cork city in his Lexus, leaving his dental practice for a week to try to get his life together. Then there is Katie Daly, who left the area in disgrace 30 years earlier and now lives in New York; she has returned to look after her mother for a week. Finally there is Mia, a mid-thirties woman from Melbourne who has been roaming the world with her husband, an academic more interested in pelagic fish than in his bored wife.

It will take more than 300 pages for all these people to solve their problems, all happily and fulfilled. Except Mia, perhaps; her husband does not know that she has found happiness with a dog fancier, a native of Nelson, New Zealand, now settled in Goleen. Two other romances worth mentioning are those of Prue and Edwina, recently married and Declan’s oldest son who has moved in with his boyfriend.

That should cover all possible stories, you might think and if the agglomeration of characters confuses a little, that is a result that the book will do its best to relieve. The front cover carries a highlighted statement suggesting that the story is similar to ones made successful by Maeve Binchy. This reviewer found Maeve more friendly.

Remote West Cork, rather than any of the multitude of characters, is the hero of this story.

LISTENING STILL. By Anne Griffin. Sceptre, 2021. 342 pp. $32.99

Sometimes the best time to open a new book is when you have given up on another one. It can be a way of restoring your faith in stories and the ability to write one in a way that draws in the reader. I gave Anne Griffin’s first book When All is Said a fulsome review and while this does not quite deserve that adjective, it is still an enthralling read.

The characters in the story are members of an extended family who run a funeral business in a small Irish midland town. They are different in that one of them is able to hear the voice of the dead person lying in their viewing room. It is an unusual ability and is at least partly responsible for the success of the business, attracting customers from nearby towns as well as from the locality.

Then Jeanie, the youngest of the two children in the family, discovers that she also has this uncommon talent. It is easy to understand that she is teased about it at school, an opportunity for the author to introduce some other characters to her story, two girls of her own age, a boy named Niall whom she has known since they were infants and a newcomer to the town named Fionn.

At this stage, you have met most of the cast of characters and the author is careful to give each a moment of importance to the story. It is a simple story in many ways, certainly in the early part, and you may find yourself recalling the simple prose and easy storyline of a writer like Maeve Binchy: there are no ‘baddies’ as such, people are kind to each other and, apart from the teasing of young Jeanie at school, there is little unpleasantness.

Not surprisingly, the main focus of many of the incidents, some of them almost seeming to be mere asides, is Jeanie’s ability to hear the voices of the dead before they slip finally into complete silence. But then Jeanie and her friends grow up and she finds herself in a love triangle involving her two former schoolmates, Niall and Fionn.

It is tempting to say that this is a common-or-garden love story, but there are other elements to it, and while the author does draw things out a little in places, even this old cynic found that, once in, he was hooked. By the end the former schoolfriends are in their early thirties and though the resolution of their problems is believable, it is also quite unusual, not the kind of thing that Maeve B would have.

While not quite rising to the standard of her first book, Listening Still is an excellent example of a book that does not need to have sex and violence to be able to hold the attention of a reader. 

ACTS OF DESPERATION. By Megan Nolan. Jonathan Cape 2021. 277 pp. $29.99

Is there no end to new Irish writers, especially women? Megan Nolan lives in London but is from Waterford, a place that occurs on a number of occasions in this, her first novel. It is written in the first person and it is tempting to wonder how much of it is from her personal experience. It is a story of a love affair and in truth, a reader would hope that it is not autobiographical.

We never learn the name of the narrator, but are told that she has dropped out of university and is working in bars and restaurants. She drinks too much and offers little objection to young men who want to use her for sex. In the opening chapter, she meets Ciaran, a young Danish man, in Dublin to be near his Irish father. He is involved in the arts in some way and is still pining for his Danish girlfriend who is serially unfaithful to him.

‘I was in love and so I was insane,’ the narrator says, by way of explanation of her ‘sexual adventuring’. Ciaran leaves her at one stage and she devotes whole chapters describing how distraught she was. But he was a bully, something that is revealed at the end when he rapes her after finding out she was sleeping with other men. At that stage, she leaves him, but is still talking about him until the end of the book.

It is difficult to write about this book with any enthusiasm. Almost 300 pages of sex and drink and drugs and violence, with the author trying to persuade us that something important is happening or something interesting will happen. She appears to have issues with her size, cuts herself periodically and is well on the way to alcoholism. The men are not much better.

Tedious, self-absorbed, narcissistic, Acts of Desperation is a reminder of how Ireland has staggered into a new century with young people who have little responsibility.