New Irish Fiction

Book Reviews by Frank O’Shea

THE NAMELESS ONES. By John Connolly. Hachette 2021. 388 pp. $32.99

John Connolly’s latest book is different. In the first place, the central character is not private eye Charlie Parker, but his two gay helpers Louis and Angel. Two books back, they had been sent to the Netherlands to terminate a notorious killer, a task they carried out with the unacknowledged help of one of the US agencies known by capital letters. Both had left the country by the time the body of that bad man was found. The word on the underground was that one of the helpers in that killing was a man named De Jaager. Now, a number of members of the Vuksan family decide that this man and his three helpers should suffer the most gruesome torture and death. Louis takes it upon himself to punish the Vuksans and their helpers.

The other way that this book is different is that it has a strong political message. It is made clear that the Vuksans come from Serbia; indeed, the woke or the squeamish might even suggest the use of the word racist to describe the way the author portrays citizens of that country. Again and again, he refers to the murderous part played by Serbia in the Balkan wars. The only helper our two avengers have in Europe is a Dutchman named Hendricksen. As a young man he was a member of the Dutch UN peacekeepers who had to sit on their fists while Ratko Mladic and his people were killing more than 8,000 men and boys in Srebrenica.

In his recent book Burning Heresies, Kevin Myers describes two assignments he was given to cover events in the old Yugoslavia; there is little doubt that he was in great danger and the real account he gives of what was going on there is in sync with the fiction you read here.

As in the previous action in the Netherlands, the FBI are secretly playing a minor, but deniable, role in the action, as are members of US diplomatic bodies in various European countries. But in the end, it must all come down to Louis and Angel, the former in particular. As a black man, he could never show up in Serbia, so all action must take place in nearby countries, mainly Austria, where the lawyer for the Vuksans carries on his profitable endeavours on their behalf. His name is Frend, and we get an idea of how he operates: ‘In his opinion, a conscience was a poor companion for a lawyer, one that always took but never gave.’

We return again to Serbia. It is clear that the ruling class in that country do not meet with the author’s approval, their corruption extending to their representatives in other European countries. One of the less bloody of their number is described as ‘a gangster trying on a politician’s clothes for size – or perhaps it’s the other way round – one can never be sure with men of no principle.’ The Serbs have applied for membership of the EU, a decision to be made by that organisation in 2025. Dubliner John Connolly does not say so, but any reader of this book would pray to who ever looks after human affairs that their membership should be disallowed while any human being currently under the age of 30 is alive.

I have said this about earlier Connolly books, but I now say it about The Nameless Ones: this is his best book yet. That there is much blood and slaughter, corruption and sleaze, does not take from the lightness of the writing. The author almost seems to be writing with a wry smile on his face, keen to keep his readers entertained with his prose if not with his story.

‘Hendricksen smelled blood, and beneath it an odor ranker and more desperate, the involuntary purging of creatures at the end of their suffering’ – the book is written with an American readership in mind, whence the odd spelling. One other observation: although the book is about violence, murder, rape and lawlessness, the f-word appears only three times in its pages, a welcome change from much modern writing, including books written by women.

TEN DAYS. By Austin Duffy. Granta 2021. 259 pp. $27.99

I am probably not allowed to say this, but thank goodness for a new Irish writer who is a man. Austin Duffy is a Dublin oncologist and, on the basis of this his second book, a master of the kind of prose that we thought had gone out of fashion.

The central character is Wolfgang, Wolf to his friends, who grew up a Catholic in Dublin, the son of German parents. He has made a successful career in the art world, mostly by designing covers for music albums. His daughter Ruth calls him Mike, a name she gave him when she was eight and he was about to leave his wife to carry on affairs with various women. He returned to his wife to care for her in her final months of cancer and he has to re-establish a relationship with Ruth, now a forthright teenager.

Wolf’s wife has asked to be cremated, an action which does not meet with approval from her New York Jewish family. But he and Ruth fly to New York to carry out her wishes and to reconnect with the Jewish side of their inheritance. They attend various Jewish ceremonies associated with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, events at which Wolf finds himself a sometimes unwelcome outsider.

The story is recorded from the point of view of Wolf and the reader is sometimes annoyed that phrases or descriptions that appear earlier in the story are repeated almost verbatim in later chapters. Likewise, we wonder why Wolf and Ruth have bought one-way tickets and why he has set up arrangements to transfer funds and property to his daughter. In time, we learn that, like his own mother many years earlier, he has dementia and is trying to prepare a future for his daughter. As the story progresses, this dementia becomes gradually worse, until he can recognise very few of his in-laws and is confusing Ruth with her dead mother.

This is intense writing, disturbing in places, but avoiding any attempt to bring the reader to tears. Almost all the action is set in New York and the author writes about it with affection but not admiration. Here, he and Ruth are at the traffic lights on 94th Street, ‘The Avenue was in its loudest, fullest state as if all humanity was trying to get someplace else but had to pass through this junction first. Manhattan’s iconic steam emanated silently out of the ground beside them.’ It is a scene that will recall mid-town to anyone after even a short visit to the Big Apple.

The accounts of dementia are clear, almost understated, and always described with care and almost affection. ‘It wasn’t just the absences, the gaps he could speak of, those he was aware of anyway, and which seemed to come out of nowhere, like rents in the fabric of things, spread out in front of him like a great high depth that had suddenly emerged beneath him.’ 

This is a wonderful account of a man trying to prepare himself for a future that he knows will be humiliating and empty. Respectful of Judaism and Jewish religious custom, an endearing account of New York and above all a story told from what is unusual in modern fiction, the viewpoint of a man.

SNOWFLAKE. By Louise Nealon. Allen & Unwin 2021. 374 pp. $29.99

Can dreams become so real that we confuse them with reality? Can we imagine that we are dreaming someone else’s dream? Snowflake is the second book in as many months that looks at questions such as those. The first was Catch Us the Foxes, by Australian writer Nicola West, set in Kiama on the NSW south coast, though residents there might wish their town was not named. Snowflake is set mostly in a dairy farm in County Kildare with regular visits to Trinity College, but unlike Kiama, people in those places will be delighted with how their places are portrayed.

Debbie is aged 18 and living on a dairy farm with her mother Maeve and her uncle Billy, the latter living in a caravan. As the book opens, she is about to start her studies in Trinity, seeing herself as a culchie among the Dublin sophisticates. She becomes friendly with Xanthe (pron. Santy) and the four of those form the main characters in the story.

The book is a loosely-connected collection of events without an obvious central theme. Where most books have a beginning, middle and end, this has just a middle. The reader can work out the beginning from loose pieces of information in the text – Billy is Maeve’s brother, for example or Debbie was a loner at school or Xanthe comes from a dysfunctional family. But there is no ending as such, because the conflicts – mostly minor family ones – are still unresolved at the end.

All of that may give the impression of a dull read, but in fact, this is far from a dull book. It comes with approval from big hitters like Roddy Doyle and John Boyne, people whose opinions cannot be bought, one would imagine. Writer Louise O’Neill describes it as ‘laugh-out-loud-funny’ and while that may be putting on the praise a bit too thick, the writing is indeed the kind that will have you at least chuckling in places. The local parish priest is described as ‘a kind of affable Louis Theroux.’ Though Debbie and Xanthe are virgins, they manage to give the impression of active sex lives.

This is a most Irish story: Irish in the narrative it tells and Irish in the way it is told. ‘It is socially acceptable to be an alcoholic in our parish,’ first-person narrator Debbie explains at one stage, ‘as long as you don’t get treatment for it.’ Elsewhere she explains about the people in her parish that she is ‘used to knowing a person’s name, their dog and what their da is like when drunk.’ Yes, there is a lot of drinking, but of the kind that while it is rarely in excess, manages to get people in trouble.

Where money comes from is not explained, but the farm is big enough to have a milking machine, a tractor and lots of lambs every year, so one imagines that an Irish reader will accept that life is at least passable. Billy is paying Debbie’s way through Trinity; she has not finished her first year when the book ends, and it is not at all certain that she will continue. She is attending an STI clinic in the hope that she can be told whether, in one of her drunken stupors, she has had intercourse.

A snowflake, by the way, appears to be a woke-word to describe someone who is easily offended and imagines that the world revolves around them. It isn’t clear for which of the characters in the story the word is used.

YOU HAD IT COMING. By B M Carroll. Allen & Unwin 2021. 312 pp. $29.99

At last a book that captures your attention and keeps you reading, an old-fashioned police procedural. A man is shot and the police are immediately involved trying to work out who the culprit might be. The dead man is a well-known and successful lawyer, who has made his name defending young men charged with rape. By coincidence, the ambulance paramedic who deals with him is Megan, one of the girls whom he called a liar and worse in the course of a trial a dozen years earlier.

The leading detective from the Homicide squad is Bridget Kennedy and she will spend the next weeks trying to work out who the killer might be. The second girl who had been raped is Jessica, who now works as a trainer in a boxing gym; she and Megan have not maintained any connection after the trial which saw their two rapists released. Both young women as well as their partners and members of their families are obvious suspects as are a number of other women in whose rape cases the dead man had been the defence counsel.

The book is told in chapters that tell the story from the standpoint of detective Bridget and the women Megan and Jessica. Each of these two has her own story of the struggle coming to terms with their rape and subsequent humiliation in the court case. They appear to have come through the dozen years since into uneasy periods of sometimes stressful calm, alternating with frenetic work. The family of each is gradually introduced and we learn of the damage done by the earlier court case.

As the story progresses, one of the original rapists is killed, which doubles the workload on Bridget and her fellow police. They and the two women victims are presented as complex and authentic characters. The conclusion is unsatisfactory in some ways, a comment which is unrelated to the name of the main mover in the whole story and which will be better explained if you read the book – and this reviewer recommends you do.

Writer Ber Carroll is a native of Co Cork, now living in Sydney where the story is set, specifically the prosperous north shore suburbs like Killara, Gordon and Artarmon. Megan lives with her mother in a rundown cottage in relatively distant Hornsby, still sufficiently prosperous that they hope to sell for a figure in the region of $1.2 million. The book tackles the difficult area where violence against young women is balanced against the right of an accused person to legal representation, even when that often and routinely involves victim-blaming and clever legal tricks. 

Frank O’Shea is a member of the Tinteán editorial collective.