New Irish Fiction

Book reviews by Frank O’Shea

THE MAGICIAN. By Colm Tóibín. Picador 2021. 431 pp. $32.99

The German writer Thomas Mann won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929. He is probably best remembered today as the author of the book Death in Venice which was filmed in 1971 with Dirk Bogarde in the lead role, though that is now half a century in the past. The truth is that his work does not seem to have survived the passing of time, certainly not in English.

In this book, Colm Tóibín presents a fictional account of the life of Mann, concentrating on the inner life of his subject and the way that his life and work were affected by two world wars, the rise of Nazism and the final defeat of Hitler. During WWII, he managed to leave Germany, first for Switzerland and then for America where he took out citizenship. His final years were spent in Zurich, where he died in 1955 at the age of 80.

Mann had same-sex relationships throughout his life, many short-term and many more imagined, the latter aspect particularly highlighted in this book. The oldest two of his six children were also gay, and whispered to be in an incestuous relationship. His oldest child Erika was his favourite and she acquired her own notoriety when she married the English poet W H Auden in order to get British citizenship, though it is believed that their contact did not extend beyond the paperwork. Tóibín presents the whole thing as having been arranged by Auden’s friend Christopher Isherwood, who was Mann’s first choice as son-in-law.

Much of the book is set in America, first in Princeton and then in Santa Monica, California. Tóibín presents Mann as being in an uneasy relationship with America, a situation that applied on both sides – there were annoying visits from the FBI. Two of Mann’s sisters committed suicide, as did two of his sons, notably the oldest boy Klaus who had youthful association with the Communists.

All of this is fertile ground for a novelist and Tóibín ploughs it carefully without ever allowing himself to descend into crudity or vulgarity. The language is careful, almost formal, and for those who have not read Mann in either the original or translation, there is a feeling that the style of the great man is being imitated. At the end, the reader will feel that they know a great deal about the German master, including his inner life.

This is a huge book, written in the most elegant prose. Even the dialogue appears to be from its time, each statement telling the reader something about the speaker as well as what they are saying. Contemporaries of Mann make brief appearance – Bertholt Brecht, the Mahlers, Schoenberg, Richard Strauss, the Roosevelts, Bruno Walter, possibly others not as widely known. A map of Germany, showing places like Lubeck, Berlin, Frankfurt and Munich would help the story. Tóibín at his best.

THE RÚIN. By Dervla McTiernan. HarperCollins. 376 pp. $9 at KMart

The big shopping centre outlet sells clothing and household items. But they have a few shelves of books also, and even if you are only looking sideways, you can’t miss that síne fada as you pass by. This is the book that made her name for Cork-born, Perth resident Dervla McTiernan. Published in 2018, it won its author a number of prizes and in the opinion of this reviewer, they were fully deserved. Her next two books – The Scholar and The Good Turn – were reviewed and strongly recommended on these pages.

The word rún is Irish for a secret and the book is about such secrets. It opens with an epilogue featuring Cormac Reilly, not long out of the Garda training facility in Templemore, visiting a home in Mayo to find a dead woman and two young children, a boy aged five and a girl ten years older. The story then moves forward 20 years, by which stage he is a detective sergeant, posted from Dublin to Galway at his request. His welcome in the west is less than enthusiastic; he is new, he is from Dublin and has to work out the various cliques and people of importance in his new posting.

The second main character in the story is Aisling, a doctor in the A & E section of the regional hospital. She and her boyfriend Jack are happy, faced with a decision to make about her just-discovered pregnancy. Then he disappears and is found somewhere in Galway harbour; officially it is classified as suicide. A young woman turns up at the police station, insisting that in fact he was murdered.

It would be a perfect case for Cormac, except that his boss doesn’t like him and has him instead dealing with cold cases from years earlier. He decides that, ‘The best option was to act like he didn’t know what was going on, until he found out’ who was making him unwelcome. As luck would have it one of the cold cases he is given is the very one in which he had a role 20 years earlier. He finds a drinking friend in Danny whom he knew at Templemore and finds a useful helper in the ambitious but hardworking young guard named Fisher, who will appear in subsequent McTiernan books also.

There are three investigations: the old one from 20 years earlier, another in which young girls disappear, and the central one involving Jack which the guards who are given work on it refuse to take seriously up to that point. All are tied up in the end, even if with some loose strings still attached.

This is a wonderful police procedural, a book that will draw you in from the beginning. For those with a background in Irish, that extra letter in rúin is the tuiseal ginideach, the genitive case, taken from the seanfhocal (old saying) which the author provides for us: Ní scéal rúin é más fios to thriúr é (it’s not a secret if it’s know to three people).

THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE. By Steve Cavanagh. Hachette 2021, 399 pp. $32.99

There are only five places in the world that allow the use of the electric chair for executions. All five are in the United States and include the state of Alabama which is where Belfast writer Steve Cavanagh places the action in this outstanding novel. As in his earlier books, the central character is New York lawyer Eddie Flynn, survivor of ‘a previous life as a con artist’, whose Brooklyn-Irish father never quite forgave him for taking up law. He is persuaded by a mysterious black-ops man named Berlin to defend an Alabama teenager who is up on a murder charge.

At this stage we meet the DA for a county in Alabama, centred on the fictional city of Buckstown. His name is Korn and he is known as the King of Death Row; what the book makes clear is that he gets a kick out of seeing the suffering of someone tied to a chair and taking ten minutes or so to die/fry. He has corrupted the local sheriff and most of his deputies and has the case of the teenager all tied up, though only after he has managed to have the young lad’s attorney disposed of.

There is a lot of death in this book. The author is not going to let us off with just a bit of teenage fervour gone overboard. And in the background there is a mysterious character called the Pastor, full of the Old Testament and determined that the old Jim Crow laws should be returned. The action is set in the year or so before the current President and though his predecessor is never named, there are hints that the Pastor and Korn and their kin might meet with that person’s approval.

But the main strength of the story is in the legal preparations for the case and the way that it pans out in the courtroom where the judge, while not corrupt, sees life in a way similar to Korn and his ilk. Flynn is helped more than a little in his efforts by his legal partner Kate Brooks, whom we met in his previous book Fifty-Fifty. His other helpers are his PI named Bloch, a former police person with unusual skills, and a retired judge who is by way of being a legal consultant.

One of the charms of the book is the way that the author does not immediately reveal little details that come up, in passing as it were, later in the text – the teenager is black, for example, as is the retired judge; Bloch is a lesbian – things that are irrelevant against the work that Flynn and his helpers are involved in. Another charm is how the evildoers are disposed of at the end – unconventional but perfect, a reader will think.

I know I have said this before about particular books, but here is one that is hard to put away, perfect in a pandemic lockdown. It is interesting that his fellow thriller writers are fulsome in their praise for Cavanagh. Lee Child, Ian Rankin and Michael Connolly are among those who do not hold back in their praise, though I particularly like the comment from ‘our own’ Adrian McKinty, ‘Steve Cavanagh must have sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads … in exchange for becoming one of the world’s best crime writers.’ I agree.

LILY. By Rose Tremain. Chatto & Windus 2021. 274 pp. $32.99

Here is a book to delight, a story that promises tears from even the most cynical reader. Set in mid-nineteenth century England, it is the story of a newborn infant left outside a London park. She loses a small toe to wolves before being found by a young policeman named Sam Trent who takes her to a home for foundlings. From there she is fostered to a family in Suffolk where she lives until being returned to the home on her sixth birthday.

She is given the name Lily Mortimer, the surname in recognition of one of the founders and patrons of the home, a Scottish lady who, though with beautiful face, is unmarried because no gentleman would be interested in someone as deformed as she is. This is Victoria’s England, where men are still bosses, and women are chattels at best.

At the home, Lily is beaten and given the name Miss Disobedience, suffering in particular from ill-treatment by one of the nurses. The story is told throughout in her voice, and on the opening page, we learn that she has killed someone, but as the story progresses we understand that she has been so badly treated by the people she meets that there would be appear to be no shortage of people she might have murdered. 

The story moves back and forth in time, covering her four happy years with the Suffolk family, her horrible treatment at the foundling home, her work with a maker of fashionable wigs and her happy contacts with the constable who saved her life, now a superintendent. Because she is the speaker, the language is mild and often emotional; apart from Trent, there are no men in the story, except the general suggestion that they are abusers of women. Her best friend, the Irish girl Bridget O’Donnell, takes her own life in despair at the way she is treated in the home and there is a carefully-understated account of a particularly evil set of acts by one of the nurses. 

This is a completely delightful book, the writing soft and coaxing, reminding us that despite the cruelty and awfulness, there are many good people acting from concern for the children. There are more good characters than bad ones; the badness is the attitude of Victorian times towards children born out of wedlock and their mothers.

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