New Irish Fiction

Book reviews by Frank O’Shea

THE ECHO CHAMBER. By John Boyne. Doubleday 2021. 421 pp. $32.99

John Boyne writes serious novels. He sets his stories in Tsarist Russia and Hitler’s Germany, on the Bounty and in the American civil war. Serious, thought-provoking stories with little room for frivolity or lightness; big books too, though his most successful was The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, a mere 200 pages. Now, with his latest book, Boyne has written the Funniest Book of the Year. Leave those capitals please, because this is a genuinely laugh-out-loud book.

It takes a while to realise what the author is doing – after all, this is someone who writes serious books. Even after you meet a character named Beverly Cleverley, you are not sure. Beverly’s husband is George, ‘the fourth-highest paid presenter on the BBC. One of the few television presenters over the age of 50 without a criminal record.’ Their three children are Nelson (named after Mandela), Elizabeth (named after Elizabeth Taylor – the writer, not the actor) and Achilles. All three are thoroughly modern, too young to have heard of the Berlin Wall or John Lennon or Bobby Sands.

Each of the two parents is carrying on an extramarital affair, Beverly with a Ukrainian dancer, her partner on Strictly Come Dancing. George’s bedmate is a psychiatrist who will in time take on Nelson as her how-did-that-make-you-feel patient. All, parents and offspring, are hooked on modern technology, Twitter and Facebook and video games. Elizabeth is determined to be what is called an influencer, the kind of thing that helped the Kardashians become obscenely rich. Meanwhile, young Achilles is making lots of money befriending middle-aged men whom he will accuse of sexual misconduct if they don’t pay him a number of thousands of pounds.

The book is structured in chapters, each of which deals with one of the five Cleverleys in turn. It is almost as if there are five individual stories, with some cross-pollination, leading to the final chapters when the author manages to have all five arrested by the police for different offences.

George’s problem is typical of one of the things that the book is about. The receptionist at the office of his solicitor used to be Aidan, but decided to change sex and is now called Nadia. His BBC employer explains that ‘you can’t say that he just looks like a girl. There is no he. There’s just a she. And she doesn’t look like a girl, she is a girl. You need to think before you speak these days, George, or they’ll come after you.’ And come after him they do, so that he is soon the target of Wokesters and POOTs. Those latter are the ‘Permanently Outraged of Twitter.’ That the word happens to be the surname of a recent Belfast politician is of course a coincidence.

To describe this book as a satire would be to do it a disservice. You have to imagine the author as a kind of malevolent genie, looking down with great glee on a world which has gone crazy, mainly as a result of the proliferation of mobile phones and their various applications, marvelling at ‘the obsession of narcissistic morons with too much time on their hands.’

There are some technical references which were over the head of this pensioner, grateful that he is too stupid to know the difference between Twitter and Tik Tok, Facebook and Instagram. Genuinely funny, fiendishly clever, this is the kind of book that would make a wonderful text for senior English classes in our schools.

WE ARE THE BRENNANS. By Tracey Lange. Macmillan 2022. $32.99

The Brennans are a New York Irish family, originally from Belfast. The only girl among the four kids is named Sunday, and since she is possibly the central character in this story about an Irish Catholic family, her name can make for confusion at times. She has moved to Los Angeles, where she is struggling. Following her involvement in a car accident, her oldest brother Denny comes to bring her back to New York, where the remainder of the action takes place.

We learn that the family has secrets, some of them loosely connected with the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Denny has opened a successful bar in the Bronx, ‘the name front and centre over the door: Ó’Braonáin’, complete with apostrophe and síne fada. He and his partner Kale Collins are opening a much bigger place in Mamaroneck, some miles away, but are over their heads trying to deal with finance.

We get to know the Brennans very well, but the reason for Sunday originally leaving New York is not revealed until near the end. By then there is another secret they will have to deal with.

The front cover describes this as a ‘New York Times Bestseller’ and indeed you can find a most favourable review in that publication. But the truth is that this is a slow and often tedious read, requiring some patience and a deal of perseverance. The final few chapters liven things up more than a little, but by then many readers may have lost stamina.

THE NIGHT CALLER. By Martina Murphy. Constable 2021. 392 pp. $32.99

The outpouring of praise for the West Australia police after Theo Smith was rescued was Australia realising how much they appreciated the work of the keepers of law and order in our society. It was also a reminder that much police work is boring, mundane record-keeping, analysing, checking and re-checking. That is exactly the kind of police work that is the subject of this book, except that we can replace ‘police’ with ‘Gardai’.

The central character and first-person narrator is Detective Sergeant Lucy Golden. She had been sent to the wilds of Mayo after her husband was convicted of criminal activity and she was slowly winning the support of her superiors and fellow-officers. Her sidekick is Dan and they are the two main investigators into the murder of a young teacher whose body is found in a bog in Achill Island. The lead investigator is an Inspector with the unlikely name of William Williams, who is addressed as Cig (Short for Cigire, and pronounced Kig).  

Add to these Matt, Larry, Ben, Jim, Mick, Susan, Jordy, Ger, Kev, Pat and you have most of the Gardai involved. Most of them never get a surname, but they all contribute with either CCTV or interviews or door-to-door or car rego or some other of the mundane tasks that are needed. Add Joe the pathologist, Lugs the vlogger, Stacy the reporter, jogging friends Liam, Sarah and Paul, brothers Sam and Ken, Clive the private investigator, Delia the school principal, Lucy’s mother Margaret and son Luc and you have an idea of the difficulty you may have in keeping everyone in their rightful place in the story.

At this stage, you must add the victims Lisa, Pearl and Emma. They all do volunteer work for a helpline for kids in care and each answers the appeal of a kid named Sam who tells that he is being beaten by his parents. Where the WA police needed 18 days to find Theo, the action here takes place over seven days. The killer is cleverly hidden until towards the end, by which time the Gardai have removed most of those on their list of suspects. You, the reader, may be so confused by all the possibilities and all the characters that you have to just forge ahead with not always full understanding of what is happening or why.

Possibly because most of the action takes place on Achill Island, this book won widespread praise in Ireland. The author has written a number of books under the name of Martina Reilly, and this is her first with the Murphy surname. The Night Caller requires some patience and forbearance, but is a worthy addition to Irish crime fiction.

THIS HAPPY. By Niamh Campbell. W & N 2020. 309 pp. $32.99

There is something off-putting about a book written entirely in the first person singular. “I went … I thought … I said … I remember …” When the subject is the person herself and her thoughts and feelings, it makes for slow reading. Her name is Alannah, aged 30, and she is four months married to a man ten years older and who has other children.

We never quite learn the husband’s name, because our heroine is obsessed with Harry, also an older man, with whom she had an affair some years earlier. She painfully and interminably re-lives events from that affair. It started in London and was continued over a three-week period in a house near Drogheda. Alannah appears to be an academic and possibly a snob and will leave the reader wondering why one would want to waste time on following her ruminations.

As with many modern books, there are no quotation marks, so that one is never sure whether a character is speaking or just thinking aloud. Here is an example from page 87: Well, I tried to be light-hearted, you are my friend. The absence of quotations marks means that this has more than one meaning. You may be pleased to hear that I managed to reach page 87, but the truth is that I gave up shortly after.

Frank is a member of the Tintean editorial collective.

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