New Irish Fiction

Book Reviews by Frank O’Shea

APRIL IN SPAIN. By John Banville. Faber 2021. 355 pp h/b. €17.99

‘Terry Tice liked killing people. It was as simple as that.’ How can you leave a book that starts like that? The fact that the author is Booker-prizewinner John Banville is an even greater incentive to get stuck in and ignore things like lockdowns.

The ‘April’ of the title is both the northern hemisphere end-of-spring month and the name of a young woman assumed to be dead. The story moves backwards and forwards between northern Spain and Dublin, with a few stops in London where our friend Terry Tice can improve the techniques of his chosen profession and just as significantly, his clever avoidance of anything that might cause the police to even come across his name, never mind his fingerprints.

The story is more than a little convoluted with a wide range of characters. However, they are introduced slowly, allowing the reader to easily remember who is who. It turns out that our friend Mr Tice is a minor character, though we are a little surprised to learn that he is Irish, a graduate of a West of Ireland orphanage run, of course, by the Brothers.

The main characters are Quirke, his daughter Phoebe and his wife Evelyn. They sound like ordinary workingclass Dubliners and we are surprised to learn quite a few pages later that he is in fact the state pathologist and she a well-known psychiatrist with a thriving practice. They are in Spain for a holiday when they come across, quite by accident, a young woman, also a doctor, who is supposed to have been killed some years earlier, her body never found by the police.

Different chapters are devoted to each of the characters, their coming together at the end well signalled and satisfactorily dealt with. Insofar as there are baddies, they would be some senior figures in the Irish government, one a Minister and one a top civil servant. The action appears to be set some time in the early 1950s, when events that took place thirty or more years earlier are still significant.

But the main delight of the book is the writing. Here is a genuine master of his craft, thoroughly enjoying himself. Every character is introduced slowly, great care being given to describing his or her appearance. Here is our top civil servant, for example. ‘Ned Gallagher resembled some big-shouldered forest-dwelling creature, one of those apes, say, with overhanging brows and a patch of white fur on their chests, that flung themselves on their knuckles along the forest floor. However, there was nothing apish about him when it came to handling whatever clown happened to be the Taoiseach of the day.’ 

The story is almost finished when Detective Inspector St John Strafford is introduced, that extra ‘r’ causing problems for everyone. He is the central character in Banville’s previous book, Snow, but has only a minor role here. However, he would be just the kind of character that may have the reader searching his local bookshop or public library for that book.

A superb piece of writing and a great story.

ANN DEVINE. HANDLE WITH CARE. By Colm O’Regan. Transworld Ireland. 356 pp. €11.99

This is the second book in which the narrator and central character is Irish woman Ann Devine. All the characters from her previous book are found here also – husband Denis, son Rory, niece Freya and mother Peggy. The setting is again the midland village of Kilsudgeon, this time facing the prospect of having its post office closed.

As in the first book, the local TD Patsy Duggan has a central role, only now his function as chief fixer in the community is being challenged. He has sent young Rory to Brussels, hopefully to learn the ropes, with the intention that Patsy himself would go to the EU parliament and Rory take over his Dail seat. Ann Devine is far from happy that her son should be so closely associated with Patsy and she joins another group set up to save the post office.

This group is led by a young woman named Iseult, returned from America, a wannabe actress with a small role in the unfinished film that was the basis of the first book. Now she sees herself as the natural opponent of Patsy, each of them trying to coax Ann and her Tidy Towns group to their side. Iseult’s group is joined by various troublemakers – I happened to be reading this at the time that the CFMEU headquarters in Melbourne was attacked by extremist anti-vaxxers – including a character named Toirdealbhach, whose forte is Celtic religion and anti-emigrant rhetoric.

The other element in the story is an account of the visit by Pope Francis to Dublin, and the difficulty that the locals have in getting tickets for his Mass in the Phoenix Park. Freya manages to get 100 of those by submitting applications in the names of various feminist warriors of the past and present. Patsy manages to get a special carriage added to the train to take the Kilsudgeon faithful to Dublin for the Mass, which is not as well attended as the church authorities had anticipated. This, by the way, sets the action as taking place in 2018.

The final CFMEU-style clash at the post office involves all the main characters, except the Pope. The picture on the cover is of Ann escaping out a back window so that she is not seen by the media as one of the protestors.

The other element in the story is the role played by mobile phone apps, particularly WhatsApp. Readers not familiar with that aspect of modern life may be surprised at how advanced Ireland is in adopting those apps. There are other parts of the story, notably a reprieve of the marriage of Ann’s parents and the problem that she is having with her boss in her work as a health aid to people in their homes.

There are times here where the action drags more than a little, and the reader will need to constantly remind herself who the different family members are, not to mention their partners and the families of their partners. That being said, the ending is satisfactory, and when the Irish Times is quoted on the cover as saying that it is ‘very funny’, they are not exaggerating.    

THE MISCREANTS. By Christopher Hawkes. Glimmer Press 2021. 263 pp. $32.99

Harry and his older brother Ethan have different fathers. They are children when their mother takes her own life, an action that affects each of them for the rest of their lives. The story is taken up some fifteen years later, following first Harry and then Ethan.

When we meet Harry, he is in Canada, out of work and dependent on his girlfriend. He receives a mysterious story from Ethan and sets out to find him, first in London and then in Brighton where he is at university. He chases after him to Europe then Denmark and finally Norway. His journey is described rather like a travel document – every town and street and major building described – one that would benefit greatly from a map. Eventually he lands on a beach somewhere at 67 degrees north.

At this stage we leave Harry and take up Ethan’s story. This involves a completely new cast of characters, part hippy, part end-of-days cult. It is not clear where we are. Reference to ‘leisure crossings to France’ suggests somewhere on the south coast of England, but on the next page, it seems we may be in Norway, so the reader can decide to settle on that. A quick check of the names of places mentioned in the text shows that we are on an island near the Arctic circle.

Ethan’s group is far from well organised. Only one of the half-dozen or so is in employment, the others eking out sparse food from harsh soil and managing lots of alcohol and weed. Two of their members are killed by Ethan; at the end, he and the two dead have conversations. The two brothers don’t ever meet; at the end, Harry is shown as acting father for Ethan’s child and about to become a father again to a child by the same woman.

Perhaps that is the point of the story, the way that ‘history’ is repeating itself as it were in the family. But the truth is that a reader needs to be patient to try to work out the way the story is going. There is the very modern and annoying trick of moving backwards and forwards in time and place, often with little indication of where we are. At one stage, we read a story possibly written by Ethan and sent to Harry but, far from explaining things, it entangles the plot even further.

Much of the story is told in dialogue which is a pity because the writing is quite polished in places. ‘The train hammered on, soporific in its industry,’ we read approvingly. Or as a travelogue through Canada, the UK, Denmark, Sweden and Norway, ‘The city quickly diminished, concrete conceding to ploughed fields either side of the track, the long furrows like wet corduroy.’

An earnest first book by a new Melbourne writer.

BEAUTIFUL WORLD, WHERE ARE YOU? By Sally Rooney. Faber. 2021. 337 pp. $29.99

The first reaction when you finish this book would be ‘Whew. I did it.’ I need to tell you this because it is more than likely that you won’t finish it, that it will be like Ulysses or Finnegans Wake, a decoration on your bookshelves to show that you once had ambition.  

At this stage, it becomes difficult to say what the book is about. It is a novel, implying some kind of story that unfolds in a sequential way, but in this example, the reader loses the story early on. There are four main characters. Alice is a successful writer who begins a sexual relationship with Felix, a man working in a job that involves palettes. Her friend from university days is a country girl named Eileen who works as an editor in publishing – ‘moving commas around’. She is re-discovering her love for Simon, who was some years ahead of her at her school in rural Ireland.

Even now, a year after it was first released, you are likely to see the book in Dymocks or Readings or Easons, decorating a shelf possibly with the number 3 or 5 beside it. It has been massively successful – it even has its own entry in Wikipedia – but it is difficult to understand why. There is a great deal of sex activity, but surely we have gone past the days when that sold books. The characters live off the various apps on their mobile phones and worry endlessly about their love lives. Set in Dublin and nearby countryside, the characters are modern 30-year olds; that Simon still goes to Mass is regarded as a big deal, and indeed Jesus gets a few mentions. 

Between the chapters in which something actually happens, there are long emails between Alice and Eileen, ruminations on French art or modern living or aesthetics. ‘Traditional marriage was obviously not fit for purpose’, that kind of thing. Or ‘Everyone is still single at thirty and lives with housemates they never see.’ If this book is representative of how today’s young Irish people act and behave, then heaven help us. Ireland can forget about saints and scholars: the former do not appear here and as for scholars, thank goodness for mathematics which the young cannot damage.

The book doesn’t use old-fashioned things like quotation marks, and for large sections, there are unbroken, page-long paragraphs mixing description with conversation between the characters. No doubt, this is modern style, but surely publishers should have some responsibility in this matter.

Since you are unlikely to finish the book and indeed are not particularly urged to try to do so, let me tell you that in the final chapter, we learn that Eileen is pregnant and will keep the baby. Now you know the story!

Trite, uninspiring, a book about nothing.

Frank is a member of the Tintean editorial collective.