Book Reviews by Frank O’Shea
IN KILTUMPER. A Year in an Irish Garden. By Niall Williams and Christine Breen. Bloomsbury 2021. 279 pp. h/b $39.99
The title does not lie: this is a book about a garden. So you wonder whether you can give time and perhaps effort, to almost 300 pages about a topic that is for many of us at once mundane and boring. But the name of the writer is enough to encourage you and it will be time well spent.
Niall Williams has written one brilliant novel after another, each Irish without any kind of sentimentality or bravura. We learn here that his New York-born wife is also a writer and that this is in fact the fourth book they have written together. The hero in the book is the earth, not the planet but its lowercase version, and how it responds to affection and care. ‘That every year the dreamt garden will be better, can be improved just a bit, seems to me a good small hopeful thing to think of, these days especially. (My mind being the way it is, it is only a short step for me to think the plants, in first waking underground, are thinking the same: this year the gardener will be better.)’
The time period suggested in ‘these days’ is the calendar year of 2019 with a special chapter added to take into account the pandemic of the year that followed and how it affected even an isolated little parish in County Clare. The sections of the text written by Christine almost all deal with the plants and the cycle of life in the 34 years the couple have lived in Kiltumper.
Throughout the book, we learn that Niall writes during the morning. In the early part of the year he is waiting on the release of his most recent book This is Happiness. It is well received – including by this reviewer (‘the author is speaking slowly, in no hurry with his story’) – but he says that he never reads his reviews. In November, he learns that it has been selected as one of the books of the year in New Zealand and that a magazine in rural America has given it similar plaudit. “To think of the words written here in this farmhouse now in those distant places on either side of the world makes me feel a deep sense of gratitude, a kind of writer’s blessing.” As he is going to bed that night, his wife tells him that the prestigious Washington Post has also named Happiness as one of their books of 2019.
In Kiltumper is a kind of paired autobiography. We learn about Christine’s fight with cancer and the final visit to their oncologist in Galway where they are told that she is clear. ‘We hug each other. I am flooded with a gratitude that could be translated as a sense of blessing, and all those days when I thought Chris would not make it, they rise and float away from us now.’ There is a short account of the writing classes that Niall runs. The first one had 12 participants, two from Cork, the remainder from outside Ireland, from all over the world.
There is one element that runs through the book: the installation of two wind turbines a few hundred metres from their home and garden. They are not happy with them and the noise they make, but especially the destruction that was necessary in order to get them set up on the top of Tumper hill. The road had to be made two metres wider – hedges and walls knocked down, bends removed – so that individual parts of the huge constructions could be brought to their final destinations.
Niall Williams comes across as inherently reclusive. ‘He is so earnest’, his wife says. Most writers these days have other employment and have a wide media presence. What you find here is a man who writes in the morning, then joins his wife in the garden in the afternoon. If that morning writing eventually appears in the form of a new novel, that will be a blessing. In the meantime, this is a fine tribute to living in the Irish countryside.
DID YE HEAR MAMMY DIED? By Séamas O’Reilly. Fleet Books 2021. 225 pp. €15
He was five years old, the ninth in a family of 11, when his mother, still in her forties, died from breast cancer. He was too young to cry or mourn or to understand the implications of what had happened; as far as he and his two younger siblings were concerned, she was away and would soon return. At the wake, he busied himself ‘skipping sunnily through the throng’ to greet mourners with the smiling question that gives this lovely book its title.
The Reilly family property was part of the border between Derry and Donegal, officially on the Northern Ireland side. Unusually these days, the author spells his name with the síne fada and –as at the end, the correct Irish language version, rarely used nowadays. Now in his mid-thirties, married and a father, he gave up his job as a journalist with The Observer and The Guardian to take on the work of writing this memoir. The result is a beautiful tribute to both of his parents.
The story is a sad one of course, but he manages to write in a way that takes the mind of the reader away from the desolation of a young family and in particular of the man who finds himself raising 11 children while continuing his work as an engineer in public works. There is an underlying sadness in the family, but you imagine that they are survivors and that much of this comes from the examples of their parents.
We do not learn what the children are now doing, but we do learn that a number of them progressed to university. Their mother had “a work ethic that makes my head hurt. The kind of woman who, while balancing the demands of eleven kids and a full-time teaching job, decided to do a German GCSE from scratch. At night.” We are told that the reason for this was to help her daughter who, at that time, was also studying the subject. “The fact that she earned a higher mark than Sinead at the end of the year was unremarked upon.”
There are many accounts of a wonderful mother, but almost inevitably the hero of the story is the father. Somehow, he kept the young family together; the normal rivalries as well as his easy ways of dealing with his children are treated lightly. There are no “bad guys” in this book: even the Troubles of the last 20 years of the century are treated with a gentle touch. We are told that many of the Apprentice Boys and their families turned up to the Mass and funeral, remaining outside during the service, and then joining the cortege to the burial.
In the end, what remains with the reader is not the sadness of the story but the elegance of the prose. In the acknowledgements, O’Reilly thanks a friend who referred to his “disgraceful use of adjectives”, a feature of his style which this reviewer enthusiastically endorses. Here he is speaking about his mother’s friend Anne who had “a superhuman propensity for calm. … She was as steady as rain and as implacable as taxes; the kind of strong, rooted Donegal woman you could imagine blithely tutting if her hair caught fire.” Or here is Sister Angela, “a lovely, burly woman from the West of Ireland who had a smile that could melt glass and forearms that bent steel.”
There are times near the end when you may wish he would get on with his story, but in truth this book is like a prayer, to be said slowly and with attention to the words. Reading it is a reminder that, however much you may have loved your parents, you should have been more inquisitive, learned more of their story.
Frank is a member of the Tintean editorial collective.