New Irish Fiction

Reviews by Frank O’Shea

BREAKING POINT. By Edel Coffey. Sphere 2022. 357pp. $32.99

I might be tempted to describe Breaking Point as a woman’s book, except I realise that I would be assassinated by the PC crowd. So, here is my alternative: it is a very human story, the kind of thing that you could imagine happening to you – in fact, more likely to happen to a man than a woman.

The author is an Irish journalist, based in Galway who writes for various Irish outlets and works also for RTE. That being the case, it is a bit surprising to note that the story is set in New York. The central character is Susannah Rice, a paediatrician at a large hospital, writer and media star, well known as Dr Sue. Her husband is an engineer and they have two children, one aged four and the other, little Louise, six months.

Because this is New York, women do not have the civilised treatment that they get in countries like Ireland and Australia where it is assumed that maternity leave is a normal part of one’s work entitlement. America is one of the few countries in the world that does not have paid leave after a woman gives birth. When little Louise was born, Susannah arranged that it took place on Friday so that she could be back at work on Monday. Forward six months and she is so frazzled that she leaves the baby asleep in her car seat in the middle of summer. Some hours later, the child was dead.

Now the police become involved and she is charged before a jury with involuntary manslaughter and criminal negligence. The case is huge and I will not spoil the story by saying how it pans out.

At this stage, we learn that there is another tragedy from some years earlier. This involved the cot death of the baby son of Adelaide Gold and her husband Curtis. She is a reporter for the New York Times and blames herself for the death; as it happens, Dr Sue was the doctor who tried to revive that baby. A year later, Curtis commits suicide, and Adelaide leaves the newspaper to work as a reporter for CNN; not surprisingly, she is given the Dr Sue story and subsequent court case to cover.

This may seem like a flimsy reason for 400 pages, but the author works a strong element of social commentary, particularly in the American context. Here is Susannah’s husband explaining one element of the problem. He has been accused of being a misogynist. ‘The facts are, if you want to live in a house, drive a car, buy health insurance and have a baby, it is simply impossible to do it on one wage. That is the legacy of feminism.’ Ouch.

There is much to think about here: the trial-by-media coverage of the case, the sneering prosecuting barrister, the acceptance of the need for both parents to work, the way that we all do things we shouldn’t in order not to disappoint others. In many ways a sad story, but presented here in an almost understated way. A wonderful first book.

THE COLONY. By Audrey Magee. Faber 2022. 376 pp. $29.99

A tiny island off the west coast of Ireland. Just a big rock really, about five kilometre long and one kilometre wide, population 92 people in a dozen families. The main language is Irish, though the younger generation are bilingual. A most unlikely setting for a 400-page book, the action never leaving the island.

This is the second book by Wicklow writer Audrey Magee, a brave effort, given the size of book she chooses for the action and the small number of characters. The Gillan family consists of 15-year old James, his mother Mairéad, grandmother Bean Uí Néill and great-grandmother Bean Uí Fhloinn. Mairéad’s husband, father and brother have all drowned while fishing, leaving only their two brothers Francis and Micheál.

Into this extended unit comes an English artist Mr Lloyd, determined to paint the colours and the ‘raw, ragged beauty of the cliffs.’ In order to absorb the culture of the island, he insists on being brought from the mainland in a currach, a journey that does little for his temper and even less for his digestion. He is there only a few days when there is another visitor, a Frenchman named Masson who has taught himself Irish and is writing a thesis on the demise of the language. This is his fourth summer there and he is sufficiently well known to be called JP and, it appears, to take bed-comfort from Mairéad.

It is not much of a dramatis personae, and the action moves slowly. JP is unhappy that the Englishman is on the island, because it means that conversation must occasionally move away from Irish. One of the elements of his academic work is to examine how words or phrases make their slow way from English into Irish. The three Gillan males are bilingual, but the women either have no or very little English; to his annoyance, they have to revert to English or translate into that language whenever Lloyd is present.

Between the various chapters there are short accounts, rarely more than two or three paragraphs, describing an incident in Northern Ireland – the death of a Protestant at the hands of the IRA or INLA, the killing of a Catholic by the UVF or the UDA, the Mountbatten killing in Sligo or other atrocities involving the British army in Ulster. In time, these are briefly mentioned in conversation, with Francis clearly in sympathy with the IRA and trying to goad Lloyd about the English.

The other main thread in the story is the way that young James finds that he has talent as an artist. At first encouraged and helped by Lloyd, he is soon producing work of a high standard, the kind that his teacher says might be displayed with his work in London. We also learn in passing of the off-island, home lives of JP and Lloyd, neither particularly happy. At times, the reader may wonder where the story is going, but the ending is strong and completely consistent.

This is a most uncommon story, the method of telling equally unusual. Recommended.

THE CONFESSION. By Jo Spain. Quercus 2018. 432 pp. $29.99

We reviewed Jo Spain’s latest book Six Wicked Reasons in 2020 and gave it high praise. Enough praise indeed to have us searching for one of her earlier books, The Confession, published in 2018. Our reaction in this case is less fulsome.

The story is set in the noughties, covering the era of the Celtic Tiger and its downfall. Harry McNamara has set up a bank to take advantage of the property boom, extending his influence to Europe and earning the personal title of billionaire. Inevitably, some of his projects were of dubious legal competence and his bank came to grief. He, however, escaped any legal penalty, because he had carefully pulled back from his work as CEO to one of company chairman.

Harry’s wife is Julie, a young woman who has left rural Leitrim to study in Trinity and then work briefly as a teacher. On the surface, the marriage is a happy one, but she is drinking too much and he is obviously playing the role of Romeo around Europe. As the story opens, a stranger enters their house in Dalkey and attacks Harry with a golf club, leaving him in a coma.

The attacker is John Paul, JP for short, and he is the third element in the story. Originally from England, he and his sister have been abandoned by their mother and later by their drunken father with the result that JP feels responsibility for his sister. The day after the attack on Harry, JP walks in to a Garda station and tells them what he has done, claiming that he has no understanding of why he did it. Since he has spent some time in the care of psychologists, it is likely that his punishment will be no more than a short stay in the Central Remedial Clinic in Clontarf.

Garda sergeant Alice Moody is unconvinced and much of the story involves her efforts to find out what really happened and why. In the end, the reasons for the attack is worked out, not by Sergeant Moody but by Alice, who finds her own way of making sure that some form of justice is reached.

The story starts strongly, but soon descends into long and tedious accounts of the reactions of the three principal characters, Julie, JP and Alice. Explanations are given, but too many of them seem to rely on coincidence or accident, with the result that the reader quickly loses interest and patience. The author has a number of books to her name, but this one is not likely to have raised many new followers.

Frank is a member of the Tintean editorial collective