New Irish Fiction

Book Reviews by Frank O’Shea

GRAND. Becoming my mother’s daughter. By Noelle McCarthy. Penguin NZ, 2022. $35

An author’s note at the end of this book tells us that it is a true story. That is a surprise, because it reads like a novel, with villains and heroes as you expect in any fiction. Not villains so much as miscreants or scoundrels perhaps, and the main offender is the subject of the book, the author’s mother, variously known as Caroline or Caro or Mammy.

We learn about her on the opening page. ‘Mammy was a werewolf, it only took one sip of drink to change her. The first mouthful of the first pint of Carling, all the evil came out dancing.’ The person to suffer for this change was as likely to be the barman or the taxi driver or an innocent passer-by as a member of her family. The author is third of her children, the first of whom died in infancy and the next was sent for adoption. Noelle is the first of what we used to call her legitimate children; her three siblings and her father all feature at different times in the story.

The book is mainly concerned with the relationship between the mother and daughter, the secondary title being a good description of what it is about. The actual title is a word well known to Irish readers, a cover-all term for everything from excellent to tolerable. Irish idiom, particularly of the Cork and Kerry type, appears throughout, often – very often -accompanied by words that we used to regard as rude.

The author was born on Christmas Day, hence her given name. As a child, she was as often taken to one of the local Cork city pubs as to the local playground. But when she reached the age of about 12, she began trying to take a hand in curbing her mother’s drinking – emptying a bottle of vodka down the sink or trying to steal some units from the various six packs that Mammy brought home. In time, she started consuming these herself, with the result that by the time she reached adulthood, she was an experienced drinker.

Noelle was a good student and earned a university degree, before taking off around the world. She ended up in New Zealand, where she began to get work in radio, and earned some success. Her main problem was any kind of job that would require her to get up before midday. She was almost 30 before she accepted that she was an alcoholic. Those chapters are compelling reading; they read like horror fiction, and it is a great surprise to find out at the end that they are for real.

Only after she has managed a few years without drink does she look for and find a man prepared to accept her with her failings. They call their baby Eve and there are chapters where the child is almost the centre of the story. Noelle seems to return to Cork every year or two, where her relationship with her mother now involves the extra element of each of them having different opinions on the care of the little girl.

This is a wonderful story, in part because a reader can pretend that it is a work of imagination rather than fact. The author uses all the tricks of modern fiction, notably the  movement backwards and forwards in time. And the change of place is not always signalled, so that it will help to realise that Hollymount and Blarney are suburbs of Cork, while Hopetoun and Grafton are on the other side of the world. By turns sad and uplifting, a story of deep love, often hidden under anger and meanness.  

IDOL. By Louise O’Neill. Bantam 2022. 303 pp. $32.99

Louise O’Neill comes from Clonakilty in West Cork. One of her earlier books, Asking For It was set among the senior students in a school in small-town Ireland. Her latest, Idol is again set among high school kids, this time in a small town near New York.

It is tempting to dismiss the book as low quality airport reading, and while that describes the book pretty accurately, the setting is as modern as it is possible to be, and the story does raise some important issues.

The book is really about and for today’s young women. The central character is 40-year old Samantha Miller, a successful author whose books ‘offer a new model of what it means to be a woman.’ At her book launches and special events, she addresses ‘her girls’, who receive her every pronouncement with enthusiastic approval. She has some three million followers on TikTok and Snapchat and Instagram. ‘I know what you are searching for, because I was searching for it too,’ she tells them. ‘It’s a difficult time to be a young woman. The world can seem such a frightening place, can’t it? We’re living in an increasingly divided country.’ She has to be careful of this last statement, because she realises that most of her followers are white and many from the American bible belt, with everything it stands for.

Her smooth transition to fame is in danger of being cut short, however, when Lisa, a former classmate and close friend, sends an email to her manager in which she reveals that she and Sam once had enthusiastic sex. At the end of the email, she claims that in fact the sex was not consensual, that she was in effect, raped. If this were to get out, Sam’s career would be ruined, and for the remainder of the book, she tries to get Lisa to change her claim.

She returns to the small town in which she grew up and in which Lisa and other girls and boys from her schooldays are married and settled down. We meet Becky – ‘My. Name. Is. Rebecca’ – and Josh and Brandon, former high school friends and rivals, enthusiastic participants in their day in drink and drugs and sex, but now grown into respectable members of society.

As the story progresses, we get to learn more and more about Sam and who she really is, behind the public champion of the post-MeToo generation. She is the ultimate snitch with a capital B, a bully and a fraud, the slow exposé of her character managed with measured care. The author is careful to let us know when particular chapters are set, most of them in early 2022. The world of the airwaves is of course central to the story, though the reader may sometimes wonder what the codes mean. ‘I DMed you on IG a few times,’ she tells Becky on one occasion.

The ending is gruesomely satisfactory and while this is a book for the generation a few behind your reviewer, he is happy to recommend it.

LIFE WITHOUT CHILDREN. By Roddy Doyle. Jonathan Cape 2022. 177 pp. $29.99

Even if you are not a great lover of short story collections, you are allowed to make an exception for Roddy Doyle. The stories in this collection have the added attraction that they are all set in the early days of the Corona pandemic and they give an insight into how Ireland, or at least Dublin, coped with the problems that arose.

In the very last story, we meet a man from Longford who has decided to ignore the instructions to stay home and sets out to try to find his son in Dublin. This was at the very start of the lockdown and ‘there wasn’t a thing on the road. The rear-view was black, there was nothing behind him. He was on a straight stretch of the motorway. There wasn’t a taillight ahead for miles.’ The city was equally empty, except for a small group gathered outside a methadone clinic and some young lads on bicycles ignoring the lockdown. In recalled dialogue, the story audits the reason for the young man leaving home in the first place.

Another story has a couple recalling their early romance and ultimate breakup. The narrative takes the form of alternate paragraphs, some a few pages long, in which each of the two review the reasons for their breakup. It takes some time to understand the structure, each participant speaking in the first person so that the reader may wonder at one stage whether we are dealing with a same-sex couple. As with the previous example, the story has a kind of happy ending.

The longest story in the book has another couple, married twenty-six years, who have used the enforced lockdown to re-discover their romance. Their four daughters have left home and they discourage them from dropping by to visit. Instead, they use the unusual stratagem of imagining popular songs from their youth and early romance and using those to remind themselves of what they had lost by the work of raising their children.  

As to be expected from Roddy Doyle, these are very Dublin stories. Unlike some of his novels, they present the city and its inhabitants in a very human, almost sympathetic light. Different parts of the world dealt with the Corona outbreak in different ways, some more severe than others. These stories suggest that the Irish people took the problems quite seriously.

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