New Irish Fiction

Book Reviews by Frank O’Shea

THE MURDER RULE. By Dervla McTiernan. HarperCollins. 2022. 292 pp. $32.99

This may be Dervla McTiernan’s best book yet. While her earlier ones were based in the Galway area where she had attended university, in this one she moves the story to America. She is a lawyer, so it is not surprising that she writes so knowledgeably about the law. That she takes on the American system may have been a challenge, but she seems to have carried it off with honours.

The main characters are Hannah and her mother Laura. The latter has written a diary to explain her growing up and the troubles she got into. She is now an occasional alcoholic and her daughter decides to move from Maine to Virginia where a man is on death row. He is being defended by a group of well-meaning legal folk who object to the death penalty, but Laura convinces Hannah that the man deserves to face this ultimate punishment.  

By coincidence, when I started this book, I had recently read a new one by Australian writer Felicity McLean. The publicity described it as a modern retelling of the Ned Kelly story, though in fact, it had little relationship beyond occasional phrases taken from the Jerilderie Letter. The villains in that story were the local police in a small town north of Sydney, in particular their Sergeant. In McTiernan’s book, the baddies are again the police, most dramatically the sheriff in the small Virginian borough of Yorktown.

Hannah goes there to work with The Innocence Project, a group of lawyers and students who try to review cases that have gone through the full legal process, resulting in long sentences or the ultimate one in Virginia. Hannah is determined to undermine the work of the Project in the case involving her mother’s former partner, but is slowly persuaded to change her opinion. Much of the action of the story involves the various legal matters around that and other cases, but moves into dramatic actions towards the end.

If the best test of a book is whether it can pull the reader into a story and keep him/her there until the very end, then McTiernan scores an A-plus. Entries from Laura’s 1990s diary are interspersed with the main story, set in the modern-day. Hannah is not a particularly likeable character, but she is certainly resourceful and the reader’s sympathy is with her throughout. While the final scenes in the courtroom may stretch your credibility, by that stage you are so involved in the story that you will hardly notice.

A native of Cork, now resident in West Australia, this may be the book that gets Dervla McTiernan known in America.

THE SLOWWORM’S SONG. By Andrew Miller. Sceptre. 276 pp. $32.99

To say this book is different would be an understatement. It is a story told completely in the written words of a former British soldier who has fallen on hard times. Add the fact that there is no dialogue and you have a book with much more to it than might appear by noting the number of pages.

Stephen Rose is from an English Quaker family. His grandfather spent time in Wormwood Scrubs for his objection to the First World War; his father refused to be conscripted for the next big war and spent time doing compulsory forestry work. So young Stephen was surprised when there was no objection to him signing up. After training and a few years in Germany, he was posted to Belfast. The book describes an event that happened there and the way that it affected Stephen. Now, more than thirty years later, he is asked to return there to front a Commission.

That action on the streets of the Ardoyne is described in some detail, not in a way that excuses what happened or tries to explain it away. But it affected the rest of Stephen’s life, much of which was spent in shelters or squats or under bridges. His marriage fell apart and he lost contact with his only daughter Maggie. The book is his life story as he explains it in writing to Maggie, in the hope that it will bring them back together.

The story is in the present tense, with frequent reprises of events from 1982 in Belfast. His account of his time there as a twenty-one-year-old soldier has a strong feeling of authenticity. This is what it was like for the squaddies in ‘a solid Republican area and a place we never passed through without some expectation of harm … where it would not be difficult for a gunman in one of those countless windows to settle his sights on the back of your head.’

Although what happened in Belfast is the core of the book, it takes second place to the attempts of the adult Stephen to make sense of his life. He finds help in the friendship and quiet of Quaker meetings and in his uncertain employment in a garden centre. At the height of his alcoholism, Maggie, then aged thirteen, decided that she did not need a father. Now she is unhappy that he chose to write to her rather than tell her his story face to face, and this causes another relapse, after which he is fortunate to be given a place in a rehab centre in Bristol.

His reflection on Northern Ireland, Bloody Sunday, ‘the thing itself and the lies afterwards,’ are particularly notable. ‘… over there … the men who really got stuck into the killing game, they rise and rise and nobody dares whisper car-bomb or knee-capping or sectarian murder to them. They’re groomed now and smile like babies. They’re sitting in clean rooms. Every day they’re quietly rewriting history.’ When he goes back for the Commission, he is uncomfortable on the streets, looking for ‘the quickest route, the safest route. The fear was always of finding yourself out on your own, of looking down and looking up again and no sign of the others, of people seeing that and passing the word along.’

This is a deeply poignant story. The characters are completely human, keen to help each other, a story of redemption and the trials of those seeking redemption. There are no ‘baddies’ in the story. Towards the end, the portion spent in the rehab centre in Bristol is the kind of writing that persuades you that there are good people in the world. A story about hope.   

THAT OLD COUNTRY MUSIC. BY Kevin Barry. Canongate 2021.  174 pp. $19.99

Short stories are an acquired taste. Just when the writer has set up a situation, you find a full stop and the start of a new story. The entries in this collection by Kevin Barry have been published elsewhere, in The New Yorker and The Irish Times among other places. So it is not surprising to find four full pages of commendations from various sources, all pointing out that the writing is funny or fresh or poignant or …

In one of the stories, we read  ‘Here’s an old joke. Cause of death: the West of Ireland.’ Probably not fair to that region, but the fact is that the stories are set in Sligo and Leitrim, Limerick and Donegal, though those places are unlikely to experience an upsurge in visitor numbers from people who have read the stories.

A reader is allowed to have a favourite story in the collection and in my case it was ‘Roma Kid,’ the kind of story that is almost a full novel in its own right. The girl involved is a nine-year-old refugee who finds herself in charge of four younger brothers somewhere in the Irish midlands. With not a word of English beyond ‘Yes’ and ‘no’, she takes off on her own and manages to reach a wood somewhere in the Ox Mountains. Here she is cared for by an old hermit who teaches her English from his large collection of books. Throughout the story, she encounters only kindness from those she meets. It is a deeply emotional story, told with care and avoiding any attempt to entice compassion from the reader.

In another story, a local man living in isolation falls in love with a Polish girl working in a local café. Their romance is hindered mostly by his fear of committing himself to her and when she leaves to return to Poland, he is devastated. That story ends in, what is for this collection, the unusual situation of everything turning out well for the protagonists.

Because of where the stories are set, it is not surprising that there is one about the sean nós singers of the West. One of them is on his deathbed when he sings the 42 verses of an old song, which the writer, a Dublin academic, spends many nights transcribing from his phone. ‘All of human cruelty was contained within it but something too, I thought, of what love means.’ That is a theme found in a number of the stories.

The nature of short stories is that you read only a few at a time, probably keeping a regular book for your two-hour reads. By coincidence, at the time I was reading the Barry book, my other was a new novel on the later years of the English writer Thomas Hardy, whose novels were located in the English equivalent of the West of Ireland and whose characters would have been at home in the Barry book.

Frank is a member of the Tinteán editorial collective.