New Irish Fiction

Book Reviews by Frank O’Shea

FAMILY MATTERS. By Ellie O’Neill. Allen & Unwin 2022. 376 pp

Your Neanderthal reviewer was called to order recently by his fellow-editors for using a two-word expression for what Google defines as ‘literature that appeals mainly to young women,’ a term which is often used in a derogatory manner. Family Matters is an example of such literature but is eminently readable and indeed is recommended to our readers. 

The central characters are three generations of women in the McCarthy family in the fictional town of Ballyhay, two motorway hours from Dublin. The chapters of the book are rotated between each of the four in turn, with the action touching only occasionally, so that it is like reading four stories.

The oldest member, Evie, is a practising matchmaker, a woman who seems to have uncanny ability in telling when couples will be successful; that tarot cards are among her aides may cause a titter among the readers but it does not appear to take from her frequent successes. 

By coincidence, the youngest of her granddaughters, Rosie O’Shea is in a similar business, this time as part-owner and public face of a modern dating site. The site claims to use various algorithms to predict romantic progress and boasts that it takes sufficient data to predict one hundred percent success. She has to subscribe some thousands of euros for a ten per cent share in the company; unfortunately, it is a fraud, merely a way of capturing private data which is then sold on the market at profit. Rosie starts an affair with the man running the scam, only to find that after he disappears, she is left with the debts. 

Then there is her sister Mollie, six years older, mother of two young kids and convinced that her husband is cheating on her. 

The final member of the foursome is Yvonne, mother of the two girls and daughter of Evie. Her problem is that she has a condition that causes her to buy large amounts of often expensive clothing and other online ‘bargains’. She is managing the local McCarthy pub and is in trouble with the tax authorities as well as her own credit cards.

Because this is the kind of literature that Google says, ‘appeals mainly to young women’, we have a good idea how the whole thing will end up, so we are not expecting any earth-shattering ending. The book is saved, however, by its clever writing. Often funny, it is the kind of writing that draws the reader in and will often have him re-reading passages with gleeful admiration. The author is from Dublin originally, but has been living for some years in Geelong, Victoria.

RUTH AND PEN. By Emilie Pine. Hamish Hamilton 2022. 245 pp. $29.99

This is the kind of book that gives an uncomfortable reminder that you are old – and fair enough if you are. The two central characters who give the book its title are very modern women. Ruth is in her thirties, Pen is sixteen; they meet by accident at one point in the story, but in fact, the book is two separate stories, each devoted to one of the characters.

Ruth is a counsellor, a psycho-something one imagines. She shares her business with another woman, whose name escapes this forgetful reviewer. One chapter describes some of her difficulties dealing with a client named Ciara. However, Ruth’s main problem concerns her four unsuccessful attempts at IVF. After one of these, she becomes pregnant, but suffers a miscarriage at three months. Her husband is David and he wants her to continue the invasive and uncomfortable treatments.

The second woman is Pen. She is autistic and though her condition includes unusual insights and skills in some areas, she has predictable problems socially and at school. Her best friend is Alice with whom she is longing to begin a sexual relationship. Pen’s mother is Claire and she has a major part in the story also, but in truth the reader may find difficulty in keeping up with all the women and their very modern concerns – I haven’t mentioned Soraya and Jo and Sandy, although the last-named may be a man.

The action of the story takes place in one day in October 2019, some of it during a climate protest in central Dublin. The book will delight Dubliners, with so many streets and buildings around Trinity and Merrion Square and Stephens Green given prominence. A map would have helped.

An intense examination of the inner lives of the two main characters, the narrative takes a deal of patience.

THE ISLAND. By Adrian McKinty. Hachette Australia 2022. 375 pp. $32.99

This is a second review of this book. See also

Here is how it starts. Tom Baxter, an orthopaedic surgeon from Seattle, is determined to show his new wife and two children some koalas and other Australian wildlife. They are on a brief visit to this country and he is driving their hired Porsche Cayenne at 70 mph (this is written for an American readership) on a small island off Melbourne, ‘three miles wide and two from end to end.’ At 70 mph! He hits a young woman on a bicycle; he and his wife decide to try to hide the dead woman and her bike in the neigbouring long grass.

From here the story goes downhill. It turns out that the island in question, a few miles off Melbourne, is owned and run by an Irish family, named O’Neill. The matriarch, 74-year old Ma, makes the decisions for her sons and daughter; police are not welcome and there is no phone contact with the mainland. The Baxter family of four and a pair of Dutch tourists are captured and put through appalling treatment, during which the Dutch couple and Tom are killed. The others escape and try to hide on the small island. The O’Neills and their dogs have boisterous fun chasing them with mastiffs and rifles and four-wheel drives.

Tom’s wife Heather is the hero of the story, a kind of female Jack Reacher mixed with lots of the Corleone brothers. Her survival on the island and that of the two children, is literally beyond belief, even allowing for the permission that an author may have to use his imagination. That being said, her adventures draw the reader in, often accompanied with laughter at the impossibilities of her problems and the unlikeliness of her survival. Signs on, we don’t learn what happens to the O’Neills after the story ends.

Half a dozen times through the book, I found myself saying ‘unlikely’ or ‘inconsistent’ or ‘how did that happen?’ An example from later in the story will illustrate what I mean. Heather and the two kids have survived a murderous attack. ‘They drank and they were so thirsty that they finished the last of the precious water.’ Six or seven lines later, we read ‘Heather bathed her wounds.’ Is there an editor in the house?

The author admits that the book was written in a small New York city apartment during lockdown. He also thanks Salman Rushdie and James Ellroy for some of the ideas, so they can take some of the blame. As can the publisher for not providing a stronger editor.

In the past, in this and in other publications, I have given high praise to Adrian McKinty, particularly for his books set in Northern Ireland, and more recently for the excellent The Chain. This book will do little to enhance his reputation.

Frank is a member of the Tinteán editorial team.