Three New Irish Women Writers

Book reviews by Frank O’Shea

A CROOKED TREE. By Una Mannion. Faber 2021. 323 pp. $19.50

Una Mannion is an American writer. In acknowledgements at the end of this wonderful novel, she thanks her seven sisters and brothers: Grainne, Maeve, Brian, Kieran, Deirdre, Aideen and Siobhan. Not much American about those names and indeed, the author now lives in Sligo.

The story is told in the voice of 15-year-old Libby Gallagher, the middle child in a family of four girls and a boy. Their Irish father has recently died and their mother tries to get away from the kids as often as possible, probably to a new boyfriend – though that is never formally stated. Driving home from a family outing, 12-year-old Helen annoys her mother so much that she is kicked out of the car and told to walk home. She hitches a lift from a young man but jumps out of his car when he starts to abuse her.

Her injuries are predictable and she should be seen by a doctor or a hospital, but Libby decides not to do that, because it would get their mother into trouble. She doesn’t even tell her older siblings and even though her best friend Sage is a doctor’s daughter, she refuses to consult him either. The novel basically is based around the effects of this decision.

The setting is rural Pennsylvania, where the children’s father worked as a gardener for some years. From him and from her own research, Libby has learned a great deal about trees and wild plants. She and Sage have made a kind of hiding place which they use for drinking and taking occasional drugs; this place will have a vital role in the final chapters.

The other main character in the story is a young man Wilson McVay who drives a motorbike and is regarded by people in the locality as being a little mad. Libby in particular is wary of him and is annoyed when he is invited to come to their house, first to cut their lawn and later to visit other members of the family. He and a friend learn who the man was who abused Helen and they visit him in his town some distance away to beat him badly. The second part of the story deals with Libby’s efforts to deal with this man who comes to their neighbourhood after some time in hospital.

This is first and foremost a story about families and how internal disputes do not affect the love and loyalty which members have for each other and for their parents. The participants appear to be living on the side of a hill. There is a lot of scampering up and down, sometimes through snow and indeed the book would benefit from a little map that might indicate where the main characters live in the locality.

At times slow and a little ponderous, the action speeds up towards the second half of the story and Una Mannion is a writer to be watched.

WHILE SHE SLEEPS. By Arlene Hunt. Hachette Books 2022. 345 pp

Arlene Hunt is a new name to me. She lives in Dublin and this is her twelfth novel, released in this country by Hachette Australia. Set in Dublin, it is a detective novel, all the principal characters being Gardai, either at Sergeant or Inspector rank.

A young woman named Jody Kavanagh is assaulted in her home and spends the length of the book in a coma in hospital. Inspector Elliott Ryan is in charge of the case and is given a young sergeant named Nola Kane as his assistant. Both have problems in their own lives, Ryan recovering from a serious fall and Kane moved from Homicide where she hit another Garda, but was found to be without fault.

The two do not get on well, Ryan being slow and methodical while Kane is fractious and makes up her mind early as to who bashed young Jody. To add to their difficulties, Ryan is trying to work on a case from twenty years earlier which he is convinced he got wrong. It takes some time for the two detectives to work together, but predictably that happens before the case is solved.

It would be nice to think that the story is in some way connected with the drug problems in Dublin, but in fact the story could be set anywhere. Descriptions are kept to a minimum and the story is carried mostly in dialogue and interviews. The reader is more interested in the various aspects of the investigation than in any reflection about modern Ireland.

The book would be perfect for a long weekend, because it does have a certain compulsion to read on rather than reflect. Such a speedy reading would also be helpful because it becomes difficult to keep track of the large cast of characters – even overnight you may forget who that person is and what her relationship is with the other characters.

The book could also benefit from a more finicky sub-editor, both in the aspect of English expression and in loose ends or inconsistencies that occur in more than one place. 

AS YOU WERE. By Elaine Feeney. Vintage 2020, 392 pp. €17.95

The first-person narrator in this scatty book is published poet Sinead Hynes. She is in a six-bed ward in a hospital in Galway, but we are at page 217 before we are told she is there for cancer treatment. At the end, she manages to go home with her husband, though we are not sure what happens after she gets home.

The book consists of a series of separate stories of all the inhabitants of the ward. They are cared for mainly by a Polish man named Michal and an Australian nurse named Molly Zane. ‘Ya know, ya rilly need to start to think about some treatment, darl … or at least chat ‘bout it …look, see, I’m here any time. I’ve taken on so many shifts, ya’ll see me all the time. ‘K?’ she said, leaning over me with a syringe.’ 

Margaret Rose Sherlock has trouble with her husband who is living with another woman. One of her daughters becomes pregnant and she manages to have her sent to Birmingham for an abortion. Jane Lohan is an older woman in an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s disease though she seems able to recall many details of her former life. There is a complicated story about Patrick Hegarty and his daughter Claire who seems to reside permanently in the ward.

But the principal story is that of Sinead and her husband Alex. He is annoyed that she did not tell him that she had terminal cancer. Her three boys at home do not play any part in the story, but towards the end Alex spends most of his time in the ward with Sinead.

The narrative consists of a series of stories, some from the distant past, each focusing on one of the patients. The writing is modern and trendy and more than a little annoying. Here, for example, is a description of someone’s husband:

His parents had accumulated all their life, cars, children, potted plants, life-insurance policies, golf clubs, secret savings plans, short mid/long term, enemies, safeguards, boarding schools, first-aid books, home insulation, lamps, crystal, deep pile carpets, Rolex watches, diamonds with big claw settings, holidays, frosted-glass doors, perfect gardeners, jumpers to throw over your shoulders when a breeze came, best lawn food, fridge cleaners, everything matching, no books, no clutter and because of their drive to accumulate things, he wanted nothing. Nothing.

The book was shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize in 2021 and has a number of pieces of fulsome praise from people like Marian Keyes and Roddy Doyle. But in truth, it requires a great deal of perseverance and when you are finished, you would be entitled to wonder if it was worth the effort. 

Frank O’Shea is a member of tthe Tintean edicorial collective.

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