BOOK REVIEWS: The intrigue of Irish books

By Ken Goodwin

Pictures by Bill Heaney

I was browsing in Hodges & Figgis in Dawson Street, wishing that there was as good a bookshop in Scotland. I have the same feeling when in Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop in Galway. Bibliophiles’ paradises.

No. 2 in Hodges & Figgis bestsellers was an edition of Poetry Ireland featuring essays about Seamus Heaney. It was just as well that I had hand luggage only – I could have filled a wheel barrow with books, even though books are more expensive in the Euro zone.

I asked myself yet again why it is that Ireland produces so many great writers. What is it in the culture and history that makes it possible? And how is it that a book about a poet (even one of the greatest of our lifetimes) makes it as a best seller? The year before a new edition of “The Dubliners” made it to no. 1. Hmmm.

So I found myself playing that game beloved of weekend newspaper supplements. Best books of the Year. And I wasn’t surprised to find Irish books dominating the top ten.

Colm Tobin’s “Nora Webster” was a favourite. There are some writers for whose next book you can hardly bear to wait. After the marvellous “Brooklyn” and the intriguing “The Testament of Mary”, I was in the bookshop on the day of publication – and was not disappointed. This is a beautifully observed story of bereavement and coming to terms (or not) with loss. Nora is a youngish widow who lives in a small town somewhere south of Dublin. Toibin writes a plain lucid prose. The details of ordinary life accumulate without flourish or overstatement. It develops as a lovely humane portrait of a woman – not always an easy woman (“She’s a demon” her sister says) – making her own way. It is also a portrait of life in a small Irish town. Toibin was brought up in Enniscorthy.

And earlier in 2014 we had Sebastian Barry’s “The Temporary Gentleman”, another in the sequence of novels based on the McNulty family. Jack is the temporary gentleman, a character based on Barry’s grand-father. The book opens with a bravura chapter about the torpedoing of the frigate on which Jack is sailing to Ghana at the start of the Second World War, and goes on to follow his career in diplomacy and drink as well as the ruin of his marriage. Sebastian Barry was at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last August. He was hugely entertaining. He read – or rather performed – the opening chapter with energy and flair, evidence of his work in the theatre. Then he spoke with candour and compassion about the family history that became the basis of the story. He was also funny and modest. When his interviewer called the session to a halt a great “AW” rang round the marquee.

The economic recession has introduced a bleak dark vein to contemporary Irish writing, it seems. Paul Lynch’s “Black Snow” is a rather grim pastoral story about rural life set after the Second World War. It begins with the burning of a barn in which one of the farm workers is killed. The rest of the story deals with the way that the farmer and his family cope with the aftermath. It does not have a happy ending. Nor does Rob Doyle’s “Here Are The Young Men”. This is set in Dublin in the mid-noughties and follows a group of young men leaving school and about to move on. It’s a world of alcohol and pills and ruined lives. Quite graphic and gripping. It, too, doesn’t end well.

On a relatively lighter note, Joseph O’ Connor’s “The Thrill of It All” is the most enjoyable account of life in a rock band (“The Ships in the Night”) in the 1980s and since. It is also about love and friendship and what can go wrong. Hugely entertaining about popular music. Apparently admiration for Patti Smith is something of a litmus test of taste.

I would like to write something about Eimar MacBride’s “A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing” which won awards in 2014. However I have been stuck at page 67 for several weeks so am not well placed to offer an opinion. This is to say nothing against that it tackles the awfulness of child abuse in a way that made me think of Beckett’s brilliant and unsettling rhythms.

It was a good year for non-fiction too.

“Lines of Vision – Irish Writers on Art” is a delightful book which is accompanied by an exhibition in the National gallery. Over 50 Irish writers – novelists, poets, playwrights – have contributed pieces about a favourite painting in the NGI. Poems, stories, essays. I made a special trip to Dublin to see the show for a second time.

Meantime, I am wading through volume 3 of Samuel Beckett’s Letters. It is, as were the previous volumes, a beautifully produced book, with scholarly notes to support the letters. I continue to be intrigued and bewildered by Beckett’s brilliant, bleak vision. I can’t say that the letters have helped me understand any better the mysteries of “Waiting for Godot” or “Endgame” or “Krapp’s Last Tape” or the novels, but I do enjoy my bewilderment. Beckett emerges as a thoughtful erudite humorous compassionate and modest man.

(A friend reminded me of the story about Beckett in which he and a companion were on their way to watch cricket at Lord’s. It was a beautiful day. Sun shining, birds singing in the trees. His companion said “Isn’t it great to be alive?” To which Beckett replied “Well, I wouldn’t go as far as that.”)

My non-fiction equivalent of “A Half-Formed Thing” is Kevin Birmingham’s “The Most Dangerous Book” – about the battle to publish James Joyce’s “Ulysses”. I will finish it, honest. Which is more than I can say about “Ulysses” itself. Oh dear.

And next in the pile of non-fiction – R.F. Foster’s “Vivid Faces” about the revolutionary generation 1890 to 1923. I aim to finish it before Easter 2016. By which time I hope that Colm and Sebastian will have published their next novels …

I haven’t even mentioned Ann Enright, Donal Ryan, Kevin Barry, Claire Keegan, Michelle Forbes, Justin Quinn, and…..

Write on!

The intrigue of Irish books

By Ken Goodwin

Pictures by Bill Heaney

I was browsing in Hodges & Figgis in Dawson Street, wishing that there was as good a bookshop in Scotland. I have the same feeling when in Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop in Galway. Bibliophiles’ paradises.

No. 2 in Hodges & Figgis bestsellers was an edition of Poetry Ireland featuring essays about Seamus Heaney. It was just as well that I had hand luggage only – I could have filled a wheel barrow with books, even though books are more expensive in the Euro zone.

I asked myself yet again why it is that Ireland produces so many great writers. What is it in the culture and history that makes it possible? And how is it that a book about a poet (even one of the greatest of our lifetimes) makes it as a best seller? The year before a new edition of “The Dubliners” made it to no. 1. Hmmm.

So I found myself playing that game beloved of weekend newspaper supplements. Best books of the Year. And I wasn’t surprised to find Irish books dominating the top ten.

Colm Tobin’s “Nora Webster” was a favourite. There are some writers for whose next book you can hardly bear to wait. After the marvellous “Brooklyn” and the intriguing “The Testament of Mary”, I was in the bookshop on the day of publication – and was not disappointed. This is a beautifully observed story of bereavement and coming to terms (or not) with loss. Nora is a youngish widow who lives in a small town somewhere south of Dublin. Toibin writes a plain lucid prose. The details of ordinary life accumulate without flourish or overstatement. It develops as a lovely humane portrait of a woman – not always an easy woman (“She’s a demon” her sister says) – making her own way. It is also a portrait of life in a small Irish town. Toibin was brought up in Enniscorthy.

And earlier in 2014 we had Sebastian Barry’s “The Temporary Gentleman”, another in the sequence of novels based on the McNulty family. Jack is the temporary gentleman, a character based on Barry’s grand-father. The book opens with a bravura chapter about the torpedoing of the frigate on which Jack is sailing to Ghana at the start of the Second World War, and goes on to follow his career in diplomacy and drink as well as the ruin of his marriage. Sebastian Barry was at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last August. He was hugely entertaining. He read – or rather performed – the opening chapter with energy and flair, evidence of his work in the theatre. Then he spoke with candour and compassion about the family history that became the basis of the story. He was also funny and modest. When his interviewer called the session to a halt a great “AW” rang round the marquee.

The economic recession has introduced a bleak dark vein to contemporary Irish writing, it seems. Paul Lynch’s “Black Snow” is a rather grim pastoral story about rural life set after the Second World War. It begins with the burning of a barn in which one of the farm workers is killed. The rest of the story deals with the way that the farmer and his family cope with the aftermath. It does not have a happy ending. Nor does Rob Doyle’s “Here Are The Young Men”. This is set in Dublin in the mid-noughties and follows a group of young men leaving school and about to move on. It’s a world of alcohol and pills and ruined lives. Quite graphic and gripping. It, too, doesn’t end well.

On a relatively lighter note, Joseph O’ Connor’s “The Thrill of It All” is the most enjoyable account of life in a rock band (“The Ships in the Night”) in the 1980s and since. It is also about love and friendship and what can go wrong. Hugely entertaining about popular music. Apparently admiration for Patti Smith is something of a litmus test of taste.

I would like to write something about Eimar MacBride’s “A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing” which won awards in 2014. However I have been stuck at page 67 for several weeks so am not well placed to offer an opinion. This is to say nothing against that it tackles the awfulness of child abuse in a way that made me think of Beckett’s brilliant and unsettling rhythms.

It was a good year for non-fiction too.

“Lines of Vision – Irish Writers on Art” is a delightful book which is accompanied by an exhibition in the National gallery. Over 50 Irish writers – novelists, poets, playwrights – have contributed pieces about a favourite painting in the NGI. Poems, stories, essays. I made a special trip to Dublin to see the show for a second time.

Meantime I am wading through volume 3 of Samuel Beckett’s Letters. It is, as were the previous volumes, a beautifully produced book, with scholarly notes to support the letters. I continue to be intrigued and bewildered by Beckett’s brilliant, bleak vision. I can’t say that the letters have helped me understand any better the mysteries of “Waiting for Godot” or “Endgame” or “Krapp’s Last Tape” or the novels, but I do enjoy my bewilderment. Beckett emerges as a thoughtful erudite humorous compassionate and modest man.

(A friend reminded me of the story about Beckett in which he and a companion were on their way to watch cricket at Lord’s. It was a beautiful day. Sun shining, birds singing in the trees. His companion said “Isn’t it great to be alive?” To which Beckett replied “Well, I wouldn’t go as far as that.”)

My non-fiction equivalent of “A Half-Formed Thing” is Kevin Birmingham’s “The Most Dangerous Book” – about the battle to publish James Joyce’s “Ulysses”. I will finish it, honest. Which is more than I can say about “Ulysses” itself. Oh dear.

And next in the pile of non-fiction – R.F. Foster’s “Vivid Faces” about the revolutionary generation 1890 to 1923. I aim to finish it before Easter 2016. By which time I hope that Colm and Sebastian will have published their next novels…..

I haven’t even mentioned Ann Enright, Donal Ryan, Kevin Barry, Claire Keegan, Michelle Forbes, Justin Quinn, and…..

Write on!

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