Darina Molloy reviews recently published books by Irish authors
In Ordinary Time: Fragments of a Family History
by Carmel McMahon
In putting her ‘fragments’ of family history to paper, enveloped in and book-ended by snippets from her own life, and relationships both good and bad (alcohol being the most destructive), Carmel McMahon has created a gorgeously moving narrative, strongly reminiscent of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. She holds things up to the light – her dead older sister, her brother’s mental health crisis, her own alcoholism – and examines them alongside, among other things, the legacy of St. Brigid, and the harm done to Irish immigrant women in New York City by an obstetrician who would become famous for his surgical techniques. And more. Much, much more. It’s a difficult book to describe, but as a reading experience it works beautifully. McMahon’s ability to question, microscopically examine and ponder draws the reader in and we find ourselves quietly wondering along with her. She doesn’t always have the answer, but she asks a lot of excellent questions. Now returned from almost twenty years of life in New York, she lives in North Mayo. “It is something … to stand, feet planted, and know that, at least in this moment, you are exactly where you are meant to be.”
Old God’s Time
By Sebastian Barry
Tom Kettle hasn’t been that long retired from An Garda Siochana (the Irish police force), but in many ways he comes across as a man much older than his years. Whether it’s the losses he has suffered or the horrors he has seen in his career that weigh so heavily on him, we’re never sure. He’s living somewhat reclusively now, aware of his immediate neighbors, but having very little to do with them. When two young detectives from his old division turn up at his door with questions about a decades-old case, Tom is caught between wanting to be of help and feeling that he’s being blamed for something. At times acutely aware of what’s going on, but occasionally stymied by confusion and a vagueness on the finer details, he is often caught in a kind of netherworld, where neither he nor the reader is entirely certain as to what has just transpired. It has the effect of slightly wrong-footing you while at the same time adding to the overall aura of mystery and shadow. It’s a disturbing read, too: Barry doesn’t mince words with his graphic and upsetting account of clerical child abuse. But it’s a book that is worthy of a second reading, or more even.
My Father’s House
By Joseph O’Connor
If Sebastian Barry’s new book focuses on the horrible inhumanity of some so-called men of the cloth, Joseph O’Connor’s My Father’s House is a celebration of all the immense good perpetuated by Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty during his time in Vatican City. Loosely based on the incredible and impressive true story, the novel is centered around O’Flaherty’s involvement in helping those who have escaped from the Nazis to find a safe passage out. Vatican City being neutral and independent, the German occupiers have no say there, not for want of trying. The unlikely group of friends and compatriots, including Mayo-born singer Delia Murphy (the wife of the Irish Ambassador to Rome), risked their personal safety time and again to help those in a less fortunate position. O’Connor builds the tension to a crescendo as O’Flaherty embarks on a Christmas mission of incredible audacity. The smatterings of Italian throughout add to the atmosphere, and as a reader you hold your breath willing the mission on to a successful conclusion. If, like me, you hadn’t been aware of the story before now, this beautifully written novel is an educational eye-opener. It is, apparently, the first in a trilogy, so we’ll have to wait and see what happens next.
By Ciara Geraghty
You’d have to feel sorry for poor Agatha Doyle in Ciara Geraghty’s latest outing. There she is, minding her own business at an author event, when someone (a man) cuts across her at a panel event and she is videoed standing up for herself in a fairly forthright way. Overnight, she becomes the poster girl for menopause which she really didn’t intend or want to happen. But her publishers and her agent are delighted, and she agrees to some of the media requests, partly to deflect attention from the fact that she’s stalled on her newest book. She’s stalled because she’s been struggling with some stuff at home – her two adult sons have moved back in and her widowed father is temporarily in situ while he renovates his own house to make it nicer for his new partner. With Agatha’s mother not that long dead, she is conflicted to say the least. Plus her lovely husband Luke seems to be permanently distracted at the moment, and Agatha is convinced the newest staff member in is restaurant is to blame for that. A whirlwind of a read – a bit like Agatha herself!
In the Dark
By Claire Allan
Seven years ago, Nora Logue went for a walk in the woods with her little girl Daisy. She came out of the woods alone with no memory of what had happened. In the intervening years she has met someone and had another child, but the memory of Daisy and the hope that she will see her again some day are the two main things that keep her putting one foot in front of the other. There are online conspiracy theorists and true crime fans who are quick to insinuate that Nora knows exactly what happened to Daisy and that she’s guilty of instigating her daughter’s disappearance … or worse. When a documentary film maker reaches out to try and revisit Nora and Daisy’s story, the online chatter starts up again – with a whole new emphasis. This is the seventh psychological thriller from Derry author Allan – she also writes under the pen name of Freya Kennedy.
A State of Emergency: Ireland’s Covid Crisis
By Richard Chambers
It may be far too soon for most readers to even contemplate immersing themselves in a book about Ireland’s Covid experience and in a world where we seem to be lurching from one emergency to the next with little or no respite in between, we can certainly understand if you want only escapism in your current reading choice. Having said that, if you had to read a book that encapsulated the last couple of years of life in Ireland (spanning roughly from January 2020 to July 2021) this would definitely be a great starting point. Richard Chambers, who reported nightly on Virgin Media, and fast became a must-follow on Twitter, has created a fast-paced and very readable account of our coronavirus country. From the very first days that word started to travel in scientific circles, through the early decisions made by a government forced to scramble into action by NPHET, to the hindsight realisation that mask-wearing was not introduced quickly enough, Chambers covers it all. Amazingly, since we know how things ended (well, so far), he even manages to do it in a way that keeps you utterly engaged and racing to the conclusion.
A Woman in Defence: A Soldier’s Story of the Enemy within the Irish Army
By Karina Molloy
If your impression of rigorous army training comes from what you’ve seen in the movies with sadistic sergeants bellowing instruction at exhausted recruits, then you won’t be entirely shocked at the picture Karina Molloy (no relation) paints of her trial for the Army Ranger Wing (Ireland’s equivalent to the SAS). But the other picture she paints of sexual harassment and misogyny is an altogether different and very unsavory tale. Her 30-plus year career as a soldier in the Irish Defense Forces, among the first batch of female recruits (they didn’t even have boots for women at the time!) saw her being the first woman to achieve a host of firsts. With stints in Lebanon, Eritrea and Bosnia among others, she is still the most senior female NCO (non-commissioned officer) with the most overseas tours of duty. The mental caliber which probably attracted her to the army in the first place stood to her through the years as she endured the many indignities (and outright assaults) that were to follow. After serious surgery and a corresponding surgical examination of her options, Molloy’s decision to finally leave the army came in 2012. Eight years later, following the lead of other former soldiers, she submitted a protected disclosure to the Department of Defense about her individual experiences and the Women of Honor group was born shortly after. A very readable book telling an important story.
Juno Loves Legs
By Karl Geary
Juno and Legs are two Dublin kids who rely on each other entirely – if they didn’t have each other then who would truly see them for who they are? She’s tougher, scrappier and his playground protector but his adoration of her is the only bright light in her fairly miserable existence. Her dad drinks too much, and her mother wants her to be someone she’s not. Separated for a while after a violent incident, the two come back together in their teens after much trauma. For a glorious interlude, they sing, dance, smoke, laugh and live like there’s no tomorrow. But misery is never too far from the door. A devastating and heart-breaking novel, featuring a cold hard look at homelessness, abuse, homophobia, poverty, parental neglect, alcoholism and whatever you’re having yourself. The only shining light is the sanctuary of the library and a caring librarian. But it’s definitely not for anyone who thought Angela’s Ashes was grim!
Leave a Reply