Darina Molloy provides a review of 14 books from Irish authors for our readers to enjoy.
By Claire Kilroy
When you consider the gap between Claire Kilroy’s last book (The Devil I Know, published in 2012) and this newest one, it definitely adds a layer to the reading experience of Soldier Sailor. The mother in the book, Soldier, is aptly named as she seems to find the experience of new motherhood every bit as destabilizing as a military onslaught. Embattled, frustrated and deeply envious of the baby’s father, who gets to leave the house every day for work, she is unable to work, unable to parse even the simplest thought. Life as a new mother is her entire reality and she cannot even see past the walls of the experience, never mind settle to creating an alternate world through her writing. When she meets an old friend in the playground, it serves as a much-needed reminder that she was once ‘other’ – that she did exist before this tiny despot began to pull her strings. It’s a reasonably accurate portrayal of the chaos of those first few days, weeks and months, where you’re not at times sure where the baby ends and you begin. Hopefully now that Kilroy has rediscovered her writing mojo, we can look forward to more.
Finding My Wild:
How a Move to the Edge Brought me Home
By Kathy Donaghy
Journalist Kathy Donaghy starts this memoir meditation with an apology of sorts. She’d always dreamed of writing a book, she says, but she imagined it as a novel. In a world full of memoirs, she muses, do readers really need to hear from her? As she rhapsodizes about her Donegal childhood, however, and identifies the importance of place and landscape and the outdoors in her life, the reader walks the shore and the woods with her. She threw herself into college life in Dublin until, as she puts it, she “got stuck.” Fast forward a few years and she is a busy journalist in the capital, married to another journalist, and the parent of two small boys, Donaghy began to feel stuck again and yearned for the “different life” she knew the family could have in Donegal. She describes it as listening to her inner voice, the one that told her what she needed to do to be happy – the inner voice we all have, but tend to ignore when it doesn’t suit us.
The Half Moon
By Mary Beth Keane
Malcolm is the charismatic barman in the Half Moon, a neighborhood bar in a small town in suburban New York. After his boss retired, he over-extended himself to buy the bar but is determined to make a go of it. His wife Jess, an attorney, is the earner in the family but doesn’t know the full extent to which he has committed to the bar. They always thought they’d have plenty of time for children, but are now having to resign themselves to those plans not working out. When Jess moves out, Malcolm figures it’s only temporary, but it doesn’t take him long to wake up and realize the true extent of the problems in his marriage. Another great read from Mary Beth Keane – author of Fever and Ask Again, Yes – the U.S. author with strong County Mayo and Galway roots.
By John Banville
Certain books just have a way of transporting you to a different time and place, and author John Banville neatly pulls off this time travel trick in his latest crime novel, The Lock-Up. The book starts with a post-war Alpine encounter, and when the action swiftly moves to 1950s Dublin and the discovery of a young woman’s body in a car lock-up in the inner city. The woman, to all intents and purposes, has died by suicide. But Quirke, the often cantankerous pathologist (played by Gabriel Byrne in the TV adaptation) disagrees with the initial verdict and identifies foul play. From there, we follow Quirke and Detective Inspector Stafford as they try to get to the bottom of what happened to the dead woman. Her sister, a newspaper reporter in London, travels home to find out what they’ve learned. When we learn that the dead woman had links to a wealthy German family in Co. Wicklow, the opening chapter of the book starts to make more sense. But it is in his traversing of 1950s Dublin alongside Stafford and Quirke that Banville really transports the reader. A must-read for fans of crime fiction and Irish literary fiction alike.
The Mess We’re In
By Annie Macmanus
Orla Quinn couldn’t be more ready for her new life in London. After her parents split up, she and her sister were determined not to engage with their father’s new partner. Moving away is one way Orla can ensure that distance. Plus she’s fixated on getting a start in the music industry. She has a demo CD, but she’s more interested in producing than in creating her own music. While waiting for her real life to start she’s juggling part-time jobs and partying a lot. Living in Kilburn with her best friend and a band called Shiva, Orla can only watch enviously as things seem to be going well for the band. Meanwhile, the constant party lifestyle is taking its toll on relationships in the house, and things might be starting to crumble. A vivid picture of the lives of 20-somethings in Ireland and London.
No One Saw a Thing
By Andrea Mara
Sive is in London for a few days with her two young daughters and baby son. Her husband is having a reunion with a close group of friends and she and the kids have tagged along. When on her way to meet one of the group, her daughters jump on a Tube just as the doors are closing and Sive is left behind with the baby. She panics but hopes someone will get the girls off the train at the next stop and heads to meet them there. But there’s only one child waiting for her at the stop and nobody on the train seems to have noticed what happened to her other daughter. What initially seemed like a straightforward accident is now starting to look a lot more sinister. And Sive can’t help but wonder about some of the strange looks she’s seen exchanged between members of her husband’s friend group. Is there any chance that one of them might know something about where her child is? After a very promising and tense start, the end fizzles out somewhat as the scenario becomes less believable.
The Polite Act of Drowning
By Charleen Hurtubise
From 1950s Dublin to 1980s Michigan, we’re certainly travelling all over the place this month – the joys of having a great Irish library on your doorstep! Like John Banville, Charleen Hurtubise also has a knack for bringing the reader with her to a very particular time and place, and also for getting inside the head of a 16-year-old girl who is only just beginning to realize that her path in life may not always be easy. Joanne Kennedy often seems considerably younger than her years, and she unfortunately leaves herself wide open to unkindness, such is her hunger to find a friend who will understand her. When she witnesses a drowning in the local lake, she doesn’t appreciate how the tragedy will create ripples in her own family. She also doesn’t appreciate that her new friend Lucinda is not necessarily the best person to have in her corner. The sticky heat of that pivotal summer, the beautifully drawn awkwardness of teenage longing, and the underlying hurt and betrayal all combine to fashion a story that grabs hold from the very beginning. A most enjoyable read.
By Catherine Ryan Howard
Catherine Ryan Howard is the queen of the twisty, dark journey so it’s oddly appropriate that her newest psychological thriller begins with an encounter on a twisty, dark road. What do you do when you are convinced the Gardai are never going to find your sister? She’s been missing for an age, and you – her sister – are utterly convinced you are her best chance. So, you put yourself out there at night and hope that the same monster might stop to pick you up. At least then you might have a chance of finding out what happened to your sister and to all the other missing women in the area. Loosely inspired by, but bearing no real resemblance to, the Irish women missing in the so-called Vanishing Triangle, the book examines the effect such disappearances have on those left behind and the frustration of investigating officers with very little to go on. It’s a sobering read.
The Red Bird Sings
By Aoife Fitzpatrick
I have to admit to a slight eye roll on reading some of the glowing reviews for Aoife Fitzpatrick’s debut novel but consider my cynicism well and truly parked. The Red Bird Sings is as joyous and lush a read as I’ve come across in quite a while. Based on a real-life murder trial (many podcasts to come, I’m sure!) in 1897 West Virginia, it is a glorious tour de force – a gorgeous and moving tribute to the power of the dead woman, her steadfast friend, and her bereft mother. Zona Shue hasn’t been married long when she is found dead at the bottom of the stairs in her house. Her friend Lucy has long been suspicious of Zona’s new husband Trout – she has seen his controlling ways even as everyone else praises his good nature and his devotion to his new bride. When Trout eventually does stand trial for the murder, most of the locals are firmly on his side, including everyone in Zona’s family bar her mother Mary Jane. Convinced that Zona is talking to her, Mary Jane only manages to estrange herself further from her family, and the entire town is convinced that she is only fit for the asylum. It wouldn’t be a Virago Press title if it didn’t feature strong women from first to last, but there isn’t a cliché in sight. We’ll be watching eagerly to see what Aoife Fitzpatrick does next.
The Last Days of Joy
By Anne Tiernan
What is it that makes a book about a dysfunctional family so enjoyable? Do we read it quietly glad we’re not quite that awful? Or is it just a chance to vicariously enjoy fictional friction that doesn’t have repercussions for the reader? The Tobins, while mostly outwardly successful, are hiding deep hurt. The book starts with their mother’s attempt to end her life, which doesn’t go quite as planned, leaving her in a coma. As the siblings gather around her hospital bed, they reflect on all the ways she messed them up. Conor, the oldest and a high-achieving public figure, doesn’t have the wit to distinguish between his love for his charity and his love for the media and public attention it ensures. Middle child Frances has always strived for perfection – in her marriage, in her relationship with her daughter, in her daughter’s athletic achievements. But now she’s having a wobbler, and perfection has never seemed so unattainable. Baby Sinead, meanwhile, hasn’t managed to overcome ‘difficult second book’ syndrome, but submerges herself in alcohol so she doesn’t have to think about it. There are interspersed musings from their mother, Joy, as her thoughts and memories coalesce in a big knotty mess. At the warm heart of the book are three damaged children, who just happen to be adults now. Based on this very enjoyable debut, I think we’ll be hearing a lot more about Anne Tiernan, sister of comedian Tommy, in years to come.
In a Thousand Different Ways
By Cecelia Ahern
Alice is eight years old when she starts to see the colors. Arriving home from school one day with her little brother Ollie, she panics and dials 999 when she sees her mother blue in bed. But Alice’s mother isn’t dead after all, it’s just that the little girl has started seeing people in terms of their colors. She begins to see the best in people … and the worst. She knows exactly what everyone around her is feeling at any given time, and it’s exhausting. As she grows up, dealing with some of the overwhelming emotions she witnesses begins to take its toll on her and she desperately looks for ways to protect herself. If that means keeping people at arm’s length, then so be it, she reasons. After all, for the little girl who had to grow up far too fast because of her home situation, protecting herself has always been second nature.
By Disha Bose
For a change, I’d love to read a book about an influencer whose reality matches what they post on social media day in, and day out. The ‘looks-happy-but-is-really-miserable-inside’ trope has been a bit done to death at this stage, but maybe that’s because that’s what the lives of social media influencers are ‘really’ like! Ciara is a case in point. She struggles to bond with her children, and doesn’t seem to have any time for her husband, but her carefully curated content paints a picture of an altogether perfect existence. Her friend Mishti hasn’t been warm since she left her native Calcutta, and her loveless marriage has certainly done nothing to rectify that. She’s grateful for Ciara’s friendship, but also feels very much on the periphery of life in Cork. Lauren, on the other hand, is relatively happy in her home life, but can’t resist the odd snipe at Ciara’s ‘perfect’ posts, which leads to her being ostracized and pilloried publicly. When Ciara is found murdered at home, there are plenty of people who probably had good reason to want her out of the picture. But would any of them have actually killed her? Funnily enough, the whodunnit is the least important part of the big reveal – the main raison d’être of the book seems to be a social commentary on lives lived publicly vs privately.
There’s Something I Have to Tell You
By Michelle McDonagh
There’s something so intrinsically Irish about Michelle McDonagh’s debut novel – whether it’s the death by slurry tank, the appearance-conscious mother-in-law or the abuse cover-up peppered throughout. Set in the fictional town of Glenbeg in her native Galway (McDonagh now lives in Cork), the book starts with and is centered around the deaths of Jimmy Kennedy and his wife Ursula in their slurry pit. Their family are shocked by the sudden deaths, and even more so by the intensive Garda investigation that follows, focusing in turn on various members of the family. Everybody loved Jimmy is the local consensus, shared by surviving family members. But his wife Ursula was a different kettle of fish altogether and she specialized in falling out with people, whether they were related to her or not. McDonagh hones in on the pressures of working for a family business, and the vagaries of life in a small Irish town where it feels at times as though everybody knows your business. It’s about the whodunnit, for sure, but it’s more about the why that leads up to the fateful discovery. An entertaining page-turner and a solid debut from an author we’re sure to hear more from.
Poor: Grit, Courage, and the Life-Changing Value of Self-Belief
By Katriona O’Sullivan
It’s very hard to look at the smiling young schoolgirl on the cover of Katriona O’Sullivan’s memoir and then read the litany of horrors contained within. Not that Poor is the kind of book to drag you down – on the contrary, O’Sullivan’s good humor and determination throughout has the reader rooting for her and thrilled when things finally come good in her life. But the misery inflicted by her drug-addicted parents and their resulting utter neglect of their children is rage-inducing at times. When seven-year-old Katriona is raped by a ‘friend’ of her father’s and finally tells her mother, the damaged woman can only reply: “Yeah … well, he raped me too.” There are brief stints in care, which Katriona loves, as she has plenty of food, comfortable clothes and a warm place to sleep. There are inspirational teachers also, one who teaches her how to wash and supplies her with enough clean underwear, and one who encourages her love of English. She falls into the Trinity Access Programme almost by accident, but it turns out to be the making of her. Given where we are now, with rising levels of homelessness, addiction, poverty, and long queues for food in O’Connell Street nightly, Poor feels more relevant than ever.