Reading Ireland Month: Erskine, O’Farrell, Quinn and Tóibín
Reading Ireland Month is hosted each year by Cathy of 746 Books. I’m sneaking in on the final day of March (there’s a surprise snow squall out the window as I write this) with four short reviews and feeling rather smug that my post covers lots of bases: short stories, a novel, a book of autobiographical pieces, and a poetry collection.
Dance Move by Wendy Erskine (2022)
The 11 stories in Erskine’s second collection do just what short fiction needs to: dramatize an encounter, or moment, that changes life forever. Her characters are ordinary, moving through the dead-end work and family friction that constitute daily existence, until something happens, or rises up in the memory, that disrupts the tedium.
Erskine being from Belfast, evidence of the Troubles is never far away. In “Nostalgie,” a washed-up rocker is asked to perform his hit song at a battalion’s party. A woman and her lodger are welded together by a violent secret in “Bildungsroman,” which reminded me of a tale from Bernard MacLaverty’s Blank Pages and Other Stories. “Gloria and Max” struck me most of all: a drive to a film festival becomes a traumatic flashback when they’re first on the scene of an accident.
Erskine’s writing is blunt and edgy, the kind that might be stereotyped as male but nowadays is also, inevitably for Irish authors, associated with Sally Rooney: matter-of-fact; no speech marks, flat dialogue and slang. A couple of other favourites: “Mathematics,” in which a cleaner finds an abandoned child in a hotel room and tries to do right by her; and “Memento Mori,” about two deaths, one drawn out and one sudden; both equally unexpected; and only enough compassion to cope with one. (Public library)
After You’d Gone by Maggie O’Farrell (2000)
In form this is similar to O’Farrell’s The Distance Between Us, one of my Reading Ireland selections from last year: short sections of a few pages flit between times and perspectives. (There’s also an impulsive trip from London to Scotland in both.) But whereas in her third novel I found the jump cuts confusing and unnecessary, here they just work, and elegantly, to build a portrait of Alice Raikes, in a coma after what may have been a suicide attempt. That day she’d taken a train from London to Edinburgh at the last minute, met her sisters at the station, seen something that threw her, and gotten right on a return train. Back in London and on the way to the shop for cat food, she stepped off the kerb and into the path of a car.
Scenes from Alice’s childhood in Scotland are interspersed with her love affairs; her parents’ disappointing marriage serves as a counterpoint to her great passion for John. The setup of three female generations in North Berwick and the question of sexual autonomy reminded me strongly of Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock.
This is a bold debut novel, refusing to hold readers’ hands through shifts from now to near past to further ago, from third to second to first person (even Alice from her coma: “my body still clings to life, and I find myself suspended like Persephone between two states … I am somewhere. Drifting. Hiding.”). Loss, secrets and family inheritance may be familiar themes, but when this was published at the millennium it must have seemed thrillingly fresh; it still does now.
I only have one unread O’Farrell novel awaiting me now, My Lover’s Lover. I’ll be saving that up, maybe for this time next year. Having not much enjoyed Hamnet, I’m disappointed that her forthcoming novel will also be historical and will probably skip it; I miss her stylish contemporary commentary. (Secondhand from a charity shop)
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl, ed. John Quinn (1986)
These autobiographical essays were compiled by Quinn based on interviews he conducted with nine women writers for an RTE Radio series in 1985. I’d read bits of Dervla Murphy’s and Edna O’Brien’s work before, but the other authors were new to me (Maeve Binchy, Clare Boylan, Polly Devlin, Jennifer Johnston, Molly Keane, Mary Lavin and Joan Lingard). The focus is on childhood: what their family was like, what drove these women to write, and what fragments of real life have made it into their books.
I read the first couple of pieces but then started to find the format repetitive and didn’t want to read out-of-context illustrative passages from novels I’d never heard of, so only skimmed through the rest. You can work out what Quinn’s questions were based on how the essays spin out: What is your earliest memory? What was your relationship with your parents? What was your schooling? Were you lonely? What part did books and writing play in your childhood? Distant fathers, a strict Catholic upbringing, solitude/boredom and escaping into novels are common elements. Some had happier childhoods than others, but all are grateful for the life of the mind: A solid base of familial love and the freedom to explore were vital.
The best passage comes from Seamus Heaney’s foreword: “The woman writer, like everybody else, is in pursuit of coherence, attempting to bring into significant alignment the creature she was and the being she is striving to become.” (Secondhand from Bookbarn International)
Vinegar Hill by Colm Tóibín (2022)
I didn’t realize when I started it that this was Tóibín’s debut collection; so confident is his verse that I assumed he’s been publishing poetry for decades. He’s one of those polymaths who’s written in many genres – contemporary fiction, literary criticism, travel memoir, historical fiction – and impresses in all. I’ve been finding his recent Folio Prize winner, The Magician, a little too dry and biography-by-rote for someone with no particular interest in Thomas Mann (I’ve only ever read Death in Venice), so I will likely just skim it before returning it to the library, but I can highly recommend his poems as an alternative.
There’s such a range of tone, structures and topics here. Bereavements and chemotherapy are part of a relatable current events background, as in “Lines Written After the Second Moderna Vaccine at Dodgers’ Stadium Los Angeles, 27 February 2021.” Irish-Catholic nostalgia animates the very witty sequence from “The Nun” to “Vatican II.” You can come along on some armchair travels: “In Washington DC,” “In San Clemente,” “Canal Water” (Venice), “Jericho,” and so on. The poems are based around anecdotes or painterly observations; there are both short phrases and prose paragraphs. The line breaks are unfailingly fascinating (any other enjambment geeks out there?). I particularly loved “Kennedy in Wexford,” “In the White House,” “Eccles Street” and “Eve.”
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the e-copy for review.
Have you read any Irish literature this month?
How Not to Be Afraid (of Everything): Gareth Higgins and Jane Wong
I’ve done a couple of other dual review posts this year (and I have another planned for Friday) where the books’ titles are so similar that I couldn’t resist discussing them together, even if the books themselves were extremely different. First I featured two books called Ex Libris; later I reviewed The Still Point with The Still Point of the Turning World. This time I have two 2021 releases: How Not to Be Afraid, Gareth Higgins’s self-help/theology book about resisting despair and living in faith; and Chinese American poet Jane Wong’s collection How to Not Be Afraid of Everything, which draws on her family history. Together the titles seemed like a perfect antidote to R.I.P. (more coming up for that on Halloween!).
How Not to Be Afraid: Seven Ways to Live When Everything Seems Terrifying by Gareth Higgins
I saw Higgins at the online Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature in April, after which I promptly ordered all the speakers’ books; I’m still reading the other three. He grew up in Northern Ireland in the waning days of the Troubles and has been involved in peacemaking projects as well as in artistic expressions of progressive Christianity such as Wild Goose Festival, which he co-founded, and The Porch, an online magazine he edits. Fear was ingrained in him from his upbringing and reinforced by the bullying he experienced over his sexuality. He writes that it took him decades to learn that fear is a story, one often based on false assumptions about our powerlessness, and that we can change the story.
There’s a psychological/self-help bent to the book as Higgins invites readers, through the exercises at the end of each chapter, to ponder what myths about the true self and its possibilities are limiting their lives. The “seven” of the subtitle actually refers to seven main types of fear, each addressed in turn, such as “fear of having done something that can’t be fixed,” “fear of not having enough,” and “fear of a meaningless life.” There’s a good mix of memoir, theory, anecdotes and therapy speak (though it’s never jargon-y), and while the perspective is Christian, the content is not so religious as to turn off anyone – unless they’re dead set against faith. Many passages hit me right in the solar plexus and made me long to work out how my life can be bigger and part of telling a better story. Particularly recommended to fans of Barbara Brown Taylor, Brian McLaren and Richard Rohr. (New purchase)
How to Not Be Afraid of Everything by Jane Wong
Wong is an assistant professor of creative writing at Western Washington University. The centerpiece of her second collection is “When You Died,” a 20-page epic about her grandparents’ experience during China’s “Great Leap Forward,” a 1950s–60s Maoist campaign of agricultural reform that led to severe famine. Her grandfather survived it and her mother was born at the tail end of it. Wong was born to immigrant parents in New Jersey and the atmosphere and imagery she uses to describe her living situation there reminded me of Qian Julie Wang’s in her memoir Beautiful Country.
Foodstuffs provide the figurative palette, with decay never far behind. I most enjoyed the multi-part poem “The Frontier” (“The frontier arranges itself / around me like a moat. / The frontier drops fruit / upon my head. I break open, / hot cantaloupe in winter. / I wobble around, spilling fruit / everywhere. All day, fruit flies / pay their respects.”) and “The Cactus,” about her spiky self-preservation instincts. This is the theme of the title poem as well:
How to not punch everyone in the face.
How to not protect everyone’s eyes from
my own punch. I have been practicing
my punch for years, loosening my limbs.
My jaw unhinged creates a felony I refuse
to go to court for.
There are many unusual metaphors and word choices, and a lot of the alliteration I love. Opening poem “Mad” is playfully set up like a Mad Libs game with all the key words as blanks. But at the same time, there are loads of prose poems – never my favourite thing to come across in a collection – and some long ones that I kept getting lost in.
Released by Alice James Books on the 12th. With thanks to Nectar Literary for the free e-copy for review.
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore (1955)
The readalong that Cathy of 746 Books is hosting for Brian Moore’s centenary was just the excuse I needed to try his work for the first time. My library had a copy of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, his most famous work and the first to be published under his own name (after some pseudonymous potboilers), so that’s where I started.
Judith Hearne is a pious, set-in-her-ways spinster in Belfast. As the story opens, the piano teacher is moving into a new boarding house and putting up the two portraits that watch over her: a photo of her late aunt, whom Judith cared for in her sunset years; and the Sacred Heart. This establishment is run by a nosy landlady, Mrs. Henry Rice, and her adult son Bernard, who is writing his poetic magnum opus and carrying on with the maid. Recently joining the household is James Madden, the landlady’s brother, who is back from 30 years in New York City. Disappointed in his career and in his adult daughter, he’s here to start over.
Moore’s third-person narration slips easily between the viewpoints of multiple characters, creating a dramatic irony between their sense of themselves and what others think of them. Initially, we spend the most time in Judith’s head – an uncomfortable place to be because of how simultaneously insecure and hypercritical she is. She’s terrified of rejection, which she has come to expect, but at the same time she has nasty, snobbish thoughts about her fellow lodgers, especially overweight Bernard. The dynamic is reversed on her Sunday afternoons with the O’Neills, who, peering through the curtains as she arrives, groan at their onerous duty of entertaining a dull visitor who always says the same things and gets tipsy on sherry.
An unfortunate misunderstanding soon arises between Judith and James: in no time she’s imagining romantic scenarios, whereas he, wrongly suspecting she has money stashed away, hopes she can be lured into investing in his planned American-style diner in Dublin. “A pity she looks like that,” he thinks. Later we get a more detailed description of Judith from a bank cashier: “On the wrong side of forty with a face as plain as a plank, and all dressed up, if you please, in a red raincoat, a red hat with a couple of terrible-looking old wax flowers in it.”
Oh how the heart aches for this figure of pathos. James’s situation, what with the ultimate failure of his American dream, echoes hers in several ways. Something happens that lessens our sympathy for James, but Judith remains a symbol of isolation and collapse. The title also reflects the spiritual aspect of this breakdown: Judith feels that she’s walking a lonely road, like Jesus did on the way to the crucifixion, and the Catholic Church to which she’s devoted, far from being a support in time of despair, is only the source of more judgment.
Alcoholism, mental illness, and religious doubt swirl together to make for a truly grim picture of life on the margins. The novel also depicts casual racism and a scene of sexual assault. No bed of roses here. But Moore’s writing, unflinching yet compassionate, renders each voice and perspective distinct in an unforgettable character study full of intense scenes. I especially loved how the final scene returns full circle. I’d particularly recommend this to readers of Tove Ditlevsen, Muriel Spark and Elizabeth Taylor, and fans of Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn. I’ll definitely try more from Moore – I found a copy of The Colour of Blood in a Little Free Library in Somerset, so will add that to my stack for 20 Books of Summer.
The “P.S.” section of the Harper Perennial paperback I borrowed from the library contains a lot of interesting information on Moore’s life and the composition of Judith Hearne. After time as a civilian worker in the British army, Moore moved to Canada and became a journalist. Later he would move to Malibu and write the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain.
The protagonist was based on a woman Moore’s parents invited over for Sunday diners in Belfast. Like Judith, she loved wearing red and went on about the aunt who raised her. Moore said, “When I wrote Judith Hearne I was very lonely, writing in a rented caravan, I had almost no friends, I’d given up my beliefs, was earning almost no money as a reporter and I didn’t see much of a future. So I could identify with a dipsomaniac, isolated spinster.” The novel was rejected by 12 publishing houses before the firm André Deutsch, namely reader Laurie Lee and co-director Diana Athill, recognized its genius and accepted it for publication.
Autumn Reading: Two Gems by MacNeice and Teale
With bare trees leading down to the canal and frosty temperatures forecast for the weekend, it’s starting to feel more like winter here. I journeyed through a fine autumn with two obscure classics that ended up being gems.
Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice (1939)
MacNeice, a poet and man of letters from Northern Ireland, wrote this long verse narrative between August 1938 and the turn of the following year. It’s simultaneously about everything and nothing, about everyday life for the common worker and the political rumblings that suggest all is not right in the world. As summer fades and Christmas draws closer, he reflects on his disconnection from Ireland; and on fear, apathy and the longing for purpose.
Two in every four lines rhyme, but the rhyme scheme is so subtle that I was far into the book before I recognized it. I tend not to like prose poems, but this book offers a nice halfway house between complete sentences and a stanza form, and it voices the kinds of feelings we can all relate to. How can this possibly be 80 years old? It is so relevant to our situation now.
we think ‘This must be wrong, it has happened before,
Just like this before, we must be dreaming…’
now it seems futility, imbecility,
To be building shops when nobody can tell
What will happen next.
There are only too many who say ‘What difference does it make
One way or the other?
To turn the stream of history will take
More than a by-election.’
Still there are … the seeds of energy and choice
Still alive even if forbidden, hidden,
And while a man has voice
He may recover music.
The university library copy I borrowed smells faintly of incense, so reading it was rather like slipping into the back pew of an old church and pondering timelessness.
Autumn Across America by Edwin Way Teale (1950)
Teale is a lesser-known naturalist who specialized in insects and edited or introduced works by famous natural historians of a previous era like Thoreau, Fabre, Hudson and Muir. In the late 1940s he and his wife Nellie set out on a meandering 20,000-mile road trip from Cape Cod on the Atlantic coast to Point Reyes on the Pacific to track autumn from its first hints to its last gasp. It was the third of four seasonal journeys the Teales undertook in part to distract them from their grief over their son David, who was killed in Germany during WWII. Their route passes through about half the states and experiences nearly every landscape you can imagine, some that are familiar to me and others that would be totally new. They delve in rockpools; observe bird and monarch migration; cross desert, mountains and prairie; and watch sea otters at play.
Although there is a sense of abundance – they see a million ducks in one day, and pass dozens of roadkill jackrabbits – like Aldo Leopold, Teale was an early conservationist who sounded the alarm about flora and fauna becoming rarer: “So much was going even as we watched.” His descriptions of nature are simply gorgeous, while the scientific explanations of leaf color, “Indian summer” and animal communication are at just the right level for the average reader. This was a lucky find at the Book Thing of Baltimore this past spring, and if I ever get the chance, I will delight in reading the other three in the quartet.
Some favorite lines:
“The stars speak of man’s insignificance in the long eternity of time; the desert speaks of his insignificance right now.”
“Those to whom the trees, the birds, the wildflowers represent only ‘locked-up dollars’ have never known or really seen these things. They have never experienced an interest in nature for itself. Whoever stimulates a wider appreciation of nature, a wider understanding of nature, a wider love of nature for its own sake accomplishes no small thing.”
I’m also still reading Led by the Nose: A Garden of Smells by Jenny Joseph, a book about what you see and smell in the garden month by month. I only have the December chapter still to read, followed by some lists of plants set out by ‘when they smell’ and when you plant them. I’ve also been slowly working through A Country Year: Living the Questions by Sue Hubbell, another Book Thing find. After her divorce, Hubbell lived alone on her 90 acres in the Ozarks of Missouri, keeping bees and conscientiously rebuilding a life in communion with nature. I still have the final two sections, “Winter” and “Spring,” left to read.
How’s the weather where you are?
Have you read any “Autumn” books lately?
Reading Ireland Month 2018: Seamus Deane and Edna O’Brien
It’s my first time participating in Reading Ireland Month, run each March by Cathy of 746 Books and Niall of The Fluff is Raging. I enjoyed scouring my shelves for Irish reads – though in the end I only had time for two.
Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane (1996)
I don’t recall how I first heard about this book, but its title was familiar to me when I picked it up for a matter of pence at a charity shop last year. When I saw it on Cathy’s recent list of her top five Irish books of all time, I knew I was in for something special. These vivid vignettes of childhood and young adulthood are so convincing that I could have been fooled into believing I was reading a memoir. Indeed, this debut novel has generally been interpreted as heavily autobiographical, with the anonymous narrator, the third of seven children born to Catholic parents in Derry, Northern Ireland, taken to be a stand-in for Deane.
Ireland’s internecine violence is the sinister backdrop to this family’s everyday sorrows, including the death of a child and the mother’s shaky mental health. The narrator also learns a family secret from his dying maternal grandfather that at first thrills him – he knows something his father doesn’t! – but later serves to drive him away from his parents. The short chapters take place between 1945 and 1971: starting when the boy is five years old and encountering a household ghost on the stairs and ending as, in his early thirties, he lays his father to rest in the midst of the Troubles.
The Irish have such a knack for holding humor and tragedy up side by side – think John Boyne, James Joyce and Frank McCourt. The one force doesn’t negate the other, but the juxtaposition reminds you that life isn’t all gloom or laughs. There are some terrifically funny incidents in Reading in the Dark, like the individual sex ed. chat with Father Nugent (“And semen is the Latin for seed. Do you have to know Latin to do this?”) and going to investigate the rumor of a brothel by the football ground. But there is also perhaps the best ghost story I’ve ever read, an eerie tale of shape-shifting children he hears from his aunt.
This book captures all the magic, uncertainty and heartache of being a child, in crisp scenes I saw playing out in my mind. If I have one small, strange complaint, it’s that there’s too much plot – most of the chapters function perfectly well as stand-alone short stories, so, particularly in the last third, the growing obsession with the family secret feels like an unnecessary attempt to tie everything together. That plus the slight irrelevance of the title are the only reasons this misses out on 5 stars from me.
Still, I’d agree with Cathy: this is probably one of my favorite Irish reads, along with Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, Mary Costello’s Academy Street, Anne Enright’s The Green Road, and Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It’s no wonder Deane won so many prizes for this: the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, the Guardian Fiction Prize, and the Irish Literature Prize; he was also shortlisted for the 1996 Booker Prize.
“Child, she’d tell me, I think sometimes you’re possessed. Can’t you just let the past be the past?”
“He looked up at me, smiling, to say: ah well, it was all blood under the bridge now”
“Politics destroyed people’s lives in this place, he said. People were better not knowing some things”
Mother Ireland by Edna O’Brien (1976)
This slim volume combines travel writing, history and memoir, with plentiful black and white photographs (by Fergus Bourke) along the way. Often, even where O’Brien is clearly drawing on autobiographical material, she resists saying “I”, instead opting for “one,” “you,” or “we.” I think she was aiming at the universalities of the Irish experience, but instead it ends up coming off as generic. That and a long opening chapter on Ireland’s history set me to skimming. (Also, the book is maddeningly underpunctuated, and the photos in particular seem very dated.) By far my favorite of the seven essays was the last, “Escape to England.” In just three pages, she explains what it’s like to start a new life in another country and how the experience allowed her to appreciate home all the more. Should I try O’Brien’s fiction?
“Irish people do not like to be contradicted. Foiled again and again[,] they have in them a rage that comes at you unawares like a briar jutting out of a hedge.”
“You are Irish[,] you say lightly, and allocated to you are the tendencies to be wild, wanton, drunk, superstitious, unreliable, backward, toadying and prone to fits, whereas you know that in fact a whole entourage of ghosts resides in you, ghosts with whom the inner rapport is as frequent, as perplexing, as defiant as with any of the living.”
No time for these this year – maybe next year, if not sooner?