Tag Archives: Counterpoint

Reading Ireland – My Favourite Books by Irish Women Writers

As some of you may know, March is Reading Ireland Month (#ReadingIreland22), co-hosted by Cathy at the 746Books blog and Niall/Raging Fluff. It’s a month-long celebration of Irish books and culture from both sides of the border – you can find out more about it here.

Over the past few years, I’ve reviewed quite a few books by Irish writers; and given that 8th March is International Women’s Day, I thought I would share some of my favourites by women. (Hopefully these might give you some ideas on what to read if you’re thinking of participating.)

The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen (1927)

Bowen’s striking debut novel is a story of unsuitable attachments – more specifically, the subtle power dynamics at play among the members of a very privileged set, cast against the backdrop of the Italian Riviera. In many respects, the novel revolves around Sydney Warren, a somewhat remote yet spirited young woman in her early twenties, and the individuals she meets during her break. In some instances, the characters are gravitating towards one another for convenience and perhaps a vague kind of protection or social acceptability, while in others, there are more underhand motives at play.

It all feels incredibly accomplished for a debut, full of little observations on human nature and the social codes that dictate people’s behaviour (there are some wonderful details on hotel etiquette here). If you like Edith Wharton’s ‘society’ novels, The Hotel could well be for you.

The Springs of Affection by Maeve Brennan (from the early 1950s to the early ‘70s)

A stunning collection of stories, all set in the same modest terraced house in the Ranelagh suburb of Dublin in the 20th century. The collection opens with a series of seven short autobiographical pieces that offer brief glimpses of Brennan’s childhood, a broadly happy time despite the political turbulence of the early 1920s. Then we move on to a sequence of stories featuring Rose and Hubert Derdon, a middle-aged couple whose marriage is characterised by an intense emotional distance. Here we see two desperately unhappy individuals locked in a kind of stasis, unable or incapable of reaching out to one another and accepting their respective flaws. Lastly, the third and final section explores another couple with difficulties in their marriage, Martin and Delia Bagot. In contrast to the previous pieces, there is a little more hope here as the Bagots’ relationship is punctuated by occasional moments of brightness.

What sets this collection apart from many others is the cumulative sense of disconnection conveyed through the stories, the layers of insight and meaning that gradually reveal themselves with each additional piece.

Tea at Four O’Clock by Janet McNeill (1956)

A brilliant but desperately sad story of familial obligations, ulterior motives and long-held guilt, set within the middle-class Protestant community of Belfast in the 1950s. The novel’s protagonist is Laura Percival – a rather timid spinster in her forties – who we first meet on the afternoon of a family funeral. The deceased is Laura’s elder sister, Mildred, a woman whose presence still looms large over Marathon (the Percivals’ residence), despite her recent death. This is a novel that delves into the past as developments force Laura to confront a period of her life she has long since buried – more specifically, a series of circumstances that led her to stay at Marathon when the possibility of freedom was so tantalisingly within reach.

A powerful, character-driven novel that focuses on the psychology and underlying motives of different individuals tied together by familial or social bonds, however tenuous. Fans of Anita Brookner, Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth Bowen would likely appreciate this.

Academy Street by Mary Costello (2014)

This gorgeous, deeply-affecting novel focuses on the life of Tess Lohan, a girl born and raised on a farm in rural Ireland. The novel opens in the mid-1940s with the death of Tess’ mother – a loss that sets the tone for the decades which follow. Academy Street is a poignant book, the deeply-moving story of a quiet life that plays out firstly in 1950s Ireland and then in 1960s New York. The overall tone is achingly melancholy, but there are moments of intense beauty amidst the solitude and heartache.

One of the most impressive things about this novel is the intensity of feeling Costello brings to Tess’ story. The prose is spare and controlled, but the reader feels a sense of closeness to Tess, as if we have near-complete access to her thoughts and emotions. A beautifully written book from one of my favourite contemporary writers.

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan (2021)

A superb novella set in New Ross, a town in the southeast of Ireland, in the raw-cold days of the run-up to Christmas 1985. Central to the story is Bill Furlong, a hardworking coal and timber merchant who tries to help his clients where he can – dropping off bags of logs to loyal customers, even when they can’t afford to pay. One day, while delivering coal to the local Convent, Furlong sees something genuinely alarming – a sign that proves hard for him to ignore, despite his wife’s reservations about speaking out.

It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking book about the importance of staying true to your values – of doing right by those around you, even if it puts your family’s security and aspirations at risk. Keegan’s prose is simple, pared-back and unadorned, a style that seems fitting given the nature of the story. Nothing feels superfluous here – every word has just the right weight and meaning.

These Days by Lucy Caldwell (2022)

This deeply-moving novel takes as its focal point a series of attacks – the Dockside Raid, the Easter Raid and the Fireside Raids – that took place in Belfast during WW2. Using these devastating real-life events as a springboard, Caldwell has created a really beautiful novel here – an engrossing, evocative portrayal of the Belfast Blitz, seen through the eyes of the Bells, a fictional middle-class family. Caldwell excels in capturing so many aspects of the raids, both physical and emotional. From the fear as people wait for the bombings to start, to the panic of searching for the missing and those who may have perished, to depicting the crushing damage to homes in vivid, unflinching detail. Moreover, she makes us care about her characters, investing in their respective hopes and dreams, concerns and anxieties – and it’s the depth of this emotional investment that makes this portrayal of the Belfast Blitz so powerful and affecting.

In summary, this is a beautiful, lyrical novel – a deeply moving tribute to the resilience of the Belfast people who lost and endured so much during the dark days of the Blitz. 

Do let me know what you think of these books if you’ve read any of them. Hopefully, I’ll be able to fit in another couple of titles during March, including one by a woman. And if you have any favourites by Irish women writers, please feel free to mention them alongside other comments below – personal recommendations are always welcome.

The Springs of Affection by Maeve Brennan

I am very much a latecomer to the Irish short-story writer and journalist, Maeve Brennan, having just read The Springs of Affection, a brilliant collection of her Dublin stories from the early 1950s to the early ‘70s. Virtually all of these twenty-one stories were first published by The New Yorker magazine where Brennan worked as a columnist and reviewer.

While I enjoy reading short stories, I often find them difficult to discuss, particularly if there are no apparent connections or common themes across the individual pieces. However, in this case, the situation is somewhat different as almost all of these stories are linked by virtue of their setting, a modest terraced house in the Ranelagh suburb of Dublin – a house featuring the same walled garden with a laburnum tree, the same three steps down to the kitchen, and the same linoleum on the bedroom floor. Moreover, the stories have been collated by theme rather than order of publication, an approach which adds depth to the reader’s understanding of the characters as they move from one story to the next.

The collection opens with a series of seven short autobiographical pieces which offer brief glimpses of Brennan’s childhood, a broadly happy time in spite of the political turbulence of the early 1920s. (In one of these stories, The Day We Got Our Own Back, a group of men carrying revolvers come to the house in search of Maeve’s father, a known Republican who has gone into hiding in revolt against the Irish Free State.)

Other pieces in this section paint a picture of a normal family life, complete with the usual tensions between siblings and others. In The Old Man of the Sea, Maeve’s mother feels sorry for an old man who comes to the door with an enormous basket of apples, so she buys two dozen, just to be charitable. But then the man returns the same time the following week with another two dozen apples for Mrs Brennan, all bagged up and ready to be handed over in exchange for payment. As the weeks go by, it becomes increasingly difficult for Mrs B. to refuse the apples until things come to a head in the most embarrassing of manners. This is a lovely story laced with warmth and humour.

The second series of stories feature Rose and Hubert Derdon, a middle-aged couple whose marriage is characterised by an intense emotional distance, a situation which appears to have developed over several years. The opening piece – A Young Girl Can Spoil Her Chances – captures the state of this couple’s relationship in a nutshell as they try to score points off one other in the pettiest of ways.

Some of the Derdon stories look back to happier times, the couple’s courtship and the early years of their marriage when they were young and relatively carefree, enjoying walks together in St Stephens Green park. Sadly, this sense of freedom and gaiety was relatively short-lived, and the cracks in their marriage soon started to appear.

In time, we learn that the Derdons have one grown-up son, John, who – much to Rose’s dismay – has left home to join the priesthood. She feels his absence very deeply. In her heart of hearts, Rose realises that she has lost her beloved John forever, but this doesn’t stop her from fantasising about his return every now and again, convincing herself that she will see him walking down their road at any moment.

But of course he wasn’t coming, and he wouldn’t be coming, and the excitement inside her would flatten out and stupefy her with its weight, and her disappointment and humiliation at being made a fool of would be as cruel as though what she had felt had really been hope and not what it was, the delirium of loss. (p.154)

Shut out of the marriage by Rose’s devotion to John, Hubert broods on what he considers to be his wife’s failings: her shyness and lack of confidence in social situations; her indecisiveness and ambivalence in various domestic matters; and her secrecy and concealment of certain things for no apparent reason.

He never could understand her—her secrecy, her furtiveness, her way of stopping what she was doing and running to do something else the minute he came into the room, as though what she was doing was forbidden to her. She was afraid of him, and she never made any attempt to control the fear, no matter what he said to her. All he ever said to her was that she ought to try to take things easy, try to take life easier—things like that, that would reassure her. But she was afraid of him, and that was the whole of the difficulty, and that is what defeated him at every turn, and that is why he gradually, or finally—he could not have told how it happened—gave up any attempt to get on any kind of terms with her. (p. 77)

When viewed together, these stories form a devastating picture of two desperately unhappy individuals locked in a kind of stasis, unable or incapable of reaching out to one another and accepting their respective flaws. While nothing ever comes to a confrontational head, there is a real sense of bitterness and resentment between husband and wife, the simmering tensions proving particularly destructive as they are rarely aired or spoken about directly.

The final set of stories feature another couple with difficulties in their marriage, Martin and Delia Bagot. The Bagots are younger than the Derdons, and they have two daughters – Lily aged nine, and Margaret, aged seven. As with the Derdons, there are hints that the Bagots were happy in the early days of their marriage, enjoying jokes together just like any other couple. But now Martin sleeps on his own in the back bedroom, an arrangement initially prompted by his unsociable working hours but now maintained through his own preference. What emerges is a picture of a man who longs to get away from his immediate family whom he considers to be a burden.

As the Bagot stories progress, we learn that there was another child in the family before the arrival of the two girls – a boy who died when he was just three days old. Naturally, Delia was distraught at the time, leaving Martin unable to reach out to her or comfort her in any way. This is the source of the fault line in their marriage, an unspoken rift that has been allowed to fester over the years.

She knew things were not as they should be between them, but while the children were at home she did not want to say anything for fear of a row that might frighten the children, and now that the children were away she found she was afraid to speak for fear of disturbing a silence that might, if broken, reveal any number of things that she did not want to see and that she was sure he did not want to see. Or perhaps he saw them and kept silent out of charity, or out of despair, or out of a hope that they would vanish if no one paid any attention to them. (pp. 247-248)

While this all might sound very bleak, there is a little more hope for the Bagots than the Deardons. Their relationship is punctuated by occasional moments of brightness, and happily it lacks the intense bitterness and anger of the Deardons’ marriage. A visit from an elderly Bishop and old family friend puts Delia back in touch with herself in a manner that boosts her sense of peace and harmony, although we never see if this enables her to reconnect with Martin in any meaningful way. There are glimpses of jet-black humour too, especially towards the end of the collection.

The final story, The Springs of Affection, is probably worth the cover price alone, focusing as it does on Martin’s spiteful twin sister, Min, who kept house for him in Dublin following Delia’s sudden death (we are now several years down the line). From the opening passages, it is clear that Min resented Delia from the outset, for stealing Martin away from her and the rest of the Bagot family. Now that Martin is also dead, the elderly Min has returned to her flat in Wexford where she can wallow in a satisfaction fuelled by jealousy and bitterness, surrounded as she is by the couple’s furniture and former possessions.

What sets this collection apart from many others I’ve read recently is the strong sense of disconnection/emotional turbulence conveyed through the stories, the layers of insight and meaning which gradually reveal themselves with each additional piece. Brennan’s prose is simple and straightforward yet beautifully precise – her descriptions of various aspects of the terraced house in Ranelagh are both clean and graceful.

This is a terrific collection of stories with much to recommend it, particularly for lovers of perceptive character-driven fiction in an understated style.

My copy of The Springs of Affection was published by Counterpoint.