Tag Archives: Ireland

Foster by Claire Keegan

When I look back over the last three months, Claire Keegan’s beautiful novella Small Things Like These stands out as one of my favourite recent reads. Set in a small town in County Wexford in the run-up to Christmas 1985, the book tells the story of Bill Furlong, a thoroughly decent, hardworking man who stays true to his personal values when he sees worrying signs of abuse at the local convent. It’s a deeply affecting story about standing up to the Catholic Church and doing right by those around you, even if it puts your family’s security at risk.

Clocking in at under 100 pages, Foster is an earlier novella in a similar style, drawing on themes of family, kindness and compassion from a child’s point of view. It’s a gorgeous book, just as exquisitely written as Small Things Like These, confirming Keegan as one of my favourite Irish writers alongside the wonderful Maeve Brennan.

As Foster opens, a young girl from Clonegal, County Carlow is being driven to County Wexford by her father, Dan. There she will stay with relatives, an aunt and uncle she doesn’t know, with no mention of a return date or the nature of the arrangement. The girl’s mother, Mary, is expecting a baby, and with a large family to support, the couple have chosen to take the girl to Wexford to ease the burden at home.

Almost immediately the girl detects some differences in her new environment with John and Edna Kinsella. Like the girl’s parents, the Kinsellas are country folk, living and working on a farm – and yet the atmosphere feels more relaxed here than at home, less rushed with more space to think and breathe.

With my mother it is all work: us, the butter-making, the dinners, the washing up and getting up and getting ready for Mass and school, weaning calves, and hiring men to plough and harrow the fields, stretching the money and setting the alarm. But this is a different type of house. Here there is room, and time to think. There may even be money to spare. (p. 12)

The story is narrated by the young girl herself (whose name we never learn), a viewpoint that gives the novella a beautiful sense of intimacy, perfectly capturing the uncertainty of not knowing how the future will pan out.

And so the days pass. I keep waiting for something to happen, for the ease I feel to end – to wake in a wet bed, to make some blunder, some big gaffe, to break something – but each day follows on much like the one before. (p. 37)

With no children of their own at home, the Kinsellas treat the girl with love and compassion, demonstrating their values through simple acts of kindness. As John works the land, preparing the crops for harvest, the girl helps Edna around the house, lighter work than she has been used to at home. Here she learns how to prepare fruit from the garden for jam and tarts, the simple rhythms of domestic life. There’s time for some fun too, the occasional trip to town to buy clothes and sweets – when John gives the girl a pound note to spend, her eyes light up. We also learn a little more about the Kinsellas themselves, how past sorrows have almost certainly shaped their affection for the girl, whom they treat as one of their own.

As the summer draws to a close, the sense of uncertainty about the future heightens, sharpening a little the atmosphere in the house. I won’t reveal anything more about how the story plays out, other than to say that Keegan really lands the ending – it’s an unforgettable scene.

Keegan writes beautifully about the gentle rhythms of country life. There is a purity and simplicity to her prose, a luminosity that builds through the book.

All through the walk, the wind blows hard and soft and hard again through the tall, flowering hedges, the high trees. In the fields, the combines are out cutting the wheat, the barley and oats, saving the corn, leaving behind long rows of straw. We meet men on tractors, going in different directions, pulling balers to the fields, and trailers full of grain to the co-op. Birds swoop down, brazen, eating the fallen seed off the middle of the road. (p. 49)

Her style is uncluttered and spare – every phrase has just the right weight and meaning, not a word out of place. She also leaves plenty of space in the story, allowing the reader to make their own connections between little hints and observations to fill in the gaps.

Occasional references to external events seem to locate the story in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, and yet there is a timeless quality to it, reflecting the Ireland of old. Keegan also nails the atmosphere of a small, close-knit community to perfection, the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else’s business and gossip is rife. In this scene, a nosy acquaintance of Edna’s has just come back from a funeral with much to report.

She takes off her cardigan and sits down and starts talking about the wake: who was there, the type of sandwiches that were made, the queen cakes, the corpse who was lying up crooked in the coffin and hadn’t even been shaved properly, how they had plastic rosary beads for him, the poor fucker. (pp. 57–58)

In summary then, Foster is a sublime novella, a masterclass in the ‘less-is-more’ school of writing – a poignant story, beautifully told. Another very strong contender for my annual reading highlights.

Foster is published by Faber & Faber; personal copy.

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.

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan – some personal reflections

Back in the 1970s, when I was a young girl, my mother and I would travel to Ireland every summer to visit my grandfather and his family. Sometimes we stayed at his house in Cork, but more often than not, we ended up with my mum’s older sister, B, in the city’s suburbs. Aunt B and her husband, K, had two daughters – both slightly older than me, but close enough in age for us to play together quite happily.

Their house was in an unusual location – built into the side of a steep hill, so precipitous and sheer that it was practically a cliff. There was no back garden – all you could see from the rear of the house was the cliff face, literally within touching distance of the building. The kitchen and back rooms were dark and oppressive, with virtually no natural light all day. My lovely grandfather disliked the house quite strongly and rarely set foot in it. Luckily, we rarely visited in winter; but even in summer, when the days were long and the sun was bright, it was a strange, shadowy place – a stark contrast to the warmth of the family within.

Heightening this ominous atmosphere was a Convent – a large gothic monstrosity, both physically and spiritually, aptly situated further up the hill. The Convent included an orphanage, an asylum, possibly even a prison – we never knew for sure. Naturally, when you’re young, all sorts of rumours swirl around, especially when a place seems so mysterious and foreboding. All I really understood at the time was that ‘bad people’ were sent there, girls who had committed sins or disgraced their families. On the odd occasion that my cousins were naughty, Aunt B – a formidable woman when crossed – would shout, “If you don’t behave yourselves, the nuns will come and get you” or words to that effect – the nuns being those from the Convent on the hill. Naturally, this threat was enough to nip any misbehaviour in the bud. The Convent was seen as a sinister place, and my cousins were afraid of it.

Years later, when I was well into my twenties, I heard that the Convent had closed down. By then, my cousins had moved away, having married and started families of their own. The old family home on the hill had been sold, and Aunt B was living with her eldest daughter in a different part of Cork. The Convent, it transpired, had been a Magdalene Laundry, one of several such institutions run and financed by the Catholic Church with the support of the Irish State. For some two hundred years, several thousand girls and women were incarcerated in these institutions, typically against their will, forced to work in brutal conditions for little or no pay. Many were unmarried mothers, disowned or rejected by their families, their babies subsequently adopted, sold or even killed – hidden away and suppressed by the powerful Catholic Church. Other women or girls were simply locked up for being ‘morally wayward’, a term that covered a multitude of so-called sins.

I mention this here because of its relevance to Small Things Like These, a profoundly affecting novella by the Irish writer Claire Keegan. 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 story is set in New Ross, a town in the southeast of Ireland, in the raw-cold days of the run-up to Christmas. The year is 1985, and times are hard for many of the town’s residents; the nearby shipyard has closed, local businesses are issuing redundancies, and many people are struggling to pay their bills.

Bill Furlong, a hardworking coal and timber merchant, tries to help his clients where he can, dropping off bags of logs to loyal customers, even when they can’t afford to pay., Furlong knows he is lucky, having worked his way up in the business over the years. He and his wife Eileen have five daughters – good, hardworking girls, all still in school, quietly going about their days. As a family, they take comfort from the small, significant things in life, the simple pleasures and personal achievements that constitute their world.

Nevertheless, despite his relatively secure position, Furlong feels a sense of restlessness, an uneasiness about his life and the things he sees around him. He worries about his work, finding it difficult to switch off and relax. The long days stretch out ahead of him, prompting various reflections on the relevance of his life. Apart from supporting Eileen and the girls, what is it all for? Where is the meaning and purpose, his reason for being alive?

What was it all for? Furlong wondered. The work and the constant worry. Getting up in the dark and going to the yard, making the deliveries, one after another, the whole day long, then coming home in the dark and trying to wash the black off himself and sitting into a dinner at the table and falling asleep before waking in the dark to meet a version of the same thing, yet again. Might things never change or develop into something else, or new? (p. 32)

From a moral standpoint, Furlong has been strongly shaped by his childhood, having grown up in Mrs Wilson’s house, a few miles outside New Ross. At sixteen, Furlong’s mother, Sarah, fell pregnant while working in service for Mrs Wilson, a wealthy Protestant widow. While Sarah’s family wanted nothing to do with her, Mrs Wilson adopted a more compassionate approach, allowing Sarah to keep her job and the baby – quite an unusual response at a time when many employers would have rejected an unmarried mother, distancing themselves from the inevitable scandal and shame. As a consequence, Furlong knows he owes everything to Mrs Wilson – a kind, open-minded woman who encouraged him with his reading, treating him modestly yet fairly, despite his illegitimacy. 

One day, in the run-up to Christmas 1985, Furlong reaches a turning point in his life. While delivering coal to the local Convent, he sees something genuinely alarming – clear signs of child abuse that prove hard for him to ignore. Naturally, the nuns are frightened that Furlong may prove troublesome to them, should he decide to take the matter further; so they try to pass the incident off as child’s play – an unfortunate misunderstanding when it’s clearly anything but.

The Mother Superior makes it known to Furlong that she has the ear of the adjacent school, the only decent one for girls in the local area. Two of Furlong’s daughters are currently studying at St Margaret’s, with the other three due to follow in time, should places be made available to them. Implicit in this discussion is the suggestion of blackmail, that Furlong should keep quiet if he cares about his girls’ education – a feeling only strengthened by the generous Christmas bonus (or hush money) that is slipped into his Christmas card.

When Furlong mentions his concerns about the Convent to Eileen, she urges him to ignore it. Their lives are stable and secure, so why get involved with something that doesn’t concern them, especially if it puts their children’s futures at risk? Mrs Kehoe, the landlady at the local pub, also warns of the Convent’s network of influence, reminding Furlong that the ‘nuns have a finger in every pie’, so to speak – their power extends far and wide, further than one might realise at first sight.

‘They belong to different orders,’ she [Mrs Kehoe] went on, ‘but believe you me, they’re all the one. You can’t side against one without damaging your chances with the other.’ (p. 95)

As Christmas approaches, Furlong must wrestle with his conscience, weighing the stability of his family against the urge to intervene…

Keegan has written a beautiful, deeply resonant novella here, one that highlights the complicity that existed within the Catholic Church and surrounding community for several decades. It takes great courage to speak out against such a powerful institution, to stand up and take action when it would be so much *easier* to a blind eye – a spirit that Furlong embodies in the face of hostility and uncertainty. There is a particular poignancy to the story too, set as it is in the week before Christmas, the season of peace on earth and goodwill to all – a time of kindness, generosity and compassion. 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.

As far as I’m aware, no members of my mother’s family were sent to the Magdalene Laundries or similar mother-and-baby homes, but sadly they knew of others who were affected more directly. Fittingly, Keegan has dedicated the book to the women and children who suffered in these places over the years, the last of which was closed in 1996. For the interested, you can find more about the Laundries here, following an official inquiry in 2013.

If you’re still with me, thank you for reading this piece – it’s clearly somewhat personal. I love this novella for some many things: its simplicity and beauty, the spirit it embodies, and the memories it evokes. Ultimately, though, it’s a story about how important it is for us to speak out and take action when faced with cruelty and complicity, a valuable reminder for us all.

Small Things Like These is published by Faber & Faber; my thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a copy.

Recent Reads – That Old County Music by Kevin Barry and Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household   

In an effort to catch up with my review backlog, here are some brief notes on two fairly recent reads – both very highly recommended!

That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry (2020)

A vivid collection of eleven short stories, many of which feature loners, outsiders or those who find themselves on the fringes of mainstream society. As with most collections, some pieces will inevitably resonate more strongly than others, but there are five standout stories here, worthy of the entry price alone.

The collection starts strongly with The Coast of Leitrim (previously published in The New Yorker), in which Seamus, a lonely, sensitive, thirty-five-year-old man, falls for Katherine, a young Polish woman who works in a local café. This is a gentle, meditative story, shot through with a yearning for love and the fear of its loss in the future.

What kind of a maniac could fall for the likes of me, he wondered. The question was unanswerable and terrifying. When she lay in his arms after they had made love, his breath caught jaggedly in his throat and he felt as if he might choke. To experience a feeling as deep as this raised only the spectre of losing it. (pp. 19–20)

In Roma Kid, one of my favourite stories in the collection, a nine-year-old girl runs away from the asylum park where her family is being housed. When she sprains her ankle in the woods, the girl is taken in by another outsider – a single man living off-the-grid in a trailer, fending for himself in the wilds of the countrywide. As the weeks and months go by, a tender friendship develops between these two individuals, highlighting the kindness of human nature. This is a beautiful, compassionate story that doesn’t play out as the reader might fear.

There is a wonderful seam of dark humour to be found in some of the best stories here, pieces such as Toronto and the State of Grace, which combines striking social comedy with an element of poignancy. In Toronto, a jaded publican is forced to listen to the tales of an eccentric elderly woman and her extrovert son as they drink their way through the nine spirits on display in the bar. If truth be told, the owner is dying to lock up, but his attempts to curtail their drinking are repeatedly ignored!

Who’s-Dead McCarthy is another darkly comic gem in which the death-obsessed Con McCarthy likes nothing more than a bit of gossip about a passing in the family.

Con McCarthy was our connoisseur of death. He was its most knowing expert, its deftest elaborator. There was no death too insignificant for his delectation. A 96-year-old poor dear in Thormondgate with the lungs papery as moths’ wings and the maplines of the years cracking her lips as she whispered her feeble last in the night – Con would have word of it by the breakfast, and he would be up and down the street, his sad recital perfecting as he went. (pp. 109-110)

This is a brilliantly observed story with a very fitting end, another piece that demonstrates the author’s skills with character and dialogue.

Finally, the title story is also worthy of a mention, not least for its memorable central character – Hannah, a pregnant seventeen-year-old waiting in a Transit van while her thirty-two-year-old boyfriend robs the nearby petrol station. Like many individuals we see here, Hannah’s life is in flux, caught between uncertainty and a gradual dawning of reality. Once again, it’s an excellent story, beautifully conveyed in Barry’s uncomplicated yet poetic prose. Definitely recommended!

Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household (1939)

I’m going to keep this relatively brief, mostly because the less you know about the second half of this book before reading it the better. It’s a man-on-the-run thriller of the highest order – taut, gripping and pacy with an existential dimension to boot.

The unnamed ‘rogue male’ of the novel’s title is a trained killer who decides to launch an assassination attempt on a highly dangerous dictator. (While the leader and his country remain anonymous, the time period and European setting clearly point towards Hitler.) Just as the narrator is about to pull the trigger on the dictator, he is captured by the leader’s security team, tortured and then dispatched down a cliff to make his death seem accidental. Somehow the job is bungled and our narrator manages to survive, escaping with his life in the most challenging of circumstances.  

Drawing on his wits and extensive survival skills, the narrator makes it back to England where he finds himself being pursued by the dictator’s henchmen – clearly the matter of international borders poses little barrier to the tyrant’s intentions! Unfortunately, the narrator is unable to call on the British Government for protection as this would be tantamount to requesting an endorsement of his actions – something he knows the authorities will never do. (Interestingly, the true reasons behind our protagonist’s assassination attempt only become fully apparent as the story unfolds.) Moreover, the situation is further complicated when the man kills one of his pursuers to evade being captured, thereby involving the British police in the hunt.

The rest of the novel details the rogue male’s attempts to hide out in the midst of Dorset, a cat-and-mouse game between our protagonist and his main tracker, the brilliantly named Major Quive-Smith.

Household’s novel – which is rightly considered a classic of the genre – is presented as a first-person account, and the following passage, taken from the narrator’s initial escape, provides a good indication of the style.

I got out the map and checked my position. I was looking at a tributary which, after a course of thirty miles, ran into one of the main rivers of Europe. From this town, a provincial capital, the search for me would be directed, and to it the police, my would-be rescuers, presumably belonged. Nevertheless I had to go there. It was the centre of communications: road, river and railway. And since I could not walk I had to find some transport to carry me to the frontier. (pp. 16–17)

Other readers have compared this book to John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps and Ian Fleming’s James Bond series, both of which are very valid comparisons. However, the writer I am most reminded of is Jean-Patrick Manchette – particularly his excellent man-on-the-run noir, Three to Kill (1976), which Max has written about here. Either way, Rogue Male is a terrific book, fully deserving of its status as a classic. It’s also quite philosophical at times – more so perhaps than I’ve been able to convey in these brief notes.

That Old Country Music is published by Canongate, Rogue Male by NYRB Classics; my thanks to the Independent Alliance for a copy of the Barry.

The Shadowy Third by Julia Parry

When Julia Parry comes into possession of a box of letters between her maternal grandfather, the author and academic, Humphry House (HH), and the esteemed Anglo-Irish writer, Elizabeth Bowen (EB), it sparks an investigation into the correspondence between the two writers. Their relationship, it transpires, was an intimate one, ebbing and flowing over time, waxing and waning in intensity during the 1930s and ‘40s; this much is clear to Parry from her initial glimpses of the letters. She is also fortunate in having access to both sides of the conversation – letters from EB to HH and vice versa – preserved by Humphry’s wife, Madeline, Julia’s maternal grandmother. There are letters from Humphry to Madeline too, adding another dimension to this intriguing dynamic.

What follows is a quest on the part of Parry to piece together the story of Humphry’s relationship with Bowen – much of which is related in this illuminating and engagingly written book. Partly a collection of excerpts from the letters, partly the story of Julia’s travels to places of significance to the lovers, The Shadowy Third is a fascinating read, especially for anyone interested in Bowen’s writing.

The affair between Bowen and Humphry begins in Oxford in the early 1930s when Bowen is already a critically-acclaimed writer with a clutch of novels and short stories to her name. Moreover, she is ten years into her marriage to Alan Cameron, although their relationship, we learn, was never consummated. In effect, Alan has been adopting a kind of ‘parental’ role for Bowen, substituting for the losses she endured as a child, thereby providing security and respectability in the eyes of society.

Humphry, at this point, is also in a relationship, albeit a somewhat less formal one. He has been seeing Madeline Church – the same Madeline he goes on to marry in 1933, one year after his first meeting with Bowen at the Oxford dinner party. Following this initial connection, Bowen and Humphry write to one another regularly, and their letters reveal much about their respective personalities. Bowen – forthright and direct, particularly with emotions; Humphry – naïve, enthusiastic, and somewhat lacking in sensitivity. There are physical meetings between the pair too, and their relationship becomes sexual.

During the early years of the affair, Humphry emerges as rather foolish and insensitive in his treatment of both women: his lover, Bowen, and – more importantly – his wife, the exemplary Madeline. Not long before their wedding, Humphry makes it clear to Madeline that he may well indulge in ‘sensual acts’ with other women during their marriage, a practice that he acknowledges as ‘technically unfaithful’. Madeline is fully aware of Humphry’s feelings for Bowen at this point – this is clear from the letters she receives from HH. Nevertheless, in spite of these declarations, the marriage goes ahead.

Humphry often wandered through the rooms of his heart without shutting doors behind him. He thoughtlessly carried his relationship with one woman into the sphere of the second. He told each about his feelings for the other – unable, or unwilling, to imagine how this might just distress them. […] Humphry’s pattern of behaviour left both women in potentially vulnerable positions. Each was to devise strategies – very different ones – to deal with the man with the open-plan heart. (pp. 66–67)

There is a real lack of self-awareness on the part of Humphry here, compounded by a dismissal of Madeline’s intellectual capabilities. In the early years of the marriage, Madeline – who studied English at Royal Holloway – is never allowed to shine, firmly relegated to the positions of wife, mother and homemaker. Naturally, this is partly a function of societal attitudes at the time, frequently confining women to the domestic arena. Nevertheless, Humphry’s vanities and his lack of consideration of Madeline’s aspirations and feelings are also important factors here. At this stage in his life, Humphry is struggling to establish himself professionally, unable to secure a suitable position in the academic hierarchy, despite his ongoing research into the work of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.

This initial, rather clouded view of Madeline – one reading of the ‘Shadowy Third’ of the book’s title – is reinforced by the impression she makes on Bowen. Elizabeth is cutting about Madeline in her letters to the philosopher and historian Isaiah Berlin, describing her as perfectly nice, but rather dull and mediocre. A visit by Bowen to the Houses’ marital home in Devon in 1935 strengthens this perception for Bowen – so much so that she sends Madeline a tea service as a ‘thank you’ gift, reinforcing her status as largely domestic.

Contrary to these perceptions, Madeline is very bright, a woman with strong moral and ethical values – her honesty, simplicity and goodness are clearly evident from the start. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated that she agreed to marry Humphry in the knowledge of his ongoing infidelities – a reflection of the lack of realistic options for women in the 1930s, I suspect. Thank goodness the situation is very different today. More of Madeline later, but for now, I’d like to return to Bowen, whose energy and artistic temperament pulse through Parry’s book.

In some respects, the affair with Humphry enriches Bowen’s life with new experiences, a new level of emotional depth and intensity that she subsequently draws on for her fiction. (The House in Paris, which I’ve yet to read, seems particularly significant here.) Interestingly, Bowen can compartmentalise her affair with Humphry, keeping it separate from the relative stability of her home life with Alan – who seems, for his part, to be turning a blind eye to Elizabeth’s peccadillos. As such, Bowen expects Humphry to do the same, a demand that creates a notable degree of tension in their relationship.  

If you cannot emerge imaginatively from your daily life enough to meet me imaginatively and to keep up this imaginative communication between us, then you and I have no future. But the idea of you letting me go fills me with despair on your behalf as much as on my own. If you did let me go, if later your home life and your marriage ever ceased to satisfy the whole of your nature, then you would have nothing to fall back on but petty muddles and lusts – unless you had found meanwhile, as I should like you to find, another and better Elizabeth. (Letter from EB to HH, Nov 1934, pp. 141–142)

Humphry, it seems, is less able to do this than Elizabeth, and the opportunity of an academic post in India for three years soon takes him overseas, separating him from both Madeline and Elizabeth. It comes at a difficult point in the lovers’ relationship, with Elizabeth taking umbrage over Humphry’s passing attraction to ‘B’, the sister of Elizabeth’s agent, Spencer Curtis Brown. At first, Madeline (pregnant with her second child) stays behind in England, India being no place for a wife or mother. Nevertheless, following the baby’s birth, Madeline leaves the two children with her parents and joins Humphry in India for five months, a trip that results in a rekindling of their relationship. By the time Humphry returns to England in 1938, the affair with Elizabeth is all but over, although their friendship and professional collaboration continue for many years. Madeline too ultimately reconciles her feelings about Humphry’s connection to Bowen, no longer allowing the relationship ‘get’ to her as it did in the past. Consequently, she feels more secure in the marriage, a reflection of her intelligence and an underlying steeliness.

Sadly, Humphry dies suddenly of a heart condition at the age of 46, not long after he has finally gained recognition as a successful writer and an inspirational teacher. (His students in India and elsewhere are full of praise for his lectures, viewing him with a combination of professional respect and immense fondness.)

Somewhat perversely, the loss of Humphry presents Madeline with an opportunity to shine. Her role in cataloguing and editing a definitive collection of Dickens’ letters is widely recognised, bringing the professional appreciation she so richly deserves (ten years after Humphry’s death). It’s a very gratifying picture for Parry to hold on to, one that reflects the steely determination of ‘Linny’, the grandmother she knew and loved.  

Parry has written a beautiful, thoroughly absorbing book here, capturing her travels across the world to reconstruct the emotional landscape of her grandparents’ lives. It’s a journey that takes her to several locations – from the academic circles of Oxford to Bowen’s Court in Ireland to the Presidency College in Calcutta. Bohemian London in the 1930s is vividly evoked, as in the Irish country-house milieu of Bowen’s heritage – not only through the extracts from various letters but via Parry’s elegant commentary too. In summary, this is a fascinating account of a complex tangle of relationships, exquisitely conveyed with intelligence and sensitivity. A truly captivating read for Bowen fans and newbies alike.

The Shadowy Third is published by Duckworth; personal copy.

The Visitor by Maeve Brennan

A couple of years ago I read The Springs of Affection, a beautifully affecting collection of stories by the Irish writer and journalist Maeve Brennan. What struck me most about those stories was the strong sense of emotional dislocation they conveyed, particularly though their focus on lonely, unhappy individuals, often trapped in loveless marriages. The characters seemed caught in a form of stasis, unable to reach out to one another while unspoken bitterness and resentment festered away and remained unchecked.  

There is a similar air of bitterness and resentment in The Visitor, a novella that was published posthumously in 2000 following its discovery in publishing archives that had been acquired by the University of Notre Dame in the 1980s. It is not known when Brennan first started work on The Visitor, but she is thought to have finished it in the mid-1940s. As such, it is one of her earliest works of fiction, all the more astonishing considering its power and precision – it’s remarkably accomplished for such an early piece.

As the novella opens, twenty-two-year-old Anastasia King is returning to her childhood home in Dublin, a house owned by her paternal grandmother, Mrs King. When Anastasia was sixteen, her mother and father split up, the mother fleeing to Paris and subsequently sending for Anastasia to join her there. As a consequence, Anastasia has been living in Paris for six years. Now both of Anastasia’s parents are dead, leaving the girl with no remaining family other than Mrs King – hence Anastasia’s belief that she will be able to live with her grandmother (and the latter’s elderly housekeeper, Katherine) going forward.

Mrs King, however, has a different view of the situation. She still blames Anastasia’s mother for the break-up of her son’s marriage, thereby bringing shame and disgrace on her son and the King family as a whole. Anastasia is also guilty of desertion in her grandmother’s eyes, having followed her mother to Paris to take up residence away from her father. As such, Mrs King is cold and remote in her receipt of Anastasia in the family home, making it clear that she considers the visit a temporary one, not a permanent arrangement.

Mrs K is a brilliant creation – cold, direct, monstrous and self-centred. She shows precious little warmth or compassion towards Anastasia who is recently bereaved. What I find particularly interesting about this elderly lady is how she views Anastasia both as an adult and as a child, choosing whichever of these states suits her best on each particular occasion.

For instance, Mrs King condemns Anastasia for having followed her mother to Paris, thereby deserting her father – Mrs King’s precious son – in the process. As far as Mrs King sees it, Anastasia was an adult at sixteen, someone who knew full well what she was doing in choosing to live with her mother.

Mrs King said in her gentle voice, “You know, Anastasia, you made a serious choice when you decided to stay with your mother in Paris. You were sixteen then, not a child. You knew what she had done. You were aware of the effect it was having on your father.” (p. 16)

And yet, Mrs King repeatedly refers to Anastasia as a child during their blunt conversations following the young woman’s return – “Now, child, get along to your bed. It’s very late. You’ll be dead tired in the morning.”— thereby emphasising her own dominance in the relationship. This vacillation between the positioning of her granddaughter as an adult or a child, depending on whichever of these suits her best at the time, is just one way in which Mrs King seeks to belittle Anastasia, closing off any expectations of comfort or affection.

As the narrative unfolds, it becomes clear that Mrs King played a major part in her daughter-in-law’s defection. When Anastasia’s parents were living together with Mrs King, there was an air of tension in the Dublin house; Anastasia’s mother felt belittled by her mother-in-law’s spiteful actions, a form of passive-aggressive behaviour or ‘campaign of cruelty’ as Clare Boylan neatly terms it in her introduction to the novella.

As in The Springs of Affection, Brennan excels in conveying the sense of isolation or separateness that can arise between family members occupying the same dwelling. Rather than living together and sharing a sense of connectedness, Anastasia and Mrs King remain emotionally distanced from one another in the unwelcoming, lifeless house.

The Christmas season passed. The days came and went, bringing nothing. There was a listlessness about the house but had seemed absent in the days before Christmas. The grandmother sat daily by the fire and Anastasia seldom joined her. With the growing of the year their separate lives seemed to dwindle away in shyness, and the house enclosed them aloofly, like a strange house that had not known them when they were happier. (p. 44)

The concepts of ‘home’ and ‘belonging’ are important themes in Brennan’s fiction, and the associations these notions spark can be painful and complex.

Home is a place in the mind. When it is empty, it frets. It is fretful with memory, faces and places and times gone by. Beloved images rise up in disobedience and make a mirror for emptiness. […] It is a silly creature that tries to get a smile from even the most familiar and loving shadow. Comical and hopeless, the long gaze back is always turned inward. (p. 8)

The novella’s mood is enhanced by Brennan’s use of imagery and sounds to heighten the unsettling atmosphere, the ghostly silence in the grandmother’s house, broken only by the crackling of the fire or the scrape of a knife across a slice of toast. There is some wonderful descriptive writing here, imagery to send a shiver down the spine.

The trees around Noon Square grew larger, as daylight faded. Darkness stole out of the thickening trees and slurred the thin iron railings around the houses, and spread quickly across the front gardens, making the grass go black and taking the colour from the flowers. The darkness of night fell on the green park in the middle of the square, and rose fast to envelop the tall patient houses all around. The street lamps drew flats circles of light around them and settled down for the night. (p. 13)

As the novella builds towards its unnerving conclusion, we begin to see another side to Anastasia’s personality, one that reveals a degree of selfishness or ambivalence towards the wishes of others. I’ll leave to to discover this for yourself, should you decide to read the book (which I hope you do). Suffice it to say that this plotline involves an old friend of Mrs King’s – an elderly spinster named Miss Kilbride, who appeals to Anastasia for help with an act of compassion. Miss Kilbride has also suffered at the hands of an embittered and jealous family member – in this instance her mother – which adds a resonance with the novella’s main storyline.   

The Visitor is achingly sad yet beautifully written, the kind of story that highlights just how destructive family relationships can be when grievances and feelings of selfishness are allowed to putrefy and fester. Heaven Ali has also written about this book; and as ever, her insightful post is well worth reading. Hopefully my piece will expand the conversation around this lesser-known gem and introduce others to Maeve Brennan, a writer who deserves to be so much better-known.

My copy of The Visitor was published by New Island Books; personal copy.

Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel by William Trevor

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been working my way through some of William Trevor’s novels – mostly the early ones with their notes of dark comedy and undeniable tragedy. Mrs Eckdorf is very much of a piece with the others from this period. First published in 1969, it is something of a bridge between The Boarding House (1965) and The Children of Dynmouth (1976), both of which I adored.

The novel’s catalyst is the titular Mrs Eckdorf – a most annoying and invasive woman who has fashioned a career as a photographer, exploiting the lives of unfortunate individuals around the world, their existences touched by devastation. Large coffee-table style books are this woman’s stock-in-trade – a forerunner of the poverty porn images that are rather controversial today.

As the novel opens, Mrs Eckdorf is on route to Dublin, eager to pay a visit to O’Neill’s Hotel, having heard about the establishment from a bartender on a ship. The hotel itself is central to the book; once grand and distinguished (the sort of place frequented by actors and commercial travellers), it has now fallen into disrepute, its faded glory being a kind of metaphor for declining moral standards.

The hotel is owned by Mrs Sinnott, a ninety-one-year-old deaf-mute woman who can only communicate with others through her notebooks. Various other characters – mostly orphans – frequent the hotel, having been drawn to Mrs Sinnott over the years, confiding their stories to the old lady in a way that feels similar to a religious confession. As a consequence, the notebooks represent a rich source of information, documenting the preoccupations of each of Mrs Sinnott’s visitors – their hopes and dreams, their fears and disappointments.

The hotel itself is largely run by O’Shea, an ageing porter who longs for a return to the glory days of the past. Permanently trailed by his greyhound, O’Shea cuts a somewhat tragic figure, albeit one who has Mrs Sinnott’s best interests at heart. Also residing at the hotel is Mrs S’s son, Eugene, a rather thoughtless, feckless man whose prime interests appear to be drinking and gambling – mostly on greyhound races – much to O’Shea’s disgust. 

When Mrs Eckdorf arrives at O’Neill’s, O’Shea takes a shine to her, mistakenly believing that she may wish to purchase the hotel. Perhaps as a consequence of this misunderstanding, O’Shea longs to pour his heart out to Mrs Eckdorf, viewing her as a kind of saviour and potential ally against Eugene.

He’d have liked to repeat the conversation that had taken place that morning in the kitchen between himself and Eugene Sinnott, explaining to her [Mrs Eckdorf] that for the past three years Eugene Sinnott had insisted on giving his mother a pencil sharpener for her birthday and was again insisting on it, that he had gone on about a greyhound race instead of devoting thought to the question of the birthday present.

Mrs Sinnott’s ninety-second birthday is fast approaching, a date that Mrs Eckdorf believes is particularly significant – not just to the old lady but to the broader Sinnott family. There are hints of a tragedy that took place precisely twenty-eight years earlier – a story that Mrs Eckdorf is keen to uncover, potentially as the source material for another of her books. With this in mind, Mrs Eckdorf proceeds to inveigle her way into the Sinnott family, just in time for the birthday celebrations in all their unvarnished glory.

As ever with William Trevor, the dialogue is excellent, frequently highlighting the mordant humour that seems so indicative of his early work. It’s a style typified by the following passage in which Eugene Sinnott is virtually powerless in the face of Mrs Eckdorf, complete with all her fake charm and flattery.   

‘Now listen,’ said Eugene, stepping in front of O’Shea. ‘Listen, Mrs Eckdorf, this is a bad time to stay here. Tomorrow there’s an occasion here, a lot of people coming, a family thing. It’d be awkward with a stranger about.’

‘Mr Sinnott, I’m like a mouse.’

‘Added to which, there’s only myself and O’Shea. There’s no cook in the kitchen or anything like that. The dining-room hasn’t been entered since we had a farmer from Monaghan here two months ago, a man O’Shea found wandering –’

‘Oh God, I love your way of talking,’ cried Mrs Eckdorf. ‘All the time this morning I’ve met only the nicest and now it’s best of all. Any old bed will do, and a meat tea I adore.’ (pp. 84–85)

Also on Mrs Eckdorf’s hit list are the other members of Mrs Sinnott family, all of whom are brilliantly drawn by the author in his characteristically insightful style. There is Eugene’s estranged wife, Philomena, whose primary concern is her son, Timothy John, and his burgeoning relationship with a girl from Lipton’s cheese counter – the wonderfully-named Daisy Tulip. Mrs Sinnott’s daughter, Enid, is a particularly tragic case, trapped in a loveless marriage to the bemused Mr Gregan, a man with absolutely no awareness of just how unhappy and lonely his wife feels on a continual basis. As the novel unfolds, the developments that led to this relationship are revealed, deepening the poignancy of their isolation from one another.

He had explained to her once that a brooch she had seen in a shop in Nassau Street would be of little use to her since there would never be an occasion in her life when she could wear it. (p. 34)

In the hall she shook her head. She held back her sobs. His voice questioned her again, and she said again that she was upset. She said she was fifty-one years of age and had borne no children. She said that for some reason she couldn’t bear the thought of his growing tomatoes in his field. She said that for some reason she couldn’t bear the thought of seeing him on his bicycle. (p. 37)

Other characters of note include Morrissey, a seedy little pimp who sleeps in one of the corridors of O’Neill’s hotel, effectively using the place as a brothel for various women on his books. Agnes Quin, for her sins, has fallen into Morrissey’s clutches; nevertheless, there are glimmers of hope for Agnes, a young woman who dreams of Hollywood and Olivia de Havilland.

Having installed herself at the hotel, Mrs Eckdorf wastes little time in tracking down these individuals, using her discussions to create a mental picture of their backstories, notably enhanced by the conversations in Mrs S’s notebooks. Naturally, the books prove to be a rich seam of information for Mrs E, a veritable treasure trove just waiting to be exploited… 

As the birthday tea gets underway, Mrs Eckdorf continues to make a nuisance of herself, intruding on the privacy of the occasion, snapping people left, right, and centre for her *art*. Despite several protestations from the Sinnott family, Mrs E is determined to persist — an activity that ultimately leads to her downfall, revealing a disturbed and deluded individual underneath all the bravado.

Once again, William Trevor proves himself a master of the tragicomedy, crafting a story that marries humour and poignancy in broadly equal measure. (There’s a marvellous farcical sequence in which a Mr Smedley, a cardboard salesman from England, is fobbed off with another of Morrissey’s women when Agnes Quin fails to show. It is the beginning of another undoing – in this instance, that of a relative innocent, ‘a man of vigour’ caught in the fray.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Trevor’s interest lies in various aspects of human behaviour, particularly the darker or less appealing facets of our personalities. There is a seedy malevolence to some of these characters, a sense of selfishness and exploitation of others that some readers might not enjoy (despite its authenticity). Nevertheless, there is evidence of sympathy and compassion too, certainly enough to balance the tone. All in all, this is another finely observed novel from one of my favourite writers – I loved it.

Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel is published by Penguin Books; personal copy. Read for Cathy’s Reading Ireland month, which runs throughout March.

The Children of Dynmouth by William Trevor

My fascination with the work of William Trevor continues apace with his 1976 novel, The Children of Dynmouth, the story of a malevolent teenager and the havoc he wreaks on the residents of a sleepy seaside town. It’s a brilliant book, one that veers between the darkly comic, the deeply tragic and the downright unnerving. I can definitely envisage it being one of my highlights of the year.

The novel revolves around Timothy Gedge, an ungainly fifteen-year-old boy who spends much of his time hanging around the town of Dynmouth, pestering people with his unfunny jokes and unwelcome small talk.

Timothy has grown up as a latch-key child, left to his own devices with very little in the way of family support. The boy’s mother and older sister are as thick as thieves, locked in their own private clique, largely at the exclusion of Timothy himself. Moreover, there is no male role model for Timothy to look up to, his father having upped and left the family home not long after he was born. Perhaps as a consequence of this, Timothy has turned out to be a very strange boy indeed – a point that Quentin Featherston, the local vicar, frequently considers.

He was a strange boy, always at a loose end. His mother was a good-looking woman with brassy hair who sold women’s clothes in a shop called Cha-Cha Fashions, his sister was six or seven years older than Timothy, good-looking also, employed as a petrol-pump attendant on the forecourt of the Smiling Service Filling Station: Quentin knew them both by sight. In adolescence, unfortunately, the boy was increasingly becoming a nuisance to people, endlessly friendly and smiling, keen for conversation. He was what Lavinia called a latch-key child, returning to the empty flat in Cornerways from the Comprehensive school, on his own in it all day during the school holidays. Being on his own seemed somehow to have become part of him. (p. 9)

At first, Timothy comes across as being a bit slow, a child with learning difficulties or behavioural issues. However, as the narrative unfolds, a more sinister facet of his personality soon begins to emerge. There is a malevolent side to the boy, a deliberately vicious streak that manifests itself in several ways. Timothy loiters around the town, watching people’s movements, peering through their windows, and listening in to private conversations – all with the intention of using any information gained to its full advantage. More specifically, Timothy knows why Commander Abigail likes to hang around the beach on the pretence of going for a swim; he knows that Miss Lavant loves Dr Greenslade from afar, setting an imaginary place for him at her dining-room table; and he knows that Mr Plant is having an affair with Mrs Gedge, one of several women the local publican appears to have on the go at once. Funerals are another source of fascination for Timothy, to the extent that he hangs around at the graveside, even when the deceased is unknown to him.

Things take a particularly unsettling turn when Timothy hatches a plan to enter the ‘Spot the Talent’ competition at the forthcoming Easter Fête. The performance will centre on a re-enactment of a macabre historical event involving the murder of three women in a bath – an incident Timothy learned of during a school trip to Madame Tussauds  He is convinced it will be a huge hit at the church-sponsored Fête, bringing the house down in the process. The boy’s fantasies even extend to the possibility that Hughie Green might be in the audience, scouting for contestants for Opportunity Knocks, a staple of the TV schedules back in the ‘70s.  

With a view to obtaining the props he needs for his act, Timothy proceeds to blackmail some of the residents he has had under observation. A pair of curtains from Mr Dass; a tin bath with the help of Mr Plant; and a dog-tooth suit from Commander Abigail, the latter being particularly vulnerable to potential exposure. Somewhat conveniently, Timothy is in the habit of popping over to the Abigails’ house every Wednesday evening, notionally under the pretence of doing a few odd jobs for the elderly couple; however, in reality, the boy is there for a free dinner and a chance to pilfer some money. It is during one of these evenings that a drunken Timothy begins to turn the screws on the Commander, while poor Mrs Abigail is left to watch the proceedings unfold with a mixture of distress and bewilderment.

‘You’ve no right to spy on people,’ the Commander began to say. ‘You’ve no right to go poking –’

‘I’ve witnessed you down on the beach, sir. Running about in your bathing togs. I’ve witnessed you up to your tricks, Commander, when she’s out on her Meals on Wheels.’

He smiled at her, but she didn’t want to look at him. ‘I wouldn’t ever tell a soul,’ he said. ‘I wouldn’t, Commander.’

She waited, her eyes fixed on the flowered tea-pot, frowning at it. Whatever he was referring to, she didn’t want to hear about it. She wanted him to stop speaking. She felt herself infected by her husband’s panic, not knowing why she felt like that. They would keep the secret, the boy said. The secret would be safe. (p. 64)

The way that Timothy preys on the more vulnerable residents of Dynmouth is particularly cruel. In an attempt to procure a wedding dress for his act, Timothy targets two twelve-year-olds, Stephen and Kate, who are now half-brother and sister following a marriage between Stephen’s widowed father and Kate’s divorced mother. A gap of three years can seem vast at this age, and Timothy – a boy on the cusp of adulthood – uses this differential to his full advantage. He maliciously embellishes the events surrounding the death of Stephen’s mother, sowing the seeds of doubt in the youngsters’ minds. It’s a terribly cruel trick, skilfully played.

What Trevor does so well here is to expose the darkness that lurks beneath the veneer of respectable society – perhaps most notably, the men who interfere with young boys under the pretence of an innocent game. There is much sadness to be uncovered too – the desperate loneliness of Miss Lavant’s solitary life; the abandonment of the Dasses by the son they indulged in his youth; and the real reason for the emotional distance that characterises the Abigails’ marriage. There are harsh, uncomfortable truths lying dormant here; things the Dynmouth residents would prefer not to know about or tackle.

The rhythms and preoccupations of small-town life are beautifully captured too, from the desolate views of the windswept promenade, to the sleepy matinees at the down-at-heel cinema, to the much-anticipated return of Ring’s Amusements for the summer season. Dynmouth is the type of place where everyone knows everyone else’s business, complete with all the petty squabbles this environment can breed. The following passage could have come straight out of a Barbara Pym novel, such is its wonderful combination of dry comedy and keen insight.

‘I think I’m going to try and cut the grass,’ Quentin Featherston said as he and Lavinia washed up the dishes after the Mothers’ Union tea-party, which had been even more trying than usual. When Miss Poraway had mentioned a Tupperware party Mrs Stead-Carter had gone much further than she’d ever gone before. She’d pointed out that it was stupid to talk about Tupperware parties as a means of raising funds since funds raised at Tupperware parties naturally went to the manufacturers of Tupperware. Miss Poraway said there were other parties of a similar nature, at which suede jackets and coats were modelled, and sometimes underclothes. In greater exasperation Mrs Stead-Carter said she’d never heard anything as silly in her life: the Mothers’ Union in Dynmouth had neither Tupperware nor suede clothes nor underclothes at its disposal, Miss Poraway’s whole line of conversation was a waste of time. (p. 101)

In the end though, the reader is left wondering about Timothy Gedge (a boy who could be a younger incarnation of Muriel Spark’s Dougal Douglas). Is Timothy as much of a victim of circumstance as he is a perpetrator of evil? How much of his character has been shaped by nature vs nurture? Is there the possibility of redemption in his future? These are just some of the questions for the reader to ponder…

The Children of Dynmouth is published by Penguin Books: personal copy.

Actress by Anne Enright

Actress, the latest novel by the esteemed Irish writer Anne Enright, is a beautiful, meandering meditation on a mother-daughter relationship defined by fame. The story is narrated by Norah, a middle-aged writer with five novels under her belt. And yet, she has never tackled the one story that really needs to be written – that of her mother, the once-famous actress, Katherine O’Dell.

Prompted by a request from a rather pretentious researcher looking to define Katherine’s sexual style, Norah embarks upon a winding exploration of her mother’s life, visiting key places, recalling memories and examining old anecdotes, all to better understand the woman behind the myth.

Katherine O’Dell was forty-five years old. She wasn’t forty-five the way people do forty-five these days. She smoked thirty a day and she drank from 6 till whenever. My mother never ate a vegetable unless she was on a diet; she did not, I think, possess a pair of shoes without heels. She talked all day, and got bitter in the evening, when the wine made her face swell and her eyes very green. (p. 11)

Katherine died in 1986 at the age of fifty-eight, pretty much the age that Norah is now as she reflects on her mother’s tumultuous life. We learn of Katherine’s youth, the years spent travelling the country towns of Ireland, her parents performing in McMaster’s theatrical ensemble during the 1940s. It is as part of this rep company that Katherine gets her first taste of the stage, stepping into a role at short notice when one of the young actresses is taken ill with scarlet fever.

At the age of eighteen, Katherine moves to London with a girlfriend where they share lodgings in Notting Hill. Through her job as receptionist for a theatrical impresario, Katherine is the beneficiary of another lucky break when a director casts her as the lead in a play opening at The Criterion. The production is a tremendous success, ultimately transferring to Broadway, where Katherine soon finds herself being styled as an Irish heroine, complete with her dyed red hair and clothes spanning every colour as long as it’s a shade of green.

By the age of twenty, Katherine is effectively the property of her movie studio – her private life scrutinised by their publicity department, her lifestyle monitored and marketed to the press. The studio even insists she get married to boost her image, and a sham wedding to a sculptor, Philip Greenwood, follows suit. The career-defining role comes when Katherine is cast as a field nurse in a New York production, A Prayer Before Morning. The play is romantic, dramatic and tragic, a performance that brings Katherine to Hollywood and ultimately worldwide fame.

Katherine O’Dell thought she was offering something to the crowd, of joy or of pain. In later years, she considered herself some sort of sacrifice – set aflame, perhaps, by the glare of their attention. But, you know, maybe she was just standing up there, emoting in the light. (p. 66)

Through Norah’s sifting of various memories, insights and reflections, a complex portrait of Katherine emerges. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a strong element of performance to several aspects of Katherine’s behaviour. We see a glamorous woman enjoying the attention of her admirers, flirting with the men who hang around her house by day and night. There are many lovers, of course, not least Norah’s father, whose identity remains an elusive mystery never to be revealed.

While Norah is aware of her mother as an object of adoration and fantasy, she also sees another aspect Katherine’s personality, a more vulnerable, insecure side – a single mother eager for the respect and admiration of the daughter who watches quietly from the wings. There are moments of real tenderness in some of Norah’s memories, especially from their time back in Ireland during the 1950s. (By this time, Katherine is living as a single mother in Dublin, her once-glamorous career now beginning to wane.)

I much preferred our winter quarters in the basement kitchen, where we were more private. There was a big old range cooker down there, with a big easy chair beside it and a shelf above of old newspapers and forgotten ornaments, which included a china dog and a snow globe of New York, fogged over with cooking grease. The floor was chequered with black and red tiles, of which the red were a little more porous and worn so the bentwood chairs always had a wobble in them. I liked wriggling about on these chairs; getting up, re-setting, making good. (p. 31)

By the age of forty-seven, Katherine can no longer get away with playing women in their twenties, irrespective of the intensive beauty regime she maintains. There is a slide into obscurity as Katherine’s star continues to fade. Loneliness sets in; a reliance on alcohol becomes more intense; and the onset of mental health issues is clearly apparent. Norah’s days at the Dublin home are punctuated by the sound of Katherine hammering away on the typewriter – frenetic bursts of activity interspersed with deathly silences in the quest to write a screenplay worthy of production. It is during this period that Katherine becomes increasingly desperate and unhinged; and yet, she is forever the performer.

Everything went missing – the right blouse, the right shoes, lipstick, Pan-stik, curling tongs. She blundered from room to room and wailed. I had learned, from a very young age, to go very still while my mother got herself ready for the world. I always knew where to find her keys. Out of her bedroom, back into the bedroom for some forgotten thing, patting herself down as she clattered down the stairs. Finally, at the hall door, she turned to the mirror to put herself together and this was a wonderful thing to witness – the way she locked eyes with her own reflection and fixed, by some imperceptible shift, into her public self. A tiny realignment of the shoulders, neck, chin; each element lifted and balanced, as though on hidden weights and wires, around the taut line of her gaze. (pp. 177–178)

Woven into these explorations of Katherine, both as a human being and as an icon, are Norah’s reflections on her own life – in particular her relationships with men, including her husband with whom she clearly has a deep yet complex relationship. There is a ‘you’ who appears now and again in the narrative – ostensibly Norah’s husband, although there is the possibility of a wider audience too.

By inserting these meditations into the narrative, we see how Katherine’s presence has shaped Norah as an individual, how the sexual freedom Norah enjoys threatens her mother, making Katherine feel old and no longer attractive. They also provide Enright with the opportunity to highlight various aspects of Irish culture, particularly the idea that saying ‘no’ really can mean ‘no’ and not ‘yes’. These insights reveal the passive side of Irish society, a culture that often shifts the balance of blame towards the victim – Dublin being a place where you might get yourself shot, ‘robbed or, especially, raped’, with individuals frequently finding themselves in dire straits. While I found Norah’s reflections on her own life somewhat less engaging (more self-absorbed, even?) than those on Katherine, I could see how they added an extra dimension to the narrative, another layer to consider.

In short, Actress is a beautiful, reflective meditation on a complicated mother-daughter relationship. It’s an exploration of the individual behind the myth, one that also raises questions about the ownership of personal image, sexual power and the nature of Irish culture over the years. The writing is top-notch, with Enright bringing a wonderful sense of irony and wit to many of her observations. I particularly loved the evocation of the theatrical world with its mix of glamour and unexpected sights, the hum of the audience detectable in the background. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that captures this magical atmosphere at its best.

It was a place of secret corridors and blind ends. There was a sudden or hidden door, which revealed, when you opened it, your own reflection in the full-length mirror on the opposite wall. This room had a bicycle in the corner, a double sink, bunches of flowers stuffed into jars, a long counter, where a woman sat fixing a fan of green feathers into her hair. […] Backstage was the best place, where everyone was mixed up and undone. (p. 120)

Actress is published by Jonathan Cape; personal copy. 

The River Capture by Mary Costello

The River Capture – the second novel from the Irish writer Mary Costello – shares something with its predecessor, the deeply affecting Academy Street, a work of intense beauty and sadness. In both novels, the lives of the central characters are dictated by traumatic events – more specifically, deaths in the family and the feckless actions of men. Capture, however, is a more ambitious novel than Academy Street, particularly in terms of style and form. There is a real sense of Costello’s development as a writer here, something that leaves me excited to see what she produces next…

Central to The River Capture is Luke O’Brien, an unmarried teacher in his mid-thirties, currently on an extended sabbatical from his role teaching English at Belvedere College, a secondary school in Dublin. He is back at Ardboe, the sizeable O’Brien estate in Waterford, a farm that has been in the family for several generations.

Having nursed his beloved Aunt Josie through a terminal illness, Luke is now at a bit of a loose end, endlessly dreaming of James Joyce and his masterpiece, Ulysses, about which he is rather obsessed. Alongside caring for Josie, Luke had intended to use his career break to write his own book on Joyce; or even, in his wildest dreams, to establish an Academy of Excellence at Ardboe, where the entire school curriculum would be drawn from the text of Ulysses. However, despite bursts of intensive research, neither of these plans has come to fruition. Instead, Luke spends his days visiting his elderly Aunt Ellen, whom he is very close to. Ellen – whose house is situated nearby – appears to be Luke’s only living relative, his father and mother having died some years earlier.

Alongside Ellen, there is also the business of the farm to deal with, particularly the land which is coveted by a neighbouring farmer, Jim Lynch. Having helped Luke out financially at a time of grief, Lynch is keen to extend his lease on the land by five years, effectively tying Luke to a long-term commitment he is reluctant to make.

This first section of the novel is fluid and beautifully written, weaving together Luke’s current preoccupations with various memories from the past.

Moments like this he longs to be back in Belvedere. That morning walk, pigeons on the footpath, raucous gulls overhead. Buses pulling out from the kerb spluttering exhaust fumes on passing cyclists. All the lives parallel to his own, all the moments in which different things are simultaneously happening. Horizontal time. Thoughts and musings that seem to go on for hours, but take only minutes. No one understands time. Impossible to measure too. If it weren’t for death, we might not count time at all… (p. 11)

For all the beauty in the rural landscape, there is a noticeable seam of darkness here. Tragedy is everywhere in this novel, marking the lives of those it touches. We hear of the death of Josie’s older sister, Una, who, at the age of ten, fell into the farm’s well and drowned. Unfortunately for Josie, who witnessed the incident when she was a baby, the trauma caused irreparable damage, leaving her mute for two years and mentally disturbed her whole life. There are significant losses too in Luke’s past; the sudden death of his mother following a short sequence of strokes; the miscarriage experienced by his ex-girlfriend, Maeve, in the early stages of her pregnancy; and the void left by Aunt Josie, whose absence remains keenly felt.

Then, out the blue, into Luke’s life comes Ruth, a local lass who is looking to rehouse a dog that used to belong to her uncle. Right from the start, it is clear that Luke is attracted to Ruth, a beautiful woman with green eyes and a gentle manner. Their relationship blossoms in the early weeks, with Ruth travelling back to Waterford at the weekends to meet with Luke while visiting family.

But then, just when Luke appears to be getting his life together, a confrontation occurs, precipitated by Ruth’s introduction to Ellen. While there is nothing Ellen would like more than to see Luke settled, it absolutely cannot be with Ruth. In a pivotal scene – the novel’s midpoint – Ellen reveals that fifty years ago, her life was destroyed by an incident, a devastating accusation involving a member of Ruth’s family. As a consequence, Luke must give up his relationship with either Ruth or Ellen; as far as Ellen is concerned, he cannot have both.

These revelations give rise to a profound disturbance within Luke – a kind of schism in which thoughts race frantically through his head at an alarming rate. As an individual, Luke is highly intelligent, and his susceptibility to mood swings marks him out as bipolar – a point touched upon in the first half of the book.

By use of a dramatic stylistic shift – one that reflects Luke’s passion for the work of James Joyce — Costello skilfully captures the turmoil Luke is experiencing, thereby holding us close to his inner thoughts and feelings. The second half of the novel is presented as a series of questions and answers, rather like a catechism for religious instruction. (While I haven’t read Ulysses, or anything else by Joyce, I understand that this is the technique he uses in the Ithaca chapter of the book, reputedly to great effect.)

Hopefully the following quote will give you a feel for what this looks like in Capture. In this passage, we learn how Luke is susceptible to the ‘noonday demon’, a spirit that prompts a weariness and loathing of life amongst those it enters.  

Enters him? In what form?

Its announces itself with lethargy, torpidity, a wandering mind, thoughts that swing suddenly from the banal to the grandiose, the inflationary, the fantastical, and are frequently punctuated by a mental cataloguing of his own virtues, talents, aptitudes, abilities – all of which, he adduces, have gone entirely unnoticed and unappreciated by others for years (at least since the death of his mother). (p. 153)

In effect, Costello is using this introspective interrogation or Q&A technique to show us how Luke is processing Ellen’s revelations and the impact they will have on his relationships – both with Ruth and with Ellen herself.

On what does he ponder?

On the word ‘mercy’. On Ruth. […] On the loss of her. On the image of her at the other end of the phone. On her suffering. On her mother’s suffering. On the balance sheet of love. On the charge sheet of feeling. On what makes one kind of love more worthy than another. On what places romantic love, in the eyes of society, above the love of an elderly relative. On how the hands of fate can reach across fifty years and stick a knife in him and her and her and her. On the countless difficulties of relationships. On the merits of a solitary life. On the greater possibility of living a good life alone. On the greater possibility of living a spiritual life alone. On how best to occupy himself for the evening and banish from his mind all thoughts of a single, solitary, fateful future. (p. 223)

Capture is a novel in which the sins of one generation are visited upon the next. By refusing to let go of past injustices, Ellen is effectively blighting the lives of those that follow, forcing a degree of suffering onto Luke and Ruth – two individuals who remain innocent in all this, their lives tainted not by their own actions but by those of their forebears.

Alongside this, it is also a dazzling exploration of ideas as Luke’s mind flits unpredictably from one question to another (or from one subject to another within the same inquiry). Costello covers a multitude of topics here including mathematics, genetics, biology, physics, philosophy, motherhood, death, immortality, gender fluidity, animal cruelty, and of course, James Joyce. There are several parallels between Luke and the characters from Ulysess, particularly Bloom and Dedalus.

In the second half of the novel, Costello’s prose gives the narrative a sense of urgency, making it an exhilarating, thought-provoking read.

The novel’s title comes from a geological phenomenon, whereby a river ‘acquires the flow from another river or draining system, usually below it,’ as a consequence of the erosion of the land. When this act of capture occurs, the two rivers effectively become one. Like the lives of the main characters in this book, the course of the captured river is inexorably altered, forcing it in another direction irrespective of its natural will. 

How does he perceive the mind of the river?

Divided, exiled from itself, each half eternally mourning the loss of the other, looking south – nostalgic for the old route, for the whorls of old currents and stone pillows, the original neural way. Longing for reunion. Longing to be known. Longing to be understood. (p. 247)

Despite my lack of familiarity with Ulysses, I found this to be an incredibly impressive novel. Irrespective of any personal preferences for form and style, one has to admire the literary skill and stylistic flourishes on display here. Costello’s ambition and brio are to be applauded, for sure.

For other views on this novel, please see these reviews by Kim and Lisa.  

The River Capture is published by Canongate Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.