Coming of Age in the New Ireland

Normal People     Sally Rooney     (2018)

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As we grow older, each of us carries memories from the years that we’ve lived through. Some of us also carry wisdom gained from reflection on our past actions. And a few of us can dissect the decisions and motivations of decades gone by.

Irish novelist Sally Rooney, who is in her late twenties, has an uncanny understanding of contemporary men and women in their late teens who are navigating relationships, developing their own worldviews in perilous times, wrestling with their demons, and exploring the directions that their talents might take them. She explores the emotions of emerging adulthood with exquisite sensitivity and nuance in Normal People, her second novel, following on the highly successful Conversations with Friends from 2017.

In 2011, Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in a small town in County Sligo, in the rural west of Ireland. Connell’s mother, a loving but impoverished single parent, works as a housecleaner for the wealthy Sheridans. Connell and Marianne, the two brightest students at the local secondary school, are drawn to each other. He’s a popular athlete, with several good friends. She’s a loner with a miserable home life. This being the New Ireland (not the Old Ireland of hidebound Catholicism), plenty of sex scenes ensue, handled with great care by the author, though still sometimes cringe-worthy. Connell and Marianne keep their liaison secret, each for different reasons.

When the pair head off to attend Trinity College, their roles are somewhat reversed. Connell struggles to adjust as a “culchie” (a country bumpkin) in the cosmopolitan Dublin, whereas Marianne, freed from her nasty mother and brother, slides right into a smart social set. Over a period of four years, they break up, get back together, break up again . . . and readers are pulled one way and another.

The plot is not especially original, but Rooney exploits it deftly to probe the thoughts of Connell and Marianne as they grow toward adulthood. Despite their different family situations, they hold much in common, including exceptional intelligence, proficiency in the academic enterprise, interest in global politics, and basic loneliness. 

Connell muses: “Marianne had a wildness that got into him for a while and made him feel that he was like her, that they had the same unnameable spiritual injury, and that neither of them could ever fit into the world. But he was never damaged like she was. She just made him feel that way.” (175)

Marianne illuminates the title of the novel in a scene late in the book: “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, says Marianne. I don’t know why I can’t be like normal people. Her voice sounds oddly cool and distant, like a recording of her voice played after she herself has gone away or departed from somewhere else. In what way? he says. I don’t know why I can’t make people love me. I think there was something wrong with me when I was born.” (187)  (The lack of punctuation is Rooney’s—a feature that I accepted despite its irritation factor.)

As if laying bare all aspects of adolescent angst isn’t enough, Rooney also manages some good digs at literary pretentiousness. Here’s Connell considering an author event  he’s just attended in Dublin: “He knows that a lot of the literary people in college see books primarily as a way of appearing cultured.  . . .It was culture as a class performance, literature fetishized for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterward feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about. Even if the writer himself was a good person, and even if his book really was insightful, all books were ultimately marketed as status symbols, and all writers participated to some degree in this marketing. Presumably this was how the industry made money. Literature, in the way it appeared at these public readings, had no potential as a form of resistance to anything.” (228)

Sally Rooney nails it with this insightful and intense book. 

 

A Novel about a Nasty Novelist

A Ladder to the Sky     John Boyne     (2018)

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 “Nasty, nasty, and nasty” are the words that come to mind to describe the character Maurice Swift in this latest novel by Irish author John Boyne. Maurice wants to be a writer, and not just any writer but a world-renowned one. He will stop at nothing to achieve his goal, though he himself says that ambition is “like setting a ladder to the sky. A pointless waste of energy.” (309) He also admits that he has absolutely no talent for plot, though if he’s given a plot he can hang words on it fairly well. 

We first meet the slick, handsome Maurice in 1988, when he’s a young ex-pat Yorkshireman working as a waiter in Berlin. He charms Erich Ackermann, a novelist on a book tour. Then we jump ahead a few years to another European locale: the stunning home of (the real-life author) Gore Vidal on the Amalfi Coast. In this segment, Maurice is even more confident—no, brazen—as he arrives to visit Vidal in the company of Dash Hardy, another of his conquests. Although Maurice doesn’t fool the savvy Vidal, his literary star is rising. The next episode takes place in Norwich, England, in 2000-2001, with Maurice now married to Edith, who has recently published a successful novel. Then, after a stint in New York running a literary magazine, Maurice ends up in present-day London, meeting with young Theo Field, who interviews him for a proposed biography. With each successive segment of the novel, told from various narrative perspectives, we get a fuller picture of the true evil that lies in the heart of Maurice Swift.   

The blurbs and reviews of this book have focused on Maurice’s theft of intellectual property in the form of plots and plot components. I don’t really see these appropriations of his as criminal. In fact, before the modern era, originality in plot was not a literary skill that was highly prized. Chaucer and Shakespeare rarely came up with original plots. And some stories have been mined for centuries: the Arthurian legends have been reworked by countless greats, from Malory to Tennyson to Lerner and Loewe. Some contemporary genres are all about reused plot elements—autofiction, for instance, is constructed out of pieces of the novelist’s own life history. I could offer countless other examples. So, no, I don’t see plot thievery as Maurice’s sin. Instead, his sin is ambition. His overweening desire to be a famous novelist leads him to steal more than just plots and to commit many other increasingly heinous crimes.  

As Maurice’s wife, Edith, says to him: “’You’re not a writer at all, Maurice. You’re desperate to be but you don’t have the talent. You never did have. That’s why you’ve always attached yourself to people more successful than yourself, pretended to be their friend and then dropped them when they were no longer of any use to you.’” (215) Maurice’s pretense of friendship is only the half of it.  

With Maurice Swift, Boyne has created a character who plays the game of contemporary fiction shrewdly, vying for the attention of agents and publishers and making the rounds of all the book festivals. Maurice cultivates those who can advance his career, using his natural good looks and sensuality to seduce both men and women. In this multi-layered novel, Boyne is not only offering a portrait of an unscrupulous writer but also skewering the entire current-day system by which writers must climb the ladder of literary success, which does not reach the sky but which is propped against a shaky edifice.  

[I’ve also reviewed another, quite different, novel by John Boyne, The Heart’s Invisible Furies.]

A Very Long Marriage

 Midwinter Break     Bernard MacLaverty     (2017)

Irish author Bernard MacLaverty’s latest novel, Midwinter Break, is a masterful study of the pleasures and trials of a very long marriage.

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Gerry and Stella are in their seventies. They grew up in Northern Ireland during the hidebound 1950s and then experienced the Troubles, that period of Catholic/Protestant terrorism and guerrilla warfare on the island that began in the late 1960s. As adults, they moved to Scotland to escape violence and pursue their careers, Gerry in architecture and Stella in teaching. They’re retired now, financially comfortable, and their grown son lives in Canada with his family, so their lives have emptied out, in a sense. To fill the void, Stella, who has always been a devout Catholic, is trying to develop her spiritual life further. Non-believer Gerry, on the other hand, has upped his alcohol consumption to a dangerous level.

It’s January, and Stella has organized a short vacation to Amsterdam for the two of them. If trading one cold, dreary winter site (Scotland) for another that’s equally cold and dreary (the Netherlands) seems odd, well, it is. Readers eventually learn Stella’s hidden agenda for the trip, just as readers come to understand Gerry’s obsession with alcohol, which he tries to hide.

MacLaverty manages his prose in such a way that he makes the minutiae of daily life truly fascinating. I do not know how he does this. At the level of the sentence, the actions of his characters are trivial, but the overall effect of his paragraphs and chapters is riveting, even when he’s describing such mind-numbing details as negotiating suitcases and shampoo bottles and security checks in an airport. Part of his technique must be rooted in his dialogue, which is so perfectly tuned that I feel certain I’ve heard some of the lines verbatim in real life.

Stella and Gerry are at heart quite compatible and affectionate toward each other, although she does carp a bit about his drinking, and he engages in some gentle mockery of her religiosity. Gerry automatically steers Stella by the elbow at busy street corners, knowing her fear of traffic. Stella indulges Gerry’s long tarrying at certain art works in the Rijksmuseum. They both have physical ailments that are common for their ages, but they don’t let these dominate their lives; instead they have “the Ailment Hour,” a limited time period each day when they tell each other about their aches and pains.

All is not connubial bliss, however. Shadows from a horrible past event hang over the couple, and the full power of this event is not revealed until late in the narrative. The stereotypical issues of many Irish tales, religion and drink, are key to the conflicts between Stella and Gerry, but in MacLaverty’s capable hands they are never trite. Stella’s religious beliefs, for example, are treated respectfully. But MacLaverty does go full Irish in invoking James Joyce in the final chapters of Midwinter Break, as Stella and Gerry deal with a snowstorm. MacLaverty’s characters live in Scotland, and he sends them vacationing in the Netherlands, but the pull of the old Ireland of “The Dead” from The Dubliners is still strong. Midwinter Break is a book that you’ll mull over for many days after you close the covers.

An Irish Cozy Mystery

Holding     Graham Norton     (2017)

A village in the west of Ireland, a human skeleton unearthed at a building site, gossip about old love triangles, and a bumbling local police sergeant:  all the ingredients for a classic cozy mystery novel. Holding is indeed that, but it goes beyond the genre.

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In Holding, Graham Norton has produced some noteworthy character studies of mature people who are at turning points in their lives. He has readers sympathizing with the middle-aged police sergeant, PJ Collins, who is overweight, underutilized, and desperately lonely. Norton also pulls us into the plight of middle-aged Brid Riordan, who loves her kids but often gets drunk to forget how unhappy her marriage is. Another character is Evelyn Ross, who’s stuck in the past, lamenting a failed romance from twenty-odd years ago. There’s also PJ’s elderly housekeeper, Lizzie Meany, whose background is revealed in a heartbreaking and surprisingly violent segment of the novel.

The mystery plot is not that tricky for readers who read a lot of cozies—I guessed the identity of the bones early on and had a good idea who buried them by the midpoint of the book. Still, the climax of the book, with the solution of the mystery, was suitably tense for me. It’s the unraveling of the story, with the appropriate red herrings, that gives the author scope for more interactions of his characters. PJ, for example, compromises his professionalism in his dealings with two of the murder suspects, and Brid makes some major changes in her family situation.

Holding has such a classic-1930s-mystery vibe to it that modern elements like DNA testing and mobile phones seemed slightly odd at first, but Norton skillfully integrates twenty-first-century technology into a rural Ireland that in some ways has not changed for a century—the pubs on the main street, the church fete, the outlying farms and hedgerows. He does allow, of course, for occasional lapses in phone reception that will advance his plot!  

Although I had never heard of him before, Irish-born Graham Norton is a well-known television personality and cultural commentator in Britain. This status might have gained him some book sales in the European market, but it clearly didn’t influence my decision to pick up Holding at my local library and stick with it to the end. (I have a “50-page test.”  I assess each title that I start reading at the 50-page mark to decide if I want to invest more time it in. I abandon many, many books even before page 50. Holding easily passed this test.)

The epilogue of Holding contains suggestions that more adventures of Sergeant PJ Collins may be forthcoming. I hope Norton takes time from his television career to produce another PJ mystery. I’ll be on the lookout!

Repression in Ireland

The Heart’s Invisible Furies     John Boyne     (2016)

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In first-person fictional narrative, Irishman Cyril Avery, adopted son of Charles and Maude Avery, tells us his life story, in bursts every seven years from 1945 to 2015. Cyril starts with a detailed description of his own birth to the unmarried Catherine Goggin, and we know that he must have learned these details from Catherine herself. So we keep waiting for the page on which Cyril finds his birth mother. Be patient, reader, because that page does eventually arrive.

First we get a full account of growing up gay in an Ireland that was dominated by the Catholic Church. The tale is brutal but realistic—novelist John Boyne himself likely suffered some of the violence and indignities described. And Boyne does not confine himself to homophobia in Ireland. His character Cyril lives as an expatriate in Amsterdam and New York for many years. Amsterdam in 1980, though a tolerant city overall, is home to vicious pimps who exploit “rent boys.” New York City in 1987 is the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic, which many Americans saw as a punishment by God for homosexuality.

The cast of The Heart’s Invisible Furies includes straight women who are ostracized by Irish society because of their pregnancies, adoptive parents who are unloving, straight men who assault gays, and gays who strike back. Somehow, Cyril survives, and his tenacity is amazing. He tries hard to comprehend the antagonism toward him:

”’Why do they hate us so much anyway?’ I asked after a lengthy pause. ‘If they’re not queer themselves, then what does it matter to them if someone else is?’

‘I remember a friend of mine telling me that we hate what we fear in ourselves,’ she said with a shrug. ‘Perhaps that has something to do with it.’” (224-225)

I do have some criticisms of The Heart’s Invisible Furies. The text can veer into didacticism as Boyne gives voice to “the heart’s invisible furies,” a line from a WH Auden poem. I found the ending weak in comparison with the rest of the novel—I’m guessing that Boyne used unconventional narrative techniques in order to take his readers right to the very end of Cyril’s life. In addition, I was able to spot a few minor anachronisms because I lived in Dublin myself back in the early 1970s. None of these issues leads me to discourage potential readers.

The status of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland is today much different than it was in previous centuries. Investigations in recent decades have revealed sexual abuses by priests and severe maltreatment of women and their children in church-run homes for unwed mothers. At least partially because of these scandals, far fewer Irish citizens now attend Mass, and the power of the church over sexuality has lessened. Homosexual activity was decriminalized in Ireland in 1993, and in 2015 same-sex marriage was adopted by popular referendum. In 2017, Leo Varadkar became the first openly gay Irish prime minister.

To get the most from John Boyne's dark and powerful novel, you might want to do a quick review of the history of Ireland and familiarize yourself with Irish terms like "Taoiseach" (prime minister). It’s well worth the effort.

An Unlikely Marriage

This Must Be the Place     Maggie O’Farrell     (2016)

Maggie O’Farrell trusts her readers to catch on to what’s she’s doing with her oblique plot lines. She trusts that readers won’t jump ship when she suddenly shifts the setting to another hemisphere. She especially trusts that readers will take note of her chapter titles, which include the name of the person whose point of view is adopted for that chapter, as well as the city and year in which that chapter takes place. It’s dizzying at first, but once you get used to it, there’s a bit of a reader buzz at the beginning of each chapter. Oh, now you’re in Donegal, Ireland, in 2010, with Daniel narrating in first person. Then, hello, Brooklyn 1944! It’s a third-person narrative about Teresa, who turns out to be Daniel’s mother. And welcome to Goa, India, in 1996, with a third-person narrative about Claudette, Daniel’s second wife. Decades and continents whizz past as you put the pieces of the plot together.

This Must Be the Place ends up being a character study of two people who both have immense talents and big hearts but also serious flaws. Their lives are messy, peopled by previous lovers and by children with problems of their own. Daniel Sullivan is an American linguistics professor who has lost custody of his children in a contentious divorce from his first wife. On a trip to Ireland to retrieve his grandfather’s ashes, Daniel comes across a young boy on the roadside in Donegal. This is how he meets Claudette Wells, the boy’s mother, who is a recluse in the mountains, having fled a life of international stardom and infernal paparazzi. Daniel and Claudette fall in love.

Readers get the life histories of both Daniel and Claudette through those chapters that flash back and forth in time. Some of the chapters border on gimmicky, especially the one that’s a catalog of Claudette’s personal objects that are put up for auction, complete with inset photos. Some of the plot assumptions are wobbly. I doubt that Claudette could really have kept her presence in Ireland a secret for years—in rural Africa or South America, perhaps, but not in Ireland. And I can’t see how Daniel could get work permits for whatever country he was in. None of that matters, however, as O’Farrell reveals more and more about Daniel and Claudette, drawing readers into their struggles.

Along the way, O’Farrell’s descriptive passages work well. Here is Daniel narrating: “Winter is the best season to see Paris, I’ve always thought, when the pavements are sheer with frost, when the sun in low in the sky, when the Seine is swollen and brown, twisting fibrously beneath the bridges.” (266)

And here is Daniel being described when he is in a depressive state: “He is watching the red digital numbers of his alarm clock mutate into their successors: 5 gains an extra descender on its lower-left corner to become 6; to become 7, the 6 must lose almost all of itself, all its left-hand side, all its lower and middle strokes; the only consolation, he tells the 6-soon-to-be-7, is that you’ll get them all back for the full house that is 8. He watches the numbers tot themselves up, then spill over into another hour . . .” (295)

This Must Be the Place offers particularly excellent insights into the interdependence of partners in a marriage, and the portrayals of Daniel's and Claudette’s children are moving and believable. Overall, it’s a satisfying read. I plan to watch for future offerings from O’Farrell.

Two Irish Tales

Tender     Belinda McKeon     (2015)     PLUS     Solace     Belinda McKeon     (2011)       

The tradition of sad stories in Irish literature crosses genres and includes both literary and popular writing. To mention a few, there’s Samuel Beckett’s bleak, darkly tragicomic dramas; Sean O’Casey’s depressing presentations of the working classes; and Maeve Binchy’s early novels that turn on the repressive structures of family and religion. Belinda McKeon stands firmly in this Irish tradition with her two novels, Solace and Tender.

In Tender, the more recent book, we meet Catherine Reilly and James Flynn, two friends in their late teens living in Dublin. Catherine is a student of English and art history at Trinity College, and James is an aspiring photographer, just back in Ireland from an apprenticeship in Berlin.

The year is 1997, and this fact is key to understanding the novel. The years from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s were the period of the Celtic Tiger, a boom time when the Republic of Ireland had tremendous economic growth that transformed it quickly from one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of the wealthiest. Young people from Ireland’s rural areas thronged the cities, especially Dublin, to wallow in the new consumerist culture. Jobs were plentiful, and the longstanding Irish commitment to excellent education meant that these young people were ready for them.

The 1997 Dublin social scene depicted in Tender is heady (and even more beer-fueled than it was in the 1970s, when I lived in Dublin). But still, underlying all the mad gaiety is that Irish melancholy, the unhappiness that results from the clash of modern education and capitalism with hidebound religious beliefs and agricultural life. A term of contempt that is flung around constantly in Tender is “culchie,” the Irish slang word for an unsophisticated person from outside the Dublin area.  Americans might use a word like “hick” or “bumpkin.”

In a nation where contraceptives were illegal until the 1980s, Irish families used to ostracize daughters who were pregnant out of wedlock. In 1997, young adults don’t need to be as concerned with unintended pregnancy, but their parents are still having trouble accepting the sexual activities of their offspring, especially if those activities are between people of the same sex. Some of the cruel prejudices of Ireland’s past have not faded.

In Tender, Catherine’s inner voice is a prime narrator, and this voice of hers can overwhelm the reader at times with meandering and eventually obsessive thoughts. Well, the master of stream-of-consciousness writing was James Joyce, so there’s another Irish tradition for you. My advice to readers is to keep wading through the middle of Tender, because the final sections of the book move much more quickly. Summarizing the action of the novel is a line from poet Ted Hughes that crops up repeatedly: "What happens in the heart simply happens."

The urban/rural divide we see in Tender is even more apparent in McKeon’s first novel, Solace, which to my mind is a better piece of writing. Solace was written four years before Tender but is set after the Celtic Tiger boom years have turned to bust. Economic hardship has set in.

For the Solace character Mark Casey, a PhD student in literature at Trinity College, the drug of choice is more likely to be cocaine than alcohol. His struggles with the older generation center on filial obligations rather than on sexual mores. Mark’s father wants him to come home to help with the family farm, but Mark’s life is in Dublin, writing an elusive dissertation and pursuing an equivocal affair with Joanne, who is training to be a lawyer. The plot thickens when it turns out that Joanne is the daughter of a man with whom Mark’s father has a longstanding and bitter feud. After a terrible accident, the surviving characters must settle their differences as they reassemble their lives.

In both Tender and Solace, McKeon’s Ireland is a radiant place. She doesn’t choose sides in the battle between the rural and the urban life, and she doesn’t demonize Ireland’s rural inhabitants. Take, for instance, her portrayal of County Longford, the birthplace of characters in both novels and also McKeon’s own birthplace. Longford is quite ordinary countryside, mostly flat bogland in the middle of the island nation. It’s not one of the counties close to Dublin, nor is it one of the dramatically scenic coastal counties in the west of Ireland. But McKeon’s descriptions in both novels give Longford a pastoral sweetness, a sunny agrarian purity.

As for the great city of Dublin, Trinity College is in the center of all that Georgian architecture and all those rowdy pubs. The streets that were familiar to Leopold Bloom are still highly walkable, and McKeon shows us the sights and the citizens. Go along for the walk.