Coming of Age in the New Ireland

Normal People     Sally Rooney     (2018)


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. 


Coming of Age in the North Woods

Winter Loon     Susan Bernhard     (2019)


The loon, a large migratory aquatic bird, can be spotted in the far northern reaches of Minnesota,  Wisconsin, and Michigan (and up into Canada) only in the height of summer. The cry of a loon echoing across a lake is haunting and unforgettable, emblematic of long days in the North Woods. But if you spot a loon in these parts in the winter, the bird is probably injured and is unlikely to survive.

Wes Ballot, the teenage first-person narrator of this novel, is perhaps like a winter loon in rural Minnesota—disoriented, separated from his family, facing grim odds for survival. On the very first page, Wes’s mother falls through the ice of a semi-frozen Minnesota lake and drowns, just out of the reach of Wes’s outstretched arm. If you’re a reader who, like me, has a hard time with fictional death scenes, you may waver in committing to the story, but I’d encourage you to read on, as the path of Wes’s life winds twistingly toward adulthood.

When Wes’s father deserts him, supposedly to find work, Wes is left to live with his insensitive maternal grandparents. A local Native American family is sympathetic toward him, and Wes is smitten with a member of this clan, Jolene, who’s also had a tough life.  “She smiled at me then, a funny, crooked, closed-mouth sideways smile that I would later try to imitate in the mirror. It was like she could see something in me that I didn’t know about, and I wanted to try on that expression so I could know it, too.” (98)

Although Wes has plenty of setbacks, he keeps seeking to learn the facts about his troubled parents, particularly on classic road trips through the American West. “I tried to organize my thoughts, but the miles I’d traveled logged in my veins and I could feel the tire treads rumbling the marrow like I was still driving.” (279)

Some of the people Wes Ballot meets are selfish and cruel. Well, no, a lot of the people he meets are selfish and cruel, and sadly, many teens around the globe find this to be the case. But a few people are generous and kind. Wes doesn’t give up looking for the people who will affirm his worth.


Linked Stories: 3 Reviews

In this post you’ll find reviews of three books that are highly disparate in tone and subject matter. Each, however, has narrative components linked by a theme.

Spinning Heart     Donal Ryan     (2014)     (published in Ireland in 2012)


“There’s a red metal heart in the centre of the low front gate, skewered on a rotating hinge. It’s flaking now; the red is nearly gone.” (9) These lines, in the first chapter of Spinning Heart, describe not just a physical ornamentation but also the gyrating emotions of the twenty-one people whose hearts are bared in twenty-one linked first-person stories in this slim volume.

The setting is rural Ireland, right after the collapse of the housing bubble and banking crisis of 2007-2010 in that nation. The effects of this economic catastrophe, and of the global recession, are stark and highly personal. Real estate developer Pokey Burke has skipped town, leaving unpaid workers and half-finished houses in his wake. The characters who reflect on their situations sometimes feel to me as if they are descendants of the characters in a play by JM Synge or Brendan Behan, but author Donal Ryan approaches each with a fresh vision and a distinct portrayal. Ryan’s prose is varied, vernacular, sometimes vulgar. The heartfelt stories, with echoes of ethnography, allow the reader to piece together the complex interactions of the residents of the town, to see the pervading despair and also the small bits of hope.

American readers may find the Irish dialect slightly confusing at times, but context almost always conveys the meaning (“wan” for “woman,” “rakes” for “lots,” and so on). Spinning Heart, winner of multiple prizes, is truly worth the read.

Uncommon Type:  Some Stories     Tom Hanks     (2017)

I admire Tom Hanks as an actor, so when I saw his book of short stories at my library, I decided to scope out his writing abilities. The subjects of the stories in Uncommon Type range widely and include space travel, time travel, and slices of life from various decades of the twentieth century. Most of them have a strong element of whimsy, with dialogue zingers. The linking element in this collection is the typewriter: a typewriter appears in every story, sometimes just incidentally (as when an elderly woman types a receipt in “Alan Bean Plus Four”) and sometimes as the star of the show (as when a young woman finds hope through a typewriter in “These Are the Meditations of My Heart”). In addition, four characters, an unlikely band of friends, recur in several stories throughout the book.


In “Christmas Eve 1953,”  a disabled World War II veteran who has built a good life for himself in middle America has a phone conversation with an old Army buddy on Christmas Eve, as he does every year. With this story, Hanks successfully evokes the era after World War II, when American life seemed to hold great promise, but only at the cost of suppressing the horrors of the conflict recently ended.

Two of the other stories also struck me. “The Past Is Important to Us” is about a billionaire in the near-future who buys time-travel trips to New York on June 8, 1939, and visits the World’s Fair. “Go See Costas” follows a Bulgarian refugee who stows away on a ship some time in the mid-twentieth century and arrives in New York penniless, friendless, and speaking no English. On the other hand, the three pretend newspaper columns interspersed in the book, “Our Town Today with Hank Fiset,” fell flat for me.

After drafting this review of Uncommon Type, I googled a few other reviews. They all panned the book as full of clichés and sentimental to the point of mawkishness. Phooey. Perhaps these reviewers are simply not catching Hanks’ sendups and satire, his creation of over-the-top characters who point to human foibles. Or maybe these reviewers value dark, grim fiction over wistful, nostalgic fiction. The stories in Uncommon Type are uneven, sure, but the book as a whole is fairly successful. And, okay, an old Smith-Corona typewriter (circa 1935) resides in my basement.

The Balcony     Jane Delury     (2018)


The common element in the ten short stories in The Balcony is a place: a manor house and its nearby servants’ cottage in a non-quaint village outside of Paris. A third-floor balcony in the manor house does figure in a couple of dramatic episodes, somewhat justifying the book’s title, but the author ranges widely over the entire estate, with its gardens, forest, and pond, to examine the lives of those who lived or visited there. The stories also bounce back and forth in years: 1992, 1890, 1980, 1999, 1975, 2000, 1910, 2006, 2009, and finally an unspecified year near the present day. Phrases in French pop up frequently, most but not all defined by their context.

Some characters appear in only one episode, and others weave in and out of the tales. For example, readers get a multi-generational picture of the Havre family, viewing them in snapshots of key events in their lives, coming to understand their allegiances, foibles, desires, and betrayals. I especially enjoyed following the life of Alexis Havre in several of the stories. However, the last three stories are the weakest, and the final one, “Between,” left me confused. Unlike the third person of most of the rest of the book, “Between” is written in an odd second-person of address. (“During the first course, your wife and my husband speak French, as you and I slide into English.” 221) I wanted a wrap-up to the stories—if not resolution, at least an indication of where a few of the characters landed—and instead I got a rather stilted affair that the speaker, a woman, seems to regret. Still, for most of the book Jane Delury’s prose is confident and compassionate in her debut offering.

Two Books by Strout

Anything Is Possible     Elizabeth Strout     (2017)

My Name is Lucy Barton     Elizabeth Strout     (2016)

Before you read Elizabeth Strout’s 2017 short story collection, Anything Is Possible, you might want to check out her 2016 novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton. The two books are interconnected and can be read as a cohesive whole.

In My Name Is Lucy Barton, Lucy is a writer in New York City in the 1980s, with a husband and two young daughters. When Lucy is hospitalized for many weeks with a mysterious illness that arises after an appendectomy, her estranged mother travels from rural Illinois to her bedside. The two women reach an uneasy peace with each other, especially as they tell stories about the folks back home, in the (fictional) Amgash, Illinois, a depressed rural area that’s a two-hour drive from Chicago.

In Anything is Possible, set in a recent time period, we meet many of the characters mentioned in My Name is Lucy Barton, both in Amgash and in other locales:

  • Pete Barton, Lucy’s reclusive and oddly childlike brother, who still lives in the old Barton house.
  • Tommy Guptill, the friendly janitor from Lucy’s elementary school, who is now in his eighties and who keeps an eye on Pete.
  • Charlie Macauley, a Vietnam veteran with PTSD, who gets himself into a bind over a prostitute.
  • Patty Nicely, a contemporary of Lucy’s and now a high school guidance counselor, who tries to help Lucy’s difficult niece, Lila Lane.
  • Mary Mumford, the neighbor woman who left her husband of 51 years to run off to Italy with a younger man.
  • Vicky Lane, Lucy’s sister, who reminds Lucy about some of the horrors the siblings endured in their childhood.
  • Abel Blaine, Lucy’s cousin, who has built a successful business in Chicago.

Lucy herself enters the linked stories of Anything Is Possible in many ways. She’s become an acclaimed writer and has published a book that the people of Amgash can buy at the local bookstore. Chicago is one of the stops on Lucy’s tour to promote her book, so she stops in Amgash to see her siblings, Pete and Vicky, in one of the stories. Take note that the fictional Lucy’s fictional “memoir” seems to be very much like Elizabeth Strout’s novel My Name is Lucy Barton.

Strout toys with the vagaries of memory in both these books. In Anything Is Possible, we get much more detail about the childhood suffering of the Barton kids—details that were glossed over and somewhat sanitized in My Name is Lucy Barton. The other residents of Amgash are also revealed to have their share of specific miseries, including sexual abuse, mental illness, and crushing poverty. The power of money emerges as another theme. Lucy Barton, who had to scrounge in dumpsters for food as a child, lives the up-by-her-bootstraps version of the American dream when she gets into college and becomes a successful writer. Others in her small town remain impoverished. Sometimes people are poor simply because of bad luck, and money certainly does not buy happiness or stability for the characters in Anything Is Possible.

The prose in these two books is spare, with every word well chosen. The emotions are raw but presented with subtle empathy. Strout’s previous books include the Pulitzer-winning Olive Kitteridge (2008), which is, like Anything Is Possible, set up as linked short stories, and the novel The Burgess Boys (2013). Basically, read anything by Elizabeth Strout that you can get. You won’t be disappointed.

British Chick Lit

My Not So Perfect Life     Sophie Kinsella     (2017)

The British writer Sophie Kinsella is a phenomenon in the chick lit genre. Her nine novels in the Shopaholic series (starting with Confessions of a Shopaholic, 2001) have sold in the millions and have been translated into 30 languages. She’s also written eight standalone novels under the Sophie Kinsella pen name. Writing under her actual name, Madeleine Wickham, she has another eight titles. I decided to find out for myself why this author is so popular around the world.

My Not So Perfect Life is one of the standalone novels, so Kinsella has to set up and then wrap up her story in one volume. In some ways it’s a straightforward romantic tale: struggling young working class woman falls for fabulously wealthy guy. But then added in to the mix is a small-scale workplace mystery, plus the British obsession with social class, accent, and county of birth.

Katie Brenner, age 28, is a low-level employee at a London branding firm that creates images and advertising campaigns for consumer products. She’s from rural Somerset, in the southwest of England, but her dream has been to live in London. Katie is barely surviving, sharing a miserable flat with two odd characters, enduring a lengthy commute, and navigating complex office politics. But she posts idyllic photos of London scenes on Instagram to lead her followers to believe that she’s happy. Her boss, Demeter Farlowe, seems to have a perfect life—perfect job, perfect family, perfect clothes, perfect makeup. Katie wants to be Demeter, and she’s taken steps in that direction, preparing a portfolio of branding designs and ideas, with hopes of rising in her profession. She’s worked to eliminate her Somerset accent and has styled herself as “Cat” instead of “Katie.” She’s also met and fallen for one of the executives of the firm.

A crisis comes when Katie gets fired. She has no choice but to return to Somerset, though she tells her family that she’s on “sabbatical” from her job. This is handy, since her father and stepmother are launching a glamping business, turning their farm into a glamorous high-end campground. Katie does a terrific job of setting up and promoting the business. Then who should appear for a week of elegant camping in Somerset but Demeter and her family. Comedy and romance ensue.

I found some of Kinsella’s plot elements contrived and tedious. For example, Demeter, who doesn’t recognize the Somerset version of Katie, agrees to undergo a fake Druid ritual that’s deeply humiliating. However, Kinsella makes Katie a pretty convincing character through first-person narrative. Readers may come to cheer Katie on as she resolves the rural/urban conflict and figures out her career and relationship options. She even becomes more honest in her Instagram posts. Here’s one of Katie’s conclusions:

“I think I’ve finally worked out how to feel good about life. Every time you see someone’s bright-and-shiny, remember: They have their own crappy truths too. Of course they do. And every time you see your own crappy truths and feel despair and think, Is this my life, remember: It’s not. Everyone’s got a bright-and-shiny, even if it’s hard to find sometimes.” (417)

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.