Tag Archives: Ireland

** The Green Road by Anne Enright


The Green Road stars a difficult mother and her four children through a couple of decades, told through their individual stories and then a dramatic Christmas gathering. The individual stories sometimes read more like documentaries than a novel, especially those of the sons who leave their small Irish village for, respectively, the US and Mali. The self-centered matriarch is splendid, and the dutiful and occasionally resentful older daughter is also captured well, but it all felt, to me, a bit forced and disjointed.

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** Academy Street by Mary Costello

Academy Street tells a banal story of an Irish woman who, having lost her mother early, immigrates to the US and undergoes many traumatic life events. I did not care much for the story but the writing, especially the first few chapters that describe her growing up with an angry, bereaved father in Ireland, is powerful, especially the very first chapter that describes her mother’s funeral from the perspective of a lonely seven-year old. It went downhill from that beautiful start, in my opinion.

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*** Nora Webster by Colm Toibin


The eponymous Nora Webster is a slightly overwhelmed widow who just lost her husband and is juggling four children and too little money in a small town where everyone knows her business and is not exactly embracing any sign of independence on her part. But she perseveres and in tiny ways at first finds her way to a more autonomous life. The quiet story reminded me very much of Someone, the story of a mostly anonymous woman in Brooklyn — but here the author takes us into Nora’s mind and her occasional rage at the establishment and the limitations everyone is putting on her. So her main victory is to repaint her living room, but it feels like a symbol for so much more,

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* The Secret Place by Tanya French


The Secret Place bored me. It’s the story of a cold case investigation, the murder of a high school boy on the ground of a girls’ boarding school. The detectives, a gifted woman undermined by sexism on the squad and a man who is trying for a promotion, are wonderfully portrayed in their uneasy partnership. But the story they are investigating is seeped in inane girl rivalries, ineptly contained by a caricatural principal and teachers, and I could not wait for the 500 or so pages to end, along with their descriptions of vapid visits to the mall, silly flirtations, and lies everywhere, for no good reason.

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*** History of the Rain by Niall Williams


History of the Rain features a dead twin, a dying teenager, a loser dad, and a strong Irish mum. A soppy sentimental drama? Not at all. Ruth Swain shines as she writes a classic family saga, but with many wonderful twists and told in a pitch-perfect contemporary voice. I was sorry when I got to the last page….

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** Skippy Dies by Paul Murray



Skippy Dies in the first chapter of this book, as promised, and the rest of the book is devoted to what led to the death of the 14-year old Irish boarding school student, and the consequences of his death. We are in for a dark story of a world where the boys are mostly ignored by their parents, misunderstood or bullied (or worse!) by the teachers, and generally left to their own devices, which could work fine, I suppose, if all of them were like Skippy or his brainy roommate, but of course there are a few troublemakers who make life very difficult for the others.

There are some beautifully captured moments, including the fascination of the teenagers for a comely female substitute teacher and the besottedness of the history teacher for that same sub. The machinations of the ambitious principal and the politics of the school are also described in exquisite horror. But there are 661 pages in the book, and the action cannot fill anywhere near 661 pages so we suffer through painful teenage text messages and the like.  Also, those texting adolescents with Internet access seem terrifyingly ignorant of the facts of life, even if we’d like to think that Irish boarding schools are somehow sheltered from them

 

Dublin—and his friends Ruprecht, a near genius who is passionately interested in string theory; Mario, a self-styled lothario; and Dennis, the resident cynic. We also meet the girl with whom Skippy is hopelessly in love, Lori, and his bête noire, Carl, a drug-dealing, psychopathic fellow student who is also in love with Lori. The faculty have their innings, too, especially the history teacher Howard (the Coward) Fallon, who has also fallen in love—he with the alluring substitute teacher Miss McIntyre. And then there is the truly dreadful assistant principal, Greg Costigan. In this darkly comic novel of adolescence (in some cases arrested), we also learn about the unexpected consequences of Skippy’s death, something of contemporary Irish life, and a great deal about the intersections of science and metaphysics and the ineluctable interconnectedness of the past and the present. At 672 pages, this is an extremely ambitious and complex novel, filled with parallels, with sometimes recondite references to Irish folklore, with quantum physics, and with much more. Hilarious, haunting, and heartbreaking, it is inarguably among the most memorable novels of the year to date.

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** Transatlantic by Colum Mccann


TransAtlantic is an ambitious family saga that melds Ireland and New York, the early beginnings of aviation and the abolition of slavery, but unfortunately the strands never manage to braid properly, at least for me. We are left with great individual stories (that of Senator Mitchell, who negotiated the Good Friday accords, as well as that of Lily Duggan, an illiterate Irish maid fleeing the potato famine), complex, interesting characters (especially the women characters, Lily and her descendants), and a multitude of well-observed details (for instance Frederick Douglass’s observations as a black man in Ireland) but they remain as frustrating islands for an end result that could have been so much more.

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*** A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy

A Week in Winter is the last novel of Maeve Binchy, in a setting that’s a tad artificial in its gathering of strangers at a newly-opened bed and breakfast, but with many endearing characters, starting with the owner, who has an entirely fictional life, complete with a fictional husband, behind her — and no one is the wiser. The chapters are told from the points of view of the various actors and are most successful in the beginning of the book but if you enjoy the fiction that hard work always win out in the end, especially if it involves sheltering or feeding people, that most every human enterprise can end well, including teenagers getting pregnant (with twins!), and above all that (mostly) good things happen to good people, you are looking at a few hours of happiness.

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*** The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright

The Forgotten Waltz is the apparently simple story of a married woman who had an affair with a married man and eventually moved in with him, and is now reminiscing about her marriage  before the affair, the affair itself, how her wonderful lover has turned into a rather ordinary companion, how difficult it is to live with his daughter, and how her choices isolated her from her disapproving family. The best parts of the book, and they are many, come in small, perfect observations of how she interacts with others in normal, everyday life, whether at work or at home.

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*** Minding Frankie by Maeve Binchy

In the usual Maeve Binchy style, Minding Frankie serves up a dying single mother, a reforming alcoholic, a miracle-worker forgotten American cousin who is soon more Irish than the natives, a homeless priest with a great heart, and a suspicious social worker with a dark past. There will be a few bumps along the way, a few deaths, a few betrayals, but of course all will be well for the baby and her large assortment of minders. Very heavy here and there on the AA saga, how childhood abuse resurfaces again and again, and the great power of forgiveness — but it’s a big book that begs reading to the expected triumphant ending.

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