Trespasses by Louise Kennedy

Trespasses Louise KennedySet in Northern Ireland during ‘The Troubles’, in the mid 1970’s, Trespasses began with what seemed  like a chance encounter, when a known barrister, Michael Agnew, a married man of the opposite faith, a Protestant, known to provide legal defence to IRA members; a man who had known Cushla’s father, sat at the bar, while she was serving, engaging her in stilted conversation.

There are various types that frequent the pub, that one ought to be wary of, an aura of menace seems never far away. This man Michael asks her questions, coming across initially, to this reader, as a suspicious character. Yet, there is a chemistry between the two.

Cushla, 26 years old, is a teacher of primary school aged children and helps her brother in the family owned bar some evenings due to the deterioration of their mother into alcoholism. Much of her spare time is spent caring for her mother, trying to prevent something more than drunkenness from occurring.

Absent Father, Alcoholic Mother, A Rescuer Desires Love

We know the father has passed on, though we know little of the relationship dynamic he brought to the family, except that he was regarded as having married beneath him. He was a Lavery, a prominent family name. His wife, Cushla’s mother Gina, was always seen as ‘less then’, something Cushla has inherited, grown up with and allowed to define her, without a full appreciation of.

She has a soft spot for one of her pupils, Davy McGeown, she knows his mother is struggling with three small children, a wayward 18 year old son and a troubled husband. Her attempt to cut them some slack, to try and get the school to provide Davy school lunches brings the family unwanted attention. Moved by their need, her instinct is to get involved and help.

Friends and Lovers

Her colleague Gerry invites her out. He seems to be her one true friend, the only person she can rely on. But it is towards the older, in almost every way unavailable, Michael, she yearns.

The novel traces the early days of their doomed affair, displaying all the classic signs of being something to the side of one’s life, except that for her, she desires more. Though he takes her to his Irish conversation social gathering, the way his friends act is less than welcoming. Much of their connection, irrespective of their age and religious differences is frowned upon everywhere, it seems impossible and she wonders if she is just one in a line of other women.

News, Bad News, Terror and Scares

Trespasses Louise Kennedy Irish Fiction

Photo by S.DiMatteo Pexels.com

Each chapter begins with a radio news announcement, a politically motivated violent event, a death, a bombing, a recounting of damage, injuries, blame.

Every school day too begins with recounting the news, the children have no chance of not knowing the charged political climate around them, often their school events are interrupted by random police checks, a bomb-scare.

Those Trespasses

There are lines that should not be crossed, there are consequences unseen, random events that require little imagination to see how they might unfold. There are ordinary, dsyfunctional trysts and risky choices of career, that occur in all cultures and societies, but in some the punishment for what another might consider to be a transgression are more severe than others.

The lack of love in Cushla’s life might be what leads her to cross these lines, to defy convention without being the rebellious type. We don’t know much about Michael or why he made the decisions he did; he set out to protect some, which could disturb others, and his choices would make the women in his life suffer.

A Collision Course

Ultimately the connections Cushla has made will collide and demonstrate how easy it can be for one of those radio announcements to no longer be a mere repetition of the way life is, in a country where sectarian violence is normalised.

It is a sad depiction of life and an interesting novel to discuss, as it reinforces the necessity for so many to choose to leave, when their options and opportunities close on them.

Northern Ireland present

Entrance to Titanic Museum, modern day Northern Ireland

In this respect I was reminded a little of Michelle Gallen’s recent novel Factory Girls, where another young woman, in her naivety finds doors closing permanently, as she too leaves Northern Ireland.

I enjoyed how this all came together in the latter part of the novel, when it suddenly picks up pace, energy and suspense; I found the initial two thirds less engaging and too many pages given to the affair that could have more usefully been given to greater character development, that might have evoked greater empathy for some of the characters and the situation.

The depiction of the tense atmosphere and some of the revealing anecdotes that demonstrate the prejudices and slights people have against one another were incredibly well done and somewhat eye-opening, the result of a continued separation of people and a belief in their own self-made differences.

It left me with quite a few questions; however it was a thought provoking read, about an unsettling place and time, that remains something of an enigma to the outside world.

I read this during March 2023 for #ReadingIrelandMonth23

Louise Kennedy, Author

Louise Kennedy grew up in Holywood, Country Down, a few miles from Belfast.

Her stories have appeared in literary journals including The Stinging Fly, The Tangerine, Banshee, Awsfiri and Ambit and she has written for the guardian, Irish Times, BBC Radio 4 and rTE radio 1.

Her work has won prizes and she was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Audible short story award in both 2019 and 2020. Her short story collection The End of the World is a Cul de Sac was published in 2021.

Trespasses has been longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2023. It won the An Post Irish Book Awards Novel of 2022 for

Before starting her writing career, she spent nearly 30 years working as a chef. She lives in Sligo with her husband and children.

Further Reading

New York Times review: In Northern Ireland During the Troubles, a Secret Romance by J. Courtney Sullivan

the guardian review: love amid the Troubles by Kevin Power

International Booker Prize Longlist 2023

The International Booker Prize 2023 longlist has been announced. It features work from Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America, including three writers whose work appears in English for the first time, and books translated from 11 languages.

This Year’s Judges

The panel of judges is chaired by the prize-winning French-Moroccan novelist, Leïla Slimani. The panel also includes Uilleam Blacker, one of Britain’s leading literary translators from Ukraine; Tan Twan Eng, the Booker-shortlisted Malaysian novelist; Parul Sehgal, staff writer and critic at the New Yorker; and Frederick Studemann, Literary Editor of the Financial Times.

The 2023 judges are looking for the best work of international fiction translated into English, selected from entries published in the UK or Ireland between May 1, 2022 and April 30, 2023. The books, authors and translators the prize celebrates, offer readers a window into the world and the opportunity to experience the lives of people from different cultures.

The shortlist of six books will be announced on Tuesday, April 18. The winning title will be announced at a ceremony in London on May 23, 2023.

The Longlist

International Booker longlist 2023 covers

The list includes one of my favourite authors, Maryse Condé, who was nominated back in 2015 when the prize was for a lifetime of work, I have read eight of her novels and there are more to explore, including her latest below.

The novels that made the list traverse elements of Korean fairy tale, French horror, Caribbean gospel, Indian melodrama, Scandinavian saga – and East Germany’s answer to Trainspotting.

Listed below is a short description of the book and then the judges comment:

Boulder by Eva Baltasar (Spain), translated by Julia Sanches (Queer love and Motherhood, Intense)

Eva Baltasar demonstrates her pre-eminence as a chronicler of queer voices navigating a hostile world – in prose as brittle and beautiful as an ancient saga.

Working as a cook on a merchant ship, a woman comes to know and love Samsa, who gives her the nickname ‘Boulder’. When the couple decide to move to Reykjavik together, Samsa announces that she wants to have a child. She is already 40 and can’t bear to let the opportunity pass her by.

Boulder is less enthused but doesn’t know how to say no – and so finds herself dragged along on a journey that feels as thankless as it is alien. With motherhood changing Samsa into a stranger, Boulder must decide where her priorities lie, and whether her yearning for freedom will trump her yearning for love.

“Boulder is a sensuous, sexy, intense book. Baltasar condenses the sensations and experiences of a dozen more ordinary novels into just over one hundred pages of exhilarating prose. An incisive story of queer love and motherhood that slices open the dilemmas of exchanging independence for intimacy. “

Whale by Cheon Myeong-kwan (South Korea), translated by Chi-Young Kim (Epic Adventure-Satire -Fairytale)

An adventure-satire of epic proportions, which sheds new light on the changes Korea experienced in its rapid transition from pre-modern to post-modern society.

Set in a remote village in South Korea, Whale follows the lives of three linked characters: Geumbok, an extremely ambitious woman who has been chasing an indescribable thrill ever since she first saw a whale crest in the ocean; her mute daughter, Chunhui, who communicates with elephants; and a one-eyed woman who controls honeybees with a whistle. A fiction that brims with surprises and wicked humour, from one of the most original voices in South Korea.

“A carnivalesque fairytale that celebrates independence and enterprise, a picaresque quest through Korea’s landscapes and history, Whale is a riot of a book. Cheon Myeong-Kwan’s vivid characters are foolish but wise, awful but endearing, and always irrepressible. This is a hymn to restlessness and self-transformation.”

The Gospel According to the New World by Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe/France), translated by Richard Philcox (Literary fiction -Caribbean influence)

A miracle baby is rumoured to be the child of God. Award-winning Caribbean author Maryse Condé follows his journey in search of his origins and mission.

Baby Pascal is strikingly beautiful, brown in complexion, with grey-green eyes like the sea. But where does he come from? Is he really the child of God? So goes the rumour, and many signs throughout his life will cause this theory to gain ground.

From journey to journey and from one community to another, Pascal sets off in search of his origins, trying to understand the meaning of his mission. Will he be able to change the fate of humanity? And what will the New World Gospel reveal?

“Maryse Condé is one of the greatest Francophone authors and the great voice of the Caribbean. In this book she proves again what a gifted storyteller she is. The narration is lively and fluid, and we feel carried away by this story as we do by the fables of our childhood. She takes liberties, finding references in the Bible as well as in Caribbean myths. The book borrows from the tradition of magic realism and draws us into a world full of colour and life. This is a book that succeeds in mixing humour with poetry, and depth with lightness.”

Standing Heavy by GauZ’ (Ivory Coast), translated by Frank Wynne (French) (Immigrant story – shifting perspectives – Paris)

A unique insight into everything that passes under a security guard’s gaze, which also serves as a searingly witty deconstruction of colonial legacies and capitalist consumption.

Amidst the political bickering of the inhabitants of the Residence for Students from Côte d’Ivoire and the ever-changing landscape of French immigration policy, two generations of Ivoirians attempt to make their way as undocumented workers, taking shifts as security guards at a flour mill. This sharply satirical yet poignant tale draws on the author’s own experiences as an undocumented student in Paris.

“A sharp and satirical take on the legacies of French colonial history and life in Paris today. Told in a fast-paced, and fluently translated, style of shifting perspectives, Standing Heavy carries us through the decades – from the youthful optimism of the decolonisation of the 1960s to the banal realities of daily shift work on the margins of contemporary consumer society – to deliver a fresh perspective on France that is critical, funny and human.”

Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov (Bulgaria), translated by Angela Rodel (Alzheimers -Memory-Humour)

A ‘clinic for the past’ offers a promising treatment for Alzheimer’s sufferers: each floor reproduces a decade in minute detail, transporting patients back in time.

An unnamed narrator is tasked with collecting the flotsam and jetsam of the past, from 1960s furniture and 1940s shirt buttons to scents, and even afternoon light. But as the rooms become more convincing, an increasing number of healthy people seek out the clinic as a ‘time shelter’, hoping to escape the horrors of modern life – a development that results in an unexpected conundrum when the past begins to invade the present.

Intricately crafted, and eloquently translated by Angela Rodel, Time Shelter cements Georgi Gospodinov’s reputation as one of the indispensable writers of our times, and a major voice in international literature.

“A wide-ranging, thought-provoking, macabre and humorous novel about nationality, identity and ageing, and about the healing and destructive power of memory. It asks the question: what is our place in 20th century history, when that history seems to be constantly shifting? ‘Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be,’ they say, and this book shows us – in moving, funny and disturbing ways – how and why.”

Is Mother Dead by Vigdis Hjorth (Norway), translated by Charlotte Barslund (Dark suspense – Mother-daughter rship)

‘To mother is to murder, or close enough,’ thinks Johanna, as she looks at the spelling of the two words in Norwegian.
Recently widowed, Johanna is back in Oslo after a long absence to prepare for a retrospective of her art. The subject of her work is motherhood and some of her more controversial paintings have brought about a dramatic rift between parent and child.

This new proximity, after decades of acrimonious absence, set both women on edge. Before too long, Johanna finds her mother stalking her thoughts, and herself stalking her mother’s house.

“This is a dark, chilling book. One of its tricks is to rely on a narrator who is an anti-heroine, and who can be annoying because of her narcissism and her malice. That’s what makes her real and what makes us care about her. This novel provides a very fine and cruel understanding of family relationships: the violence of the mother-daughter dynamic, which reminds us of Marguerite Duras; the impossibility of getting to know each other within the same family; family life as a prison of secrets and silence. Vigdis Hjorth manages to create a lot of suspense – a thriller-like tension – and what is amazing is that you never really know whose side you are on.”

Jimi Hendrix Live in Lviv by Andrey Kurkov (Ukraine), translated by Reuben Woolley (Russian) (Black humour – magic realism – borderland city)

Shot through with Kurkov’s unique brand of black humour and vodka-fuelled magic realism, Jimi Hendrix Live in Lviv is an affectionate portrait of one of the world’s most intriguing cities.

Strange things are afoot in the cosmopolitan city of Lviv, western Ukraine. Seagulls are circling and the air smells salty, though Lviv is a long way from the sea. A ragtag group gathers round a grave – among them an ex-KGB officer and an ageing hippy he used to spy on. Before long, Captain Ryabtsev and Alik Olisevych team up to discover the source of the ‘anomalies’.

Meanwhile, Taras – who makes a living driving kidney-stone patients over cobblestones in his ancient Opel Vectra – is courting Darka, who works nights at a bureau de change despite being allergic to money. The young lovers don’t know it, but their fate depends on two lonely old men, relics of another era, who will stop at nothing to save their city.

“The escapades of Kurkov’s loveable eccentrics provide a frame for an intriguing portrait of Lviv in the 2000s, a melancholy borderland city that finds itself recalling a troubled past as it sits on the cusp of an uncertain future. This is a book full of magic that is always grounded, cosiness that is always on the edge of being unsettled, and dark humour that is always affectionate.”

The Birthday Party by Laurent Mauvignier (France), translated by Daniel Levin Becker (Literary Horror – the marginalised – rural France)

This gripping tale of the violent irruptions of the past into the present, from a major contemporary French writer, is a deft unravelling of the stories we hide from others – and from ourselves.

Buried deep in rural France, little remains of the isolated hamlet of the Three Lone Girls, save a few houses and a curiously assembled quartet: Patrice Bergogne, inheritor of his family’s farm; his wife, Marion; their daughter, Ida; and their neighbour, Christine, an artist.

While Patrice plans a surprise for his wife’s fortieth birthday, inexplicable events start to disrupt the hamlet’s quiet existence: anonymous, menacing letters, an unfamiliar car rolling up the driveway. And as night falls, strangers stalk the houses, unleashing a nightmarish chain of events.

“This impressive and fascinating book reconciles two primal feelings: empathy and dread. It is a very scary book, rooted in the traditions of horror. It is as scary as when we listened to stories about ogres and wolves as children. The writing is formidable. The slow rhythm of the sentences creates tension as much as the situation itself. Mauvignier also describes brilliantly an abandoned rural France where there is a sense of marginalisation and humiliation.”

While We Were Dreaming by Clemens Meyer (Germany), translated by Katy Derbyshire (reunification – shattered dreams – hope)

Startlingly raw and deeply moving, this extraordinary debut novel from one of Germany’s most ambitious writers is full of passion, hope and despair.

Rico, Mark, Paul and Daniel were 13 when the Berlin Wall fell in autumn 1989. Growing up in Leipzig at the time of reunification, they dream of a better life somewhere beyond the brewery quarter. Every night they roam the streets, partying, rioting, running away from their fears, their parents and the future, fighting to exist, killing time. They drink, steal cars, feel wrecked, play it cool, longing for real love and true freedom.

 “As walls fall and political systems collapse, a group of youngsters in Leipzig are pitched into a helter-skelter world of partying, violence, drugs, crime and techno music. Energetic, blunt and hard-charging, While We Were Dreaming skillfully captures with pathos and anger the sense of what happens when all the certainties of the grown-up world evaporate and the future is up for grabs. The story of German unification as it did not appear on your TV screen.”

Pyre by Perumal Murugan (India), translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan (Tamil) (Love -Social discrimination – Caste)

Young love is pitted against social discrimination in Perumal Murugan’s powerful and compelling novel, set in the rural Tamil Nadu of 1980s.

Saroja and Kumaresan are in love. And in danger. After a whirlwind romance they marry in a small southern Indian town, before returning to Kumaresan’s family village. But the newlyweds are harbouring a dangerous secret: they belong to different castes, and if the villagers find out they will be in grave peril.

Faced with venom from her mother-in-law, and pointed questions from her new neighbours, Saroja struggles to adjust to a lonely and uncomfortable life. Kumaresan throws himself into building a business, hoping to scrape together enough money for them to start over somewhere new. But as vicious whispers encircle the couple, will their love be enough to keep them safe?

“An intercaste couple elopes, setting in motion a story of terrifying foreboding. Perumal Murugan is a great anatomist of power and, in particular, of the deep, deforming rot of caste hatred and violence. With flashes of fable, his novel tells a story specific and universal: how flammable are fear and the distrust of others.”

Still Born by Guadalupe Nettel (Mexico/France), translated by Rosalind Harvey (Parenting – freedom – relationship compromises)

Guadalupe Nettel’s gripping and insightful fourth novel explores one of life’s most consequential decisions – whether or not to have children.

Alina and Laura are independent and career-driven women in their mid-thirties, neither of whom have built their future around the prospect of a family. Laura has taken the drastic decision to be sterilised, but as time goes by Alina becomes drawn to the idea of becoming a mother.

When complications arise in Alina’s pregnancy and Laura becomes attached to her neighbour’s son, both women are forced to reckon with the complexity of their emotions, in Nettel’s sensitive and surgically precise exploration of maternal ambivalence.

“Two best friends share an aversion to ‘the human shackles’ of motherhood, only to discover that life has other plans. With a twisty, enveloping plot, the novel poses some of the knottiest questions about freedom, disability, and dependence – all in language so blunt it burns.”

A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding by Amanda Svensson (Sweden), translated by Nichola Smalley (Family saga – cult – changelings)

This joyful family saga about free will, forgiveness, and interconnection poses a question: are we free to create our own destinies or are we just part of a system beyond our control?

In October 1989, a set of triplets is born, and it is at this moment their father chooses to reveal his affair. Pandemonium ensues.

Over two decades later, Sebastian is recruited to join a mysterious organisation, where he meets Laura Kadinsky, a patient whose inability to see the world in three dimensions is not the only intriguing thing about her. Meanwhile, Clara has travelled to Easter Island to join a doomsday cult, and the third triplet, Matilda, is in Sweden, trying to escape from the colour blue.

Then, something happens that forces the triplets to reunite. Their mother calls with worrying news: their father has gone missing and she has something to tell them, a 25-year secret that will change all their lives.

“When a set of adult triplets learn that one of them might have been switched in the hospital after their birth, each of them become convinced that they are the changeling. Amanda Svensson’s raucous, sprawling debut takes on the enigmas of our origins, riddles of human consciousness and animal cognition, doomsday cults, and the most bedeviling of mysteries – the minds and choices of our closest intimates.”

Ninth Building by Zou Jingzhi (China), translated by Jeremy Tiang (Cultural Revolution – interconnected stories – shared humanity)

Ninth BuildingA fascinating collection of vignettes based on the author’s life in China during the Cultural Revolution.

Revisiting his experiences as a boy in Beijing and then as a teenager exiled to the countryside, Zou captures a side of the Cultural Revolution that is seldom talked about – the sheer tedium and waste of young life under the regime, as well as the gallows humour that accompanies such desperate situations.

“A kaleidoscopic and understated collection of interlocking tales of life in an apartment building under the Cultural Revolution – the daily tedium of its inhabitants, lit by brief and tenuous moments of shared humanity.”

A World of Love by Elizabeth Bowen

I read A World of Love by Elizabeth Bowen for Reading Ireland Month 2023, during the week of Classics at Cathy’s 746Books.

O’Brien versus Bowen, A Fair Comparison?

A World of Love Elisabeth BowenHaving just read and loved Edna O’Brien’s trilogy The Country Girls, written a mere 5 years later than this novella, I thought I would easily get through this. They lived in the same country and both wrote in the English language, however they were worlds apart in their use of language, their choice of protagonist and place.

There is a 30 year difference in age, but while O’Brien writes with lucidity and frankness (too frank for many, thus her work was initially banned) Bowen writes with unfathomable verbiage that obfuscates the narrative and left me wondering what this had been about.

A World of Love? I think not.

War Changes Everything

A young man who would have owned a grand Anglo-Irish house, inconveniently dies in World War I, leaving a fiance Lilia, who sadly has no status having not yet married him, and a cousin Antonia, who will inherit the mansion. Needing a farm worker to run the place and perhaps feeling sorry for Lilia, Antonia brings these two together, they marry and have two girls, Jane and Maud.

One summer 20-year-old Jane pokes around the attic and discovers a bundle of letters folded into an old dress. There are a few conversations that circle the letters, though rarely address them – which is a little like the tone of the novel, people speak and avoid all the issues.

The Importance of Community

Postcard Stories Jan Carson Ireland

Photo by Y. Koppens on Pexels.com

There is an annual festival, which should be a day of excitement, and for Jane it is, but it is the only community event the family ever participate in, they are isolated and out of touch with the everyday reality of other lives, living in the shadow of the past, of a future that never manifested.

Ultimately, we learn that this family, like the muslin dress and the letters folded away in it, are living a life suspended between the past and the present, one that Jane, who is in the peak of her youth, clearly wants to bust out of. Her finding the dress and the letters is a sign of much needed change, something that disrupts the stagnant air of an old house, arrested in time.

Times Pass, Youth Reinvents the Present

When Jane descends wearing the musty, antique dress, a symbol of the past, Antonia gestures for it to be taken away, while Jane insists the presence of the sachets suggest it was meant to be worn again.

‘No, on the contrary – no, it had had its funeral. Delicious hour for somebody, packing away her youth. Last looks at it, pangs, perhaps tears even. Then down with the lid!’

‘What, does youth really end with a bang, like that?’

‘It used to. Better if it still did.’

Antonia, as so often, spoke into nothing – for Jane, not awaiting the answer to her idle question, had got back up and gone to the looking-glass. There she stood, back turned to the bed, searching impersonally for the picture Antonia had failed to care to find or for the meaning of the picture, without which there could be no picture at all. ‘What egotists the dead seem to be,’ she said. ‘This summery lovely muslin not to be worn again, because she could not? Why not imagine me?’  She stepped back on to a flounce of the hem, which tore. ‘Who’d  she have been? she wondered, roping the fullness round her to see the damage.

Old fashioned manor house novel boarding house

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

In the last two pages, there is the arrival of a guest at the airport, an indicator that change is afoot.

It has taken me a few days to sit with this novella and reflect on what it might have been about, to be able to write anything about it.

For me the characters were under developed, not much of note or intrigue happened, and though there was this theme of stagnation and the dying out of a breed versus the presence of youth that wants to break through all of that, there were too many unnecessary words used to describe that which does occur, that made for a frustrating reading experience.

The Rebel Protagonist

It reminded me a little of a similar feeling I had reading another Anglo-Irish novel set in a big house, Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour, it seems I don’t particularly enjoy reading novels about misanthropes sitting around in big manor houses.

I admit that classics I do enjoy, tend to feature more rebellious protagonists, like Colette’s Claudine at School, Claudine in Paris, Claudine Married and Claudine and Annie or Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour TristesseNella Larsen’s Passing and Quicksand, and Jane Bowles Two Serious Ladies and the excellent Fire in the Blood by Irène Némirovsky.

Do you have any favourite classics of a certain type?

Reading Ireland 2023

This week, its contemporary fiction for Reading Ireland and I’m planning to read Louise Kennedy’s Trespasses, which was the winner of the 2022 An Post Irish Book Awards Novel of The Year and was just longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2023.

Irish Literature Classic Contemporary Nonfiction

Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2023

Women's Prize for Fiction Longlist 2023Today the longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2023 of 16 novels was announced.

Set up to empower all women to raise their voice and own their story, the prize shines light on outstanding and ambitious fiction by women from anywhere in the world, regardless of their age, race, nationality or background.

The Women’s Prize Trust exists to create positive change in the world through books by women. Their original ideas, smart thinking and excellent writing is believed to be more vital now than ever.

A New Prize for 2024

A new annual book prize, the Women’s Prize for Non-Fiction will be launched in 2024, a response to new research that shows significant equality in this area.

I’m excited about the idea of this prize, bringing together creative nonfiction, memoir, nature writing, the prize will provide a platform to highlight this mixed genre which women make such a significant contribution to.

The Women’s Prize for Fiction Long List

Below are summaries for each of the 16 books longlisted to help you decide whether to add something to your TBR. The one book I had really hoped to see on the list was Okwiri Oduor’s Things They Lost. This book will definitely be on my end of year Top Fiction Reads for 2023. Sadly it’s not on the list. I haven’t read any of these – yet!

Longlist 2023 Womans Prize Fiction

The novels on this years list span locations range from Renaissance Italy, rural India, the Siege of Sarajevo, Northern Ireland during The Troubles and opioid-infested Virginia, to an imaginary kingdom ruled by animals, a hallucinatory old cinema and an underwater world populated with extraordinary creatures.

Chair of judges, broadcaster and writer Louise Minchin said:

‘This year’s longlist is a glorious celebration of the boundless imagination and creative ambition of women writers over the past year. Every one of these 16 books is excellent and original in its own individual way; they all offer fresh perspectives on history and humanity, exploring hard truths with empathy, sensitivity, directness, and sometimes infectious humour. There is something here for all readers! It has truly been a life-enhancing experience to judge the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year, and we are looking forward to celebrating these voices that need to be heard.’

I am tempted by many on the list, Cursed Bread and I Am a Fan have been in the air, as has Jennifer Croft’s Homesick, I just finished and recommend reading her excellent translation of Two Sherpas. Laline Paull’s Pod intrigues after I loved her fabulous novel The Bees, Trespasses by Louise Kennedy I’m looking forward to reading next week for #ReadingIrelandMonth23. Wandering Souls looks like a promising debut and the Medusa retelling intrigues. I’m sure Barbara Kingsolver & Maggie O’Farrell’s novels will be great reads.

The 16 Novels

Black Butterflies by Priscilla Morris (Yugoslav/Cornish – UK) (Historical Fiction)

Sarajevo, spring 1992. Each night, nationalist gangs erect barricades, splitting the diverse city into ethnic enclaves; each morning, the residents – Muslim, Croat or Serb – push the makeshift barriers aside.

When violence finally spills over, Zora, an artist and teacher, sends her husband and elderly mother to safety with her daughter in England. Reluctant to believe hostilities will last more than a handful of weeks, she stays behind while the city falls under siege. As the assault deepens and everything they love is laid to waste, Zora and her friends are forced to rebuild themselves, over and over. Theirs is a breathtaking story of disintegration, resilience and hope.

Children of Paradise by Camilla Grudova (Canada) (Gothic Historical Fiction set in Edinburgh)

When Holly applies for a job at the Paradise – one of the city’s oldest cinemas, she thinks it will be like any other shift work. She cleans toilets, sweeps popcorn, avoids the belligerent owner, Iris, and is ignored by her aloof, tight-knit colleagues who seem as much a part of the building as its fraying carpets and endless dirt. Dreadful, lonely weeks pass while she longs for their approval, a silent voyeur. When she finally gains the trust of this cryptic band of oddballs, Holly transforms from silent drudge to rebellious insider and gradually becomes part of the Paradise – unearthing its secrets, learning its history and haunting its corridors after hours with the other ushers. When violence strikes, tempers change and the group, eyes still affixed to the screen, starts rapidly to go awry…

Cursed Bread by Sophie Mackintosh (UK) (Gothic fiction)

A novel of obsession that centres on the real unsolved mystery of the 1951 mass poisoning of a French village. Reeling in the aftermath of war, the small town of Pont-Saint-Esprit collectively lost its mind. Some historians believe the mysterious illness and violent hallucinations were caused by spoiled bread; others claim it was the result of covert government testing on the local population.
In that town lived a woman named Elodie. The baker’s wife: she was an unremarkable person who yearned to transcend her dull existence. When a charming new couple arrived in town, the forceful ambassador and his sharp-toothed wife Violet, Elodie was  drawn into their orbit. Thus began a dangerous game of cat and mouse – but who was the predator and on whom did they prey?

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver (US) (Fan Fiction)

Set in the mountains of southern Appalachia, the story of a boy born to a teenage single mother in a trailer, with no assets beyond his dead father’s good looks and copper-colored hair, a caustic wit, and a fierce talent for survival. In a plot that never pauses for breath, relayed in his own unsparing voice, he braves the modern perils of foster care, child labour, derelict schools, athletic success, addiction, disastrous loves, and crushing losses. Through all of it, he reckons with his own invisibility in a popular culture where even superheroes have abandoned rural people in favor of cities. Inspired by Dicken’s David Copperfield, this novel speaks for a new generation of lost boys, and all those born into beautiful, cursed places they can’t imagine leaving behind.

Fire Rush by Jacqueline Crooks (Jamaican/British) (Historical Fiction)

Set amid the Jamaican diaspora in London at the dawn of 1980s, a mesmerizing story of love, loss, and search for home, that vibrates with the liberating power of music.

Yamaye lives for the weekend, to go raving with friends, the “Tombstone Estate gyals,” at The Crypt, an underground dub reggae club. Raised by a distant father after her mother’s disappearance, Yamaye craves the oblivion of sound – to escape into the rhythms of smoke-filled nights, to discover who she is in the dance-hall darkness.

When Yamaye meets Moose, a soulful carpenter who shares her Jamaican heritage, a path toward a different kind of future opens until Babylon rushes in. In a devastating cascade of violence that pits state power against her loved ones and her community, Yamaye loses everything. Friendless and adrift, she embarks on a journey from the Bristol underworld to Jamaica, where past and present collide with explosive consequences.

Glory by NoViolet Bulawayo (Zimbabwe) (Fiction)

A novel that chronicles the fall of an oppressive regime, and the chaotic, kinetic potential for real liberation that rises in its wake. Glory centers around the unexpected fall of Old Horse, a long-serving leader of a fictional country, and the drama that follows for a rumbustious nation of animals on the path to true liberation. Inspired by the unexpected fall by coup, in November 2017, of Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s president of nearly four decades, Bulawayo’s bold, vividly imagined novel shows a country imploding, narrated by a chorus of animal voices who unveil the ruthlessness and cold strategy required to uphold the illusion of absolute power, and the imagination and bullet-proof optimism to overthrow it completely.

Homesick by Jennifer Croft (US) (autofiction)

The coming of age story of an award-winning translator, Homesick is about learning to love language in its many forms, healing through words and the promises and perils of empathy and sisterhood.

Sisters Amy and Zoe grow up in Oklahoma where they are homeschooled for an unexpected reason: Zoe suffers from debilitating and mysterious seizures, spending her childhood in hospitals as she undergoes surgeries. Meanwhile, Amy flourishes intellectually, showing an innate ability to glean a world beyond the troubles in her home life, exploring that world through languages first. Amy’s first love appears in the form of her Russian tutor Sasha, but when she enters university at the age of 15 her life changes drastically and with tragic results.

I’m a Fan by Sheena Patel (UK) (Contemporary Fiction)

A single speaker uses the story of their experience in a seemingly unequal, unfaithful relationship as a prism through which to examine the complicated hold we each have on one another. With a clear and unforgiving eye, the narrator unpicks the behaviour of all involved, herself included, making connections between the power struggles at the heart of human relationships and those of the wider world, in turn offering a devastating critique of access, social media, patriarchal hetero-normative relationships, and our cultural obsession with status and how that status is conveyed.

A new voice in literature, capable of rendering a range of emotions and visceral experiences on the page. Sex, violence, politics, tenderness, humour—Patel handles them all with both originality and dexterity of voice.

Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow (US) (Historical Fiction)

Three generations of a Southern Black family and one daughter’s discovery that she has the power to change her family’s legacy.

Unfolding over seventy years through a chorus of unforgettable voices that move back and forth in time, Memphis paints an indelible portrait of inheritance, celebrating the full complexity of what we pass down, in a family and as a country: brutality and justice, faith and forgiveness, sacrifice and love.

Pod by Laline Paull (UK) (Fantasy Fiction)

Pod takes the reader into the depths of the ocean and into the world of its fascinating inhabitants – through the eyes of the beautiful Ea, a spinner dolphin. An immersive and transformative novel of an ocean world—its extraordinary creatures, mysteries, and mythologies – increasingly haunted by the cruelty and ignorance of the human race.

Ea has always felt like an outsider. As a spinner dolphin who has recently come of age, she’s now expected to join in the elaborate rituals that unite her pod. But Ea suffers from a type of deafness that prevents her from mastering the art of spinning. When catastrophe befalls her family and Ea knows she is partly to blame, she decides to make the ultimate sacrifice and leave the pod.

As Ea ventures out, she discovers dangers everywhere, from lurking predators to strange objects floating in the water. The ocean itself is changing; creatures are mutating, demonic noises pierce the depths, whole species of fish disappear into the sky above. Just as she is coming to terms with her solitude, a chance encounter with a group of arrogant bottlenoses will irrevocably alter the course of her life.

Stone Blind by Natalie Haynes (UK) (Greek Mythology Retelling)

A fresh take on the story of Medusa, the original monstered woman. The only mortal in a family of gods, Medusa is the youngest of the Gorgon sisters. Unlike her siblings, Medusa grows older, experiences change, feels weakness. Her mortal lifespan gives her an urgency that her family will never know.

Classicist and comedian Natalie Haynes turns our understanding of this legendary myth on its head, bringing empathy and nuance to one of the earliest stories in which a woman–injured by a powerful man–is blamed, punished, and monstered for the assault. Delving into the origins of this mythic tale, Haynes revitalizes and reconstructs Medusa’s story with her passion and fierce wit, offering a timely retelling of this classic myth that speaks to us today.

The Bandit Queens by Parini Shroff (US) (Mystery/Thriller)

Geeta’s no-good husband disappeared 5 years ago. She didn’t kill him, but everyone thinks she did–no matter how much she protests.
She soon discovers that being known as a “self-made” widow has some surprising perks. No one messes with her, no one threatens her, and no one tries to control (ahem, marry) her. It’s even been good for her business; no one wants to risk getting on her bad side by not buying her jewelry.

Freedom must look good on Geeta, because other women in the village have started asking for her help to get rid of their own no-good husbands…but not all of them are asking nicely. Now that Geeta’s fearsome reputation has become a double-edged sword, she must decide how far to go to protect it, along with the life she’s built. Because even the best-laid plans of would-be widows tend to go awry.

The Dog of the North by Elizabeth McKenzie (US) (Comedy)

Penny Rush has problems. Her marriage is over, and she’s quit her job. Her mother and stepfather went missing in the Australian outback five years ago; her mentally imbalanced father provokes her; her grandmother, Dr. Pincer, keeps experiments in the refrigerator and something worse in the woodshed. But Penny is a virtuoso at what’s possible when all else fails.

In a quest for a fresh start, this slyly humorous, winsome novel finds the purpose in life’s curve balls, insisting that even when we are painfully warped by those we love most, we can be brought closer to our truest selves.

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell (UK/Ireland) (Historical Fiction)

The world of Renaissance Italy brought to jewel-bright life in a fictional portrait of the young duchess Lucrezia de’ Medici as she makes her way in a troubled courtin 1550 Florence.

Full of the beauty and emotion with which she illuminated the Shakespearean canvas of Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell turns her talents to Renaissance Italy in an extraordinary portrait of a resilient young woman’s battle for her very survival.

Trespasses by Louise Kennedy (Northern Ireland) (Contemporary Fiction)

Set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, a shattering novel about a young woman caught between allegiance to community and a dangerous passion.

Amid daily reports of violence, Cushla lives a quiet life with her mother in a small town near Belfast. By day she teaches at a parochial school; at night she fills in at her family’s pub. There she meets Michael Agnew, a barrister who’s made a name for himself defending IRA members. Against her better judgment – Michael is not only Protestant but older, and married – Cushla lets herself get drawn in by him and his sophisticated world, and an affair ignites. Then the father of a student is savagely beaten, setting in motion a chain reaction that will threaten everything, and everyone, Cushla most wants to protect.

As tender as it is unflinching, Trespasses is a heart-pounding, heart-rending drama of thwarted love and irreconcilable loyalties, in a place what you come from seems to count more than what you do, or whom you cherish.

Wandering Souls by Cecile Pin (UK/Vietnam) (Historical Fiction)

One night, not long after the last American troops leave Vietnam, siblings Anh, Thanh and Minh flee their village and embark on a perilous boat journey to Hong Kong. Their parents and four younger siblings make the crossing in another vessel but as weeks go by it becomes clear that only one party has survived the voyage. Anh, Thanh and Minh suddenly find themselves alone in the world, without family or home. They travel on, navigating refugee camps and resettlement centres until, by a twist of fate, they arrive in Thatcher’s Britain. Here they must somehow build new lives with only each other to turn to, but will that be enough in a place that doesn’t seem to want them?

The Shortlist Then?

The short list of six novels will be announced on 26 April and the winner on 14 June.

So what might you be tempted to read from this list?

Have you read anything on here that you loved?

The Country Girls Trilogy by Edna O’Brien

This week for Reading Ireland Month 23 the theme is classics. Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls is part of the Irish literary canon, a novel (and trilogy) it was an international bestseller when first published in 1960, that initially provoked controversy in Ireland.

Irish Literature classic Women

More than a Trilogy, A Pillow Book

The trilogy consists of three novels: The Country Girls (1960), The Lonely Girl (1962), and Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964). It was re-released in 1986 in a single volume including a revised ending to Girls in Their Married Bliss and the addition of an epilogue.

While it recounts the three phases in the girls’ lives, childhood, young adult and married women; it is also a commentary on how childhood pain and deprivation can arrest an individual’s development, turning life into a series of repetitive unresolved patterns that mimic the past, rather than providing opportunity for learning, improvement and positive change that new experiences can bring. All this within the context of moving from girl to womanhood in Ireland.

It takes the particular role and perspective of women, who dream of romance, independence and freedom, and then encounter selfish male desire, religious restriction and judgement and oppressive cultural conditioning that deepen the wounds and further diminish hope of rising above them. Through their marginalization, it explores themes of loss, identity and loneliness.

I have depicted women in lonely, desperate, and often humiliated situations, very often the butt of men and almost always searching for an emotional catharsis that does not come. This is my territory and one that I know from hard-earned experience. Edna O’Brien (Roth, 1984, p. 6)

A Transgression of Boundaries, Daring to Expose Home Truths

In the course of creating a frank narrative that mines the girls naivety, flaws and failed attempts to find love and happiness, O’Brien presents her characters openly and honestly, unveiling how situations occur and who is complicit, something the literary establishment and the state abhorred, for Ireland has a history of blaming and incarcerating girls and women for many of her evils. The book(s) risked undermining the nation’s ideal perception of innocent and pious Irish girlhood. They were punished.

book bans censorship

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The Country Girls was the first of six of O’Brien’s novels that the Irish Censorship Board would judge “indecent and obscene under section 7(a) of the Censorship of Publications Act, 1946.”  It would also be banned in Australia and New Zealand, but was nevertheless enthusiastically received elsewhere in the Anglophone world. The book has never been out of print.

The novellas are semi-autobiographical.  Edna O’Brien grew up on a farm in County Clare. Her alcoholic father drank away the farm and the family’s money.

Her ambition to write was scorned by her husband, Ernest Gebler, an older screenplay writer and documentary filmmaker. There have been comparisons made to the French author Colette, not least due to the similarity in spousal attitude – initially O’Brien’s husband believed he deserved credit for helping her become an accomplished writer, intensely jealous of her success, Gébler came to believe he was the author of O’Brien’s books.

While in no way salacious, the novels are unsparing in their depiction of cruelty, privation, filth, misery, exploitation, and violence, creating a tapestry of themes for future scholars to delve into, for book clubs and readers groups to discuss, in search of answers to questions of the Irish psyche, identity and inter-generational trauma.

Book #1 The Country Girls

Classic Irish Literature 1960Childhood in the west Irish countryside, early adulthood in a boarding house in Dublin, marriage in London; the three books follow the lives of two girls Caithleen (Kate) and Bridget (Baba), who were neighbours, school friends and boarding house room mates. Though they were not girls who had much in common personality wise, they had a shared history; without that connection, their lives might have been much worse.

She had been nice to me for several weeks since Mama died, but when there were other girls around she always made little of me.

Caitheen loses her mother early on, in a drowning accident and spends time at her friend Baba’s house, due to the drunken binges her father goes on, his erratic behaviour causing them to lose their home and their financial security.

I was never safe in my thoughts, because when I thought of things I was afraid. So I visited people every day, and not once did I go over the road to look at our own house.

A scholarship helps her to attain an education, but Baba’s idea to get them expelled so they can be free, cuts short any opportunity Cait may have had to rise above the shop girl she will become. Though she had the capacity for higher learning, no one encouraged it.

Baba’s home life had been more carefree, her father was the local vet, her mother laid back. She yearned not for much, was used to home comforts and getting her own way. She could be unkind and had little empathy for others, she happily insulted her friend, was shallow, manipulative, less intelligent and avoided trouble unless using it for a specific outcome. She wanted to have fun and be entertained, free of consequence. She was a brazen character that had no issue subverting protocol, religious values and hypocrisy. A ruthless entitled survivor.

Dublin initially provides the girls freedom and excitement, a neon fairyland, it promises much to look forward to.

Forever more I would be restless for crowds and lights and noise. I had gone from sad noises, the lonely rain pelting on the galvanized roof of the chicken house; the moans of a cow in the night, when her calf was being born under a tree.

The first book is their coming-of-age, into this atmosphere of loss arrives one overly friendly neighbour Mr Gentleman, a married man who inappropriately eyes up the vulnerable young Caithleen, offering her a ride into town, buying her lunch, indulging her with first time experiences that attempt to make up for the loss and lack of love she has felt, not realising she is prey, knowing only how the attention makes her feel. It is the beginning of a pattern of disappointments concerning men in her life.

The girls move to Dublin marks the beginning of their search for love, a husband; with little or no guidance or protection than each other, they venture forth like lambs to the patriarchal slaughter.

Book #2 The Lonely Girl

The Lonely Girl Edna OBrienCaithleen meets Eugene, something about him (half foreign, older man) reminds her of Mr Gentleman, whom she hasn’t seen for two years. The girls now live in Joanna and Gustav’s boarding house and become like family in this house, sometimes confiding in Joanna, who struggles to maintain rules and boundaries with the girls.

For once I was not lonely, because I was with someone I wanted to be with.

They have one rough friend Body, who is one of the few they can rely on to escort them to dances. Neither of them are in relationships, but Caithleen yearns for the enigmatic Eugene. News of this ‘dangerous man’ travels to her father in an anonymous letter.

One sadness recalls another: I stood there beside the new, crumpled coat and remembered the night my mother was drowned and how I clung to the foolish hope that it was all a mistake and that she would walk into the room, asking people why they mourned her. I prayed that he would not be married.

He brings her home and she is forced to have an audience with the bishop – to encounter a divorced man is the worst kind of  ‘fall’ from grace, thus all kinds of terrible things are going to befall her in the afterlife.

“Divorce is worse than murder,” my aunt had always said- I would never forget it; that and their staring disapproval.

Running towards Eugene brings out all her insecurities and yearnings, her lack of purpose. His age, his independence, career, worldliness, his friends – all are far from her reality. She finds some kind of comfort in his detached way of caring for her. In her immaturity, she desires to be pursued by him, as if to prove his love. It backfires, she will again feel the wound of abandonment, having acted out its consequence, the clingy holding on, the fear of disconnection and imagining potential threats to their relationship. In her pain and deepest wish, she leaves him – wishing to be pursued – only to re-experience rejection inherent in abandonment.

Baba tells Caithleen she is leaving for London, Baba has always been loved, but she does not use this strength to foster good in her relationships. She exhibits an emotional superiority that has inflated her self-esteem. Easily bored she entertains herself through extrovert behaviour and belittling others, she is decisive because she rarely compromises.

Book #3 Girls in Their Married Bliss

The Country Girls TrilogyAgain time passes, so that when we encounter the girls next, they are on the cusp of marriage. Caith (now Kate) will marry the one who abandoned her and Baba, a man who can provide for her in the manner she  craves. One desires love, the other security. Sadly, there’s not much in the way of bliss.

The third book has a different feel as it is the only one narrated by Baba, so there is more of distance from Kate, who we view in the third person.

She had plans for them both to leave their husbands one day when they’d accumulated furs and diamonds, just as once she had planned that they would meet and marry rich men and live in houses with bottle of grog opened, and unopened, on silver trays.

The girls drift away from each other and then come back as their lives hit various ups and downs. To some extent Kate is fulfilled by her son, but the disintegration of the relationship with her husband sets up more loss and abandonment in her life.

These are novels written in 1960’s that hold nothing back, they explore the psychological depths of these two young women who grew up in a conservative Ireland, with its social problems and moral expectations, which little equipped young women pushed from the nest into the world of destructive vice and little virtue, in their arrested development.

She said it was the emptiness that was the worst, the void.

I really enjoyed them all and find it astounding that they were banned, they provide such a rich foundation for discussion and understanding the very slowly evolving situation for young women growing up in Ireland.

Edna O’Brien, Author

Edna OBrien authorEdna O’Brien was born in December 1930 in Tuamgraney, County Clare. She has written over 20 works of fiction.

In addition to The Country Girls trilogy, her novels include A Pagan Place (1970), the story of a girl growing up in rural Ireland, winner of the Yorkshire Post Book of the Year Award; Zee & Co (1972); Johnny I Hardly Knew You (1977), a story of love, murder and revenge; Time and Tide (1992), winner of a Writers’ Guild Award, the story of a young wife who faces a crisis when she leaves her husband and is forced to fight for the custody of her sons.

She is the author of a trilogy of novels about modern Ireland: House of Splendid Isolation (1994), she writes about Irish nationalism and sectarian violence; Down by the River (1996), based on the true story of a young Irish rape victim forced to travel to England for a legal abortion; and Wild Decembers (1999), about a farmer, Joseph Brennan, and his sister, Breege, living in an isolated rural community. In the Forest (2002), is based on the true story of a disturbed, abused young man who murdered a young mother, her infant son and a Catholic priest in the west of Ireland in the early 1990s. The Light of Evening (2006) and Byron in Love (2009), Haunted (2010), The Little Red Chairs (2016), Girl (2020), Joyce’s Women (2022).

She wrote Mother Ireland (1976), a travelogue with photographs by Fergus Bourke, and a biography of James Joyce, published in 1999. She is the author of several plays. In 2021 she was awarded the French Ordre des Arts et Des Lettres. She has lived in London for many years.

“I wanted to write from as far back as I can recall. Words seemed and still seem an alchemy, and story the true conductor of life, of lives.”

Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton

Hecate and the Three Witches, Shakespeare’s MacBeth

This novel, the first in ten years, since Eleanor Catton won the Booker Prize 2013 for The Luminaries, sounded intriguing and looking up the significance of Birnam Wood in Shakespeare’s MacBeth had me quietly hopeful.

women in witch costumes

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Shakespeare’s three witches were women believed to have the ability for foresee events – (intuitives, regarded as supernatural thus often portrayed as old crones with or without pointy hats) – who made cryptic predictions of Macbeth’s ascent to kingship and eventual downfall.

They are women, present, often brushed aside, whose warnings have long been ignored, opinions under-estimated or ridiculed.  Macbeth believed the first prediction and ignored the second, both would come to fruition, the messenger’s long forgotten.

It is interesting that Catton uses the analogy of Birnam Wood and its association with women who speak out, as she too has a little history of having said some things about those in power in her own country and been belittled for it. Will the passage of time demonstrate that those words uttered might too have been a kind of prophecy? Perhaps they were too obvious, and so now we have something a little more cryptic to figure out. A Birnam Wood analogy of New Zealand.

Catton’s Theatre, An Eco-Tech-Thriller(y) Political Maelstrom

Birnam Wood is populated with characters that loosely connect to Shakespeare’s play. Our three women are present, and they appropriately, are not always as they seem on the outside. There are the men with power, twin aspects, one acquired through politics, the other wealth and the MacDuff character, recently returned from his travels, the righteous young freelancer Tony, armed with his pen to combat tyranny and fight against evil, something of a loner, acting independently of the group.

Sadly, the novel suffered from a head spinning beginning, in which the righteous characters dominate the conversation, which read like speeches. Looking back, I can see why that might have been done, but the abundance of proselytising in the opening pages almost had me put it aside. It was not a great start. Characters shared verbose opinions and given space on the page to rant, they were like an unwelcome ambush. Way too theatrical.

Eco-Warriors, A Tech Billionaire, Neo-Liberal Politician

I persevered (a characteristic I associate with reading Catton) and the novel becomes a kind of cat and mouse, eco-warrior-tech suspense story, set in New Zealand’s South Island, in 2017.

eco thriller tech billionaire New ZealandBirnam Wood itself is the name of a gardening collective, a group of people doing gently rebellious activism, planting sustainable gardens in places where they don’t have permission. There is a rivalrous friendship between the founder Mira and her flatmate, sidekick Shelley, who we learn early on has a desire to undermine her friend.

When a past member Tony turns up looking for Mira, the focus of the novel changes and becomes more character and action oriented. Embarrassing himself at the group’s six weekly ‘hui’ (meeting), he maintains a low profile, until he has an idea for an investigative journalism scoop he thinks is going to make his career. No one else knows what he is up to, he becomes something of the lone wolf, loyal to the cause, the avenging hero.

Mira hears about a farm up for sale, that has been cut off due to a landslide and thinks it might be a good location for their next project, she decides to scout the location for suitability.

A Billionaire’s Secret Agenda, Altruistic or Ambitious?

She is unaware that someone else has an idea for the property, with a very different agenda. Lemoine is an American tech mogul billionaire looking to build a bolt hole in an isolated location in New Zealand. Their paths cross and it seems they might be able to coexist, despite the risk of compromising the group’s ideals.

Rotorua Lakes - EditedThe farm, nestled up against a national park, was inherited by Jill Darvish; her husband Owen, a self-made pest-control business man has just been knighted for services to conservation, though he is unsure exactly why.

Everyone pursues their agenda – unaware of being under the watchful eye of the man with the money, while another with few resources, pieces together the larger picture of a potentially damaging conspiracy.

Like the “wood” referred to by Macbeth’s witches, a warning brushed aside, so too Catton’s three women characters provide clues to the demise of the men who hold power in her story.

Catton excels at mining the introspective psychological depths of her characters intentions, behaviours and motivations and once the plot moves to the farm, the pace picks up and it becomes a more engaging read.

An intriguing writer, there is an element of unpredictability, that feeling of not knowing what will come next, given how different all three of her novels have been from each other, crossing genre – a writer experimenting with form, taking her time but unafraid to try something completely different. And so again, who knows what she might write next.

Further Reading

Interview Guardian: Eleanor Catton: ‘I felt so much doubt after winning the Booker’ by Lisa Allardice

Review Guardian: ‘hippies v billionaires’ – The Booker winner captures our collective despair in a thrillerish novel about climate crisis by Kevin Power

Review The SpinOff, NZ: Birnam Wood review: An astounding analysis of human psychology by Claire Mabey

Eleanor Catton, Author

Eleanor Catton was born in 1985 in Ontario, Canada and raised in New Zealand.

Her first novel, The Rehearsal, won the 2007 Adam Award from the International Institute of Modern Letters, and a Betty Trask Award. Her second novel, The Luminaries, was awarded the the 2013 Man Booker Prize and the 2013 Governor General’s Literary Award.

N.B. Thank you to Granta Publications for the ebook Advance Reader Copy, provided via Netgalley. Published 2 March, 2023.

Forbidden Notebook by Alba de Céspedes (1952) tr. Ann Goldstein

I absolutely loved reading this, what a discovery! And brilliantly translated by Ann Goldstein.

Transgressive Writing

Italian feminist writing classic 1940s 1950ssValeria Cossati is a 42 year old Italian working wife, married with two children; one Sunday she is drawn to want to purchase a notebook in a local grocery store, a shop that is only permitted to be open on a Sunday, to sell tobacco. This purchase is her first act of transgression, the shopkeeper will allow it, but insists she hide the notebook in her coat.

The FORBIDDEN NOTEBOOK.

As if tainted by this scurrilous act, the notebook becomes something she must hide, for within its pages, she reveals her innermost thoughts, something she has not shared with anyone for years.

A Drawer Of Her Own, A Name of Her Own

From the first day she has the notebook in her home, she no longer feels safe, her husband, or one of her children might find it. She realises there is no place in her home that is private to her. In front of the family she tells her daughter she disapproves of her having a drawer she keeps locked.

Mirella responded energetically that if she studies so much, it’s because she wants to start work, to be independent, and to leave home as soon as she’s of age: then she’ll be able to keep all her drawers locked without anyone being offended.

Asking why she might want a drawer, at the suggestion that perhaps she too might like to keep a diary, the family laugh at her:

“What would you write, mamma?” said Michele.

Michele, her husband, since his mother died, he has started to call Valeria Mamma, a habit she enjoyed at first but increasingly resents.

Now I see it was a mistake; he was the only person for whom I was Valeria.

In Solitude I Meet Myself, A Stranger

For

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She writes late at night or at a time when the family aren’t at home, she wills them to leave (buying them tickets to a football match saying it was a gift from clients), so she can have time with her thoughts on the page.

Through her journal entries we discover that the words she speaks aloud to her family are often the opposite of what she is thinking. She never admits to resting, upholding the image of hard-working mother and wife.

I never confess it. I’m afraid that if I admitted I’d enjoyed even a short rest or some diversion, I would lose the reputation I have of dedicating every second of my time to the family. No one would remember the countless hours I spend in the office or in the kitchen or shopping or mending but only the brief moments I confessed I’d spent reading a book or taking a walk.

She criticizes and judges her daughter’s behaviour. Mirella is almost finished her law degree and starts working part time for a prominent lawyer, she is seeing an older, successful and sophisticated man – still a minor, she is reminded so by her mother – yet in the notebook, Valeria admires the independence her daughter is developing, the confidence she exhibits.

Mirella challenges her mother, when Valeria makes her take dinner to her brother who must have been tired after studying all day, she reminds her that they too have been working all day.

When she returned, she said “That is what disgusts me mamma. You think you’re obliged to serve everyone, starting with me. So, little by little, the others end up believing it. You think that for a woman to have some personal satisfaction, besides those of the house and the kitchen, is a fault, that her job is to serve. I don’t want that, you understand? I don’t want that.” I felt a shiver run down my spine, a cold shiver that I can’t get rid of. Yet I pretended indifference to what she said. I asked her ironically if she wanted to start being a lawyer in her own home.

I Am My Own Worst Enemy

In contrast, the lazy son Riccardo, who wants to go to Argentina, who neglects his studies, who speaks to his girlfriend in an authoritative manner, can do no wrong. When he makes an error of judgement, his parents laugh it off. Valeria is resentful when she realises her son is gaining a form of strength from his girlfriend that she couldn’t give him.

I wonder how – with her meager words, her motionless face – she can have bestowed on him such happy confidence…Michele says it’s always like that: the only thing that can spur a man is love for a woman, the desire to be strong for her, to win her.

Meanwhile, when her daughter displays the strength she yearns for in her son, she will have the opposite reaction.

I had to intervene, as when they were children, but, as then, I had the impression that Mirella was the stronger, and for that reason alone I would have liked to hit her.

The Cage Opens, My Inner Self is Overpowering Me

denial silence inability to express forbidden

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The manner in which she writes begins to affect her appearance to others, for it injects an atmosphere of fear into her life, it is as if this activity of daring to write her feelings is highly subversive.  For someone usually so cool on the outside, so conformist to what a wife and mother in the 1940’s is perceived to be, the act of writing ignites a disturbing consciousness raising of a deep, inner, feminist desire for expression. Daily, she will explore this on the page, it will morph into an increased awareness, understanding and ultimately change her behaviour.

Her domestic discontent, the suppression of her innermost thoughts, having awakened and found a dangerous outlet, will escape their rigid enclosure and infect everything. She will become at odds with herself.

A Slow Rebellion, A Feminist Awakening

It is compelling and strange, the act of writing begins to have an effect on her relationships at home and at work, it precipitates a kind of mid-life crisis. The stirring up of long suppressed emotions and the witnessing of how a new generation of youth are entering adulthood, awakens a wave of desire and revolt that she both resists and can’t hold back, as her dissatisfaction with her life creates a restlessness that threatens to disrupt and erupt their imperfect equilibrium.

It is a subject explored by Virginia Woolf and others, a subject equally important today, the need for a safe space, time, a notebook – for women to connect to that aspect of themselves that isn’t in service to others, to their inner creativity, expression, joy – to arrive at the place of realising that they too deserve that.

Highly Recommended.

Alba de Céspedes, Author

Feminism Journal writing Womens Rights Italian LiteratureAlba de Céspedes (1911-1997) was a bestselling Italian-Cuban novelist, poet and screenwriter. The granddaughter of the first President of Cuba, who helped lead Cuba’s fight for independence, she was the daughter of a Cuban diplomat and his Italian wife, raised in Rome, Italy. She kept alive her family’s political commitment, often running afoul of Italy’s Fascist regime.

Married at 15 and a mother by 16, she began her writing career after her divorce at the age of 20. She worked as a journalist throughout the 1930’s while also taking an active part in the Italian partisan struggle and was twice jailed for anti-fascist activities, in 1935 and in 1943 after she had joined a resistance radio program, broadcasting from Bari under the pseudonym Clorinda.

By the 1950s, she was known throughout Italy. For years she wrote a popular advice column, tackling questions about marriage, infidelity and love with meditations on art and philosophy. These columns steered readers toward a modern, more secular morality, one that stressed women’s equality.

After the fall of fascism, she founded the literary journal Mercurio and went on to become one of Italy’s most successful and widely translated authors.

The New York Times’s reviewer called de Céspedes “one of the few distinguished women writers since Colette to grapple effectively with what it is to be a woman.”

Further Reading

New York Times Review, Jan 2023: The Transgressive Power of Alba de Céspedes by Joumana Khatib

Washington Post Review, Feb 2023: ‘Forbidden Notebook’ is a slyly subversive novel by a writer once banned by Roxana Robinson

“While I am writing, I confine myself to occasionally reading books that keep me company not as entertainment but as solid companions. I call them books of encouragement, like those by Alba de Céspedes.” Elena Ferrante

N.B. Thank you to the publisher Pushkin Press for providing me with a review copy.

Factory Girls by Michelle Gallen

It’s the first day of March and the beginning of Reading Ireland Month 2023, which I am kicking off with a review of a work of comedy by Michelle Gallen originally published in 2022.

Women Writing Comedy

I was completely charmed by Big Girl, Small Town with its comic Northern Irish vernacular, so I was looking forward to this next novel which I picked up on seeing that she has again been shortlisted for the Comedy Women in Print Prize UK/Ireland.

She is a writer that makes me laugh out loud while reading, a rare quality indeed.

A Summer Job, Awaiting Results

Irish Literature Comedy Women in PrintFactory Girls is a story that takes place over the summer of 1994, while three friends, living in an unnamed northern Irish town, await their exam results and confirmed university placements, and therefore the trajectory of their future lives.

They have taken a job in a shirt factory, and two of the girls Maeve and Caroline have rented a small two bedroom apartment opposite. Maeve, who is the main protagonist of the novel, aspires to study journalism in London, Aoife has her sights on Cambridge and Caroline, Magee.

Maeve has studied hard to ensure she attains the results that will enable her to escape her suffocating home life, the empty bed and stifling sadness surrounding her sister’s premature death and the continued menace of simmering violence that pervades the divided community they live in.

Family Dynamics and Social Standing

Though they attended the same school, they each come from different family dynamics and these differences over the course of the summer begin to play into how they perceive and respond to the various situations that will arise.

They receive a different kind of education over the next two months as they enter a rare ‘mixed’ workplace, where Catholics and Protestants work side by side, despite the overhanging external threat of sectarian violence. The girls learn how to navigate an adult work environment, discover what they miss when living independently and witness how life plans can change drastically overnight.

“Maeve hated how women’s clothes came in extra small, small, medium and large

while men’s shirts came in medium, large and extra-large

– like there was no such thing as a small man.”

All three of the girls will be confronted with the need to adapt their expectations, in this humorous yet serious and insightful look at Northern Irish society on the cusp of peacetime.

Perpetuating the Divide

It is an interesting work that reads simply on the surface, but exposes various minute behaviours that contribute to creating a sense of the divide and how it is perpetuated by members of the community. For all that Maeve wishes to escape it, she views the ‘Prods‘ with suspicion, uncertainty and denial of her feelings. It makes for strange reading, as the separation between the groups feels illogical to a reader from outside. To her credit, Maeve has learned that the two sides do have a couple of things in common – they both got excited about payday and liked talking about the weather.

It reminded me of an episode in series 2 of Derry Girls – The Difference Between Protestants and Catholics when a group of Catholic school girls go on a supervised weekend retreat with a group of Protestant school boys and they were asked to brainstorm things the two groups had in common. All anyone could suggest were differences. At the end of the exercise one side of the blackboard was empty and the other full.

Literally, I was so intrigued, I rewound and put the screen on pause, so I could learn how they perceived themselves to be so different – because it is such a mystery to the outside world. The blackboard scene is already considered a television classic and the recreated blackboard went on display in the Ulster museum in Belfast. It also gave rise to the soundbite of the season, according to The Irish Times: ‘Protestants keep toasters in cupboards’.

The Difference Between Protestants and Catholics

In Factory Girls, there is language they use to describe each other, like ‘Prods‘ and ‘Taigs‘ and referring to the Republic of Ireland as the ‘Free State‘; there is Maeve’s suppression of the sexual chemistry between her and the English boss Andy, relationships let alone attraction to the other side is forbidden; the subtle labeling of venues, which are deemed okay for one side or the other, making it difficult when the boss wants to treat his employees to celebratory drinks after work – it seems there is no place where all can be comfortable.

Overall, an entertaining read that somehow manages to bring humour to a not very comical situation, something that the Irish excel at and Michelle Gallen most definitely. I can well imagine both her novels on the small screen and they both lend themselves to potential sequels!

Michelle Gallen, Author

Michelle Gallen Big Girl Small Town Irish Fiction

Photo: Brideen Baxter & Deci Gallen/Simpletapestry.com

Michelle Gallen was born in County Tyrone in the mid 70’s and grew up during the Troubles a few miles from the border between the ‘Free State’ and the ‘United Kingdom’.

“The border between these territories dominated all our lives. In the late 1960s, 19 roads criss-crossed Donegal and Tyrone in our local area. By the 1970s, just one ‘official’ road was left usable after the British Army blew up and barricaded the ‘unapproved’ roads and bridges. This campaign dramatically impacted communities on both sides of the border throughout my childhood and teens.”

Her debut, Big Girl Small Town was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, the Comedy Women In Print award, an Irish Book Award and the Kate O’Brien Award. Factory Girls has been shortlisted for the Comedy Women In Print award, the winner will be announced on 17 April 2023. She currently lives in Dublin with her husband and children.

You can discover her favourite books and reading influences here.

Irish Literature Classic Contemporary Nonfiction