Booker International Prize Shortlist 2022

In my recent absence, six translated novels have been shortlisted for the International Booker Prize including book from six languages: Korean, Norwegian, Japanese, Spanish, Hindi and Polish.

Wildly original works of literature that will captivate readers, this year’s shortlisted books all explore trauma, whether on an individual or societal level. 

Translated literary fiction

Summaries of the novels are below, with the judges comments. The winners of the prize will be named on 26 May 2022.

The Shortlist

Heaven by Mieko Kawakami (Japan) Translated by Sam Bett, David Boyd

HeavenTold through the eyes of a 14-year-old boy subjected to relentless bullying, Heaven is a haunting novel of the threat of violence that can stalk our teenage years.

Instead of putting up resistance, the boy suffers in complete resignation. His sole ally is a girl classmate, similarly outcast and preyed upon by the bullies. They meet in secret to take solace in each other’s company, unaware that their relationship has not gone unnoticed by their tormentors.

Mieko Kawakami’s deceptively simple yet profound work stands as a testament to her remarkable literary talent. Here, she asks us to question the fate of the meek in a society that favours the strong, and the lengths to which even children will go in their learnt cruelty.

An intense, claustrophobic novel, Heaven uses its tale of middle school bullying to enact
Nietzsche’s critique of morality.

Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro (Argentina) Translated by Frances Riddle

Elena KnowsA unique story that interweaves crime fiction with intimate tales of morality and the search for individual freedom.

After Rita is found dead in the bell tower of the church she used to attend, the official investigation into the incident is quickly closed. Her sickly mother is the only person still determined to find the culprit.

Chronicling a difficult journey across the suburbs of the city, an old debt and a revealing conversation, Elena Knows unravels the secrets of its characters and the hidden facets of authoritarianism and hypocrisy in our society.

“Claudia Piñeiro’s short and deeply felt novel, evokes the loneliness of ageing and the uncertainty of memory. Frances Riddle’s brutal yet sparing translation suggests the shadows and light of noir without ever eclipsing the very human tragedy at the core of the book.”

A New Name: Septology VI-VII by Jon Fosse (Norway) Translated by Damion Searls

A New NameJon Fosse delivers both a transcendent exploration of the human condition and a radically ‘other’ reading experience – incantatory, hypnotic, and utterly unique.

Asle is an ageing painter who lives alone on the coast of Norway. His only friends are his neighbour, Åsleik, a traditional fisherman-farmer, and Beyer, a gallerist who lives in the city. There, in Bjørgvin, lives another Asle, also a painter but lonely and consumed by alcohol. Asle and Asle are doppelgängers – two versions of the same person, two versions of the same life, both grappling with existential questions.

Written in melodious and hypnotic ‘slow prose’, this is the final instalment of Fosse’s Septology, the major prose work by ‘the Beckett of the twenty-first century’ (Le Monde).

Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree (India) Translated by Daisy Rockwell

Tomb of SandAn urgent yet engaging protest against the destructive impact of borders, whether between religions, countries or genders.

In northern India, an 80-year-old woman slips into a deep depression at the death of her husband, then resurfaces to gain a new lease of life. Her determination to fly in the face of convention confuses her bohemian daughter, who is used to thinking of herself as the more ‘modern’ of the two. To her family’s consternation, Ma then insists on travelling to Pakistan, confronting the unresolved trauma of her teenage experiences of Partition.

Despite its serious themes, Geetanjali Shree’s light touch and exuberant wordplay ensures that Tomb of Sand remains constantly playful – and utterly original.

A loud and irresistible novel.

The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland) Translated by Jennifer Croft

The Books of JacobOlga Tokarczuk’s portrayal of Enlightenment Europe on the cusp of precipitous change, searching for certainty and longing for transcendence.
In the mid-18th century, as new ideas begin to sweep the continent, a young Jew of mysterious origins arrives in a village in Poland. Before long, he has changed not only his name but his persona; visited by what seem to be ecstatic experiences, Jacob Frank casts a charismatic spell that attracts an increasingly fervent following.

In the decade to come, Frank will traverse the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires as he reinvents himself again and again. He converts to Islam and then Catholicism, is pilloried as a heretic and revered as the Messiah, and wreaks havoc on the conventional order with scandalous rumours of his sect’s secret rituals and the spread of his increasingly iconoclastic beliefs.

Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung (South Korea) Translated by Anton Hur

Cursed BunnyBora Chung presents a genre-defying collection of short stories, which blur the lines between magical realism, horror and science fiction.
Korean author Bora Chung uses elements of the fantastic and surreal to address the very real horrors and cruelties of patriarchy and capitalism in modern society. Anton Hur’s translation skilfully captures the way Chung’s prose effortlessly glides from the terrifying to the wryly humorous. Winner of a PEN/Haim Grant.

While the stories in Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung blend elements of horror, fantasy and the surreal, each is viscerally rooted in the real fears and pressures of everyday life.

The Statement by Brian Moore (1995)

Political thriller set in France war crimesMuch like his final novel The Magician’s Wife (1997) this is another of Brian Moore’s novels, that is more than just a political thriller, it is a work of historical fiction that brings together both his lifetime pursuit for challenging the Catholic Church  (here, for harbouring a fugitive war criminal) and his curiosity for elements of a country’s history that often go undetected by the world at large.

The Magician’s Wife came about, after the random spotting of a historical fact in the notes of  The Correspondence of Gustave Flaubert and George Sand that mentioned a famous French magician sent on a mission to Algeria by Napoleon II to advance the cause of mal-intended colonial interests, he was to perform to locals to undermine their faith in their marabout (mystical men).

A Chapter in France’s Dark History

Brian Moore 1995 novel to film Tilda Swinton

In The Statement, published in 1995, he writes a story of Pierre Brossard, a French fugitive on the run, pursued by an unknown group of assassins and the gendarmerie, sheltered by various monasteries and clergy. Having previously been condemned to death in absentia by French courts for the murder of 14 Jews during the war, he has been in hiding for over 40 years.

The book felt made for its script conversion, which Moore no doubt had in mind, although its dialogue often reads more like rants against the secretive and hypocritical nature of his religious characters, rather than using the opportunity for his fugitive to be confronted by those who have taken issue with his relative freedom.

While the story itself races through the south of France, from Salon de Provence, through Aix to Nice and Villefranche, (made into a film in 2004 featuring Michael Caine and Tilda Swinton); it is the underlying history that had me ‘stop and start’ reading, looking up the many references he uses or alludes to.

Like the use of the word milice (his protagonist the fictional Brossard, was milice) a reference he does not translate from the French, a word I was not familiar with, but one that lead me down a labyrinth of links related to the military history of France during World War II. At the end of the war, in August 1944 a court martial was held against 98 milice francaise of whom 76 were condemned to death by firing squad. They rest in unmarked graves at Le Grand Bornand.

The First Frenchman Ever Convicted of Crimes Against Humanity

Crime contre l'humanite Brian MooreIn real life, Paul Tourvier (1915-1996),a former officer of Vichy France, was a wanted war criminal condemned in absentia for treason and collusion with the Nazis in September 1946 and given the death sentence. Though arrested in 1947 for armed robbery he escaped and evaded capture for 40 years.

In 1966 his death sentence could no longer be upheld due to the statute of limitation and lawyers applied for a pardon. He was given this controversial pardon in 1971 by President Georges Pompidou, but remained in hiding while a new effort was made to charge him with crimes against humanity. Eventually captured, tried and convicted to a life sentence in 1994, he died two years later in prison at the age of 81.

One of the assasins in the novel, referred to only as T is the son of an Algerian Harki, another buried subject that Alice Zeniter researched in her family inspired work of historical fiction l’art de perdre (The Art of Losing).

Brian Moore described his novel The Statement as “a novel with a knife in it” – it made me wonder, who exactly he had the knife out for. Openly referring to that dark, suppressed element of French history and war crimes perpetrated by Vichy France, it pits the French police as pro-Pétain (Chief of State, Vichy France) against The gendarmerie, sympathetic to the Resistance and De Gaulle, adding in hypocritical, anti-Semitic attitudes of the Catholic church in France. But a quick glimpse into his own family history, reveals that it was more than just the Church he took issue with.

Moore’s Personal Vendetta

Living in the south of France, I noticed detail that indicated knowledge and some that was skewed, like the 13100 postcode for Salon de Provence, when it is the postcode for Aix en Provence; it made me go back and look at when it was that Moore spent time in France that gave him both that intimate knowledge and personal interest in the history, to be still writing about it just five years before his death in 1999. So, I digress.

Northern Ireland TroublesMoore was born in Belfast in August 1921, shortly after the partition of Ireland that created the southern Free State, eventually the Republic of Ireland. His parents and childhood were traditional middle class and his early years relatively protected from the sectarian conflict violence that often erupted around them, despite being a member of the Catholic minority.

Setbacks in adolescence led to his open rejection of the Church and the stifling, provincial, class -bound Belfast atmosphere, including his parents’ religious and ideological affiliations.

Celia Nichols writes in the The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies (CJIS):

Some conservative Irish Catholics, Dr Moore among them, initially supported Hitler’s march across Europe as a protest against the British Empire. Yet Brian Moore, in his independent pursuit of intellectual stimulation joined socialist youth groups, read modern authors such as James Joyce and W.H. Auden, and cultivated interests detached from the predominant Catholic ethos he had been subjected to both at school and at home.

He joined the war effort in 1939 and his knowledge of French had him willingly posted to North Africa and then to posts in Naples, the Cote d’Azur and Paris as the Allied forces advanced. These early travels and the people of many nationalities he would have encountered, contributed to his first hand knowledge, unique perspective, continued curiosity and audacious daring, in terms of the subjects he was willing to explore and confront through his ficiton.

Dedicated to “those who stayed”, “those who left” and “all those who were lost”

Like the young boy and his family, in the excellent film Belfast, Brian Moore became one of those who left, but the effect of his upbringing meant that Belfast was somehow always present, no matter what the subject of his novels.

French Presidential Elections 2022

French Presidential elections 2022

Photo by Atypeek Dgn on Pexels.com

It’s an interesting and strange tale to be reading this, as France prepares to elect a new President in the coming months, with first round voting on April 10 and the final vote on April 24, 2022 at a time when politics has become more divisive than ever.

I’m left pondering Moore’s own prosaic statement:

“I don’t think novels do change the world.”

They may not change the world, but they can lead us to look further than storytelling to understand the real life tales they are inspired by, that might serve as a warning.

If the true writer is an outsider, few have perfected this role as subtly as Brian Moore, whose finest work was always marked by his surest personal qualities: intelligence, curiosity and an abiding sense of justice. – extract from an article by Eileen Battersby, Irish Times

Dublin Literary Award Shortlist 2022

From a longlist of 79 novels, including 30 novels in translation, the committee has shortlisted six novels. These novels were all nominated by libraries around the world. Celebrating 27 years, this award is the world’s most valuable annual prize for a single work of fiction published in English, worth €100,000 to the winner.

The list includes two novels in translation and a debut novelist, with authors from France, Ireland, Canada (Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg, Alderville First Nation), New Zealand and Nigeria.

Below are the shortlisted titles with judges comments and the two I have read linked to my reviews:

Dublin Literary Award shortlist 2022
Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey (New Zealander) Published by Europa Editions
Nominated by Auckland Libraries, New Zealand and Dunedin Public Libraries, New Zealand.

Buchenwald Weimar WWII novel Germany – New Zealander Catherine Chidgey opens a new chapter of Holocaust literature as she tells the story of Greta Hahn, who is the wife of a concentration camp manager and doesn’t know – then doesn’t want to know – what goes on behind the fence.  When her Nazi husband becomes convinced that only a prisoner can save Greta from dying of cancer, Dr. Weber enters her parallel universe at the edge of the camp.  The prisoner-doctor treats Greta because he hopes it will help his Jewish wife and their young daughter who have been forcibly separated from him and sent further East.  Slowly he bursts Greta’s bubble of oblivion and she is forced to confront the horror to which she has been an accomplice.

Chidgey expertly choreographs this desperate dance of death as the Allied liberating army comes closer and closer, and surviving long enough to be freed becomes the ultimate challenge. Remote Sympathy, harrowing but ultimately hopeful, is a passionate warning against the dangers of our wilful ignorance in the face of oppression which is, sadly, of urgent relevance today, and every day.

At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop (French) Translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis  Published by Pushkin Press Nominated by Bibliothèque de Reims, France

At Night All Blood is BlackAt Night All Blood is Black is a carefully crafted, heart-wrenching, passionate, and engaging story about the insanity of war and its devastating toll on humanity. Told from the perspective of Alfa Ndiaye, a 20-year-old Senegalese who, like his friend, Mademba Diop and many other young West Africans were conscripted by European imperial powers – in this case, France – to fight in World War I. The novel raises fresh concerns about the issues of war, humanity, identity, sexuality, racism, violence, and colonialism as it explores strong emotions like love, apathy, fear, and indignation towards war.  The plot hinges around the gruesome death in battle of Mademba, and Ndiaye’s refusal to carry out the “mercy killing” for his friend.  From that point onward, Ndiaye begins to spiral towards insanity, consciously becoming the “dämme”, “demon” or “savage” his European trench-mates think him to be.

Alternately horrific and lyrical, the novel moves back and forth between the Senegalese village of Ndiaye’s youth and the brutal chaos of the trenches.  For such a slim book, Diop’s novel manages to attain a kind of epic scale, sweeping back and forth between Africa and Europe, between world-historical events and village life.  Holding all of this together is the narrative voice of Ndiaye.  Diop combines traditional African tropes with modern literary devices, giving the novel a rhythmic quality, as Ndiaye repeats phrases like “God’s truth”, “more-than-brother”, “I swear to you”, “I know, I understand”, whispering gently in our ears as he carries us into the dark heart of twentieth-century history.

The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi (Nigerian) Published by Faber & Faber
Nominated by Helsinki City Library, Finland

Akwaeke Emezi trans literatureAkwaeke Emezi’s novel opens with a chapter of only one sentence: “They burned down the market on the day Vivek Oji died.”  From that first sentence, we are immersed in contemporary Nigeria in all of its complexity, where tight family and community bonds are woven into the submerged stories of gay, bisexual and transgender people, and where groups such as the ‘Nigerwives’ (foreign-born wives of Nigerian men) form one of the cultures that make up the mosaic of Nigerian society.  Emezi’s novel manages to balance an unflinching realism with something of the quality of a folktale or a myth.  On one level, this is a very directly told story of two people coming of age and grappling with sexualities that struggle to find expression.

As readers, we encounter these lives almost like “a stack of photographs” being handed around at a wake (to use an image from the novel).  At the same time, The Death of Vivek Oji is shot through with mythic elements.  Oji is born on the day of their grandmother’s death, and there is a sense in which her spirit inhabits the person they will become.  The burning market foretold in that opening line is both an entirely credible part of the novel’s world, and a kind of symbolic crucible, out of which a new identity is born.  “I was born and I died”, Oji tells us at the novel’s end.  “I will come back.”

The Art of Falling by Danielle McLaughlin (Irish) Published by John Murray
Nominated by Cork City Libraries, Ireland

Dublin literary award shortlist 2022Danielle McLaughlin’s novel is set in Cork. Its curator protagonist Nessa , is organizing a retrospective of the work of a Scottish-born sculptor, Robert Locke. Locke established himself in West Cork, at the end of the 1960s, after years of wandering. Locke’s studio and his sculpture ‘Venus at the Hotel Negresco’, known colloquially as ‘The Chalk Sculpture’ will become a permanent exhibit in the museum where Nessa is employed. Nessa has worked long and hard for this event and has nurtured a relationship with Locke’s widow Eleanor and daughter Loretta. Women attribute healing powers to the statue, fetishizing it as a cure for infertility. At a public lecture on Locke’s work, another woman, Melanie Doerr, comes forward and tells Nessa that she was the model for the monumental piece, claiming that Locke spent a period of time with her in 1972. These are lost months in Locke’s biography, when Locke disappeared without trace, turning up later, like an unkempt beggar, on Eleanor’s doorstep offering neither explanation nor apology. While Nessa’s professional life revolves around the mystery of Locke’s disappearance and the veracity of Melanie Doerr’s claims, Nessa’s own personal life is in turmoil. She struggles with the aftermath of her husband’s affair, their threadbare finances, and their teenage daughter’s behavioural problems.

McLaughlin creates a compelling portrait of a life spent in pursuit of art and happiness. She summons up contemporary Cork, the universality of marital woes, and the everyday frustrations of middle-age in elegantly chiseled prose.

Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg)
Published by House of Anansi Nominated by Ottawa Public Library, Canada

Dublin Literary Award Shortlist 2021– This book is literary art. It’s charming, witty, insightful and unforgettable. The way Simpson writes is completely unique. The love and honour about which she writes among Anishinaabeg (an indigenous people in Canada) and the land is both poetic and lyrical.  Narrators include Mashkawaji (they/them), who lies frozen in the ice, remembering a long-ago time of hopeless connection and now finding freedom and solace in isolated suspension. They introduce us to the seven main characters: Akiwenzii, the old man who represents the narrator’s will; Ninaatig, the maple tree who represents their lungs; Mindimooyenh, the old woman who represents their conscience; Sabe, the giant who represents their marrow; Adik, the caribou who represents their nervous system; Asin, the human who represents their eyes and ears; and Lucy, the human who represents their brain.

The novel unfolds as a constant conversation and interaction between the seven selves that make up Mashkawaji. Simpson skilfully brings each of the characters to life on the page so they feel real and not just metaphorical.  Ultimately, the novel provides powerful insight into how Indigenous people have tried to sustain their identity and their old traditions as they navigate living in the modern world. This is a unique, charming and lyrical novel that combines poetry song and prose.

The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter (French)
Translated from the French by Frank Wynne Published by Picador, Pan Macmillan
Nominated by Bibliothèque publique d’information, Paris, France

The Art of LOsing Alice Zeniter – Deriving its title from the piercing first line of Elizabeth Bishop’s arch poem “One Art”, The Art of Losing follows three generations of an Algerian family from the 1950s to the present day—as they progressively lose, in the fog of conflict and post-colonial transition, their country, their roots, and their innocence. The narrative wings its way from the contested highlands of Northern Algeria to a French refugee camp, to the streets of Paris and back, borne forward by a cast of nuanced characters: from the patriarch Ali to his granddaughter Naïma, heir to a new digital age in which old prejudices and presumptions persist. Each is profoundly human in their passions, griefs, vanities, contradictions and silences. The family’s journey unspools in a deft weave of fiction and research, as the narrator fills in with compassion and imagination what the clan’s muteness about the past have refused to yield.

Symphonic in historical and emotional scope, the novel is by turns infuriating, unflinching, wry, recalcitrant, sensual, aporetic, courageous. It offers insights at every scale, from the national and the individual, about the fluid nature of identity; how our relations to place and to each other situate and perhaps free us. Refusing easy answers, pat politics and cultural caricatures while acknowledging their presence and seductive power in our time, The Art of Losing is a loving and clear-eyed sifting of the stories we tell ourselves.

* * * * *

The winner will be announced on Thursday 19th May during the International Literature Festival Dublin which runs from the 19th to the 29th May 2022.

I Will Die In A Foreign Land by Kalani Pickhart

Many are reading literature from or about Ukraine at the moment, whether it is history, news reports, fiction or other. Below are a book and a diary I’m reading to both stay in touch and understand.

A Daily Reflection from A Woman in Kyiv

Ukranian author Yevgenia Belorusets lives in Kyiv, each day she writes from her neighbourhood, she goes out and meets people, takes a few pictures. You can read her very moving, human interest diary here.

Today she noticed cosy lights on in a café that has been closed since the beginning of the war:

Ukraine Coffee

Photo by E.Tariq on Pexels.com

I went inside and ordered a cappuccino, a drink I keep trying to find since the war started and, if successful, enjoy in a new way each time.

It is a game I play with myself. Every day I wonder if a coffee kiosk will be open on my route. When I get a cup, I’m immensely happy, as if I’ve received an unexpected gift.

The coffeehouse was open because an employee who had quit before the war offered to come back and work alone.

I Will Die In A Foreign Country, A Novel

Ukraine historical fictionI thought this was an excellent and exceptional novel, that I chose to read because it is too distressing and overwhelming to be bombarded with only the terrible news that is flooding us at the moment.

Rather than look away, here is a novel, whose intention is to pay homage to those who wish to preserve a culture, to protect their homes, to help the wounded, to ease the suffering of the dying, to sing their songs and tell their stories.

Kalani Pickhart is American, passionate about Ukranian history and culture and began to write this story in 2016, in the aftermath of the American elections.

In an interview with New Lines’ Lydia Wilson, Pickhart talks about her motivation and inspiration for writing this novel, which has come to the world at a time when many are trying to understand how these terrible patterns continue to repeat, and searching for some hope in a humanity that appears at times to have gone mad.

Ukraine 2013 – 2014

The novel is set in late 2013, early 2014 and on the opening page, there is a map of Ukraine and a timeline of events at Euromaidan (the site of mass protest), from November 21, 2013 the day the 4th President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych declined to sign an association agreement with the European Union, precipitating protests, until late 2014 when the last barriacades and tents were removed from the city of Kyiv.

The novel is about four fictional characters, whose paths cross during this time, the story goes back and forth in time. The text is interspersed with other voices, most chapter headings indicating the place, the date, the voice or a subject, pieces that connect the narrative. With its relatively concise chapters, the narrative never overwhelms, like pieces of a jigsaw, as the story evolves and events unfold, geography is traversed, people respond to what confronts them, understanding broadens, a picture emerges.

Kobzari, Singing

Kobzari musicians Kalani PIckhartThe first lines of the prologue are the collective voice of the Kobzari, whose story of persecution isn’t told until later in the book; like a Greek chorus, they recount aspects of Ukranina history, culture and tradition through the lyrics of song, ensuring a language, a culture and events can be carried forward to future generations.

Where does it begin? Ah, ah. Depends on who you ask…

It could begin with Scythians and Cimmerians, Slavs and the Rus’. Queen Olha. Vladmyr the Great. Yaroslav the Wise.

The Kobzari sing of events that will never be forgotten, like the church bells at St. Michael’s that rang in December 2013, something the church has only done once before: 800 years ago, against the Mongols. This collective voice slips into the narrative seamlessly, drip feeding the reader with an historical context.

Katya, the American Doctor

I Will Die in a Foreign Land Kalani Pickhart Literature UkraineKatya is a Boston based, American doctor, working with the wounded inside a temporary medical clinic at St Michaels monastery. She is an outsider, drawn to the country because she was orphaned there, but grew up in America with no connection to her birth country. Hers, like the author, is an outside perspective, one that wants to know, to connect, to understand.

She has temporarily removed herself from having to face a broken marriage in the aftermath of the death of her son.

Ekaterina, her mother and father named her when they took her home from the orphanage. Ekaterina the Great. Looking over Kyiv, Katya feels neither great nor pure. Her son is dead, her marriage is dead, and her birthplace is on fire.

The Captain

One of Katya’s patients is a man they refer to as Captain, only known to people because he would play an outdoor piano every day on the street during the protests. Katya finds a telephone number and a cassette in his pocket. The Captain’s story is narrated through the playing of an audio tape, created for his daughter Anna. He too is an outsider, a former officer, a man whose loyalties have been dictated to him, who is given little choice. He shares his story in an old oral tradition.

My mother was the one with the gift. She had a soft voice that warbled like a bird, but it was my father who wanted us to learn music. We learned the arts, my father said, to be civilized people because the world was at times a most uncivilized place. I often forgot he survived the war.

The Violence of Spring

One of the  (true) stories the Captain tells is of the composer Stravinsky’s controversial composition The Rite of Spring. He was invited by the Director of the newly opened Théâtre des Champs-Élysées to collaborate in a ballet. The work was so modern, it attracted a youthful audience and a riot broke out inside the theatre as the traditionalist patrons in the crowd began hurling insults, clashing with youth.

In his notes, Stravinsky said it is an episodic ballet without a cohesive beginning-to-end narrative. Instead, the episodes are bound by one unifying thread: the mystery and the great surge of the power of Spring.

It is a violent ballet, a violent composition, taking place in pagan Russia. During the performance in 1913, the choreographer, Nijinsky, before he went mad, had the dancers move in contorted, disfigured ways. It was obscene, the audience thought – an abomination of the arts, of theatre, of ballet.

Intrigued, I looked this up, it was one of the most notorious ballet performances of the 20th century, shattering the conventions of both classical music and dance. Here is France Musique’s excellent explanation (3 mins).

Micha, Ukranian Engineer

Micha is a Ukranian protest, helping out, an engineer, originally from Chernobyl, who worked in the mines. He was married to his childhood friend Vera, who succumbed to sickness.

The Exclusion Zone

His home is near where Katya was born, they return to visit his mother, to reconnect with a lost part of her, before her return.

I didn’t think people could live there anymore, but I heard stories about some old women whose husbands died, the samosely. I tried to convince my mother not to return. She said it was the only place she ever felt at home. A couple hundred babushkas had returned and she went with them. Women in their seventies, eighties having survived Stalin, genocide.

Slava, Ukranian Protestor

Slava and Micha are friends, she is from Odessa, a place she ran from after what happened to her there, something that fuels her determination. Slava meets a journalist Dascha, their relationship puts them both at risk.

You said you once protested with FEMEN – that is also very brave, I feel we have similar views, that you’re accepting of me.

Though it is novel told in fragments, through multiple narratives and voices, there is a fluidity and yet the plot moves quickly, as the connection(s) between characters are revealed, their motivations and behaviours come to be understood and revelations acknowledge the pressures and complexities of life in this country, some things universal, others unique to their history and geography.

Lest We Forget

As I neared the end of the book, on page 268, I read six pages of names that traverse the globe in culture, nationality, language, showing just how interconnected the world today is. It was the Passenger and Crew Manifest read aloud at trial for the victims of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

The same day I read those names, I read this article indicating that today Australia and the Netherlands  launched legal proceedings against Russia for the downing of flight MH17.

Loss, when it occurs, has memory stronger than the mind, stronger than visual recollection patterned in the brain. It’s something the flesh knows, the muscles know, like a dancer reciting a step done hundreds of times, like a musician playing a song or a scale after decades without practice. It’s something the body knows, something the body is aware of while the mind adapts, responds, reacts.

Highly Recommended.

Further Reading/Listening

Podcast: Writing a Revolution: Ukraine’s Maidan Uprising — with Kalani Pickhart

Article: The Atlantic – What Ukrainian Literature Has Always Understood About Russia by Uilleam Blacker

Who Will Bury Me if I Die in a Foreign Land

Kalani Pickhart, Author

Kalani Pickhart, author of I Will Die in a Foreign Land, holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Arizona State University. An American, she is the recipient of research fellowships from the Virginia G. Piper Center and the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Intelligence for Eastern European and Eurasian Studies.

She currently lives and writes in Phoenix, Arizona.

What is the act of love if not bold?

As the world comes apart, nothing to lose-

What is love if not a promise to go on?

The China Factory by Mary Costello

It’s week three of Reading Ireland Month and today I’m sharing thoughts on a book of short stories by Irish author Mary Costello, The China Factory.

Threads of Inspiration

Irish Literature Reading Ireland MonthI’ve heard many say good things about her debut novel Academy Street and when her most recent novel The River Capture was published, a self-confessed homage to James Joyce’s Ulysses, I decided I would start at the beginning with Costello’s short stories.

I will read The River Capture later, as April is the One Dublin, One Book initiative and their chosen read for 2022 is Nora by Nuala O’Connor another book with a James Joyce connection. It is a bold reimagining of the life of James Joyce’s wife and muse, Nora, the model for his character Molly Bloom in Ulysses.

The Dublin City Libraries initiative encourages people to read a book connected with the capital city during the month of April every year.

Capturing a Voice

The China Factory Mary Costello

Photo by cottonbro Pexels.com

The 12 stories that make up The China Factory create a strong sense of authorial voice. Highly observant, sensitive characters, steeped in melancholy. They are practiced at holding back, trying not to make a ripple in the external world, until unforseen events pitch them into interactions, all the while controlling that emotional seepage.

In the opening story, The China Factory, a young woman works a summer job in a china factory, catching a ride with a quiet man named Gus, who she is distantly related to. She works at the sponger’s station, wiping off lines the moulds leave on clay cups.

I smiled when I passed the other girls those first days, and longed to speak, but feared that words would betray the yearning for friendship that I felt inside.

For a while she becomes closer to the girls, listening to their gossip, they quiz her about Gus, the freak, sharing an overheard story of his childhood that disturbs her. When a wayward man appears with a gun, Gus will surprise them all, and years later the impact of that summer job, his actions and her guilt will continue to haunt her.

dreamy woman with crossed legs sitting near window

Photo by L.SummerPexels.com

In Things I See a woman lies in bed, hyper aware of her husbands movements downstairs, she relays scenes in her mind of being close to him, but even in her imagination she holds back. She fears not growing old, but of growing different.

There is something severe and imperious in Don’s bearing that makes me resist.

She works full time and her husband cares for their six year old child. Her sister Lucy who is visiting, seems more at ease in the family than she does. The things she sees, hears, picks up on, imagines, occupy her mind, creating a distance, a corner from which she has entrapped herself. A witness. Stifled. Knowing she will not change anything, though her indecision will imprint itself on her face and in her demeanour.

And I think this is how things are, and this is how they will remain, and with every new night and every new wind I know that am cornered too, and I will remain, because I can not unlove him.

Drudgery, Dignity and Denial

The stories examine aspects of everyday life and highlight the hidden selves, the thoughts beneath the actions, the things that people hide from each other, from themselves, the cover stories and meaningless conversations that patch over the cracks that might reveal the reality.

In The Patio Man, a gardener knows nothing about his employer, a young frail woman observes him from the window, she struggles to articulate what she requires from him, until the moment she must ask him to drive her to the hospital. Still nothing is ever said, just small talk that takes the mind elsewhere, far from the catastrophic event occurring in the present.

The collection opens with an epigram from Rilke’s poem Autumn:

And night by night, down into solitude,

the heavy earth falls far from every star.

We are all falling. This hand’s falling too –

all have this falling-sickness none withstands.

which sets the tone and theme of falling – into and out of love, of relationships, to one’s death, in and out of the kaleidoscope of emotions, whether expressed or suppressed, no one is immune to the falling-sickness.

While the stories capture that voice particular to the author, that melancholy can wear on the reader, repeated time and again as it does, manifesting in the many losses and unfortunate events each story portrays, the quiet outer acceptance of discordant inner turmoil.

That said, I am looking forward to engaging with a longer story, hoping for the chance of redemption a novel might bring.

Mary Costello, Author

Academy Street The China Factory River CaptureMary Costello is an Irish short story writer and novelist from Galway now living in Dublin.

Her collection of short stories, The China Factory ( 2012), was nominated for the Guardian First Book Award.

Her second book and first novel, Academy Street, was shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award, the Costa First Novel Prize and the EU Prize for Literature in 2014. The novel went on to win the Irish Novel of the Year Award as well as the Irish Book of the Year. Her second novel The River Capture was published in 2019.

Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2022

And another welcome tradition on International Women’s Day is the announcement of the longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, which though it generally doesn’t influence my reading intentions, I do enjoy seeing what’s made the list, the familiar and the unfamiliar and becoming acquainted with them, whether read or not.

It looks like a real mix this year, with familiar names of authors I’ve read before, like Louise Erdrich, Elif Shafak and Ruth Ozeki and the titles that have been appearing often in reviews and then the lesser known surprises!

16 novels fiction Remote Sympathy

The only book I have read from the list, and likely to be one of the lesser known is New Zealand author Catherine Chidgey’s excellent historical fiction novel Remote Sympathy (reviewed here), published by Europa Editions.

This 4 minute video below gives very brief mini descriptions of the sixteen novels chosen:

Or if you prefer to read about them; the sixteen longlisted books are as follows:

Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith –  (Debut historical fiction, set in Vietnam)(US/Philadelphia, lived in Vietnam for 2 years, her mother’s family fled Vietnam in 1975)

Build Your House Around My BodyTwo Vietnamese women go missing decades apart. Both are fearless, both are lost. And both will have their revenge. The fates of both women are linked, bound together by past generations, ghosts and ancestors, by the history of possessed bodies and possessed lands. This heart-pounding fever dream of a novel hurtles through the ghostly secrets of Vietnamese history creating an immersive, playful, unforgettable debut.

Careless by Kirsty Capes – (debut contemporary fiction) (UK) (inspired from being inside the care system)

Care LessSometimes it’s easy to fall between the cracks… At 3.04 p.m. on a hot, sticky day in June, Bess finds out she’s pregnant. She could tell her social worker Henry, but he’s useless. She should tell her foster mother, Lisa, but she won’t understand. She really ought to tell Boy, but she hasn’t spoken to him in weeks. Bess knows more than anyone that love doesn’t come without conditions. But this isn’t a love story…

A new narrative of the care experience by a writer who grew up in foster care herself. Already snapped up by the makers of BBC One’s Call The Midwife.

Creatures of Passage by Morowa Yejidé – (Fantasy/Paranormal) (US/Washington DC)

Creatures of PassageNephthys is a taxi driver in DC, ferrying ill-fated passengers in a haunted car, with a ghost in the trunk. Endless rides and alcohol help her manage grief over the death of her twin brother, Osiris.

Unknown to Nephthys, her estranged great-nephew, ten-year-old Dash, is drawn to the banks of the same river, where he talks with a mysterious “River Man.” When Dash arrives at Nephthys’s door bearing a cryptic note, she must face the family she abandoned and what frightens her most.

Threading stories of the living and dead it shows us an unseen Washington filled with otherworldly landscapes, flawed super-humans and reluctant ghosts, bringing together a community intent on saving a boy in order to reclaim themselves.

Flamingo by Rachel Elliott – (UK/Bath) (contemporary fiction)

FlamingoA novel of love, homelessness, and learning to be fearless. In the garden, there were three flamingos, gateways to a time when life was impossibly good. They were mascots, symbols of hope.

A novel about the power of love, welcome and acceptance, a celebration of kindness. Set in 2018 and the 80’s, it’s a song for the broken-hearted and the big-hearted, a book full of wild hope.

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead – (US/California) (historical fiction)

Great Circle Maggie ShipsteadFrom days as a wild child in prohibition America to wartime London, from the rugged shores of NZ to a lonely iceshelf in Antarctica, Marian Graves is driven by a need for freedom and danger. Determined to live an independent life, she resists her childhood sweetheart, burning her way through a suite of glamorous lovers. An obsession with flight consumes her. As she is about to fulfil her greatest ambition, to circumnavigate the globe, Marian crash lands in a perilous wilderness of ice.

Half a century later, troubled film star Hadley Baxter is drawn to play the enigmatic pilot on screen. It is a role that will lead her to an unexpected discovery, throwing fresh light on the story of the unknowable Marian Graves.

Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey – (Historical fiction set in Germany) (New Zealander who lived some years in Germany)

Buchenwald Weimar WWII novel GermanyMoving away from their Munich apartment isn’t as bad as for Frau Greta Hahn feared. The new villa is  beautiful and life in Buchenwald seems idyllic. But beyond the forest is the looming presence of a work camp. Her husband, SS Dietrich Hahn has been assigned as the camp’s new administrator.

When Frau Hahn’s health leads her into a friendship with one of Buchenwald’s prisoners, Dr Weber, her ignorance about what is going on is challenged. A decade earlier Dr Weber invented an electrotherapy machine to cure disease, until politics interfered with progress. Did it really work? Might it save a life?

A tour de force about the evils of obliviousness, Remote Sympathy compels us to question our continuing and wilful ability to look the other way, in a world in thrall to the idea that everything – even facts and morals – is relative.

Salt Lick by Lulu Allison – (Visual artist/UK/Brighton) (Science fiction/Dystopia)

Salt LickBritain is awash, the sea creeps into the land, brambles and forest swamp derelict towns. Food production has moved overseas and people are forced to move to the cities for work. The countryside is empty. A chorus, the herd voice of feral cows, wander this newly wild land watching over changing times, speaking with love and exasperation.

Jesse and his puppy Mister Maliks roam the woods until his family are forced to leave for London. Lee runs from the terrible restrictions of the White Town where he grew up. Isolde leaves London on foot, walking the abandoned A12 in search of the truth about her mother.

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason – (NZ’er living in Australia) (Contemporary fiction/humour)

Sorrow and BlissEveryone tells Martha she’s clever and beautiful, a brilliant writer loved by her husband Patrick. A gift, her mother once said, not everybody gets. So why is everything broken? Why is Martha – almost 40 – friendless, near jobless and so sad? Why did Patrick leave?

Maybe she is too sensitive, someone who finds it harder to be alive than most. Or maybe – as she has long believed – there is something wrong with her. Something that broke when a little bomb went off in her brain at 17 leaving her changed in a way that no therapist has been able to explain.

Returning to her childhood home to her dysfunctional, bohemian parents, Martha has one last chance to find out whether a life is too broken to fix, or by starting over, to write a better ending for herself.

The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki – (Japanese American) (literary fiction/magic realism)

The Book of Form and EmptinessAfter the tragic death of his father, 14-year-old Benny begins to hear voices. The voices belong to the things in his house and sound variously pleasant, angry or sad. As his mother develops a hoarding problem, the voices grow louder. When ignoring them doesn’t work, Benny seeks refuge in the silence of a  public library. There he meets a mesmerising street artist with a pet ferret; a homeless philosopher- poet who encourages him to find his own voice; and his very own Book, who narrates Benny’s life and teaches him to listen to the things that truly matter.

Blending unforgettable characters with everything from jazz to climate change to our attachment to material possessions, this is classic Ruth Ozeki – bold, humane and heartbreaking.

The Bread the Devil Knead by Lisa Allen-Agostini – (Trinidad & Tobago) (contemporary feminist fiction)

The Bread the Evil KneadAlethea is turning 40. Fashionable, feisty and fiercely independent, she manages a boutique, but behind closed doors she’s covering up bruises from an abusive partner and seeking solace in an affair. When she witnesses a woman murdered by a jealous lover, the reality of her own future challenges her.

Bringing us her truth in an arresting, unsparing Trinidadian voice, Alethea unravels memories repressed since childhood and begins to understand the person she has become. She must now decide the woman she wants to be. An engrossing, atmospheric novel with a strong feminist message at the heart of a page-turning plot.

The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson – (British) (Contemporary fiction)

The ExhibitionistThe Hanrahan family gather for a weekend as artist and notorious egoist Ray prepares for a new exhibition of his art – the first in many decades – and one he is sure will burnish his reputation for good.

His three children will be there: beautiful Leah, always her father’s biggest champion; sensitive Patrick, who has finally decided to strike out on his own; and insecure Jess, who has her own momentous decision to make.

And then Lucia, Ray’s steadfast and selfless wife, also an artist, who has always put her roles as wife and mother first. What will happen if she decides to change? For Lucia is hiding secrets of her own, and as the weekend unfolds and the exhibition approaches, she must make a choice.

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton – (US/Florida) (Contemporary fiction)

Opal and NevOpal is a fiercely independent young woman pushing against the grain in her style and attitude, a Black punk artist before her time. Despite her unconventional looks, Opal believes she can be a star. So when the aspiring British singer/songwriter Neville Charles discovers her one night, she takes him up on his offer to make rock music together.

In early 70’s New York City, as she’s finding her niche in a flamboyant creative scene, a rival band signed to her label brandishes a Confederate flag at a promotional concert. Opal’s bold protest and the violence that ensues, set off a chain of events that will not only change the lives of those she loves, but be a reminder that repercussions are harsher for women, especially Black women, who dare to speak their truth.

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak – (British Turkish living in London) (Contemporary fiction)

The-Island-of-Missing-TreesIn 1974 Cyprus, two teenagers, from opposite sides of a divided land meet at a tavern in the city they both call home. The tavern is the only place that Kostas, Greek/Christian and Defne, Turkish/Muslim, can meet in secret hidden beneath the blackened beams from which hang garlands of garlic, chilli peppers and wild herbs. It is where the best food, music and wine in town is. But there is something else to the place: it makes one forget, even if for just a few hours, the world outside and its sorrows.

In the centre of the tavern, growing through a cavity in the roof, is a fig tree. This tree witnesses their hushed, happy meetings, their silent, surreptitious departures; and it will be there when war breaks out, when the capital is reduced to rubble, when the teenagers vanish and break apart.

Years later in London, 16-year-old Ada has never visited the island where her parents were born. Looking for answers, she seeks to untangle years of secrets, separation and silence. The only connection she has to the land of her ancestors is a Ficus Carica growing in the back garden of their home.

The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller – (US/New York) (Contemporary fiction)

The Paper PalaceOn a perfect August morning, Elle heads out for a swim in the pond below ‘The Paper Palace’ – her family’s holiday home in Cape Cod. As she dives beneath the water she relives the passionate encounter she had the night before, against the side of the house that knows all her darkest secrets, while her husband and mother chatted to their guests inside.

So begins a story that unfolds over 24 hours and 50 years, as Elle’s shocking betrayal leads her to a life-changing decision – and an ending you won’t be able to stop thinking about.

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich – (Native US/Minnesota) (Contemporary fiction)

The Sentence Louise ErdrichThe Sentence asks what we owe to the living, the dead, the reader and the book. A small bookstore in Minneapolis is haunted by the store’s most annoying customer. Flora dies on All Souls’ Day, but won’t leave the store. Tookie, who has landed a job selling books after years of incarceration that she survived by reading ‘with murderous attention,’ must solve the mystery of this haunting while trying to understand all that occurs during a year of grief, astonishment, isolation and furious reckoning.

The Sentence begins on All Souls’ Day and ends a year later. Its mystery and proliferating ghost stories during the year propel a narrative as rich, emotional and profound as anything Erdrich has written.

This One Sky Day by Leone Ross – (British/Jamaican) (Fantasy/Magic realism)

This One Sky DayDawn breaks across the archipelago of Popisho. The world is stirring awake again, each resident with their own list of things to do: A wedding feast to conjure and cook, an infidelity to investigate, a lost soul to set free. As the sun rises two star-crossed lovers try to find their way back to one another across this single day. When night falls, all have been given a gift, and many are no longer the same.

The sky is pink, and some wonder if it will ever be blue again.

* * * * *

The judging panel will announce the shortlist of six novels, on April 27th. The winner of the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction will be announced on Wednesday 15th June.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk tr. Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Polish Literature Novel Prize Winner Blake AstrologySomewhere on a plateau above a small forested village in Poland, near the border with the Czech Republic, lives Janina, except she doesn’t like that name, she insists on being called Mrs Duszejko.

An astute observer of things around her, she is more of a winter type, has knowledge and interest in the influence of planets and houses, likes to translate Blake’s poetry and read his letters, has great respect for all sentient beings, except perhaps those who hunt Animals for sport and take joy in it.

The novel opens as her neighbour whom she refers to as Oddball knocks on her door very early one morning to inform her that their mutual neighbour Big Foot is dead. The two visit his home and do what they thing good neighbours should do, respectfully arranging the contorted corpse, though Oddball’s son Black Coat (a policeman) later tells them off for moving the body.

Our Feet Connect Us

Mrs Duszejko observing his feet:

They astonished me. I have always regarded feet as the most intimate and personal part of our bodies, and not the genitals, not the heart, or even the brain, organs of no great significance that are too highly valued. It is in the feet that all knowledge of Mankind lies hidden; the body sends them a weighty sense of who we really are and how we relate to the earth. It’s in the touch of the earth, at its point of contact with  the body that the whole mystery is located – the fact that we’re built of elements of matter, while also being alien to it, separated from it. The feet – these are our plugs into the socket. And now those naked feet gave me proof that his origin was different. He couldn’t have been human. He must have been some sort of nameless form, one of the kind that – as Blake tells us – melts metal into infinity, changes order into chaos.

Referring to her Little Girls draws attention to another mystery, and while she doesn’t share the story of what happened to them initially, they are an absent presence throughout the story, a conundrum that will eventually be revealed, including its connection to the death of the neighbour.

brown deer under trees

Photo by Devon Rockola on Pexels.com

Described as reclusive, unconventional and eccentric, she might well be the most sane person in the village, certainly she is one of the more interesting. An intellectual and a mystic, a lover of nature, philosophy, astrological influences, animals and wildlife, surviving in a village that reveres hunting, an activity undertaken by the Commandant of Police, the local priest, the village President and other dominating types puts her in the firm minority – despite her isolation, she finds her circle within the community.

Unhappy at the way the authorities are conducting their investigation, convinced by clues she has observed – ominous deer tracks – she writes to the police bringing their attention to her theory of revenge by wildlife against the actions of hunting humans. And recalls her earlier reports to them about Big Foot’s poaching activities. Death brings another element to her theory, the effect of astrological shifts and patterns.

I could also tell that he didn’t understand everything that I was saying – firstly for the obvious reason that I was using arguments alien to him, but also because he had a limited vocabulary. And that he was the type of Person who despises anything he can’t understand.

A Community of Soul Mates

A sow on trial in at Lavegny in 1457 from The Book of DaysDizzy, a former student, now her 30 year old friend, helps with the Blake translations, though is unconvinced by some of her  theories concerning astrology and the revenge of animals, bolstered by her having discovered real animal trials, which peaked in 14th to 16th century Europe.

It was believed by many medieval authorities that ‘crimes’ committed by animals were the devil’s work and letting them go unpunished would provide an opportunity for the devil to take over human affairs.

Dizzy, who’s prone to effusive digressions on the topic of Blake’s symbolism, has never shared my passion for Astrology. That’s because he was born too late. His generation has Pluto in Libra, which somewhat weakens their vigilance. And they think they can balance hell. I don’t believe they will manage it.

Drive Your PLow Over the Bones of the Dead Olga Tokarczuk PolishWhen he challenges her for going around telling people about those Animals, concerned for her reputation, she  is outraged.

‘One has to tell people what to think. There’s no alternative. Otherwise someone else will do it.’

Another of the villagers is the young woman who runs a vintage clothing shop, a place Janina discovered one day when she was frozen through and hungry. The characters she befriends represent hope in an otherwise worrisome society.

The whole thing was a mixture of socialist café, dry cleaner’s and fancy-dress costume hire. And in the middle of it all was Good News.

That’s what I called her.  This name suggested itself irresistibly, at first sight.

Mrs Duszejko (Janina) is fed up and no longer young, she says what she thinks and doesn’t care what others think of her. She reads the signs and takes action. She’s an unexpected delightfully, transgressive heroine, of her own existential thriller.

I absolutely loved it and was surprised at how accessible a read it was, given this is an author who recently won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her power to provoke by telling a story is only heightened by the suggestion on the back cover that her ideas presented here caused a genuine political uproar in Poland.

Further Reading

The Guardian: Interview – Olga Tokarczuk: ‘I was very naive. I thought Poland would be able to discuss the dark areas of our history’ by Claire Armitstead

Olga Tokarczuk, Author

Polish literature Nobel Prize LiteratureOlga Tokarczuk is an Aquarian, a Psychologist and Jungian expert, a Polish essayist and author of nine novels, three short story collections and her work has been translated into forty-five languages.

Her novel Flights won the 2018 International Booker Prize, in Jennifer Croft’s translation. In 2019, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Primeval and Other Times (1996) was her first work translated into English in 2010.

Her most recently translated novel, written over six years, The Books of Jacob (2014) was published in English in Nov 2021.

The Last Resort by Jan Carson

The only downside in reading The Last Resort is that it was so short!

Northern Irish Literature short storiesThis is the novel I have been waiting for Jan Carson to write, for here is a writer who in her ordinary life as an arts facilitator has brought together people from opposite sides in their way of thinking, encouraging them to sit down and write little stories, enabling them to imagine from within the shoes of an(other) – teaching the practice of empathy.

Her novel The Fire Starters comes from that place of darkness and indifference, when there is no empathy. I found it disturbing. I’ve since realised gothic novels aren’t my thing.

Here, Carson digs deeper into the psyche of the many that make up their community and finds a common thread that connects them, something that both pushes them forward and holds them back and shows it in its many guises, through a kaleidoscope of colourful characters. Everyone has their own mini drama and troubling perspective, that coming together might create a shift away from.

Set in a fictional Seacliff caravan park in Ballycastle on the North Coast of Ireland, as the book opens we meet Pete, who now (reluctantly) runs the caravan park and Frankie, who has gathered a few friends for the 50th anniversary of Lynette, for whom they will place a memorial bench with a brass plaque at the top of the cliff.

A caravan on the North Coast was the height of luxury, somewhere you could escape to at the weekend. They felt safe here. Or they did until that bomb went off in the car park.

the last resort ballycastle jan carson ireland

Photo Y. ShuraevPexels.com

It’s the first day of the holiday season and most of these people have been coming here for years, though for some this may be their last visit. Not everyone is happy to be here, like Alma and her two siblings, especially when they wake up one morning to discover their phones and her iPad are missing.

Alma is into Agatha Christie and when she discovers they are not the only family that has something missing she decides to investigate, even if there hasn’t been a murder. Yet. No really, there’s no murder.

It’d be easy to push someone over that cliff. It’s so crumbly. You could make it look like an accident. I can think of at least three different times Agatha Christie killed somebody by shoving them off a cliff. If my iPad wasn’t gone I’d google to see if there were more. I’m raging about losing my iPad. Now I have to run my investigation the old-fashioned way. Snooping around. Observing suspects. Taking notes on my jotter. Maybe it’s better like this. Poirot never looked anything up on Wikipedia or checked suspects’ alibis on Facebook. If Poirot was here, he’d say, forget the iPad, Alma. Use your leetle grey cells. I’m doing my best. I’m watching everyone, even Mum. It’s always the person you least suspect.

Alma’s Mum Lois has a PhD in mythology and her thing is sea monsters. Monsters, wizards and demons, that’s her parents thing, Harry Potter is for kids, Alma likes the real world, way scarier.

Seacliff Northern Ireland The Last Resort

Photo by Tatiana on Pexels.com

Each chapter is narrated by one of 10 characters in the caravan park and about each family we learn what is holding them back, what consumes their minds. And while there is not a murder, no smoking gun, there is the cliff – and from the beginning you sense its ominous presence, the way it draws everyone to its apex.

We meet Alma again (my favourite character) as she trails around the caravan park interrogating her disapproving adult suspects. She’s brilliant.

Richard is a complete empath, hiding it from his family as if it were a sign of weakness, a position likely to be exposed given he has used his father’s caravan to house sixteen homeless men, many of them immigrants.

I couldn’t tell Dad about them. I’ve never really told him what I really do. He wouldn’t understand. In his world, you work hard, and you do well. There’s no reason to end up on the street, hawking The Big Issue, unless you’ve brought it on yourself.

Kathleen struggles to accept her daughter for who she is, because of societal expectations, but finds it hard to follow through with her disapproval because she desperately wants a relationship with her grandson Max. She finds Alma strange, intense and curious.

Lois answers all her questions. She talks to her weans like they’re adults. When she split up with her husband, Alma was fit to tell me the ins and outs of the whole divorce. She was only ten. You have to protect a child that age. They’re not old enough to know everything. Still, I have to say I envy them – calearied as they are – at least they talk to each other, really properly talk. We’re all adults in this caravan but we’ll spend the whole weekend talking about nothing. The weather. The baby. Whether or not to put the kettle on. Avoiding the elephant in the room because nobody wants to cause a scene.

So many great lines, so much humour, angst, regret, camaraderie as the story leads to its wild denouement on the seacliff, as the thing that’s been holding them all together, holding them back, demands to be released.

Just brilliant. Highly Recommended.

Further Reading

Best Caravans in Fiction (A List in Progress), Jan Carson

Jan Carson, Author

Northern Ireland Author Fiction

Jan Carson by ©Jonathan Ryder

Jan Carson is a writer and community arts facilitator based in Belfast. Her debut novel Malcom Orange Disappears (2014) was published to critical acclaim, followed by a short-story collection, Children’s Children (2016), and two flash fiction anthologies Postcard Stories (2017) and Postcard Stories 2 (2020).

Her second novel The Fire Starters (2019) translated into French by Dominique Goy-Blanquet as Les Lanceurs de Feu, won the EU Prize for Literature, was shortlisted for two prestigious French literary awards the Prix Femina and Prix Médicis in 2021 and was also shortlisted for the Dalkey Novel of the Year Award.

Her third novel The Raptures was released in Jan 2022.

My Top 5 Irish Fiction & Nonfiction Books

It’s Reading Ireland Month and in addition to posting reviews as and when I read books from my Irish Literature pile, I’ll be following Cathy at 746book’s weekly prompts to explore some past favourites.

This week it’s a Top 5 prompt and I was going to do novels, but many of my all time favourite Irish reads are nonfiction, so I’m sharing both.

week 1 Top 5

Top 5 Irish Fiction

There are more than 5 Irish novels that I have rated 5 star reads, so I’m listing the first five that come to mind, that have stayed with me, below. Click on the title to read my review. So honorable mentions to : the incredible Booker Prize winning Milkman by Anna Burns and Donal Ryan’s All We Shall Know, my favourite of the four novels of his I’ve read.

Best Non Fiction Read of 20201. A Ghost In the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa – this was my One Outstanding Read of 2020.  Poet and essayist Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s work of autofiction/essay reflects on history, motherhood, female passions and the elusiveness of time, place and identity. All this, while reading, rereading, thinking about and translating a 200 year old Irish poem she is obsessed with: “Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire” by the 18th century noblewoman Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. Somehow she combines this into a fluid, mesmerising text that grabs the reader. Insists. Provokes. Opens Up. Reclaims space. Awakens. Utterly compelling.

“In performing this oblique reading, I’ll devote myself to luring female lives back from male texts. Such an experiment in reversal will reveal, I hope, the concealed lives of women, present, always, but coded in invisible ink.”

Sara Baume Ireland Dogs in Literature Literary Fiction2. Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume – I read Baume’s work of nonfiction Handiwork before any of her novels; I remember looking forward to reading this, wondering what her fiction was going to be like. Having now read three of her books it is clear she has become my current favourite Irish author. Using her unique, rhythmic, contemplative style and way of creating character that is so measured and thoughtful, this novel is about a man getting himself into a state after taking on a stray dog and as it complicates his life, escaping with him on a road trip. It is exquisite, playful and surprising.

“I expected it would be exciting;  I expected that the freedom from routine  was somehow greater than the freedom to determine your own routine. I wanted to get up in the morning and not know exactly what I was going to do that day. But now that I don’t, it’s terrifying.”

Irish literary fiction Visual Artist3. A Line Made By Walking by Sara Baume – No surprise then that her second novel is also in my Top 5, a stunning work about a young woman leaving Dublin city to return to her roots. She moves into her grandmother’s empty, neglected ‘for sale’ house, a place of temporary refuge as she deals with an aberration in her mental health.

Visual art is part of her recovery and the novel includes references to over seventy art installations that she tests herself on. Taking quiet charge of her own healing, creating daily purpose, the novel is itself the work of an artist. Brilliant.

“Why must I test myself? Because no one else will, not any more. Now that I am no longer a student of any kind, I must take responsibility for the furniture inside my head. I must slide new drawers into chests and attach new rollers to armchairs. I must maintain the old highboys and sideboards and whatnots. Polish, patch, dust, buff. And, from scratch, I must build new frames and appendages; I must fill the drawers and roll along.”

Michelle Gallen Big Girl Small Town CWIP Prize 20204. Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen – this was a novel I saw being talked about on twitter and bought on a whim, in part because the setting in a fish & chip shop in Northern Ireland reminded me so much of our own funny story (linguistic challenge) in a chip shop in the seaside town of Newcastle in 2019.

Written in a phonetic vernacular that creates a harmonious rhythm, it follows a week in the life of socially awkward but inwardly clear-eyed, 27-year-old Majella who has a list of stuff in her head she doesn’t like and has just learned her 85 year old grandmother may have been murdered. It’s entertaining, kind of sad, funny and  confrontational. Not my usuaI literary fare, but I totally loved it.

“Sometimes Majella thought that she should condense her whole list of things she wasn’t keen on into a single item:  – Other People.”

Hearts Furies5. The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne – this novel was on so many reader’s best books list the year it came out, along with an intriguing premise, I was curious.

A heart and soul epic, with a little inspiration from his own life, it is about a boy coming to terms with his identity, exposing aspects of Ireland’s history, juxtaposed with that of the Netherland’s and the US, as Cyril’s life takes him to both those places.

The novel focuses on Cyril’s attempts to survive in a world hostile to his natural inclinations, his experiences highlighting struggles many encountered during those years, unable to live their lives openly and honestly without the fear of rejection or violence.

It is a courageous attempt to show how the way we conform to society and culture’s expectations against our own nature, can be harmful to so many, making us wonder how life might be, if we lived in a more utopian world, where tolerance reigned supreme. Thought provoking and profound.

“A line came into my mind, something that Hannah Arendt once said about the poet Auden: that life had manifested the heart’s invisible furies on his face.”

Top 5 Irish Nonfiction

creative nonfiction bird migration songbirds1. Handiwork by Sara Baume – the book that sparked my interest in the work of visual artist, sculptor and writer Sara Baume, it’s like a notebook, not too many words on each page or chapter, sharing something of her year of sculpting birds. A place for reflections on her experience, observations and insights, connections, including memories of her father and grandfather who also worked with their hands.

Quotes from influential texts she’s known for years offer up additional wisdom as daily she repeats the same rhythm; crafting, sculpting, writing, reading.  Like a songbird, this mini book tweets its tribute to those who craft and create, following an intuitive inclination to fashion one thing out of another using their hands.

“From my Dad I inherited a propensity for handiwork, but also the terrible responsibility, the killing insistence.”

nature writing Wainwright prize2. Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty – Incredibly this book was written by a 15 year old boy with an ability beyond his years, it is a diary of observations of the natural world around him, a place that provides him with a breathing space, a remedy to the way he is in the world.

The book follows the seasons through the senses of this autistic boy, who has a passion for nature and the environment and a family in tune with he and his siblings needs. Deservedly won The Wainwright Prize for UK Nature Writing.

“Many people accuse me of ‘not looking autistic’. I have no idea what that means. I know lots of ‘autistics’ and we all look different. We’re not some recognisable breed. We are human beings. If we’re not out of the ordinary, it’s because we’re fighting to mask our real selves. We’re holding back and holding in. It’s a lot of effort.”

Maggie O'Farrell Memoir Near Death Experiences3. I Am, I Am, I Am – Seventeen Brushes With Death by Maggie O’Farrell – known for her award winning novel Hamnet, this is O’Farrell’s memoir told through multiple intriguing encounters with death. The opening story is heart-stopping and frightening, deliberately placed to capture attention.

An interesting insight is the awareness of her fearlessness, something that a brush with death seems to bolster, that fortunately motherhood will quell.

“It was not so much that I didn’t value my existence but more that I had an insatiable desire to push myself to embrace all that it could offer. Nearly losing my life at the age of eight made me sanguine – perhaps to a fault – about death. I knew it would happen, at some point, and the idea didn’t scare me; its proximity felt instead almost familiar. The knowledge that I was lucky to be alive, that it so easily could have been otherwise, skewed my thinking.”

constellations-sinead-gleeson4. Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson – In her Reflections on Life, Gleeson writes essays, using parts of the body to structure the narrative, a body containing metal like constellations of stars that front each chapter.

Her essays share the struggles, shame, hopes and disappointments, of bones, of blood, of hair, of children, of grief.  They bear witness to a deteriorating mind,  experiences that seem like weakness, that have contributed to moulding a psyche of great strength and perseverance. An activist. A voice. A woman standing in the light, seen, heard, inspiring others.

Kahlo, Grealy and Spence were lights in the dark for me, a form of guidance. A triangular constellation. To me, they showed that it was possible to live a parallel creative life, one that overshadows the patient life, nudging it off centre stage…That in taking all the pieces of the self, fractured by surgery, there is a rearrangement: making wounds the source of inspiration, not the end of it.”

affair with mother5. An Affair With My Mother by Caitriona Palmer – an incredible adoption memoir written by an Irish journalist now living in the US, who has an experience in her mid twenties common to many adoptees, often referred to as “coming out of the fog”, when they realise that despite a happy childhood and apparent lack of effect of the trauma of relinquishment – something isn’t quite right. It’s a crisis that often results in them seeking to understand their identity, to know who they are, not who they were raised to be.

Palmer finds and meets her birth mother in Ireland, initially it is a positive experience, but the continued shame and fear of the mother, and her insistence on their connection remaining secret, compromises the connection.

In addition to sharing her story Palmer digs deep into the history of adoption in Ireland, researching archives and interviewing those affected. It’s an affecting, intimate account of real lives that continue to be impacted today, a cruel legacy of church and state judging and shaming young women, punishing innocent children.

“What I didn’t understand was that that primary loss impacted me, it did change me, I’m still grieving her. Despite my wonderful happy life, amazing husband and children… I’m internally grieving, this woman, this ghost, that’s a love that I’ll never regain in a way, memoir is an attempt to grasp at that.

I wanted people to know you can grow up happily adopted and still have this hole, I always feel like there is a hole deep down inside of me that I can’t quite fill, in spite of the abundance of love that surrounds me, this primary loss is profound.”

Next Week: My Year In Irish Lit!

It’s Reading Ireland Month 2022

Irish Culture and Belfast

Cathy over at 746 Books runs an annual Reading Ireland celebration of books and culture every year in March, so I’m going to try and join in a little. Here in Week 1’s prompt, she shares her Top 5 Irish Movies, interest in Irish cinema currently ascending; Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast a hot contender for the Oscar Awards with seven nominations.

There are four weekly themes to explore and plenty of Irish books on my shelf to read, so you can expect to see a few reviews and other Irish related posts this month.

Reading Ireland logo 2022

More of Moore

In 2021, I joined in another of her challenges to celebrate the Northern Irish writer Brian Moore 100 who lived most of life in self-imposed exile abroad.

I read four of his novels throughout the year, Lies of Silence (1990) (a Northern Irish Troubles thriller), The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955) (frustrating literary fiction), The Doctor’s Wife (1976) (slightly steamy literary fiction) and The Magician’s Wife (1997) (French/Algerian historical fiction).

As you can see below, I have a few more on the TBR to choose from, to read this year. And I’ll be writing more about the highlights of 2021 later in the month.

Reading Ireland Month 2022 TBR

In addition to reading more Moore, I’m planning to read Mary Costello this year, more of Jan Carson, whose novel The Fire Starter’s I read last year, as well as her Postcard Stories.

NonFiction Looks Promising

I’m really looking forward to the two nonfiction titles in my pile, two nature writing memoir type books Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh and Saltwater in the Blood, Surfing, Natural Cycles and the Sea’s Power to Heal by Easkey Britton, an Irish surfer from County Donegal with a doctorate in Environment and Society.

essays Sara Baume Colum McCann Europa EditionsAnd perhaps most of all, I’m very excited about this upcoming collection of illustrated essays, photography, art and reporting, The Passenger, Ireland by Irish writers and journalists from Catherine Dunne to Colum McCann, Mark O’Connell and Sara Baume writing about their country in modern times. Due for publication on March 17 by Europa Editions, here’s an extract printed on the back cover:

“A country is composed of its people far more than its landscape. Let’s face it. We’re torturously poetic. We’re unbearably self-conscious. We’re awkwardly comic. We’re wilfully ambiguous. We’ll answer a question with another question. We’ll give you directions towards the exact place you don’t want to go. We’ll walk a hundred miles to receive a good insult. We’re blasphemous. We’re contrarian. We never forget a grudge. We address incomprehension. Our war songs are merry. Our love songs are sad. We have half-doors: we are neither in nor out. We make great fun of despair. And we’re marvellous at spouting rubbish about ourselves. (Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.) But we are also open to change. It is the eternal dream: to keep on becoming something new. The Irish have always had a great sense of humour, none more so than when their backs have been against the wall. The one thing that has never been given up on, in the Irish psyche, is the presumption of hope – and indeed the presumption of home.”

– From ‘Everything That Falls Must Also Rise’ by Colum McCann

Irish Lit Prompts

Finally, the weekly themes for Reading Ireland Month 2022 are:

Week 1: My Top 5 Irish …

  • for this prompt I’m going to choose my Top 5 Irish Fiction & NonFiction Books

Week 2: My Year in Irish Lit

  • a look at the highlights of reading Irish literature from 2021

Week 3: Irish or Not Irish?

  • Authors you didn’t realise were Irish or those you thought were, but aren’t – Hmm?

Week 4: New To My TBR

  • The punishment for getting involved in this monthly reading celebration, all the temptations to acquire more Irish literature, or how I came to get involved in the Brian Moore thing and all those Mary Costello novels. I’m going to try and resist, but I know I will fail.

So, any recommendations, a favourite Irish novel or book to share? Have you seen Belfast?