Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

Claire Keegan is an Irish writer who writes atmospheric, slice of life novellas on an aspect of Irish life. I read her novella Foster some years ago, a touching and eerie story of a girl caught between two sets of parents, that is unsettling, though never quite reveals the source of this tension, that is left somewhat to the reader’s imagination.

Small Things Like These is set in an Irish town in 1985 in the lead up Christmas. Bill Furlong, a father of five daughters is a coal merchant, raised by a single mother who was a housemaid for an upper class woman who allowed her to keep her son with her. The story recalls an event that occurs at the nearby convent, when Bill is making his deliveries and we observe different members of the community’s reaction to that.

Irish literature Magdalen laundries shaming mothers religious oppressionI admire the way Claire Keegan creates atmosphere and a sense of place, I could well imagine the small Irish town they lived, the cold, the workplace, the river – although I had to keep reminding myself it was the 1980’s and that there was electricity. Bill’s deliveries of wood and coal and the way the women made it feel like a much earlier era, though I don’t doubt it was freezing then as few could afford to heat their homes by other means.

The character of Bill Furlong was interesting and held potential, both due to the unique circumstance of his upbringing, which made him an empathetic character, and the fact that his wife and other women in the community had a different opinion or perception to his, regarding the situation that he will be confronted with.

The blow was cheap but it was the first he’d heard from her, in all their years together. Something small and hard gathered in his throat then which he tried but felt unable to say or swallow. In the finish, he could neither swallow it down nor find any words to ease what had come between them.

magdalen laundries adoption Ireland patriarchy

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Furlong was one of very, very few babies born to a woman out out wedlock who got to stay with his mother, due to the generosity of his mother’s employer.

When we meet him he is a grown married man with daughters, with his own business, though still struggling and not able to imagine a time when that might change. There is something in him that is unsettled despite his circumstance, something slowly revealed that he seeks liberation from.

On making a delivery to the nearby convent, where his daughters are at school, he becomes aware of the fact there are other young women there, who work with the nuns and provide the community with laundry services.

It is a subtly consciousness raising novel yet somewhat ironic and convenient to this reader that the empathetic character is a working man with daughters. While the story conveniently sidesteps the significant issues, it takes a provocative stance in choosing to instill empathy in a character, who represents generally, the one we never look at – the boy involved, the father or brother who punished their daughter/sister, or the decision maker’s of the institutions (church and state) that carried out the punishment of these young women. In this respect, the premise of the novel feels totally unrealistic, a Disney-like fantasy. The reality is that it is very likely no one ever did was Bill purports to do here.

Claire Keegan Small Things Like These Men With EmpathyIt made me recall another character, Albert, from the film Made in Dagenham, who was initially the only man who supported a group of female factory workers fighting for equal rights at the Ford Dagenham factory in 1968 – the reason he supported them was because he had been raised by a single mother – perhaps there is something to be said for the development of a deeper empathy in men who’ve been raised by single mothers.

One of the other things that did stand out was the prevalence and contribution of community gossip to the development of judgement and insinuation. He is warned by the woman running the café where his men eat lunch.

‘Tis no affair of mine, you understand, but you know you’d want to watch over what you’d say about what’s there?’

Those that listen to and contribute to gossip are of a different kind than those who respond to an injustice that was right in front of them, despite it being none of their business. Bill was of the latter.

Overall, I felt like this novel had only just begun and then it was over; it left me with too many questions and felt like it was set in a time that was decades earlier than the 1985. It read more like a promising beginning, than a complete novel. Deliberately provocative perhaps.

N.B. Thank you to the publisher for providing an ARC via NetGalley.

Warning: Likely to trigger adoptees or any woman coerced by society, to give up a child to adoption.

What Were The Magdalene Laundries?

A Campaign for Justice Mothers AdopteesFrom the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922 until 1996, at least 10,000 girls and women were imprisoned, forced to carry out unpaid labour and subjected to severe psychological and physical maltreatment in Ireland’s Magdalene Institutions. These were carceral, punitive institutions that ran commercial and for-profit businesses primarily laundries and needlework.

After 1922, the Magdalene Laundries were operated by four religious orders (The Sisters of Mercy, The Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, the Sisters of Charity, and the Good Shepherd Sisters) in ten different locations around Ireland. The last Magdalene Laundry ceased operating on 25th October, 1996.

The women and girls who suffered in the Magdalene Laundries included those who were perceived to be ‘promiscuous’, unmarried mothers, the daughters of unmarried mothers, those who were considered a burden on their families or the State, those who had been sexually abused, or had grown up in the care of the Church and State.

Confined for decades on end – and isolated from their families and society at large – many of these women became institutionalised over time and therefore became utterly dependent on the relevant convents and were thus unfit to re-enter society unaided.

Further Reading

Guardian Interview: The acclaimed Irish writer on writing short works, the Magdalene Laundries and her new hobby, horse training by Claire Armistead

Article: How Ireland Turned ‘Fallen Women’ Into Slaves

Book: Ireland and the Magdalene Laundries: A Campaign For Justice by Katherine O’Donnell – Sept 2021 – a devastating and vital account of life behind the high walls of Ireland’s institutions, featuring original research and testimony + the continued campaign for justice for victims and to advance public knowledge and research.

Postcard Stories by Jan Carson

Epistolary Treasures

Jan Carson Author Northern Ireland FictionI just love the concept of these works of flash fiction, postcard size stories, that have a geographic connection to a street or location in Northern Ireland, that originated as a story written on the back of a postcard – an alternative restriction to the usual one when writing flash fiction, of keeping it to 100 -150 words – and that the postcard was both sent and retained, a gift and an accumulated collection.

This not quite Ireland proper/ is not the Mainland/ is certainly not Europe in the Continental sense.

When I first picked it up, a little while ago now, I looked at the contents and went to read a few entries from the locations that were familiar to me, Belfast International Airport, Newtownards Road, Holywood Road, Linenhall Street, Holywood, Ormeau Road, but of course that was me thinking of my own story, so it didn’t make much sense. I was looking for something that wasn’t there.

Removing Expectations

So now I read it again, this time from the beginning and just allow it to tell me its own story, its bite sized exercise in writing, the awakening of imagination, the sharing of the craft, its way of thinking of others while being in the act of creation.

The book is thoughtfully illustrated by Benjamin Phillips. You can view the images from the book via the link provided through his name. They are truly evocative.

Postcard Stories Jan Carson Ireland

Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

I read, am entertained and wonder what it must have been like to receive one of these. Is there a connection between the story and the recipient, is it random, did they reply, did they understand the motivation of the author, did it matter? How did you get to be one of the recipients? Does she really have that many friends whose addresses she knows, a database perhaps, or is the postcard sending a fiction in itself?

Here she is practicing using the second person narrative voice from Week 6, February 5th, 2015, Cathedral Quarter, Belfast from a postcard sent to Claire Buswell.

When you were seven years old you threw a dart at a black-haired girl, running away in the garden. The dart lodged and stuck just below her shoulder blade. She fell forward in the grass. The flight on the dart was red and black and white. These were also the colours of the duvet cover in your parents’ bedroom. This was the 80’s. Afterwards the dart came away clean as needles. No harm done. You did not tell and neither did she.

I’ve read Jan Carson’s novel The Fire Starters, I know she is a fan of absurdist fiction. I also know that she works in the community arts sector and has taught creative writing skills to people to help build empathy, using storytelling to show how we can imagine being in the shoes of another. I remember being reassured by this knowledge, because the protagonist in her novel completely lacks empathy, and that is a frightening thing.

Cafés and Markets, Happiness or Disappointment

Susan Picken receives Week 45’s November story from Victoria Square, Belfast:

‘If your drink doesn’t make you happy, we’ll make you another,’ I read aloud, pointing to the sign above the barista’s head. It’s been there, right behind him, with the toastie machine and the coffee syrups, for so long now that he’s forgotten all about it.

melancholy free coffee happy unhappyIt turns out there are only so many free coffees a person can drink before realising a hot beverage cannot cure loneliness, grief or melancholy.

The collection ends in Week 52  at St George’s Market on a sorrowful note, that makes me think I ought to take my own aromatherapy potions to the Christmas market, offering an antidote to the melancholy nature of some of this population.

Every year during the month leading up to Christmas, Eleanor takes a stall at St George’s Market and sells disappointment in small, hand-made bottles…She stocks any number of different disappointments: the disappointment of an unsupportive parent, the disappointment of a homely child, the disappointment of being alone or not nearly alone enough, the disappointment of cats, good wine, box sets and religion, the dry disappointment of Christmas Day evening which is easily the most popular product on her stall.

I have Postcard Stories 2, so I will be hoping that perhaps, as we wander more streets in the year that followed Postcard Stories, there might be reason for more optimism and perhaps we might learn how to get on the postcard list.

Further Reading

Irish Times Interview: Jan Carson – girl from the north country by Ruth McKee

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.

The most recent book The Last Resort, a collection of ten linked short stories set in a fictional caravan park, was published in April 2021.

Her work has appeared in numerous journals and on BBC Radio 3 & 4. She runs arts projects and events with older people especially those living with dementia.

The Magician’s Wife by Brian Moore (1997)

The Magician’s Wife is historical fiction, set in 1856 France and Algeria.

Brian Moore 100

This is the final read for #BrianMoore100, a year of reading his novel’s in what would been the Northern Irish novelist’s 100th year.

This year, I managed to read and review Lies of SilenceThe Lonely Passion of Judith HearneThe Doctor’s Wife and now The Magician’s Wife. I enjoyed all of them and plan to continue reading more of his work in the year ahead.

Gustave Flaubert and George Sand’s Letters

According to New York Times essayist and reviewer Thomas Mallon, Brian Moore, in discussing the origins of The Magician’s Wife, gave credit to a note in Francis Steegmuller and Barbara Bray’s translation of The Correspondence of George Sand & Gustave Flaubert.

Flaubert was complaining about the French government and their political priorities, and in his letter to Sand he writes:

“But before concerning ourselves with “social security” and even with agriculture, we send a Robert-Houdin to all the villages of France to work miracles!”

The associated footnote further explains:

In 1856 the French government had sent the celebrated conjuror Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin to North Africa in an attempt to destroy the nefarious influence of the marabouts on the native population. His feats, announced as “miracles”, were a great success.

Strangely, the footnote erroneously names the magician in parentheses as Houdini, however, Harry Houdini changed his name (from Ehrich Weisz) in honour of his mentor Robert-Houdin.

In the novel, the character of the magician, Henri Lambert, is inspired by the historical character of Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin.

Review

France 1856 Algeria Robert Houdin MaraboutsBeing historical fiction, The Magician’s Wife became one of those books that I often put down to look up the historical characters, such as Napoleon III (the nephew and step-grandson of Napoleon Bonaparte – he was the son of Josephine Bonaparte’s daughter Hortense de Beauharnais who married Napoleon’s brother Louis) and his wife, the Empress Eugénie de Montijo. His reign was referred to as the Second Empire and lasted for 18 years (1852-1870).

The first half of the novel is set in France, in Tours, the home of the magician and his wife Emmeline, briefly in Paris, where she is outfitted for the pending visit to one of the Emperor’s chateau.

The second half is set in Algeria, in the cities of Algiers and Milianah.

The Emperor’s Invitation

When the magician Henri Lambert is visited by a highly ranked Colonel Deniau and subsequently invited by the Emperor to the autumn residence, Château de Compiègne for a week of events and festivities, Emmeline is curious as to why these men of politics are interested in her husband and unimpressed by the activities they drag her into.

napoleon III Second empire The Magicians Wife Brian MooreIt becomes clear, that this particular série or group of invitees, are people whose influence might be required, to assist the ruler in his campaigns.

Emmeline looked down the long table to where Lambert was as usual in animated conversation with his fellow diners. Not a first-tier série, this man says. Foreigners, bankers, people the Emperor wants to use in some way. What can he want from Henri?

Because the narrative is seen through the eyes of Emmeline, it remains a mystery for some time as to what use the magician might be to the Emperor, however both the Colonel and Napoleon III attempt to bring her close, in order to help persuade her husband of the mission they have in mind for him.

Colonial Conspirators

They want the Magician and his wife to go to Algeria, to perform tricks of illusion, posing as a superior French version of their influential marabouts (a kind of spiritual leader/healer/wise man), in order to inculcate fear of their power and diminish faith in their spiritual leadership. It was an attempt to destabilise and weaken people in preparation for the French armies to continue their conquest and colonisation of the country.

“There, marabouts or saints have a political and spiritual influence which is greater than the power of any ruler…And because of that, only the marabout can proclaim a jihad or holy war against us. At the moment, Your Majesty, all of Algeria is in thrall to a certain Bou-Aziz, a charismatic marabout who has risen up in the south and is said to possess miraculous powers.”

The Female Gaze

Brian Moore Algeria 1856 Magicians Wife

Photo by Noureddine Belfethi on Pexels.com

It is a fascinating story and all the more interesting because Moore chooses to view events and see those involved in this ‘act of illusion’ through the eyes of the accompanying wife.

Emmeline is never quite in support of the events she is dragged along to participate in, openly showing her disapproval despite their promises to elevate her and her husband in society.

Bored by her provincial marriage and uneventful home life, she briefly considers a liaison with the Colonel, initially responding to his attention, though sees through his contrived flattery and begins to resent him, seeing that he too is looking for acclaim and willing to use whatever means necessary.

A Desert Awakening

The Colonel warns her that a visit to Algeria will change her, and this perhaps is the only truth he speaks, for she has a kind of awakening herself, though not in a way that necessarily benefits the mission they are on.

The turning point for her comes, when their servant Jules falls sick and she is the only one to comfort him. What she learns about him in this little time they spend together, awakens her to certain realities about their lives and the impact of what they are doing there. She becomes the sole voice of conscience with regard to this duplicitous mission, moved by the words and aura of the spiritual leader.

She thought of Bou-Aziz, of his grave, dignified speech, of his resolve to pray for God’s guidance. And in that moment in the courtyard of a French fort surrounded by illimitable desert she remembered the Emperor’s study in Compiègne, the Emperor with his waxed moustaches and his lecher’s smile, puffing on his long cigar. ‘I have great plans for Algeria. In the spring, I will bring our armies to Africa, subdue the Kabylia region and complete our conquest of the entire country.’ But this conquest that the Emperor desired would not ‘civilise’ these people as he promised but instead bring more forts, more soldiers, more roads, more French colonists to profit from Algeria’s trade and crops. And more mahdis, more jihads, more repression.

It is extraordinary that Moore chose to write about this intriguing piece of history, given he was an Irish author living in exile in America, writing about French political activities in Algeria. As is to be expected, though it is a history far from home, he succeeds in making the story a conduit for many of his themes and literary preoccupations.

It was an insightful and sympathetic reading journey, to read about this period and event in history, from an alternative perspective, painted by the outsider, written through the eyes of another Brian Moore protagonist, a viewpoint he favoured, that of a woman.

And I’ll certainly be adding the Château de Compiègne to my list of near future places to visit.

Further Reading

Article New York Times: Sleight of Hand by Thomas Mallon

France Inter: Robert Houdin, un sorcier blanc en Algérie Dec 5, 2021

A Line Made By Walking by Sara Baume

I was hesitant to start this knowing it was the last of Sara Baume’s books I had on my shelf to read. I find her work so nourishing and unique, she’s quickly become one of my favourite authors. So what joy, part way through reading this, to learn there is a novel due out in Apr 2022, Seven Steeples.

Navigating the In-Between

Irish literary fiction Visual ArtistA Line Made By Walking takes place over one summer when 26 year old Frankie quits her Dublin bedsit and returns briefly to her parent’s home, before deciding to move temporarily into her grandmother’s slightly decrepit cottage that has long been on the market, since her death over a year ago.

It is a place where she can wallow and wait out a period of depression, create something meaningful, take walks, cycle and test herself on works of art. Her art school days are over, but finding meaning through artistic expression, looking for and noticing it around her, remains important, necessary.

“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.”

Art Creates Structure

Each chapter is titled with a different roadkill or animal species (not living) she has encountered nearby. Everything in the vicinity, plus her stream of consciousness thoughts, link together to create a seamless narrative, like the ripples of a stream bubbling over stones, moving around obstacles. Separate but part of something whole.

Sara Baume Irish literature Bicycle Cycling Ireland

Photo by Bogdan R. Anton on Pexels.com

Though she is not herself at this time, Frankie creates purpose in each day, and while not under observation, makes slow progress. Her mother worries, but allows her the freedom she needs. She resists conventional treatment and takes quiet charge of her own healing.

My parents did not want me to come here to stay. They are, like everybody, fearful of being completely alone and suspicious of people who choose to be. They hesitate, like everybody, to understand how it could heal me, as I believe it can. I believe: I am less fearful of being alone than I am of not being alone.

She fixes the bicycle in the shed and establishes a routine and purpose, an affirmation of the natural order of things, that all life passes. Her grandmother, the dog, a robin, rabbit, rat, mouse, rook, fox, frog, hare, hedgehog and badger. Her photographs grace each chapter.

“Here is another rule for my project: no pets, only wild things. So it can be about the immense poignancy of how, in the course of ordinary life, we only get to look closely at the sublime once it has dropped to the ditch, once the maggots have already arrived at work.”

Artwork Word Association

Though it possesses the barest of plots, I loved it’s meandering style and waymarker structure through an incredible recollection of over seventy art installations, like rabbit holes the reader can burrow into, something Baume encourages us to do.

I urge readers to seek out, perceive and interpret these artworks for themselves.

A Line Made By Walking Sara BaumeThe line made by walking crops up three or four times in the novel, in reference to artworks, the first time in Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows (1890) and represents the division between the field and sky, the sadness inherent in life. It was his final painting.

Having left the city behind, the narrative is as much immersed in the observations of nature around her, in the discoveries to be made on a walk, a cycle, a drive, a visit somewhere; her poetic voice making even the mundane mesmerising.

Again, the novel reads for me, as if the author is speaking, I forget there is a fictional protagonist, after reading her nonfiction Handiwork and listening to Sara Baume talk about her own art making projects, her presence is always there, lurking within the brush strokes of her characters.

Absolutely loved it.

Further Reading/Listening

Universidade de Santiago de Compostela, Spain : “An artist, first and foremost”. An Interview with Sara Baume by Margarita Estévez-Saá

Guardian Interview: Sara Baume: ‘I always wanted to be an art monster’ Feb 2017, Alex Clark

Sara Baume, Author, Visual Artist

Sara Baume Irish AuthorSara Baume, born in 1984, was raised and now lives in County Cork, after having studied Fine Art at Dun Laoghaire College of Art, and Design and Creative Writing at Trinity College, Dublin.

Her fiction and criticism have been published in anthologies, newspapers and journals such as Irish Times, the Guardian, the Stinging Fly and Granta.

She has published two critically acclaimed novels, spill simmer falter wither (2015) winner of the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and A Line Made by Walking (2017) shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize and a work of creative nonfiction Handiwork (2020).

“Baume’s protagonists in both her novels and short stories are solitary people, misfits of our society, mostly representatives of those human beings who find it difficult to adapt themselves to contemporary standards and conventions and who look for different ways of living or rather try to establish alternative communities of life.”

Pre-Order Seven Steeples

If you are interested in the forthcoming novel, it’s available to pre-order as a Limited Edition here

It is a novel about a couple that pushes against traditional expectations, moving with their dogs to the Irish countryside where they embed themselves in nature and make attempts to disappear from society.

Seven Steeples Sara Baume

The Doctor’s Wife by Brian Moore (1976)

Brian Moore 100

2021 is the centenary year of his birth for Northern Irish writer Brian Moore (1921-1999), academically celebrated at Brian Moore 100 and by interested readers in the year long Brian Moore ReadAlong. I have read and reviewed two titles, Lies of Silence (1990) and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955) and I have The Magician’s Wife (1997) plus No Other Life (1993) still on the shelf.

A Distrustful Reader

Brian Moore 100 Northern Irish Literature literary fictionI enjoyed Lies of Silence, however was completely wound up by his treatment of the character in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, a feeling of indignation in his treatment of the female protagonist that was expounded on by Colm Tóibín who admitted:

“that Moore clearly knew that you could achieve certain effects by writing about a woman in the Ireland of his time which you could not achieve in writing about a man, the same behaviour would not bring disgrace, pity perhaps, tolerance certainly, humour most likely, incarceration – never”

I came to The Doctor’s Wife, another novel in which Moore again takes on the voice and attempts to get into the mind of a female protagonist, with significant caution and a not unreasonable dose of distrust.

The Plot: Awaiting her husband’s arrival on holiday in France, Sheila Redden, quiet, middle-aged doctor’s wife from Northern Ireland, suddenly finds herself caught up in an illicit affair with a young American ten years her junior.

The novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1976.

To Prelude or Not

Brian Moore The Doctor's Wife Paris Hotel

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

In a short prelude to the first chapter, Shelia’s brother arrives in Paris and from what we glean Shelia has disappeared and there is a letter waiting for her at a friend Peg’s apartment, from a T. Lowry in the US. Shelia’s brother phones this man in America; he says is he is sorry, he can’t help.

The prelude creates an element of intrigue, an unnecessary addition reading it in 2021, though it may have affected readers differently in 1976, by what it implied. That no one knows where she is. That we know where she is not.

Backing Up to the Beginning

Due to his commitments as a Doctor, Shelia’s husband delays his departure for their holiday, they are returning to the Mediterranean  where they honeymooned sixteen years ago. Sheila travels on alone to Paris.

Staying in Paris with her friend Peg, Sheila’s emotions are overwhelmed by the mix of frustration at her husband and the nervous excitement of being in the city with her confident friend, who introduces Ivo, her lover four years younger than herself. Sheila is in awe of Peg’s way of life, the result of having continued her education, pursued a career, travel.

She lives like a man, free, having affairs, travelling, always in big cities, whereas, look at me,  stuck all these years at home, my M.A. a waste. I don’t think I could even support myself anymore. ‘You know’, she said to Peg, ‘it’s working and travelling that keeps a person young. It’s sitting at home doing nothing that makes you middle-aged in your mind. I was just thinking about it the other day. It’s as if the only part of my life that I look forward to now is my holidays. There’s something terribly wrong about that.’

It is through Ivo she becomes acquainted with Tom, the two keep each company while waiting for Peg. Tom is taking a year after his Anglo-Irish Lit studies at Trinity in Dublin to think about his next step. Sheila enjoys being able to talk with Tom on a subject she is virtually forbidden to elsewhere; speaking animatedly about literature to a man at a party has being the cause of reprimand by her husband in the past. Trying to engage with her husband in conversation fails every time these days.

While initially petulant and annoyed with her husband for putting his work ahead of their holiday, at a certain point Sheila begins to will him not to come. The distance and solitude heightens her feelings towards everything. She is at the beginning of developing a kind of resistance, even if that shows itself through what appears to be recklessness. Eventually she will embrace it, learn from it and change.

Before anything is even hinted at with this young man, while still in that isolated wonder of being alone in Paris, with her friend, engaging in a social life, and interesting conversation, she asks herself:

What about those men you read about in newspaper stories who walk out of their homes saying they are going down to the corner to buy cigarettes and are never heard from again? This is Paris. I am here. What if I never go back? page 42

Looking back at this now, it is clear that this thought indicated a turning point for Sheila, who throughout the novel is referred to as Mrs Redden, unless represented in dialogue when she is Sheila. From here she departs Paris to Cap Ferrat, knowing she has at least a few days until her husband may or may not join her. As she gets out of the hotel bath, the telephone rings.

The Objectification of a Man

Love Entrapment Escape The Doctors Wife Brian Moore

Photo by Andrew Neel on Pexels.com

The rest of the story portrays Sheila’s continued attempts to resist what is occurring, until she doesn’t. The focus is always on her, on her thoughts, her decisions, her mind. It is not a novel that looks into the mind of a 27 year old man.

Ironically, the young man is objectified, something more common to woman characters, but here Brian Moore diverges and flips the coin, reducing HIM to an object of sexual pleasure and gratification. Though he doesn’t go so far as to emasculate him, he risks the character of Tom being perceived as inauthentic, for the very reasons Tóibín above, referred to.

Men too, were expected to behave in certain ways, even while conducting illicit affairs. However, Tom is a post-war baby, a baby boomer, he is of a different generation and from another culture, it is quite normal that his behaviour will be perceived by some as childish, ill-considered, unrealistic. Personally, I could believe it. Sheila was born before the war, she was indeed a Traditionalist. In a sense then, her behaviour and responses are the more radical.

Moore however is clear, he elicits only her thoughts, provoking her to express them aloud, to hear herself speak. What she has to say is far more interesting.

‘I don’t know’ she said. ‘Some people never want to go outside the place they were born in. And others seem to want to run away from the day they’re old enough to walk.’

‘And which are you?’

‘A runaway.’

‘But you didn’t leave, did you?’ 

When it becomes clear what Sheila is contemplating, the men in her life, her husband and her brother will resort to the kind of tools that men in power, medical men were able to use to exercise control over what they considered a wayward woman. There’s a history of mental illness in Sheila’s family, something her husband doesn’t hesitate to consider using to his advantage. It is a scary moment.

Understanding Women

It is to his credit, that Brian Moore takes a different approach twenty years after writing about Judith Hearne. This time he pursues other perspectives, making thought provoking choices that engage the reader. 

Female empowerment Women

Photo by Jill Wellington on Pexels.com

It reads like a kind of thriller because she acts so out of convention and the longer she does so, the more likely it seems there is a possibility she might indeed be upending her life.  The reader can feel she is hovering between two choices. The detail with which her encounters are shared and the response of her family to them, increase this duality.

I really enjoyed this, perhaps because I did read it with that level of distrust and was therefore surprised to see how much the author’s perception of a woman character had developed. Although, here too, I had a sense of the author almost writing this in collaboration, I imagined him discussing and arguing this premise with his women friends, or was he reflecting on his own doomed affair? Who knows, but he left me wanting to know more, wanting to pursue Sheila further in her adventure towards liberation.

This one I definitely recommend!

Have you read any Brian Moore this year?

 

Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty

A stunning reflection by a 15 year old boy, over the course of a year, season by season into how nature provides him with a breathing space, a remedy to his own being.

nature writing Wainwright prizeDara McAnulty is autistic, as are his mother and two siblings, a beautiful advantage, because the family seem to understand exactly how to mitigate the intensity and lived experience of this characteristic.

As a result, they often escape their suburban habitat for the slightly wilder places within reach, places where whatever constraints they might be feeling inside, that might otherwise result in some kind of behavioural impulse, can be released into the conducive expanse of a living outdoors, an ecosystem, they feel at one with.

He reflects on the influence of both parents:

“Many people attribute my love of nature on him He’s definitely contributed deeply to my knowledge and appreciation, but I also feel the connection was forged while I was in Mum’s womb the umbilical still nourishing. Nature and nurture – it’s got to be a mix of both. It may be innate, something I was born with, but without encouragement from parents and teachers and access to the wilder places, it can’t bind to everyday life.”

Dara channels his passion for wildlife and nature into a series of journal entries, written with language that is beautifully descriptive and resonant, that conjures up exactly how it might feel like to be this young man, whose five senses are so intense, who wants to understand more, to do what he can to improve the state of our planet, its nature.

On dandelions:

yellow dandelion flower

Photo by Daniel Absi on Pexels.com

“…I love dandelions. They make me feel like sunshine itself, and you will always see some creature resting on an open bloom, if you have a little patience to wait. This vital source for all emerging pollinators is a blast of uplifting yellow to brighten even the  greyest of days. It stands tall and proud, unlike all  the others opening and swaying in the breeze. The odd one out.”

Spring ends with the announcement that the family will move to another village to be closer to a different school and for their father to be in closer proximity to Belfast. At first disillusioned, Dara soon learns there is a forest nearby and a whole new ecosystem to explore and learn. The move marks a significant change in his experience of the school system, he begins to thrive.

“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. What’s a lot more effort, though, is the work Mum did and does still, so light-heartedly. She tells us it’s because she knows. She knows the confusion. That’s why she and Dad will be doing the worrying about moving, and why Mum will be doing all the planning and mind-mapping, and will somehow know how everything fits together. I’m lucky, very lucky.”

He asks himself constantly, is this enough; to observe, to spend time in nature, to speak, to write?

If this was all he ever did, it is already enough, but it is clear he is destined to do more.

Silverbar, the Sanderling

A sanderling shore bird

Observing the sanderling, I am reminded of Rachel Carson’s excellent Under the Sea-Wind, where she too brings this bird to life:

I reach for my binoculars and see them: sanderlings, about thirty, moving erratically yet with powerful purpose. Blurred black legs. A flash of beak prodding the sand. Sand ploughman. They whirl with the waves, never stopping. Scurrying. Rushing. Every movement too fast for me to focus on. Dazzlers of the shore.

Sanderling plumage is snow-white and pewter-black, the crown darted with linear black-among-white. They come to winter in Ireland from the high Arctic, travelling nonstop for over 3,000 miles. Their movements are completely hypnotic, especially as I focus in one bird and observe how it moves relentlessly at speed between the waves and shoreline, sandpeckering as it goes, and repeating it all over again as the waves recede, over and over, over and over. What tenacity. I’m not sure how productive it all is, as they never stop for a second and must spend so much energy making each tack from wave to shoreline.

When he begins to doubt himself or feel overwhelmed by what he understands is happening to the environment, his ever patient, wise, knowing mother is there:

She also tells me that I need to hold on to grace and gratitude. ‘Hold them close’ she says. ‘And remember by writing down all the good things in life.’ She’s right of course, but it takes every muscle to agree.

A wonderful, inspirational book and journey to a few of the wildish places of Northern Ireland.

Loved it.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore (1955)

Brian Moore at 100

This is my second read for the year long read along of Brian Moore novels organised by Cathy at 746 Books. Previously I read Lies of Silence, which I very much enjoyed and next up for the month of May will be The Doctor’s Wife.

Review

Brian Moore at 100 Northern IrelandAll I can say is thank goodness that’s over and wonder what I can read to mitigate the toxic absorption of reading it and being amidst a pack of inhumane characters and a main character set up for incarceration due to her having had her way in life taken from her after the prolonged and dutiful care of an unappreciative and domineering Aunt.

We meet Judith Hearne as she is moving into yet another boarding house, having lost her youth and employment prospects to the years of caring for her Aunt in the postwar years, despite her initial resistance.

Her only connection to family, she places a framed photo of her in view, a symbolic gesture of creating a sense of home. Judith is capable and talented, but worn down by those lost years, anxious about her dwindling prospects and bitter in her thoughts on account of suppressed resentments.  Despite regular religious observance, she is discovering that faith too has abandoned her.

“Miss Hearne had always been able to find interesting happenings where other people would find only dullness. It was, she felt, a gift which was one of the great rewards of a solitary life. And a necessary gift.”

She turns towards three people and a vice, the landlady’s brother Jim, recently returned from decades of living in New York, her local priest and her family friend Moira. The novel explores these encounters and Judith’s deterioration as she seeks solace and loses control with alcohol.

Men Writing Women in the 1950’s

From the opening pages I couldn’t shake off the fact that this 40 year old woman is being created by a man, that the mind looking out from behind her eyes isn’t a woman, but a man living in exile with grievances to bare and an unconscious bias, by virtue of being part of and conditioned by the dominant sex/race of an Irish Catholic flavour.

Written in an era where if women hadn’t been subdued by marriage, tamed by employment, shipped off or upholstered in the habit, they were indeed on a slippery slope towards disillusionment, realising that society did not value them outside certain roles, and by this age had indirectly cast them aside, or put them on a shelf, as the saying went, perpetuating the cultural myth. 

The Outsider(s)

I could believe she might momentarily look upon the returning emigrant Jim Madden with interest, curious about his life elsewhere, but the gaze of them all upon her, as if her considering him a possible suitor were an abominable thought, the weight of all that judgement – it is a world portrayed that lacks care or empathy, disapproves of adventure, lacks imagination and excitement and instead lures the lonely towards oblivion, thus destroying the few threads of potential that have kept this one woman going till now.

The one light of hope comes from her friend Moira, in whom we find thankfully, a small thread of humanity, kindness and consideration.

The Bottle and the Cloth

brown wooden upright piano in shallow focus lens

Photo: Maria TyutinaPexels.com

I found the extreme indulgence in her whiskey bottles totally unrealistic. She was so straight-laced and God fearing, that one bad experience surely would have been sufficient, but the heavy hand of the author deeply imprinted on her back pushed her onward. He had a beef with the church and by God he was going to make his victim confront it. And then have her put away, as they did with any woman who acted with impropriety and lacked a moral (or male) sponsor.

I think Judith was unjustly portrayed, if she were to write a first person account of her story, we would see a more nuanced character, disillusioned yes, but a more perceptive perspective from within, than those who depict her from without, and a society ready to discard her. 

I went looking for Moore’s inspiration, certain that Miss Hearne was not just a creature of his imagination and discovered that he had cherry picked parts of her character from a family visitor Miss Keogh, asking his obliging sister for memories and details. Colm Toibin writes:

“However, he disregarded most of what he was told. (The original Miss Keogh had a job, for example.) He used merely the ‘speech and mannerisms’ of the original and he surrounded them with something else, elements of his own isolation as a non-achiever in a family obsessed with achievement, and as an emigrant in Canada. His own loss of faith becomes hers, and his memory that his original had ‘a little weakness for the bottle’ becomes her alcoholism.” Colm Tóibín

He  also admits that Moore clearly knew that you could achieve certain effects by writing about a woman in the Ireland of his time which you could not achieve in writing about a man, the same behaviour would not bring disgrace, pity perhaps, tolerance certainly, humour most likely, incarceration – never.

Dis Empowerment

Judith Hearne never found her passion, it was conditioned the hell out of her, ensuring she’d never yearn for, seek or ever become aware of how she might empower herself above or out of her situation. 

“In a society that was merely half-formed and had no sense of itself, a society in which the only real choice was to leave or live in a cowed internal exile, the failure to create a fully-formed male character in fiction was emblematic of a more general failure.” Colm Tóibín

Further Reading

Article: Gaelic Gloom by Colm Tóibín

 

Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson

Reflections From Life

constellations-sinead-gleesonAn excellent collection of essays, of life writing with a particular connection to the body and how women negotiate life when part(s) of it malform and interrupt the ordinary course of a life, making it something extraordinary.

Extraordinary it is, that Gleeson went through all she has until now and managed to create a family and birth this wonderful book, not to mention curating The Glass Shore and The Long Gaze Back, two anthologies that celebrate Irish women writers.

Just as the cover displays the image of a body with numbered sections, inside the book the chapters are labelled with small diagrams that represent a key to the constellations, adding another layer of metaphor and meaning for the reader to ponder.

The Many Diagnoses and A Commitment

As a young girl, the author was diagnosed with monoarticular arthritis, rare to discover in a young person, it would mark the beginning of a lifetime of interventions, all of which might have had more devastating consequences, but Gleeson possesses a remarkable ability to rally, recover and live life on her own terms, despite the heavy price her body puts upon her.

The essays share the struggles, the shame, the hopes and disappointments, of bones, of blood, of hair, of children, of grief, of witness to a deteriorating mind, the many varied experiences that might represent weakness in the body, however they have all contributed to creating and moulding a psyche of great strength and perseverance. An activist. A voice. A woman standing in the light, seen, heard, inspiring.

On the night of her leukemia diagnosis, not being able to face telling her parents she asked the nurse to break the news and then prepared herself to see them.

“I will never forget their faces, their incomprehension and tears. Amid all the wrongness of that moment, I knew something was required of me. To hide my fear and offer them a glimpse of a future none of us knew had any certainty. I have no memory of this but my mother told me years later that I looked into her face and said, ‘I’m not going to die, I’m going to write a book.’ To commit to writing, or art, is to commit to living. A self imposed deadline as a means of continued existence. It has taken me a long time to write that book and here I am, so very far from that awful night.”

A Wound Gives Off Its Own Light

The essay I found the most moving comes near the end is named after an Anne Carson poem ‘ A Wound Gives Off Its Own Light’ which explores the relationship with art and creativity as a way to channel or express what is being felt. She is moved by the work and motivations of Frida Kahlo, Jo Spence, Lucy Grealy.

“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.”

Art Creativity The Body Compromised.jpg

The Body Compromised by Allia Jen Yousef (2001-2019)

Spence’s medium was photography; an ageing, sick, working class woman, she sought representation, visibility, her series Phototherapy, focused on the intersection between arts, health and well-being, combining comic and feminist ideas, outward expressions to promote inner healing or peace, disruptive to the viewer, soothing to the artist.

“Representing a diagnosis – in art, words or photos – is an attempt to explain to ourselves what has happened, to deconstruct the world and rebuild it in our way. Perhaps articulating a life-changing illness is part of recovery. But so is finding the kind of articulation that is personal to you.”

I was reminded while reading of Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am memoir that I read in January, it similarly tracks events (seventeen brushes with death) and turning points in a life that invite pause and reflection, some more dramatic than others.

I read Constellations as part of #ReadingIrelandMonth21. Have you read any good Irish non fiction this month?

Sinéad Gleeson

A writer of essays, criticism and fiction, her writings have appeared in Granta, Winter Papers and Gorse. Constellations won Non Fiction Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards in 2019.

Further Reading Irish Nonfiction

A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ni Ghriofa

Handiwork by Sara Baume

An Affair With My Mother by Catriona Palmer

Tangleweed and Brine by Deirdre Sullivan

Reading Ireland 2021

During March every year Cathy at 746 Books runs a Reading Ireland Month, inviting other readers to participate, so it’s a good time to check what’s sitting on the shelf, to read in the company of others on something of a common theme.

I’m already participating in her year long Brian Moore at 100 ReadAlong and when Doireann Ni Ghriofa’s nonfiction book A Ghost in the Throat became my Outstanding Read of 2021, I began to seek out more titles by Irish Women Writers.

So I can also recommend my recent reads by Sara Baume, her beautiful work of creative nonfiction Handiwork that tracks the course of a year as she writes and sculpts small birds and vainly attempts to lure a few passing migratory species into her small garden. So entranced by her words, I ventured into her fiction and loved Spill Wither Falter Simmer and still have one more, A Line Made By Walking to read.

This week the focus was on short stories, so I chose to read Tangleweed and Brine and next week nonfiction, so I have two titles lined up Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson, which I am currently reading and Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh a story of a wild Ireland, a mix of memoir, nature writing and social history, which looks very promising.

Disruptive Feminist Retellings of Classic Fairy Tales

I picked up Deirdre Sullivan’s two books for a change of genre and due to the intrigue of what her work promised. In 2020 I read Savage Her Reply a retelling of the Children of Lir, a fairy tale I wasn’t familiar with, but thoroughly enjoyed, not just the storytelling but the use of calligrams, poems and the language of Ogham, morsels on the side but subjects that a reader can get quite carried away with, inspiring one’s own creativity, as I found out, collecting small branches, twigs and leaves to adorn the word poems.

Tangleweed and Brine

Tangleweed and BrineWhile Savage Her Reply was a long version of just one tale, in Tangleweed and Brine, we have an entire collection, cleverly separated into seven tangled tales of earth, and six salty tales of water. They can be dipped in and out of and are best read over a period of time, because they demand our attention, require reflection and strip the old tales of their illusory inclinations, suggesting quite frankly what really was going on with Red Riding Hood and her fellow heroines.

It helps to be familiar with the tales before reading, because they aren’t told as they might be to a child. These stories are narrated by the author, often in the second person “you” voice, acknowledging and bearing witness to our heroine, recounting what she experienced back to her and to us, the reader – we who thought we knew, because you know, we read those stories or had them read to us – we now sit back and read in shock, the harsh reality of these women’s lives. Sullivan is paying homage, setting the record straight, we must not turn away. No longer.

So which tales are twisted, those that glorified these heroines lives and made us believe in Prince Charming, bad witches and vicious wolves or these tales that tell of brave and resilient heroines, surviving betrayals, neglect, judgement, cruelty, abandonment and finally have their stories told by the courageous, intuitive teacher, seer, Ms Sullivan.

Part One – Tangleweed

Slippershod (Cinderella)

Cast thoughts aside of which slipper she wears and what she dreams of, Cinderella has a different destiny and the memory of a truer love, she is resourceful and retains her inner self-worth; She is patient and knows when to act.

“Stretching on the bed, with soft bread in your mouth, the taste of butter, you wonder what they are doing at the ball. Who the prince will dance with. The love he’ll choose, the girls he will discard. There’s nothing gentle in that kind of power. You close your eyes. There is a different world. Where people do things, make things. Carve them out. You breathe the thick, soft air. It smells of hops. You smile and square your shoulders. Sometimes love is something more like rage. It makes you fight. You feel the future, wide and bright around you, kicking in your gut as though a child. The night spread wide and you have flown, you’ve flown.”

The Woodcutter’s Bride (Red Riding Hood)

Tangleweed and Brine Deirdre SullivanThis tale can be told by the title and beautiful illustration by Karen Vaughan. There is one picture for every story and within them often lurk clues. As I read the opening paragraphs and saw the illustration, the reality of who really was the wolf, the colour of that cape, hit me like a punch. The horror of those trophies. 

“When I was a small girl something happened to me in the forest. I can’t recall exactly what it was. It’s hard to trust tales from the lips of grandmothers; they come out wrong, too dirty or too clean. Since then I have not felt the same about the forest, I liked it once I think or I think I think. It’s beautiful but on its inky edges  something stirs to fidget with my gut. It’s getting dark; my husband will be home soon. I bite down on my lips to make them red.

Come Live Here and Be Loved (Rapunzel)

“Your husband’s face afraid when you inform him. A happy sort of fear.  To grow a person is no little thing. It isn’t like a turnip or a spud. It’s not so simple, weaving vein and bone. Your sense of smell wolf-sharp and, oh, the hunger. You ache with it.  It gnaws at you, untrammelled through your gut. The pang of it so sharp, like teeth, like fury. A starving ache that cannot be suppressed.”

You Shall Not Suffer (Hansel and Gretel)

She lives in a world that discards the weak easily, she prefers to save lives, to nurture, or at least try to save them. She doesn’t fit the mould of what is expected, so she chooses another way, another life, a way to be herself, a house in the woods. When they abandon their litters now, they blame the witch in the woods, yet still they come to her for help, seek her healing powers.

“You grew up soft, but still you learned to hide it. Piece by piece. The world’s not built for soft and sturdy things. It likes its soft thing small and white, defenceless. Princesses in castles. Maidens waiting for the perfect sword. You grew up soft, and piece by wounded piece you built a carapace around your body. Humans are peculiar little things.

Sister Fair (Fair, Brown and Trembling)

This is an Irish fairy tale of three sisters, that was unknown to me, one of jealousy, betrayal and redemption.

“It’s not about being sensible, or strong. It’s not about being kind. It’s not about the  soft touch and the kind heart.  Beauty and a womb. That’s all you are.”

Ash Pale (Snow White)

coniferous trees covered with snow in sunny winter day

Photo by Maria Orlova on Pexels.com

This story turns the classic tale on its head and Snow White uses skills Her mother taught her to ensure she isn’t dispossessed of her place, when her father remarries. 

“You look at her the same way you always did. Perhaps a little kinder. Now that she’s disappearing. Not a threat. You can see her folding into herself like crumpled parchment. Changing who she is to please him.”


Part Two – Brine

Consume Or Be Consumed (A Little Mermaid)

This was actually the first tale I read, especially after finishing Jan Carson’s The Fire Starters in which we are led to believe that one of the protagonists is seduced by a siren. Here the mermaid spends time among humans and sees what it is to be a woman, the sacrifice.

“These things with half of you on pairs of legs. They don’t look right.  There’s something off about it.  You often stare. Sometimes you close your eyes. So many of them. So much of this world.

On land, a woman doesn’t matter much.  You miss it. Or you used to. Your skin is slightly tinged with subtle blue.  They think that makes you lady-like. The colour of a person matters here. Who were you once, and what was done to you. They speculate. A quiet thing is often seen as docile. They say their secrets, spew out all their bile as you sit silently beside the window. Staring at the waters, lapping out. Everything is still here, always, always. And it should move. You long for it to move.”

Doing Well (The Frog Prince)

woman wearing crown holding frog figurine

Photo: Susanne JutzelerPexels.com

A terrible tale of a princess born into bondage, to a frog, she has no choice, no say, no rights. She belongs to this slimy amphibian and must do his bidding, worse than a slave.

“You have been marked from birth for just this purpose. Cloistered with the others. Secret spaces deep within this space where girls are trained. But there are passageways to keep you safe.”

The Tender Weight (Bluebeard)

Originally a French folktale, this story is given a different twist, though the inevitability of its outcome remains. A story of repetitions, of a curse, of an attempt to break it, of an unfounded reputation, a desire to break free.

“You do not have to ask him what he did.  You know that it was nothing. There doesn’t have to be a reason here The world will steal what little crumbs you grasp. The loves you have can die and be reborn.The memory of pain will cling. Will cling. And you will never let yourself forget. That this has happened.”

Riverbed (Donkeyskin)

two brown donkeys

Photo by chris carroll on Pexels.com

Another French fairytale originally from 1695, in which a daughter has to resort to extremes to protect herself from her father’s indecorous intentions. In this retelling,rather than hide and wait for him to come to his senses and she retain her good virtue, the young woman is uncompromising, will time her strike, will be as effective and more virtuous in her rule. And pay homage to the innocnet hard-working, long-suffering donkey.

“There is a soft rebellion to a donkey. It is a working thing. But it resents. I am fond of this. When I am cold or lonely in the castle. When I’m afraid, I often find myself around the stables, stroking them as long as they permit. Which is a goodly time. They trust me now. I earned it. Growing up, and being gentle, kind.”

The Little Gift (The Goose Girl)

Another from the Brothers Grimm collection, originally this story tells the tale of a maid servant who turns on her princess when they are travelling and forces her to swap places, making an oath never to tell. The princess becomes the maid who cares for the geese, until the prince learns of what took place and tricks the false princess into choosing her punishment. In the retelling, we learn whose idea it was to change places, the reneging on a promise, betrayal. What some will do for love, the selfishness of the entitled.

“A goose can try its best to be a swan. Conceal the ruddy beak, the grating honk. But swans as geese? The air cries out to them. It’s not enough. They want clean sheets and gold. The softer life. And when I visit and stroke her face, I see her clear blue eyes upon my jewels. She does not see their weight, only their lustre. She knows they should be hers. She wants them back.”

Beauty and the  Board (Beauty and the Beast)

The death of the mother leaves Beauty vulnerable, but there is a presence she can contact through the board, invite in for her protection, to deal with the ever present danger. She becomes they.

“You are a thing. A beast without a home. I know that, how it feels. And I would have you share a place in me.”

Further Reading

Article: What Will Build and Break a Girl: Tangleweed and Brine by Deirdre Sullivan

Tangleweed and Brine is a book about women within fairy-tales. And their internal lives, as they realise their place in the world. How trapped they are. Some of them rebel, and some retreat. I wanted to write about different sorts of women, quiet ones and strong ones, women with different shaped bodies, different shaped brains. I wanted to take the stories of my childhood, and put the things we learn early on into a world where marrying a stranger is seen as a happy ending, and pride is something women shouldn’t feel.


The Fire Starters by Jan Carson

Having recently read another novel without realising it was of the gothic genre, I think I’ve gone and done it again, this time, a contemporary Belfast gothic novel, because right from the first chapter, there is the overwhelming sense of something sinister going to happen, and it’s not the series of summer fires that are plaguing the city though they are equally troubling. I discovered having finished the book that Jan Carson is also a fan of absurdist fiction. Another clue.

Contemporary Irish Fiction Empathy EU Prize for LiteratureIn that first chapter we meet a father, Jonathan, who has a strange perception of his baby daughter, who he is caring for alone. He desperately wants to care for her, but he feels that part of his role in doing that is to remove the aspect of her that she has inherited from her mother, who he believes is a siren.

His own childhood was one of being provided for, but unloved, his parents (who never wanted children or grandchildren) abandoning him at the age of 16 to a boarding school, leaving the country. He becomes a Doctor, and of no surprise, lacks any form of empathy.

We meet Sammy, also a father, an ex loyalist paramilitary, who is becoming increasingly anxious, having reason to suspect that his son Mark, who lives in their attic and rarely comes out, may be involved in sinister activities, fearing he has inherited his own thirst for violence, a tendency he had no control over in youth and even today, has to quell the feeling inside.

I found the depictions of both these men terrifying, both are planning some kind of intervention and up until the last pages, we can’t quite believe that they may follow through, and they too wrestle with their instinct and question, whether they ought to proceed.

Then there is the background of a hot summer and the approach of the Orange parades of the Eleventh Night on every 12th of July, an Ulster Protestant tradition where large, towering bonfires are lit, accompanied by street parties and loyalist marching bands.

The bonfires are lit to celebrate (1688) the victory of Protestant King William (Billy) of Orange over Catholic king James II at the Battle of the Boyne (1690), which began the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland. – Wikipedia

When the rain finally arrives, people begin to smile, there are fewer angry people on the streets, they no longer have the numbers for a decent riot, the air of festivity is extinguished. Protesting soon makes way for the football season.

This is how it has been in Belfast every summer since the Agreement. The same hot anger rises at the end of June and and goes stamping up and down the little streets. Stamping and shouting and raising Cain all the way through July until, by August’s end, the energy’s gone right out of it.

My Truth is Not Your Truth

And the various versions and perceptions of truth and history that exist, depending on who is doing the telling, where they live, what day it is, demonstrated in this opening chapter This is Belfast.

This is Belfast. This is not Belfast.
Better to avoid calling anything a spade in this city. Better to avoid names and places, dates and second names. In this city names are like points on a map or words worked in ink. They are trying too hard to pass for truth. In this city truth is a circle from one side and a square from the other. It is possible to go blind staring at the shape of it. Even now, sixteen years after the Troubles, it is much safer to stand back and say with conviction, ‘It all looks the same to me.’

And following this are two paragraphs, one that begins with ‘The Troubles are over now’ and the other begins with ‘The Troubles have only just begun.’

Deidre Sullivan Tangleweed and Brine Jan Carson The Fire Starters

Sirens from Deidre Sullivan’s Tangleweed and Brine

Jonathan (Dr Murray) is obsessed with silencing his daughter, and even employs a deaf nanny to look after her. She is a loving, nurturing soul, providing one of the few notes of relief in an otherwise tense narrative, as these men ponder their responsibility as fathers and fear of what their children may become.

There is a third brief narrative, an omniscient voice that shares the story of a few of the Unfortunate Children of Belfast, children of parents who belong to a support group, that Jonathan attends once, they are children born with deformities and powers and it is here, that I realise there is an element of magic realism in this tale, that perhaps his perception of his daughter as a siren isn’t an aspect of his own mental health problem.

The novel is a blend of politically charged social and magic realism, though it feels realistic in its reading; dealing with the trauma of legacy’s, a parent’s legacy to a child and the community’s complicated legacy of the political troubles of Northern Ireland. It is set in East Belfast, where the author lives and from listening to the interview, I learn that she is an accomplished eavesdropper, that many of the words in these pages have been inspired by overheard conversations.

On Developing Empathy for Those Living Segregated Lives

Interested to understand the motivation behind the novel, I listened to an excellent interview with Nicky Bull in which she shares something of her role as a community arts facilitator and the role this can play in healing rifts, bringing people together, using the creative process to help develop empathy, she talks about the ability of storytelling to help develop this.

The community arts sector in Northern Ireland has played a huge role in the peace and reconciliation process. Primarily it brings people from both communities together into a shared space but I also think it has also taught people soft skills that have been missing from Northern Irish culture.

It’s very, very hard for people here to practice empathy because quite often we grow up segregated, so how are you supposed to understand what life is like if you don’t have any friends who aren’t from the same background as you, the skill system is still largely segregated,and government housing and things.

So these conversations around learning how to empathise, which I think the creative act, particularly writing fiction, you’re putting yourself in the shoes of another character, even when you read, it’s an act of empathy, those skills can be taught and then transferred into the social realms that we’re working in Northern Ireland at the moment, that people can imagine a life that isn’t theirs, it’s much more difficult to hate and to segregate when you have the ability to empathise with other people.

It’s an incredible and deeply disturbing novel, yet despite the discomfort I learned a lot from reading it and especially from taking the opportunity to listen to the author speak, that helped me understand the motivation behind it and that incredible candour around the very real problem of how the creation of segregated community’s causes a lack empathy and how the creative arts can help provide a practical humanist solution.

It’s Saint Patrick’s Day and #ReadingIrelandMonth21, have you read a good Irish book this month?