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Category Archive for 'Ireland and Northern Ireland'

The prose of Irish debut novelist Lisa McInerney is so musical that even the horrors of characters living barebones existences in the drug-infested underworld of Cork begin to feel engaging. Here McInerney creates families and friends, enemies and predators, and lovers and their betrayers as they all try to survive the forces working against them. Their possibilities of flourishing within this fraught atmosphere are practically nil, and many characters use drugs and alcohol to make their lives more bearable, but most still have hope for a future in which they can find some level of happiness. These characters come to life – and in some cases, death – within a society which exists on its own terms, a dark society outside the dominantly Catholic mainstream, with its own rules about what is right, what is tolerated, and what requires repentance and/or punishment. Many of McInerney’s characters are aware of the ironies in their lives, as Maureen Phelan’s confession to a priest at the beginning of this review reveals, and her intentional humor in places throughout the novel keeps readers from being overwhelmed by the sad, inner battles her characters face.

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Escaping the Great Famine in Ireland, Thomas McNulty, a boy in his mid-teens and the only survivor of his family, hopes for a new start in a new world. Sneaking onto a boat for Canada with other starving Irish, many of whom die on board, he discovers, upon his arrival, that “Canada was a-feared of us…We were only rats of people. Hunger takes away what you are.” Seeing no future there, he travels, eventually, to the US, working his way to Missouri, where he then meets John Cole, another orphan boy of his own age, whose great-grandmother was an Indian. They connect instantly, and “for the first time I felt like a human person.” Realizing that they have a better chance of surviving together than they would have separately, they figure out a way to keep working until they are old enough to enlist in the U.S. Army. Once in the Army, they end up in northern California, where recent settlers have been having trouble with the Yurok Indians, native to those lands. After fighting in the Indian Wars, they end up fighting in the Civil War. Sebastian Barry, a writer with almost unparalleled ability to control his characters, his story line, his style, and the peaks and valleys of the changing moods of his novel, succeeds brilliantly in this novel, already the winner of the Costa Award in the UK, and likely to be winner of several more major prizes, as well. Barry makes everything real in a novel which Kazuo Ishiguro describes as “the most fascinating line-by-line first-person narration I’ve come across in years,” and which Donal Ryan calls “a beautiful, savage, tender, searing work of art. Sentence after perfect sentence, it grips and does not let go.” #1 on my Favorites List for 2017.

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For the past ten years, award-winning Irish author John Banville has been writing crime novels under the pen name of Benjamin Black, in addition to his literary fiction under his own name. Seven of these novels feature an alcoholic pathologist in 1950s Dublin named Quirke. Quirke has had a sad life from his earliest years, having spent time in an orphanage before he was unofficially adopted by Judge Garret Griffin, and brought into his household to live with his adoptive brother Malachi Griffin, who also became a physician in later life. In his mid-forties when he appears in Christine Falls, the first novel in the series, Quirke has never come to terms with who he is because he does not know who he is. Now many years later, his past is still largely a mystery to him. As this novel opens, Quirke, the chief of the pathology lab of , has been on a leave of absence from the Hospital of the Holy Family, receiving treatment for his alcohol addiction and related emotional problems. When an accident occurs and the pathologist performing the autopsy has questions, he comes to Quirke for help, and Quirke leaves his house for the first time in over two months to meet Hackett, his friend in the police. Though it is easy to speed through these introductory pages in an effort to get to the plot, it is the information which Quirke learns about himself and his condition which deserves the most attention, especially at the beginning. Many revelations throughout this book, and many questions from the past answered.

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NOTE: The second of the “Quirke series” by Benjamin Black (the pen name for renowned author John Banville), The Silver Swan (2008) follows Christine Falls (2007). At present (January, 2017) there are seven Quirke novels in this series, which is set in the 1950s. Quirke’s complex personal story unfolds very slowly in the background during these seven novels, some of it especially important to understanding him, though it is referenced, but not usually explained, in subsequent novels. I am therefore reposting these early reviews because they introduce key information in Quirke’s life, important to know in later novels, including Even the Dead, published on Jan. 3, 2017 and to be reviewed here this week.

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NOTE: This novel, published in 2007, is the first of a series of mystery novels written by award-winning author John Banville, under the pen name of Benjamin Black, and set in the 1950s. Because seven of the novels in the current series all feature the same main character, Quirke, whose life gradually opens to the reader during the series, I am re-posting this early review from 2007 and, to come, a review of The Silver Swan from 2008, which help to explain the complex background of Quirke as we see him in his new novel, Even the Dead, just released and soon to be reviewed here.

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