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Category Archive for 'Ireland and Northern Ireland'

“Calamity shapes the story…and is its reason for being.”

This old-fashioned saga of eighty years in a family’s life, from the Partition of Ireland in 1921 to the present, differs from other such novels in that it is very short, a mere 228 pages, packed with intimate character portrayals and enough heartache to fill a book three times its size. When three young men try to burn their estate during the Irish Rebellion in 1916, Lucy Gault, age nine, is frightened and runs away. For days her parents cannot find her until they receive “proof” that she has drowned. They disappear to Europe and never return. Lucy is brought up by two servants in her former house. Like many other authors who excel at short story writing, Trevor compresses images and scenes, and his well honed ability to make a few words do the work of dozens allows him to create a book which is simultaneously intensely personal and broad in its time horizon.

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Times are tough in 1950s Ireland, and the yields are poor, but everyone’s happy at least once a year when the traditional wrendance takes place. Donal Hallapy is a bodhran player, an expert in the ancient drums of his Celtic forebears, a musician in great demand at wrendances – all-night singing and dancing hooleys which can be traced back to pagan times. This paganism, the secret nature of the celebrations, the drinking that takes place, and the fact that the church has no control over them has made them anathema to “the clan of the round collar,” in the person of Canon Tett, an ultraconservative determined to bring them all to bay. A lively portrait of a now-vanished world.

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Author of eleven novels for adults, several collections of short stories, many novels for children, and numerous screenplays, including the BAFTA Award-winning screenplay for the film of The Commitments, Irish author Roddy Doyle writes what is arguably his most serious novel, the ironically titled Smile. His characteristic light touch and his humor, even during times of financial difficulties for his working-class Dublin characters, are almost totally missing from this novel, a first-person story of Victor Forde, a man who once wrote radio and newspaper stories about entertainment but gradually found himself unable to write anymore. Like his other novels, this one maintains a conversational tone, but here Victor is talking to himself most of the time, as he tries to figure out how he came to be in the circumstances in which he now finds himself – separated from his wife, living in a flat new to him, not far from where he grew up, essentially unemployed and lacking the ability to see his writing projects through to completion. Slowly, Victor’s story begins to develop, and some answers to questions about his life begin to appear. It is at this point in which Doyle reveals some of his genius at characterization through effective dialogue. The surprise at the end comes abruptly – and even awkwardly – with no obvious preparation for the reader – and while others may be able to accept it wholeheartedly, there is an aura of trickery – for me at least – as the author resolves all the aspects of the novel very suddenly.

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Marcus Conway, a sensitive Irish man in his early fifties, hears the Angelus bell, a call to prayer, upon returning to his house in the Mayo village of Louisburgh, where his family has lived for unnumbered generations. He is “pale and breathless” – confused, even – and notes that “There is something strange about all this, some twitchy energy in the ether which has affected me from the moment those bells began to toll, something flitting through me, a giddiness drawing me.” As Marcus muses about his life and family, and his village “blistered with shrines and grottoes and prayer houses and hermitages,” he sees the whole of County Mayo as a “bordered realm of penance and atonement. Author Mike McCormack, winner of the Best Irish Novel of the Year Award for this novel, recreates the life and the memories, of Marcus Conway as one complete sentence, a brilliant way to recreate the shifting thoughts of a man’s memories, and it really works here, drawing in the reader instead of putting him off with its lack of periods. I found it easy to follow after the first few pages, and I became so involved in Marcus Conway’s life and comments about chaos vs. order in his and the world’s universe that I actually forgot that this was only one sentence.

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In what may be the best debut novel I have ever read, Irish author Karl Geary creates fully developed characters, a variety of moods, an atmosphere of intense caring, and the sad and often unavoidable events that all people face as they make the sometimes naïve decisions that ultimately allow them to grow into adulthood. His main character, Sonny Knolls, a Dublin boy in his mid-teens, comes from a large family, with a father addicted to gambling, a mother who has so many sons and so little money that she does not know how to deal with it all, and five older brothers who sometimes feel that they can celebrate their own sense of independence by exercising control over Sonny’s life. Sonny, working part-time as a butcher’s apprentice and part-time doing house repairs with his father, would like the opportunity to become a painter – a painter of pictures, not the house painter that his insensitive school teacher has assumed – if only he had a choice. His work for Vera, a wealthy woman on Montpelier Parade, introduces him to many aspects of life that he has never seen before, and his attraction to Sharon Burke, a long-time friend, provide him with some lessons in making connections. Vulnerable at home, at school, and in all his relationships, Sonny tries to learn on his own, but his innocence and his lack of certainty about who he is and what he can do, leave him vulnerable on many counts. This book goes way beyond the ordinary and into the realm of the truly memorable.

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