Review of Books
By Irish America Staff
February / March 2017
New novels by Irish authors; challenging the legacy of the Rising; and Americans’ role in the rebellion.
A Line Made By Walking
By Sara Baume
Tragic figures such as Vincent Van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, and Virginia Woolf feature prominently in history’s narrative of the creatively-inclined and chronically depressed. Implied in the legacies of these figures is the idea that their heightened sensitivity to the world’s sadnesses took root as the source of their vision, the key to their productivity. Such is the hope of the protagonist of Sara Baume’s second novel, A Line Made By Walking. Frankie, a twenty-something ex-student of the visual arts overridden by depression, has sought solace in her dead grandmother’s rural house, abandoning the aimlessness of her life in Dublin to busy herself with a new project. During her stay, she aims to restore her creative spirit by photographing every dead animal she encounters in the Irish countryside.
With every chapter named for a creature thus prophesied to appear lifeless within it, A Line Made By Walking is a novel which presents the life-death dichotomy with elegance: a drowned mouse is likened to the famed painting “Ophelia” by John Everett Millais and, later, Frankie’s efforts to save an injured bird lead to a crisis, part existential, part artistic. The idea of art as something beyond tangible reality is discarded; Frankie actively chases death in order to refill her own life with meaning, “Hoping, without thinking, for something to die.” In an attempt to find grounding in the long days otherwise marked only by her misfortunate quarry, Frankie tests herself constantly, drawing on her academic training to link historical works of art to her circumstances as they arise. For a lover of such trivia, the raw yet wry insights provided by A Line Made By Walking render it a must-read.
The fickleness of life in the animal kingdom is no more so than the fickleness of the human connections the novel reflects on – Frankie’s dead grandmother (and Joe, the devoted dog who passed in her wake); Frankie’s mother and sister, the details of their lives divulged only as afterthoughts; William, her ex-schoolmate with learning disabilities; and Ben, the romantic lead of a previous life. In an honest depiction of emotional disruption, Baume centralizes no single face, opting instead to hinge upon Frankie’s every distraction and tangent. “I knew precisely what things I wanted to do,” Frankie says, fittingly, of her childhood. “I was deeply resentful of other people’s attempts to enforce structure on my days.” Art, Baume implies, is a window between life and death in their every sense. Not content with merely looking through the glass, A Line Made By Walking flings it wide.
– Olivia O’Mahony
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt / 352 pp. / $25)
The Weight of Him
By Ethel Rohan
Early on in Ethel Rohan’s debut novel, The Weight of Him, Billy Brennan pockets a “second,” a flawed toy he is tasked with throwing to the incinerator at the factory assembly line where he works. This second, a toy soldier with his chin strop missing, becomes his most stable companion throughout the course of the novel, as Billy sees his family and neighbors turn away from his attempts to overcome what seem to be increasingly insurmountable tasks, arguing that it will bring too much attention to him and the town.
Those tasks are nothing light. The novel begins with the suicide of Billy’s son Michael, at 17, and grief quickly overwhelms the tone and pace of the book. Billy, who weighs 400 pounds, also has an addiction to food, borne of an emotional dependency to the comfort of perceived self-control in what he eats. These two story lines converge as Billy resolves to lose half his weight to raise money for suicide prevention in Ireland, hold a march in his small rural Irish town in Michael’s name, and shoot a documentary about his efforts.
Throughout the book, characters deal with the loss of Michael and come to terms with Billy bringing unwanted attention to himself (as others see it at least) and it becomes increasingly clear how much command of everyday people Rohan has. The characters, including Billy, who narrates the novel, are some of the most frustratingly average people, complete with irrational reactions, poor foresight, and indecision. But, by turning her gifted authorial eye to an unexceptional family somewhere between Dublin and Newgrange that is thrust into a situation wholly unexpected, Rohan is able to probe at what it means to be stable, healthy, and happy, suggesting that each of those conditions can only be measured relative to external events.
That Billy works in a toy factory is apt – there can be no perfection except in the inanimate, no ideal but the factory-made. His squirreling away of the seconds, only to build complex back stories and even physical homes for them, shows that in flaws, there is more character and history than can be attained by putting on airs of a quiet, idealized life.
– Adam Farley
(St. Martin’s / 336 pp. / $25.99)
1916: One Hundred Years of Irish Independence
By Tim Pat Coogan
Tim Pat Coogan’s 1916: One Hundred Years of Irish Independence is a personal and fiery assessment of whether Irish political, spiritual, and cultural institutions have honored the ideas laid down by Pearse and Connolly. Coogan uses the Proclamation of the Irish Republic as a rubric for his assessment and explains in depth where these institutions succeed, but mostly where they have failed. The chapters chronologically follow the history of Ireland’s struggle for independence, beginning with the 1798 United Irishmen rebellion, and concluding with present-day issues like the financial crisis and government corruption.
No major institution or political figure is safe in Coogan’s hands. He dedicates two chapters to criticizing the Catholic Church and one chapter to the “Age of Dev,” in which he accuses de Valera of being a demagogue “very capable of making political hay out of such ill-judged governmental cost-cutting.” Coogan concludes the book by claiming that those who have run Ireland’s institutions have betrayed not only the ideals that the leaders of the Easter Rising proclaimed, but have betrayed the people of Ireland. In fact, the only major cultural institution that emerges unscathed is the Gaelic Athletic Association, which Coogan argues follows the ideals of his rubric, the Proclamation, to a tee.
It should be noted that 1916: One Hundred Years of Irish Independence is not for those looking for an introduction to Irish history and politics – the book is written more like an elongated editorial piece than a strict history of the Ireland’s institutions and its notable historical figures. Instead, Coogan’s book is a passionate evaluation of the past 100 years that challenges whether the modern Irish state can, or should, regard itself as the inheritor of the ideals of the Easter Rising.
– Dave Lewis
(Thomas Dunne / 336 pp. / $26.99)
Ireland’s Allies: America and the 1916 Easter Rising
Edited by Miriam Nyhan Grey
Anew collection of essays published late last year aims to be the first to give a detailed image of the Rising as a transnational event, focusing specifically on the Irish diaspora in the United States in the two decades leading up to Easter 1916.
Twenty-five well-known academics come together in the volume, co-published by UCD and NYU’s Glucksman Ireland House and edited by NYU historian and GIH associate director Miriam Nyhan Grey, with a forward by GIH director J.J. Lee. Each tackles a different aspect of the American ties to the Rising, from the Irish language to the Catholic press, from Pádraig Pearse’s New York visit to the evolution of German-Irish relations in the U.S. during the period. (Disclosure: I graduated from the master’s program at NYU, where both Nyhan Grey and Lee teach, and some of the contributors have previously published in Irish America.)
In addition to well-known figures in America like John Devoy, Joseph McGarrity, Jim Larkin, and Thomas Clarke, the understudied abound in the book. Chapters like those on Mary Jane O’Donovan Rossa, Jeremiah’s wife; Gertrude Kelly, founder of Cumann na mBan in New York; and Irish and Irish American suffragettes in particular illuminate the key role women played in American organizing efforts against British rule in Ireland. And the final chapter on the Rising’s relation to American anticolonial nationalists is particularly important for its research on how the Rising influenced radical black leaders in the U.S. like Marcus Garvey and Indian nationalists like Lajput Rai.
The specter of Woodrow Wilson’s anglophelia and American intervention in World War I loom large in the book, as does the increasing vocalism of anti-British sentiment in New York during the time. The chapters that address the issue do a good job of contextualizing the debate with respect to the various ethnic allegiances formed during the time, as well as reminding readers unfamiliar with the debate of its high contentiousness.
Taken as a whole, the book is an invaluable resource for anyone looking to learn more about Americans’ relationship to the Rising and offers a sweeping platform for scholars and amateur historians alike to dive into further research.
– Adam Farley
(University College Dublin Press / 400 pp. / €40)