Review of Books
By Irish America Staff
June / July 2017
The Wake Forest Series of Irish Poetry, Vol. 4
Selected by David Wheatley
In the fourth installment of The Wake Forest Series of Irish Poetry, curated by 2008 Vincent Buckley Poetry Prize-winner David Wheatley, five Irish poets – the experimental Trevor Joyce, religious celebrant Aidan Mathews, elegist Peter McDonald, modern poet Ailbhe Darcy, and Irish speaker Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh – receive their official publication debut among North American readers.
In the anthology’s preface, Wheatley notes that despite his chosen poets’ regional variance and differences in age (37 years separate Joyce, the eldest poet in the collection, and Ní Ghearbhuigh, the youngest), his selection takes care to evade “questions of generational groups and territoriality to explore a series of related but distinct issues” in each of the five bodies of work. In this he is successful: the anthology is a latticework of themes, from troubled love, as seen in Joyce’s defiant “I will not die for you” and the raw honesty of Ní Ghearbhuigh’s “Ciaróg” (“Beetle”) to national identity in Mathews’s “The Death of Irish” and McDonald’s evocation of transatlantic dreams in “A Fall.” Darcy responds to artists old and new – Elizabeth Bishop in “The Art of Losing” and Lady Gaga in “Telephone,” respectively – with such equal gravity that time itself is reduced to a shadow.
Wheatley’s selection of works readily acknowledges that Irish poetry has always willfully defied categorization. Early Irish poems, such as “Pangur Bán,” written by a cat-loving monk in the margins of the manuscript he was illuminating, date back as far as the 6th century, and the poetry of 19th century Ireland concerns itself largely with the socio-political relationship between the Irish and English languages in a time of national strife. Irish poets from days gone by, like Yeats, Kavanagh, and Heaney are lauded still on an international scale for their contributions, yet they too were once new mouths through which the voice of Ireland travelled. In this attentively-considered anthology, that voice is heard loudly as ever.
– Olivia O’Mahony
(Wake Forest University Press / 328 pp. / $19.95)
Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan
By Ruth Gilligan
With the exception of Leopold Bloom, Irish Jews have received almost no attention in literature, and until quite recently, very little scholarly attention. Ruth Gilligan’s debut novel, Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan, attempts to redress that oversight with three interconnected narratives about the crossovers between Irish and Jewish culture, religion, and diaspora.
Storytelling and migration are the threads connecting three central characters: Ruth Greenberg, a Lithuanian Jewish girl whose family is en route to America when they disembark in Ireland in 1901, mishearing “Cork” as “New York;” in 1958, Shem Sweeney, an 18-year-old Irish-Jewish boy whose voluntary muteness – though he feels it compulsatory – causes his parents to commute him to a Catholic mental institution; and Aisling Creedon, an Irish journalist whose Jewish boyfriend brings her to his family’s 2013 Hanukkah celebration and gives her a very weighty, presumptuous gift. All three understand the sacredness and weight of words, both said and unsaid. Ruth chooses to remain in Ireland, and she becomes a midwife who blends the stories of her playwright father with Irish myths while bringing new life into the world; Shem’s roommate at the sanitorium – the home’s only other Jew – asks him to transcribe his memories in secret, as they are not allowed paper or pens; Aisling, having immigrated to London, writes obituaries, telling the stories of people’s lives.
Some of the details, however, remain too cruel or serendipitous to be believed, even in fiction: Shem’s father insists of making aliyah – permanently relocating to Israel – while leaving his son behind in an Irish mental institution, a man and a woman meet while cutting peat for fuel during the Emergency and get to know one another over the course of a week before becoming lovers, all without ever learning one another’s names. In a realistic, heartfelt novel that otherwise provides the reader with sympathetic, nuanced characters, these moments feel incongruous.
Still, weaving in an appearance from Lady Gregory and clever references to Joyce, Beckett, and Heaney, as well as mentioning lesser-known Irish writers, such as playwright Mary Manning, Gilligan’s debut novel acknowledges not only the major influences that shaped the Irish literary canon, but also the voices – especially that of the Jewish community in Ireland – that have gone largely unheard.
– Julia Brodsky
(Tin House / 400 pp. / $15.95)
By Karl Geary
The simple but beautiful cover of Karl Geary’s first novel promises great things, and it is such a relief that the story keeps to its end of the bargain. Sonny would rather spend time in the unheated shed at the back of his house than put up with the layers of toxicity that simmer between his barely speaking parents. He loves his Dad, but knows he can’t show it in front of his mother or brothers. When his builder father brings him on a job to a “posh” house, Sonny is instantly smitten with the woman who lives there.
His life otherwise is unremarkable in its ordinariness. He goes to school, works for the local butcher after school, and drinks and smokes with Sharon – a girl from the neighborhood who thinks school is for losers – in the local field. As he gets to know Vera, the woman in the big house, he sees a life he knows nothing about. He takes a book from her house but has to hide it at home because there are no books in his house. He squirrels away any bits of money he can, creating a nest egg that will get him out – somewhere, anywhere. And he falls in love.
But loving Vera isn’t enough for Sonny; he desperately wants to save her. And as Vera repeatedly warns, that’s the one thing he won’t be able to do. All emotions are here: desire, longing, grief, hope, and desperation. It’s a simple and universal story, elevated by wonderful characters and writing that glows.
It is a hugely impressive debut from the Dublin-born Geary, and describes a world that couldn’t be further from the 1990s New York that saw him model for Madonna’s Sex and co-own and run the iconic Café Sin-é in the East Village. He now lives in Glasgow, Scotland with his family.
– Darina Molloy
(Harvill Secker / 240 pp. / £12.99)
By Neil Jordan
In Carnivalesque, the latest novel by writer and filmmaker Neil Jordan (Michael Collins, Interview with a Vampire), the Tuatha dé Danann are alive, well, and living as a traveling band of carnival and circus performers covering up their magical powers with the guise of big-top feats, with modern-day attendees none-the-wiser. That is, until a boy named Andy, visiting the carnival with his mother, is forced to learn the truth and is consumed, literally, by the parallel mystical world of latter-day gods.
At the carnival, Andy enters Burleigh’s Amazing Hall of Mirrors only to walk through a mirror and become a trapped reflection of his former self. In turn, a simulacrum emerges and goes home with Andy’s parents. In this clever take on the tradition of changeling folk tales though, Andy, his name now inverted to Dany, is saved by a young carnie girl named Mona, returns to the real world, doppelgänger to his own body double. Mona takes Dany in and teaches him the ways of the carnival while the new “Andy” adjusts to life outside the mirror and Andy/Dany’s parent’s are forced to adjust to this new the-same-but-not-quite version of their son.
Anyone who has raised children, or remembers the fraught emotional transition from childhood to adulthood will recognize the allegorical implications of this switch – the book is essentially a bifurcated bildungsroman, told from the perspective of Andy’s mother, Eileen, who must confront the changeling teenager in front of her, a quiet, moody, thankless version of her previously happy-go-lucky son. (Indeed, what parent hasn’t thought their teenagers might be changelings?) Meanwhile Dany tells his own carnivalesque story of learning to play with gods.
The cinematic circus-scape of Jordan’s making sometimes falls prey to his tendency to over-describe. It’s not that he puts in too much detail, it’s that the detail that is there is occasionally warped by infelicitous verbosity and repetition of words and phrases.
Jordan, to his credit, anticipates this criticism within the very fabric of the novel – that is to say, in a novel where carnies are immortal and the carnival is as enchanting as it is all-consuming, the language must reflect the lived experience of the fey circus hands, for whom “time was a mangled circle, a balloon twisted into a donkey shape, a series of interconnecting doughnuts to be prodded, licked, tasted, but never consumed.” Jordan’s linguistic movements similarly mirror the discourse of the carnies, who privilege wonder and enchantment over analysis and explanation.
As with the Tuatha dé Danann, or the mythical Tír na nÓg, the novel is, to be fair, a delicious tale if you’re in it, but seek too many answers or put your foot on the ground, and you run the risk of getting less than you bargained for.
– Adam Farley
(Bloomsbury / 288 pp. / $27)