Review of Books
By Irish America staff
August / September 2010
Deirdre Madden’s new novel Molly Fox’s Birthday is the story of a complicated friendship between three unique individuals: lauded Irish actor Molly Fox, who is away working in New York and London; Belfast-born art critic and television personality Andrew; and the unnamed narrator, a well-established female playwright who is struggling with a new work while staying in Molly’s Dublin home. The paperback spans in time only a single midsummer’s day, cut through with the narrator’s recollections of other moments in the history of her friendships with Andrew and Molly. But rather than coming off as stylistically ambitious, the one-day structure feels understated and yet wholly satisfying.
The intimacy of inhabiting Molly’s house, staying among her things, runs parallel to Molly’s career, as an actor, of inhabiting other characters’ selves. Molly’s house is filled with precious belongings, as distinctive as Molly herself, which makes Molly’s lack of emotional attachment to these material possessions all the more curious and reflective of a deeper detachment that affects all of her relationships.
Each of the three main characters has a brother who serves as a foil and a tie back to pasts that each has tried to escape in order to reinvent themselves. The narrator’s brother is Tom, a Catholic priest who instilled in her a love of language that offered a world outside of their upbringing in a large farming family who “all lived in each other’s pockets” in a remote Northern Ireland town. Molly’s unstable brother Fergus tells a version of their childhood with the mother Molly villanizes that is quite different from Molly’s. But most poignant of all is Andrew’s relationship with his brother Billy, the favorite of his parents who was killed during the Troubles as a loyalist paramilitary.
This is a book about superstition and faith, about acting and pretending, about keeping secrets and telling stories. There is something wonderfully contained about its narrative, but there are infinitesimal details to savor on every page while the novel’s philosophical scope is wide. “Friendship is far more tragic than love,” thinks the narrator. “It lasts longer.”
Deirdre Madden, from Toomebridge, Co. Antrim, teaches at Trinity College Dublin and is the author of eight other novels. She has won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, the Somerset Maugham Award, and the Hennessy Award. Molly Fox’s Birthday was a finalist for the Orange Prize.
– Kara Rota
(240 pages / Faber & Faber / $14)
In The Best of It, United States 2008-2010 Poet Laureate Kay Ryan offers selections of new poetry alongside earlier works in a volume that is sure to satisfy long-time fans and new readers alike. While The Best of It adopts the structure of a retrospective, it proceeds forward at a confident stride, maintaining the freshness and intensity that earned Ryan her status as one of America’s greatest living poets and led to her appointment as the Library of Congress’ sixteenth Poet Laureate in 2008. She has a particular skill in making the familiar refreshing and the ethereal tangible. After each poem, the reader is not sure whether to pause in contemplation or at once barrel onward, hungry for more. The Best of It takes its title from from a poem in Ryan’s volume The Niagara River (2005), that reads in part:
However carved up / or pared down we get, / we keep on making / the best of it as though / it doesn’t matter that / our acre’s down to / a square foot.
Here is poetry that even the non-poetry-lover can enjoy. In its clarity and wisdom, The Best of It offers no less than the title promises.
– Dianne Nora
(288 pages / Grove Press / $24)
Nick Laird is an Irish-born poet known for his political themes and emotional resonance. His latest book of poems, On Purpose, is a slim 65 pages saturated with heartbreaking ruminations on relationships, and the mundane elevated to the lyrical. Some of the poems are small and sweet (“As opposed to those that flow / because an onion is reduced to pieces / … / authentic tears, like these, like yours, / contain much higher rates of manganese, / thought responsible for sadness.” Others, like “The Underwood No. 4,” four pages long, span great emotional distances in Laird’s taut language. “Lipstick” stands out as an extraordinarily visceral and powerful piece. Influenced by the journal of a British soldier who participated in liberating Bergen-Belsen in 1945, it recreates the incredible image of a relief truck filled with lipstick tubes descending upon concentration camp victims.
Inspired by a myriad of influences including his love of Seamus Heaney and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, Nick Laird transmutes human frustrations, grudges and anxieties into cathartic beauty in On Purpose.
– Kara Rota
(65 pages / W.W. Norton / $13.95)
Peter Quinn’s The Man Who Never Returned is a page-turner noir novel based on the true unsolved mystery of New York State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Force Crater’s disappearance on August 6, 1930. Fintan Dunne, the detective who readers will recognize from Quinn’s Hour of the Cat, has retired to a life of leisure with his beloved wife in Florida when a mysterious phone call pulls him back into the irresistible draw of New York and its uncovered secrets. He takes on an assignment from media tycoon Walter Wilkes to solve a 25-year-old case that the police have long given up on. As Dunne becomes further entangled into a web of dead ends, unconnected leads, deceptive testimonies and Wilkes’ femme fatale assistant, Adrienne Renard, Quinn masterfully crafts a forceful narrative whose revealing ending doesn’t disappoint.
– Kara Rota
(336 pages / Overlook / $24.95)
The latest installment in Declan Hughes’s series of novels featuring Dublin private investigator Ed Loy, The City of Lost Girls is a fast-paced crime novel about a serial killer in post-Celtic Tiger Dublin that had my interest from the very first page. Hughes opens with the serial killer’s internal dialogue, sending immediate shivers down your spine and setting the stage for an exciting 300 pages. The author’s use of language and perspective propels the story forward and is at times quite beautiful. Although the story is mainly about stopping the killer, the moments when the characters pause to contemplate their city and its financial troubles allow for intermittent commentary on the state of modern Dublin. With its fast-paced plot, lovely language and well-drawn characters, City of Lost Girls is immensely satisfying.
– Anne Thompson
(304 pages / William Morrow / $24.99)
Ed Moloney is an Irish journalist who has made a career out of recording the history of the Troubles and of the Provisional IRA. In 1999, Moloney faced possible jail time when he refused to hand over notes he had made from an interview with British soldier Billy Stobie regarding Pat Finucane’s murder. Despite this incident, Moloney has continued writing about the Troubles in his latest book, Voices from the Grave. Funded by Boston College, the sizable tome recounts IRA and UVF activity from the late 60s up to the Good Friday Agreement through the eyes of IRA operative Brendan Hughes and politician and UVF figure David Ervine. Combining large sections of candid interviews with Hughes and Ervine, who remember these events with astonishing detail, with precise historical context, Moloney’s journalistic style pairs well with the jarring pictures of violence provided by his interviewees. Particularly interesting is Brendan Hughes’ description of Provisional IRA activity that has been kept secret for years, including Gerry Adams’ involvement with the group, a detail that Adams has fervently denied. Both Hughes and Ervine are now dead, making Voices from the Grave a definitive historical text in that, as the blurb on the book jacket suggests, these men “had nothing to lose by telling the truth.” With few other recorded examples of paramilitary figures discussing the destruction and killings surrounding the Troubles, Voices from the Grave is an important addition to its field and an engrossing read.
– Aliah O’Neill
(512 pages / Public Affairs / $19.95)
From rags to riches, Sir Thomas Lipton personified the American dream of making it big. Born in the slums of 19th century Glasgow, Lipton sailed to the U.S. as a boy. His story, in which Lipton eventually established himself as a millionaire sportsman mingling with Wall Street elite and European royalty, is finally told by Michael D’Antonio in A Full Cup: Sir Thomas Lipton’s Extraordinary Life and His Quest for America’s Cup. D’Antonio, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, vibrantly describes Lipton as an affable raconteur whose incredible life was the product of hard work and good service. Once in the U.S., Lipton opened a chain of grocery stores and gained international success and wealth as the creator of his namesake tea.
The true focus of the book is Lipton’s desire to win the America’s Cup sailing regatta. Winning the match to secure the coveted cup, the oldest trophy in international sports, would be Lipton’s last adventure, and though he participated in the event five times, he never won. Already famous in his day, Lipton became the underdog of the contest and charmed the American public despite his losses. D’Antonio, with great admiration for Lipton’s unwavering spirit, writes A Full Cup in light of this underdog quality, depicting Lipton’s ascent to fame as inspirational and worth celebrating.
– Aliah O’Neill
(354 pages / Riverhead Books / $26.95)