Review of Books
By Irish America Staff
December / January 2015
Edited by Adrian McKinty & Stuart Neville
Belfast, a city of conflicting allegiances and a dark and turbulent past, seems a perfect setting for Akashic’s latest “noir” anthology. Belfast Noir is presented as “an important snapshot” of the city’s burgeoning crime-writing community featuring stories from some of Ireland’s best-known crime writers including Lee Child, Brian McGilloway, and Claire McGowan.
Beginning with an introduction that is useful to readers not familiar with Belfast’s history of sectarian violence, the book is split into four sections, “City of Ghosts,” “City of Walls,” “City of Commerce,” and “Brave New City” with each story aligned to a specific neighborhood. Unfortunately, for a reader whose knowledge of the city is minimal, many of these stories lack the true descriptive sense of place that is called for in an anthology so place-centered.
McGowan recently claimed that Northern Irish fiction has moved past writing about “the Troubles” and this anthology has stories that do this very well. Eoin McNamee’s wonderfully creepy “Corpse Flowers” presents a narrative constructed of individual surveillance camera shots telling the story of the last night of a young murder victim. The gangsters in Ian McDonald’s ghost-revenge story “The Reservoir” could be from any modern city whose violence doesn’t necessarily have sectarian connections. But there are also stories that feature expected forms of violence – Ruth Dudley Edwards’ “Taking It Serious” about an autistic boy who becomes obsessed with sectarian violence and Lee Child’s “Wet With Rain” about mysterious Americans who are after an item buried under an old woman’s house.
Throughout, the themes of violence in the city appear in different guises in different neighborhoods and among Belfast’s rich and poor alike. Many of these stories are entertaining but what’s often missing is the true essence of “noir” à la James M. Cain or Jim Thompson. “Noir” is not just criminal violence, but a pervasive dark cynicism that creates a sense of unease and an expectation of creative plot-twists that some of these stories don’t meet. Certainly there is cynicism here and the city itself, when it is allowed to appear, is very dark – to quote Sam Millar, “Even when the sun shines, it’s dark.” As Lee Child states, Belfast is one of the “most noir” places on earth and the North has produced a number of powerful crime writers – some of them are showcased here, but like other books in this series, there is a lack of sense of place in some of the stories that overall, frustrates expectations.
– Yvonne C. Garrett
(Akashic Books / 256 pages / 515.95)
By Mike McCormack
Mike McCormack’s new collection of short stories is underscored by suspicion and anxiety, offering certainty only in mistrust and concern – a brother worries for his younger sibling, a child tries to defer his fate of becoming a serial killer, a prisoner is forced to play a video game based on his own life. Forensic Songs, McCormack’s first new work since 2005’s Notes from a Coma, which was shortlisted for the Irish Book of the Year Award, is a measured and deliberate contemplation of the ways in which lives are mediated, whether through digital reality or American cop shows, as in the title story.
McCormack, from Mayo but living now in Galway, is biting from the beginning, inserting himself into the long history of Irish short fiction and critiquing the divide between fiction and truth. In the first story, “The Last Thing We Need,” two rural Gardaí discuss “the only man in this jurisdiction not to have written a childhood memoir,” as if it is the most damning crime a man from the west of Ireland might commit. What Forensic Songs signals is an anxiety over privacy in an age of global contacts and information sharing, and the frustration that occurs when the picture, like many of his best stories, doesn’t flatten out.
– Adam Farley
(Soho Press / 208 pages / $15)
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher
By Hilary Mantel
Hilary Mantel’s eerily crafted new book of short stories The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher combines the grotesque elements of gothic fiction with the acerbic wit and subtle discomforts her readers have come to love. In her bestselling and Man Booker Prize winning novels Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies (which recreate life of Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII) or The Giant, O’Brien and Fudd, Mantel showcases her mix of biting gallows humor and withering psychological insight that make her one of contemporary fiction’s “iron lady’s” of literature.
In her new book of short stories, Mantel steeps her prose in an inventive and provocative concoction of wit and horror that boils over as she explores themes of isolation, personal tragedy, sexual identity, and reimagined history. In another author’s pen, stories like “The Long QT” about an unfaithful husband caught in the act and “Comma” about two young girls’ unsettling revelation in a small town could appear tawdry and sensationalistic, but Mantel overcomes it with a deft hand and a command of language that stop you in your tracks. Mantel describes a sweltering summer’s day which, “by the end of July, had bleached adults of their purpose.”
Standout stories include the largely autobiographical “Sorry to Disturb” about a woman’s psychological detachment from the closed off world of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, a place Mantel herself lived for four years in the 1980s. Claustrophobia and self-imposed madness walk hand in hand as Mantel describes the “coffin-lid doors” or the air conditioner that “labored and hacked, spitting out water, coughing up lungfuls of mold spores, blights.” Mantel never loses track of her macabre sense of humor as she documents the life of a visiting literary celebrity in “How Shall I Know You.” The story reads like something out of Edgar Allen Poe, whom she cleverly nods to when describing the “poetasting engineers.” We meet a menacingly named “Mr. Simister” and are treated to Mantel’s ghoulish charms when she describes the hotel as “grayish-white and crinkled, like a split open brain.”
Mantel’s final story, “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher” finds the author returning to the world of historical fiction. This was not Mantel’s first inclusion of Thatcher in one of her stories, she had also made an appearance in An Experiment of Love. It’s clear the Anglo-Irish Mantel has little sympathy for Thatcher. This time around Mantel re-imagines how a series of subtle mistakes can lead to profound consequences. The title character unknowingly opens the door to what appears to be a radiator repairman, only to be taken hostage by an IRA gunman set on assassinating Thatcher across the street. Commonalities are hinted at and explored between the two as the reader watches spellbound as Mantel’s story builds. Mantel leaves us with a cleverly placed wink as she states, “Different histories lie close, they are curled like winter animals, breathing shallow, pulse undetected.”
– Matthew Skwiat
(Henry Holt / 244 pages / $27)
By Rob Doyle
Rob Doyle’s debut novel Here Are the Young Men from Dublin’s Lilliput Press (published in the U.S. by Bloomsbury) harkens the arrival of a gifted new author. Most critics are hailing it as the “Irish Trainspotting” with comparisons to other gritty and subversive novels like Fight Club, Less Than Zero, and A Clockwork Orange, but Doyle’s novel cracks into the troubled mind of the teenage subconsciousness like few novels have done before. The title, taken from a Joy Division lyric, crackles with its own dark music and deeply disturbing subconscious. This comes as no surprise given Doyle’s background in philosophy and psychoanalysis. He has a first class honors degree in philosophy and an M.Phil. in psychoanalysis from Trinity College, Dublin.
This in no way makes the novel an impenetrable labyrinth of psychoanalytic allusions, but it does bring up a number of questions about ourselves and the society we live in, both Irish and American. The story takes place in 2003 at the tail end of the Celtic Tiger in Ireland and follows the lives of four young men: Matthew, the troubled heart of the story; Cocker, the lighthearted comic; Rez, the philosopher; and Kearney, the disturbed dreamer. The lives of these young men are detailed by Doyle with an unflinching eye as he captures the excessive drug taking, drinking, pornography, and violent game watching that ensue throughout the story. A thinly veiled critique of the 21st Century’s obsession with pop culture, 24-hour news media, and the glorification of violence is readily apparent. The character Rez asks the question, “What does it really mean to you to be Irish? I mean, like growing up in the suburbs, which may as well be anywhere, and watching American films and English telly and English football, and everyone you’re supposed to look up to, they all go on about cars and mortgages, and these are supposed to be the most important things.”
It is this question that haunts Here Are the Young Men and which Doyle weaves throughout the story as each character tries to grapple with the answer.
Many of these scenes may at first appear excessive and are often hard to read, but Doyle is able to balance them with a dark humor and an almost cinematic recreation of Dublin. Doyle has a knack for the colloquial sounds of Ireland’s inhabitants. He brings to life the gritty underbelly of Dublin society as you follow the characters through nightclubs, hostels, and a humorous journey to Bono’s home. While told through the perspective of young men, it is the female character Jen who is the most hopeful and mature, and is also the one that leaves Ireland.
While the novel itself tackles these dark themes, one is left hopeful for the future, as Rez states, “The challenge was to live in this weird, catastrophic, haywire world and ride it out, create your own pride and meaning within it, to face up to the nihilism and not be crushed by it.” The story ends where it began with a jolt to the system and a chill down the spine.
– Matthew Skwiat
(Bloomsbury / 304 pages / $11.99)
By Maire Mhac an tSaoi, Edited by Louis de Paor
Maire Mhac an tSaoi published her first collection of poems, Margadh na Saoire, in 1956. As the title suggests, Mhac an tSaoi is an Irish language poet, so necessarily, the poems that appear in Wake Forrest’s American edition of her selected poems appear in translation, facing their Irish originals.
For new-comers to Mhac an tSaoi’s work, the introduction written by the poet Louis de Paor provides a thorough argument not only for her importance and interest to contemporary readers, but also a critical essay that illuminates the significance and novelty of what Mhac an tSaoi has done throughout her career. He situates her among her contemporary Irish language poets, Seán Ó Ríordán and Máirtín Ó Direáin, and contends that she, more than either of them, deferred to the traditions of the Gaeltacht, allowing her to create new meanings and express the previously ineffable within the structures of Irish language literary history.
Born in Dublin in 1922, Mhac an tSaoi was also a politician’s daughter and became a diplomat herself. The idea of the authentic “nation” plays a significant role in her work. What Mhac an tSaoi excels at is carrying on the tradition of narrative in the Irish language, but bringing to it a female perspective at a time in Irish history when the voices of women in Irish society were marginalized at best, and actively assaulted at worst.
What this collection offers are deeply personal meditations that contemplate how best to understand one’s individuated role in a century of increasing possibilities for self-identity. As a result, readers of this volume will find her themes of citizenship, love, family, and undoing gender stereotypes piercingly relevant still.
The Miraculous Parish: Selected Poems (An Paróiste Míorúilteach: Rogha Dánta in the Irish) is the first time her selected poems have appeared in the United States, and it is something to be celebrated.
– Adam Farley
(Wake Forrest / 202 pages / $17.95)