Review of Books
Noah Selvaggio misses his wife Joan something rotten. Luckily, she’s still very much present in his head, and 40 years of togetherness ensure he still converses with her regularly in their Upper West Side apartment. He’s about to turn 80 and has finally accepted that retirement is the right course of action, much as he had loved being a chemistry professor. A month into said retirement, and he has planned a trip to Nice, the city of his childhood, to see if he can track any more of the history of his grandfather – a famous photographer. Out of the blue, Noah gets a call from a social worker who tells him she needs someone to take on the care of his 14-year-old grand-nephew. The boy’s father is dead, as is his paternal grandmother (Noah’s sister), and his maternal grandmother has also just passed away. With his mother still having two years to serve on her prison sentence, Michael will have to go into care if a family guardian can’t be appointed. As you can imagine, this goes down like a lead balloon with Noah – he and Joan never wanted, nor had, children. As you can also imagine, it sets the scene for what will either be a disaster or an unmitigated triumph. Reader, it ends beautifully. But that’s as much of a spoiler as you’re going to get – sorry!
– Darina Molloy
$18.99 / Little, Brown and Company / 352 pages
Freya Abalone adores her family, her job and her new house. But she’s not so crazy about Mildred – her critical inner voice that won’t let her off the hook for even a second. And when husband Dan’s glamorous first wife Elisa suddenly appears back on the scene, Freya can’t help fretting about what’s going to happen to her relationship with her adored stepdaughter Lexi. Lexi – the baby Elisa walked out on, the baby she signed over to Freya. The baby who’s now a teenager and just ready to be bowled over by makeup and other shiny prizes. Then there’s the slight issue of the incident that Freya is not yet ready to talk about with her family. The incident that has her relying on sleep aids and threatens to overwhelm her whenever she is reminded of it. A tiny local café near the family’s new house proves to be an invaluable source of much-needed friendship and support, which helps Freya cope with the dreadful illness that continues to steal her beloved Dad from his family, as well as all of the other stuff she has going on. Infused with Kelly’s trademark warmth, humour and love of all things family, this is a sure-fire winter warmer for her fans.
– Darina Molloy
$16.71 / Orion / 368 pages
The neighborly closeness on the idyllic Pine Road is lovely and comforting, but the very thought of the neighbourhood WhatsApp group (ostensibly started to coordinate the monthly poker game) would send most of us running for the hills. The thumbs-up emoji is fast becoming the most dreaded phone symbol known to any busy parent, with a cluster of WhatsApp groups haunting them from dawn to dusk. Rant over, back to Pine Road! New resident Martha has moved to Dublin under mysterious circumstances but can’t seem to settle in her new life. What happened in Limerick to make her so nervous? Robin’s back living at her parents’ house with her four-year-old son, determined to leave her ex in the past, but also struggling to find her feet. Edie just wants a baby, but her husband seems to be dodging any attempts at making a start on their family. She’s also a little needy when it comes to the other women and feels like the outsider of the group. What unites the three women? Ah, you’ll have to read the book to find out. This is Shortall’s third novel and she has definitely established herself as a welcome addition to the Irish popular fiction scene – it’s an entertaining and fast-paced read, with likeable characters and very believable storylines.
– Darina Molloy
$13.37 / Corvus / 496 pages
Aisling’s turning 30, and she’s still a “complete Aisling,” as goes the tagline for this latest outing in Ballygobbard. Her café, BallyGoBrunch (well, what else could one call it?), is doing a roaring trade in secret-recipe sausage baps, she herself has put ex John behind her, and is fully enjoying a fling with the glorious (if reticent) James Matthews. With best friend Majella expecting the hen to beat all hens in Tenerife, and Aisling fiercely reluctant to indulge in a big blow-out for her 30th birthday, not to mention all the worrying she has to do about her lovelorn brother Paul in Australia, life is as crazy as ever. At times, however, it feels as though Aisling is a character pulled a bit too thin over three books, with apparently two more planned in the series. Even Bridget Jones, whom she is often compared to, didn’t last quite as long. Still, many readers will no doubt stick with her till the bitter end, which obviously won’t be bitter at all, not a chance, not with a nice girl like Aisling. And with a nod of approval from the queen of Irish fiction – the one and only Marian Keyes – this is a series that will continue to shine. And appear under the Christmas tree of every Aisling and Ashling from here to Clare.
– Darina Molloy
$19.88 / Penguin / 408
Letter Marked Personal is a posthumous offering from the late J.P. Donleavy. The book was completed in 2005, with Donleavy intending to finesse it at some indeterminate point in the future. He never did. It is tempting to speculate as to why he elected not to publish this considered volume before his death in 2017. Not withstanding the fact that it could have benefitted from some scrupulous editing, there are some very obvious parallels to be drawn between the storyline and events in the author’s private life. Events, which as it transpired, eclipsed in their absurdity anything Donleavy could ever hope to fashion out of fiction. Viewed in this light, A Letter Marked Personal, is both a cautionary tale and a perfectly executed parting salvo to those who otherwise blighted his existence on this earth.
The chief protagonist, Nathan Johnson, is “in lingerie,” figuratively, at least. He is a happily married multi-millionaire with a chain of lingerie stores throughout New York and the east coast. With one eye fixed on the future and another on the bottom line, so to speak, what could possibly go wrong? Alas, things do go spectacularly awry, or “tits up,” as they say in the business. Surprisingly, given the subject matter, Donleavy diverges from his trademark acerbic wit and Machiavellian posturing, to give us a novella that illumines him at his stoic best. Nathan Johnson, for all his apparent success, is a man defeated. Preoccupied with death and legacy issues, he retreats from the superficial world of glamor to brood and listen to classical music amidst the decay of an old office, in the Flatiron Building. Where once he had enough self-regard to imagine himself as “an ordinary guy with elegantly exotic tastes,” he has morphed in old age to become an inveterate snob. He acquires a country pile in upstate New York to bolster himself against his own feelings of inadequacy in a social milieu that is the preserve of “old money.” Shunned, if not ostracized, by the local gentry, this social isolation only serves to further accentuate his creeping sense of his unutterable aloneness. Then into his life saunters “the wonderfully willowy”, Iowa, a midwestern girl, straight out of the pages of the worst kind of pulp fiction – a regular ray of sunshine in a floodlit world. If she symbolises anything to him, it is, as a shot at redemption. The plot takes a sudden, if not unexpected twist, with the introduction of the ‘letter’ referred to in the title. Donleavy’s unrelenting miserabilism finally comes into sharp relief as fine prose, just as the plotline veers off towards its inevitable conclusion.
Donleavy was quite without peer in ruminating upon the plight of desperate men and their change in fortunes. An inveterate snob himself, he never spurned the opportunity to brandish his own very chappist credentials, often with comic results. This book diverges from that narrative, in that the central character, a thinly disguised Donleavy, is in the final analysis, quite without hope as he prepares to “meet his maker”. Perhaps, Donleavy did not rush this book to print, as he himself, had not quite given up the ghost, just yet. Perhaps.
– Noel Shine
$25.42 / The Lilliput Press / 304 pages
She may or may not ever be awarded the Nobel Prize. But with each new novel she puts out, the literary world has no choice but to reckon with the astonishing career of Edna O’Brien.
And not just because of what she did decades ago. Not unlike Philip Roth – her close pal and ally in sexually-groundbreaking work – the work she is producing later in life is, in many ways, just as challenging as the work that made her famous.
After decades of exploring the simmering emotions of men and women across Ireland, England, and New York, O’Brien shook things up with her 2015 book Little Red Chairs, which was set in Ireland, but revolved around a war criminal from the Balkans.
Her latest book, Girl, moves away from Ireland, exploring Nigeria and the crimes of Boko Haram, particularly as they scar one particular victim.
As different as Girl might seem from Irish classics like The Country Girls and House of Splendid Isolation, O’Brien is still exploring disturbing extremes of violence and vulnerability. As Terrence Rafferty wrote in an Atlantic Monthly review, “Despite the obvious contrasts in circumstances, this girl isn’t so different from O’Brien’s young Irish heroines. She lives in a world that’s testing her, daring her to survive.”
Meanwhile, in late November, O’Brien was awarded the U.K.’s David Cohen prize for lifetime literary achievements, which The Guardian characterized as “a precursor to the Nobel… Many recipients, including VS Naipaul, Doris Lessing and Harold Pinter, went on to become Nobel laureates.”
On the eve of her 89th birthday, O’Brien was asked about her chances of nabbing the big prize. “The fortune tellers have yet to come over the hills about that news, as such,” she told The Guardian. Girl is just the latest proof that those fortune tellers in Stockholm should get moving over that hill once and for all.
– Tom Deignan
$20.49 / Farrar, Straus, and Giroux / 240 pages ♦