Darina Molloy on the latest offerings from Irish writers
By Naoise Dolan
Exciting times, indeed … if by exciting you mean shocking, startling, hair-raising and mind-blowing. Certainly not thrilling, exhilarating, or intoxicating. But Naoise Dolan wasn’t to know that her book would be published slap bang in the middle of a global pandemic; she’s probably had a moment or two of wry reflection since about the title. Dolan’s protagonist, Ava, has a tendency to float through her life like someone who isn’t quite fully inhabiting herself – as though she is just passing time on her way to someplace else, something other. Teaching English in Hong Kong, she is friendly with, and subsequently moves in with, Julian the banker. He has stressed many times that he is not in the market for a girlfriend, but he’s happy to let her stay rent-free in his spare room, and they begin a physical relationship. When he is away on one of his many extended work trips, she meets Edith. Dolan has been tagged ‘the new Sally Rooney’ but she’s very much her own woman. As, indeed, is Ava.
By Sophie White
Sophie White’s first book, Filter This, had us running for an acronym dictionary every couple of pages. It’s obviously one of the first signs of old age – not having a clue what sponcon or OOTDs are (outfit of the day, for the uninitiated). But there’s far less of the jargon in this, the follow-up, and the poignancy of grief, marital troubles, and a couple of pregnancies take their toll on the characters, but also move them towards being more fully-drawn as believable people. Ali, who ran with a fake pregnancy to gain more Instagram followers in the first book, is now pregnant for real, but her boyfriend Sam wants nothing more to do with her after all the embarrassing shenanigans. Shelly, meanwhile, has an Insta-stalker, which is shining even more of an unforgiving spotlight on her marriage woes. You don’t have to understand the online world they move in to empathise with the utterly human messes they find themselves in.
Leonard & Hungry Paul
By Ronan Hession
Leonard & Hungry Paul is one of those books that kept popping up on social media, with rave reviews from enough book bloggers to make you sit up and take notice. The only problem with it – and the stumbling block that kept me from diving into it – was the uninspirational cover on the Ireland/UK version. Happily, readers in the U.S. have a brand new cover to look forward to, and it should definitely spark a lot more interest. Lest we be accused of fully judging books by their covers (come on, we all do a bit of it!), we must point out that this ended up being a fantastic read. Nothing terribly much happens, but in a similar vein to recent book ‘personalities’ like Harold Fry, Ove and Eleanor Oliphant, the two eponymous characters enjoy a quiet and lovely rapport, getting on with their daily lives. They’re both a little off-centre – not quite fitting in the regular world, but not being too far outside it either. There are many moments of sweet humour throughout the book, and a lovely overarching feel of acceptance. Give it a go, you’re bound to love it.
A Thousand Moons
By Sebastion Barry
There is something so lyrical about Sebastian Barry’s writing – particularly in this novel and its prequel Days Without End – that makes the reader want to read only very tiny bits at a time, in order to prolong the ecstasy. A Thousand Moons tells the story of Winona Cole, the adopted daughter of Thomas McNulty and John Cole – former soldiers whose tales were told in Days Without End. As an Indian in 1870s Tennessee she is, she knows, “lower” than a slave “in the eyes of white folks.” But Winona is wise beyond her years, and has a way of looking at the world that is uncommonly self-assured. She works for the local lawyer, and revels in the kindness of “black-skinned saint” Rosalee and her brother Tennyson, and appreciates farm owner Lige Mangan, who doesn’t make life any harder than it has to be. After a traumatic event turns her life upside down, however, Winona struggles to reassert her place in the world, and the reader cannot help but hold their breath as the story unfolds to the end.
By Anne Enright
Norah FitzMaurice has quite the reputation to uphold – charged with managing her memories of her actress mother Katherine O’Dell and protecting her from the curious journalist who is keen to write a tell-all. Almost all of Norah’s childhood was taken up with assuring and re-assuring Katherine that her latest play or film was a tremendous success, and that she was God’s gift to the acting world. She tells this dispassionately and does not seem, initially, to mind. “My mother was a great fake,” recalls Norah near the start of the story. “She was also an artist, a rebel and a romantic – so you could call her anything you like, but you could not call her English, that would be a great insult. It would also, unfortunately, be true.” When Katherine commits a senseless crime and is sentenced, Norah has plenty of time to wonder where it all went wrong. Like much of Anne Enright’s work, this is a book that starts out as one thing, but then takes many turns in different directions.
Stop at Nothing
By Michael Ledwidge
When a private jet crashes into the ocean, diving instructor Michael Gannon is the only person around for miles. He initially dives to see if he can help anyone, but finds six dead men on the aircraft, along with a suitcase full of cash and diamonds. He hauls the hoard aboard his boat, presuming it’s drugs money. But when he later sees coverage of the death of the Director of the FBI – abroad in Italy from natural causes – and realises that was one of the men he saw on the downed plane, Gannon knows he’s bitten off more than he can chew. The shadowy men chasing him, however, have no idea just who they’re up against: Michael Gannon is a force to be reckoned with. A little formulaic in places, but fans of James Patterson will doubtless enjoy. Ledwidge is, of course, one of Patterson’s regular collaborators – they have cowritten a bunch of books together. All the way back in the 1990s, I remember interviewing him after his first book, The Narrowback, was published. Here was this kid (I wasn’t much more, myself!), the Bronx-raised son of Irish parents, who had just published a book while working the night shift as an elevator operator in a Manhattan building – I was full of admiration. It’s great to see him back flying solo – long may it continue.
Laura Cassidy’s Walk of Fame
By Alan McMonagle
From the time she was a little girl, Laura Cassidy firmly believed that Hollywood loomed large in her future. Encouraged by her movie buff father and obsessed with all of the so-called golden age stars like Gloria Swanson, Lana Turner, Veronica Lake and Barbara Stanwyck, she can’t wait to see her name added to The Walk of Fame. But Laura’s dad died when she was just a girl and she lives with her mother who reminds her constantly to stay on her tablets. Set in a Galway so familiar it jumps off every page, Alan McMonagle’s new novel is vibrant and funny. He captures Laura’s complexity very well, and her antipathy to her do-gooder sister Jennifer is very amusing. Told in partial flashback, this is a West of Ireland story to its bones and the cover – complete with Galway hookers (no, the other kind!), swans and the Claddagh – is absolutely gorgeous.
The Liberation of Brigid Dunne
By Patricia Scanlon
Infused with her traditional warmth, Patricia Scanlan’s newest novel tells the story of newly retired Reverend Mother Brigid Dunne – who finally has a chance to reclaim the woman she put aside when she joined the nuns some six decades previously. Her family are on hand for her 80th birthday celebrations, as are some of her closest nun friends. Most are delighted to be there, and thrilled to celebrate her life, but her sister Imelda is a seething mass of jealousy and insecurity for reasons that soon become apparent. She can’t resist spilling some old secrets that prove very painful to other family members. Left to pick up the pieces are Imelda’s daughter Keelin, who has always been particularly close to her Aunt Brigid, and Keelin’s daughter Marie-Claire, who is reeling after a bad break-up. Along the way, there are plenty of considered discussions on the church’s failings … and its strengths. More importantly, in a time when concentration is not always easy to come by, it’s an engaging and enjoyably distracting read.
By Marian Keyes
Read any book by Marian Keyes and it quickly becomes obvious that family is the central force around which she sets her stories. Her newest novel is no exception – this time the focus is firmly on the Casey family, complete with in-laws, out-laws, and whatever you’re having yourself. Johnny Casey is the oldest son of parents who never thought he was good enough, and never hesitated to point this out. Younger brother Liam married his second wife Nell with what many considered to be unseemly haste, and she wonders if they will be able to stay the course. Ed, Johnny’s other brother, seems to be the most stable of all – married to Cara and the devoted dad of two young boys. But when Cara is concussed after a fall, she can’t help but blurt out the first thing that comes into her head. And with the entire clan gathered at Johnny’s birthday shindig, this goes down about as well as you’d expect. Keyes touches on the difficulties of broken relationships; eating disorders; emotional insecurity and other weighty subjects with her trademark humour and lightness of touch.
Darina Molloy, former assistant editor of Irish America magazine, returned to live in her native Mayo in the spring of 2000, after six very enjoyable years in New York City, with her husband and (then) baby daughter. The intervening years in Mayo have produced three more children and a career change from journalist to librarian. So, she still works with words, just from a different vantage point.