Irish Fiction

Having just finished Edna O’Brien’s intriguing novel, The Little Red Chairs, I thought that I might share the Irish fiction I’ve read this year. They appear in order of reading and I have linked the titles so that you may read the blurb and so on. Please feel free to comment and tell me about your favourite Irish books and authors – I’m always on the lookout for recommendations!

Dubliners – James Joyce
I encountered Dubliners on the fabulous 3rd year module that you’ll no doubt recall me mentioning! The book is comprised of 15 short stories, many of which were written in the early 1900s while Joyce was in his early 20s. We looked specifically at the final story entitled The Dead, which is widely considered to be the best in the collection. We looked at the music Joyce chose to include in the story, and examined those choices in relation to both Irish culture and The Irish Literary Revival. I’m usually fairly adverse to collected short stories – their fragmentary nature irks me too much for the experience to be enjoyable – but I enjoyed Joyce’s writing style enough to buy a copy for myself. The stories concern the lives of everyday people, going about their business in early 20th Century Dublin. The writing is certainly of its time but is equally pleasing to read, with lots of creative imagery that conjures a real sense of place. I’d definitely recommend it as an introduction to Joyce’s writing (it won’t make quite as good a doorstop as Ulysses, though!)

“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves…”

The Dead, James Joyce.

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Brooklyn – Colm Tóibín
Next on my list is Brooklyn, which I read after hearing Tóibín on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. He struck me as such an interesting person and talked so candidly about his life, that I bought Brooklyn at the next opportunity. The story itself is beautifully told and you find yourself immersed in the protagonist’s world, and caught up with the decisions that she is faced with. There is a point towards the end of the book when Eilis – the protagonist – has a fundamental decision to make. When I was reading it I wanted to reach in and forcibly direct her to make the ‘right’ choice. Tóibín crafted and conveyed the story so well that I felt utterly emotionally invested by the end. I very much enjoyed the film version, although in my ignorance I hadn’t realised how Eilis was pronounced (Ay-lish), so that took some getting used to! Saoirse Ronan plays her wonderfully, however, and the film is very pleasing on the eye.

As Eilis watched her, it struck her that she had never seen Rose look so beautiful. And then it occurred to her that she was already feeling that she would need to remember this room, her sister, this scene, as though from a distance. In the silence that had lingered, she realized it had somehow been tacitly arranged that Eilis would go to America. Father Flood, she believed, had been invited to the house because Rose knew that he could arrange it.

Brooklyn – Colm Tóibín

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Nora Webster – Colm Tóibín
Following on from Brooklyn I purchased Nora Webster and let the book sit for a while before starting it. A friend said shortly after I bought that it was boring and miserable, after which I wasn’t in such a huge rush to start it! However, when it came to the top of my To Be Read pile, I very much enjoyed it. It wasn’t quite Brooklyn and the story deals with death in a fairly persistent manner that some may well interpret as miserable, but there was a great deal in there that was uplifting. Nora’s involvement with the local Gramophone Society, for example, is moving in its ability to reflect the power of music. The friendships she forms are also heartwarming in their supportive, strengthening nature. Although Nora has lost her husband she is in some ways liberated by his death, and goes through a gradual process of finding out who she really is as a result of it.

She had decided to buy ten records. The excitement she felt was new, like something she had felt after she was married when she bought a new dress of a coat. Phyllis had advised her against complications, unless the record contained songs and arias by a single singer whose name she new. She would be better, Phyllis told her, to buy records that had a full concerto, or a symphony, or a trio or quartet. After recitals at the Gramophone Society she had written down names of composers and names of individual pieces that she liked.

Nora Webster – Colm Tóibín

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A Girl is a Half-formed Thing – Eimear McBride
The thing that strikes you as soon as you begin reading this book is the language. McBride uses a fascinatingly creative mix of English, Hiberno-English and Irish throughout. ‘Bold’ is used instead of ‘naughty’ and ‘mitch’ replaces ‘skive,’ to give just two examples. The book is written entirely from the nameless protagonist’s perspective as she tells the story of her life. The first chapter takes place before she’s even born and there the language is at its most fragmentary, though still truly wonderful to read. McBride uses direct address throughout to enable the protagonist to speak directly to her brother, and I found it a little unclear as to whether or not she was literally writing to him. The story itself is raw and gritty and deeply affecting. There are a whole host of thorny issues covered, and McBride does so exceptionally well.  It’s one of those books that lingers with you; I certainly felt its absence once I’d finished it. If you only read one of these books, read this one. I’ve got my fingers crossed that I’ll receive her second book, The Lesser Bohemians, for Christmas!

Raw red in the cold snow air. Blow puffs of exhalation in tea smelled breath up the window panes and gaggle. Birds and beast they. In damp army jackets and swear sunk skirts. They’d be faggy if they could. Full of perms and baggy T-shirts. They may wear their shirttails out as I may not. Cerise talons itch for. I am home-style hands still cleaned and trim. Clean on the cuticle. White at the tip. I may not be that girl. And I may not say there are rosary beads slipping in my pocket on my thumb. I have them talisman against all wrong they’ll do me. I know they will.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing – Eimear McBride

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Room – Emma Donoghue
This was a book that I had repeatedly picked up and wanted to read, yet never quite got around to it. However, finding it on offer in Waterstones last month gave me the opportunity to buy it with less guilt! Room is narrated from Jack’s perspective, a little boy just turned 5, who has spent his entire life in a locked room with his Ma. Most of the objects in Room appear as proper nouns – Lamp, Wardrobe, Bed – and Jack often says goodnight to them all when they settle down to sleep. The story itself has the potential to be far darker and more harrowing than it is, but Donoghue’s choice to narrate it from Jack’s point of view means that many things are implied rather than directly stated. When Jack finds out about the world outside, and about how Ma came to be in Room, we experience his confusion and denial as the world as he knows it begins to disintegrate. It’s a really excellent read, and the film version is worth a watch (although in my view it’s significantly less powerful than the book!)

In the morning we’re eating oatmeal and I see marks.
“You’re dirty on your neck.”
Ma just drinks some water, the skin moves when she swallows.
Actually, that’s not dirt, I don’t think.
I have a bit of oatmeal but its too hot, I spit it back in Meltedy Spoon. I think Old Nick put those marks on her neck. I try saying but nothing comes out. I try again.

Room – Emma Donoghue

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The Little Red Chairs – Edna O’Brien
And finally, The Little Red Chairs. I picked this up in a bookshop in Bath and almost instantaneously, an (undeniably handsome) assistant appeared and told me how fabulous it was. How Edna O’Brien had all but fallen off the face of the planet and then she published this book. I was swayed before I’d even really had chance to digest the blurb, but when I started reading it it seemed sluggish. The first few chapters shift around quite a lot, telling the tale from different perspectives. However, when it got going, it really got going! The book is split into three parts and towards the end of one of the sections there was a scene that made me clap my hand to my mouth and read it without really breathing. There are points in the story where you cannot help but react physically to what you’re reading, and that’s no mean feat! Definitely one to read; I’d be interested to hear whether anyone else had trouble getting into it to begin with.

There was a bite in the air and the stars frozen in the heavens. Frost weighted down dead stalks, and the tiled roof had the sparkle of saltpetre. Branches of the wisteria that climbed up the porch were ashen, like old bones, clawing their way. The lawn there was an unblemished cape of frost.

The Little Red Chairs – Edna O’Brien
(When I encountered this paragraph I had to stop
and read it again twice over, such is its beauty…)

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So that, ladies and gents, is my list! Please feel free to share your own thoughts and recommendations.

Thank you for reading.  🙂

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