Day 933: The Night Stages

Cover for The Night StagesWhile reading The Night Stages, I kept wondering when, if ever, the stories of the characters would link up. The answer is, one character’s story does not, except metaphorically. Still, I thought the novel was at times poetic, and engrossing and affecting enough to recommend it.

It is post-World War II, and Tam is fleeing her married lover. Upset by a confrontation she had with him, she drove from her cottage in Kerry to Shannon Airport and took a flight to Gander in Newfoundland. There, she has been stranded by fog for several days. While she waits in the lounge, she examines a cryptic mural, Flight and Its Allegories by Kenneth Lochhead. Tam’s relationship with Niall has been poisoned, not by his thoughts of his wife Susan but by his memories of his lost brother Kieran.

Kieran as a boy suffers from rages that overpower him. When he was young, his mother and her chemist, both addicted to pain killers, committed suicide. His father finds it impossible to handle Kieran, who hears his mother’s voice inside the house, but Kieran likes the housekeeper, Gerry-Annie. When Gerry-Annie announces she is taking Kieran home with her to live, no one objects.

Kieran develops a deep love of the Kerry countryside and travels all over it on his bicycle. While Niall is studying in college to be a meteorologist like his father, Kieran is an unskilled laborer who loves the stories and songs of the country people. Then Kieran falls in love with Susan, Niall’s fiancée. The story climaxes around the Rás, a bicycle race through the Irish countryside.

Making the novel seem more diffuse is the introduction of Kenneth Lochhead as a character. We see how episodes from his life have inspired characters in his mural. But the description of the mural is a difficult thing to grasp just through text, and the small pictures that come up in Googling it convey very little, although I would love to see it sometime. It seems to me as though the emphasis on the mural and this character take away some of the power of the novel.

Flight is a recurring theme of the novel. Tam used to be a pilot during World War II, flying planes from one location in the U.K. to another. She is on a flight from her earthbound life in Ireland, and of course Kieran has flown Ireland. Then there are the descriptions of biking down the steep mountains and through the valleys of Kerry.

Although I think the novel would have been more cohesive without Kenneth, and in retrospect, Tam’s past as a flyer seems irrelevant (although making me wonder why the person she was before would put up with the situation with Niall), I was deeply involved in the story of Kieran, Susan, and Niall. I think this is an ambitious novel that doesn’t quite accomplish its goals but is beautiful and definitely worth reading.

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Day 918: Ghost Light

Cover for Ghost LightBest Book of the Week!
The Irish playwright John Millington Synge was engaged to marry an actress, Molly Allgood, when he died in 1909. Their relationship was of several years’ standing, but it was considered scandalous because of the difference in their ages and stations. Synge was nearly twice as old as Molly, and Molly was from a poor and uncultured family.

Ghost Light is a fictionalized account of this relationship, and O’Connor freely admits to taking liberties with it. The novel begins in 1952, when Molly is an old lady, nearly destitute and living in a cheap rooming house in London. The story follows her for one night and day of her life, during which she remembers the events in her love affair with Synge.

This novel is beautifully and atmospherically written, poetic at times, and partially in different flavors of Irish vernacular. It eloquently tells a story of frustrated love and loss. This is a compelling characterization of Molly and her view of the character of Synge. Ghost Light has been another interesting experience from my Walter Scott Prize list.

Day 914: History of the Rain

Cover for History of the RainBest Book of the Week!
The distinctive voice of its narrator is what stands out to me about History of the Rain. But again, I feel as if I may not be able to convey just how wonderful I found this lovely novel.

Ruthie Swain is a young girl bedridden from an illness. In her attic bedroom under a watery skylight she is trying to read her father’s thousands of books. She is also writing a novel to try to understand him. During this effort, she writes about Ireland, her village, and the history of her family, especially about the Impossible Standard. Her story incorporates the mythological heritage of Ireland as well as references to countless literary authors and characters and the eccentric residents of her village.

Ruthie’s mother’s family, she says, evolved from salmon, and her mother first meets her father salmon fishing, and is hooked. But that gets way ahead of the story, which in unchronological order recites the history of her father’s family, the story of the Impossible Standard and his evolution into a poet.

To give a flavor of the novel, here is how Ruthie imagines the first time Ruthie’s father Virgil is invited to dinner at her mother’s house:

“So, how do you like it here?”
“Very much.”
“Good.”
That exhausts the dialog. She realizes she hasn’t folded the napkins and takes hers and begins to press it in halves. Virgil does the same. Both of them are useless at it. Maybe evenness is a thing intolerable to love. Maybe there’s some law, I don’t know. She lines up the halves of hers, runs her forefinger down the crease. When she picks it up the thing is crooked. So is his. She undoes the fold and goes at it again, but the napkin wants to fall into that same line again and does so to spite her, and does so to spite him, or to occupy both with conundrums or to say in the whimsical language of love that the way ahead will not be a straight line.

She doesn’t give up, and he doesn’t give up. And in that is the whole story, for those who read Napkin.

This novel is funny, heartbreaking, and lovely. It is about the loves of reading and poetry and Ireland and life. I loved this book.

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Day 896: No Country

Cover for No CountryA story about Irish immigrants to India seemed like an interesting change to me. But I decided not to finish this 500+-page book.

It begins in 1989 in upstate New York, where the bodies of a couple are found and their daughter is being questioned. The promise is that the novel will answer the question of who killed them or whether they committed suicide, but at least in the first 200 pages, after this brief opening, the book doesn’t return to the crime.

Instead, the story goes back in time to 1843 Ireland. There, we meet two boyhood friends, Brendan and Padraig. Through several unlooked-for occurrences, Padraig ends up on a ship to Bangladesh with every intention of returning immediately, while Brendan adopts Padraig’s illegitimate daughter Maeve and ends up fleeing the famine for Canada.

Everything about the Irish section of the novel seemed clichéd to me, and because Ray spends no time at all on characterization, we’re not especially interested in the characters. The point of view switches between characters, but they don’t have distinctive voices or personalities. Finally, there is no sense of place to the novel. So, I decided to stick it out until the novel moved to India, hoping that would change things.

In Calcutta in 1911, we meet Robert, Padraig’s Anglo-Indian grandson. I didn’t stay with Robert very long because I still didn’t feel very interested, and again there was no sense of place. It seems obvious that the couple who die in 1989 are going to find they are related in some unanticipated way, but by then the relationship will be so distant, it would hardly seem to matter.

In fact, the story seems to be one of unrelenting misery, but a misery so detached that we feel little empathy as we read the catalog of horrors experienced by Brendan and his family in Ireland and on the way to Canada. The novel is ambitious to tell the story of these families but in a way that didn’t capture me or make me want to invest the time to finish it. From reviews I’ve read, it just becomes more complex, one reviewer mentioning it needed a family tree. But that would probably give away the ending.

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Day 720: Galway Bay

Cover for Galway BayGalway Bay is fiction based on the stories of Mary Pat Kelly’s great-great grandmother about leaving Ireland in the first half of the 19th century to come to America. The novel covers a lot of ground—the iniquities of Ireland’s Anglo-Irish landlords, the Great Famine, early Chicago, the American Civil War, the Fenian Brotherhood—and ends with the Chicago World’s Fair.

Honora Keeley is a young girl living in a fishing village on Galway Bay when she meets Michael Kelly and they fall in love at first sight. They want to marry, but they have to convince Honora’s family, because Michael owns nothing but his horse. However, he earns enough to marry by winning a horse race in Galway.

Honora’s sister Maire, who was married the day Honora met Michael, is soon a widow after her husband dies in a fishing accident. On Honora’s wedding night, Maire saves Honora from the landlord’s droit du seigneur by volunteering in her stead. I’ll say something about this later.

Michael is no fisherman. Honora and Michael have a tough enough time of it farming but are making out okay when the potato blight hits. The behavior of the landlords and the British government during this time is shameful, and Kelly depicts it vividly. After several years of the blight and other misfortunes, Honora finally is able to convince Michael to leave for America, to Chicago, where his outlawed brother Patrick is said to reside.

Although this novel has a fairly good story, there is something about the narrative style that bothered me. It is told in first person, but in a modern style that is not convincing. Many things happen, but I didn’t ever feel as if I understood much about the characters’ personalities. Especially early on, when we are getting to know the main characters, often opportunities for revealing dialogue turn into storytelling episodes, where we hear another Irish legend. Everyone has one or two identifying characteristics, but they don’t feel like real people. I think the novel may have been more successful in the third person.

Finally, I was highly skeptical of whether droit du seigneur would have occurred in the 19th century, as it is usually associated with Medieval times. I’m sure this event is based on family legend, but I think Kelly could have treated this one with a little skepticism, especially as the lord’s behavior is abetted by a priest. I attempted some research on the topic and was surprised to find a lot of discussion about whether it was ever actually practiced at all. But with one exception, the references were to Medieval mainland Europe, not the British Isles. That exception was a Facebook page about Ireland, but I was unable to find the actual reference on the page to see if it cited any sources. I have read several history books about Ireland and took a graduate course in Irish history, and I have never heard anything about this, although the other abuses are well known. (I have since found one source for this alleged practice, Arthur Young, the author of a book called Tour of Ireland in 1780, who stated it was commonly practiced in rural Ireland. He is listed in Wikipedia as an agriculturalist who traveled to observe agricultural practices. Still, with this little information, we have no idea if his statement is based on rumor or fact, and this report is 50 years or so before the time of this novel.)

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Day 705: The Spinning Heart

Cover for The Spinning HeartDonal Ryan achieves a remarkable feat in The Spinning Heart. In this very short novel, he manages to depict the effects of the recent Irish financial collapse from the viewpoints of 21 different small town residents. (My caveat: I didn’t actually count them. I am relying for the number on an article about the novel.)

First we hear from Bobby Mahon, who is absorbed in his contempt for his father Frank and his betrayal by his employer. Frank drank away his own inheritance, his father’s farm, and as soon as it was gone, stopped drinking. This all because Bobby’s grandfather said that at least Frank, at that time a teetotaler, wouldn’t drink away the farm. Frank himself was so verbally abusive that Bobby and his beloved mother stopped talking to each other to avert his wrath. That pretense eventually grew into an actual estrangement.

Bobby was the foreman of a crew for a successful construction company until the downturn, when the company folded and the boss, Pokey, disappeared. Now, Bobby and the other men have found out that Pokey did not pay in for their government benefits, instead pocketing the money, so none of them will get unemployment or their pensions.

Josie, Pokey’s father, laments his decision to turn his company over to Pokey and feels sorry for the men left without an income. He blames himself for loving Pokey’s other brother more than Pokey.

Vasya, a contract construction worker from the Caucasus, has even fewer options than Bobby and his men. He relates how Pokey gave him a ride and lied to him about work the last time he saw him, on Pokey’s way out of town.

And so the novel goes, written in many different voices in Irish slang. As the novel moves forward, tensions rise, finally ending in violence. A well-regarded young man is accused of murder. A small child is kidnapped.

Using an unusual technique, this novel conveys the perspective of an entire small community and the impact the economic calamity has had on all their lives. Surprisingly, considering the subject matter, the book is rough and funny, as well as poignant.

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Day 668: The Sea

Cover for The SeaIn this contemplative novel, recently widowed Max Morden returns to the small Irish seaside resort where his family used to live when he was a boy. It was there he met and became fascinated by the Grace family, much above his own in social strata.

Max’s memories are assisted by his residence as a boarder at The Cedars, the house where the Graces stayed that summer. The Cedars has become a boarding house that is now managed by Miss Vavasour.

The young Max became the companion of the Grace’s oddly feral twins, Chloe and Myles. They are two very unpleasant children who torment their teenage nanny Rose. At first infatuated with the voluptuous Mrs. Grace, Max eventually turns his attentions to the spiky Chloe.

Through his memories of the extraordinary events of that summer and his feelings about his wife’s death, Max eventually gains some self-knowledge. Looking back, he also gains some understanding of the dynamics between people that he did not grasp as a child.

The Sea is stylistically exquisite, with its sussurating and rhythmic prose a striking meditation on death, grief, and memory. Although I guessed one of its revelations much earlier than intended, that did not take away from the power of the prose.

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