Day 1115: On Canaan’s Side

Cover for On Canaan's SideBest Biweekly Book!
I just wanted to comment that this is the third book in a row I’ve reviewed that has a title starting with “On.” That has to be unusual.

While I was reading On Canaan’s Side, I kept comparing it to Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy. I think that’s because, although it approaches its subject matter much differently, it has one goal similar to the trilogy’s. It covers events in almost the same period, only in terms of one woman’s life span. But it does so in a mere 256 pages and with a limited number of characters, as opposed to Smiley’s three large books and a plethora of characters.

Lilly Bere is almost ninety years old. Her beloved grandson Bill has just died, and Lilly has decided to follow him. Before she goes, she writes an account of her life.

Lilly grew up in Dublin, but shortly after the First World War, she has to flee to America. The army mate of her dead brother has become her fiancé, Tagh. But after he takes a job as a Black and Tan, Lilly’s father hears he is on a hit list, and she with him.

Lilly’s cousin is no longer at the address she has in New York, so she and Tagh travel to Chicago to try to find her second contact. They are just settling down when Tagh is murdered at an art museum.

Lilly must flee again. In her subsequent life, she finds friends and love, but she also has mysteries in her past that Barry skillfully spins out.

The point of view is kept at Lilly’s, and we feel we get to know her and share her joys and sorrows. This novel’s prose is quite beautiful, and I was touched by events in Lilly’s life. Whereas I felt distances from Smiley’s trilogy, I was pulled into Lilly’s story. This was another excellent book I read for my Walter Scott prize project.

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Day 1113: On Her Majesty’s Frightfully Secret Service

Cover for On Her Majesty's Frightfully Secret ServiceI had never read anything by Rhys Bowen, but recently I noticed reviews of her books popping up here and there. When Netgalley offered On Her Majesty’s Frightfully Secret Service, I was intrigued. What I found was a frothy story of intrigue. This novel is the 11th in her “Her Royal Spyness” historical mystery series.

Bowen’s heroine is Georgie Rannock, the sister of a duke and 34th in line for the throne. She is on the impoverished side of the family, though. It is 1935, and Georgie is staying at the ancestral home of her fiancé, Darcy, at Kilkenny Castle in Ireland while they plan their wedding. Since Darcy is Catholic, Georgie may not marry him unless she renounces all claim to the throne, and to do so, she must have permission from the throne.

Darcy is employed by the government in some secret capacity, and he is called away. In his absence, Georgie decides to pop over to London after receiving a belated summons by Queen Mary. In her late mail, she also finds a plea from her friend, Belinda, who is in Italy. Belinda has gotten pregnant and is hiding out in Italy until she goes across the lake to Switzerland to have her baby. She wants Georgie to stay with her.

Summoned to tea at Buckingham Palace, Georgie goes to discuss her wedding difficulties with Queen Mary. When the Queen learns her immediate destination in Italy, she proposes getting Georgie invited to a swank house party there. The Prince of Wales and Mrs. Simpson will be attending, and the Queen wants to know if Mrs. Simpson has her divorce.

link to NetgalleyAt the house party, Georgie finds herself enmeshed in more than one drama. Her mother, the famous actress, is there, and she is being blackmailed. Some of the party are German generals, and something seems to be going on with them. And soon there is a murder.

I mildly enjoyed this little romp, although I knew who the murderer was even before the murder (if that makes sense). That is, I noticed something immediately and once there was a murder, knew who it was as a result. Perhaps I would have enjoyed the novel more if I had started with the beginning of the series. Georgie gets herself into some ridiculous situations, the murder is worked by a bone-headed Italian policeman, and the novel is just silly fun.

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Day 1088: The Trespasser

Cover for The TrespasserBest Book of the Week!
Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series just gets better and better. One thing that makes it stand out is that it doesn’t feature a specific detective. Instead, the main character in each novel was a more minor character in the previous novel.

This novel, like the previous one, features Steve Moran and Antoinette Conway, but The Trespasser is written from the point of view of Conway rather than Moran. She and Moran are in a difficult position on the squad. Moran is a rookie, and Conway thinks that everyone on the squad wants her off. She has been faced with blatant sexism, and some of her cases have been threatened because of missing evidence or messages that have purposefully not been passed on.

Just as she and Moran are getting off shift, the boss sends them on what appears to be a standard domestic violence case. A young woman, Aislinn Murray, has been found dead in her flat, apparently the victim of a beating. Conway and Moran are taken aback because their boss insists that Detective Breslin also be assigned to the case.

Smelling a rat, Conway and Moran begin trying to work the bulk of the case behind Breslin’s back. Although they have an immediate suspect in Rory Fallon, the man Aislinn had a date with that night, he claims Aislinn never opened the door when he arrived. Breslin seems awfully set on focusing on Rory, and Conway catches Breslin discussing her and the case with his partner McCann, in a way that makes her suspicious.

I haven’t always liked French’s recent novels as well as I did her earlier ones, but this one is right up to form. She has created two fascinating characters with the belligerent Conway and her easy-going partner, Moran. The dialogue is really well done, and the conundrum of Aislinn’s life is interesting. This is a gripping novel.

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Day 1077: Four Letters of Love

Cover for Four Letters of LoveBest Book of the Week!
I was so enchanted by History of the Rain that after finishing it, I soon looked for other novels by Niall Williams. Four Letters of Love is his first.

Nicholas Coughlin is a boy when his father abandons his career as a civil servant to paint, saying that God wants him to. For two summers, he leaves Nicholas and his mother home alone while he goes out to paint. The rest of the year, he obsessively reworks the paintings he did in the summer.

Then Nicholas’s mother dies, but stays to haunt the house. His father intends to go out as usual and leave Nicholas home alone for a few weeks, but Nicholas follows him. His efforts all along are to try to capture some of the attention of this obsessed, abstracted man.

Isabel Gore is the daughter of a schoolmaster on an island off the coast of Galway. Her brother Sean is a gifted musician, but one day after playing for hours while she dances, he has a fit and after that is mute and wheelchair bound. Isabel blames herself for Sean’s condition.

The Master sets all his ambitions on Isabel’s academic career and sends her to Galway to a convent school. But Isabel has a streak of wildness in her and sometimes walks off from school. On one such expedition as a teenage girl, she meets Peader O’Luing. He is a poor excuse for a man, but she doesn’t see that and falls in love.

The novel makes no secret that it is moving toward the meeting of Nicholas and Isabel. To get there, it tells their stories with some whimsy, some pathos, and a touch of magical realism. Although the writing style and voice are not as distinctive as that of History of the Rain, the novel is still beautifully written. I enjoyed it very much.

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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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