Review 1509: Normal People

In school, Marianne and Connell ignore each other. They come from different social backgrounds. Marianne is from a wealthy family, while Connell’s mother is the cleaner for Marianne’s family. Although Connell is popular, Marianne is bullied and ignored.

Away from school, the two become lovers. However, a misunderstanding about their relationship causes Connell to hurt her and they break up.

At college in Dublin, they meet again. This time, Marianne is popular with a set of bright students and Connell feels like an outsider.

Normal People is the minutely observed story of a friendship and an on-again, off-again love affair. It has been widely lauded, but it was hard for me to be interested in this story of two very immature people. The relationship is a long series of misunderstandings that separate the two but do nothing to teach them to communicate more honestly.

It’s not that I disliked this novel. It’s just that I found myself getting impatient while wondering where it was going. When it finally got there, the conclusion was underwhelming.

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Review 1502: Wild Decembers

Although the Bugler and Brennan families have been feuding for generations, when Mick Bugler inherits land in the mountains of Western Ireland near the Brennans, he and Joseph Brennan are disposed to be friends. They are, that is, until Bugler goes behind Joseph’s back to lease the field Joseph has leased for the past 15 years. Joseph must take a huge loss on dairy cows that he can’t feed, but that doesn’t seem to faze the wealthy Bugler.

As the situation deteriorates, Bugler keeps getting the best of Joseph, however inadvertently. Joseph’s attitude is egged on by the villagers, who don’t like Bugler. It doesn’t help that Joseph’s sister, Breege, has fallen in love with Bugler, unaware that he’s engaged to a woman back in Australia.

This beautiful, moody novel winds its way to an inevitable sad end. O’Brien’s writing is gorgeous and evocative. This is quite a book.

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Review 1482: Grace

In the midst of the Irish famine, Grace’s mother awakens her in the middle of the night and hacks off her hair. She tells her she must go out as a boy to get money for the family. Besides, Boggs, who lets the family stay in their house in exchange for sex with her mother, has been eyeing Grace lately. So, Grace is cast out to fend for herself, wandering through a country thronged with starving people, a country that’s becoming more and more desolate.

From the first words of this novel, you know you are reading something different. The prose is beautiful, mesmerizing, occasionally hallucinogenic, as Grace goes through one experience after another, haunted by the people she loses along the way.

What an experience it was to read this book. I read it for my Walter Scott project. It’s a book I probably wouldn’t have come across except for that, and I’m grateful to have read it.

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Review 1463: This Must Be the Place

Daniel Sullivan is about to leave Ireland for a business trip when he catches a segment of a radio broadcast more than 20 years old. He hears the voice of Nicola Janks, his old girlfriend. When he learns she died in 1986, the year he last saw her, he becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to her, fearing he was responsible for her death.

Unfortunately, he is unable to explain this concern to his wife, Claudette. Instead, she hears from his family about his erratic behavior. He is supposed to visit his 90-year-old father in Brooklyn but stays only a few minutes before abruptly leaving to visit his children from his first marriage.

These are the first events in a series that will change his life. But O’Farrell is interested in more than these events. In chapters ranging back and forth over 30 years and switching point of view among the characters, she tells about the lives of many of them, of Claudette, the reclusive ex-movie star; of Daniel; of Daniel’s children and Claudette’s children; of Daniel’s mother; even of some of the novel’s secondary characters.

I came late to O’Farrell and so far have only read two books by her, but I’ve enjoyed them immensely. She catches you with her complex plots but keeps you with her characterizations.

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Review 1365: The Witch Elm

Best of Ten!
Tana French is really good at evoking an atmosphere of dread, the knowledge that things are not going to turn out well. In The Witch Elm, though, she departs from her usual Dublin Murder Squad series somewhat. Instead of a narration from the point of view of one of the cops, it is written from that of another character and takes quite a while to work up to the murder.

The novel begins with a crime, however. Toby is out for drinks with his friends celebrating not having been fired from his job. He works PR for an art gallery that had been preparing a show of disadvantaged artists put together by a man named Tiernan. Toby found out that the most gifted work was not done by the alleged artist but by Tiernan himself, but it was so good that Toby didn’t tell. Now his boss has found out and cancelled the show but is allowing Toby to minimize the damage.

After Toby arrives home, he is awakened by robbers, who beat him badly. He nearly dies and suffers neurological damage and memory loss. He is enraged, though, when the police detective implies that the attack was personal, so he must know his attacker.

During his recovery, he tries to keep his friends and family from realizing how badly hurt he was, and he is not happy when he is contacted by his cousin, Susanna. It turns out his Uncle Hugo is dying of brain cancer, and Susanna would like him to stay with Hugo at his home, Ivy House, where Toby and his cousins, Susanna and Leon, lived every summer when they were kids. He decides to go, taking along his girlfriend, Melissa.

Although at first the time at Ivy House seems idyllic, the three enjoying living together only interrupted by family Sunday lunches, and Toby helping Hugo with his genealogical research, the house has a secret. When Hugo calls a family meeting to discuss the disposition of the house, Susanna’s son Zach finds a skull in a hole in the wych elm at the back of the garden.

Soon, the house is overrun by police, who discover a skeleton in the tree. The family imagines it could have been there a long time—until it is identified as Dominic Ganly, a schoolmate of Toby’s, Susanna’s, and Leon’s, a boy who supposedly committed suicide by drowning the summer after school ended.

Toby cannot imagine how Dominic got inside the tree, but his memories of that time are intermittent. Detective Rafferty, however, thinks he knows something, appears in fact to think that Toby did it. Toby starts to wonder if he did.

This is truly one of French’s darkest novels, about the damage small acts can create, even for innocent people, and about how people can be blinkered by their own interests. I was riveted throughout, wondering where it was all going.

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Review 1352: Solace

Cover for SolaceSolace examines with intelligence and compassion a difficult relationship between father and son. This relationship is eventually made more complex by grief.

Mark Casey is a graduate student writing his Ph.D. dissertation in English literature at Trinity. He feels as if his father, Tom, expects his help on the farm too often. His presence at the farm is brokered by his mother, who barely lets a day go by after he has left before she is asking when he’ll be back. Mark has no interest in running the farm, however, even though his work on his dissertation is faltering.

Tom Casey thinks Mark was born to work the farm. Although Mark was interested in helping as a youngster, his interests began changing when he became a young man. Tom does not understand Mark’s choice of a profession and makes it clear that he thinks Mark will eventually choose to return to the farm. When they are together, they are soon arguing.

Then Mark meets Joanne Lynch at a party, and they begin dating. By rights, he should already know her, because she grew up not ten minutes down the road from home. However, since they were both young, his father has had a feud with Joanne’s, which has not ended with Brian Lynch’s death. The situation between Mark and Tom becomes more complicated when Joanne finds she is pregnant after they’ve only been dating a few weeks.

This novel shows insight into a difficult relationship, how both father and son say things they don’t mean while being unable to say what they do mean. Then their relationship is tested further through tragedy.

This is an interesting, empathetic novel about ordinary lives that I read for my James Tait Black project. It is touching and true to life and provides no easy answers for its characters.

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Day 1213: A Country Road, A Tree

Cover for A Country Road, A TreeBest of Five!
I know little about Samuel Beckett except that he was Irish, and I have the most basic knowledge of Waiting for Godot and Krapp’s Last Tape. (“A country road, a tree” is his setting for Godot.) So, I would not be able to say whether the novel at all conveys a true sense of what Becket was like. I can say, though, that I’ve read other works of biographical fiction that felt as if they gave a false or poor sense of their main character. A Country Road, A Tree is much more plausible in depicting Beckett.

The novel does not cover his entire life but concentrates on the war years, 1939-1945. Beckett is already a published writer, although probably not to much attention. He is friends with James Joyce and other writers and artists in Paris.

At the beginning of the war, Beckett is in Ireland. He feels stifled there, though, and chooses to return to Paris despite the instability. There he lives an increasingly stressful and straitened existence with his lover, Suzanne. At first, he has no papers, which complicates things when he and Suzanne are forced to evacuate Paris with the German invasion. Later, he decides to work with the French underground, which makes their lives even more precarious. Finally, they must flee to the countryside again.

Although this novel does not concentrate on the literary side of Beckett’s life—in fact, during much of it he is unable to write—it grabs your attention and keeps it. It also provides some insight into the man who produced his later works. I loved Jo Baker’s Longbourne and have been waiting for her to produce a work equal to it. This is that work, which I read for both my Walter Scott Prize and my James Tait Black projects.

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Day 1206: The Good People

Cover for The Good PeopleBest of Five!
Hannah Kent seems to be fascinated with historical true crime cases. Her Burial Rites was about a woman found guilty of murder in Iceland. The Good People is about the inhabitants of a poor, superstitious valley in Ireland in 1825.

Nóra Leahy has had a year of misfortune. Not long ago, her son-in-law arrived to tell her and her husband, Martin, that their only daughter had died. He brought with him their grandson, Micheál, to care for.

Unfortunately, Micheál at four is not the bright, babbling toddler he was the only other time they saw him. He does not seem to be able to use his limbs and does not talk. Instead, he screams all the time to be fed.

Martin cares for Micheál and gives him affection, but Nóra hides him away from the neighbors. Then Martin dies, falling down suddenly at a crossroads.

The manner of Martin’s death provokes comment but so does the hidden child.

Even after Nóra brings home a hired girl to help with the work of caring for the child, Micheál seems an unbearable burden. Nóra begins to believe that her grandson was “swept away” by the fairies, the Good People, and that she has a fairy child in his place. She consults Nance Roche, an old wise woman who treats the villagers’ ailments.

Nance herself has enemies in the valley. In particular is Kate Lynch, because Nance refuses to help her with a piseóg, or curse, against Kate’s husband, who beats her. Although Nance refuses to deal in curses, Kate leads others to talk of strange dealings when things begin to go wrong for the valley. Also, the new priest, Father Healy, has begun speaking against Nance at mass.

All of this builds a feeling of dread. Kent has beautifully evoked the way that superstition plays a part in the people’s everyday lives. We know something bad will happen; we’re just not sure what.

Although I would have read The Good People anyway, it is a novel for my Walter Scott Prize project. I found it mesmerizing.

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Day 1136: The Wonder

Cover for The WonderLib Wright, a nurse trained by Florence Nightingale, journeys to a small village in Ireland to take on a two-week case. Her assumption that she is being hired by a wealthy family that can afford to bring a nurse out from England turns out to be false. She has been hired by a committee to observe Anna O’Donnell, an eleven-year-old who has reportedly not eaten for months. Her job is to make sure whether the girl is actually eating or not.

At first, Lib suspects that Anna is perpetrating a hoax, but slowly she realizes that the deeply religious girl believes she is living on manna from heaven. Still, she finds the people of the village steeped in ignorance and superstition, the local doctor incompetent, and her employers with a vested interest in a miracle. Her only confidante becomes someone she shouldn’t even be talking to—William Byrne, a journalist.

link to NetgalleyAs Anna shows unmistakable signs of starvation and imminent death, Lib eventually finds out what is going on, but no one believes her. Suspense builds as you wonder whether and how Lib will be able to save Anna.

For me, this was a surprisingly good book. I didn’t think I would enjoy it based on the subject matter, and later, I could not imagine how it would end. It has a great deal of psychological depth and often feels like a mystery.

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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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