Review 1703: The Searcher

Tana French has gone slightly afield from her usual dark mysteries in The Searcher. For one thing, this novel doesn’t involve the Dublin Murder Squad. For another, although morally murky, the novel isn’t as dark as most of the others.

Cal retired to Western Ireland from the Chicago police force, because he felt himself losing his moral certainty. He has purchased a dilapidated farm, which he is fixing up, and he has formed a sort of friendship with Mart, an older neighbor.

Lately, though, he feels like he’s being spied on. One night when he has that feeling, he climbs out the bathroom window and catches someone looking in the living room window, but the person gets away. A few days later, while he is working outside, he hears someone approach and tells him to come out. The person is a boy, about twelve, named Trey. Cal gives him work to do, and it takes about three visits before Trey tells him what he wants. His brother Brendan, 19, has disappeared. Trey has heard Cal is a policeman and wants him to find Brendan.

Cal soon believes that Brendan got involved with some bad people from Dublin, but no one will tell him anything. Then he finds himself being warned off by different parties. At the same time, someone is killing his neighbors’ sheep.

French likes to work in the gray areas of morality, and The Searcher continues this interest. I think it is one of her best.

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Review 1640: The Pull of the Stars

Julia Power is a maternity nurse in Dublin during the 1917 flu epidemic. The Pull of the Stars covers three days in her life on a small maternity ward for flu patients. With the hospital staff depleted because of illness and the matron away, Julia has only the help of a new volunteer, Bridie Sweeney, for most of the time. During this period, she has to cope with several emergencies and some deaths.

The novel appears to be knowledgeable about the state of medicine at the time and of the ignorance of the common people. One young woman expects to deliver her baby through her belly button, for example.

I found this novel interesting but curiously unsatisfying. I liked the characters Julia and Bridie, but no others are very fully developed. The plot seemed predictable and even a bit manipulative. I never know with Donoghue if I’m going to be blown away or relatively unmoved. This novel is timely, but that may make its content of very graphic medical details uncomfortable for some.

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Review 1629: The Guest List

A wild Irish island seems the perfect place for the wedding of Jules and Will. The only building on it is an old mansion that has been fabulously restored and is just big enough for the wedding party and the hosts, Aoife and Freddie. The high-society guests will be boated in the day of the wedding.

The bride and groom seem to be a golden couple. They are both physically attractive, and Jules runs a fashion magazine while Will is a rising star in television. However, someone in the wedding party is a sociopath who has ruined many lives, and future victims are on the guest list.

The novel begins in a tumultuous storm during the wedding reception when a waitress thinks she sees a body outside. From there it flashes back to the points of view of several characters beginning the day before the wedding. And the plot thickens.

I recently read Foley’s The Hunting Party and thought it was excellent. So, I was happy to read The Guest List. At first, though, it seemed awfully familiar—a remote island instead of a remote forest, the same kind of upper crusty characters. However, I was soon sucked in, because Foley is great with a suspenseful plot.

I did have one caveat. If there are several narrators in a book, they should not only have different concerns, which these characters do, but they should sound like different people. I don’t think Foley is quite so successful at that.

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Review 1620: Beatlebone

Judging by the description, Beatlebone is a novel I never would have picked up if not for my James Tait Black project. Often, these projects I’m pursuing have led me to discover wonderful books that I never would have thought to read, but this is not always the case.

Further, I think that reviewers sometimes get jaded, which causes them to give a book rave reviews just because it is different. Certainly, the newspaper and magazine reviewers raved about this one.

The premise is that John Lennon, in 1978, decides, in an attempt to renew himself, to visit an island he bought off the west coast of Ireland. He doesn’t want to be followed by the paparazzi, however, and he can’t remember exactly where his island is. He ends up being taken around by a man named Cornelius O’Grady, who hides him at his farm, takes him to pubs, and so on. During this time, Lennon has what are described on the jacket as surreal experiences.

The novel was lauded for its writing, and the writing is good, but it is full of Joycean monologues that sometimes go on for pages. One Goodreads reviewer mentioned that a novel needs more than good writing, and I’m with him there. I’m not one to say about a novel that nothing much happens in it if something else keeps my attention, but nothing much happens here, and what does happen, I didn’t have much interest in.

Several newspaper reviews mention Barry’s daring act of inserting himself into the novel. This act consists of inserting about 20 pages into the back end of the novel that would normally go in an Afterword. I found this section simply interrupted what little forward movement there was, as did a five-page rant at the end. The whole thing struck me as well-written fanboy fantasy.

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Review 1590: The Burning of Bridget Cleary

In 1895, a rural Irish woman, a milliner, was burnt to death by her husband and relatives. Their explanation was that the ailing woman had been taken away by the fairies and that they had burnt a changeling trying to get it to say it was not Bridget Cleary.

Historian Angela Bourke examines this crime in detail, not only the events as reported by the witnesses and the trial but the meaning of it. She interprets fairy legends and their place in rural Irish society, and she also explains the meaning of comments and actions the night of the crime and the night preceding it in terms of these legends. She looks at the crime from a feminist point of view as well.

I found this book interesting, although at times I felt Bourke got carried away with her interpretations. Most of the time the writing style and her analysis are interesting, but the book is occasionally a little dry.

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Review 1588: This Is Happiness

My first introduction to Niall Williams was his wonderful novel History of the Rain. That was so good that I confess to having found Four Letters of Love slightly disappointing, just because it wasn’t as good. This Is Happiness, however, is a gem of a novel.

As an old man, Noe Crowe recollects the summer when he was 17. He has been banished to the small village of Faha in West Clare County, because he left seminary school. While living with his grandparents, Ganga and Doady, he’s supposed to find his way back to God.

First, it stops raining, in a village where it always rains. Then Christie arrives to help install the electricity. Christie, we sense, is a charismatic individual with lots of stories to tell. He has come with a mission, and it’s not electricity. He has heard Annie Moonie lives in Faha, and he wants to apologize to her for leaving her at the altar 50 years before.

In the meantime, Noe, in a village studded with eccentric characters, finds he has fallen in love with Sophie Troy, the doctor’s youngest daughter, or is he in love with Sophie and Charlie Troy, or is it with Sophie, Charlie, and Ronnie, all three of the doctor’s daughters?

The novel starts out funny and charming and it just gets better. Hoorah for another fine book by Niall Williams.

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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

Best of Ten!
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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