Tag Archives: Ireland

Review: This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell

My Review:
This Must be the PlaceO’Farrell’s talent as an author lies in her ability to weave together the points-of-view of multiple characters into one seamless and captivating story.  The centerpiece of the book is the marriage of Daniel and Claudette but we view their histories and their paths toward each other through different people in their lives including ex-spouses, children, and employees.

The first person we encounter in the book is Daniel himself who is about to embark on a journey from his home in rural Donegal, Ireland to visit his family in Brooklyn, New York.  It is his estranged father’s ninetieth birthday and Daniel is making the trip back home in an attempt to reconnect with his family.  While Daniel is on his way to the United States memories of his past come flooding back and he decides that he wants to also reach out to his children, Niall and Phoebe from a previous marriage.  The storyline moves back and forth between the present and the past; as he is travelling to the United States, where he hasn’t been in ten years, it is natural for Daniel to think of the two children whom he was forced to give up.

Daniel is a linguistics professor and while he spent time teaching at Berkeley he met his first wife.  Their marriage had a bitter ending and his vengeful ex-wife wins custody of their two young children and refuses to allow Daniel to see them.  One of my favorite parts of the book is Daniel’s reunion with Niall and Phoebe in a coffee shop in California where he explains to them that he never stopped trying to have a relationship with them.  He wrote them hundreds of letters over the years, all of which their mother intercepted.  This meeting is the beginning of a meaningful and long-lasting relationship with his oldest children.

Daniel’s next stop on his making amends tour is to Brooklyn where he has vivid and heartbreaking memories of his mother.  She never seemed happy in her marriage and she was the only person in the family to have any real affection for Daniel.  O’Farrell weaves into the narrative the life and struggles of Daniel’s mother and how his relationship with her has had a profound effect on his current life.

While Daniel is in Brooklyn, he decides to make one last stop in London before he finally goes home to Ireland.  He learns that an ex-girlfriend from his college days died shortly after they broke up and Daniel feels responsible for her death.  But while Daniel is on his making amends tour, his wife feels neglected and left out.  It is ironic that Daniel’s making amends tour marks the beginning of trouble and estrangement for Daniel and Claudette.

Claudette is one of the most interesting characters in the book because she is quirky and unpredictable.  The beginnings of her career as a world-famous actress are told in great detail from various points-of-view.  While living in California with her long-time boyfriend and her five-year-old son, Ari, she decides that she just can’t take the attention and fame of being an actress any longer so she decides to disappear.  Claudette ends up in a remote, old farmhouse in Donegal Ireland where she just so happens to run into Daniel.  Their accidental meeting is a great example of O’Farrell’s deft ability to weave the lives of characters together with an amusing and heartwarming storyline.

The last part of the book focuses on Daniel and Claudette’s struggling marriage.  By all accounts Daniel should be happy with Claudette, their two children and his career as a linguist.  But his making amends tour appears to have had a negative effect on his mental stability and he begins to ignore what should be his greatest priorities.  We are left wondering whether or not Daniel will be able to make amends one final time with Claudette.   The place in the world where he seems happiest and where his life is the most complete is at that old farmhouse in Donegal.  Will Daniel ever be able to make his way back to this life?

This is my first Maggie O’Farrell book and I am eager to explore her other titles.  I am wondering if all of her books have such strong and interesting characters.  Two of my favorite characters in this book are Daniel’s sons, Ari and Niall, and I think she could get two more books out of them alone.

About the Author:
M O'FarrellMaggie O’Farrell (born 1972, Coleraine Northern Ireland) is a British author of contemporary fiction, who features in Waterstones’ 25 Authors for the Future. It is possible to identify several common themes in her novels – the relationship between sisters is one, another is loss and the psychological impact of those losses on the lives of her characters.


Filed under British Literature, Literary Fiction

Review: Young Skins by Colin Barrett

In I received an advanced review copy of this collection of short stories from Grove Press through Edelweiss.

My Review:

Young SkinsThis collection of stories is a bold glimpse into the daily struggles of young people trying to carve out some type of existence in their small Irish town.  The rural Irish town of Glanbeigh is short on opportunities but has plenty of pubs and nightclubs in which the local population can get into lots of trouble.  The opening lines of the collection perfectly capture the setting and the mood of each story:

My town is nowhere you have been, but you know its ilk. A roundabout off a national road, an industrial estate, a five-screen Cineplex, a century of pubs packed inside the square mile of the town’s limits.  The Atlantic is near; the gnarled jawbone of the coastline with its gull-infested promontories is near. Summer evenings, and in the manure-scented pastures of the satellite parishes the Zen bovines life their heads to contemplate the V8 howls of the boy racers tearing through the back lanes.

I am young, and the young do not number many here, but it is fair to say we have the run of the place.

In the first story, “The Clancy Kid,” Jimmy is sitting in a pub nursing a hangover from the previous night’s festivities by sipping a beer.  In his state of intoxication the night before,  Jimmy has also had a tryst with his ex-lover, Marlene.  We learn later in the story that his feelings for her run deeper than he is willing to admit.  Jimmy’s friend Tug, the town bully, helps him get the lady’s attention in a most unusual way.

“Calm with Horses,” is more of a novella than a short story that is included in the collection.  Arm and Dympna are making a living in this small town by dealing drugs and Arm is the “muscle” of the operation.  Even though he makes a living through the use of violence, Arm does have a softer, more understanding side which comes through when he is taking care of his autistic son.  At several times throughout the story he tries to help other people out of their miserable situations; but it is this unwavering and even naïve support of his friend that leads to Arm’s own downfall

In “Diamonds,” the main character tries to move away from his small town but he finds nothing but work in a pub which exacerbates his status as an alcoholic.  The details in these stories, which are oftentimes omitted in the brevity of short stories, makes the tales brilliant.  For example, it’s not the loss of his job, relationships or health that drives this character to straighten out his life.  It is the death of his beloved cat Ruckles, who accidentally ingests some of the narrators drugs, that forces him to reexamine his life.  And we are deftly reminded of Ruckles former existence throughout the story.

The principal at his former high school offers the narrator a job as a groundskeeper which position comes with housing and a small stipend.  The principal is cleverly called “The Sentimental Authoritarian” because he has a romantic nostalgia for the past but also demands that the main character do his job properly and stay sober.  But, ironically enough, after he meets a woman at an AA meeting, his tenuous grasp on sobriety immediately goes out the window.

The prose, the flawed characters and the ugly, yet realistic setting are all characteristics which make Barrett’s writing intense and vivid.   YOUNG SKINS is a must-read for those who love short stories and contemporary Irish Literature.

About The Author:
Barrett, Colin (c) Lucy Perrem 2013Colin Barrett was born in 1982 and grew up in County Mayo. In 2009 he completed his MA in Creative Writing at University College Dublin and was awarded the Penguin Ireland Prize. His work has been published in The Stinging Fly magazine and in the anthologies, Sharp Sticks, Driven Nails (Stinging Fly Press, 2010) and Town and Country (Faber and Faber, 2013).

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Filed under Short Stories

Review: The Dirty Dust by Máirtín Ó Cadhain

I received a review copy of this book from Yale University Press.  This book was published in Irish in 1949 and this is the first time it has been translated and published in an English edition.  The translator, Alan Titley has a well-written introduction at the beginning of the book that includes some interesting information about the history of Irish language and literature.

My Review:
Dirty DustThis book takes place in the cemetery of a small town in western Ireland where corpses engage in conversations that continue the pettiness and gossip that dominated their lives when they were still aboveground.   Caitriona Paudeen, the most outspoken, and the most foul-mouthed in the group has a severe dislike for her sister, Nell and her daughter-in-law.  Caitriona’s vehement dislike of her relatives stays with her on the other side and it seems to intensify when she hears news of their lives as they continue on without her.

THE DIRTY DUST is one of the most unique premises for a book that I have encountered.  The dialogue in the book is not the typical streamlined speech that one encounters in a more conventional narrative; the conversations on which the reader is eavesdropping are bits and pieces of information, complaints, and stories that the corpses are remembering from their former lives.  Because we are oftentimes launched into the middle of a conversation, it is not always clear who the speaker is in the narrative and one has to look for certain clues or turns-of-phrase that are uttered before a speaker can be identified.  The only time new information is introduced to the graveyard is when a fresh corpse is buried.  Each new corpse brings another opportunity for juicy gossip to be spread around the graveyard.

Through the course of their cacophony of conversations, we learn that this group of neighbors and family members are petty, jealous, bigoted, narrow-minded and foul-mouthed.  The town Postmistress opens everyone’s mail, Peter the Publican who owns the tavern waters down everyone’s drinks, and Huckster Joan who is the town merchant poisons everyone with her terrible coffee.  They bring up old arguments about football games, money and wills; they are constantly spying on each other and wondering about the goings on of their neighbors.

Ó Cadhain also demonstrates his writing versatility though the use of philosophical and poetic speeches that occur at the beginning of each chapter or interlude.  At the beginning of Interlude 5 he writes, “Here in the grave the spool is for ever spinning; turning the brightness dark, making the beautiful ugly, and imbricating the alluring golden ringlets of hair with a shading of scum, a wisp of mildew, a hint of rot, a sliver of slime, and a grey haunting of mizzle.” As contrast to what happens in the graveyard he writes, “Aboveground everything is bedecked in the garments of everlasting youth.  Every shower of rain creates a multitude of mushrooms miraculously in the grass.”

THE DIRTY DUST is a timeless and brilliantly funny satire of life in a small town where old grudges are not forgotten, even when neighbors are buried six feet under the ground.  The only difference between life and death is that in death the people in this small town are stuck next to their neighbors from whom they can never escape.

About The Author:
Máirtín Ó Cadhain (1906 – 18 October 1970) was one of the most prominent Irish language writers of the twentieth century.

Máirtín Ó Cadhain was born in Cois Fharraige in the Connamara Gaeltacht in 1906. He is best known for his major novel, Cré na Cille (Dublin, Sáirséal agus Dill, 1949). It has been translated into English as The Dirty Dust, and into many other languages, including Danish and Norwegian.

His short story collections include Idir Shúgradh agus Dáiríre, 1939, and An Braon Broghach, 1948, from which Eoghan Ó Tuairisc translated stories published under the title Road to Bright City (Dublin, Poolbeg Press, 1981); An tSraith ar Lár, (1967); and An tSraith Dhá Thógáil (1970).

A national school teacher in his early life, he was interned for his activities in the IRA during World War II. He became a lecturer in Irish in Trinity College Dublin in 1956, and became Professor of Irish there in 1969.

He died in 1970.

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Filed under Classics, Humor, Literature in Translation

Review: The True and Spendid History of the Harristown Sisters by Michelle Lovric

Harristown SistersWho knew that hair could make a compelling and interesting storyline?  The story of the Swiney sisters begins in rural Ireland in the 19th century during the famine.  Like many others during that time, the 7 Swiney sisters live in abject poverty with their mother and they have never met their father.  The first part of the book chronicles their lives as they scrape out a bare existence, attend school, and have typical and sometimes not-so-typical sibling fights.

Their most prominent feature is their extremely long and thick hair and the eldest sister, Darcy, realizes that they can make some money by performing a variety show with singing, dancing and skits.  At the end of each show the sisters walk on stage and unravel their hair for all to see.  Men are especially attracted to the site of unbound hair which, in the 19th century, is usually only allowed to be displayed in the intimacy of the bedroom.

As the shows and the reputation of the sisters’ hair grows in popularity, the sisters take on two business partners, Rainfleury and Stoker, who make them rich beyond their wildest imaginations.  But, as is evident from the beginning of their acquaintances with these gentlemen, they are taking advantages of the sisters and exploiting them.  The story comes full-circle when, in the end, they become almost as poor as they were when they were children.

This book is a wonderful and heart-wrenching story of the survival of these sisters during a time when all of Ireland is suffering.  Despite their numerous trials and tribulations, the Swineys always stay together as a family, experiencing marriages, deaths, births, betrayals, affairs, and more.  The author’s greatest strength is the ability to weave a tale as long, elaborate and unique as the Swiney sisters’ hair.

My only complaint about the book is that there were parts of the story which were belabored over a bit too much.  For example, the fighting and sibling rivalry could have been portrayed just as poignantly in about 20 fewer pages.  The drawn out affair between one of the sisters, Manticory and an artist named Alexander also felt very drawn out at times.

Overall, this was an entertaining read and I highly recommend it for readers that love historical fiction set in 19th Century Ireland.  This is a  unique storyline and book.


Filed under Historical Fiction