Irish Fiction

You are currently browsing articles tagged Irish Fiction.

What if politics wasn’t such a cynical business, dedicated to perpetuating power dynamics and maintaining the status quo, while talking ceaselessly about progress and change? That’s the situation Sean Moncrieff dares to dream up in his fascinating novel The Angel of the Streetlamps.

Angel of the Streetlamps

The Angel of the Streetlamps by Sean Moncrieff

A woman falls to her death from a high window on a Dublin street, as she falls her foot knocks an election poster from a telephone pole, which then lands on her broken body, thus ensuring it’s in all the news coverage. A junkie runs from the building, leaps into a taxi, and flees the scene. The politician whose poster this was becomes tarnished by association, and the party consider her unelectable. A passing priest become a media celebrity after he gives the dying woman the last rites. These characters are a powerful canvas on which Moncrieff paints a perceptive portrait of contemporary Ireland. Read the rest of this entry »

Jessie Ann Foley’s The Carnival at Bray is an award-winning young-adult novel set in Ireland during 1993, when grunge played on every teenager’s Walkman.

Carnival at Bray

The Carnival at Bray by Jessie Ann Foley

Maggie Lynch is a sixteen-year-old girl in Chicago, growing up working class amid hard-working and hard-partying Irish-American stock. When her mother falls in love with an Irish guy, the family moves to Ireland, to the seaside town of Bray, south of Dublin, where Maggie and her younger sister, Ronnie, try to find their place in a new culture.

Life is not all roses for Maggie, however. The family don’t have much money, she’s beginning to understand that her beloved musician uncle is a drug addict, and her mother falls in an out of love with regularity, so Maggie suspects they’ll be back in Chicago before she can blink. But, against her expectations, Maggie begins to feel at home in Ireland. She soon acquires a boyfriend, a surrogate father figure, and a sense of herself. It’s one of those brief periods in your teens when you start to think you might be figuring life out — before fate dumps on you.

Rock music is Maggie’s crutch, her refuge. She listens to Pearl Jam and Nirvana over and over, and considers her musician uncle, Kevin a wise sage. Kevin takes her to see Smashing Pumpkins, urges her to go see Nirvana live, and generally makes life seem exciting and vital. Kevin however has his demons. Still living with his mother, he drifts from bar band to bar band, never accomplishing much, and not fighting very hard against a serious drug addiction.

Kevin inspires Maggie to embark on a crazy trip to Italy to see Nirvana play on their 1993 world tour, so she basically runs away from home with her boyfriend, Eoin. Naturally, many things do not go according to plan. In a sense, this is a classic quest novel, wherein our heroine must make a journey in which she grows and learns much about herself. In another, it’s a coming-of-age story where the protagonist discovers what she cares about and how she wants to be in the world. And, of course it’s an illuminating fish-out-of-water tale of a big-city girl moving to a small Irish town where everybody knows everybody, and all their relatives back through the generations.

I came across The Carnival at Bray randomly at my local library. Though I work in the book trade, I had not heard of this novel and was intrigued by the premise: an American teen moves to Ireland with her family in 1993, during the heyday of grunge and the birth of generation X. I lived in Ireland during those years — although I was a little older — loved that music, and frequently wonder how my teenagers might handle life in Ireland if we moved back before they’ve grown. I don’t often get the chance to read a novel I genuinely know nothing about, as I’m too close to the hype machine in my work. So, I checked it out, and am very glad I did.

The author, Jessie Ann Foley, is from Chicago, and is married to an Irishman, so she is able to write about Ireland with both an outsider’s perspective and local knowledge. She understands what it was to love music as a teenager, to live and die in your CD collection, and she visceral thrill of seeing your heros perform live. There’s a real authenticity to the writing that I feel contemporary teens would be able to relate to. Of course, I loved the same bands and lived in Dublin during the period the novel is set, so I’m biased. I remember seeing Nirvana live, I remember where I was when I heard Kurt Cobain was dead, and I remember people gathering in the Phoenix Park and elsewhere to mourn him — all of which take place in this novel.

The Carnival at Bray is more than just a coming-of-age story, it’s a hymn to the vital importance of rock music during the teenage years, a poem about the joy of finding your tribe or at least a kindred spirit. It’s about taking chances and learning that a few bad decisions won’t kill you. And, is one of those occasional novels that I feel both young and adult readers will enjoy.

 

Notes

Other powerful young-adult novels (by Irish authors) I’ve read or reviewed recently include Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours (review) and Sarah Bannan’s Weightless.

 

In Ireland or the UK, you can purchase The Carnival at Bray here…

It’s a wonderful thing to wake up, make a cup of tea and devote your morning to an engrossing book without a thought to the dishes in the sink or other household chores. I had such an opportunity over the July 4th weekend, and devoured Nuala O’Connor’s brilliant novel Miss Emily.

Miss Emily by Nuala O'Connor

Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor (US cover)

Nuala O‘Connor is one of Ireland’s greatest writers of short stories and flash fiction, but she’s also an excellent poet and novelist. Raised bi-lingual, O’Connor — who publishes under her Irish name, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, in Ireland — has a great ear for the playfulness of language, for double meanings, and the layers that get lost in translation. She brings that same perceptiveness to her understanding of her characters and the nuances of their dilemmas, which is especially useful when telling tales of people crossing borders or boundaries from the known to the unknown. Read the rest of this entry »

Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours is a biting look at our cultural attitudes towards and treatment of women.

Only Ever Yours by Louise O'Neill

Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill (US cover)

Set in what appears to be a private school in a future Europe, we see a world in which young women trained from birth to be beautiful, subservient, and always available for men’s pleasure. Although it’s suggested that the society that created this school is now failing, and not as powerful or wealthy as it once was, order is maintained not by armed guards and coercion, but by the girls themselves. Indoctrinated in a ruthless social code that questions nothing, and strives only to be ever more beautiful, toned, coiffed, made-up, and stylish, the brainwashed girls maintain a rigid hierarchy based on an online popularity contest — they are rated weekly by the pool of men who may choose one of them for a mate when they turn sixteen. Read the rest of this entry »

White Feathers is a suspense-filled new novel about mis-matched lovers separated by the horrors of WWI.

White Feathers

White Feathers by Susan Lanigan (O’Brien Press)

Susan Lanigan’s debut novel White Feathers opens in 1913, as 17-year-old Eva Downey escapes her suffocating family to attend a finishing school for one year. Eva is full of the passions and principles of adolescence, and has been getting involved with the suffragettes, much to the horror of her deeply conservative family. Her family are Irish; her father a relatively well-to-do accountant who has moved the family from Cork to London escape both scandal and the sadness of Eva’s mother’s death. Read the rest of this entry »

Ballymena author Jan Carson’s debut novel, Malcolm Orange Disappears is a quirky tale of a young boy whose family are slowly abandoning him.

Malcolm Orange Disappears by Jan Carson (Liberties Press)

Malcolm Orange Disappears by Jan Carson (Liberties Press)

First off, I should flag that Malcolm Orange Disappears is an incredibly creative and unusual novel. Call it magic-realist, call it quirky (to use the author’s word), or call it off-beat, it’s a very original book!

I’ll call it an episodic novel, because most chapters tell the story of a new character. Thus, we meet Malcolm and the inhabitants of a Baptist Retirement Village in Portland, Oregon, in which he finds himself marooned along with his baby brother and his silent mother, after his father abandons the family. It appears to be the first time Malcolm’s found himself stationary in his young life (he’s 11), as his restless parents have hurried the family along the highways of America for as long as Malcolm can remember.

Jan Carson is a similarly restless writer, painting minor characters with so much detail and verve that it’s easy to forget about the central plot — Malcolm’s strange titular malady: he is vanishing, piece by piece, new holes appearing in his body every day — in the face of each new chapter and its quirky characters and their gothic mis-adventures. Of course, that appears to be the point: Malcolm is disappearing, his body full of strange absences, and into these holes Carson pours stories, rich and vibrant. 
Read the rest of this entry »

Anna Sweeney’s novel Deadly Intent is an atmospheric murder mystery set on the Beara peninsula in Co. Kerry.

downloadThe story opens with an unconscious woman found on an isolated path in the country. The woman, Maureen, is a guest at a high-end guest house run by Nessa, a former journalist from Dublin, and her husband Patrick, a political refugee from Malawi. Although the initial suspect is Maureen’s husband, an unstable man named Dominic, the case gets complicated quickly as there is a suggestion that she may have been having an affair with another guest, the rich industrialist Oscar Maldin, who has now vanished. Read the rest of this entry »

Darragh McKeon’s All That is Solid Melts Into Air is simply one of the best novels I’ve read this year. Using the Chernobyl meltdown as a prism through which to view the collapsing Soviet society of the late 1980s, McKeon weaves an incisive and deeply humane tale of powerless people dealing with corruption and change to the best of their abilities.

Two story lines converge in the shadow of a shattered nuclear plant. Dr. Grigory Brovkin is a rare honorable man amid a society of widespread corruption. He still cares for his ex-wife, Maria, a former-journalist now working a dull job in a factory. Maria wrote some articles in underground newspapers, and although supposedly anonymous, she lost her job and was forced into a divorce in order to protect Grigory’s career. While Grigory is whisked off to Chernobyl to treat the dying, Maria remains in Moscow, dealing with her precarious legal limbo. Read the rest of this entry »

One shouldn’t look to fiction for lessons from history, but reading the collected stories of one author across his whole career inevitably exposes the reader to the changing tides of the culture he writes about. Bernard MacLaverty’s Collected Stories displays both his genius with words, and the complexity of life in Belfast. 

Collected Stories by Bernard MacLaverty (Jonathan Cape)

Collected Stories by Bernard MacLaverty (Jonathan Cape)

MacLaverty is a meticulous craftsman, but not a showy writer. He avoids elaborate phrases that draw attention to themselves, and instead displays a sharp ear for natural dialogue. I sometimes feel schitzophrenic that I can thrill to the jagged offbeat stories of Colin Barrett one day, and be held in thrall by MacLaverty’s restrained elegance the next. Surely they’re worlds apart in focus and execution? But, while I enjoy a young whipper-snapper like Kevin Barry pushing the dialogue in his stories to heightened extremes, I know that — although I might wish they would — few people really talk like that. Barry entertains by stretching Ireland’s musical and inventive language to its limits, but reading MacLaverty, we recognize the truth of his dialogue; he catches the regional inflections, the distinctive vocal tics, and unconscious phrases that fill the Belfast air, filling his characters with immediacy and life. Read the rest of this entry »

Emma Donoghue follows her breakout international bestseller Room with a return to her favorite terrain, the historical novel.

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue (US cover)

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue (US cover)

Frog Music is set in San Francisco in 1876. The city is wealthy after the gold rush, rebuilt after the great fire, and a melting pot with people of every nation coming to seek their fortune, but it’s also a powder keg, with ethnic tensions running high due to an influx of Chinese laborers willing to work very cheap, a long drought, and an ongoing smallpox epidemic combining to keep everyone on edge.  Read the rest of this entry »

« Older entries