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Belinda McKeon’s debut novel Solace won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and was the Irish Book of the Year for 2011. I first read it in Ireland during a visit home — where it was displayed prominently alongside the big names in supermarket book displays, a reflection of its popularity — and loved it. On rereading, Solace proved even better, richer and more nuanced.

Solace by Belinda McKeon (Irish cover -- Picador)

Solace by Belinda McKeon
(Irish cover — Picador)

At its core, like all great fiction, Solace is a family story, a tale of disfunction and inter-generational misunderstanding.  Mark Casey is a graduate student in literature at Trinity College in Dublin; approaching thirty, he teaches dull undergrads and has grown bored by his dissertation subject. He needs a kick in the pants, and his father is all too willing to give him one.

Mark’s father, Tom Casey, is a small farmer from Co. Longford; a practical man, he struggles to accept Mark’s seemingly never-ending student life. Constantly badgering his son to come down to the farm to help him with the “real work” of running the place. Mark’s mother, Maura, runs interference between them and keeps the peace. It’s a family dynamic that will be familiar to anybody who ever left their hometown or resisted joining a family business.

In the novel, Mark’s life is jolted from his comfortable rut by Joanne, a trainee solicitor he meets in a dingy pub. Before they have time to fall in love properly, she is pregnant, and they’re setting up home together and learning how to raise a baby. Joanne has her own issues with parental pressure and expectation, but it’s the story of Mark and his father, that dominates this novel — although their passive-aggressive arguments, quintessentially Irish, may seem alien to readers from other backgrounds. Solace is a book about home, and the inevitable struggle to escape it and to define yourself in your own terms; but, McKeon knows that the struggle is at best illusory, and eventually we have to reconcile ourselves with that home. The fight is not so much to escape it, but to come to terms with it.

Solace also captures an interesting point in Irish life: it takes place as the economic boom was at its peak, and ends just as everyone was waking up to the bust. The main characters in Solace, students and small farmers, were not reaping the benefits of the Celtic Tiger, nor do they initially notice the bust making much difference to their lives. But they display a reticence about the stability of the good times that perhaps many felt during those years, but did not articulate. In the pub one night Tom Casey reflects that nobody wants to reminisce about the old days: “There were things nobody thanked you for reminding them of. There were years that had slipped so far into the past that it was better not to mention them…. they acted now as though they had been happy in a way that they would never be happy again.” This in the middle of an unprecedented economic boom! In passing, McKeon seems to sketch a pub full of people who should be on top of the world, but who harbor this unmentioned dread. The old refrain of things being better in the old days feels completely out of place among the triumphalism of land exchanging hands for millions, houses going up like they were made of Lego, and everyone spending like there was no tomorrow. But it remained in people’s mind, unsaid perhaps, but present.

Mark’s mother Maura reflects that other parents have the same experience of their children not visiting enough, only those children’s distance was ostensibly because of their high-pressure jobs, their new financial success, rather than because they were working fitfully on a dissertation and avoiding their father. She sees the trappings of these children’s material success, fancy suits, big cars, foreign holidays, but wonders uneasily if “she should want those things for Mark, whether she should feel disappointed in him for not having them”? Again, the rural perspective in Solace reflects a distrust (but perhaps it’s only the typical Irish melancholy) of the flashy new world, coupled with the outsider’s feeling of powerlessness — who were they to articulate their doubts in the face of the official narrative of prosperity?

Towards the end of the novel, Tom Casey is prevailed upon to make a very unsound investment, and you realize that McKeon has been slowly sowing the seeds of a financial enmity throughout the book. Tom has been a small farmer all his life, instinctively distrustful of financial institutions and big talk. Now — like Jude in Julian Gough’s recent novella “Crash” — the steady Celtic Tiger drum beat of investment and prosperity has slipped under his skin, and he makes a poor decision. It’s a decision that forces Mark to grow up once more, a decision that makes him realize his father is aging, and the push-pull of the parent-child relationship has shifted, perhaps irrevocably.

McKeon is excellent at writing Irish men, particularly older men. Both Mark and Tom are alive and fairly leap off the page — even though Mark can be a frustratingly passive character, rent with indecision and content to bumble along in his laddish ways. To be fair, Mark is a very representative example of the twenty-something Irish male singleton, and the passivity is not so much a lack of imagination on the author’s part, but an accurate reflection of her source material. Children in Ireland are taught early on that it’s not good to stand out, not advisable to go first, or risk failure. Mark is a typical clever plodder, trusting to slow work and fulfillment of basic expectations to take him inoffensively to where he hopes to end up. Tom is wise in practical ways, reflective if not expressive, and can be wryly humorous, but his outlook is curtailed by the limits of his experience.

Solace is a book that haunts the reader in its assured power. It demonstrates the raw emotions and fierce clashes that are played out under the surface when families gather, and captures the way that youth is an essential process of fleeing from then returning to a family with clarity, nuance, and understanding. I have a feeling that Solace is a book I will delve into again and again over the years.




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I savored every word of Colum McCann’s elegant new novel, TransAtlantic. McCann has always been a writer who aims for a perfect image or a poetic turn of phrase, TransAtlantic is told in a gentle, unhurried style, almost a series of reminiscences, and the format allows McCann to give full play to his poetry.

New Irish fiction, Irish authors

TransAtlantic by Colum McCann (US Cover)

The novel is anchored by three historical events (in the order they appear in the novel: Alcock and Brown’s first transatlantic flight from Newfoundland to Ireland, Frederick Douglass’s reading tour of Ireland during the great famine, and Senator George Mitchell’s negotiations that lead to the Good Friday Agreement that enabled power-sharing in Northern Ireland and brought about the apparent disarming of paramilitary organizations), but the meat is in the story of four generations of Irish women whose lives intersect with these famous men and events briefly (the herstory to balance the history, if you like).

If any novel can be said to have a single theme, or central focus, perhaps the unifying factor behind the stories in TransAtlantic is the individual’s desire for a freedom from external hinderances. The characters work for the abolition of slavery, the defeat of the Germans in two world wars, the end of religious strife in Ireland, economic independence, equal rights for women, the right of a woman to publish under her own name, the freedom to be accepted as an unmarried mother, the right to have ones’ children and grandchildren grow up safely, and centrally, the abolition of distance (physical and metaphorical): the normalization of crossing the Atlantic and the vast improvement in humanity’s ability to understand and help each other that this represented.

In 1845, Frederick Douglass inadvertently inspires a young woman, a maid named Lily Duggan, to leave Ireland and go to America in search of a better life. Lily survives a horrific passage on a coffin ship, to find life in the teeming streets of New York City much less hospitable than she hoped for. A survivor, Lily eventually marries an ice-farmer in the upper mid-west, and becomes the matriarch of a line of women whose story drives the novel. Her daughter, Emily, who lives to write, yet must publish under a male pseudonym for years; her daughter Lottie, who takes to photography as her art; and finally Hannah, who must deal with both the death of her son during the troubles, and the economic ruin of the current financial crisis.

Irish Fiction Expert

TransAtlantic by Colum McCann (UK/Irish cover)

The novel looks at a long series of characters trying to better themselves and their fellows, often in some way that unites Ireland and America: Douglass raising awareness of the cause of emancipation, Mitchell negotiating for peace, Lily making a better life for her children, Lottie quietly working to support the peace process. But it is the final characters who enter the tale, a very modern Irish family — an inter-racial marriage, never mind an inter-denominational one — that wraps up the story, and brings it firmly into the present day. In this, McCann with his characteristic hope and optimism points out the small but potentially significant seeds of change being sown in modern Ireland: a nation now absorbing an increasing number of immigrants, with new ideas, bonds, and possibilities taking root under the surface. In his more-inclusive conception of family, McCann seems to be observing that the future will depend less on family solidarity and dynastic inheritance (the cornerstone of Irish politics and community), and more on communal support, the exchange of new ideas, and an enlarged sense of community, beyond religion, beyond race, beyond blood ties.

The last lines of his early story “Wood,” (from his excellent book Everything in this Country Must) in which a young boy watches trees “going mad in the wind,” the branches mindlessly “slapping each other around like people,” before the 12th of July marching season, have always struck me as one of the most apt metaphors for the discord in Northern Ireland ever put to paper. That McCann can now write a novel that is so optimistic, and chronicles such change a mere 15 years or so later, speaks volumes for how vast the changes in the political climate in Ireland have been. If novelists truly hold a mirror up to society, then it appears that the society McCann is reflecting in TransAtlantic is becoming a much less polarized one than he had to depict two decades ago. In TransAtlantic, McCann captures the great arc of globalization that increasingly shapes our age through the lens of one family’s history and some of the pivotal events that helped shape it, and leaves the reader with the hope that a corner has been turned, that Lily Duggan’s dream of a better life is finally coming to pass.

— Rich


Visit Colum McCann’s official website
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Laurel Snyder’s new novel for middle-grade readers, Bigger than A Bread Box, is much more of a complex read than I usually find in this category (but that just means I don’t read enough MG anymore).

Twelve-year-old Rebecca’s parents separate, and Rebecca gets dragged away from Baltimore, the only home she’s known, to hot, sticky Atlanta and her maternal grandmother’s house. Thrown into a new school, Rebecca feels and acts as if she’s a character in a story, trying on new names, new personalities and new friends to see if anything can heal the hurt she feels. The quirk that separates this book from others about going through divorce is that Rebecca discovers a magical breadbox in her grandmother’s attic that can deliver anything she wishes for (so long as it fits into the breadbox). So, ipods, candy and food from Baltimore are fine, but her Dad is much too big.

As coping strategies go, the Breadbox is fine for a while, enabling Rebecca to bribe her way into the good graces of the cool kids at her new school with candy, but, like anything, too much of a good thing isn’t good for Rebecca. It turns out that the items that appear in the breadbox come from somewhere and are not just created by magic, so Rebecca’s sudden ownership of them has real-world consequences. This is where Bigger than a Bread Box departs from the usual pattern of MG fiction where the confusing world of tween friendship or the necessary lessons of growing up are underlined by the help of some magical item or another and the novel enters the gothic “Here Be Dragons” territory of the Brother’s Grimm. This is the off-the-beaten-track territory where children who get lost in the woods encounter little old ladies who want to cook and eat them, and magical “gifts” bring as much danger as bounty. It feels entirely appropriate that this book should focus on the potentially negative consequences of magical intervention because the subject of the book, Rebecca’s story, is one of the worst a kid can go through: the loss of their home, the breakup of their family, and the crumbling of all their attendant certainties.

The resolution of Rebecca’s story — well, I don’t really want to discuss that because a) it could kill the surprises, and b) I can’t find a succinct way to put it into words.  Bigger than a Bread Box starts out like the “normal” Laurel Snyder novel, then it takes a twist, and then it goes off somewhere completely unexpected. This book challenges readers (both old and young), pushes us out of our “middle grade” comfort zone, and keeps us absolutely glued to every word.

This feels like such an inadequate review for such a powerful book that I‘ve gone back and forth about posting it at all. Part of my uncertainty is that I have almost no direct experience with divorce — I grew up in Ireland, a country with no divorce (until recently) and large, multi-generational families living together — so I feel a little unprepared to discuss a depiction of what is doubtless a terribly shocking and disorienting event. But, I did find this is a powerful book, and a story that would be great for a parent to read with or talk over with their child — whether or not there’s any divorce within the family. I know my own elementary-age kids ask questions about divorce frequently, and my eldest, who’s almost Rebecca’s age, would probably learn a lot from this thoughtful, emotional and completely gripping novel.


My review of Laurel Snyder’s previous two novels, Any Which Wall and Penny Dreadful.

Once upon a time I was on a long plane flight and an “Irish” film came on. OK, it was more Oirish than Irish: The Matchmaker, a fish out of water story wherein an uptight American (Janeane Garofalo) goes hunting for Irish ancestry in a tiny village in Ireland, and arrives right in the middle of the annual matchmaking festival. It’s exactly the broad collection of stereotypes and blarney that you might expect, but contained one absolutely hilariously true moment for me. Halfway through the film, the main characters are trying to stop and old man on the Aran Islands from pelting them with rocks (don’t ask, don’t ask…). The man is yelling at them in Irish and the American tells her guide to say something to him in Irish to make him stop. Like most Irish men, her guide hasn’t used a word of Irish since school, so he resorts to the one phrase every Irish person knows: “An bhfuil céad agam dul go dtí an leithreas.”

I cackled with laughter, causing all the people sitting nearby to jerk around and stare at me. (This being the days before individual seat-back TVs, everyone had to watch the same movie.) They had just long enough to wonder if this guy was losing it, and the flight attendants were just reaching for the panic button when the guide translated the phrase for the uptight American, and explained that in Ireland this is how you must ask to go the the bathroom when you’re in school, “otherwise you have to go in your pants.” It’s the one Irish phrase every Irish person knows.  Everyone in the plane cracked up, and the flight attendants put the mace away.

Best Irish WritersI suspect the same lag-time between readers born and raised in Ireland and those not, will affect reactions to Julian Gough’s excellent novel, Jude: Level 1.

For the last year or more I’ve been laughing my arse off at the Twitter musings of Julian Gough, an Irish writer, musician, and sometimes sharp stick in the rhuemy eye of ye olde Oirish literary establishment.  @JulianGough is one of the people who actually gets Twitter, managing to make it part performance, part honest commentary and part community. After a couple of years of “following” and occasional chatting, I began to feel vaguely guilty that I hadn’t read any of his novels.

Thanks to the wonderful Gutter Bookshop in Dublin, I got my paws on a copy of Jude: Level 1, Gough’s second novel, and it was everything his Twitter persona led me to expect: funny, irreverent and with plenty to say about the “real world” outside of the pages of the book.

In many ways, it seems a bit pointless to try to summarize the plot — it’s the classic case of boy leaves abusive Christian Brothers orphanage, boy falls in love with the first girl he sees, boy runs afoul of corrupt politicians/international arms smugglers/unscrupulous property developers and all hell breaks loose in his quest to find the girl again — because the whole point of a novel is to go along on an adventure for the first time, and many reviews just take the fun out of reading a book. A good novel should be a performance, an adventure, a memorable experience of getting from the first page to the last. (Of course, most aren’t: most are content to get from A to “Zee” via a well-ordered series of meticulously crafted sentences with just the right sprinkling of irony, untranslated foreign phrases and condescension, topped of with a black & white author photo, brainy glasses and a Brooklyn address.)

From the first page you have the impression that Julian Gough doesn’t give a toss about any of that preciousness, he just wants to tell a good story, make you laugh at the absurdity of it all, and if occasionally the joke falls flat or the cultural reference escapes you, the velocity of the story will carry you over these minor potholes like a teenager who’s finally been given the keys to his Dad’s car. Jude: Level 1 is a bravura performance of humor and satire that skewers blinkered Celtic Tiger thinking (and ignorant self-interest of any nationality), the good-old-boy network of Ireland/______ (fill in the blank with whatever nation you hail from), the abuses of the Catholic church, and the cliches of coming-of-age tales like this one.

The book begins with a wonderful set-piece satire on worshipful party politics as practiced in Ireland until very, very recently (by which I mean that since the book was published the Irish people did indeed rise up and throw the feckers out — for quite how long they’ll be content to remain out remains to be seen). Our hero, freshly birthdayed 18-year-old orphan Jude escorts a group of younger orphans to a large political rally in rural Ireland. While there, he accidentally disgraces himself and causes the assembled slavering masses to burn down the orphanage in their frenzy to catch and punish him. Suffice to say, the memory of this opening section was making me crack up laughing at inappropriate moments for days afterwards.

Jude’s escape propels him to “the Sodom of the West: Galway City,” when he meets Angela, the girl of his dreams and resolves to win her heart. Mistaking her sarcasm for instructions, Jude believes that if he gets plastic surgery to look like Leonardo DiCaprico and becomes a millionaire she’ll love him forever. Hence he sets out on his quest to win her heart.

It’s possible that the perfect reader for this novel is a male born and raised in Ireland at the start of the 1970s. It may be that if he was not educated at a religiously segregated school, half the humor in the book will fall flat. The pop-cultural references might require him to have come of age in the ‘80s, and if he did not flee Ireland in the ‘90s he may feel the satire falls a little too close to home. But stifling religious dogma is stifling religious dogma regardless of creed, and political corruption and cronyism are endemic the world over, so I suspect readers will know exactly what Julian Gough’s writing about even if they don’t get the delicious humor behind the name Dan Bunne or understand why anointing Roy Keane, Gay Byrne and Dana as the three biggest Irish legends is one of the funniest asides in the book. Jude: Level 1 is a fast-paced, funny and occasionally savagely satirical read, and at worst, non-Irish readers will get the jokes just a beat behind everyone else.

Best Irish Books



The saga of Jude continues in Jude in London, which is being published just about now.

Update: There’s an “honor” edition where you can download a .pdf, read it, and pay afterwards. A brave experiement. Check it out…

Milk, Sulphate and Alby StarvationMilk, Sulphate and Alby Starvation was Martin Millar’s first published novel. In the US, it appears that we are getting Millar’s books in something like a reverse order, starting with the brilliant The Good Fairies of New York, then the equally enjoyable Lonely Werewolf Girl and Suzy, Led Zeppelin & Me. After these three wonderful books, Millar’s US publisher, Softskull Press, brought us the sordid tale of Alby Starvation.

It’s been worth the wait, because Millar’s trademark focus on the poor, the dreamers and the slightly unhinged is evident in his first novel. Small-time speed dealer Alby Starvation has unwittingly become something of a minor celebrity because he’s given up milk and found this has (somewhat) improved his health and wellbeing. Unfortunately, the milk marketing board is not pleased. They blame the publicity surrounding Alby’s “cure” for depressing the sales of milk, and given that profits must be maintained, they hire a hitwoman to assassinate him. (This was written at the height of “Greed is Good” conservatism in the 1980s, when government agencies hiring thugs to do away with the inconvenient poor didn’t seem like much of a stretch.)

Alby is far from a saint or a anyone’s idea of a hero, but he does have a circle of friends and acquaintances in Brixton (at the time the last refuge for the young, wanna-be-gifted and broke in London) who depend on him for one thing or another — mostly a quick fix — but also for a more basic human need, companionship.  This motley cast — drug addicts, dreamers, depressed shop managers, more-successful drug dealers, and a treasure-hunting professor — provide much of the charm and amusement of the novel with their dogged pursuit of various crazy dreams and schemes. The Good Fairies of New YorkAnyone who enjoyed Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity (the book, not the movie) will enjoy the obsessive, slightly maladjusted personalities that populate Milk, Sulphate and Alby Starvation. Fans of The Good Fairies of New York will recognize Millar’s habit of showing us each character’s cherished plan or their tentative steps at living life on their own terms, and then gradually bringing each closer together until their individual paths either interlock in something approaching harmony or knock somebody else’s dream completely out of orbit.

Even though this is an early novel and some scenes and plotlines are a little raw, Milk, Sulphate and Alby Starvation still contains everything I love about Martin Millar, his warmth, his clear-eyed view of the basic decency of most people, his love of the dreamers who dare to look to improve their lot in life, and his ability to laugh at the insanity of our world.


Martin Millar’s blog.

Martin Millar’s latest book is Curse of the Werewolf Girl.

I helped interview Martin Millar over at jennIRL.

Disclosure: I received a review copy of Milk, Sulphate & Alby Starvation from the publisher.

Review: Countdown by Deborah Wiles

Franny Chapman is eleven and her world is falling apart. The world is transfixed by the Cuban Missile Crisis. They have nuclear attack drills at school, her Uncle is obsessed by communists and wants to build a bomb shelter in the middle of their lawn, her older sister is away at college, her best friend has suddenly become her enemy, but most of all, Franny is really, really nervous about her first boy-girl party.

Deborah Wiles deftly weaves speeches, song lyrics and pictures from 1962 to create an immersive tapestry of a pivotal year in American history. Kids who prefer realistic novels will love Countdown because the writing puts you firmly in Franny’s shoes, while the documentary passages and images between chapters teaches you all you need to know (and probably all Franny did know) about the politics and current events of the time. Countdown‘s many pictures and innovative layout should appeal to reluctant readers and kids increasingly used to finding information online. The novel’s fast pace and child’s eye view gives the reader the feeling of being in a moving vehicle hurtling towards disaster, and while you sense you should and maybe could do something to avert disaster, you just don’t know how to drive yet.

Countdown is the first in a projected trilogy of novels about the sixties by Wiles, and I can’t wait to read the next, and discuss it with my kids.


Countdown was named an Okra Pick by the Southern Independent Bookseller’s  Association.

Deborah Wiles’ resources relating to the world of 1962, including a playlist of music featured in the book and the original “Duck and Cover” video that explained nuclear attack to school children.

Deborah Wiles tells us about Countdown in her own words:

When I joined Twitter over a year ago, one of the first things I learned about was Salt Publishing‘s Just One Book campaign. Evidently Salt, like many small publishers, was in trouble, and this was their approach to try to raise awareness and sales. The meme went around the literary community quickly, and drew a lot of attention to Salt’s books. I’d never read any of Salt’s authors, so I went and checked out their website, read some of the poems and decided to support them by purchasing my one book: Siân Hughes’ The Missing.

Hughes’ poems are excellent. They mine the regret and sadness of loss: loss of love, loss of dignity, loss of a job, and most poignantly, the loss of a child. I have no idea if Hughes’ life has taken any of these turns, but the poems feel devastatingly real, the book having an air of confession and intimacy–often relieved by a dark humor. If this is the caliber of Salt’s publications, I thought, I wanted more.

Read “The Send Off” by Siân Hughes, which won the Arvon International Poetry Competition 2006.

Watch Siân Hughes read several excellent poems from The Missing:

After reading an article in The Times about several young British poets  (“The Facebook Poets”) I became interested in reading more of Olivia Cole’s   poetry. Her debut collection, Restricted View, received some generous praise from Clive James and Cole was instantly being compared to Sylvia Plath (for her sake, I hope that doesn’t turn out to be entirely accurate). Thankfully, the poems themselves do live up to the hype, and fully deserve praise and readers.

Olivia Cole writes intoxicatingly about young love, first love, the excitement of discovery, and the general thrill of being young. (She writes about the end of relationships, about regret and failure, too, but it’s the celebratory poems that really stir the imagination and linger in memory.) The subject matter of the most-memorable poems almost makes Restricted View the thematic yin to The Missing’s yang. Cole’s work proves she’s not the party girl that the day-job as a literary and “party scene” columnist for a British paper might suggest.

Read “Matinee Idol” by Olivia Cole,  one of my favorite poems in Restricted View.

I’m often disappointed to find that new books of poetry from established poets only contain one or two truly memorable (to me, anyway) new poems. That’s not a problem with the work of Siân Hughes and Olivia Cole, both are curious, creative poets who write about a range of events and emotions. I don’t know anything about the biography of either beyond that on the dust jackets, so I can’t know if the poetry comes from great feats of imaginative empathy or from bitter experience, but the work convinces, the poems have the feel of truth, and that’s all that matters at the end of the day.

Watch Olivia Cole read two poems from Restricted View:

I’m contemplating which Salt poetry collection I want to read next, and I’d welcome any suggestions.

Sarah Hall’s Booker-nominated How to Paint a Dead Man is brilliant, there’s really no other word for it. It’s also idiosyncratic like only great art can be, and is likely to be something of a love it or hate it novel.

htpdmThe novel intertwines the stories of four artists: Giorgio, a reclusive still life artist in 1960s’ Italy; Peter, an iconoclastic landscape painter who was obsessed by Giorgio’s work in his youth; Susan, Peter’s daughter, a budding photographer; and, Annette, once a talented student of Giorgio’s, now struck blind at a young age.  Hall skillfully employs a different narrative style for each story. Giorgio’s story unfolds in the first person through the translation of a journal kept during his final years; Annette and Peter’s stories are told through traditional third-person narration; but, Susan’s chapters provide the most-impressive stylistic pyrotechnics, as she is the surviving member of a set of twins, and consequently her story is told in the second person. The tone is that of one who has been carrying on a conversation for years, and suddenly finds herself alone, but can’t stop holding up her side of the dialogue:

“You aren’t feeling like yourself. You haven’t been feeling like yourself for a while now, not since the accident. More accurately, not since the moment you heard about it. That morning, that minute, holding the phone to your ear and hearing your father say those horrific words; it was then you felt the change, then when you were knocked out of kilter.”

The connecting themes of the narrative strands is how to live as an artist, how to combine your passion and move in the contemporary world, how to combine your inner vision with the often hostile or opposing realities of the outside world. For the non-artist reader, this is of course a metaphor for the oldest theme in literature: how to be, how to move through the world. Giorgio has lived through the fascist years, has seen art twisted to meet the demands of the state and nonconformists punished and killed. His reaction was to reject society and live simply in order to learn to see things as they truly are, and, through repetition and practice, capture this on canvas. His subject matter over the decades was a series of still-lives of blue bottles and other household objects.  Critics have come to be as interested in his privacy as in his seemingly simple art. Giorgio, however, is not a stereotypical recluse, rejecting or overwhelmed by the modern world; instead, he has always been interested in and aware of the changing tides of politics, art and fashion. However, to him they are secondary to the development of his sight, his perspective, his artistic vision:

“Often I tell visitors, who come and who sit uncomfortably in their city garments, to be heedless of the train timetables. I invite them to remain past the hour of their appointment, to take some wine and sit outside and relax. Take your hand from your wrist, I tell them. Listen to this greater pulse, to the lowing of cattle and the beating of wings against the winds.”

Naturally, his wisdom and truth is rarely theirs, and few truly understand what he’s attempting to say.

One who would have understood, had they ever met, is Peter. As an idealistic young artist in the 1960s, Peter writes to Giorgio about his art, and Giorgio recognizes a kindred spirit. Peter walks the path of any self-conscious artist of the time, living the hippie experience to the full, traveling, experimenting with drugs, before settling down in a loving marriage, moving to a remote part of the north of England and devoting himself to landscape painting. Like Giorgio, Peter rejects the pre-packaged comforts of the consumer society in order to expand his own vision, his personal understanding of the world through art.

To me, Peter and Giorgio are interesting, wise and very appealing characters, but both somewhat archetypal: the artist as reclusive visionary – and that’s how I think Sarah Hall intends them to be seen. The most interesting characters and storylines are in the paths taken by the offspring of these artists: Peter’s children Susan and Danny, and Giorgio’s student Annette.

Danny and Susan grow up in very permissive surroundings; there are no boundaries, no rules, and no polite lies for the sake of social conformity. To Danny, this is heaven. He is the life and soul of the party, an incredibly open, trusting and indulgent personality. For him, the question is, having seen how his parents have combined art and life so openly, honestly and successfully, how can he ever leave the fold and go out into the world? Ultimately, he cannot; he is a child who never grows up. Though he becomes a “found” artist, making sculptures out of scrap metal and the detritus of life, his real talent is for living, for friendship. When a road accident takes his life at a young age, hundreds come to his funeral. In the most basic sense, his way of life was his art. It can be argued, or course, that his art is never very deep or meaningful because he doesn’t go through any process of coming to understand what he’s trying to achieve, he doesn’t struggle with the question of what he wants to be, of why he’s an artist. He simply copies the aspects of his father’s unconventional lifestyle that appeal to him and has fun.

The question of reconciling life and art is a very real one for me – and probably for anyone likely to be drawn to this novel. Danny reminds me strongly of my own brother, a musician and artist who has chosen to live simply on his own terms in order to pursue his projects. He may not be famous, but I think he’s very successful in terms of what he sets out to do. In contrast, though I studied writing and film-making, I was far less single-minded. Ultimately, I put my faith in something other than art.

Susan is much more worldly than Danny, although, like him, she doesn’t have a strong concept of her art. She’s a competent photographer, but conscious that she gets attention as much for being her famous father’s daughter as for her work’s merit. She’s dully aware of this, but it doesn’t become an issue until her brother dies, and all her certainties and complacent attitudes towards life die with him.  She embarks on a self-destructive affair as a means of distraction from the pain of separation. Fundamentally, she has nobody to talk to, because Danny was always the one who knew her best, the one whose approval she sought. Her faith wasn’t in the power of art to get her through life, it was in the certainty of Danny’s presence and approval, and she’s utterly unmoored when he dies.

HTPAintBack in the 1960s, Annette is a high-school student whose talent Giorgio thinks highly of before she loses her eyesight. Afterwards, her horizons narrow to the confines of her mother’s fearful Catholicism and the familiar geography of her family’s house and the market where she works. Her mother is another recluse, a fearful woman convinced the devil, which she calls the Bestia, is out to destroy her, and consequently never leaves the house. Annette’s challenge is whether to internalize her mother’s fear and accept a constrained life after she goes blind, or embrace life, continue living in hope and working in the market despite the chance that people might take advantage of her lack of sight.

I find it interesting that some reviewers have omitted Annette from the company of artists struggling to build a life in this novel, or simply skipped over her story in their reviews. She’s a naïve teenager, struggling to reconcile a rather negative religious view of the world with her innate optimism, and the sense of joy, hope and redemption she finds in Christianity. The implicit parallels Hall appears to draw between artistic expression (the faith that a commitment to art as a way of life will see you through) and religious faith (the process of determining the balance point between one’s faith and one’s life) are subtle and not often raised. Should Annette become a nun, as her mother suggests, because the world is too dangerous for a young, blind woman? Should she find a way to live as normal a life as she can, trusting in a just and protective god, or stay at home fearing the ill intentions of the Bestia? [*Blogger KevinfromCanada makes the interesting point that Annette’s artistic endeavor is literally developing her inner vision.]

Annette greets life on her terms, in that sense her story parallels Danny’s, who greets life openly and ‘follows his bliss.’ His choice of found art reflects this laissez-faire attitude, and contrasts with Peter and Giorgio, who go through years of searching and questioning before arriving at their respective understandings of their art.

Ultimately, it’s Susan’s story that opens and closes the book. The question is what can she find to replace Danny as the rock upon which she rebuilds her life? Like her father and Giorgio, she must come to terms with life and art, where one ends and the other begins. What sacrifices will she make to follow her path? The resolution may disappoint some readers because a) it’s something that happens to her, rather than something she chooses consciously, and b) it’s slightly ambiguous. I found it completely believable and very fitting. Again, this is probably due to the circumstances of my life and my choices; I fell in love and got married young (at least by the standards of my peers). So, in a sense, I placed my trust in love, not art. Across time, and without ever being aware of them, Susan comes to trust Giorgio’s words of wisdom, offered decades earlier: “If everything seems lost, I tell them, trust the heart.” I completely understood Susan’s feelings and the ending felt natural and justified. One could interpret the conclusion in terms of the parallels between art and religion explored in Annette’s story, but I can’t really go there without giving too much away.

Suffice to say, How to Paint a Dead Man is a beautiful, heartfelt novel. Sarah Hall displays a technical virtuosity and narrative skill that wows you with her words, while her deft weaving of the various stories allows the bigger picture meditation on the difficulties of where to draw the line between art and life – or more simply between work and home – to unfold naturally. Each storyline exists at its own time and place, but each episode subtly enriches the events of the last and highlights different choices, different priorities, and different outcomes.  It all boils down to a rich and perceptive meditation on the choices, accommodations and decisions we make in shaping a life, and is a joyful celebration of the pursuit of art, in whatever form one may choose.




Sarah Hall’s website…

One of the many websites of my brother, Stephen Rennicks, conceptual artist.


Just before Thanksgiving last year, I was visiting friends in Ann Arbor and I popped into Shaman Drum, one of my favorite bookstores, for old time’s sake. One of the things that I noticed afresh was the small, but well-chosen corner of literary magazines by the door. The display itself makes an effective statement about what the store stands for: exciting literary voices from all over the world. My bookseller-sense reflected that the low price points also make magazines an attractive add-on purchase in these tough economic times, so I filed that idea away to copy later.
I bought a copy of World Literature Today because it looked cool, smart, literate and evoked all the reasons I pursued a degree in English in defiance of any logic and all advice. Happily, it was a cool, smart and literate read, with plenty of intriguing reviews, an enjoyable article on great bookstores to visit around the world before you die by Jeremy Mercer, author of Time Was Soft There (sorry, I couldn’t find it online — you’ll have to order the Sept.-Oct. ’08 issue if you want to know where they are) and a fascinating interview with Amara Lakhous, the Algerian born writer who lives in Rome and captures both sides of Italy’s immigrant problem in his award-winning novel, Clash of Civilizations of an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio. I read the interview on the plane on the way home and ordered the book a couple of days later after I went back to work. Two days later I had the book, and read it in two sittings.

Clash of Civilizations is fabulous: funny, poignant and full of the little touches of detail that assure us the writer knows the community he describes. The plot centers on the murder of a bigoted Italian man living in an apartment building. Everyone has their suspicions, everyone looks askance at the local immigrant community (whose individual origins few can place) and everyone agrees that one man is above suspicion, the pillar of the Italian ideal, Amedeo. The joke — which the author lets the readers in on right at the start — is that Amedeo is not Italian, he’s an immigrant like everyone else, but he’s assimilated so perfectly on the outside that everyone thinks he’s Italian, just from a different part of the country than them. Of course, on the inside, it’s a very different story.

This timeline is probably more or less a publisher’s desired result when they set their publicity department the task of generating buzz and planting stories about a book. I read the interview, I bought the book and I read it (and now I’m blogging about it — bonus). But I wonder, if I was the in the habit of reading on my iPhone at the time, would things have progressed differently? If the plane had yet to takeoff when I first read the interview, I could have whipped out the phone and bought the book there and then, and perhaps read it (or most of it) on the flight home. The ROI for the publisher would have been the same: one more book sold. But would the ROI for me have been the same?

Each step along the way increased the degree of my interest in reading Clash of Civilizations. I had the wait a couple of days before ordering the book, I had the pull out the magazine, write down the title and then search through the database to see who had it in stock before I could order it. I then waited a couple of days for the book to arrive, allowing the anticipation to build. Finally, I got the book, read it and loved it. I wonder if less effort was expended, would I have just enjoyed it and moved on the next thing to catch my attention, forgetting the story pretty quickly? The old way of book shopping — browsing aisles, clipping reviews from papers, scribbling titles down on soggy beer mats, carrying same around in your jacket pocket for a week before hitting a few bookstores in search of an in-stock copy — might be inefficient, might be time-consuming, but it’s fun; and, I must wonder if the minor obstacles and short wait actually makes us that much more receptive to the book once we’re ready to read it.

As I learn more about ebooks, I understand that the advantages of enabling near-immediate purchase — more impulse sales, lower physical costs — are attractive and plausible, but I wonder if the old saw about getting what you pay for will come into play. With less time invested and fewer obstacles overcome to attain the book you desire, will it — no matter how well written — be a little less fulfilling or memorable than a book you’re invested more time, effort and thought into obtaining?


World Literature Today — well worth a subscription

Visit the Shaman Drum blog or follow Shaman Drum on Twitter

There is No Gap, a blog by Karl Phort, owner of Shaman Drum

NYT article on Europa Editions, publisher of Clash of Civilizations

Last year, I read Cory Doctorow’s provocative collected essays on copyfighting, eInk and everything to do with the Internet, Content, and I’ve been thinking back over it and the issues involved quite a lot since then. Among other things, Doctorow certainly raises some questions in my mind about what exactly the typical bookstore will look like in 5 or 10 years. (Indeed, I think of this blog as being partially a result of the metaphorical kick in the pants Doctorow’s book gave me.)

My take on our collective future after reading Content is that if bookstores are around as a third place, they’ll probably be as much virtual as physical, with our role as booksellers morphing into ubercool facilitators of chatspace, book group discussion leaders, and witty remixers of text, creating one-of-a-kind memes to monetize as T-shirts, mugs, bumper stickers, animated smileys for MyFace pages (I jest, MySpace & Facebook will probably be long gone), etc. All meatspace book discussion may be fueled by high-priced, literary themed caffeine shots — and the caffeine may be the primary thing customers come into the bricks-n-mortar store in search of. Book shopping may be actively moving to primarily online activity (i.e. the researching, interacting with booksellers and ordering may all ultimately occur online (digitally mediated by text, email & tweet), the book pick up achieved at the same time readers perform their ritual caffeine worshiping on the way to work, and their post-perusal hit of book talk will be realized on their blog or through the bookstore’s online discussion group/listserv/MyFace pages). (Yes, ebooks will have a large part in any bookseller’s future, but that’s an issue that needs its own post.)

Thankfully, Doctorow doesn’t predict a disappearance of the physical book, nor the bookstore itself. Instead, he sees the book as being more of a raw material for social connection (along with TV, movies, gaming, etc.), something to be read, then commented upon, remade as an online video, adapted for a skateboard design theme, and blogged about, excerpted as an email signature, and used in ways we haven’t thought of yet. This is how we’ve always used culture, it’s just on a different scale now because of the ease of creation and sharing made possible by the worldwide web. So you can look at it as technology rescuing the book from being a marginalized, fairly exclusive product — one too often placed on a pedestal. Perhaps the power of the web could rescue the book from (relative) obscurity (when compared to movies or TV), but change the reverence with which it’s often treated. Which I think suggests that the bookstore as a relatively separate, peaceful place (or place to find A Separate Peace) will change dramatically, both in terms of the physical use of the space and also in terms of the disappearance of clear boundaries between the store and the rest of the world.

You can download the book for free from the author’s website, but I suspect you’ll want to make notes, dog-ear pages and generally engage with the text, so I urge you to support both your local indie bookstore and Cory Doctorow by buying a physical copy.