BOOK REVIEW: HOMESICKNESS by COLIN BARRETT


Grove Atlantic

Based on the short story collections that I’ve read, what I’ve to come to expect from a typical short story is a discrete narrative, a kind of novel in miniature. That is to say, most of the short stories I’ve encountered have been more or less like polished gems, very much self-contained in their little short-story packages. Where such stories are polished gems, though, Barrett’s are like rocks chipped out of some surface, rough and jagged and imperfect in the way that all organic things are. They’re stories that feel ongoing rather than discrete, not always going where you expect them to, and not always giving you what you want, either. In Barrett’s hands, though, that’s not at all a drawback.

Barrett’s stories are not really interested in giving you a nice, clean narrative with a delineated beginning, middle, and end, but rather in dropping you into the lives of their characters and seeing what happens. In “The Ways,” three siblings who have recently lost both their parents to cancer go about their lives; in “Anhedonia, Here I Come,” a struggling poet mired in his work attempts to deal with his various frustrations over it; in “The Alps,” the patrons of a club encounter a young man who walks in with a sword. They’re stories that, for the most part, don’t have any flashy or grandiose moments–in fact a lot of them actively lean towards the mundane–but in every one of them there is a tautness, a dramatic tension that holds the story upright and keeps you wanting to keep reading.

Unlike the typical short story I’m used to reading, Barrett’s don’t all end with a moment that clinches the point of the story, or come with some kind of critical passage that’s the key to unlocking the thematic focus of the story. That’s not to say that these stories are pointless, or that they’re devoid of any important moments–because of course they have a point, and of course they have important moments; it’s just that those are all woven into the various circumstances that these characters find themselves in.

And let me just say, these stories are so propulsive, so intensely readable. I think a big part of this is because they’re very much built around narratives where things happen: people go places, do things, meet other people, talk to them, etc. Characters think about things, but they also do things, and the “doing” part is what really spurs the “thinking” part of these stories on. (I don’t know how to describe this in a way that doesn’t sound trite–don’t literally all stories feature people thinking and doing things?–but IT’S TRUE, OKAY.)

It would be impossible to review this collection without talking about Barrett’s writing, because it’s just stellar. Colin Barrett’s writing feels like a photo with the contrast turned up: everything stark and punchy and evocative. It’s so sensorily rich, all the details just pop. I highlighted a lot of descriptions, but here are some of my favourites:

“At the far end of Lorna’s table an elderly woman was supping on a bowl of vegetable soup the colour and consistency of phlegm. The woman was eating with great involvedness. As she brought each tremulous spoonful to her lips her features contracted in an expression of anticipatory excruciation.”

“Bobby stared at his teeth, which were neatly aligned and all the same, toothpaste-ad hue. He appeared to be nothing more than a nondescriptly handsome wodge of heteronormative generica, tidily styleless in a sweater and chinos.”

“It was only gone two in the afternoon, but the sky was already so grey it was like being on the moon, the light a kind of exhausted residue. To their right coursed the Moy, dark as stout and in murderous spate; to their left high conifers stood like rows of coats on coat racks.”

“Steven Davitt, the lad at the rear of this pack, was such a specimen. A comely six-foot string of piss, faintly stooped, with shale eyes darting beneath a matted heap of curly black fringe. He shied from looking her way, of course. In the middle was one of the Bruitt boys, the scanty lichen of an unthriving moustache clinging to his lip.”

Barrett is funny, too, and his sense of humour shines through in a lot of these stories. Sometimes the humour comes in the form of wry or witty comments, and sometimes in the form of cutting comebacks (sibling dynamics in particular are so well-portrayed here). “The Alps” actually made me laugh out loud at one point, so absurd and absolutely wild it was but still surprisingly moving.

Favourite short story is easily “The Ways.” Other favourites include “The Alps,” “The Low, Shimmering Black Drone,” and “Anhedonia, Here I Come.” I liked all the other ones, too; the only story that I didn’t really get was “The Silver Coast,” though I feel like it would definitely benefit from a reread.

As you’ve probably gathered already, this was a different kind of short story collection than I’m used to reading, but I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much to Grove Atlantic for providing me with an e-ARC of this via NetGalley!


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SOME IRISH BOOKS ON MY TBR (#readingirelandmonth22)


hello everyone! it’s March, which means it’s officially Reading Ireland month!!! every year Cathy from Cathy746Books hosts Reading Ireland Month to celebrate all things Irish, and given how much I love Irish fiction/books in general, it was a total no-brainer for me to join in. there are weekly topics and lots of information in Cathy’s post, so definitely check it out if you’re interested!

this week I thought I’d talk about some of the Irish books on my TBR that I’m really excited to read and that I would love to get to at some point this year. I have 10 books in this list, 6 of which are 2022 releases (I’ve included their North American release dates), and 4 of which are backlist releases.


2022 RELEASES

Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? by Séamas O’Reilly (June 7)

Derry Girls meets Say Nothing in this heartwarming and hilarious memoir about growing up as one of eleven siblings raised by a single dad in Northern Ireland at the end of the Troubles.

“A gorgeous piece of work.” ―Chris O’Dowd

Séamas O’Reilly’s mother died when he was five, leaving him, his ten (!) brothers and sisters, and their beloved father in their sprawling bungalow in rural Derry. It was the 1990s; the Troubles were a background rumble, but Séamas was more preoccupied with dinosaurs, Star Wars, and the actual location of heaven than the political climate.
­
An instant bestseller in Ireland, Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? is a book about a family of loud, argumentative, musical, sarcastic, grief-stricken siblings, shepherded into adulthood by a man whose foibles and reticence were matched only by his love for his children and his determination that they would flourish.


The Deadwood Encore by Kathleen Murray (April 28)

A brilliantly inventive and witty novel about legacy and birthright from Kathleen Murray, Ireland’s brightest new literary voice. Frank Whelan is the seventh son of a seventh son, so by now should have inherited his father’s legendary healing power, but still hasn’t managed to graduate beyond small-time skin afflictions. He already feels adrift when his twin, Bernie, reveals a life-changing decision that calls into question everything Frank thought he knew about his place in the family. And then he discovers his father had been keeping secrets of his own. And so Frank turns to an unlikely source for guidance and finds himself on a quest for answers. from this world, and the next. A boundlessly inventive novel about the past’s hold over the present, set in an Irish community alive with old magic and extraordinary possibility, The Deadwood Encore is an electrifying debut from one of Ireland’s most acclaimed short-fiction authors. 


Catchlights by Niamh Prior (June 9)

Catchlights

An Irish vagrant with a strange ability wanders Kew Gardens. She knows that the fine weather is going to break and the impending rain casts her mind back to a riverbank where a shady fisherman once asked for her help.

The same fisherman, years later, runs into a childhood friend and becomes intrigued by his wife. She in turn is charmed by his boldness and his confidence. One day she goes out for a walk and never returns.

In another time, in another place, a photographer notices two ghostly figures – of a man and a woman – on pictures developed from his vintage lens. The images become clearer with each roll of film, but his dogged investigation of the mystery could cost him dearly.

So spool out the lives in Catchlights: the past contains the present and future; shallow and deep acts of cruelty, love, selfishness and kindness reverberate for years.


We Dont Know Ourselves By Fintan O’Toole (March 15)

A quarter-century after Frank McCourt’s extraordinary bestseller, Angela’s Ashes, Fintan O’Toole, one of the Anglophone world’s most consummate stylists, continues the narrative of modern Ireland into our own time. O’Toole was born in the year the revolution began. It was 1958, and the Irish government—in despair, because all the young people were leaving—opened the country to foreign investment. So began a decades-long, ongoing experiment with Irish national identity.

Weaving his own experiences into this account of Irish social, cultural, and economic change, O’Toole shows how Ireland, in just one lifetime, has gone from a Catholic “backwater” to an almost totally open society. A sympathetic-yet-exacting observer, O’Toole shrewdly weighs more than sixty years of globalization, delving into the violence of the Troubles and depicting, in biting detail, the astonishing collapse of the once-supreme Irish Catholic Church. The result is a stunning work of memoir and national history that reveals how the two modes are inextricable for all of us.


The Colony by Audrey Magee (May 17)

In 1979, as violence erupts all over Ireland, two outsiders travel to a small island off the west coast in search of their own answers, despite what it may cost the islanders.

It is the summer of 1979. An English painter travels to a small island off the west coast of Ireland. Mr. Lloyd takes the last leg by curragh, though boats with engines are available and he doesn’t much like the sea. But he wants the authentic experience, to be changed by this place, to let its quiet and light fill him, give him room to create.

He doesn’t know that a Frenchman follows close behind. Masson has visited the island for many years, studying their language. He is fiercely protective of their isolation; it is essential to exploring his theories of language preservation and identity.

But the people who live on this rock—three miles long and half a mile wide—have their own views on what is being recorded, what is being taken, and what ought to be given in return. Over the summer, each of them— from great-grandmother Bean Uí Fhloinn, to widowed Mairéad, to fifteen-year-old James, who is determined to avoid the life of a fisherman—will wrestle with their own values and desires. Meanwhile, all over Ireland, violence is erupting. And there is blame enough to go around.


Thin Places by Kerri Ní Dochartaigh (April 12)

Both a celebration of the natural world and a memoir of one family’s experience during the Troubles, Thin Places is a gorgeous braid of “two strands, one wondrous and elemental, the other violent and unsettling, sustained by vividly descriptive prose” (The Guardian).

Kerri ní Dochartaigh was born in Derry, on the border of the North and South of Ireland, at the very height of the Troubles. She was brought up on a council estate on the wrong side of town—although for her family, and many others, there was no right side. One parent was Catholic, the other was Protestant. In the space of one year, they were forced out of two homes. When she was eleven, a homemade bomb was thrown through her bedroom window. Terror was in the very fabric of the city, and for families like ní Dochartaigh’s, the ones who fell between the cracks of identity, it seemed there was no escape.

In Thin Places, a luminous blend of memoir, history, and nature writing, ní Dochartaigh explores how nature kept her sane and helped her heal, how violence and poverty are never more than a stone’s throw from beauty and hope, and how we are, once again, allowing our borders to become hard and terror to creep back in. Ní Dochartaigh asks us to reclaim our landscape through language and study, and remember that the land we fight over is much more than lines on a map. It will always be ours, but—at the same time—it never really was.


BACKLIST

Walk the Blue Fields by Claire Keegan

Walk the Blue Fields eBook by Claire Keegan - 9780802189721 | Rakuten Kobo  United States

Claire Keegan’s brilliant debut collection, Antarctica, was a Los Angeles Times Book of the Year, and earned her resounding accolades on both sides of the Atlantic. Now she has delivered her next, much-anticipated book, Walk the Blue Fields, an unforgettable array of quietly wrenching stories about despair and desire in the timeless world of modern-day Ireland. In the never-before-published story “The Long and Painful Death,” a writer awarded a stay to work in Heinrich Böll’s old cottage has her peace interrupted by an unwelcome intruder, whose ulterior motives only emerge as the night progresses. In the title story, a priest waits at the altar to perform a marriage and, during the ceremony and the festivities that follow, battles his memories of a love affair with the bride that led him to question all to which he has dedicated his life; later that night, he finds an unlikely answer in the magical healing powers of a seer.


A masterful portrait of a country wrestling with its past and of individuals eking out their futures, Walk the Blue Fields is a breathtaking collection from one of Ireland’s greatest talents, and a resounding articulation of all the yearnings of the human heart.


The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne – New York Review Books

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is an unflinching and deeply sympathetic portrait of a woman destroyed by self and circumstance. First published in 1955, it marked Brian Moore as a major figure in English literature (he would go on to be short-listed three times for the Booker Prize) and established him as an astute chronicler of the human soul.

Judith Hearne is an unmarried woman of a certain age who has come down in society. She has few skills and is full of the prejudices and pieties of her genteel Belfast upbringing. But Judith has a secret life. And she is just one heartbreak away from revealing it to the world.


One By One in the Darkness by Deirdre Madden

One by One in the Darkness: Deirdre Madden: 9780571298808: Books - Amazon.ca

One by One in the Darkness follows a week in the lives of three sisters shortly before the start of the IRA ceasefire in 1994, undercut with the story of their childhood in Northern Ireland of the 1960s and 1970s. The history of both a family and a society, One by One in the Darkness confirms Deirdre Madden’s reputation as one of Irish fiction’s most outstanding talents.


This Hostel Life by Melatu Uche Okorie

THIS HOSTEL LIFE tells the stories of migrant women in a hidden Ireland.

Queuing for basic supplies in an Irish direct provision hostel, a group of women squabble and mistrust each other, learning what they can of the world from conversations about reality television and Shakespeare. In another story, a student shares her work with a class only to be critiqued about her own lived experience, and a mother of young twins, living in Nigeria, is at risk of losing her newborns to ancient superstitious beliefs.

An essay by Liam Thornton (UCD School of Law) is also included, explaining the Irish legal position in relation to asylum seekers and direct provision.


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BOOK REVIEW: THE RAPTURES by JAN CARSON


The Raptures

I didn’t particularly enjoy reading The Raptures, but more than that, I just had no idea what it was trying to do as a novel.

Tonally, The Raptures comes across as very twee, almost didactic. It’s a novel that feels like it was written to have a moral, some message that was supposed to be moving and inspiring but that in actuality felt very flat and saccharine. The story doesn’t outright try to explicitly articulate a moral, but the feeling that it’s supposed to have one is there nevertheless, implied by both the way that the narrative is set up and the way that it concludes.

Then we have the structure of the book, which was a bit all over the place for me. For one, it was hard to tell what kind of perspective The Raptures wanted us to focus on. We get first-person-POV chapters from Hannah’s perspective, but we also get third-person-POV chapters from Hannah’s perspective–and from other characters–as well as the occasional omniscient third-person narration about the goings-on in the town. It was very confusing to follow sometimes, and it made it hard to really inhabit these characters minds since it was unclear where, exactly, the narration was coming from. I also just really missed some of the beautiful writing that was front and center in Carson’s previous novel, The Fire Starters. The best I can say about her writing in this novel is that it was serviceable.

Narratively, The Raptures is supposed to be about the community of Ballylack, the kinds of people who live there, and the various dynamics that they have with each other in the wake of an emerging epidemic within their community. The problem with this is that neither Ballylack nor its inhabitants are written to be particularly interesting. The execution of the story never surprises in any way: there’s an epidemic that targets children, parents are afraid for their children, parents grieve their children. Beyond that, I didn’t feel like I really got a good grasp of what set this community apart in terms of its social environment, its geography, the lifestyle of its inhabitants, etc. It was all rather flat.

My fundamental problem with The Raptures, though, is that I have no idea what it was trying to do as a novel. The story is straightforward, simplistically so, and it goes pretty much the way you expect it to: there’s an epidemic killing children, and so the children proceed to die one by one. With the exception of a few revelations, that’s literally the whole plot of the book. And it was so boring. The story has no momentum, nothing to make you want to keep reading, because nothing surprising or interesting ever happens in it. Child #1 dies, then child #2 dies, then child #3 dies, and then–you guessed it–child #4 dies. And of course this is devastating for the characters, but the way the story is set up makes it so that you become increasingly inured to its characters’ pain: by the fifth or sixth time you’re reading the same set of reactions to the same exact event, you just feel bored more than anything else. On top of all of this, the novel tries to incorporate a magical realism element throughout its narrative–the operative word, here, being tries, because it doesn’t succeed. Again, I have no idea what the magical realism was supposed to accomplish. Magical realism is supposed to excite you! to shake things up! to unsettle the foundations of what’s considered “normal” or “real” in everyday life. The magical realism here, by contrast, is lackluster, perfunctory. It feels like it’s there to make the story Quirky rather than to actually enliven the story for any meaningful reason. It’s there just to be there–and frankly so are a lot of the elements of this book’s narrative.

Needless to say, I found The Raptures to be a largely disappointing read. I really enjoyed Carson’s The Fire Starters and was so confident that I’d love this novel as well. Clearly, though, The Raptures was not the book for me. It’s one of those books that I just know I’m never going to think about again because it was just so utterly unimpressionable to me as a novel.

Thank you to Penguin Random House UK for providing me with an e-ARC of this novel via NetGalley!


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