Reading Ireland Month 2019: Jess Kidd and Jane Urquhart

Last month I picked out this exchange from East of Eden by John Steinbeck:

“But the Irish are said to be a happy people, full of jokes.”

“They’re not. They’re a dark people with a gift for suffering way past their deserving. It’s said that without whisky to soak and soften the world, they’d kill themselves. But they tell jokes because it’s expected of them.”

There’s something about that mixture of darkness and humor, isn’t there? I also find that Irish art (music as well as literature) has a lot of heart. I only read two Ireland-related historical novels this month, but they both have that soulful blend of light and somber. Both:


Things in Jars by Jess Kidd (2019)

In the autumn of 1863 Bridie Devine, female detective extraordinaire, is tasked with finding the six-year-old daughter of a baronet. Problem is, this missing girl is no ordinary child, and collectors of medical curiosities and circus masters alike are interested in acquiring her.

In its early chapters this delightful Victorian pastiche reminded me of a cross between Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, and that comparison played out pretty well in the remainder. Kidd paints a convincingly gritty picture of Dickensian London, focusing on an underworld of criminals and circus freaks: when Bridie first arrived in London from Dublin, she worked as an assistant to a resurrectionist; her maid is a 7-foot-tall bearded lady; and her would-be love interest, if only death didn’t separate them, is the ghost of a heavily tattooed boxer.

Medicine (surgery – before and after anesthesia) and mythology (mermaids and selkies) are intriguing subplots woven through, such that this is likely to appeal to fans of The Way of All Flesh and The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. Kidd’s prose is spry and amusing, particularly in her compact descriptions of people (but also in her more expansive musings on the dirty, bustling city): “a joyless string of a woman, thin and pristine with a halibut pout,” “In Dr Prudhoe’s countenance, refinement meets rogue,” and “People are no more than punctuation from above.”

I’ll definitely go back and read Kidd’s two previous novels, Himself and The Hoarder. I didn’t even realize she was Irish, so I’m grateful to Cathy for making me aware of that in her preview of upcoming Irish fiction. [Trigger warnings: violence against women and animals.] (Out from Canongate on April 4th.)


Away by Jane Urquhart (1993)

I was enraptured from the first line: “The women of this family leaned towards extremes” – starting with Mary, who falls in love with a sailor who washes up on the Irish coast in the 1840s amid the cabbages, silver teapots and whiskey barrels of a shipwreck and dies in her arms. Due to her continued communion with the dead man, people speak of her being “away with the fairies,” even after she marries the local schoolteacher, Brian O’Malley.

With their young son, Liam, they join the first wave of emigration to Canada during the Potato Famine, funded by their landlords, the Sedgewick brothers of Puffin Court (amateur naturalist Osbert and poet Granville). No sooner have the O’Malleys settled and had their second child, Eileen, than Mary disappears. As she grows, Eileen takes after her mother, mystically attuned to portents and prone to flightiness, while Liam is a happily rooted Great Lakes farmer. Like Mary, Eileen has her own forbidden romance, with a political revolutionary who dances like a dream.

I’ve been underwhelmed by other Urquhart novels, Sanctuary Line and The Whirlpool, but here she gets it just right, wrapping her unfailingly gorgeous language around an absorbing plot – which is what I felt was lacking in the others. The Ireland and Canada settings are equally strong, and the spirit of Ireland – the people, the stories, the folk music – is kept alive abroad. I recommend this to readers of historical fiction by Margaret Atwood, A.S. Byatt and Hannah Kent.

Some favorite lines:

Osbert says of Mary: “There’s this light in her, you see, and it must not be put out.”

“When summer was finished the family was visited by a series of overstated seasons. In September, they awakened after night frosts to a woods awash with floating gold leaves and a sky frantic with migrating birds – sometimes so great in number that they covered completely with their shadows the acre of light and air that Brian had managed to create.”

“There are five hundred and forty different kinds of weather out there, and I respect every one of them. White squalls, green fogs, black ice, and the dreaded yellow cyclone, just to mention a few.”


It’s my second time participating in Reading Ireland Month, run each March by Cathy of 746 Books and Niall of Raging Fluff.


Did you manage to read any Irish literature this month?

22 thoughts on “Reading Ireland Month 2019: Jess Kidd and Jane Urquhart

  1. I’m so glad you liked Away. I saw that you were reading it and was waiting to hear what you thought – I read it so long ago now that I can’t remember it very well, but now you’ve convinced me I’d like to read it again.
    Things in Jars sounds good, too! I didn’t realize she had another new one coming out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I saw your 5-star rating. I was considering 5 stars almost the whole time I was reading it, but decided on 4 because of the slightly frustrating pattern of dropping one major character (usually because they die or leave) and moving on to another.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Reading ‘Away’ just now, upon your instagram description you wrote me a while ago! I am very much enthralled by her descriptions that make the mundane magical.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I also read Away many, many years ago and can’t remember it well – only that I decided that I’d like to read more by Urquhart. And I have, although not the two that you have but rather The Stonecarvers and the The Underpainter. I especially recommend the former.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. When it comes to Urquhart, I always LOVE the sound of the books but I don’t always love the stories. She seems like someone who should be a perfect match for me, subject-wise, theme-wise, poetry and prose writer: maybe my expectations are too high because of that. Sanctuary Line is probably my favourite overall. The idea of The Whirlpool, I just loved. And I enjoyed the old-fashioned inspiration for the novel (an earlier Canadian novel set at the whirlpool near the Falls). But I didn’t love Away as much as I thought I would.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a great way of putting it: I will read the blurbs for her novels and think “WOW, that sounds AMAZING!” But then, despite her lovely prose, the story doesn’t always live up to my expectations. That’s what I felt with the two other books I’d read by her, but somehow Away did the trick for me.


      1. Maybe it’s just a matter of adjusting one’s expectations then. Perhaps I will enjoy the next more as well. Because even though I don’t love them as much as I love the idea of them, I still have at least two on my TBR (the ones Debbie recommended, coincidentally). Her prose is beautiful.

        Liked by 1 person

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