Reading Ireland Month: Erskine, O’Farrell, Quinn and Tóibín

Reading Ireland Month is hosted each year by Cathy of 746 Books. I’m sneaking in on the final day of March (there’s a surprise snow squall out the window as I write this) with four short reviews and feeling rather smug that my post covers lots of bases: short stories, a novel, a book of autobiographical pieces, and a poetry collection.

 

Dance Move by Wendy Erskine (2022)

The 11 stories in Erskine’s second collection do just what short fiction needs to: dramatize an encounter, or moment, that changes life forever. Her characters are ordinary, moving through the dead-end work and family friction that constitute daily existence, until something happens, or rises up in the memory, that disrupts the tedium.

Erskine being from Belfast, evidence of the Troubles is never far away. In “Nostalgie,” a washed-up rocker is asked to perform his hit song at a battalion’s party. A woman and her lodger are welded together by a violent secret in “Bildungsroman,” which reminded me of a tale from Bernard MacLaverty’s Blank Pages and Other Stories. “Gloria and Max” struck me most of all: a drive to a film festival becomes a traumatic flashback when they’re first on the scene of an accident.

Erskine’s writing is blunt and edgy, the kind that might be stereotyped as male but nowadays is also, inevitably for Irish authors, associated with Sally Rooney: matter-of-fact; no speech marks, flat dialogue and slang. A couple of other favourites: “Mathematics,” in which a cleaner finds an abandoned child in a hotel room and tries to do right by her; and “Memento Mori,” about two deaths, one drawn out and one sudden; both equally unexpected; and only enough compassion to cope with one. (Public library)

  

After You’d Gone by Maggie O’Farrell (2000)

In form this is similar to O’Farrell’s The Distance Between Us, one of my Reading Ireland selections from last year: short sections of a few pages flit between times and perspectives. (There’s also an impulsive trip from London to Scotland in both.) But whereas in her third novel I found the jump cuts confusing and unnecessary, here they just work, and elegantly, to build a portrait of Alice Raikes, in a coma after what may have been a suicide attempt. That day she’d taken a train from London to Edinburgh at the last minute, met her sisters at the station, seen something that threw her, and gotten right on a return train. Back in London and on the way to the shop for cat food, she stepped off the kerb and into the path of a car.

Scenes from Alice’s childhood in Scotland are interspersed with her love affairs; her parents’ disappointing marriage serves as a counterpoint to her great passion for John. The setup of three female generations in North Berwick and the question of sexual autonomy reminded me strongly of Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock.

This is a bold debut novel, refusing to hold readers’ hands through shifts from now to near past to further ago, from third to second to first person (even Alice from her coma: “my body still clings to life, and I find myself suspended like Persephone between two states … I am somewhere. Drifting. Hiding.”). Loss, secrets and family inheritance may be familiar themes, but when this was published at the millennium it must have seemed thrillingly fresh; it still does now.

I only have one unread O’Farrell novel awaiting me now, My Lover’s Lover. I’ll be saving that up, maybe for this time next year. Having not much enjoyed Hamnet, I’m disappointed that her forthcoming novel will also be historical and will probably skip it; I miss her stylish contemporary commentary. (Secondhand from a charity shop)

 

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl, ed. John Quinn (1986)

These autobiographical essays were compiled by Quinn based on interviews he conducted with nine women writers for an RTE Radio series in 1985. I’d read bits of Dervla Murphy’s and Edna O’Brien’s work before, but the other authors were new to me (Maeve Binchy, Clare Boylan, Polly Devlin, Jennifer Johnston, Molly Keane, Mary Lavin and Joan Lingard). The focus is on childhood: what their family was like, what drove these women to write, and what fragments of real life have made it into their books.

I read the first couple of pieces but then started to find the format repetitive and didn’t want to read out-of-context illustrative passages from novels I’d never heard of, so only skimmed through the rest. You can work out what Quinn’s questions were based on how the essays spin out: What is your earliest memory? What was your relationship with your parents? What was your schooling? Were you lonely? What part did books and writing play in your childhood? Distant fathers, a strict Catholic upbringing, solitude/boredom and escaping into novels are common elements. Some had happier childhoods than others, but all are grateful for the life of the mind: A solid base of familial love and the freedom to explore were vital.

The best passage comes from Seamus Heaney’s foreword: “The woman writer, like everybody else, is in pursuit of coherence, attempting to bring into significant alignment the creature she was and the being she is striving to become.” (Secondhand from Bookbarn International)

 

Vinegar Hill by Colm Tóibín (2022)

I didn’t realize when I started it that this was Tóibín’s debut collection; so confident is his verse that I assumed he’s been publishing poetry for decades. He’s one of those polymaths who’s written in many genres – contemporary fiction, literary criticism, travel memoir, historical fiction – and impresses in all. I’ve been finding his recent Folio Prize winner, The Magician, a little too dry and biography-by-rote for someone with no particular interest in Thomas Mann (I’ve only ever read Death in Venice), so I will likely just skim it before returning it to the library, but I can highly recommend his poems as an alternative.

There’s such a range of tone, structures and topics here. Bereavements and chemotherapy are part of a relatable current events background, as in “Lines Written After the Second Moderna Vaccine at Dodgers’ Stadium Los Angeles, 27 February 2021.” Irish-Catholic nostalgia animates the very witty sequence from “The Nun” to “Vatican II.” You can come along on some armchair travels: “In Washington DC,” “In San Clemente,” “Canal Water” (Venice), “Jericho,” and so on. The poems are based around anecdotes or painterly observations; there are both short phrases and prose paragraphs. The line breaks are unfailingly fascinating (any other enjambment geeks out there?). I particularly loved “Kennedy in Wexford,” “In the White House,” “Eccles Street” and “Eve.”

With thanks to Carcanet Press for the e-copy for review.

 

Have you read any Irish literature this month?

21 responses

  1. I loved Dance Move – Momento Mori was such a fantastic story. It’s been years since I read the O’Farrell but I remember loving it at the time. Thanks for joining in.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sorry to post so little and so late. Thanks for hosting again! It’s always a great excuse to get things off my shelves, and find new stuff.

      Like

  2. […] Erskine, O’Farrell, Quinn and Toibin – Rebecca at Bookish Beck […]

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  3. […] Erskine, O’Farrell, Quinn and Toibin – Rebecca at Bookish Beck […]

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  4. Oh I loved Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl! I was absolutely fascinated to read all about these women’s childhoods.

    I just watched Brooklyn last week – I have the book but haven’t yet read it. I enjoyed the film very much. Last year I also heard Siobhan McSweeney read Nora Webster on BBC Sounds – brilliant, and now another book added to the pile…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. And here I didn’t think anyone would have heard of that one 🙂 I wish I’d been a little more familiar with the authors profiled.

      I’d like to see the film of Brooklyn.

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      1. Ha – I found it in a charity shop and wrote about it for Reading Ireland month last year! And I do agree, some authors were more interesting than others.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I have only a few books by O’Farrell left to read including this one so I’m stretching them out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. For a long time I only had her first three novels left and I too was saving them up. Two down now, one per Reading Ireland Month in 2021 and 2022, so it’s just My Lover’s Lover remaining.

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  6. So far, I’ve read and enjoyed Donal Ryan’s Strange Flowers. But I’m adding the O’Farrell and the Tóibín to my list. I’ve read neither of these examples of their work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I read Ryan’s first few books but have lost track of his career now.

      I really enjoyed trying Tóibín’s poetry. I had no idea what to expect from it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I looked in the library for some this morning. But the cupboard was bare.

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      2. This collection was only just released yesterday, so it may be one you’d have to nudge them to order.

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  7. My Lover’s Lover is also really good – and a bit of a surprise! I’m sorry you didn’t care for Hamnet and won’t be trying her upcoming novel, but I’m a huge fan of historical fiction, so I’ll keep going with O’Farrell. Say, did you read her non-fiction memoir? O. M. G.!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad to hear My Lover’s Lover lives up to expectations. I love her memoir! (I’m a sucker for medical themes.)

      Liked by 1 person

  8. What a great range you cover there! I missed Ireland but did Wales: I can only seem to do one or the other every year for some reason. Another serendipity moment coming tomorrow, by the way, when I review some poetry (somewhat shockingly for me)!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Wales challenge has never really been on my radar. However, I might get to Under Milk Wood for the 1954 Club!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I’d say you deserve to be feeling smug – you have a nice variety here! Dance Moves sounds great, and I really liked that O’Farrell book. Can you believe I still haven’t read anything by Colm Toibin? And even though I have so many great Irish books to read, I didn’t read any of them this month. (!!) I’m starting to realize that I’m just as bad at planning ahead with my reading as I am in life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There are so many challenges and so little time! I like to amass piles for each one, but I never get as much read towards them as I’d like to.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. […] Dance Move by Wendy Erskine: The 11 stories in Erskine’s second collection do just what short fiction needs to: dramatize an encounter, or a moment, that changes life forever. Her characters are ordinary, moving through the dead-end work and family friction that constitute daily existence, until something happens, or rises up in the memory, that disrupts the tedium. Erskine being from Belfast, evidence of the Troubles is never far away. Her writing is blunt and edgy, with no speech marks plus flat dialogue and slang. […]

    Like

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