This weekend, March 17th, sees St Patrick’s Day – yay! If ever there was a country which loves a good story, Ireland must be it. My family is Irish, and sometimes I wonder if this is why I just love books and reading and stories so much. Writing is so engrained in the Irish way of life that Dublin is known as the City of Literature. You can even do a literary pub crawl round Dublin if you’re so inclined – as me and my sister once did, on a memorable occasion, and a great craic it was!
So, let’s order ourselves a pint of Guinness, go sit in the snug and sit down to talk about books. (And don’t rush the barman – a good pint of Guinness takes some time to pour :) )
I’ve chosen five great Irish books today, a couple of which I’ve read already, the others I’ve heard a lot about and am dying to read.
First up is Star of the Sea, by Joseph O’Connor. I read this novel in just about one sitting. Set during the time of the great Irish famine in the 1840s, the Star of the Sea of the title is a ship bound for America, with a hold full of Irish fleeing the famine. The characters may seem like stereotypes when I boil it down – there’s a maidservant, an evil landlord, a young political man, a writer, plus a first-class cabin full of posh English nobs. But I absolutely love the way O’Connor writes, and his portrayals of the characters are brilliant. He has a beautiful prose style. The narrative is broken down into extracts from letters, the ship’s log, newspaper clippings, etc. It’s a totally page-turning read, too, like a gripping Victorian melodrama. I highly recommend it. (I just found out recently that Joseph O’Connor is Sinead O’Connor’s brother. Fascinating fact!)
Last Train From Liguria, by Christine Dwyer Hicky. I’ve just started reading this novel, and am loving it. It was recommended to me by my 80 year old aunt, who gets the Irish Times and saw it reviewed in there. The story begins in the 1930s and involves a woman, Bella, who goes to work as tutor to the son of a German Jewish woman living in Sicily. Bella meets the son’s music master, an Irishman ‘Edward King’, who we know from the bizarrely gripping start to the story has killed his sister and fled Dublin. The pair end up rescuing the son from the Nazis by smuggling him out of Italy on a train. I’m only part way through the novel, and it’s got off to a fantastic start. It’s also had blinding reviews, including a great one here by Joseph O’Connor.
Also high up pn my to read list is Walk the Blue Fields, by Claire Keegan This is a collection of short stories set mainly in rural Ireland, with a set of characters familiar to readers of Irish fiction: strong, independent women, self-questioning priests, people who are unhappy with their isolated lives, feckless male figures. But from what I’ve heard these stories are far, far more than a set of familiar characters. This review in the Guardian states: ‘Keegan takes the clichés of Irish rural life and sets them ablaze’. I like the sound of these stories very much. From what I’ve read Claire Keegan has a genius writing style. She’s built up a great reputation for short story-telling, and I’m looking forward to reading her stories of rural Ireland very much.
I read Emma Donoghue’s Room a couple of years ago, and found it a very powerfully affecting and ambitious novel, which the author succeeded in pulling off to great effect. I read so many novels (yes, you might have guessed by now!) that sometimes, quite honestly, books and authors don’t stick in my mind, but this one definitely did. Room is written from the perspective of a five year old boy, who is being held captive in a small room with his mother. The mother has been captive in the room for years, and it’s all the world the little boy knows. He’s never been outside. His mother makes a plan to escape their captor (Old Nick, as she calls him), by faking the little boy’s death. The author handles the psychological trauma from the child’s prespective really well, and the book isn’t at all as dismal as I’m making out. There’s a great story of love between the mother and her son, and it was a very affecting read.
My final choice is by an author I’m absolutely dying to read, as I’ve heard so much good stuff about her. It’s To the North, by Elizabeth Bowen, first published in 1932. Here’s an extract from the blurb:
Two young women in 1920s London, the recently widowed Cecilia Summers and her late husband’s sister, Emmeline, set up house together and gradually become more entwined than they know. Cecilia, capricious and unsure if she can really love anyone, moves reluctantly toward a second marriage; Emmeline, a gentle and independent soul, is surprised to find the calm tenor of her life disturbed for the first time by her attraction to the predatory Mark Linkwater. Bowen’s psychological acuity is on full display in a conclusion that plumbs the depths of this seemingly detached young woman in a single, life-shattering moment.
I’ve read so many fantastic reviews of this book that I’m itching to get my hands on it. It’s not available in e-format, unfortunately, so I’m ordering a second-hand copy. I particularly loved this review on Booksnob, where the reviewer says: Sitting at my desk all day at work, knowing I had to wait hours before the brilliant book smouldering away in my bag could be opened again, was torture.
Don’t you just know that feeling, when a brilliant book is calling to you. This sounds like my sort of book!
Well, these are just five great novels from a whole wealth of Irish literature. I could go on and on, but my pile of books to read is growing higher and higher every day. I feel very guilty about all the other fantastic Irish authors I’ve left out of my selection, but still, there’s always next St Paddy’s Day!
In the meantime, I’ll pour another Guinness and get on with Bella’s journey to Sicily. Slainte!
Have you read any of these novels in my selection? Are there any great Irish novels you’ve read that you think should be on the list? If so, please leave a comment – I’d love to hear from you!