The Wych Elm
The Skeleton in the Tree
The Sunday Independent
3 March 2019
The Wych Elm is Tana French’s seventh novel and ostensibly the first ‘standalone’ work. Readers familiar with her first six books will know that despite the ‘Murder Squad’ link each novel is unique and different. The major change with the Wych Elm is the point of view – instead of the police searching for answers it’s one of the suspects.
Toby has led a charmed life. He went to a ‘good’ school where he was a popular rugby player. He’s well aware that he’s a “lucky bastard” as he’s good looking, naturally charming and people take to him. He’s never felt the need to bully or intimidate, he’s always had a good relationship with his parents, has a good career in PR, is still pals with his two besties from school and has a perfect relationship with girlfriend Melissa. And even though he’s an only child he has a semi-sibling relationship with his cousins Leon and Susanna who he shared magical summers with at their Uncle Hugo’s home The Ivy House.
All this changes when he is brutally beaten up by two burglars and almost dies. French is brilliant at conveying the sudden terror that overwhelms someone who has never experienced any sort of crisis. The assault leaves Toby changed both physically and mentally. While he struggles to cope with the pain, memory loss and emotional trauma, the worst aspect for Toby is that who he is, is irrevocably changed. “If stuff gets better… so what? …Even if I end up running a marathon, I’m not the same person any more. That’s the point.”
The theme of identity is one that permeates the entire book. Toby realises that being a ‘good person’ is easy when life has been easy – when there are no difficult challenges to face or when circumstances don’t force a moral dilemma. His cousin Leon recalls not wanting to come out because “It was the thought of people seeing me as something different. Not being a person to them any more, not being just me, ever again; being a gay.” Another theme is how power and conversely powerlessness are linked to identity.
While Toby is recuperating his favourite uncle, Hugo, a genealogist, is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour and both he and girlfriend Melissa go to stay with him at the Ivy House. It is during this stay that a skull in found in the Wych Elm of the title and skeletons – physical and figurative begin to emerge.
French writes beautifully and lyrically and can conjure up a sense of place and atmosphere like few others. The Wych Elm is both entertaining and thought-provoking but its uneven in execution - the critical event, the finding of the skull, doesn’t occur until almost half way through. French is usually brilliant at creating three-dimensional believable characters but not once in 511 pages does the saint-like Melissa lose her cool which stretched my belief more than her wearing pretty vintage dresses day and night. Not French’s best, but still better than the rest.
Seedy World of a Sex Addict
The Sunday Independent
24 February 2019
Adèle lives with her surgeon husband Richard and their 3-year-old son Lucien in an upmarket Paris apartment. She has a high profile job as a political journalist. She is thin and beautiful and has it all. But Adèle is a sex addict.
Sex addiction can easily be dismissed as a laughing matter but this gripping novel by Leïla Slimani (a follow up to her international bestseller Lullaby about a nanny who murders the children she looks after) reveals the grim reality of compulsive sex, “her obsessions devour her. She is helpless to stop them.”.
Like all addicts Adèle is seeking oblivion and relief rather than thrills. Slimani nails the compulsion in the opening chapter where Adèle eyes up a variety of unattractive men on the train thinking that one of them ‘will do’. In order to maintain her ‘habit’ Adèle lies to everyone and lives with consistent stress and paranoia on top of the guilt and shame she feels. She resents her husband, (wishing him dead at one point), her child and her employers for getting in the way of her pursuing sexual encounters.
Adèle has one good friend, Lauren, who she mistreats in a casual off-hand way and she overspends in order to feed her addiction. While other addictions destroy families the added multiple intimate betrayals involved in sex addiction make any sort of understanding or forgiveness of the addict near impossible.
When Adèle’s husband inevitably finds out that his wife has been leading a double life he is devastated. “Adèle had ripped up his world. She has sawn the legs off the furniture, she has scratched all the mirrors… Memories, promises… none of it means anything any more. Their life is a fake.”
Adèle is a woman of contradictions who can have sex with a total stranger in an alleyway yet fear that strange men might rape and attack her. Fear is constant – fear of being found out, fear of not getting what she wants and fear of getting it.
Slimani never lets us really know why Adèle is compelled to have increasingly dangerous liaisons with strangers, just that it is not a choice.
Forget Cold Hard Crime, Cozy is just as thrilling.
Forget New Year Resolutions, fight the cold hard months of Winter with a dose of Cozy Crime writes Anne Marie Scanlon
The Sunday Independent
January is, without doubt, the most dismal month of the year. Traditionally a time of empty pockets and tight waistbands, we make things even worse by punishing ourselves with self-denial and resolutions we can’t keep.
Those with the cash escape to warmer weather but you don’t need to jump on a jet to find solace in the long dark cold nights. A ‘Cozy Crime’ mystery does exactly what it says on the label and banishes the bleaks
The ‘Cozy’ is a subgenre which unlike much modern Crime Fiction doesn’t grab headlines. Despite the lack of publicity Cosies regularly appear on the best-seller lists, although a consistent definition of what constitutes one is elusive.
Mystery author Amanda Fowler describes the genre as having “an amateur sleuth, an unsuspecting victim, a quirky supporting cast and a trail of clues and red herrings.”
Catriona McPherson, author of the Dandy Gilver books has a simpler explanation - “someone gets killed but no one gets harmed.”
I asked McPherson why such a popular genre hadn’t garnered more attention. McPherson thinks there are two issues, one being sexism. Cozy Crime, like traditional Golden Age Crime, is penned mainly by women and the derision aimed at it echoes that usually reserved for traditional Romance.
Secondly, McPherson says, the name itself lacks “cool” and “is problematic. You do hear a lot of people denying that their books are “Cozies” insisting they’re called “traditional mystery”.”
Many Cozy Crime stories, like McPherson’s Dandy Gilver series, The County Guides series by Ian Sansom and the Kate Shackleton mysteries by Frances Brody are all set during the “Golden Age” period and feature country houses, picturesque towns, village fetes, posh people and clever plots. The settings are intimate with a limited amount of characters and suspects.
The joy of these books is that although it is fun to read them in sequence they all work well as standalone novels.
Bangor-based Ian Sansom has created a Holmsian-style character with Swanton Morley, the ‘People’s Professor’ in the, to date, four County Guide novels (Fourth Estate), all set in the 1930s and narrated by the character Stephen Sefton who is a veteran of the Spanish Civil War.
The latest Dandy Gilver escapade A Step So Grave (Hodder & Stoughton €29.39) is her thirteenth outing having gone from a new bride struggling to make sense of the aftermath of the Great War to now being a mother-in-law fearing the coming of another cataclysmic war. In true 'Classic' style the action all takes place in a ‘Big Hoose’ (while Dandy is English she’s married to a Scot) on an island. The islanders, including the inhabitants of the Big Hoose, all speak Scots Gaelic and fervently believe in pre-Christian superstitions which are seamlessly woven throughout the plot.
Similarly, Kate Shackleton’s latest outing, her tenth, in A Snapshot of Murder (Piatkus, €12.99) is set in 1928. The detective’s photography society have taken a trip to Haworth for the opening of the Bronte home when one of their number is murdered in plain sight. Like McPherson, Brody manages to weave in plenty of facts for Bronte fans.
For modern readers the historical Cozies represent the best of both worlds as we get the atmosphere and setting of a classic, added humour and none of the casual racism, sexism and anti-Semitism that jar so much when you come across them unexpectedly in a Golden Age novel.
Then there are the novels that are historical Cozies with a twist. Some characters are too beloved to die – even when the author has. Dorothy L. Sayers’s aristocratic detective Lord Peter Wimsey was resurrected for three books by Jill Paton Walsh while Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian sleuth, Poirot, has been brought back to life by Sophie Hannah, a best-selling author famous for her domestic noir titles.
Hannah’s books are all cleverly plotted which made her a natural choice to continue Christie’s legacy. The Mystery of Three Quarters (Harper Collins €17.99) is Hannah’s third Poirot book, which sees the famous detective exercise his little grey cells over letters, purportedly sent by him, to a number of people accusing them of the murder of Barnabas Pandy, an old man who died accidentally. As befits both Christie and Hannah, The Mystery of Three Quarters has an extremely labyrinthine plot.
Cozies are not confined to the interwar years – the bestselling Agatha Raisin series by “Queen of Cozy Crime” M.C. Beaton, has a contemporary setting as does A Clean Canvas (Constable €11.19), the second of a, hopefully long, series featuring Lena Szarka, a Hungarian cleaner and amateur detective by Elizabeth Mundy.
The unifying theme between the historical Cozies and the contemporary kind are they both eschew overt sex and violence. While that might make them sound twee, they’re not. Both Lena and Agatha are formidable and funny woman who like men. Lena keeps getting in her own way with her policeman friend and in her latest jaunt Agatha Raisin and the Dead Ringer (book number 29, Constable €25.19) Agatha finds true, although not necessarily lasting, love.
It’s too cold to be cool in January. Get Cozy.
Ghosts in a Gothic mansion, terrible parents and a hidden killer.
Pick your winner from six first-class writers who reflect the fantastic array of modern Irish crime writing, writes Anne Marie Scanlon
The Sunday Independent
Pity the judges who have to pick a winner from the Irish Independent Crime Fiction of the Year category in the An Post Irish Book Awards. All six nominees are extremely strong contenders and are great examples of just how much diversity the ‘Crime’ genre contains.
A House of Ghosts by W. C. Ryan (Bonnier Zaffre) is a wonderful old-school, Agatha Christie-style mystery with a supernatural element. Set during the First World War a seemingly disparate party of house guests are assembled in a Gothic mansion, formerly an Abbey. The Abbey is situated on an island which due to bad weather becomes cut off, the phone lines are sabotaged and the ghosts start to gather.
As the tension rises the previously connections between the guests, the Russian Psychic, the Playboy, the Lady Clairvoyant and government spies Kate and Donovan begin to emerge - mostly the death of loved ones during the war. A House of Ghosts is wonderfully written and a jolly good read.
At the other end of the spectrum One Click by Andrea Mara (Poolbeg) is bang up to date. Lauren is a psychologist and amateur photographer. On holidays in Italy she impulsively posts a picture of a beautiful girl on a beach. Her post goes viral and amid all the glowing feedback there’s someone, VIN, who is insistent on knowing who the girl is and where they can find her.
When Lauren returns to Dublin and her exceptionally creepy client Jonathan, VIN becomes more insistent and more threatening. Mara gives us twists and turns aplenty in this thriller. By the end I suspected everyone except the real culprit. The only problem with One Click is that after reading it you’ll want to delete your entire online presence and live ‘off-grid’.
The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan (Sphere) is a good solid police procedural. Like Andrea Mara, McTiernan keeps the reader guessing right until the end. Within the story itself the theme of children and motherhood are central and how both can negatively impact each other. When a woman chooses her addiction over her children it leaves them at the mercy of other adults, while an unexpected pregnancy, if continued, will ruin a trainee surgeons career.
Liz Nugent pursues similar themes in Skin Deep (Penguin Ireland) – the damage bad or neglectful parenting can have on children as with her heroine Cordelia and how pregnancy and motherhood can derail a woman’s life. Skin Deep while being as grippy as any thriller is also a damning indictment of the way women have been treated in Ireland.
The Confession by Jo Spain is also an indictment of modern Ireland especially those who benefitted from the Celtic Tiger years but escaped the consequences of the subsequent crash. The story begins with prominent financier Harry McNamara being battered around the head with his own golf club. The assailant JP immediately turns himself in and the subsequent narrative delivered from his point of view, that of Julie, Harry’s wife and detective Alice slowly reveals the motive. Spain goes from strength to strength with every book and The Confession is a gripping page turner.
Thirteen Steve Cavanagh (Orion)is a classic John Grisham-style courtroom drama but with an added twist. Set in New York usually low key attorney Flynn finds himself at the heart of the ‘Case of the Century’ defending Hollywood’s latest darling Bobby Solomon against the charge of double homicide – his wife and bodyguard. (This is where all similarities with OJ Simpson begin and end.)
Bobby swears he’s innocent despite the evidence being stacked against him and his inability to provide an alibi. Meanwhile the real killer, a serial killer who has gone undetected for decades, is on the jury and determined to convict and God help any juror who looks like they might acquit. In a story that’s full of twists and action there’s a fantastic twist at the end that the reader will not see coming.
A Spark of Light
Hodder & Stoughton
Picoult's Light Sparks Debate
The Sunday Independent
04 November 2018
Given Jodi Picoult's track record of tackling moral and ethical issues in the U.S. it’s perhaps surprising that it's only now, with A Spark of Light, that the author has confronted the contentious issue of abortion.
Like her previous novels A Spark of Light is meticulously researched but in a radical departure from her usual form the story is told in reverse chronology.
The novel begins in crisis with anti-abortion gunman, George Goddard holed up with hostages in ‘The Centre’ - (as in real life, the only abortion clinic in Mississippi). Chief negotiator Hugh McElroy’s job has been complicated by the fact that his 15-year-old daughter Wren, and his older sister Bex, were in the clinic when the gunman arrived.
The reverse narrative works exceptionally well. The reader has no idea why Bex or Wren are there and can make only the obvious assumptions. Similarly knowing that certain characters are dead from the offset makes for a huge emotional impact when the reader encounters them later on in the narrative.
Picoult’s sympathies are fairly obvious but she takes care to present ‘the other side’ as fully rounded, multi-faceted characters with genuine reasons for their stance. The gunman is not the only one in the clinic who is anti-abortion; one of the hostages is a woman from the permanent picket outside disguised as a patient.
Surprisingly given the subject matter the core of this novel isn’t about mothers or motherhood but rather about the father – daughter dynamic. Both George the gunman, and negotiator Hugh, are single fathers who have raised their respective teen daughters alone. They are both “good” fathers, doing the best they can for their children.
Another of the books more memorable characters is Dr Louis Ward, a devout Catholic African American who travels around different States providing abortions. It is he who makes the very pertinent observation that the “waiting period to get an abortion was longer than the waiting period to get a gun.”
Dancing With the Tsars
Ross O'Carroll Kelly
Ross Waltzes Off with another hilarious tale
The Sunday Independent
07 September 2018
Dancing with the Tsars is the 18th book from the best rugby player Ireland never had, Ross O’Carroll Kelly.
It's two decades since Ross began life as a spoof about five “goys” who played rugby and their Foxrock Fanny parents. Both he, the 'goys" and the books have moved on since, with each new novel being an almost impossible combination of hilarity, social satire and a barometer of contemporary life in Ireland.
Dancing with the Tsars is very much focused on Ross and his immediate family. He and Sorcha have split up. Again. They continue to share the family home so Sorcha can pursue her political career in the Seanad and Ross can care for their four children, 11-year-old Honor and toddler triplets Johnny, Leo and Brian.
The triplets are in Ross’s own words “thugs” and “so thick they make me look like Edward Einstein.” Ross hopelessly struggles to get the boys to appreciate his one true love. “I’m in the gorden, trying to interest the boys in a rugby ball and I might as well be trying to teach economics to pigeons”.
The triplets are a great addition to the Ross universe and come out with some of the most imaginative swearing ever committed to paper, (as a result I can't quote it here). I cried laughing almost every time this trio of tiny terrors appeared.
While Ross appears to be mellowing with age – he manages to get through the book without killing any pets, or indeed ‘specky focker’ Fionn, who may be the father of Sorcha's unborn child. While Ross has calmed down, his son Ronan appears to be a 'chip of the block' as he's "riding rings round himself'.
For this reason, Ross tries to get Ronan to cancel his upcoming wedding. Despite his worries, Ross nonetheless organises Ronan’s Stag weekend in Spain and arranges a ‘Big Five’ Safari to spot notorious Dublin gangland figures who have ‘retired’ there. As ever Ross is at sea amongst Ronan’s Northside pals (appropriate as they think he dresses like a sailor) and laments Northsiders drinking his beloved ‘Ken’ “It’s wasted on them. It’s like feeding sourdough to the ducks.”
Charles O’Carroll Kelly, Ross’s father, has evolved from a crooked businessman to the leader of a populist political party (sound familiar?), while mother Fionnuala spends an inordinate amount in Russia. Sorcha becomes woke and throws herself into radical feminism, (prompted by hearing Mná is an anagram of 'man'). Sorcha displays her wokeness and RadFem cred by randomly putting 'man' in front of words ('mandescending', 'manthematics' and 'manabler') in the manner of 'mansplaining' Daughter Honor has set her sights on the 'Goatstown Glitterball', the award for a ‘Strictly’-style competition at her school Mount Anville, or 'Westeros' as Ross calls it.
Ross himself may not be ‘Edward Einstein’ but Paul Howard is a genius. Not only has he created a character, in Ross, who is monstrous and despicable, but he’s given him enough humanity for the reader to root for him. Doing this once was a neat trick. Doing it eighteen times is extraordinary. Future historians will probably use these books as a primer on Ireland over the past two decades, especially the rise, fall and rise of the Celtic Tiger. If they can stop laughing long enough.
Up Lit - newest writing style shines a light on darkness but people struggle to define it.
Up Lit is the latest literary genre but writers, readers and publishers struggle to define what it means writes Anne Marie Scanlon
The Sunday Independent
Just like couture, fashions come and go in the book world. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl launched the Grip Lit phenomenon six years ago and it has dominated bestseller lists ever since. Since Gail Honeyman’s debut hit Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine last year, a new genre, Up Lit has been gaining ground with readers. Perhaps ‘genre’ is too strong a word as Up Lit currently has no agreed definition and encompasses a variety of different books.
RTE Gold broadcaster Rick O’Shea, who runs the hugely popular Rick O’Shea Book Club on Facebook, (which currently has over 17,000 members) agrees that as a category Up Lit is difficult to define. “It’s fashionable to talk about at the moment It seems to encompass everything from Eleanor to self-help books.”
One book that definitely fits that Up Lit profile is Your Second Life Begins When You Realise You Only Have One by Raphaëlle Giordano (Bantam, July 12th) which is ‘Self-Help’ in the form of a novel. Originally published in France in 2015 it has already sold over one and a half million copies. Parisian Camille is overwhelmed, her grumpy husband lives behind his computer, her 9-year-old son gives her sass and she hates her job. When her car breaks down in a rainstorm she meets Claude a ‘routineologist’ who offers her a lot more than the use of his phone. While this is by no means the greatest novel ever published, it is strangely compelling and indeed extremely uplifting.
Cathryn Summerhouse, an agent at leading literary agency Curtis Brown is slightly sceptical about Up Lit being a genre but offers the view that broadly it encompasses “upmarket commercial fiction that deals with life’s problems and sometimes big issues – mental health, old age, childlessness but has an ultimately redemptive ending, although not a neat Chick Lit and 'they all lived happily ever after'.” Summerhouse sees the trend as being a response to the realities of life in the first world, “times are hard, Brexit, Trump, the doomed NHS, and we are all poor. Books have become big gifting items again as people can’t afford more expensive presents and Up Lit fills a fantastic gap in the market – books that are brilliant but also quite nice!”
Alongside Up Lit, the romance novel also appears to be having a moment in the sun. “I don’t think Romance has ever been out (of fashion) but a new generation of authors are definitely breathing new life into it,” O’Shea comments. Summerhouse agrees and notes that “old-school romantic escapism rather than Chick Lit” is in the ascendant. Her client Molly Flatt’s debut The Charmed Life of Alex Moore, (Macmillan) combines both in “a perfect example of more contemporary, future looking Up Lit. It is life affirming but also not afraid to tackle big issues from workplace anxiety, imposter syndrome, quarter-life crises, even death. It ultimately makes you feel empowered – and satisfied, but not without a few major bumps along the way.”
Alex Moore also addresses the things that make us who we are. How experiences and memories define who people become, how their storyline evolves from events big and small that are deeply rooted in the psyche. “Patterns made up of Memories… Memories create narratives about who we are. And those narratives, in turn, influence how we behave.”
The Possible World (Hutchinson) explores the same themes about how identity is shaped by the past but in a completely different way. Author Liese O’Halloran Schwarz agrees with both O’Shea and Summerhouse that the need for escape and ‘uplift’ is powered by the constant upheavals the world has witnessed over the past few years. “I think it would be a remarkable coincidence." she says, "if this interest in ‘cheerful’ and ‘hope’ wasn’t connected to the ‘Apocalyptic Dominoes’ around us."
O’Halloran Schwarz’s published her debut novel 28 years ago before starting a demanding career as an ER Doctor. The author recalls seeing “the saddest most terrible things” as a medical professional but adds “every single shift there was one person who made me feel that the world wasn’t going down in flames. I came away from all those years in medicine feeling more hopeful than logic would dictate.” The Possible World doesn’t shrink from grimness and is as grippy as any crime novel yet is ultimately joyful and optimistic.
Hope is also a theme in Irish writer Helen Cullen’s debut The Lost Letters of William Woolf (Penguin, Michael Joseph). William has abandoned his dreams and his marriage is in trouble. Cullen presents readers with the mundane reality of ‘happily ever after,’ and how real life can undermine the greatest of romances. The novel is realistic without being grim but again, in the spirit of Up Lit, offers hope for change and transformation.
While Up Lit continues to grow in popularity O’Shea doesn’t see the genre stopping the Grip Lit juggernaut. “I don’t think the two are antagonistic, sometimes you need something uplifting that reaffirms your belief in good and in the human soul, sometimes you just need to read about sociopaths killing with impunity.”
Cross Her Heart
The Sunday Independent
Although Behind Her Eyes wasn’t Sarah Pinborough’s first novel it was the breakout number one hit that made her a familiar name to fans of psychological thrillers. Cross Her Heart, her much anticipated latest novel, suffers a bit from ‘that difficult second album’ syndrome. This book is narrated from three perspectives. Lisa is a single Mum not unlike Louise in Behind Her Eyes, weak, wet and hasn’t had a boyfriend for a very long time. The other perspectives come from Lisa’s sixteen-year-old daughter Ava, and her best friend Marilyn.
After the furious page-turning of Behind Her Eyes the first section of the Cross Her Heart was a bit of a slog. Lisa is so listless it’s hard to care about her in any meaningful way. Ava is a mardy teen (and also hard to like) in love with a mystery man she’s met online but not in real life. You don’t need a pack of Tarot Cards to see where this storyline is leading.
In true teen fashion Ava thinks she’s sophisticated and clued-in. She knows all about online predators but also knows that her romance is the real deal. Far from sophistication Ava seems younger than her years - for example when she suspects she may be pregnant she consoles herself thinking “it’s the summer holidays. If I ned an abortion, I can do it while Mum’s at work. She’ll never know.” Like Ava Marilyn is also hiding a secret. In public she appears to have a charmed life but in reality is regularly beaten-up by her abusive husband Richard.
Throughout the first part of the book there are hints about Lisa’s past but when her secret is revealed it is a huge shock and the pace of the plot picks up accordingly. While some plot points are hard to credit (Marilyn’s relationship with Simon a rich businessman, and indeed, Simon’s romantic interest in Lisa) they don’t matter. Pinborough is back in proper ‘Ripping Yarn’ territory with plenty of Red Herrings and twists.
Unlike the shock twist at the end of Behind Her Eyes I did guess this one, but not until it was almost revealed. Despite that it is still a fantastic twist and will no doubt shock many readers and even if Pinborough hasn’t outdone her previous book she still streets ahead of many of her contemporary Grip Lit authors.
Dear Mrs Bird
A Bridget Jones for the Blitz
The Sunday Independent
Dear Mrs Bird, while set in London during the Second World War, is very much contemporary women's fiction. The wartime detail is good but this is less Hilary Mantel and more Bridget Jones Does the Blitz.
Plucky secretary Emmy wants to become a ‘Lady War Correspondent’ but ends up accidentally taking care of the titular Mrs Bird’s advice page in the old fashioned magazine Woman’s Friend.
Mrs Bird herself is a rather substantial lady - think Miss Trunchbull meets Dolores Umbridge, who takes a dim view of most things. She refuses to reply to any letters, either in print or privately, that contain “UNPLEASANTNESSES,” (she tends to ‘boom’ in capital letters) or include “Affairs…losing their heads… babies… and NERVES.” The high standards of her new boss leave Emmy feeling “as if I had been brought up by a group of exceptionally awful prostitutes or had made a habit of punching the infirm.”
Despite the fear that Mrs Bird inspires in everyone Emmy decides she knows better and starts answering the letters that don’t meet her superior’s impossibly high standards. Shortly after starting her new job Emmy's enlisted fiancé Edmund elopes with a nurse. Despite her alleged heartbreak Emmy rallies pretty quickly and there’s a handsome army officer on hand to help distract her.
Being wartime, tragedy is never far away, and Emmy does experience some personal loss. None of this diverts her from her mission of bringing succour to the readers of Women’s Friend and she soon starts sneaking her advice on to the printed page (Mrs Bird is too busy Do-Gooding to actually proof or read her own copy). Naturally Emmy’s deceptions eventually catch up with her.
While many readers will find the story warm and uplifting I found Emmy’s contemporary tone jarring against the background of wartime London. Similarly, A.J. Pearce's detailed descriptions of the destruction wrought by the Blitz, for me, sit uneasily beside a 'Keep Calm and Carry On' jape.
The Woman in the Woods
Hodder & Stoughton
Great Injustice as Women Lose in Man's World
The Sunday Independent
The universality of certain experiences is reflected in the latest works of two Irish authors. Liz Nugent’s third novel Skin Deep and John Connolly’s The Woman in the Woods, while very different in style and setting, both centre around the disenfranchisement of women in modern society.
Skin Deep’s Delia Russell is like a mythical goddess of destruction, beautiful, alluring and leaving a trail of devastation in her wake. However, Delia is no psychopath – ill luck follows her rather than being deliberately perpetrated by her.
At the start of the novel Delia has killed someone and the reader doesn’t know who. Nugent then takes us back to the beginning, to the tiny insular Island of Inniscrann where Delia grew up. Delia’s father is a violent man unnaturally obsessed with his daughter, he tells her stories (scattered throughout the book) with a common theme – that women suffer to make men happy.
When teenage Delia becomes pregnant in the early 1980s, she feels trapped. She doesn’t want a baby but the decision isn’t hers, instead it’s that of three old men - her adoptive father Alan, a devout Catholic, the boy’s father Declan, a hypocrite who sits up the front of the church yet knows far too well how to get an abortion in England, and the local parish Priest.
Forced into having a baby she doesn’t want and marrying a husband she doesn’t love Delia finds solace in her new life in England by indulging in champagne and cocaine with her posh friends. One of them has no problem telling Delia that all Irish people are ‘peasants’. Younger readers might find this shocking while those of us who remember the 80s and 90s in London certainly won’t be.
Delia’s looks are marred in a fire and superficially that’s what the title refers to. Skin Deep is also about what happens when you scratch the surface of a ‘civilised society.’ Delia is a product of a culture that valued ‘decency’ at all costs and actively covered up any and all behaviour that didn’t conform to the Catholic ideal. (Similarly Delia’s posh friends for all their airs behave disgustingly in private). Delia is the agent of destruction in this book, but the real culprit is the lies, hypocrisy and double-standards she’s been forced to live with. On top of that there’s a couple of nice, unexpected twists near the end.
Across the Atlantic John Connolly’s detective Charlie Parker returns for his 16th outing in The Woman in the Woods which, like Skin Deep, revolves around the relative powerlessness of women in a supposed age of equality.
In this instance though the woman of the title is dead and buried. Her remains been preserved enough for police to know that she didn’t die as a result of a violent act and that she gave birth shortly before dying. But where is the baby?
A star of David marks the grave and lawyer Moxie Castin hires Parker to find out what happened to the infant. The search brings Parker into conflict with two very creepy characters – Quail and Mons.
While this is a relatively low-key adventure for Parker – the body count isn’t that high and his long-time ally Angel is largely absent due to illness, Quail and Mons are two of the creepiest and disturbing characters Connolly has introduced to date. Quail is a lawyer, who claims to have lived for centuries, and is searching for a document that will bring about the end of the world as we know it. His companion Mons is a product of the British care system – carefully “groomed” to become in thrall to Quail and a cold-hearted killer.
The story of the woman in the woods is intrinsically linked to the story of intimate partner violence and the extremes women have to exhort to in an effort to escape it. Connolly also places the rich and the powerful (not always the same thing) under his forensic gaze and takes a pop at the ‘great and the good’ “who routinely made million-dollar donations to museums and galleries… yet balked at the prospect of paying a living wage to their workers,”.
As with all the Charlie Parker books the plot unfolds at a tight pace, leaving it hard to put down. The characters are all rooted enough in real-life, with all of it’s contradictions and complexities, to make them worth caring for. And, as with every Connolly book there’s a lovely seam of humour that doesn’t impinge on the tension. I laughed out loud at the poor woman “who claimed to have slipped … at a shopping mall, resulting in a fractured ankle, a dislocated shoulder, and sexual assault by a plastic elf.” Of all the disturbing images Connolly has created over the years, this one encapsulates his genius - unsettling, funny and hard to forget.
The Sunday Independent
Molly’s Game, the memoir by Molly Bloom (dubbed the ‘Poker Princess’ in the US tabloids) about her time running the most exclusive poker games in Hollywood and New York, and her subsequent federal indictment, was first published in 2014. The book has been rereleased to coincide with the film, Molly’s Game, on which it is based.
The story works on many levels – in one way it’s a fish out of water tale – young Molly, a small town girl, the eldest of three over-achievers who has worked towards both academic and sporting excellence her entire life, is thrust into the venal culture of LA.
There are some ‘Tell All’ features when Molly finds herself helping her obnoxious boss run his weekly poker game which include A-List actors, media giants and rich financiers. Bloom names some, but not all, of these people, and readers will no doubt be shocked at the behaviour of one particular well-known actor.
The ‘Insider’ world that Molly becomes part of is fascinating and she makes the technicalities of poker playing relatable to the ordinary reader who may not have a clue about the high-stakes game.
Bloom’s narrative voice is engaging and the story progresses entertainingly but with moments of drama, pathos, hilarity and sheer horror. Alongside the unfolding narrative of ‘the Game’, Bloom examines her own life and in particular her relationship with her father, a demanding character who expects his children to excel in everything.
The timing of the current release of Molly’s Game gives it a dimension that it didn’t have first time around – the Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo tsunami of revelations about how men wield power in Hollywood, (and in other industries). The exhaustive accounts of influential men being sexist, sexually inappropriate and bullying shed a new light on to what was already a pretty good read.
The ‘Game’ empowers Molly, she has something that powerful men want – a seat at the table, hence she is treated with great respect. “Most new players were surprised when I turned out to be a young, petite woman,” she remarks. Of course being Hollywood it turns out that that her ‘power’ is ultimately dependent on a man, a very famous actor who enjoys cruelty. An enthralling read.
Faber & Faber
The Sunday Independent
The publicity for Lullaby would have you believe that it’s the next Gone Girl. It isn’t. The comparison isn’t valid as this is not 'Grip Lit'. It’s something more, something better (and I say that as a huge fan of Gone Girl). Comparisons are futile but if pushed I’d say Slimani is a storyteller in the vein of Tana French (only much sparser).
Ostensibly this is a plot about a ‘Killer Nanny’ and the story kicks off with, an opening that is indeed ‘grippy’– “The baby is dead. It only took a few seconds.”. What follows, will extremely gripping, isn’t a slasher thriller but a mature work about modern motherhood, class, race, money, mental illness and obsession. Mostly it’s about motherhood.
Paul and Myriam Massé are a middle-class Parisian couple. After having two children Myriam wants to pursue her real calling – the law, (later in the novel it’s revealed that Myriam is a ferocious defence barrister and good at getting people guilty off the hook).
They hire Louise, a godsend, not only is she a wonderful Nanny, she cooks and cleans, doesn’t mind staying late and in a coup that makes the couple the envy of their friends, she’s white.
In the first few pages alone Slimani captures the contradictions and conflicts of modern motherhood – how it is possible to love your children ferociously yet at the same time find them boring and irritating, as well as the ever-present spectre of death that accompanies each new life.
“Ever since her children were born, Myriam has been scared of everything. Above all, she is scared that they will die. She never talks about this – not to her friends, not to Paul – but she is sure everyone has the same thoughts. She is certain that, like her, they have watched their child sleep and wondered how they would feel if that little body were a corpse.”
Myriam and Paul become as dependent on Louise as their children Mila and Adam, if not more so. However, Louise’s presence in their life starts to make them uncomfortable in part because they begin to realise they’re not as egalitarian as they thought they were.
“(Paul’s) parents had raised him to detest money and power, and to have a slightly mawkish respect for those ‘below’ him. He had always been relaxed in his job, working with people with whom he’d felt equal…. But Louise had turned him into a boss. He hears himself giving his wife despicable advice. ‘Don’t make too many concessions, otherwise she’ll never stop asking for more.’”
Class is a recurring theme, Louise, with her blond hair and heavy make-up, is consistently patronised by her various employers’ despite being excellent at her job.
In a pivotal scene Paul becomes enraged when he comes home to find that Louise has put make-up on his little girl. Most small children, male and female, go through a 'make up' phase and in the hands of a lesser writer Paul’s rage would be questionable, if not downright risible. Instead Slimani, whose every word seems carefully chosen, makes the over-reaction and wrath understandable.
Lullaby is an important book, worthy without being dull, (it’s the opposite of dull). It is one of those reads that you think about long after you’ve finished it. One that will keep you awake at night.
Forget the Faroe Islands, Ireland is the real killer
The combination of fresh authors, old hands and confident writing, as reflected in the six Irish Independent Crime Fiction Book of the Year nominees, show why Emerald Noir is putting the Scandis to shame.
The Sunday Independent
For the past decade Tana French has been the undisputed Queen of Irish Crime Fiction, and Karen Perry’s Can You Keep a Secret? (Penguin), which was listed as one of Red Magazines Top Ten Crime Reads for Autumn, is a must–read for French fans as it combines a great plot, realistic characters, magnificent atmosphere (in both timelines) and wonderful writing. Lindsey, a forensic photographer, spent much of her teens at Thornbury Hall, the Anglo-Irish ‘Big House’ inherited by her friend Rachel’s glamourous parents the Bagenals. Twenty-five years later she returns for a weekend reunion with the school pals she hasn’t seen in the intervening years. Told through dual timelines – it’s no wonder the Irish Times said this dark, gripping thriller with a deliciously slow reveal and a stand-out twist was “elegantly written and beautifully paced”.
Old friends prove to be problematic in Cat Hogan’s There Was a Crooked Man (Poolbeg). The action ranges from Marrakesh to a small fishing village in Wexford. Scott, a psychopath with zero self-awareness, has been in exile for two years along with his dogsbody Fran. He decides it’s time for payback against the group of friends who he blames for his troubles – especially Jen. The plot is revealed from the various perspectives of the main characters who are all lying – to themselves and each other. Actor Aidan Gillen (who Hogan pictured as villain Scott when writing the book) says she writes “vividly and unflinchingly,” while author and Hot Press writer Jackie Hayden stated that the villains’ “keep you looking over both shoulders long after you’ve put the book down.”
More old school friends cause trouble in Sinead Crowley’s One Bad Turn (Quercus). Recurring character DS Claire Boyle gets (literally) caught in the crossfire when she and her baby daughter visit Dr. Heather Gilmore. Gilmore has been taken hostage by her old school friend Eileen Delaney, who blames the doctor and her ex-husband, for the death of her teenage son. The Gilmore’s teen daughter Leah has been abducted in revenge. The plot follows Claire’s hunt for the missing girl and ends with a double twist. Fans on Good Reads were almost unanimous in their praise calling it “deceptively twisty” and noting that it was “rooted in contemporary political and financial issues in Ireland.” RTE endorsed author Crowley saying she “masterfully evokes the lives of three very different yet similar women, Eileen, Heather and Claire”
Julie Parson’s whose work the New York Times praised for its “astonishing emotional impact” returns to writing after almost a decade with The Therapy House (New Island Books) a gripping, brooding thriller. Retired detective Michael McLoughlin has just moved to a ‘fixer-upper’ in an old, well established, part of Dun Laoghaire. His next door neighbour is the renowned former Judge, John Hegarty, the son of a famous hero of the War of Independence. When Hegarty is brutally murdered McLoughlin is the one who finds the body and soon secrets about the revered public figure begin to emerge. The Irish Independent compared Parson’s “unflinching exploration of the black heart of humanity” with that of the American writer James Ellroy. She also takes on the black heart of Irish history. Hopefully Parsons won’t leave it ten years before the next one.
Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan returns in her seventh outing in Let the Dead Speak (Harper Collins). A teenage girl returns to her home in an outwardly ‘normal’ London suburb to find to find it awash with blood and her mother missing. Kerrigan’s investigations reveal the horror that lives behind closed doors and the darkness that often accompanies religious zealotry. Good Reads praised Casey’s latest novel saying it was “one wild twisted ride, with darker psychological tones to go along with the standard police procedures.” Fans and critics alike were almost unanimous in their acclaim of the evolution of newly promoted Maeve Kerrigan with the Irish Times noting that she is “a woman in a man’s world…. But Casey leave’s us in no doubt how much more complicated it is for her.”
Stuart Neville, writing as Hayden Beck, has departed his usual style for a thriller set in the United States - Here and Gone (Harvill Secker). Audra experiences every mother’s worst nightmare but with a horrific new twist. Fleeing an abusive relationship in New York, Audra is arrested by a tin pot Sheriff on a deserted stretch of Arizona road. Her two children are taken away; the Sheriff denies he ever saw them and sets about framing Audra for their disappearance and murder. The shady Sheriff has already sold the children to suspicious figures from the Dark Web and Audra isn’t the first person to be set up. The Bookseller praised Here and Gone as a “heart-stopping psychological thriller” while The Chicago Daily Herald noted it was “terrifyingly realistic from the start.”
If you fancy buying any of the above and I'd REALLY recommend the Karen Perry book - the awful title does not reflect just how good it is and The Therapy House, link to blog to get links to all the individual books.
The Vanishing of Audrey Wilde
The Sunday Independent
The Vanishing of Audrey Wilde is two stories which take in the same place, Applecote Manor, sixty years apart. In the modern narrative Jess and Will have moved to Applecote, which is in need of much repair, in order to get Will’s daughter Bella, away from London. There has been some sort of ‘incident’ involving Bella and Jess is worried that she is not just a typical moody teen but perhaps deeply malevolent.
The second narrative which runs parallel to that of Jess is set in the heatwave of August 1959. Four sisters have arrived from Chelsea (then a rackety part of town) to spend the remains of the summer with their aunt and uncle while their gadabout widowed mother takes off to Morocco. The girls, Flora, Pam, Margot and Dot have not seen their uncle Perry or Aunt Sybil for five years, not since their cousin Audrey went missing without trace at the age of 12.
In the modern narrative Jess is left alone with her resentful stepdaughter and her own toddler Romy. Bella, who is in the room that was once Audrey’s, has found out about her disappearance and quickly becomes obsessed by it. Jess is out of her depth and feels increasingly worried that Bella wants to recreate the vanishing using little Romy in the role of Audrey.
While the modern story is perfectly well executed Dot’s narrative is far more compelling. Chase is a talented writer and summons up an enchanted and enchanting environment – reminiscent of classic British children’s literature where the sisters, although somewhat worldly wise (due to their mother’s turbulent love life and chronic lack of money), are still products of their time – naïve about sex and relationships. When two handsome boys join them sibling rivalry rears its head.
This is a study in manners and mannerisms. The girls are too young to begin to understand their aunt and uncles’ grief – the pair are changed, physically and emotionally almost beyond recognition. And of course, in that very British way, nobody ever talks about what happened to Audrey.
From the prologue the reader knows that something terrible happens at the end of the sister’s summer idyll and thus there is a pervading sense of dread in sharp juxtaposition to the carefree days of warmth and idleness.
What happens when good women fall for bad men
Two conemporary Irish novels portray how public perfection often masks what goes on behind closed doors, writes Anne Marie Scanlon
The Sunday Independent
If there is one thing you can depend on contemporary fiction for - it is to reflect the concerns of modern women. One of the themes in Faith Hogan's My Husband’s Wives is domestic violence.
When Paul Starr, Ireland’s leading cardiologist, dies in a car crash he leaves behind not just one but three widows. Older posh Evie; clever and beautiful painter Grace and glamour model Annalise. Despite the fact that Paul is so well known he has managed to dupe Grace and Annalise into thinking they were in valid marriages with him.
At the time of his death he has three children, teenage Delilah with Grace and two small sons with Annalise. He has moved out of his home with the latter and is in a car with a young pregnant Romanian woman, Kasia, when the fatal accident occurs. Is Kasia his latest squeeze? Is the baby his?
If you approach My Husband’s Wives as a fairy story, then you may be able to read it with some enjoyment. All four women are nothing short of saints – when they find out that Paul has duped them all, they are only mildly shocked. Instead of being (rightly) angry they instead moon about missing him terribly and lamenting the passing of such a fine loving man. Grace and Evie unite to organize Paul’s funeral “they both put Paul first – in life as in death.”.
The three ‘wives’ all rally around Kasia and her pregnancy gives them all a focus (they’re all remarkably sanguine that she is possibly carrying his child). I found it very hard to get past the fact that a semi-public figure could pull off bigamy twice in a country as small as Ireland.
Kasia lives in terror of her abusive ex-boyfriend Vasile. The three ‘wives’ are all full of righteous indignation about the way Vasile has treated poor Kasia – Vasile is physically abusive, controlling and coercive. Yet, amazingly, none of these supposedly intelligent women acknowledges that Paul, who kept his life compartmentalised and his offspring apart, was just as controlling and coercive as the two-dimensional Vasile. While Paul moves on with his life he ensures that the ‘wives’ don’t.
The story is told from the perspective of all four women but unfortunately the voices of the narrators all sound exactly the same. Predictably the women all move forward towards both a collective and individual happy ending (like a good fairy tale generally does). There is a decent twist towards the end - one which I didn’t see coming but, unfortunately, it just entrenched my views about the late lamentable Paul.
By contrast The Woman at 72 Derry Lane by Carmel Harrington gives a nuanced view of both the perpetrator and the victim of domestic violence. Stella has been married to perfectionist Matt for a year and he controls every aspect of her life, from finances to diet to internet access. No matter how hard Stella tries to meet Matt’s standards she fails and pays the price by being severely beaten
Grooming is a word usually associated with children but domestic tyrants also groom their victims, eroding their sense of self and self-esteem until they are rendered helpless. Harrington has obviously done her research and manages to portray the answer to that endless question from outsiders “why does she stay?”
The couple live next door to Rea who suffers from agoraphobia so severe that she has to pay a neighbour’s child to bring her bins to the garden gate. Once Rea was happily married and had two children but now she is utterly alone and spends her days having conversations with Siri.
Both Rea and Stella are trapped, as the latter says “I don’t think we are that different. Our worlds are small. And we are both prisoners.” The two women form an unlikely friendship as Rea supports Stella in her secret plan to flee her abusive husband. The story unfolds from the point of view of each woman and is interspersed with that of a teenage girl, Skye, ten years earlier, who is caught up in the Boxing Day Tsunami. I quickly guessed that Skye and Stella were the same person but Harrington has plenty of plot twists up her sleeve that I didn’t see coming.
Harrington doesn’t stint in her depiction of the brutality of intimate partner violence. Similarly, her portrayal of the Tsunami and its immediate aftermath is, at times, extremely distressing. At the same time there are moments of great fun especially when the woman across the road kicks her latest fella out because he wanted a ‘Golden Shower’.
Despite the rather harrowing themes of a natural disaster that wiped out almost 228,000 people and the sheer brutality of intimate partner violence The Woman at 72 Derry Lane is at heart a warm novel. As Rea says “Love doesn’t hurt. Loving the wrong person does.”
A Game of Ghosts
Hodder & Stoughton €20.99
The Sunday Independent
A Game of Ghosts is Connolly’s fifteenth novel about the detective Charlie Parker. Regular readers will know that Parker is no ordinary detective; that his numerous enemies don’t necessarily all reside in the world of the living.
Generally fictional detectives and police officers progress from one ‘procedural’ to another, in that a crime occurs, (often a murder), suspects are presented to the reader and eventually the case is solved. Whether the setting is a gritty modern city or the cosy country house of Agatha Christie, the basic premise is the same.
Parker’s world isn’t like this and I can imagine that its sometimes a struggle for Connolly to keep imagining the unimaginable to keep his creation busy. In this outing Parker is engaged by Agent Ross of the FBI in order to track down another PI - Jaycob Eklund. Ross refuses to explain his interest in the missing man (he and Parker have an adversarial relationship).
Parker calls in his regular cohorts Louis and Angel, the latter getting to use his exemplary lock picking skills. The trio soon discover that Eklund was on a quest of his own - investigating a series of seemingly unconnected disappearances and homicides. Eklund was convinced that all these events were connected to The Brethren – the ghostly remains of the Capstead Martyrs and their living descendants.
Connolly has created some truly frightening monsters and supernatural entities (not always one and the same thing) in his time and while the Brethren are creepy and disturbing they’re fairly mild by Connolly standards.
The author has been consistently, and rightly, praised for his sinister characters but his observations of real life, the things that motivate ordinary people, and his ear for dialogue are unrivalled.
What makes the Parker books so gripping and unnerving is that, despite being primarily set in the US (Parker lives in Maine) they present a reality that is familiar to readers everywhere. It is the clash between this humdrum ordinariness and the supernatural that gives Connolly's work it's edge over the competition.
An ordinary man sets out to murder someone and as he drives, “Sumner didn’t have time for that talk radio shit… If he wanted to hear folk agreeing with their own opinions for hours on end, he could just stay at home and listen to his wife.”
A Game of Ghosts is slightly different in tone from the previous books in the Charlie Parker series. Some of the major recurring characters are killed off and I got the sense that Connolly is impatient to get to Parker’s relationship with his daughter Samantha – a child who has very special powers and who Parker finally admits to himself, scares him.
Very few writers could merge real life and the unreal as seamlessly as Connolly and even fewer could throw in jokes without upsetting the overall atmosphere as when two police officers visit a used car lot. ““That car stinks,” said one. “It’s a Firenza,” said the other. “My sister used to have one. Piece of shit.” “No, it stinks.”” The smell is, unsurprisingly, that of a body.
Set in winter, Connolly’s various descriptions of the arctic conditions in A Game of Ghosts will make readers shiver. But then, as his fans already know, Connolly is good at giving the chills. Just make sure you read this with the doors locked and the lights on.
Faber & Faber €18.19
The Sunday Independent
In February of this year almost everyone I know was obsessed with the televised version of Doughty’s seventh novel Apple Tree Yard so much so that we actually watched it when it was broadcast. Doughty’s eighth novel Black Water, while sharing many of the same themes as it’s predecessor – secrets, lies, double identities, is a different beast entirely.
The first part of the novel, set in 1998, centres on Harper, lying awake at night in his company’s ‘hut’ in Bali waiting to be murdered on the orders of his superiors. There’s mystery - clues are given about who Harper is and there’s many references to Jakarta in ’65. Harper then meets a nice lady called Rita and they have middle aged sex (according to some sections of the media, middle aged people having sex was one of the more shocking aspects of Apple Tree Yard, as if we all took a vow on turning 40). To be honest at this point I found it hard to care about Harper or Rita or their middle aged sex. I was vaguely interested in what happened in Jakarta in 1965 but I was still able to put the book down for long periods of time.
Harper is a ‘researcher’ for an international organisation which looks after the interests of massive multinationals, advising them on the viability of operations in areas of instability and conflict. Harper is not a spy as he does not owe allegiance to any one country but rather to whoever is signing off on his pay check. However, he and his colleagues, while not spies, live double lives and do the dirty work that no country would ever officially sanction.
In the second section Doughty takes us back to Harper’s birth in 1942 and his life until the awful events of 1965. The then Nicolaas Den Herder was born in a Japanese internment camp in what was then the Dutch East Indies. At this point I became gripped, as Doughty introduces a host of memorable characters – Harper’s unstable mother who later descends into full-blown alcoholism, his adoptive Grandparents and his baby brother. Now I found the book hard to put down because I cared about the young Harper, his brother and grandparents. This section is not just gripping but utterly heart-breaking in many different ways. The reader finally finds out what happened in Jakarta in 1965 and it’s far from pleasant.
In the final section the reader is returned to 1998 for the conclusion of Harper’s story. Doughty deals with a lot in this book – racism, difference, post colonialism, the indifference of the West to Indonesia, loss and redemption. It says a lot for Doughty’s talent as a writer that none of this is glaringly obvious as you read. She doesn’t hit the reader over the head with the facts. Be warned, Harper’s guilt is catching when you realise that geography dictates that some atrocities are deemed less important than others.
True-life crimes, tragedies and passions make for fascinating fictions.
From the Tudors to JFK our fascination with the famous predates reality TV as the popularity of historical novels shows.
The Sunday Independent
Commentators having been calling time on Tudor historical novels for quite a while but the public’s fascination with Henry VIII, his wives, his children, his courtiers and his era never seems to diminish.
For writers like Hilary Mantel, Philippa Gregory and C.J. Sansom, the source material is a gift that keeps on giving. For readers the era has everything a modern-day soap would have – sex, death, murder, intrigue, infidelity and political backstabbing, with the added bonus that, in historical fiction, it’s mostly true.
While the Tudor historical novel juggernaut continues the genre is not confined to codpieces and ruffs. Nor does the inclusion of a real-life character necessarily a historical novel make. George Saunders has just produced his first novel Lincoln in the Bardo and while Abraham Lincoln and his recently deceased son, 11-year-old Willie, (he is the Lincoln of the title) are both characters this is a literary novel containing real characters rather than a historical novel.
What marks out a historical novel is not the inclusion of real-life figures, as there are plenty of books in the genre that are entirely fictional, but the setting. The author needs to be able to transport the reader to a completely different time and make that adjustment seemless. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Denise Mina’s latest book The Long Drop, where blackened sooty industrial 1950s Glasgow, the ‘Mean City’ of legend, is as much a character as the two main protagonists Peter Manuel, the infamous ‘Beast of Birkenshaw’ and William Watt. Peter Manuel, a violent psychopath, is still notorious in Scotland where he was executed in 1958 having been convicted of the murders of eight people including a ten-year-old boy.
Trials, like Tudor monarchs, are juicy material for the historical novelist. Just over a century before O.J. Simpson was tried for the murder of his estranged wife Nicole Brown Smith and her friend Ron Goldman, there was another ‘Trial of the Century’ in America. That of Lizzie Boden who in June 1893 was tried for the murder of her father Andrew and stepmother Abby.
According to the famous nursery rhyme “Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one.” (The rhyme is incorrect Abby Borden suffered approximately 19 blows to the head while Andrew was struck 10 -11 times with his eyeball being split in two). While the nursery rhyme presumed Lizzie’s guilt the jury felt different and she was acquitted on 20 June 1893. Since then Borden has stuck in the public’s imagination and has been the subject of countless dramas, films, books and even a musical. In Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done (out in May) the events of the murders and their aftermath are related from the perspective of Lizzie herself, her older sister Emma and the Irish maid Bridget, amongst others. Schmidt is especially good at the sweltering claustrophobia in which the distinctly odd Bordens lived. She is also great at portraying the pent-up frustration of the spinster Borden sisters.
Like Lizzie, O.J. was acquitted and the verdict became a defining moment in time – one that people remember for where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. Princess Diana’s death, two years later was another such defining moment, as was the assassination of JFK in Dallas in 1963. Both the Kennedy assassination and Diana’s death have been the subject of a myriad of conspiracy theories. In 12:23 Northern Irish novelist Eoin McNamee charts the events leading to the now infamous crash in the Paris tunnel. McNamee based The Blue Tango on events closer to home – the murder of 19-year-old Patricia Curran in 1952 in Belfast while Orchid Blue concerns the murder of another 19-year-old woman, Pearl Gambol this time in Newry in 1961.
While many authors have used the Kennedy assassination as material, including Stephen King’s 11/23/63, the story of the wider Kennedy family has provided plenty of inspiration too. In The Importance of Being Kennedy (2007) author Laurie Graham presents the family from the perspective of long-time fictional Irish employee Nora Brennan. Graham has written a series of historical novels about real people and events from the perspective of fictional minor characters. Her 2005 book Gone With The Windsors about Edward and Mrs Simpson is a comic masterpiece that deserves a wider readership. Jackie Kennedy, who has long fascinated the public, is a peripheral but important character in the 2014 novel The Pink Suit by Nicole Mary Kelby, the story of an Irish immigrant who is integral to making the outfit Mrs Kennedy wore on that fateful day in Dallas.
A Season in Purgatory (1993) by Dominick Dunne is based on the 1975 murder of Martha Moxley which ‘Kennedy Cousin’ Michael Skakel was eventually convicted of in 2002. In Dunne’s novel the family are called Bradley but there is no doubt as to who they are. Dunne wrote many successful novels that were fictionalised versions of real life ‘scandals’ – most famously The Two Mrs Grenvilles. Changing real life characters into fictional facsimiles may seem redundant but this can leave the novelist free to construct fiction rather than be hamstrung by the facts, (although Dunne’s books rarely deviate much from the events as they unfolded). Dunne also ‘fictionalised’ the O.J. trial in 1997’s Another City, Not My Own but the novel was mostly a compilation of his monthly columns for Vanity Fair magazine, with one name changed – his own!
Last year’s highly successful The Girls by Emma Cline featured a 60s Californian cult with a charismatic leader not unlike Charlie Manson while earlier this year Emma Flint’s Little Deaths was based on, but not about, the 1965 trial of New Yorker Alice Crimmins for the murder of her two children. Both of these stories concern events within living memory so fictionalising real characters provides some some distance for people who were involved. For the rest of us all historical fiction lets us briefly live in a different world. Without consequences.
Lincoln in the Bardo George Saunders Bloomsbury €18.20
The Long Drop Denise Mina Harvill Secker €18.20
See What I Have Done Sarah Schmidt Tinder Press (2/5/17) €18.19
Exploring Brave New World of Sex and Sexuality.
The Sunday Independent
Around five years ago, a married friend, who lives in a Hipster enclave in the United States, told me about her neighbours, married a decade, who were Swingers. This was proof positive to a commitment-phobe like myself that long term relationships are bound to become sexually boring. Neither of us thought Swinging sounded appealing – rather it was a seedy throwback to the ‘car keys on the coffee table’ 1970s. Reading Future Sex it turns out that my friend and I, and not the Swingers, are the ones that are hopelessly out of date.
When it comes to love, sex and relationships, even the most cynical amongst us believe, to a greater or lesser extent, in ‘happily ever after’. We are brought up in the binary system – where eventually two people – gay or straight – settle down with each other. Or just settle. The adult world is designed to accommodate couples. (Just ask anyone who has ever had to pay a ‘single subsidy’).
In her opening chapters Witt acknowledges that she too was certain that this was her fate, but finding herself single in her early 30s she began to question her both own future and that of female sexuality. “For now I was a person in the world, a person who had sexual relationships that I could not describe in language and that failed my moral ideals. Apprehensiveness set in: that this was my future.”
Witt’s initial investigations take her from New York where she and most of the adults she knows enjoy ‘non-relationships’ – ones where people sleep with each other but are not officially a couple, to San Francisco, which has in the past 50 years, been associated with ideals of ‘free love’ and being ‘out there’.
Witt is white, went to Brown University followed by Columbia School of Journalism and Cambridge and, although she doesn’t really mention it she doesn’t appear hard up for cash. So yes, her “problems” could be easily dismissed as privilege but the themes she explores in this book will resonate to a greater or lesser extent with most Western women.
“I had never sought to much choice for myself, and when I found myself with total sexual freedom, I was unhappy.” Of course the paradox is that women never truly have “total sexual freedom” as we are still judged by the standards of the Patriarchy. For example, Witt reveals that she had the notion that the more sex she had the less likely she was going to find love. This idea is deeply embedded in Western culture but Witt reveals just how ludicrous it is. “The arbitrary nature of these correlations had not occurred to me.”
Ideas that are so deeply held for so long are not always easy to abandon and Witt admits, “I still half-expected that destiny would meet me halfway, that in the middle of all the uncertainty I would come across an exit ramp that would lead me back to all the comfortable expectations.” Yet she throws herself into the ‘Brave New World’ of sex and sexuality–sometimes with abandon, (Burning Man) and sometimes not.
There is more to Future Sex than one woman’s journey – Witt is first and foremost a journalist and she takes time to research the background to the various subjects she encounters and manages to relate it back to the reader without obtruding in her own story. I was fascinated to discover that the first internet dating sites were designed specifically to appeal to women because “recruiting men had never been a problem.” She charts visits to a porn shoot, a video sex chat site Chaturbate (to paraphrase Larry Gogan, the clue is in the name) and documents the Polyamorous relationship of Elizabeth, Wes and Chris.
Polyamory is a fairly recent term for used to be called ‘Open Relationships’. Wes, Chris and Elizabeth sometimes worked 60-70 hours a week and apart from their triangle had other regular lovers and one-night stands. To be honest, I was exhausted just reading about it. Besides, for all the sex, there seemed to be a lot of talking involved and not much fun.
Witt writes in a that very American formal journalistic way which can be hard going for those used to a more casual style. However, I’d urge readers to hang in there as she has many valid points and some wonderful insights. The chapter on ‘Birth Control and Reproduction’ was, for me, the most interesting. For example, while there have been “breakthroughs in everything from theoretical physics to decoding the human genome” during the past 40 years there has been and no significant change in contraception. This sad fact, (current contraceptive choices are far from perfect), says far more about women in the present, let alone in the future. Well worth a read.