Friday, October 5, 2012

Dougal, I told you to stop reading Roddy Doyle: How the Irish Saved My Bookshelf

Descriptions of the Irish as delightfully tipsy raconteurs are nauseating. I have spent some time in Ireland and not once has an old man with a tweed cap and a Guinness regaled me with a Joycean epic about love, loss and potatoes. 

Having said that, the Irish write some damn good books. And, mercifully, the three authors that follow write books that save us from Ireland as Leprechaun Disney or Angela's Miseryney. 

1. The Secret Scripture, Sebastian Barry
Roseanne Clear is 100 years old and a resident of the Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital. Barry's novel is her life story, scribbled on scavenged hospital letterhead. 

Roscommon is to be closed, and it is Dr. William Grene's responsibility to determine which patients will be moved to a new facility and who will be released into society. Despite her name, Roseanne has no intention of providing a straightforward account of her life to Dr. Grene. Thus, the novel unfolds as a triptych: Roseanne's handwritten account; Roseanne's oral recitation to Dr. Grene, and Dr. Grene's own journal as he tries to make sense of Roseanne's life. 

Underlying Roseanne's personal history is Ireland’s national history — the Rising during the Great War, the war of independence following it, then a civil war following independence, all in quick, murderous succession. Barry's story allows for the complication of actual history in all its messy elusiveness without sacrificing narrative flow or beauty. This is a novel in which swans enduring a rainstorm are "like unsuccessful suicides" and the accents of Sligo thugs are "like bottles being smashed in a back lane."

2. Brooklyn, Colm Toibin
Brooklyn is the story of a young woman's (Eilis Lacey) emigration from Ireland to America: a well worn path historically and literarily. But, Toibin's novel is notable for what it lacks: there's no awed first glimpse of the Manhattan skyline; no references to streets paved with gold, and even the account of Eilis's first trip to a baseball game focuses on her boyfriend's way of being with his brothers, not the chance to write a set piece.

Instead, Tóibín patiently details Eilis's numbing homesickness in contrast with enforced American good cheer, her interactions with her fellow inmates at an all-Irish boarding house, her work at a moderately enlightened department store, her night classes. 

Brooklyn is a calm, modest novel. Eilis is not Forrest Gump. Nothing much happens, except for real life.

3. Resurrection Man, Eoin McNamee
Victor Kelly is the leader of an incredibly violent gang of Protestant thugs, the Resurrection Men (read: Shankhill Butchers) roaming the streets of Belfast in the 1970s.

McNamee's novel is remarkable for its ability to conjure up the squalid, claustrophobic terror of Northern Ireland during The Troubles. His Belfast is blasted and broken. Night in the city is a "vernacular darkness," because brutality is the only language its inhabitants speak. Victor strips layers of skin off his victims "to arrive at valid words," and a dead man's head is "bent to his chest as though there were something written there he could read."

McNamee has been compared to Cormac McCarthy and Don DeLillo - the sort of association that usually dooms a 'new writer' to come up short, but Resurrection Man exceeds expectations.

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