Book review: “Normal People” by Sally Rooney

I’m travelling to Dublin on the ferry from Holyhead, north Wales as I write this, making our annual summer visit to see family and friends. I love Dublin and think of it as a second home, having visited the place several times a year for about two decades now. I haven’t seen all the ‘sights’, although Dublin Zoo, the art gallery, Powerscourt, and the Natural History Museum have all been well and truly ‘done’! When we visit we seem to spend much of our time just hanging out, visiting people, sharing meals, etc. For me, it’s only when you do that, after visiting a place so many times that you really get to the heart of it.

Normal People imgIt seems appropriate that I should be posting a review of Normal People this week, a book so very much about Ireland, the challenges and contradictions at the heart of a nation that has transformed itself in recent years. It is not just about Ireland, but about what it means to be young in Ireland and about class. It is also about identity and, in common with some of the issues faced in the UK and many other societies I am sure, the draw away from regional towns and cities, towards a centre, a capital, where there is perceived to be more opportunity, and what that means both for the individual and for society in the wider sense.

 Connell and Marianne are two teenagers attending the same high school in Carricklea in the west of Ireland. Both are very bright and hopes about their future prospects are high, but that is where the similarities end; their lives couldn’t be more different. Connell is the much-loved only child of a young single Mum. The live together in a small house and Connell’s mother cleans for Marianne’s family. Although academically a high achiever, Connell still manages to be popular and admired. Marianne is much more of a loner and lives with her working Mum and brother (a threatening figure who becomes increasingly violent towards her). She is remote from her family, not well-liked at school, and has a spiky personality.

Despite their differences, Connell and Marianne develop a closeness which soon blossoms into an intense and sexual relationship. The author portrays skilfully the subtle differences in their perspectives, which will at times lead to difficulties of communication and understanding throughout their young lives and the ebb and flow of their relationship.

The pair both end up with outstanding exam results which means that both secure a place at the prestigious Trinity College, Dublin. We follow them to college and here their positions are reversed – it is Marianne now who finds her ‘tribe’ amongst the affluent, the elite, the middle classes, and Connell who struggles to feel at home, whose financial and social background contrasts so markedly with that of his peers.

Despite this, Connell and Marianne continue to have an on-off relationship for the duration of their university careers and beyond. At times their relationship is passionate and sexual, at others it is more platonic, mutually protective. But always it is intense, even where there is little contact between them, such as the period Marianne spends on a Scandinavian scholarship with the abusive artist she has for a boyfriend at the time.

It is a fascinating and compelling book, part elegiac romance, part social commentary, where there is very little in the way of plot, but an abundance of humanity that is acutely observed and intimately drawn. The book has rightly earned its young author widespread plaudits and praise and was shortlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. (The winner, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, which I reviewed on here recently, was a worthy victor but I don’t envy the judges having to choose between these two outstanding novels.)

Normal People is a beautiful, clever book that will at times break your heart and at other times lift it, and I heartily recommend it. The only pity is that it’s relatively short!

Normal People has been widely read and reviewed – what did you think of it?

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Book review: “The Wonder” by Emma Donoghue

One of my earliest posts on this blog was a comparison of a handful of books with their film adaptations; it was 2016, a bumper year for great books in the Oscars with The Danish Girl, The Revenant, Room and Carol all nominated. Emma Donoghue’s Room was I think my favourite of that batch (both the film and the book) and was one of my best reads of that year. Shortly after, I picked up The Wonder and it’s been sitting in my TBR pile ever since! I resolved to read it while I was away over Easter and, my goodness, it did not disappoint.

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Lovely cover too

Set in rural Ireland in 1859, in the shadows of the Irish Famine and the Crimean War, the main protagonists have had disturbing brushes with death and suffering which impact the way they behave and how they interact with one another. Elizabeth ‘Lib’ Wright is a nurse who trained with Florence Nightingale in the Crimea. She is sent to Ireland on a commission to observe an eleven year-old girl, Anna O’Donnell, who, it is alleged, has not eaten for four months. Her survival without food is being hailed as a miracle and the village council has recruited a team of two (Lib, the English nurse, and an Irish nun) to watch her in shifts to ensure the child is genuinely not receiving sustenance. Many visitors have already come from both Ireland and abroad to view the child, and to perhaps receive some divine benefit from being in her midst.

Lib, with her scientific outlook, naturally suspects foul play. She has no religious faith and believes it impossible for the human body to survive without food or water; she fully expects quickly to get to the bottom of the suspected ruse. She approaches Anna with scepticism initially, believing she and her family are nothing more than manipulative, deceiving, attention-seeking hoaxers seeking to profit from their little miracle. Lib is also haughty, however; whilst she is aware of some of the wrongs that have been wrought upon the Irish people by her own country, she brings with her certain prejudices about social and cultural backwardness. She meets a Dublin journalist, staying at the same inn, and there to report on Anna’s case for his newspaper, and her conversations with him begin to educate her about Irish history about the status and role of Catholicism and about the nature of the people.

As Lib gets to know Anna better in the long hours she spends watching her, she also begins to grow fond of the child, something she does not expect and which interferes with her sense of herself as a rational being. She makes detailed notes about her observations of the child, and when it becomes truly apparent to her that little or no nourishment is reaching Anna, she becomes concerned about the deterioration in her health. The unwillingness of the family to confess to the hoax, as she sees it, disturbs her, and the vested interests of the local community, both the medical and religious elements, which seem to prevent them stepping in to save the child’s life, challenges her medical ethics. Most remarkably for Lib, however, is the commitment Anna has to her starvation; she truly has no desire to eat, and her religious fervour seems genuine and uncorrupted. Lib suspects some deep trauma (she is familiar with this notion following her experience in the Crimea) possibly connected to the death of her older brother a few months earlier, but struggles to get to the bottom of it.

The job Lib has been paid to undertake begins to take a grave emotional toll on her and all her certainties, her assumptions and the truths she has held dear begin to unravel at the same time as Anna’s health status is becoming increasingly grave.

This is a remarkable and complex novel which I found both profoundly moving and deeply interesting. The author provides an insight into a community, a belief system and a set of codes that most of us will struggle to comprehend. And yet, the way she recounts the story, you can see how Anna’s actions might make perfect sense to her, to her family and to her community. This is the most alarming part – how easily it could be seen as real and reasonable – and gives an insight into how sometimes bizarre doctrines can take hold in groups so that they can seem true, in spite of scientific evidence.

The plot of this book is also gripping and it has some remarkable twists, not to be revealed here, which will have you on the edge of your seat.

Highly recommended, a real page-turner which will draw you into a world you did not know about.

Have you read any other Emma Donoghue books – which would you recommend I read next?

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Book Review: “Harvesting” by Lisa Harding

This book was given to me by a family member as a Secret Santa gift last year. I have been dying to read it for ages but it seemed to keeping slipping down the TBR list (does that happen to you too?) I determined to read it on my summer holiday, although in many ways it was rather a strange choice; not your traditional beach read! The subject matter is child sex trafficking and the author, a well-known actor in Ireland, came up with the idea after she became involved with a campaign to raise awareness of the issue in 2012.

Harvesting img

The book tells the parallel stories of two young girls, Nico and Sammy. Nico is from Moldova. She lives in a deprived rural setting, her family is poor and her father and two of her brothers are cruel and misogynistic. They have become brutalised by their poverty and by the systemic corruption and organised crime in their society. Nico’s mother is oppressed and powerless to stop the terrible fate that awaits her daughter. Nico has another brother, Luca, who disagrees with the family’s plans for her and wants to protect her, but he also cannot stand in their way. Lacking money for even a basic standard of living, Nico’s father sells his daughter for marriage to an older man, as soon as she starts her periods (so she is around 13). As far as the prevailing culture is concerned, she is a woman now and the family see no reason why they should continue to support her, so they seek to profit from her. Nico’s father believes that Petre, Nico’s future ‘husband’, will give Nico a good life in London and buy her all the things her family have been unable to give her. The two men are colluding in a mutual self-deception, one assumes because this is the only way that Nico’s father can justify selling his child in this way.

Nico is effectively kidnapped and it becomes very quickly apparent that she along with a number of other girls, is to be prepared for life as a prostitute. Nico is particularly valuable because she is so young and a virgin. The girls are drugged, abused, beaten and then trafficked across European borders until eventually they reach Ireland. Petre’s girlfriend Magda is the only person able to protect Nico even a little from the worst excesses of the gangsters and she is only able to do so on the basis that Nico is worth more if they treat her less cruelly than if she becomes ill through mistreatment. It is the only fragment of protection that Nico has.

The other main protagonist in the book is Sammy, a young Irish girl, of around 16, who represents a different side of sex slavery. She falls into a life of prostitution almost by accident. Problems at home (her mother is an alcoholic and her father can only cope by separating himself) and at school lead to her leaving home and falling into the hands of adults who exploit and abuse her. Sammy presents a more challenging character, firstly because, at a superficial level, her problems seem to be of her own making; she is rebellious, uncooperative and undisciplined. She puts herself in dangerous situations which have been interpreted as attention-seeking acts. She is a child out of control and has sacrificed the sympathy of those who might (should!) help her, such as the school authorities. What Harding does skilfully, though, is show us that, despite the fact that she is sassy and street-wise, Sammy is a child and no less deserving of protection than the more ‘innocent’ Nico.

What is also particularly chilling about Sammy’s story is that in a modern democratic western society, with liberal traditions, social services and proper policies and procedures in place to protect young people, even a young girl from a middle-class background can fall through the cracks and, worse, some of those who should be protecting her, are part of the problem.

The two girls eventually meet when they find themselves in the same suburban brothel and their fates become intertwined. This is not a book for the faint-hearted and some readers may find they are unable to bear the sex scenes. It is hard-hitting. Some aspects of it are almost unbelievable; as a frequent visitor to Ireland for many years now I find it difficult to accept that there is a huge underground network providing children for an illicit sex trade in a city I know and love. But the author has clearly researched the story extensively, and fact-checked with people who work and campaign in this field. This lends the book a shocking credibility. And we know from child sexual abuse cases of recent years that the worst perpetrators are often hiding in plain sight, and that the collective disbelief that people could act in such ways can blind us to the realities. This book will definitely shake you out of any complacency.

I recommend this book – it is hard to say it’s enjoyable, more that it is an important book, that is compelling, thought-provoking and necessarily shocking. It is well-written with strong characters.

Can you recommend any similarly hard-hitting but important books?

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Summer holidays

We arrived in France yesterday for our family summer holiday. We had a week in Ireland last week visiting family, travelling between Dublin and West Cork. It was wonderfully full-on so there was precious little reading time. However, now that it’s just the five of us I’m looking forward to a slower pace. My children are all well into the teen zone now so my husband and I find ourselves twiddling our thumbs in the mornings, waiting for them to get up. Perfect reading time!

We are staying in Cancale, a smallish coastal town in Northern Brittany, arriving here on the overnight ferry from Cork to Roscoff, which was very pleasant indeed – good, reasonably-priced food, decent cabins and plenty to do.

I’ve been unusually restrained with my holiday library this year, just the three books: Harvesting by Lisa Harding, a harrowing account of child prostitution, child trafficking, abuse and neglect, Death on the Nile, by Agatha Christie, the August choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge, and The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier, one of my book club’s summer reading titles.

I’ve almost finished Harvesting in the first couple of days! It’s not for the faint-hearted, but is gripping. I’m told it has been thoroughly researched and is not an outlandish account. If this is the case, I have truly led a sheltered life. It’s tough stuff.

If I manage all three books there is always the Kindle back-up! I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

What are your holiday reading choices?

Book Review: “The Life and Loves of a He-Devil” by Graham Norton

I love my little book club – it’s small and very exclusive and, besides books, we specialise in popcorn, gin and tonic and extra-curricular trips. All in the name of literature, of course!

We have been meeting every month for a couple of years now and have read a wide range of books: fiction, non-fiction, YA, thrillers, classics, to name but a few of our chosen genres. Some books we have loved, some we have loved less. Some generate an enormous amount of discussion, others less.

The Life and Loves of a He Devil imgWe decided for our March meeting we’d read Graham Norton’s 2014 memoir The Life and Loves of a He Devil. We wanted to read an autobiography and felt that among the many “celebrity” memoirs out there, Graham’s might have more to offer than most. We all like him as a broadcaster and personality and thought it might be fun. We were not wrong! But when we came to meet and discuss it, we had very little to say. We’d exchanged a number of messages on our WhatsApp group in the preceding weeks, with many laughter emojis, asking each other if we’d come across the dog and condom anecdote yet, or the Dolly Parton story. Some sections of this book, which I read most of whilst on a train journey to London, were laugh-out-loud, or rather “try to suppress a laugh because I’m in public”, moments. It’s a romp and Graham writes the way he speaks, with wit, authenticity and complete honesty. His writing style is similar in his novel Holding, which I reviewed here last year, and really enjoyed. (His second novel, entitled A Keeper, is due out in the Autumn.)

It’s charming and funny, and there is such a lot of name-dropping that it’s a bit of escapism too. Reading it is a reminder of just how successful, Graham is; I lost count of the number of homes he owns and the list of people he calls friends is something to behold. I think it’s because he manages to make you feel that he is a regular guy, just like the rest of us, and just as in awe of all the celebs and their glitter. He also manages to convey a kind of naivety and innocence that make you feel he is very ordinary. He is not of course; he’s supremely talented and clearly unusually astute to have achieved what he has. That does not come from luck alone. Concealing all of that beneath a veneer of self-deprecation is a talent in itself and I admire him enormously.

Back to my book club, we had only one criticism, and that is that the opening chapter (the book is divided into chapters, each of which is about one of his ‘loves’), about the joys of being a dog-owner, was, we felt, by far the funniest, so everything that followed was not inferior exactly, but did not quite meet the same high bar.

Not much to say then, except that it’s hugely funny, and if you like Graham Norton, you’ll love this book!

Have you read this or any of Graham Norton’s other books?

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Book review: “Days Without End” by Sebastian Barry

I listened to this on Audiobook, which was narrated by the wonderful Aidan Kelly. It’s a brilliant book, with the most sublime use of language, my appreciation of which was enhanced by Kelly’s fabulous reading. I had the same experience with Holding by Graham Norton, but sadly not with The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, which I’m listening to at the moment, where I’m finding the narration rather irritating. Aidan Kelly’s reading brings such an authenticity to the listening experience that I actually believed I was listening to Thomas McNulty.

Days Without End img

The book is set in America in the 1850s, where our very young narrator and central character, Thomas McNulty, finds himself after fleeing devastating famine in Sligo, Ireland, and searching for a new life, any life, in the New World. He signs up as a mercenary soldier for the Government infantry in the civil war against the Confederate south. There he meets ‘handsome John Cole’, an American, with whom he develops an intimate relationship. When their time in the infantry ends the two make a living for a while as entertainers where Thomas masquerades as a woman. He finds he is comfortable playing this role with John Cole as his beau, and in the periods when the two live a settled life together, it becomes his costume of choice, as well as providing a convenient disguise in times of trouble.

The accounts of war and violence are graphic and horrific and no detail is spared, which I found difficult to listen to at times, although also strangely compelling. Thomas and John rejoin the army further on in the novel and are involved in head to head battles with native American Indians. These accounts were even more harrowing as the contrast between the two sides is exposed so starkly, the soldiers having far superior firepower. In one of these encounters, Thomas and John rescue a young girl, Winona, whom they practically adopt as their own daughter and determine to look after.

Some of the scenes in the book are brutal and hard to read (or in my case listen to). The injustice of the men’s situation, the terrible conditions in which they have to live, the way that soldiers are treated as cannon fodder and afforded very little respect by their military masters is shocking. They are forced to live a most brutal existence and for many of the men the experience is completely dehumanising. The extreme violence they both administer and experience is like nothing that most of us will ever have come across and the novel is very powerful as a result. And yet, there is also tremendous tenderness: the relationship between Thomas and John Cole is beautifully drawn, though we never hear John’s voice first hand, and never gratuitous, never titillating. Even Thomas’s cross-dressing is handled with a beautiful innocence. The love that is shared between the two young men and Winona is also very powerful; that they are capable of such care of another human being is all the more moving when you consider the extremes of violence, deprivation and injustice in which they have existed.

There is a tale here, though mostly the novel is about a time and place in history and what that was like for the people immersed in it. It is a tale not just of survival but about how people who have nothing, have love and find a way, ultimately, to live peacefully.

This is one of a series of novels about various members of the McNulty family. I haven’t read the others, but I will certainly do so after reading Days Without End. The novel won the Costa Book Award in 2016 and has been widely acclaimed.

I recommend it highly and can particularly recommend the audiobook. That said, the language of the book is so beautiful that I would also love now to go back and read it, to see those words dance on the page.

If you have read this book, I would love to hear your thoughts.

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‘Holding’ by Graham Norton

You’ve got to admire Graham Norton; he started out as a stand-up comic, first came to prominence in the classic TV comedy show Father Ted, making a handful of appearances as one of the many random priests on Craggy Island, and has since built a very successful career as a broadcaster on both radio and television, mostly in the UK. He has previously written three autobiographical books, but Holding is his first novel. People like Graham Norton are so annoying; they are really good at their chosen vocation, then they write a book…and they’re really good at that too! Most of us are just trying to be good at the one thing!

 

I do love Graham Norton, though, and this book does not disappoint. I listened to the Audiobook, which is narrated brilliantly by Graham himself, and I am certain this added to my enjoyment. He performs each role with such distinctiveness and brings the characters to life. The plot of the story is a straightforward whodunnit, but it has twists and turns which Norton handles deftly. The story is set in the seemingly sleepy town of Duneen in County Cork, Ireland, but beneath the surface, there stir unaccountable passions which have been and continue to be suppressed by culture and tradition.

Our central character is Sergeant PJ Collins, the local police officer, who is overweight, unmarried, and carries about him the burden of knowing that his life has been little lived. The small-town torpor is completely shaken up, however, by the discovery of human remains in a field which is being developed for a new housing estate. It is widely suspected to be the body of Tommy Burke, a young man who disappeared many years earlier in mysterious circumstances. Suspicions are immediately thrown upon two local women with whom he had romantic links: Brid Riordan, to whom he was engaged, but only, we learn, because she was set to inherit a farm when his own family’s fortunes were somewhat in decline. Brid is now middle-aged, unhappily married and an alcoholic. The other main suspect is Evelyn Ross, a spinster who lives with her two unmarried sisters in one of the largest houses in the town, who was Tommy’s true love at the time, but the relationship was largely unrequited.

Thus the scene is set and the plot thereafter takes on some impressively imaginative twists and turns. Graham Norton’s great talent, however, is clearly for character and he introduces us to a wide cast of individuals, from the swaggering and confident, but equally unfulfilled, Detective Linus Dunne from Cork (brought in to investigate the homicide), who initially patronises and sidelines PJ before gradually accepting and empathising with him, to the meek and mild Mrs Meaney, PJ’s housekeeper, who initially comes across as something of a busybody but who takes on greater depth as the story progresses. Listening to Graham Norton’s narration gave me an even more powerful sense of the cast of characters, I think, than if I had read the book, and, I repeat, he does it brilliantly!

The book is ultimately about what lies beneath, quite literally, in the body that is discovered on the building site, but also in the characters, the lives that go on behind closed doors, until a catastrophe comes along and forces them out into the open. It is also very much about the upending of old traditions (not all good), in a post-Celtic tiger, post-credit crunch world and its being replaced by new ways of being – not all of which are good either.

I loved this book – it had me driving slowly and sitting outside my house in the car, just so I could listen to the end of a chapter! It’s quite an accomplishment for a debut novel. Highly recommended.

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your views.

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