Book review – “The Secret Scripture” by Sebastian Barry

This is the third book I listened to in Sebastian Barry’s McNulty family trilogy. The first was The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, published in 1998, then I listened to The Temporary Gentleman, published in 2014, and then finally this book, which was published in 2008 and shortlisted for the then Man Booker Prize. I read them in the wrong order, but in doing so, arguably, I saved the best till last! The Secret Scripture is an astonishing and powerful piece of work, and provides answers to some of the unresolved questions raised in the other two books.

At the centre of the trilogy is the McNulty family and in particular the three brothers, Eneas, Tom and Jack. Eneas, as I have already posted about in my review of the first book in the trilogy, is something of a black sheep in that he is largely exiled from the family, in America, Africa and finally England, because of his job as a policeman which gets him into trouble with the republican Sligo underworld. The Temporary Gentleman concerns Jack, the golden child of the family, with a degree in engineering and a respectable marriage to the daughter of a doctor. However, this book reveals the lie about his life, hinted at in The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, his alcoholism and gambling and the problems in his marriage. The third son, Tom, who becomes a local councillor, is married to Roseanne, who is the subject of The Secret Scripture and who appears in both the other novels. Having come to The Secret Scripture last I feel now that this trilogy is as much about Roseanne as it is about the McNulty family, because their relationships with her tell us almost more about them than their own lives.

When the book opens we meet Roseanne, a woman in her 90s, perhaps even 100, a long-term resident of a mental hospital that is about to be demolished. Her psychiatrist, Dr William Grene, must assess her and determine whether she is able to be discharged into the community. There is a recognition that many of the residents of such institutions were committed for social as much as mental health reasons. Dr Grene sets about trying to establish why Roseanne, who has been a patient at the hospital for around half a century, was admitted. The story is told from the parallel perspectives of Roseanne, who writes her own story in secret, and Dr Grene who records his notes and observations in a day book. These become a kind of confessional for both of them.

What we know about Roseanne is that she was very beautiful and therefore treated with suspicion, considered almost a temptation to sin, and therefore a sinner herself. To make matters worse, she is a Protestant. As a child she idolises her father and spends a great deal of time with him at his place of work – his job is as caretaker of a cemetery, a role he takes very seriously. However, after a tangle with local gangsters, active in the political strife that beset Ireland in the 1920s and 1930s, he is served the humiliation of losing his position and being redeployed as a rat-catcher. He maintains his dignity, however, and is conscientious, but the family’s fortunes decline thereafter. Roseanne’s mother is committed to an institution and her father dies. The local priest arranges a marriage to Tom McNulty, and he truly loves her, but she is never accepted by his parents, the elder Mrs McNulty in particular.

Roseanne is ill-treated by them all, except Eneas. After being spotted in a mis-judged but innocent meeting with another townsman on a mountain walk, she is exiled as an adulteress. This is largely an excuse for the family to be rid of her. Her marriage is annulled and she is forced to live in a hut outside the town. Tom marries again and it is as if Roseanne never existed. She is maintained at subsistence level, but no more. Her fate is sealed when she becomes pregnant and gives birth to a child alone on the strand with the tide coming in. She collapses unconscious after the delivery and awakes to find herself being taken away by ambulance, and no sign of her baby.

Events unfold rapidly in the final third of the book. Connections are made with Eneas and with Jack, and the family’s stories become knitted together. It is a slow build, however, up to this point. What the author is doing very skilfully, is building the picture of this woman, of her relationship with Dr Grene, who provides us with a perspective on her and the treatment she received at the hands of the McNulty family and the Sligo community more generally. Roseanne is a marginal figure in the other two books, but a figure, a mystery, nonetheless. The Secret Scripture gives us answers to questions the reader might have had whilst also exposing the dysfunctional relationship between religion and society that bedevils Ireland’s modern history.

A film adaptation of The Secret Scripture was released in 2016, starring Vanessa Redgrave and Rooney Mara, though the story differs in some important respects.

This novel has been Barry’s most successful to date, winning the Costa Book of the Year in 2008 (his novel Days Without End won in 2017, making him the first double-winner) and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize the same year. Apparently, however, some have found the ending of the book flawed and unpalatable. I disagree wholeheartedly! I do not wish to reveal any spoilers, so I will only say that I found it extraordinary. I can see how some might find it a plot twist too far, but from a reader’s perspective it is heart-stopping and I loved it.

I am on a real roll with Sebastian Barry at the moment; having only discovered his work in 2017 when I read Days Without End, I cannot now get enough of him – there is the Dunne Family trilogy to savour next.

The Secret Scripture is a brilliant and powerful book and I recommend it highly.

St Patrick’s Day

Happy St Patrick’s Day to all my Irish family, friends, acquaintances and fellow bloggers. Ireland is a country very close to my heart since my husband is from Dublin and my children are proudly half-Irish. I have spent very many happy times in Ireland in the last twenty-something years, and sadly not nearly enough time there in the last two.

I know that not every Irish person is a huge fan of ‘Paddy’s Day’ even though the diaspora celebrates it with great vigour. It’s true that the imagery associated with it can harden a false impression about the country and what it means to be Irish, that it’s all about the ‘craic’. Indeed it is not. Ireland and the Irish are thoughtful, deeply emotional, and phenomenally creative people. It’s not for nothing that the nation punches well above its weight internationally.

So, for my post today, in a celebration of all things Irish, I’m picking out a few of my favourite Irish books and authors.

Highlights from my recent reading:

Days Without End

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

This vivid and powerful account of an Irish emigrant participating in the Amercian Civil War and finding forbidden love is one of my all-time favourite books and began my love affair with the writing of Sebastian Barry.

Holding

Holding by Graham Norton

One of my favourite television and radio personalities, Graham Norton proved himself an accomplished author too with this his first novel, which has also now been adapted for television.

Grown Ups

Grown Ups by Marian Keyes

Marian Keyes might well have attained the status of “national treasure” in Ireland at this stage. This was the first book of hers that I read and I intend to read more. Loved it.

The Wonder

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

Donoghue hit the big time with her book Room, which was made into an Oscar-winning film starring Brie Larson, but for me The Wonder, published in 2016, is better. It explores the place of myth and its confused relationship with religion in Ireland. Powerful and beautiful.

The Glorious Heresies

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney

Gangs, drugs, violence, love, this book has it all. Winner of the Baileys Prize (now the Women’s Prize) in 2016, it explores the dark underbelly of the city of Cork in a post-Celtic Tiger Ireland. Not an easy read, but beautifully and confidently written, with dark humour and love at its heart.

And now for some classics…

An education in literature in English would be incomplete without the above. Ulysses changed the world of fiction forever, perhaps even the world. Yeats, for me, evokes all that is Ireland and his life story is so emblematic. O’Casey’s play is a history lesson. Behan and Wilde are authors who embody some of our notions of human suffering.

So, today I will be raising a glass of Guinness to Ireland and in particular to its extraordinary literary heritage.

Sláinte!

#KeepKidsReading – books out for children

In the last week I have shared a couple of book reviews of children’s books I have read recently. To close off this little series of #KeepKidsReading posts I would like to share some of the children’s books that are either out now or just about to come out and which I really like the look of. Capitalise now on all that ‘World Book Day’ enthusiasm!

Middle-grade books (primary school age/early secondary school)

Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow and The Secret Sunshine Project by Benjamin Dean

The first of these two books sits on my current TBR pile. It’s Benjamin Dean’s debut novel and is the story of Archie Albright who decides to try and ‘fix’ his family and restore their lives to normal after his parents split up. Archie’s father has come out and Archie must learn to come to terms with the ‘new normal’. Looks like a great one for children of same-sex parents, blended families, or separating families. Look out for a future review.

Benjamin Dean does not shy away from challenging themes in his second novel either, it would seem. In The Secret Sunshine Project he deals with the loss of a parent, resilience, sisterly love and the joy of Pride.

The Last Bear and The Lost Whale by Hannah Gold

Another double recommendation, this time two books which deal with important themes of the connection between humans and nature and climate change. The Last Bear was a huge success and widely acclaimed. April’s father is a scientist and his research takes the family to a remote Arctic island where it is said polar bears are now extinct. April comes across one however, starving and desperate, and she is determined to save him.

In The Lost Whale Rio goes on a quest to find a whale he has met on whale-watching trips with his best friend Marina and her father. He has been sent to live with his grandmother in California while his mother recuperates from illness. The children discover the whale but are then distressed when it goes missing. Rio will learn much about his life and the world in his search for the whale.

All of the above titles have wonderful illustrations which I think remain important for this age group.

The Swallow’s Flight by Hilary McKay

Finally, a sadly very topical suggestion. This is a story about the second world war written from the perspective of four children, two in England and two in Berlin. They are all contemplating their future as their countries pursue a war that none of them want or fully understand. A few adults could do with reading this as a reminder of what the senselessness of war looks like through the eyes of a young person.

Teens and younger adults

This is a broad category and some titles deal with mature themes that even very good readers may find challenging so choose your books with care.

You’re Not the Boss of Me by Catherine Wilkins

This title made me laugh as it is an exclamation that one of my children directed at me once! This book may help young teens navigate the thorny topic of sexism. Amy is all set to the be the star of the school show until Harry is put in charge and seems determined to stand in her way. Amy’s sister tells her Harry is being a sexist and she must take a stand. Written with humour by a popular comedian.

Furthermoor by Darren Simpson

Fantasy for young teens. Twelve year-old Bren finds solace from the challenges of his life, where his sister has died and he is constantly bullied, in the imaginary world of Furthermoor where he feels safe and can control events. When the mysterious Featherly enters this world, Bren is forced to choose between fantasy and reality.

Baby Love by Jacqueline Wilson

Another characteristically bold fictional outing from national treasure Jacqueline Wilson. This time she deals with first love and teenage pregnancy in the 1960s when Laura, finding herself pregnant and alone, is sent away to spare her family’s shame.

Blood to Poison by Mary Watson

This looks like a complex and powerful novel. Set in South Africa, its central character is seventeen year-old Savannah who has been identified as a ‘Hella’s girl’, the inheritor of a tradition in her ancient family bloodline where certain young women will die young. This is a story about magic, witchcraft and the courage to defy one’s destiny.

For more suggestions, see the shortlist for this year’s Waterstones Children’s Book Prize.

#International Women’s Day

9 amazing books for this very special day.

Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie – We Should All Be Feminists

Naomi Alderman – The Power

Maya Angelou – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Clarissa Pinkola Estes – Women Who Run with Wolves

Bernardine Evaristo – Girl, Woman, Other

Fiona Mozley – Hot Stew

Michelle Obama – Becoming

Lola Shoneyin – The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives

Tara Westover – Educated

#KeepKidsReading book review – “Pog” by Pádraig Kenny

Time for my second book review of my #KeepKidsReading week and I would like to tell you about Pog, the second novel from children’s author Pádraig Kenny, published in 2019 by Chicken House. It bears similarities to Kenny’s first novel for children Tin, which I loved, with powerful elements of fantasy, a fight between good and evil, and strong characters which young readers will be able to identify with. 

Pog is the name of a furry talking creature who lives in the attic of an old house in the woods. David and Penny and their father move into the house after the death of the children’s mother in an accident; the house had belonged to her grandparents and she spent a lot of time there as a child. The children’s father has brought them to live there as a way of perhaps reconnecting with the mother they have lost.

Pog seems like quite an ancient creature whose role is as something of a protector, not just of the inhabitants of the house, but as guard of ‘the Necessary’, an access point between the civillised world and the dark underworld, out of which destructive and terrifying forces can emerge. Pog has also known loss and tells of his ‘Grandfa’ who went before him and from whom he seems to have inherited his present responsibilities.

David and Penny discover Pog’s existence soon after moving into the house, and quickly become his friends and allies. It soon becomes apparent that creatures from the underworld are threatening the stability of Penny and David’s world. In one battle that takes place in the sitting room of the house, Pog and the children confront a swarm of ‘bloodworms’ that attack and attempt to destroy them. They win that particular fight.

SPOILER ALERT

This is merely a foretaste of what it is to come, however. In a moment of desperation, David makes a deal with the wicked ‘Kipwik’, who promises that he will be able to see his mother again if he opens the Necessary. This is a lie of course, but David is more grief-stricken than he realised and will do anything. A monumental confrontation follows, a straight fight between good and evil, in which Pog comes close to losing his life. Goodness prevails in the end, however, and in a kind of catharsis both Pog and the children begin the process of coming to terms with loss. They have faced down the cruellest of demons.

I enjoyed the book, although I did not think it was as strong as Kenny’s first novel Tin. The characterisation is good and the action scenes are well-written. The character of Pog is sweet but may turn off some readers who see themselves as too old for talking animals. I don’t think Kenny pulls this off quite as successfully as, say, Philip Pullman. On the other hand, some of the themes (death of a parent, good versus evil) may be too intense for some young readers. I would say this is suitable for the 8-12 age group, with the caveat that they need to be mature enough to deal with the themes, but young enough to embrace the concept of talking creatures.

Pádraig Kenny published a third novel last year, The Monsters of Rookhaven, in which he explores the themes of good versus evil once again. It has been been widely acclaimed and both nominated for and won numerous literary awards.

Non-fiction reading challenge – “Tiny Habits” by BJ Fogg

I like to set myself an annual reading challenge – it’s a great way of expanding your reading horizons and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the selections I’ve made over the last few years that I’ve been doing it. This year, I decided to do something a little different and set myself the goal of reading twelve non-fiction books. Non-fiction is a genre I neglected a bit last year and yet I come across so many books that look so fascinating.

Tiny Habits
First book of my non-fiction reading challenge complete!

For January, I set myself a relatively easy book, Stanford academic BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits: Why starting small makes lasting change easy. I picked up on this when I was thinking about why so many of us find new year resolutions so difficult to keep. I generally make a conscious choice to not set myself any, in the firm belief that I’m setting myself up to fail! The opening of a new calendar or diary has the powerful effect of making me want to do or change something, however! Instead of resolutions I thought about some new habits I would like to adopt into my life. Nothing too earth-shattering, mainly things like drinking more water, practicing piano daily or writing something (anything!) each day. Small, incremental changes that don’t look that hard to do, but which I have singularly failed to implement in my life to date.

I liked the sound of this book. I like the idea of starting small – this seemed achievable. There is a website to accompany the book, https://tinyhabits.com/, which includes some free resources and, as you might expect, options to join mailing lists and paid-for courses.

The basic premise of the tiny habits approach is based on the science of psychology: first it’s about finding the motivational sweet spot of a habit (too many of us seem to set ourselves habits that we don’t really want to do, like go to the gym every day); second, it’s about designing behaviour changes that we are actually able to implement (within our means, doable in our daily lives); thirdly, it’s about finding ways to remember to do the things we want to do. I can really identify with this last one – I really want to drink more water, but I just forget! There is an underpinning equation to all of this: B = M A P (Behaviour = Motivation, Ability, Prompt).

This is not a book to be read straight through. It’s more of a workbook, and it is intended that you should implement some changes as you go along. There are lots of exercises at the end of each chapter and appendices with ideas and further resources. My copy now has lots of post-it notes sticking out of it. It’s quite a long book (270 pages, but very small typeface). It’s written in the typical self-help style with lots of anecdotes and a fair bit of repetition. I find most of these kinds of books could be shortened by at least a third!

As with most lasting change, there is no quick-fix method here, although I have to say that this book has helped me to implement some small desirable changes, for example, drinking more water, doing daily stretches, flossing my teeth and reducing my sugar consumption a little. The big take-away for me has been the concept of the ‘Anchor’ – ie pegging a desired new habit to something you already do very reliably like brushing your teeth. This has worked very well for me for the small things; the jury remains out on whether this is going to ‘scale up’ as BJ Fogg promises, into bigger changes. So, for example, if you set yourself the ‘tiny habit’ of one press-up per day, this can in time, evolve into a full-blown exercise regime, and therefore greater health and well-being, because you will be buoyed-up by your success in achieving the single press-up habitually. Fogg is also big on ‘celebrating’, for example, making sure you give yourself some sort of fist pump or similar when you achieve even the tiniest habit. This does not quite suit my English character, but I’m trying!

This is definitely a book I have learned from and one I feel sure I will dip in and out of. If you want to make some major changes overnight this is not going to work, but I am in agreement with the author’s basic premise that small changes have the greatest chance of success and that you can probably build on them over time.

Lebanon
Book two of my 2022 non-fiction reading challenge

Book number two in my non-fiction reading challenge is a very big one: Lebanon: A country in fragments by Andrew Arsan. Lebanon is a country that fascinates me and I had the very good fortune to spend some time there in the late 1990s. I’m looking forward to this one, though it may take me some time!

Interested in self-help books? Here are some others that I have reviewed:

WE: A Manifesto for Women Everywhere by Gillian Anderson and Jennifer Nadel

Women Who Run With Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Big Magic: Creative living beyond fear Elizabeth Gilbert

Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig

The life-changing magic of tidying by Marie Kondo

The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down by Haemin Sunim

Reading the classics – “Far From the Madding Crowd” by Thomas Hardy

One of the great joys of my life has been to have had the privilege to spend a solid three years of my life engaging with the classics of English literature (University of London, 1990). I have a particular passion for nineteenth and early twentieth century literature and one of my favourites is Thomas Hardy. I read all of his major (and many of his minor) works. I was very young when I read them though and had had nothing like the life experience I have now – of falling in and out of love, getting married, having children, dealing with deaths, dark times, joyful times and the like. Hardy is therefore a particularly interesting author to come back to later in life, when you have been through all those ups and downs of life.

Far From the Madding Crowd

I was delighted when my book club decided we’d read Far From the Madding Crowd. Although it is not my “favourite” Hardy novel, it definitely makes my top five. My favourite is Jude the Obscure, or at least it used to, but perhaps my feelings would be different now, closely followed by Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which I studied at school (a ‘first love’ if you like). I adore the Roman Polanski film adaptation from 1980, starring Nastassja Kinski which is so loyal to the book.

Bathsheba Everdene is one of English literature’s iconic female characters. Young, spirited, independent and ambitious, Hardy puts her in a position of power (running a business, a thriving farm) which would have been rare for women at the time. Hardy also allows his female characters to feel lust, passion and to follow through on their desires. They are even allowed to have sex! Poor, unfortunate Fanny Robin, pregnant out of wedlock by Sergeant Troy, dies penniless in childbirth. Hardy might even be considered an early feminist writer.

I experienced Far From the Madding Crowd on audio this time, a 2020 release narrated by Olivia Vinall, which was brilliant. It takes a particular skill to get the voices of the opposite sex right and the narrator achieves this extremely well, conveying very successfully the variations in character between Bathsheba’s suitors, Gabriel Oak, Farmer Boldwood and Sergeant Troy. I also loved her narration of the rural scenes with the farmworkers which could have been patronising, but were not.

This book is pure joy and so many of Hardy’s passages are simply breathtaking. I frequently found myself bookmarking chapters on the audio so that when I got home I could look up the printed version and immerse myself all over again.

Dorset
Puddletown in Dorset, renamed Weatherbury in Far from the Madding Crowd

In my book club we also watched the most recent film version, from 2015 starring Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts and Michael Sheen. It was beautifully shot, wonderful to look at (because of Hardy, Dorset is my favourite English county); Wessex is well and truly captured. For me, however, it had a couple of fundamental flaws; firstly, it is simply too short! At a little under two hours it cannot deal effectively with all the themes explored in the book and so it is distilled down mainly to the slow-burning love story of Bathsheba and Gabriel. Neither is there sufficient time to truly justify the transition of its main protagonists. Secondly, Carey Mulligan, much as I love her as an actor, is, for me, just too old for the role. By my reckoning she would have been about ten years older than Bathsheba and I think she just comes across as too ‘experienced’, particularly at the beginning.

I have found a great blog from 2017 comparing the different film and television adaptations by Jennifer Rose Writes which seems to favour the original 1967 version starring Julie Christie. At three hours in length it might address at least one of my complaints about the 2015 film. It goes to show how audiences’ tastes and tolerances have changed. So, I am off to watch that.

The classics are classics for a reason – they bear multiple re-readings and it has been such a pleasure to come back to Hardy after so many years. I am resolved to make this a more regular pursuit. Next up, Crime and Punishment, I think.

Give the gift of books this Valentine’s Day!

My local shops are filled with hearts and red and pink things at the moment. I can’t begrudge them the opportunity to generate some profits on higher-margin sales after what have been a couple of very painful years for so many, but my heart sinks somewhat at the ghastly products sold in the likes of Marks and Spencer (which has had a good pandemic), as they further milk the Colin the Caterpillar and Percy Pig brands!

I don’t want to come over all Scrooge-like, however; we all need a bit of fun at this stage in the year and Valentines Day can certainly provide that. If your loved one is less than impressed by pink and shiny things, however, or if you’d like to give a rather more sustainable gift, there can surely be nothing better than a book. Bookshops are working harder than ever and those in my local high street have certainly put out a nice display of options – my lovely local secondhand bookshop (shout out to Abacus Books, Altrincham) always puts on a brilliant, ever-changing locally-themed front window.

The high street shops will cover all the classics of course, but I thought I’d give you a few ideas of my own based on my reading over the last year or two.

The Long Petal of the Sea

The Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende – a romantic story of

Set in turbulent times (first the Spanish Civil War, then political unrest in Chile) this is a saga which tells of the love story of Victor and Roser, thrown together by tragedy, they stay together out of duty. But they ultimately discover the true nature of their love for one another after many decades. Based on real events.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera – this 1984 classic set at the time of the Prague spring in 1968 follows the relationships of Tomas, his wife Tereza, his lover Sabina and her lover Franz. And a dog. Complex and philosophical it is nonetheless a romance of sorts and very sexy!

If Beale Street Could Talk

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin – an American classic with a lovely film adaptation. This book tells the powerful story of two devoted young lovers Tish and Fonny in New York, whose lives are torn apart when Fonny is falsely convicted by a racist justice system, of rape. Tish fights for her lover’s aquittal, but she cannot overcome massive institutional hurdles. Can their love survive.

Normal People

Normal People by Sally Rooney – one of the books of the decade, surely, if your loved one has not read this or seen the television adaptation, then you must get it for them. Charming, sexy, with a top-notch male hero it explores the journey of young love, the ups and downs, the turbulence and misunderstandings, but ultimately how people can look after each other’s vulnerability.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz – a powerful story about loneliness, friendship and how this can blossom into love. Two young teenagers, from very different backgrounds, with different life experiences and perspectives, different journeys to go on in terms of discovering their sexuality. Charming, heart-warming. Regardless of your gender or sexuality this is a story about the triumph and the beauty of love.

Call Me By Your Name

Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman – a summer romance set in Italy between an American adolescent on the threshold of adulthood, the son of two academics, and a visiting research student. The setting is beautifully evoked, the blistering heat of the landscape providing the perfect backdrop to the burgeoning sexual feelings between a teenager and the slightly older object of his desire. The romance is real, tender and, like most first loves, painful at times. Beautifully done.

I hope this gives you some ideas – it’s not too late!

Book review – “Dominicana” by Angie Cruz

Dominicana by Angie Cruz

This book first crossed my radar when it was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize in 2020. Most of us were under severe lockdown restrictions at that time, of course, and spending much of our social and cultural lives on video platforms. This was quite liberating for those of us living outside major cities; lots of cultural outlets, whose activities had been shut down by the pandemic, were forced to seek new sources of income and found them by broadcasting live-streamed Zoom events which anyone anywhere could join. The National Theatre (like other theatres across the globe) had been doing this for years of course with its NT Live and Encore programmes where performances are streamed into regional cinemas, but everyone suddenly got in on the act and it was great! I do live near a major city (Manchester, England), but still most events in the publishing world take place in London. One such event, in the past, has been the Women’s Prize talks, interviews with the shortlisted authors, but in 2020 we were all able to participate, and I even had a question answered!

It was a very strong field in 2020 (it always is!) which included Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet (the eventual winner that year), the final part of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, and Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other. Both of the latter books were also Booker Prize shortlisted, Evaristo having won it (jointly with Margaret Atwood) in 2019. When I heard Angie Cruz talking about her book I knew I had to read it. She described it as about the immigrant experience, of a young, naïve girl, moving from her rural home in the Dominican Republic (a small and at that time turbulent nation in the Caribbean Antilles that shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti). Ana, the central character, has been married off at the age of fifteen to a suitor who is more than twice her age, who plans to take her with him to New York City. Juan Ruiz is a businessman, the eldest of three brothers who have created modest commercial interests in America, but in Dominica they are the local bigwigs who boast of much greater wealth and power than they actually have, particularly Juan. Ana’s mother sees a chance for the whole family to benefit from Juan’s interest in her daughter; she forces her daughter into the marriage in the hope that the whole family will eventually be able to emigrate to America and make a much better life in the land of opportunity.

On arrival in New York, it soon becomes apparent that Ana has been sold a pup. Juan’s business empire is little more than small-scale trading that he runs out of the apartment to which he now confines his new young wife. Ana is forced to cook and clean for Juan, his cronies and his brothers. Juan forces her to stay indoors and keeps her imprisoned by convincing her that the world outside their door is a place of terror. They reside in a part of town where there are outbreaks of violence associated with the civil rights movement and where sirens seem to blare constantly. Ana has been told that her family will soon join her (Ana mainly misses her brother and wants him to be able to get an American education) but Juan clearly has no intention of facilitating this. It is not entirely clear what Juan wants from Ana; yes, he expects his conjugal rights, but he also has a New York lover, a woman his own age. Ana is little more than a slave.

Juan takes a business trip back to the Dominican Republic – political unrest there means he needs to sort out the family’s affairs. During his absence, Ana ventures beyond the apartment for the first time. She shops, starts English lessons given for free by a local nun and falls in love with Juan’s younger brother Cesar, who has been ordered to look after his sister-in-law and goes above and beyond the call of duty in this respect! By this time Ana is heavily pregnant, but with Cesar she has fun for the first time since she arrived in New York. Encouraged by Cesar, she starts selling her home-cooked pastries to the Dominicans working (mostly illegally) in the clothing factories. Ana begins to find her power.

In The Heights by Lin Manuel Miranda
Lin Manuel Miranda’s award-winning musical In The Heights deal with similar themes to Dominicana including the experience of immigrants arriving in New York City from the Dominican Republic

This is a great story; the author described it as based loosely on her own family’s stories. It took me a long time to get to it – it was on my TBR pile for the best part of a year – and when I did get to it, it took me a long time to read. I’m not really sure why, but I couldn’t really get into it. I really wanted to love Ana, but I just did not feel she was fully developed. The chapters were short, the typeface on my edition was, oddly, tiny which made it quite difficult to read, and parts of it, I’m sad to say, just felt like a bit of a slog. There seems to be a bit of a fashion at the moment as well, for not using speech marks – has anyone else noticed this? Perhaps it is me, but I find this really jarring because you sometimes think you are still reading prose, when actually it is dialogue, or vice versa. This worked well in, for example, The Promise, last year’s Booker winner from Damon Galgut, but in Dominicana I found it problematic.

The story ends a bit abruptly for my taste, but not to have ended it where the author did would have entailed many more chapters so there is an argument for closure at that point. This is a powerful story, which needs to be told, but for me there was something missing in the telling.

Sort of recommended.

Book review – “The Royal Secret” by Andrew Taylor

One of my happiest literary discoveries of the last couple of years has been Andrew Taylor. I have posted reviews of several of his books on here. He is pretty prolific, having written a staggering forty-one novels between 1982 and 2014. He came to real prominence in 2016, however, when he published The Ashes of London a historical murder mystery set in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London in 1666. Since then, he has published a further four novels in the series, set in the same period with the same cast of characters – the court of King Charles II and the various acolytes. The main characters in each of the novels are James Marwood a bachelor clerk who has made a name for himself at court as a bit of a fixer, and Cat Hakesby (nee Lovett), widow of an architect (whom she married in book two, The Fire Court) and daughter of a convicted regicide. Cat is a ‘friend’ of Marwood’s, their paths having first crossed in the first book when Marwood was investigating a crime in which she had been implicated wrongly, though they are often at loggerheads – there is an interesting tension between them that is always on the point of boiling over. They infuriate one another, but at the same time always find that their affairs intersect and that they are in need of each other. The burden they both share is in having fathers who opposed the reign of Charles the First and supported Cromwell.

The Royal Secret Andrew Taylor

The Royal Secret is the fifth book in the series and was published in April last year. I have been eager to get hold of it and have the time to enjoy it ever since. And as with all the other books in the series I listened to it on audio. The same actor has been employed for all of the books so far, Leighton Pugh, and he is superb, able to deploy the most amazing range of voices. What is fascinating also is the consistency he brings to the characters across the whole series by the voice he uses and his interpretation of the text and dialogue. This is audio at its very best.

As always, the plot of The Royal Secret is complex and involved (this author’s imagination is quite incredible). And as always, elements of the problems set up in previous books are brought into play here. As with the other books, the story begins with a murder. This time the victim is a fellow clerk, known to Marwood at court. Marwood is asked to investigate, which brings him into close contact with the seedy underbelly of London society, including a sinister Dutchman, purporting to be a trader, and brother to the dead clerk’s widow. The Dutchman courts Cat and she falls a little in love with him, or at least with his attentions, but tragedy strikes when Marwood’s page, Stephen, the young black boy he rescued in The King’s Evil, is also killed in suspicious circumstances. Marwood suspects the Dutchman, who has gone to ground.

In a parallel plot, Cat, whose building designs have gained her some courtly attention, receives a commission from the King to design a poultry house for his beloved sister, who is unhappily married in France. Cat is sent to France with her design and a model of the building and is pursued by the mysterious Dutchman. The journey is not without consequence and it is not long before the two seemingly unconnected strands of the plot collide.

There is an interesting development in the relationship between Marwood at Cat, which I won’t spoil, but suffice to say much is left open for future novels!

This book is yet another romp through Restoration London. As well as providing breathtaking action, great characterisation and brilliant writing the author’s attention to detail and pursuit of authenticity ensures these books provide a pretty sold history lesson too! I have never learned so much about this particular period of my national history as I have in following up nuggets of information in these books with wider research.

I am a definite Andrew Taylor fan and I can’t wait for the next book!

Highly recommended.

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