Fancy curling up with a quintessentially Irish novel this Autumn?

You do? Fantastic! I recently read Edna O’Brien’s Little Red Chairs and Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies. Pure coincidence that I read them consecutively, but it makes for an interesting compare and contrast exercise. They are two very different books and I enjoyed one more than the other. The one common theme they have is that the Church does not come out well!

So, read on if you’d like to find out more, and let me know what you thought if you’ve read either or both of them,

the-little-red-chairs-img  

I always like to be positive; as someone who is in the process of writing a book, I am acutely aware of what a phenomenal achievement it is! And Edna O’Brien is a writer of great stature and critical acclaim – she published her first novel in 1960, aged 30, and is still writing at the age 85. She is not just one of Ireland’s greats, but is an artist who has won international praise. Unfortunately, however, this book did not really work for me.

What I liked about this book: it started well and I was expecting it to be a book about the clash between a traditional Irish community, left behind by the Europeanisation of other more urban parts of the country, and the shift to a more cosmopolitan culture. There is also the contrast between the tired and outdated attitudes of the Church and the more exotic spirituality of Dr Vladimir. Vlad is a holistic therapist and threatens to bring a different meaning to the lives of those in the small community into which he arrives, seemingly, out of nowhere. With that comes a potential to undermine those in the community who hold a tenuous and unearned authority. To that extent he appears to be a force for good and a possible saviour to Fidelma, the main female character, who falls for his charms. Fidelma’s story is that she is a local beauty, therefore distrusted by many in the town. She is married to Jack, the owner of the women’s dress shop, and a dull, old-fashioned man, and Fidelma is deeply unfulfilled. The have been unable to conceive a child and so Fidelma turns to Vlad, ostensibly to help her become pregnant, but really to fulfil an unmet need in her.

So far so good, but I’m afraid Part Two lost me. At the end of Part One Vlad is exposed as a suspected war criminal, a former military commander who is accused of unspeakable brutality during the Balkan conflict. From this point on chaos ensues. It is as if nature itself is upended. The story takes on a far darker and more sinister tone and this jars somewhat with the slightly comic aspects of the first half of the book.

I don’t want to reveal any more of the story, but the dramatic events of Part Two just did not ring true for me. It is also very confused and confusing. It feels over-written and under-edited, too many strands going on and too many themes woven together, not very successfully.

It is a book about who is inside and who is outside; who is outcast and who has the power to cast out; about tribalism and anti-tribalism. The book has worthy ambitions and there is some lovely writing (O’Brien is brilliant writing about the Church), but as a whole I found it somewhat unsatisfying.

the-glorious-heresies-img

McInerney’s book won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction earlier this year and was widely acclaimed. It’s set in Cork city, with a cast of characters marginalised from mainstream society by religion, alcoholism, drugs, crime and poverty. It’s a tough read, exposing a disturbing underbelly in modern society where human life is cheap, where good things get turned into bad things, and where people readily betray one another in the interests of self-preservation.

The novel starts with a murder, the accidental killing of an intruder (Robbie) in a house he believed to be empty but which was in fact being occupied at the time by the mother of a local gangster. Maureen (the mother) hits the intruder with a religious statue (the irony is intended) and kills him. Her son, the deeply unlikeable and nasty underworld villain Jimmy, disposes of the body with the help of Tony, a widowed alcoholic father of six who lives a marginal existence, and loves his children, but is inept in caring adequately for them.

Through Tony we meet Ryan, his eldest son, a likeable teenager at the start of the novel, who is the one of glimmer of hope in this otherwise bleak social landscape. He is bright, but uninterested in school, a talented pianist (thanks to his late Italian mother), but who is increasingly seduced away from mainstream achievements and sucked into a darker world. Ryan’s relationship with his girlfriend Karine is one of the few charming aspects of the book; she is a ‘good girl’ from a decent normal family and their fragile young love story is beautifully portrayed by the author.

Two events bring about the unravelling of the plot. Firstly, Robbie’s girlfriend Georgie, still searching for him two years after his disappearance, meets Maureen (she is a vulnerable young woman who has been ‘taken in’ by evangelical Christians and is going house to house with their message). After hearing her story, Maureen sends Georgie to Tony, thus setting off a string of events that spiral out of control. Secondly, Ryan is caught in possession of drugs, is convicted and given a harsh custodial sentence, in part, the Judge says, to protect him from being drawn further into a life of crime, and because Tony is incapable of managing his son. This is catastrophic for Ryan as it is inevitable he will not return to school to re-sit his final year, as the Court anticipates. What other path is open to him then but to pick up where he left off selling drugs? Because he is clever and has learned his lesson by being caught, he will be more successful at it when he comes out.

The sequence of events is brilliantly conceived. I also thought the characters were very well-drawn; we learn a great deal about each of them, their backgrounds, vulnerabilities and motivations, and in that way the author brings us very close to them. The Cork vernacular is skilfully maintained throughout although that does also make it a slightly slower read for those of us unfamiliar with all the slang! The book is at times unrelentingly bleak (I’m afraid I did not agree with The Times which said it was ‘fiendishly hilarious’!). It’s not a novel for the faint-hearted – there are graphic sex scenes and vivid descriptions of violence and intimidation – and there are few moments of hope and lightness.

It is an incredible book, however, powerful, visceral and important, and I would recommend it. There were other books on the Baileys shortlist which I preferred, but this was certainly worthy to be on the list, even if it wasn’t my winner. It’s the author’s first novel and is a remarkable achievement.

What do you think?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s