Old God’s Time by Sebastian Barry – #ReadingIrelandMonth23

Sebastian Barry is one of my favourite Irish authors; he writes beautifully and I’ve loved some of his previous books – in fact, the only one I’ve read that I didn’t like much was Days Without End, mainly because the subject (army life in the American West during the Indian Wars) didn’t really appeal to me. His new novel, Old God’s Time, has a very different setting – Ireland in the 1990s – and I hoped it would be another good one.

Old God’s Time is the story of Tom Kettle, a recently retired police detective who lives in the annex of a castle in Dalkey, a coastal resort to the southeast of Dublin. The castle overlooks the Irish Sea and Tom is finding some contentment in the quietness and solitude of his retirement…until, one day, two younger policeman arrive at his door. They are reopening an historic case Tom worked on in the 1960s and they want to hear his thoughts on it.

Forced to confront moments from his past that he would have preferred to forget, Tom begins to remember. He remembers his beloved wife June and his two children Joseph and Winnie, all now dead, in separate tragic incidents. He remembers his career as a detective and his time in the army. And he remembers that terrible, disturbing thirty-year-old case, linked to one of the darkest episodes in Ireland’s recent history.

When I first read the blurb for this book, it sounded like a crime novel, but being familiar with Sebastian Barry’s work, I knew it would probably be something quite different! In fact, the crime element is pushed into the background until much later in the book, and instead we spend time inside Tom’s head, watching him go about his daily business while memories fleet in and out of his mind, almost at random. The memories don’t come to him chronologically, but in a haphazard, disordered way and sometimes it is unclear whether he is even remembering things accurately. This doesn’t make for easy reading and I spent the first half of the novel feeling very confused. ‘Stream-of-consciousness’ writing is not my favourite style at the best of times and although it does usually work for me in Barry’s novels, I wasn’t won over until the second half of the book. From that point, I was gripped.

The story that does eventually unfold in Old God’s Time is very sad and very grim. It’s a subject that is painful and difficult to read about, but it’s one that needs to be discussed and not ignored. My heart broke for Tom, June and the other characters, but at the same time it’s not a completely miserable book and the beautiful descriptions of the Irish landscape provide a bit of respite from the sadness of the story. I didn’t like this book as much as The Secret Scripture or On Canaan’s Side, but it’s a powerful novel and one I’m pleased I read.

Thanks to Faber & Faber for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

I’m counting this towards Reading Ireland Month 2023, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books.

The Giant, O’Brien by Hilary Mantel

Having finished Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy last year, I knew I wanted to read more of her books. A Place of Greater Safety, her novel about the French Revolution, has always sounded appealing to me but the length is off-putting, so I decided to try a shorter one first.

The Giant, O’Brien, published in 1998, is based on the true story of the 18th century Irish giant, Charles Byrne. Also known as Charles O’Brien and claiming descent from the High Kings, but usually referred to by Mantel as simply ‘the Giant’, Byrne and his friends leave Ireland in 1782, fleeing ‘cyclical deprivation, linguistic oppression and cultural decline.’ The Giant has previously been able to make a living by entertaining his neighbours with stories and songs but, sensing that things are changing, he knows he needs to find a new way to earn money. The solution seems obvious, so after arriving in London with his entourage, the Giant appoints the unscrupulous Joe Vance as his agent and agrees to exhibit himself as a freak, to be stared at, pointed at, poked and prodded, in return for money.

The story of another man unfolds in parallel with the Giant’s. His name is John Hunter, a Scottish surgeon and anatomist – like Charles Byrne, a real historical figure. Mantel describes Hunter’s early years in Long Calderwood and how he came to be in London, first as an assistant to his brother William, another famous anatomist, and then on his own, conducting autopsies in the name of scientific research. Before the Anatomy Act of 1832, it was very difficult to obtain bodies for medical study in the UK, a problem which led to body snatching and the illegal digging up of graves. In one fascinating, if slightly gruesome scene, Hunter lectures a group of newly recruited body snatchers on the best ways to get hold of fresh corpses without being detected. Naturally, the bodies of most interest to Hunter are those that are unusual in some way – so when he hears news of the Giant currently being exhibited in London, he decides to make him an offer, despite the fact that the Giant is not yet dead.

Mantel portrays the Giant as a gentle, intelligent man with a natural gift for telling stories and a seemingly endless knowledge of myth, folklore and fairy tales. This, as much as his height, makes him stand out from his friends. While the others succumb to London’s temptations – alcohol, women and gambling – the Giant saves his money in the hope of one day rebuilding Mulroney’s tavern, now a ruin but once the place where ‘Courts of Poetry’ were held and he was taught the art of storytelling. John Hunter, in contrast, is much less likeable; if the Giant represents tradition and a way of life that is about to be lost forever, Hunter represents progress and advancement and is portrayed as clever, ambitious and lacking in empathy.

In her author’s note at the end of the book, Mantel explains which parts of the story are based on fact and which are purely fictional. There’s more factual information available on John Hunter than there is on the life of Charles Byrne, but what we do know about Byrne is that he suffered from gigantism caused by pituitary tumours, his height was 7ft 7 (2.31m) and his skeleton has been on display in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons for over two centuries, despite his own wishes to be buried at sea. The museum has been closed since 2017 for renovations and the future of Charles Byrne’s remains is the subject of an ethical debate.

I found both the Giant and John Hunter interesting to read about, particularly as I previously knew nothing at all about either of them, but I thought the book seemed slightly disjointed because of the way it kept switching between the two narratives. Until they began to converge very near the end, the two storylines felt completely separate and unconnected; I suppose Mantel’s aim was to show the contrast between the main characters and the different paths they followed through life, but I felt it didn’t flow very well as a novel. I also didn’t find the eighteenth century London setting as immersive as the Tudor world she creates in the Wolf Hall books. Still, there are some fascinating ideas in this novel and the Giant O’Brien himself is a character I won’t forget in a hurry!

This is book 1/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan – #NovNov22

I hadn’t really considered reading this book until my post on the HWA Crown Awards for Historical Fiction, when several of you commented that you had read and loved it. Around the same time, it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and again I saw a lot of praise for it, so when I saw how short it was (128 pages in the edition pictured here) I thought I would give it a try for this year’s Novellas in November.

Small Things Like These is set in a small town in Ireland during the winter of 1985. The weather has turned cold and frosty and Bill Furlong, coal and timber merchant, finds his deliveries very much in demand, with customers desperate to heat their homes. Seeing how his friends and neighbours are struggling, Bill knows how lucky he is to have his own business and to be happily married with five lovely children.

Just before Christmas, Bill delivers coal to the local convent and discovers a girl locked in the coal shed, worrying about her hungry baby. Bill is left greatly disturbed by this encounter, particularly as he himself was the child of a single mother and if it hadn’t been for the kindness of his mother’s employer who helped to care for them both, they might also have been sent to a convent. His wife, Eileen, advises him not to get involved, but Bill continues to feel uneasy about the girls working in the convent laundry and the way the nuns are treating them. He knows he will eventually have to make a decision – but what will it be?

This is a quiet but powerful story, with the details of daily life in a small Irish community beautifully described. It didn’t feel like the 1980s to me, though – if I hadn’t known I would have thought it was set at least a few decades earlier. Maybe that was intentional, as some stories really are timeless. Considering how short the book is, Bill’s character is fully developed and his emotional dilemma is portrayed in depth.

Before reading this book, I had never read anything about the Magdalene Laundries, which were run by convents and were really homes for unmarried mothers and ‘fallen women’. There were allegations of women being beaten, punished and treated as slaves and although the last of these laundries closed in 1996, the Irish government didn’t issue an apology until 2013. Through Bill Furlong’s story Keegan explores the question of complicity and whether by staying silent when we know something is wrong we can be held partly responsible. This aspect of the book reminds me of A History of Loneliness by John Boyne, which looks at another scandal within the Catholic Church.

Not for the first time, though, I’ve come to the end of a hugely popular book feeling that although I liked it and found a lot to admire, I didn’t manage to love it the way everyone else did. In this case I think I just wanted a little bit more. It ended quite abruptly just as I was getting really interested in it and I would have liked to have known what happened to the characters next. I’m sure other readers will have thought it was the perfect length and ended in exactly the right place! Still, I’m looking forward to reading more by Claire Keegan and will think about reading Foster for next year’s Novellas in November.

Dubliners by James Joyce

I read Dubliners at the end of July but haven’t had a chance to post my thoughts on it until now as my 20 Books of Summer reviews had to take priority. This is not my first experience of James Joyce’s work as I have read one of his novels, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but that was about twenty years ago and I can remember very little of it now except a long and vivid description of the horrors of hell! Not being a fan of experimental writing, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake have never appealed at all, but Dubliners sounded much more accessible.

First published in 1914, this is a collection of fifteen short stories. Apparently they are arranged so that the first three are about children, the next few about young adults and the rest about older characters – although I didn’t notice this while I was reading and wasn’t aware of it until after I’d finished the book. Each story provides a snapshot of Dublin life in the early part of the 20th century and I found each one interesting for the insights it gave me into the people, society and culture of that time and place. However, they are not the sort of stories I personally prefer; I like them to have a beginning, middle and end, like a novel in shorter form, but many of the stories in Dubliners are more what I would describe as character sketches and others introduce ideas that are not fully developed, leaving the reader to decide for themselves what might happen next.

I’m not going to discuss all fifteen of them here and I don’t think I would have much to say about some of them anyway, but one I particularly liked was Eveline, about a young woman who made a promise to her dying mother to keep the family home together. Now she has fallen in love with a sailor who wants her to go with him to Buenos Aires and she must choose between keeping her promise and staying at home with her abusive father or seizing her own chance of happiness. I also enjoyed The Dead, the longest and most developed story in the book – almost a novella – in which a man makes an unexpected discovery about his wife at a Christmas party, while the snow falls outside. This has been described as one of the greatest stories in the English language and although I wouldn’t go that far myself, I did find it the most intriguing and satisfying story in this collection.

The other themes and topics Joyce includes in Dubliners range from religion, politics and Irish nationalism to poverty, loneliness and marriage. Together they paint a portrait of a city and its people, often bleak and miserable, but that’s how life would have been for some of these people, I suppose. Although most of the stories feel incomplete and leave a lot open to interpretation, I’m still glad I read them.

This is book 32/50 from my second Classics Club list.

Haven by Emma Donoghue

I’ve read four books by Emma Donoghue now and each one has been completely different from the one before! Haven is a particularly unusual novel and even after finishing it I’m still not quite sure what I really think of it.

The setting is 7th century Ireland and the novel begins with a stranger arriving at the monastery of Cluain Mhic Nóis on the banks of the River Shannon. His name is Artt and he claims to have had a dream, a vision sent by God:

‘An island in the sea. I saw myself there. As if I were a bird or an angel, looking down on the three of us.’


‘I was with an old monk, and a young one.’ The Abbot shows no sign of understanding him. ‘The dream is an instruction to withdraw from the world. To set out on pilgrimage with two companions, find this island, and found a monastic retreat.’

Artt persuades the Abbot to let him take a small boat and go in search of the island, accompanied by two other monks: the elderly Cormac, who came to religion late in life after losing his loved ones to plague, and Trian, a young man given to the monastery by his parents as a child. The three monks set off in the boat and eventually come to the uninhabited rocky island of Skellig Michael, where they prepare to live in seclusion together for the rest of their lives.

There’s really not much more to the plot than that, but what could have been an extremely boring book is surprisingly absorbing in the hands of Emma Donoghue. I found it interesting to see how the three men set about establishing their own little settlement on the island and how different their views were on what is necessary for survival. Skellig Michael is a harsh, remote and inhospitable place; looking at photos, I can’t imagine what it would have been like to live there, but monks (not the ones in the novel, who are fictional) really did build a monastery there. It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was used as a location for two of the recent Star Wars films.

Cormac, the most practical of the three, believes that their immediate priority should be to build shelter for themselves ready for the winter, but Artt – or ‘the Prior’ as he now calls himself – insists that there will be time for this later and that their time should first be spent on constructing an altar, a chapel and a stone cross. Meanwhile Trian is kept busy fishing and capturing the puffins and other seabirds that will provide them with meat and eggs, as well as fuel and fat for candles. I should tell you that there are a lot of graphic descriptions of gutting fish and killing birds, which I felt became repetitive and excessive – but I think maybe Donoghue has a message here for us, a warning regarding humans’ destruction of the environment and the wildlife that shares our planet:

But Trian struggles to believe that such a variety of lightsome and beautiful birds have formed in their translucent ovoid caskets, broken out of them, walked, cried out to their brethren, taken flight, over and over for these thousands of years…all so Trian can now fling them down to flame and char on a cooking fire.

I disliked Artt more and more as the story progressed and he became increasingly fanatical and adamant that ‘God would provide’, refusing to listen to the concerns of the other two monks. I also found my attention wandering whenever Cormac began to tell one of his many stories about the saints. The ideal reader for this book would have a much stronger interest in Christianity than I do, I think! There’s a revelation near the end which I had suspected all along, and although it came as no surprise to me, it does provide a turning point in the story – but just as things were starting to get exciting, the book ended. It’s a strange novel, as I said, and won’t necessarily appeal to people who’ve enjoyed Emma Donoghue’s other books (it’s nothing like the other three I’ve read – Room, Frog Music or The Wonder), but it’s a short, quick read and worth picking up if anything I’ve said about it has piqued your interest!

Thanks to Picador for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 14/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

This is book 42/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

The Sunken Road by Ciarán McMenamin

I became aware of this book when it appeared on the Walter Scott Prize longlist in February and thought it would be a good choice for this month’s Reading Ireland Month (hosted by Cathy of 746 Books). Ciarán McMenamin is a Northern Irish actor and writer and The Sunken Road is his second novel.

The Sunken Road follows the story of Francis Leonard, known as Francie, who goes off to fight in the First World War with his best friend, Archie. Before he leaves, he promises Archie’s sister, Annie, that he will take care of her brother and bring him safely home when the war is won. Six years later, Francie is back in Ireland and has joined the IRA, fighting this time for his country’s independence. Finding himself a wanted man, pursued by Crozier, his former commander on the Western Front and now a member of the Ulster Special Constabulary, Francie is forced to go on the run. But what has happened to Archie and why has he not returned to Ireland? How will this affect Francie’s relationship with Annie, just when he needs her help more than ever? And what has he done to make Crozier hate him so much?

These questions are answered gradually as the story moves back and forth between 1915-16 on the battlefields of France and Belgium and 1922 in County Fermanagh and County Donegal, with occasional flashbacks to Francie’s childhood years, showing the beginning of his friendships with Archie and Annie. I found the jumping around in time a bit confusing at first, but as I got to know the characters better I was able to keep one timeframe separate from the other in my head and settle into the story. Although only six years have passed between the two periods, we can see how his experiences in the trenches have changed Francie, leaving him damaged, violent and desperate. Some of his actions since returning to fight in Ireland have been cruel and brutal and he is not an easy character to like, yet his interactions with Annie show that he is still capable of some tenderness and the fact that Annie – despite her heartbreak over what happened to her brother – doesn’t give up on Francie suggests that she thinks the man he once was is still there somewhere.

This book wasn’t entirely to my taste; I found it very violent, even for a war novel, and there’s a lot of focus on fighting, shooting and military life, things that I don’t particularly enjoy reading about. However, I was still gripped by the story and the very moving ending, although I wished I had a better knowledge of the history surrounding the formation of the Irish Free State as McMenamin doesn’t provide a lot of background information and just drops us straight into the action. If you do like a well-written war story and are looking for one set in Ireland, The Sunken Road would be an excellent choice. It’s written from such an interesting perspective – an Irish Catholic who fights in the 36th Ulster Division of the British Army against the Germans, then just a few years later finds himself fighting against the British for Ireland.

There are two other Irish novels also longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize: The Ballad of Lord Edward and Citizen Small by Neil Jordan and The Magician by Colm Tóibín. It will be interesting to see if any of them make the shortlist when it is announced in April.

Fallen by Lia Mills

Liam Crilly is one of the ‘fallen’ – one of the many young men to be killed in action on the battlefields of World War I. When the tragic news reaches his family in Dublin, they each try to come to terms, in their different ways, with the terrible loss they have suffered. For his twin sister, Katie, losing Liam is like losing a part of herself and now all she has left of him are memories and the letters he sent home from the Western Front. Denied the chance to continue her education at university because her parents don’t believe it’s necessary, Katie finds solace in assisting Dorothy (Dote) Colcough, a friend and scholar, with the research for a new book she is writing.

Through Dote, Katie meets Hubie Wilson, an army officer who had fought with Liam in France and is now recovering at home after losing a hand. Katie is desperate to learn anything she can about Liam’s last days and Hubie is pleased to have found someone who is willing to listen to him talk about his traumatic experiences. Then, just as a relationship is beginning to form between the two of them, another violent conflict breaks out: the Easter Rising of 1916. Now, Katie’s priority is to keep her friends and family safe as armed insurrectionists take to the streets of Dublin with the aim of establishing an Irish Republic.

We actually learn very little about the Easter Rising itself – what lead to it, the politics behind it, how it ended or what the outcome was – and as this is not a subject I know much about myself, I was left feeling a bit lost and confused. However, I think that was probably intentional; the focus of the book is on the ordinary people of Dublin and how they coped with the violence going on around them in the city. Written from Katie’s point of view, she has a limited knowledge of what is happening behind the scenes, but describes to the reader the things she can see and hear for herself: the gunshots, the roadblocks, the looting of shops, the smashed windows and the fires burning in the streets. I couldn’t help thinking that she seems to move very easily from one part of the city to another, considering how dangerous it was supposed to be, but otherwise these sections of the novel feel vivid and real.

The personal side of the story was of less interest to me, which I think is because of the choice of Katie as narrator. I just didn’t find her a particularly engaging character; she’s a woman in her twenties, but her narrative voice makes her seem much younger – and I wasn’t really convinced by the romance with Hubie either. Some of the other characters appealed to me more, such as Liam’s grieving fiancée, Isobel, who feels shut out by the Crilly family after Liam’s death, and Katie’s new friends Dote and May, two unconventional women who are trying to live their lives the way they want to live them. I was sorry we didn’t spend more time with these characters, as I think their stories would have interested me more than Katie’s!

Fallen was selected as the One Dublin One Book choice for 2016, an initiative which encourages people to read a book connected with the Irish capital every April. I’m obviously very late with this one, but I can see why it was chosen, for the unusual perspective it offers on such an important event in Dublin and Ireland’s history.

Book 50/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.