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.’

‘Three?’

‘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.

The Missing Sister by Lucinda Riley

The Missing Sister is the seventh book in the Seven Sisters series inspired by the mythology surrounding the star cluster known as the Pleiades or ‘the seven sisters’. Looking at other reviews of this book, it seems that a lot of people were expecting this to be the final book in the series and were disappointed to find that it’s not; it didn’t bother me as I’d seen Lucinda Riley’s announcement on Twitter regarding an eighth book, but if you weren’t already aware, it’s probably best to know before you start that you will need to wait another year for all of the series’ mysteries to finally be resolved.

The first six Seven Sisters novels each tell the story of one of the adopted daughters of a mysterious billionaire known as Pa Salt who dies at the beginning of the series, leaving the sisters some clues to help them trace their biological parents. The girls all grew up together at Atlantis, Pa Salt’s estate by Lake Geneva in Switzerland, but they were born in different countries and come from a diverse range of cultures and backgrounds. They are each named after one of the stars in the cluster – Maia, Alycone (Ally), Asterope (Star), Celaeno (CeCe), Taygete (Tiggy) and Electra D’Aplièse. There should have been a seventh sister, whose name would have been Merope, but only six girls were actually brought home to Atlantis by Pa Salt.

In this seventh volume, the D’Aplièse sisters have decided to find Merope and invite her to join them to mark the anniversary of Pa Salt’s death. However, the only clue they have to her identity is a picture of a star-shaped emerald ring. Their search will lead them first to a vineyard in New Zealand and then right across the world to a farmhouse in West Cork, Ireland, but I can’t really say too much about who and what they discover, as to do so would risk spoiling the story and I would prefer to allow other readers to enjoy the hunt for the missing sister without knowing too much in advance.

Although I think the previous six books could probably be read in any order, I would recommend saving this one until you’ve read the others and are already familiar with the D’Aplièse sisters and their stories. All six of them have important parts to play in this book and while some of the methods they use in trying to track down Merope are a bit far-fetched and not always very kind, it was nice to see all of the sisters getting involved (with some help from other characters from earlier in the series – I particularly enjoyed meeting Star’s eccentric friend Orlando again).

The search for Merope is set in the modern day, but as some possible clues to her identity and background emerge, we also spend some time in the past, particularly in Ireland in 1920 where we follow the story of Nuala Murphy, a young woman who has joined her country’s struggle for independence. I found the historical sections of the book fascinating and completely gripping, as well as educational. For example, I knew nothing about the work of Cumann na mBan, the Irish republican women’s association who played a part in the rebellion and the subsequent civil war of 1922. It isn’t clear at first how Nuala’s story will be connected to Merope’s, but things do start to come together later in the book.

As for the overall story arc of the seven sisters, this book has left me with more questions than I started with! I’ve been forming a few theories of my own, but will have to wait for the publication of Atlas: The Story of Pa Salt for everything to be revealed.

Thanks to Macmillan for providing a copy of this book for review

Book 26/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Edited 11th June 2021: I was so sorry to hear the sad news today that Lucinda Riley has died after a four-year battle with cancer. Maybe we will never get to know Pa Salt’s secrets now, but Lucinda has left a wonderful legacy of work behind for her fans to treasure and new readers to discover.

Cashelmara by Susan Howatch (re-read)

After re-reading Susan Howatch’s Penmarric last year, I decided to continue with a re-read of her 1974 novel, Cashelmara. I remembered this one as my least favourite of the three big historical novels I read by Howatch, so I was interested to see whether I still felt the same way about it now.

Cashelmara, like Penmarric (and The Wheel of Fortune, which I will also be re-reading soon), retells Plantagenet history in a more recent setting. Here we see Edward I, Edward II and Edward III of England recreated as Edward de Salis, his son Patrick and grandson Ned, a fictional 19th century family. No knowledge of the historical characters is necessary but it does add another layer of interest if you can spot the parallels.

The novel opens in 1859 with Edward de Salis, a widower with several adult children, visiting cousins in New York and returning to England with a new bride – the much younger Marguerite. Edward is keen to introduce his wife to his daughters, but they prove to be disappointingly hostile to Marguerite, who is only a few years older than they are. It is only Patrick, his son and heir, who makes her feel welcome and wanted, but Marguerite senses a tension between father and son that she doesn’t quite understand.

After Edward’s death, Patrick inherits his father’s lands and title, and as his story unfolds we start to see why his relationship with Edward had been so strained. Marguerite is pleased when he marries her niece, Sarah, but it soon becomes clear that it is not going to be a happy marriage. Patrick’s fortune is quickly lost through gambling and poor financial decisions and the two are forced to move to Cashelmara, the de Salis estate in Ireland. It is here that Sarah gets to know Patrick’s beloved friend Derry Stranahan and discovers that she is destined to always take second place in her husband’s affections…

At this point, if you do know the history on which this book is based, you’ve probably guessed that Sarah represents Isabella, Edward II’s queen, and Derry the king’s favourite, Piers Gaveston. Later in the novel you will also meet characters who correspond to Isabella’s lover Roger Mortimer, to Edward II’s other favourite Hugh Despenser, and to Edward III and his wife, Philippa of Hainault. If you don’t know the history, though, don’t worry because the story of the de Salis family can still be followed and enjoyed even if you’re completely unaware of the similarities with their 14th century counterparts.

The novel is divided into six sections, each one with a different narrator – Edward, Marguerite, Patrick, Sarah, Maxwell Drummond and Ned. I can’t really say that I liked any of the characters (apart from maybe Marguerite), but they are all complex, interesting, multi-faceted human beings each with their own positive and negative qualities. As with Penmarric, the shifting perspectives are very effective, because characters who had seemed unpleasant and unappealing when seen through the eyes of others suddenly become much more sympathetic when they get the opportunity to tell their side of the story. Sarah, in particular, is forced to go through some terrible ordeals during her marriage to Patrick; there are some dark moments in each of the six narratives, but Sarah’s story is surely the darkest and bleakest of them all.

Howatch’s choice of 19th century Ireland as the setting for the novel is perfect as there are plenty of historical events and issues which she can use to move the plot forward while continuing to mirror the Plantagenet storyline. The effects of famine and poverty, the campaign for Home Rule under Charles Stewart Parnell, the civil unrest surrounding the evictions of tenants, and the lives of Irish immigrants in America are all woven into the story. Cashelmara is a fascinating novel on many levels and I enjoyed my re-read, but I did find it very slow in places and for a while in the middle it seemed to go on forever. I never really became so immersed in the story that I couldn’t put it down. I do remember loving The Wheel of Fortune much more and I’m looking forward to reading that one again too, hopefully in the near future.

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

Despite enjoying two of Emma Donoghue’s previous books – Room and Frog Music – this latest novel about a girl in 19th century Ireland who stops eating didn’t appeal to me when it was published last year. It was only when I picked it up in the library a few weeks ago that I thought ‘actually, this does sound good’ – and with such a beautiful cover, how could I resist? And as it turned out, this is my favourite of the three Donoghue books I’ve read so far.

The Wonder is set in a small community in rural Ireland during just two weeks in 1859. Lib Wright, an English nurse who worked with Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War, arrives in the village to start a new job, knowing nothing about the position she has accepted except that her services will only be required for fourteen days. She is surprised to discover that her patient is an eleven-year-old girl, Anna O’Donnell, and that her task is not to nurse but to watch and observe.

Anna’s parents insist that their daughter has eaten nothing at all since her birthday four months ago and exists purely on prayer and faith. Lib is sceptical, but it seems that most people in the O’Donnells’ village – including the local priest and Anna’s elderly doctor – are happy to believe the claims. News of the girl’s amazing achievement has spread far and wide and visitors are arriving from all over Ireland to see ‘the Wonder’ for themselves. To prove whether or not Anna is a fraud, Lib and another woman – Sister Michael, a nun – have been appointed by a committee to take turns watching over Anna all day and night for the next two weeks.

Lib expects to get to the bottom of this mystery very quickly. Anna looks so healthy and full of life, it seems obvious that someone must be providing her with secret supplies of food – all Lib needs to do is keep her wits about her and ensure that she and Sister Michael never let the girl out of their sight. After a few days, however, she’s not so sure. Is Anna really the saint the villagers believe her to be? Is it all an elaborate hoax? Or could something more sinister be going on – and if Lib decides Anna is in danger, at what point should she try to intervene?

Like The Good People by Hannah Kent, another book set in 19th century Ireland, this is a fascinating exploration of the harm that can be done, often unintentionally, by superstition and a lack of understanding and the basic knowledge we take for granted today. In addition to this, there’s the hugely influential role of the Catholic Church, such a large part of everyday life for many Irish people in the 1850s, which Lib Wright – as an Englishwoman who has had her own faith driven out of her by her experiences in the Crimea – finds very frustrating; it seems incomprehensible to her that so many people are ready to accept that Anna O’Donnell is a living miracle when science suggests that there must be a more logical explanation. Anna’s situation is often quite sad and harrowing to read about and I desperately hoped her story would have a happy ending.

I was curious to know whether The Wonder was based on a true story, as the other Emma Donoghue books I’ve read were, but on reading the author’s note at the end it seems that although it is inspired by tales of Victorian ‘fasting girls’, it is not based on one particular case and is a fictional story.

The mystery element of the novel is very strong and at first the reader is as confused as Lib. Anna doesn’t appear to be a starving child, so she must be getting food from somewhere – but who is giving it to her and how? As the novel progresses and we learn more about the O’Donnell family and the community in which they live, other questions are raised. I was able to put enough of the clues and hints together to form a theory as to what was happening, but I was still completely gripped, waiting for Lib to uncover the truth. I thought The Wonder was…well, wonderful. Highly recommended!

This is Book 1/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.