The Lion and the Cross by Joan Lesley Hamilton

The Lion and the Cross If you’re looking for the perfect book to read as St Patrick’s Day approaches, this could be it. Originally published in 1979, The Lion and the Cross: A Novel of Saint Patrick and Ancient Ireland has recently been made available as an ebook by Open Road Media. Narrated by Patrick himself, it is a fictional account of the life of the man who would become Ireland’s patron saint.

The story takes place in the 5th century, a time of unrest and uncertainty as the period of Roman rule in Britain has come to an end, leaving the country vulnerable to attacks from raiders. As the novel opens in the year 410, Magonus Sucatus Patricius, son of wealthy Romano-Britons, is sixteen years old. Despite being the grandson of Potitus the priest, Magonus himself has no intention of devoting his life to religion, but this is something which will slowly change. The first big turning point in Magonus’s life comes when he is captured by barbarian raiders who take him across the sea to Ireland where he is sold into slavery.

Now known as Padraic, or Patrick, he spends the next few years herding sheep in the Irish countryside and – after catching the attention of the Ri and Rigan (king and queen) – trying to survive the intrigues and machinations of the court. During this time his faith strengthens and when he eventually manages to escape from his captivity and from Ireland, Patrick must make the decision whether to one day return and convert the people to Christianity.

In The Lion and the Cross, Joan Lesley Hamilton has drawn on a variety of sources including The Confession of St Patrick, Irish mythology and historical fact to recreate the story of Patrick’s life. As she states in her author’s note, this period of history is ‘obscured by the roiling, silent fog of centuries’ and there are many things we don’t know about Patrick and his world; however, I think Hamilton does a good job of working with what little information is available and finding the right balance between fact and fiction.

The praise at the front of this book compares it to Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy, which I have read and loved. Although they are very different stories, I can understand the comparison; like Stewart’s The Crystal Cave, The Lion and the Cross is set shortly after the decline of the Roman Empire, it is narrated by a young male protagonist and it has a slightly magical feel (the first chapter deals with Patrick’s meeting with the Morrighan, a legendary Celtic goddess). The writing is quite beautiful and poetic at times, but let down by the dialogue – some of the characters speak with Irish accents which, to me, don’t sound at all right.

Patrick himself is not the easiest of characters to like. He is a stubborn, arrogant and defiant young man and because of this, despite the ordeals he goes through, I sometimes found him difficult to connect with. Patrick’s personality, though, is an important part of the story; it’s the reason he’s able to survive and to accomplish what he does, and it explains his internal struggles with God and the doubts he has to overcome. I did enjoy learning about Patrick and his life, but the religious element of the novel is very strong (as you would expect from a book about a saint) and I think the ideal reader for this book would be someone with a particular interest in religious history.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this book for review.

A History of Loneliness by John Boyne

A History of Loneliness The first John Boyne book I read was This House is Haunted, a Victorian-style ghost story. The second was Crippen, a fictional account of the life of the murderer Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen. His latest novel, A History of Loneliness, deals with a subject no less dark and disturbing: the child abuse scandal within the Catholic Church in Ireland.

If you have heard about this scandal on the news or read about it in the newspapers, you have probably asked yourself the following questions. How did these paedophiles get away without being caught for so long? Their friends and colleagues must have known what was going on, so why didn’t they say anything? And why did the victims not come forward earlier? John Boyne attempts to answer these questions and more through the story of Odran Yates, a Catholic priest from Dublin who is ordained in the 1970s and lives through some of the darkest days in the church’s recent history.

Having lost his father and little brother under tragic circumstances during a family beach holiday, the young Odran doesn’t argue when his mother tells him he has a vocation for the priesthood and must dedicate his life to God. After seven years of training, Odran begins working at Terenure College where he finds that teaching English and tidying books in the school library suits him better than carrying out the duties of a traditional parish priest. Hiding away in his library for thirty years, Odran is able to ignore what is happening elsewhere in the church…but is he really as oblivious as he claims to be?

A History of Loneliness is a very insightful and thought-provoking novel and my favourite John Boyne book so far. This is obviously never going to be an easy or comfortable subject to write a book about, but he handles it with sensitivity and understanding. By telling the story from Odran’s perspective this means the focus is not just on the issue of child abuse itself, but also on the dangers of burying our heads in the sand and choosing not to confront things that we find difficult or unpleasant.

There are several different ways in which Odran’s character could be interpreted. I saw him as a weak, naïve but basically well-meaning person who made some terrible mistakes and serious errors of judgment. It’s difficult for anyone to know how they would react under similar circumstances, but I’m sure we would all like to think that we would do what is right and not just take the easy way out. Odran doesn’t always do the right thing and he does sometimes take the easy option, but does that make him as guilty as the people who have actually committed the crimes? It’s left to the reader to decide how much blame should be attributed to Odran and those like him and whether there can ever be any excuse for turning a blind eye and doing nothing.

The novel has an interesting structure as the chapters don’t follow each other chronologically (a chapter set in 2006 is followed by one set in 1964 and then 1980). This was confusing at times but very effective because it meant we were filling in one piece of the story at a time, like a jigsaw puzzle. John Boyne is a wonderful storyteller and as well as exploring the serious, sensitive issues I’ve already described, he also creates an absorbing personal story for Odran and his family which unfolds slowly as we jump back and forth in time.

With the story spanning more than five decades, we are shown how public perception of the Catholic Church has changed over the years. In the 1970s and 1980s, Odran is treated with respect and admiration everywhere he goes; people trust him and look to him for help and advice, never questioning his integrity. By the time we reach the present day, attitudes are completely different. A man spits in Odran’s face just because the clothes he is wearing identify him as a priest, while an attempt to help a lost child in a department store ends in disaster. It’s sad because, of course, not everyone within the church was involved in these sexual scandals and yet they have all suffered through the actions (or non-actions) of others.

A History of Loneliness could easily have been a very depressing book, but thankfully Boyne does add some humour to the story – even if he does seem to rely on Irish stereotypes and clichés at times (if you’ve ever watched the comedy Father Ted you’ll know the sort of humour I mean). If I haven’t already made it clear, I loved this book and am so glad I still have so many of John Boyne’s earlier novels left to explore!

I received a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters by Michelle Lovric

Harristown Sisters Manticory Swiney and her six sisters are born into poverty in rural 19th century Ireland and brought up by their mother, a laundress. They have never known their father (he visits once a year in the middle of the night) but from him they have inherited some very special gifts: their wonderful names and the abundance of long, thick hair which proves to be their route to fame and fortune. Bullied by the eldest sister, Darcy, into performing on the stage, the girls entertain their audiences by singing, dancing and, as a finale, unleashing their luxuriant cascades of ankle-length hair.

Approached by Augustus Rainfleury and Tristan Stoker, both of whom can see the money-making potential of seven long-haired sisters, the ‘Swiney Godivas’ leave their impoverished Harristown lives behind to find success in first Dublin then Venice. But for black-haired, sharp-tongued Darcy, the rival twins Berenice and Enda, quiet Pertilly, gentle, blonde Oona, wild Idolatry and our narrator, red-haired Manticory, fame doesn’t necessarily bring happiness.

I loved this book, the first I’ve read by Michelle Lovric, and I would agree that it really is a ‘splendid history’. It’s not quite a true one – Manticory and her sisters are fictional – but it was inspired by the story of the real-life Sutherland Sisters, an American family who really did become celebrities due to their long hair. If you have trouble imagining what seven sisters all with floor-length hair would look like, lots of pictures of the Seven Sutherland Sisters can be found online.

With so many Swineys to get to know, I was pleased to find that each sister is given a strong and distinctive personality of her own. I liked some of the girls and disliked others, but they were all great to read about, particularly the fierce, devilish Darcy who takes control of every scene in which she appears. One of my favourite characters, though, was not a Swiney sister at all, but their childhood enemy, Eileen O’Reilly (or the Eileen O’Reilly as she is always described) who enjoys exchanging very imaginative insults with Darcy – and who claims to hate the Swineys yet can’t seem to stay away from them.

Manticory herself has a wonderful narrative voice: strong, poetic and unmistakably ‘Irish’. She manages to bring a lot of humour into her ‘true and splendid history’ but it’s really a very dark story. There’s a vulnerability about the sisters, even Darcy, in that they are manipulated and taken advantage of by ruthless businessmen and men who are…well, attracted to girls with long hair. The Swineys are betrayed and exploited by the very people they have placed their trust in and what makes this even more tragic is that the reader can see this from the beginning while the sisters can’t.

Finally, I want to mention the excellent descriptive writing in this book. Every time Manticory thinks of her childhood in Harristown, County Kildare, she remembers the ‘turf stoves, thin geese and slow crows’ until Harristown becomes almost a character in itself. Later in the book, the descriptions of Venice are particularly beautiful…

The palazzi and churches let their fretted stones hang down into our faces like beautiful, insitent ghosts. Beckoning lanterns hung at arched water-gates. Inside their houses, equisitely dressed Venetians displayed themselves in glowing tableaux so that each palace seemed to host a puppet theatre performing just for us. The city was mystical and barbaric all at once, a floating fortress so delicate that the fairies would hesitate to place the weight of their wings on it.

I also loved the images of the girls hanging their hair from the windows of the bell tower of San Vidal like seven Rapunzels and each of them standing in the bow of a gondola with her hair trailing into the boat behind. I could tell this book was written by someone who knows and loves Venice!

The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters is one of my favourite books of the year so far and I’m now looking forward to investigating Michelle Lovric’s previous novels.

I received a copy of this book from NetGalley for review.

The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry

The Temporary Gentleman

“It seemed there was more cruelty than joy stored up in the human story, and kindness and comfort only rationed, and the ration book for both indeed not issued to everyone.”

The Temporary Gentleman is the third Sebastian Barry book I’ve read and I was looking forward to it, having loved both The Secret Scripture and On Canaan’s Side. Based on those two novels I knew I could expect a tragic, heartbreaking story and some beautiful, haunting writing – and that’s exactly what I got. Whenever I read a book by Sebastian Barry I am impressed by how much care he gives to each and every sentence, always searching for the perfect word or phrase to use. He can make the most ordinary, mundane things sound poetic and magical.

This is the third, I think, of Barry’s novels to focus on members of the McNulty family. The first, which I haven’t read yet, is The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty and the second is The Secret Scripture, which tells the story of Roseanne, Tom McNulty’s wife. This new book, The Temporary Gentleman, is narrated by Jack McNulty, the brother of Tom and Eneas. They are all standalone novels and I don’t think they need to be read in any particular order, but I do like the fact that they are all loosely connected.

As an Irishman whose commission in the British Army during the Second World War is not permanent, Jack McNulty is the ‘temporary gentleman’ of the title. In 1957, sitting in his lodgings in Accra, Ghana where he lives alone with only his houseboy, Tom Quaye, for company, Jack begins to write his memoirs. He remembers his early days in Ireland and his first meetings with his future wife, Mai Kirwan. He reflects on the reasons why their relationship became strained and their marriage began to disintegrate. And he thinks of the mistakes he has made and the terrible impact of alcohol on both his own life and the lives of his family. Occasionally we return to the present where we learn a little bit about the political situation in 1950s Ghana, but the majority of the novel is devoted to Jack and Mai’s troubled marriage.

This is such a sad story, made even sadder by the fact that Jack does truly love Mai and although he can see that he is ruining his life and hers, he can’t stop himself from doing it. He knows he has made bad decisions and that he is to blame for the tragic outcome of those decisions – and yet he seems incapable of trying to put things right. Jack is not the most pleasant of people but even while I felt frustrated and angry with him, it was still possible to feel a bit of sympathy for him at times. I was also intrigued by Mai’s character, particularly because we only see her through Jack’s eyes and never have a chance to hear her point of view. It would have been interesting to have been able to read the same story from Mai’s perspective – I would love to know how she really felt about Jack and his actions.

As usual with a Sebastian Barry novel, I found that I was constantly marking lines and passages that I loved and as usual, if I started to quote them here I would have to quote almost the whole book. But despite the gorgeous writing I didn’t like this book quite as much as The Secret Scripture or On Canaan’s Side, maybe because Jack causes so many of his problems through his own behaviour and I didn’t feel as desperately sorry for him as I did for Roseanne McNulty or Lilly Dunne. I also felt that the Ghana sections of the novel added very little to the story. Still, this book was worth reading for the beauty of the writing alone. While I’m waiting for Sebastian Barry’s next novel I would like to go back and read his other books on the McNulty and Dunne families that I haven’t read yet.

I received a copy of this book from NetGalley for review.

The Convictions of John Delahunt by Andrew Hughes

The Convictions of John Delahunt Imagine you’re a poor student at Dublin’s Trinity College in the 1840s. You’re newly married and living with your wife in a squalid tenement, cut off from friends and family. The future looks bleak, so when the authorities at Dublin Castle suggest that you become an informer, it seems to be the perfect solution. You will be rewarded well for any information you can give them leading to a conviction…and if you could just manage to witness a few murders, your money troubles could be over!

This is the situation in which our narrator finds himself in this wonderfully moody and sinister historical crime novel, The Convictions of John Delahunt. As the novel opens, John is sitting in a prison cell awaiting his death. We’re not sure exactly what he has done, except that it appears to involve the murder of a child. As he begins to write his final testimony, we are taken back to the origins of John’s dangerous career as an informer and discover how and why this young student of natural philosophy has been sentenced to hang.

Andrew Hughes is also the author of a non-fiction book about the residents of Dublin’s Fitzwilliam Square, Lives Less Ordinary, and so he has been able to draw on his knowledge of the city’s history to make John Delahunt’s world feel authentic and real. Because of the circles in which Delahunt moves, the focus is on the darker side of society – workhouses, grave robbing, illegal abortions, rat-killing and laudanum addiction are all explored. Dublin’s streets and alleys, taverns and parks, courtrooms and drawing rooms are all vividly described and although the language the author uses is modern enough to be accessible and easy to read, it never feels out of place with the Victorian setting.

John Delahunt himself is an intriguing narrator, though not always entirely reliable. He is certainly not easy to like – one of his first actions in the book is to tell a lie to the police that leads to a friend being found guilty of a crime he didn’t commit – yet I could still feel for him when things didn’t go according to plan and when he saw his life beginning to disintegrate around him.

A large part of John’s story revolves around his relationship with his wife, Helen, who is another interesting character – although we never get to see things from her perspective as John is narrating in the first person. At first Helen seems to be on the same wavelength as her husband, attending a hanging with him and even helping him to compile a list of friends, family and neighbours to inform on. Later in the book she experiences a personal tragedy and after this she seems to undergo a change, though because we only see her through John’s eyes, her true thoughts and emotions are not very clear.

I loved this dark and atmospheric book and was completely gripped by John Delahunt’s fascinating story (based on true events, by the way). A word of advice to potential readers – don’t start reading it in your lunch break at work or in bed when you need to be up early the next day, as you may find that you really don’t want to put it down!

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy via NetGalley

Norah by Cynthia G. Neale

Norah Norah McCabe is a young Irish woman living in Five Points, New York City in the 1850s. Having left Ireland during the Famine to come to America as an immigrant, Norah is determined to work hard and escape a life of poverty. Her first venture is a used clothing store called A Bee in Your Bonnet which she runs with her friend, Mary, but when the purchase of an expensive dress leads to them both being implicated in a murder inquiry this proves to be an unexpected turning point in Norah’s career. Offered a job as a reporter for the Irish-American newspaper, she meets a man who introduces her to revolutionary politics – and finds herself both in love and in serious danger.

Cynthia Neale has previously written two young adult books about Norah McCabe, The Irish Dresser and Hope in New York City, which tell the story of Norah’s journey to America as a teenager and her first years in her new country. This book, subtitled The Making of an Irish-American Woman in 19th Century New York, is the author’s first adult novel and continues Norah’s story. The fact that this is actually the third Norah McCabe book probably explains why from the very first chapter Norah feels like a fully developed, three-dimensional character.

I didn’t always like Norah or agree with her decisions – she can be sharp tongued, impulsive and reluctant to take advice – but she is also ambitious, courageous and resilient. Some of the terrible situations she finds herself in could possibly have been avoided, which was frustrating, but I was pleased to find that she does learn from her mistakes and continues to mature over the course of the novel. While I’m not Irish, not an immigrant and not living in 1850s New York, I could still relate to parts of Norah’s story and enjoy watching her use her wits and intelligence to overcome the obstacles that are constantly being placed in her path.

As a work of historical fiction, the background to the novel has clearly been well researched. Life in the poorer areas of New York during this period was not easy and not always very pleasant and the author doesn’t shy away from describing the violence, corruption and prejudice that Norah encounters. But this is also a book about love, about the importance of family and friends, and about what it was like to be a woman in the 19th century – a woman with dreams and ambitions and the determination to try to make them a reality.

Although the pace was slow at the beginning of the book, there was plenty of drama in the later chapters to make up for it. I found this quite an enjoyable, inspirational read and I’m pleased to have had the chance to get to know Norah McCabe.

Norah book tour

I read Norah as part of a Virtual Book Tour organised by Fireship Press, an independent publisher of historical and nautical fiction and non-fiction. For more reviews, guest posts and giveaways please see the tour schedule.

The Herbalist by Niamh Boyce

The Herbalist by Niamh Boyce The Herbalist is set in a small unnamed town in Ireland in the 1930s and tells the story of four women whose lives are affected by the arrival of a stranger – a travelling herbalist who appears from nowhere one day and begins selling his lotions and tonics in the marketplace. Nobody knows anything about the herbalist or his history and initially they are suspicious, but slowly he starts to cast a spell over the women of the town, including sixteen-year-old Emily. Lonely and vulnerable after losing her mother, Emily convinces herself that she and the herbalist are in love, but when she makes a shocking discovery she finds herself with a difficult decision to make.

Another of our main characters is Carmel, who runs a small shop in the town. Having suffered a recent tragedy, Carmel is depressed and insecure and she feels that the only person who understands is the herbalist. Her brother, a teacher, suggests she should find an assistant to help her in the shop and recommends a former student, Sarah, for the job – but how will Carmel react to Sarah’s arrival?

We also follow Sarah, who is having problems of her own. The night before she leaves home to start her new job, her beloved aunt Mai throws a party for her and something that happens at that party will have a big impact on Sarah’s future. Finally, there’s Aggie, a ‘woman of ill repute’ and a fortune-teller. Aggie is an outsider, but through watching and listening to what is going on around her she seems to know more about the herbalist than anyone else in the town. The stories of Emily, Carmel and Sarah are told in alternating chapters, with occasional contributions from Aggie, and gradually the truth about the herbalist is revealed.

I was very impressed with this book and found it hard to believe that it’s Niamh Boyce’s first novel! The writing is beautiful, the setting and the characters feel completely believable and the story itself is fascinating – inspired by true events, according to the author’s note at the front of the book.

Something I found particularly intriguing was the fact that two of the women’s stories are told in the third person (Carmel’s and Sarah’s) and two in the first person (Emily’s and – in question and answer format – Aggie’s). The only problem with this was that while Emily and Aggie both have distinctive narrative voices of their own, the other two feel very similar. One way in which the use of multiple viewpoints works very well in this novel, though, is that it allows us an opportunity to see things from the perspectives of women from different social backgrounds whose lives are confined by the class system of their small, narrow-minded community.

The herbalist himself remains a mysterious, shadowy figure and although he is at the centre of everything that is happening throughout the novel, the focus is always on the female characters and the various ordeals they are going through. I should mention that this is not a happy story and really delves deeply into the darker side of life in 1930s Ireland. I would like to be able to tell you more about some of the issues the book raises, but then I would be giving away the herbalist’s secrets!

I loved The Herbalist and hope there will be more books from Niamh Boyce in the future.

I received a copy of this book from Penguin Ireland for review.