Debut Roundup for Books Ireland, January 2019.

Posted by Sue Leonard on Monday 25th February 2019
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Sweet Home. By Wendy Erskine. The Stinging Fly. 

There’s been some impressive writing to come out of Northern Ireland in recent years, and the latest, a collection of stories published by The Stinging Fly, focuses on an area of East Belfast in the present day.

The collection opens with a story in three parts. To All Our Dues shows Mo, owner of a beauty salon, dealing with a broken shop window. She knows who’s responsible – she’s recently refused to pay protection money to Kyle – but is determined not to give in to intimidation. We then hear from Kyle, who terrorises the town, but tries meditation to control his anger.

Meanwhile, his downtrodden wife, Grace, puts up with her lot, passion and pain having, ‘been made apparent to her when she was young. It had all come in a rush when someone was whacking her with a porno mag.’

This provides a strong opening to a hugely impressive collection. Erskine describes ordinary lives – a teenager observing her best friend’s narcissistic mother – or, in Last Supper, the goings on in a café run by former addicts. We see a rich couple, new to the area, coming to terms with the death of their child.

Inakeen, one of my favourite stories, shows a widow’s loneliness, which is little alleviated by her boorish son. His wife and child now live abroad, and Jean misses Mariel and Anton, more than she does her former husband.

‘Her husband was someone she once overheard being described as a fellow who could put a bob on himself both ways.’

Erskine has a keen ear for dialogue, and an ability to immerse herself into the lives of the downtrodden. This collection shows the skill and sheer diversity of her writing. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.

 

Eat the Moon by Breda Joy. Poolbeg. 

It’s 1969, the summer of the Apollo moon landings, and on the O’Mahony’s farm in County Cork life is a little fraught. Teenage Kieron, a hurling star, is dallying with the skittish Kitty, much to his mother’s disapproval.  He’s fighting with his younger sister, Sally, and when their cousin Tamara arrives from London, so traumatised by her mother’s death, that she’s unwilling, or unable to speak, Sally becomes jealous of all the attention she is given.

It takes time for the gentle Tamara to acclimatise herself to the strangeness of life on the farm. And if she finds the business of their husbandry hard to stomach, and the Cork idiom difficult to understand, her influence proves a balm to some of the fieriest elements in the family. All this is observed by ‘Nan,’ who, though steeped in superstition, provides a reassuring listening ear.

Tragedy hits when Kieron is thrown from his black horse, Balthasar, leaving him broken. Hating pity, he shuns company, and squirrels himself away in his room, only leaving it at night when the house is quiet. His mother, Jenny, is in despair.

His father buys a sweet natured silver horse, in the hope that this will inspire his son to leave his bed, but he’s disappointed. It’s not until not until the newly vocal Tamara pleads with Kieron, saying she couldn’t bear for the horse to be sold, that he finally accepts the challenge. Will the horse prove therapeutic?

This delightful account of eighteen months in a family’s life, has four narrators – Sally, Tamara, Kieron, and Jenny. It’s a beautifully written book – showing a once united family at a time of crisis. There’s a sure sense of time and place, an ear for the lingo, and a nice balance between plot and character. It brings the period in rural Ireland magically back to life.

 

The Groundsman by Lynn Buckle. Époque Press. 

There are five narrators in this haunting debut from Lynn Buckle. But that’s the only similarity with Breda Joy’s novel. From her essentially happy family in crisis, we move to an unhappy one who live in a perpetual state of catastrophe.

The Grundsman opens on a Saturday afternoon. Louis, a successful IT manager, gets drunk with his brother, Tony, as they shout over the TV, analysing the post-match analysis. His wife Cally, in bed upstairs, is bemoaning her lot. Teenage Andi is secreted in her bedroom, whilst young Cassie is burying the remote control in the garden.

The family moved to the suburbs before the boom turned to bust, and they feel adrift. It’s clear, at once, that there’s dysfunction. That Cally, depressed, hasn’t the energy to look after her family; that Andi doesn’t take kindly to acting as mother to her sister, and that Cassie, who yearns for a kind word, is escaping by pretending to be a dog.

As the novel progresses we learn that things are a whole lot worse than they first appeared. No wonder Andi is hanging out with an older man, allowing him to do whatever he wants with her – and we realise why little Cassie pretends to be a dog, burying objects that cause dissent.

We don’t like to think about abuse, let alone incest, and it’s a tough subject for a novelist to tackle. But by giving us the story through the eyes of the different narrators, showing how delusional they are, how in denial, we can sympathise with the characters, even though we despise some of them for their acts of mindless cruelty.

There’s some lyricism and humour to lift the narrative, and the family dynamics are well explained, but that doesn’t make this an easy read. Buckle doesn’t hold back, she says it as it is, and this is not for the faint hearted. For all that, it’s a powerful book that raises important issues.

 

Fiona Gartland. In The Court’s Hands. Poolbeg Crimson. 

With the flood of new female fiction writers – the bulk of them turning to crime – its not easy to be original and find a space in the genre, but with a history of court reporting, the Irish Times Deputy news editor, Fiona Garland, has come up with a new take on the crime story.

It’s 2014 and Stenographer Beatrice Barrington, taking a lunch break in Phoenix Park, sees a woman approach the defendant. Later, taking the Luas home, she sees the same woman contacting a member of the jury. Then the jury member is found dead. Suicide is cited, but Beatrice, or Bea, has her doubts, and she contacts Gabriel Ingram, a retired detective. As the two start to investigate, there are signs that Bea is being watched, and could be in danger. She’s had a difficult past, but why is she so keen for the trial to continue?

The novel flips between this timeframe and 1981, when Bea meets, and falls in love with Leo, a dynamic business tycoon, who leaves his current girlfriend to be with her. The relationship moves fast, and the two are set to marry, but then something goes awry, and it all ends in tragedy.

This likeable debut rattles along. Some of the scenarios are a little unlikely, and a few of the plot twists a tad clunky, but it’s an enjoyable read. This is the first of a series, and, as an acute, but covert  observer of courtroom goings on, Bea Barrington is a welcome addition to the crime genre.

Published in Books Ireland Magazine in January, 2019

© Sue Leonard. 2019

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