Last ones left alive. Sarah Davis-Goff. Tinder.
Orpen is walking along the road pushing a wheelbarrow, her black dog, danger, by her side. Her blackened toenail falls off – her fingers blister, but the pain is nothing compared to her crippling fear. Maeve, the woman, who, alongside her Mam, brought her up, lies, unmoving in the wheelbarrow, and Orpen is desperately seeking some kind of civilisation along with a cure. So opens this haunting debut from Sarah Davis-Goff.
It’s Ireland of the future – a hot, barren land inhabited by marauding zombies – the half dead skrake – and the teenage Orpen has been trained both to fear and to fight them. And they’re not the only danger. She has been warned off tall buildings, cities, and men. They, it’s hinted, created this grisly world, if by mistake. She doesn’t know who, or what to trust, but she’s curious. And, heading East for the illusive Phoenix City, looking for other survivors, she’s convinced she’ll find a congenial life there despite warnings from Maeve to the contrary.
Orpen has spent her whole life, this far, on Slanbeg, an abandoned island off the West Coast. She’s aware that a disaster has ended the world – the abandoned derelict cottages are testament to that – but her questions about the adults’ past, and life in Phoenix City remain largely unanswered. All that is clear, is that they chose to live on the island in order to give Orpen the best and safest life they possibly could.
The book dips between the past, telling of Orpen’s idyllic early childhood, and the constant terrors of the present. This device gives the reader relief, whist keeping the tension racked up. I’m not, in general, a fan of post-apocalyptic literature, but I was rooting for Orpen from the first page. This isn’t a comfortable read – it’s too terrifyingly real for that – but it’s written with style, conviction, and a whole lot of humanity.
Show Them A Good Time. Nicole Flattery. The Stinging Fly.
In the centre of Nicole Flattery’s innovative collection of stories, there’s one long enough to be a novella. It’s beautifully sustained and augers well for the novel Nicole’s publishers have contracted. Abortion, A Love Story features the friendship between Natasha and Lucy – students at a Dublin university who, bonding over their crippling insecurities, produce and present their stories through a play.
They meet through Professor Carr, a middle-aged man ‘who had spent a long time establishing a reputation, and now that he had one had nothing else.’
The setting – clearly this is based on Trinity – brings comparisons with Sally Rooney’s Normal People, – yet the resemblance stops there. Flattery’s character’s flounder around with cotton wool in their ears. Natasha has forgotten which subject she’s supposed to be studying, and the two are so unrooted, they might as well be living on a parallel planet.
Most of Flattery’s protagonists have rich, if highly chaotic inner lives, but they struggle to make sense of their lives. Many have been belittled by abusive or neglectful men. In Track, the story that won Flattery the White Review Short Story Prize in 2017, the famous comedian’s beleaguered girlfriend gets the brunt of his frustration as his career starts to flounder. Seeking help, she feels out of place at a recovery session for depressives – feeling she hadn’t earned her place there.
Whether she’s writing about the sisterly bond, or a mother’s guilty acceptance of her lover’s child – there’s an immediacy and poignancy to these creative stories. The writing is sublime, and each one is quite brilliantly set up. Hump, a tale of grief, starts, ‘At Seventy, after suffering several disappointments, the first being my mother, the second being me, my father died.’ A debut to savour.
M is for mammy. Eleanor O’Reilly. Two Roads.
Jenny loves words. She loves writing them, thinking about them, and reading them. So it’s particularly tough for the little girl that her brother Jacob, who has autism, is speechless. His words are locked inside him, and when Ma has a stroke, she can’t speak, even if she could get a handle on the words she wanted to use. Secreted in hospital, she’s too scared to let the children visit. Instead they are cared for by the garrulous Granny Mae-Ann.
Jenny gets into trouble at school. She invents a fantasy life to humour the bullies, but ends up their object anyway. And when she fights back, she’s sent to counselling with the wonderfully eccentric Mrs French.
The weeks go by and there’s no sign of their mam returning. When she eventually comes home, Jacob, who has missed her sheer physically, bonds with her at once, but Jenny recoils, unable to reconcile the big baby her mother has become with the mam she loves.
The author teaches English to secondary school students, and this interest shows. Jenny writes long letters to Anne Frank, comparing their lives. She’s not a fan of unhappy endings; she decried John Boyne for the close of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and, wanting something better for Anne Frank, writes her an alternative happy ending. There promises to be a happy ending for this author, too. With her keen ear for dialogue, her irrepressible voice, and her talent for humour, she has produced an original debut that should have a wide appeal.
Echoes of Grace. Caragh Bell. Poolbeg.
When Echoes of Grace landed on my desk I was intrigued. I’d reviewed the third of this author’s self-published trilogy, and, whilst it contained a raft of beginner’s errors, I felt she wrote well, and would benefit from a publisher’s input. After much editing, Poolbeg republished and rebranded the trilogy for online sales, but published the author’s new book conventionally.
The debut opens in Cornwall where 10-year-old Aurora lives with her twice widowed father, her mother, Grace having died in childbirth. A sheltered child, she’s delighted when he remarries, and she acquires a sister and two brothers, but is less pleased at their relocation to London.
Move on 13 years, and Aurora has followed the path of her mother into the theatre. Beautiful, with a stunning singing voice, she is struggling to make the big time, and she hasn’t much luck with men. When her step sister, Laura, falls for the father of her best friend, all hell is let loose, but Aurora is more bothered by her adored step-brother, James’s engagement to an ambitious doctor.
At this stage, a few characters from the trilogy step in, in cameo roles – a device frequently used by Jilly Cooper, and I’d say this is no coincidence. There is a similar feel to Echoes of Grace; a doorstopper, it, too, features big houses and Labradors, and it has the same humour, intelligence, and sheer sense of fun.
Always striving to find her place in life, Aurora gets a shock when secrets from the past start to emerge. Will she survive it, and get the happy ending she richly deserves?
I have some quibbles. Aurora’s step-brothers from her father’s first marriage are too nasty to be believable, and some of the dialogue could have been cut, because it caused repetition, but I loved this book. Frothy, fun and fast moving it’s a perfect holiday read.
© Sue J Leonard. 2019.