Pond. Claire-Louise Bennett, The Stinging Fly.
It’s extremely hard to describe Claire-Louise’s debut. Even the author, who comes from England but lives in Galway, isn’t too sure whether Pond is a collection of short stories, a novel, or something else entirely, and quite honestly, it doesn’t matter. These chronicles of a woman, who, living alone, has to deal with the physical world whilst living an inner one, beguiles with its surprising observations and captivating language.
One story starts, ‘I was cleaning out the fire grate first thing and as I dropped the pan vertical so that the ashes dropped into the bucket below I was distracted by an observation that was generally comical yet profoundly concerning: I rarely acquire any enthusiasm for the opposite sex without being drunk’
Whether she’s deciding what to have for breakfast, or indeed if she has already had breakfast, plotting how to get the ‘right’ person to sit on her ottoman during a party, or mulling over men, she keeps the reader on side.
Too often, experimental fiction like this can be a ponderous, difficult read. Not so this. I was enjoying living in the woman’s lively mind, and was so engrossed in this exceptional debut, that I missed my Luas stop. This is literature at its best.
What Become of Us. Henrietta McKervey, Hachette Ireland.
Maria Mills arrives home in Dublin with her young daughter Anna, and a suitcase. An eccentric neighbour, Mrs Halpin, offers to mind the child, so that Maria can work in the then fledgling Telifís Éireann. She tells everyone that she is a widow; even her daughter believes this. The truth, that she has fled an abusive marriage is a secret that haunts her days. She can never relax; worrying that sooner or later, her husband will find her.
Maria is promoted, and becomes part of a team working on a programme commemorating the 1916 rising. There’s a rumour that an elusive neighbour, Tess McDermott was once a member of the women’s paramilitary group, Cumann na mBan; something that the former suffragette angrily refutes. Will Maria manage to learn the truth?
Meanwhile, her friend, Eve, encourages Maria to join a group of women who are fighting for the right to drink pints in pubs. She is reluctant, but as the book precedes, and she experiences the subjugation of women at the time, her mindset altars.
I adored this impressive debut. Along with the history, it’s a story of friendship, neighbourliness, what family really means, and where it can be found. The subtle love story rounds the narrative off perfectly.
My Buried Life. Doreen Finn, New Island.
An academic, Eva is living in America, and is having an affair with a married colleague. When she returns home to Ireland for her mother’s funeral, she is forced to confront old demons. Eva had a terrible childhood. Her parent’s marriage ended, then her father died. Her bitter mother seemed to hate her daughter, lavishing all her affection on Eva’s brother, who subsequently took his own life. He was suffering from a severe mental illness.
Trying to come to terms with all this, Eva turns to alcohol – a crutch she has used throughout her adult life. She admits that she’s an alcoholic, but is a functioning one, managing her job as a relief teacher; but it makes her cautious when it comes to romance. Whilst dallying with the younger man, Sean, she is being wooed by her colleague, Adam.
There are many issues covered in the book, from addiction, displacement, family, and the love a mother does, or perhaps doesn’t have for her child; all are skilfully handled. There’s a touch of mystery, too, and a massive plot twist towards the end.
The language is sumptuous, with beautiful, elegantly written sentences – but the text could have done with a more severe edit. Whilst I enjoyed this novel, and look forward to reading more from this, undoubtedly talented writer, too often, I felt buried in words.
Skin Paper Stone. Máire T. Robinson, New Island.
There’s a gritty feel to Máire T. Robinson’s debut. Stevie moves to Galway to take a PhD, but she feels slightly adrift. She has trouble getting a handle on her project, partying too hard to escape the realities of life.
And when she meets Joe Kavanagh, an artist with equally little purpose they feel a deep affinity. Both have deep problems. Joe is being pursued by a drug dealer, and Stevie struggles with a long standing eating disorder. Can the two overcome their problems and let the romance run its course?
This is an assured, beautifully structured debut, showing the underbelly of the recession, and the apathy that can ensue amongst the misfits. All the characters, including the walk on ones, are rounded, with authentic filled out lives.
The plot flows beautifully, weaving in historical women’s issues, and themes of body image and fertility. It’s a page turner, in the very best sense. And though the subject matter is dark, making it a tough read at times, the writing never feels forced. And we’re rewarded with the tender redemptive love story at its heart.
Robinson has already come to public attention, winning prizes for her short stories. This debut assures her place as one of Ireland’s best emerging talents.
The Glorious Heresies. Lisa McInerney, John Murray.
We move to the underworld in Cork for Lisa McInerney’s fizzingly dark but funny debut. It starts with an accidental murder performed by Maureen, an unmarried mother who came looking for her grown son, to discover he is a drug baron, and a feared, dangerous gangster. Surveying the dead body of the young male intruder, she turns to her son for help to dispose of the body. And so starts a humorous rampage through the seamier side of Cork life.
We also meet Georgie, a prostitute set on religious conversion, and Tony, a criminal underling who is struggling to reform and beat alcoholism. Central, though, is Tony’s fifteen year old son Ryan, a dealer, who is bright, but blighted by his background. There is such tenderness in his burgeoning teenage romance, and he has sense way beyond his years. Can he follow his heart, pass exams and made a better life for himself?
Massively talented, Lisa cut her writing teeth with an award winning blog called The Arse End of Ireland. A brilliant observer, she takes a tough subject, but infuses it with laugh aloud humour, and astute, effervescent prose.
If I hadn’t known the name of the author, I would have assumed this debut was written by a male; it reminds me, strongly, of Slow Punctures, a wonderful debut written in the nineties by John Trolan. And it’s interesting to note that those is the forefront of praise for McInerney are males – among them are Kevin Barry, Colin Barrett, Joseph O’Connor, and Donal Ryan. There’s no doubt that with her sense of character, and ease for language and dialogue, we’ll be hearing a lot more from this author.
The Defence. Steve Cavanagh, Orion.
This is the year for amazing emerging women. There’s a flood of them, and the standard is better than ever. The tide may have turned, and the influx of males that started with Donal Ryan dried a little, but there are one or two male talents debuting too.
One such is Steve Cavanagh, a lawyer from the North, who has set his thriller in the states. And he has an audaciously original plot. Con-artist turned lawyer Eddie Flynn decided he would never darken the doors of a courtroom again. But when the head of the Russian mafia, Olek Volchef straps a bomb to his back and kidnaps his daughter, he has just 48 hours to defend Volchef and win a murder trial. Can he convince the jury of the impossible?
This is a clever, compulsive thriller with convincing courtroom scenes and loads of corkscrew twists. The characterisation is great. The baddies are multi dimensional, but it’s the character of Flynn who lifts this debut above the thriller parapet. Funny, flawed and humane, he reminded me of Colin Bateman’s Dan Starkey; he has that same intelligence, moral fibre, and tenderness in his relationships. The love for his daughter, for example, is beautifully drawn. This is the first of a series starring Eddie Flynn, and it promises to reward its author with both critical, and commercial success.
Published in Books Ireland.
© Sue Leonard. 2015.