Debut Roundup. November and December

Posted by Sue Leonard on Monday 25th February 2019
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Notes to Self. Emilie Pine. Tramp Press.  

The opening essay in Emilie Pine’s excellent collection, takes us to Corfu, where Emilie and her sister discover the inadequacies of the Greek health system. Their father’s liver, abused by drink over many decades, is finally failing.

‘After years of teaching Beckett plays, I am finally living in one,’ muses Emilie, as she struggles to both nurse him, and find a doctor to treat him. Thankfully, he survives. He returns to Ireland and ends up with a column in The Irish Times.

The author writes of their unusual relationship, mentioning incidents from her childhood which bordered on neglect. But it’s not until the penultimate essay, Something about Me, that we learn the full extent of Emilie’s dysfunctional childhood.

By then, she has shared a great deal. There’s the agony of undergoing unsuccessful IVF treatment – and her shock that the eighth amendment applied to her. And there’s the pain of loss when her much loved sister delivers a stillborn child. She’s made us laugh, and cringe in recognition, when, in Notes on Bleeding and Other Crimes, she’s admitted that she risked a cancer diagnosis because she couldn’t face taking her top off; and she’s shared the messiness of her parent’s divorce.

This is, overall, an outstanding collection. It speaks of the things we don’t, generally speak about, and it illustrates the contradictions women tend to feel. For all the pain her father has caused her over the years, for all that he could drive her demented, she can admire and love him at the same time.‘And every time he calls my heart races. My heart will always race.’

 

The Letters of William Woolf. Helen Cullen. Michael Joseph. 

William Woolf is a book detective with the Dead Letters Depot in East London. Spending his days trying to reunite lost letters with their owners can be a trying occupation, but leads to some great stories for a novelist. Alongside the letters to Santa, and to fantasy Valentine’s  come the one from a birth mother writing to the baby who was snatched from her soon after its birth.

William is wiling away his time there because he has failed to write the novel his publishers commissioned after the success of his short story collection. A failure that caused a seismic rift in his marriage to Clare, whom he met at university when she was the sole attendee at his book discussion on Ulysses.

Clare believes that William is a coward, and that he didn’t just fail to write the novel, but was too afraid to try. She’s frustrated by the lack of lustre in her own life too. A highly respected lawyer, she yearns to paint – and meanwhile dabbles at a series of hobbies, feeling a misfit at each that she tries.

Clare’s departure for thinking time, propels William into action. A wartime medal awarded for heroism got lost in the post. The sender was looking for the boy he’d saved in the blitz on the night that his own family perished. In order to track the recipient down, William travels to an idyllic village, finds the man, and is jolted out of his sense of malaise. He then becomes obsessed with a series of letters from an Irishwoman to her imagined ‘great love.’ Could the letters be directed towards him?

After a gorgeously promising start this debut, pitched in the new ‘uplift’ genre, moves to a wedding in Smock Alley Dublin, where the couple hope to reignite their relationship, and this is where my interest started to flag. There are long, detailed descriptions, and then the plot rather meanders. It goes beyond quirky to frankly unbelievable.

That’s a shame, because there is much to commend about Cullen’s writing. She has produced a memorable, kind of EM Forster type hero in the hapless William Woolf, and her central idea, pitching idealised love against the mundaneness of long standing relationship works well. 

 

The First Sunday in September. Tadgh Coakley. Mercier Press.  

It’s the day of the all-Ireland hurling final; an event to affect a diverse team of characters. And to bring them all together, Cork writer Tadgh Coakley has written a debut collection of linked short stories. Many have obvious connections, whilst other are more tenuous.

We hear from the Captains of the opposing Cork and Clare teams; from family members; from a coach; fans, and from those who attend the match for a variety of peripheral reasons.

There’s a hungover gambler, who, having re-mortgaged his house, is relying on Clare to win. There’s Aine, a heartbroken former camogie player, who is finding match day a trial. And in ‘Passion,’ one of the strongest stories, we follow Sarah, the English girlfriend of a hurling fanatic. She watches the match with some bemusement, whilst trying to find the right moment to tell her boyfriend that she is pregnant.

The author gives prevalence to Cork Captain, Sean. He’s adopted, an event that brought grief to his natural parents, when their only other child failed to survive. His father, a reformed alcoholic, watches the match with intent whilst his broken wife remains at home.

Sean has his own story too; as does his adoptive father, a philanderer halted by Parkinson’s, so we get a full picture of that particular scenario. The opposing captain, Cillian McMahon shows us a less attractive side to the sport. His disdain for the women he seduces so mindlessly highlights that misogyny, in hurling, is alive and thriving.

A couple of stories stand out. I adored Angels, the tale of a depressed dad, who proves an unreliable narrator. Then there’s A Pure Dote, showing how a man with dementia has such passion for the sport, that watching his team win, makes him show emotion for the first time in years.

I don’t follow hurling, so I’m not the target audience, and some of the more technical aspects passed me by. But the author is a keen observer, who feels right at home with the vernacular. This is an original and well put together collection.

 

Pilgrim. Louise Hall. Mercier Press. 

When Sarah Carthy dies after a hit and run, the widowed Charlie turns to drink. Sarah’s sister, Suzanne, is worried that he’s neglecting Jen, his teenage daughter, so she books the two of them on a pilgrimage to Medjugorje in Yugoslavia. This is the place where, in 1981, six children had a vision of the Virgin Mary. The group is led by Suzanne’s boss Louis – a man who has problems of his own.

Charlie isn’t impressed. He goes, but, refusing to take part in prayer, spends his time in the bar, leaving Jen to participate without him. She befriends the mother of a damaged child, and then forms a friendship with Iva, one of the chosen children, who still has daily visions. And so this story of faith, grief, pain, suffering and hope evolves.

The story is well paced, and it holds the attention well. It’s told in the first person from six alternating points of view, but we mainly hear from Charlie, Jen, Suzanne, and Iva. This can be problematic. The author writes lyrically, but her slightly stylised writing remains constant, so there’s little to distinguish between the narrators; they all use writerly language.

Louise has an intimate knowledge of Medjugorje. She has visited often – the first time at 10 years old – and has previously compiled two books of testimonies from those whose lives have been touched by the experience. Many readers will be attracted to her portrayal, and enjoy the atmosphere of faith mixed with fear which she evokes so well. It’s a gentle read and ends with a message of hope.

Published in Books Ireland Magazine, November, 2019

© Sue Leonard. 2018

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