Mrs Engels. Gavin McCrea. Scribe.
‘No one understands men better than the women they don’t marry, and my own opinion – beknown only to God – is that the difference between one man and another doesn’t amount to much.’
So starts this sparkling debut by Gavin McCrea. A beautifully written historical novel, with some memorable one liners, it imagines the life of Lizzie Burns, an illiterate Irish woman who became Frederick Engels lover.
The novel opens in 1870, when Lizzie, a woman brought up in the Irish slums of Manchester, gets on a train bound for London with Engels, hoping that, at almost fifty, she is at last going to become the lady of the house, and to a wealthy mill owner to boot. She’s a terrific character; both humorous and uncompromising.
Set mainly in London, as Engels and his friend Marx try to spur a revolution, this novel shows a strong woman, determined to find independence, whilst realising her need to be taken care of. It’s a wonderful portrait, full of humour and insight, and is highly readable. It’s a literary read, reminiscent of Laurie Graham’s more recent books. I was beguiled by Lizzie, and hugely impressed at McCrea’s ability to capture her voice. This is a contender for my debut of the year.
Eggshells. Caitriona Lally. Liberties.
Vivian has never fitted in. Her parents always told her she was a changeling, and that she belonged to another world. They didn’t even christen her properly; her sister was called Vivian too. The novel opens with the death of her great aunt, as Vivian parcels up handfuls of the ashes to send to all the people listed in her great aunt’s address book. The house is now hers. She lives there, alone, believing she will, somehow, find a way to that other world.
Traversing North Dublin in an increasingly desperate search for a job – giving us a wonderful portrait of the area in the process, Vivian is also searching for a friend. She advertises for someone, deciding that she must be called Penelope, and have lots to say.
It took me a while to get into the head of Vivian; she has no social skills, and looks at the world through a skewed lens; but once drawn in, and began to enjoy her weird escapades and view of life. It’s fun following her logic, along with the author’s skilful play on words.
Reading like a modern fairy tale, this novel has hidden depths. It’s a touching account of difference, showing how life must feel for someone who can never conform, and for whom the world is an incomprehensible place. It’s a quirky look at loneliness, friendship and hope, and is a highly impressive debut.
All That I Leave Behind. Alison Walsh. Hachette Books Ireland.
A freelance editor, Alison Walsh has already written a bestselling factual book; In my Mother’s Shoes looked at motherhood through three generation of women; and Alison returns to the general theme in her debut novel.
Examining the effect of an absent mother on the children she left behind, the novel starts off with Michelle, the mother, looking back on her marriage, and the day she left it, and her children behind, in the belief that there was no other choice.
A whopping family saga, the novel centres on Mary-Pat, an irritating woman with a need to stay in control; her twin siblings, the spoilt radio presenter’s wife June, and Pius, who lives alone growing increasingly eccentric. Their father, meanwhile, is deteriorating in a nursing home, suffering the early stages of dementia.
The sibling’s uneasy equilibrium is upset when Rosie, their estranged younger sister, breezes in from the States to get married from her childhood home. Long held secrets emerge which force change on everyone.
This is an absorbing beach read, told from various points of view. It’s enjoyable, with good local colour, but I could never quite believe in Michelle’s sanctimonious conviction that she had acted through lack of choice. It was the younger sister, Rosie’s tale that carried the most resonance for me.
The Bones of It. Kelly Creighton. Liberties.
Scott McAuley is thrown out of university in England, and returns to County Down where he finds work in a garden centre. Clearly intelligent, he can’t get on with his father, who spent most of Scott’s childhood in prison for murdering teenagers. Set free after the Good Friday Agreement, he is now working as a counsellor.
The events of a year are told through Scott’s diary entries. Looking back at his time at university, he writes of his then girlfriend, Jasmine; he loves her, but has been denied all contact with her, and this has something to do with his expulsion. His current love is Klaudia, who works with him at the garden centre, but it becomes clear the affection is all one sided.
As the novel progresses, we realise that Scott is far from a reliable narrator. As he battles with his father, Duke, and talks of crimes committed by others, we start to realise just how troubled this young man is.
A crime novel with a difference, this is a chilling psychological study and has been compared to The Butcher Boy. It’s compelling, compulsive and compassionate, not to mention creepy and chilling. Scott’s is an authentic voice, and Creighton is a writer to reckon with.
The Lake.Sheena Lambert. Harper Collins Killer Reads.
At 23, Peggy Casey is left managing the rural Angler’s Rest. It’s a hard and lonely task. Then a body is found in the lake, and Detective Sergeant Ryan arrives. The investigation lends life to the village, and things become interesting when old secrets start to surface.
Set in the sixties, The Lake is an evocative tale, summoning the atmosphere of rural Irish life quite beautifully. Set mainly in the confines of the pub, where a stranger is regarded with the utmost suspicion, the locals are sensitively portrayed, with emphasis on those who lost their homes when the lake was constructed over their village.
This novel investigates a crime, yet it is essentially a family tale. It shows the difficulty for Peggy, stuck in the rural village, whilst her siblings, taking advantage of their sister, spend most of their time elsewhere.
In many ways a feminist book, the gay issue is covered too; Peggy’s brother Jerome, living in Dublin, suffers from the violence often meted out to homosexuals back then. This is a beautifully written evocation of the sixties from a writer with a very sure voice.
For the Love of Martha. Maria Murphy. Poolbeg.
Martha is a governess in England, who loses her heart to the local doctor. When she has to move with the family to a house in County Monaghan, she is distraught. She lives in hope of a reconciliation, and when she hears that the doctor has died, makes her employer promise that when she dies, she will be buried with her lover, back in England. This doesn’t happen.
Move on 120 years, and Juliet, a photographer, falls in love with Logan Pershaw whom she meets in Florence. When he invites her to fly from London to stay at that same house in County Monaghan, she is delighted. But he’s changed. Gone is the carefree man she remembers; Logan is now distracted and remote.
He confesses that he’s unable to sleep, and eventually admits that the house is haunted. Disturbed, Juliet realises she will have to unlock the secrets of the house before she can find peace, and happiness with Logan.
This original tale is a light read, and is largely plot led. The two time lines fit well together, with differing styles allocated for each.
The Ballroom Cafe. Ann O’Loughlin. Black and White Publishing.
Another book set in a big house, The Ballroom Cafe centres round two sisters. Ella and Roberta live together, but they haven’t spoken for years; instead they write notes for each other. Threatened with bankruptcy, Ella decides to turn the ballroom of their crumbling mansion into a cafe. Roberta disapproves, especially when her sister takes on an America tourist, Debbie, to help run the enterprise.
In Ireland to find her birth mother, it transpires that Debbie is one of the 2,000 plus Irish babies who were sold to America in a forced adoption. Determined to wrest the truth from the local convent, who deny knowledge of her, she eventually unlocks an adoption scandal, and this impacts on the warring sisters in an unexpected way.
Set in 2008, the Ballroom Cafe has the feel of a bygone era. Showing the daily routine in a rural village, it highlights the gossip, scandal, and everyday quirks of the locals. There’s a large dose of heartbreak too, yet this is an easy read.
An Irish Banking Manifesto. Tim McCormick. The Liffey Press.
I don’t normally include financial tomes in this column, but with the Banking Enquiry in full swing, it seems pertinent to review this excellent look through the crisis from a former insider.
A banker until 1990, when he started to lecture on the subject, McCormick watched Ireland’s financial collapse with incredulity. Realising something must have changed in Irish banking, and the casino mindset replaced the cautious one he remembered, he decided to write a book for the layman, explaining how things could have gone so terribly wrong.
In good, clear prose, and with myriad examples to illustrate his arguments, McCormick concludes that the primary cause of the crisis was the pursuit of profit and disregard for their customers practised by bankers. Appalled that the bonus culture still exists in banks, he sets out a clear reform programme which will ensure that such behaviour cannot be repeated. One can only hope that bankers will take note. This easy to follow account was an eye opener to me. Highly recommended for anyone who still finds the subject confusing.
Published in Books Ireland, September, 2015.
© Sue Leonard 2015