Tuesday, 31 October 2017

The Convictions of John Delahunt ~ by Andrew Hughes

I've just been transported to the dark and corrupt Dublin of the 19th century - a place that I had always imagined that I would enjoy sauntering though.  In his second book, 'The Convictions of John Delahunt', Andrew Hughes takes us from the elegance of Merrion Square, to the squalor of the Dublin tenements, along alleyways where horrendous acts of depravity and cruelty take place. 
Given that the titular character begins his narrative in a prison cell, things do not bode well for Mr Delahunt, but I honestly did not expect the world of this text to be so dark and grim.  Neighbours turn on neighbours; one person's misfortune is another person's opportunity.  Georgian Dublin is a heartless place, inhabited by back-stabbing cutthroats who would sell you as soon as look at you.
I have no better opinion of humanity having read this book and I think that my view of Georgian Dublin has forever been changed for the worse.  Yes there was poverty at the time.  Yes there were unscrupulous individuals, but unlike an author, say like Dickens, who also deals with a grim and corrupt society, there is nothing to balance the brutality that Hughes describes. Where is Joe Gargery or Mr Micawber?  Where in the humor, the redemption?  This leads me to consider, is it always necessary to depict that brighter side of life?  Perhaps not.  Andrew Hughes's book prefers to dwell in darker corners.
This is a story about the criminal mind, its focus is on the mentality and social circumstance that creates a murderer.  As such, this book is successful.  The very strange thing is that most of the really disturbing events in this story are the very ones that are based on fact - they actually took place.  The post-script is quite shocking and the most disturbing reading of all.  Human life seemed to have mattered so little at the time.
I am not sure if I am glad that I read this book, but I know that l will not forget it ... 
Every time I pass though Gardiner Street or Merrion Square I will be thinking of Delahunt and taking a backward glance over my shoulder.  

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

The Wreckage ~ Michael Crummey

Just because I don't talk about it doesn't mean that I haven't spent the entire night having imagined conversations with you about it. So much of our lives is spent living inside our heads - it is difficult to calculate what things are important to us, where our passions lie and who we really are!  So little of our preoccupations even exist outside of our heads.  So many conflicts and arguments never actually happen - we imagine them all.  Maybe the same can be said of love?  Do we convince ourselves that we are in love when we are sitting alone, contemplating another person?  Do we 'talk' ourselves into believing that that love is reciprocated?  In 'The Wreckage', the main characters,Sadie and Wish, are separate for much of the novel, yet each cannot forget their passionate affair many years before.  That intense encounter changed their lives completely, consumed their waking hours in the years since, and influenced the life-choices that they made.  Crummey is forcing us to consider the great relationships of our lives in this novel.  He is asking, are their people who mark us forever?
Is there a great love for every one of us - a love that will alter our lives and who we are?  Can another person have such an impact on another person's character?  What is it that happens to us when we fall in love with another person - do we change and if so, is it for the better...?
Human relationships are at the very heart of this novel set before and after the Second World War, and leading up to the present day.  Crummey perfectly presents us with vibrant characters and cleverly makes us care for their welfare as they collide with one another and their lives become entangled. There is a young couple from divided Catholic and Protestant communities in a small Newfoundland town, and a Canadian Soldier and his Japanese prison guard, whose lives are as bound up together as are the lives of the young lovers.  Crummey considers how lovers and enemies mark us in this life, how encounters can scar us and leave us reeling for years after, struggling to regain our ballast.  There are people that we never get over meeting - some people whose voices we can never evacuate from our heads - this book deals with those human interactions. There have been endless encounters that have effected my life - countless encounters, countless kindnesses, countless cruelties. Aren't we all the same?  Grandmothers, aunts, sisters, teachers, pupils, sons and daughters whose comments still ring in my ears years later - and that is just it... How many of our interactions with others are only brief encounters, that reverberate at length in our minds.  In Crummey's novel, the male protagonist, Wish, is haunted by a single comment that his girlfriend said to him, "Don't make a whore of me."   You can imagine how a young Catholic might find that line particularly jarring, just as he was about to do exactly that.  He is also burdened by memories from his time as a prisoner of war in a Japanese internment camp and later in Nagazaki, when the atom bomb was dropped.  The memory of seeing a dead woman with a living infant feeding at her cold breast is just that kind of image that is central to the Catholic preoccupation with the Madonna and child.  In fairness, this image is one of the most disturbing of the book, but there are more that I cannot mention here.  Crummey has certainly written a love story here - but the novel works on so many levels, symbolism and philosophical questions are never too far from the surface, and that is what makes this text so extraordinary.  Expect suffering, great passion, long distances and short conversations, unanswered questions and shocking revelations - presented in the masterful language that we have come to expect from this wonderful writer, and you will have an idea of what 'The Wreckage' has to offer.  It's a great book - what else is there to talk about?

The Coroner's Daughter ~ Andrew Hughes

If you have ever found yourself walking along a Georgian street, imagining what it must have been like to wander there when the houses were newly-built, fanlights newly-polished and panelled doors freshly painted; mused awhile about the inhabitants, from footmen to fine ladies in their high-waisted fashions - then 'The Coroner's Daughter' is a book for you.  Wicklow author Andrew Hughes has managed to take us inside a typical Georgian townhouse in Dublin, back in 1816, breathing life into the tall five-storey main stay of the Dublin landscape.  In the character of Miss Abigail Lawless of Rutland Square, (now Parnell Square) we are presented with a heroine unlike those of contemporary novels such as those by Jane Austen.  Abigail may be as curious as Elizabeth Bennet, who also faces the failings of a beloved father, but the similarity ends there.  Hughes's creation is if anything more like a modern woman than a creature of her time.  She expects to be seen as any man's social equal, possibly because her father treats her that way, but she is not at all resigned to the inequality of her time as one might expect.  In that way, Abigail reminded me of a kind of time traveller, like Claire Randall  from Diana Gabaldon's 'Outlander' series- a modern woman who finds her self cast adrift in the past. Abigail Lawless expects to accompany her father to a medical lecture at The College of Surgeons, takes carriage trips out of the city on her own, wandering the streets of Dublin alone, down its back alleys and thoroughfares.  We know from contemporary letters by Jane Austen that such independent journeys were unheard of - Lizzy Bennet is made fun of for visiting a local neighbour alone and on foot and that was in the relative safety of a small rural village.  For Jane Austen herself carriage rides unaccompanied through London were a shocking luxury and most unusual- she could only afford such freedom at the pinnacle of her literary success when she was in her late 30s.  But young Abigail Lawless (living up to her name perhaps?) cares little for such social mores.  Instead, she follows those she suspects of murder down dark alleyways or to lonely, derelict country houses, to challenge them outright.  But we must remember that being a Georgian heroine, she has not had the advantage of reading the Miss Marple novels and knows little of the art of trapping the guilty by stealth, and with the assistance of a willing police constable!  Again and again, Abigail places herself in great danger, (not unlike Lydia Bennet perhaps?) but in this case it is her passionate desire to know solve a puzzling crime that persuades her to leave the security of her father's house.   In the character of Mr Darby (not Darcy!) we are presented with a dark villain worthy of the name, and in Ewan Weir, her father's young student, we find a charming Scot and fitting side-kick for Abigail. There is undeniably a romantic spark between them, but also a professional respect and a mutual interest in pathology that sets this pair up as a great crime-solving duo who may have numerous crimes to solve in the future.  The ending certainly opens the way for one sequel if not more.  The very thought delights!
If you are prone to dream about those who first inhabited Georgian Dublin, then you will most likely want to shake Andrew Hughes by the hand and thank him for his novel 'The Coroner's Daughter' - for he has kindly done the dreaming for you.
-A must read for Austen fans and Dubliners alike.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Dear Jane

It has been 200 years since you last drew breath on this earth, and we are still captivated by your books and characters.  There are so many mysteries surrounding your life and work - it is no wonder that we have so many questions that we would like to ask you.
For a start, did you like your mother?  So many of your mothers are weak, distant or dead!  It really makes one wonder.
Then there is the great Darcy question... Is he based on a real man? Many question that such a man could exist, but we like to think that he could and in your absence we can imagine that your paths crossed once.
This brings me to my next question: Did you ever know true, requited love?  Not with Bigg-Wither or LeFroy, but with one who cherished you for who you are whom you loved in return?  I hope you did. During those uncharted years, when we know nothing of your whereabouts, perhaps you found complete happiness, wrote a sequel to Pride and Prejudice and were as carefree as a bird.  I wish all these things for you - on this day, when they put your face on the £10 note, when your family kissed you a final goodbye - we think of you and hope that you knew great happiness once - as great as the happiness that you have given to so many around the world.  Rest easy, dearest Jane.
Ni bheidh do leithead ann aris.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

All the Light We Cannot See ~ Anthony Doerr

The further we move away from 1945, the easier it seems to view the horror of WWII from new perspectives.  Has it taken all this time for the world to consider the German side of the experience? It certainly seems that we have come a long way since the Leon Uris books of my youth, and those classic war films where every German was a villain, every liberator a hero. Well, Anthony Doerr certainly faces this stereotype head on in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel 'All The Light We Cannot See'. We are presented with a young, blind, French girl, Marie-Laure LeBlanc - enchanting, perceptive and oh so vulnerable. Just as vulnerable is Werner Pfennig, a young German boy - clever, dutiful and brave. Both children suffer greatly because of the war; parents are lost as are homes, possessions and childhoods.  The whole movement of the book is based around their coming together - step by step, a gentle, inevitable progression.  And the novel seems to come down to this moment- their meeting - and on what the next generation have to say to each other, when the adults have made such a mess of things.
In truth, their meeting is crucial: if it goes badly, it'd spell curtains for future peace.  Luckily it is a success.  Is not this the most hopeful of moments?  Doesn't it foretell the inception of the European Union years later? That France and Germany can be such forgiving neighbours in 2017 - after twice facing each other down the barrel of a gun - still surprises me,  yet in Doerr's book, it all seems possible.  There are incredibly brutal acts perpetrated on both sides, and this book contains some of the most horrific I have ever read.  The suffering of German women on the arrival of the Russian troops, as described by Doerr, will haunt me forever.  He shirks from nothing - presenting us with the horror of war - experienced on all sides - because these stories must be told.
But this is just a story after all - and Doerr is a master teller of tales.  Page upon page of vibrant imagery, beautiful language and characters so real that they must have lived once... make this book one that will keep you just where Doerr wants you, while he re-programmes your mind and shines a light on the truth about WWII.  And it suddenly seems to me that Marie-Laure's is not the only blindness at the heart of this novel.  And if there is light - the light the we cannot see - well perhaps now is the time to face that light, that kindness, that hope... because after all... 1945 was such a long time ago.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Gone: A Girl; a Violin; a Life Unstrung ~ by Min Kym

It was a sunny afternoon in Dublin, and I had just stumbled from watching a masterclass given by Maxim Vengerov to some very talented young violinists.  With strains of Sibelius still echoing through my head, I wandered by a book shop on Dawson Street and saw Min Kym's autobiography in the window.  The striking black hardback was jacketed in vibrant teal, with the silhouette of a curvaceous violin cut out in the center.  I thought the image intriguing.  I had to have it.
To be honest, I hadn't even heard of Min Kym before I bought the book, but having spent a few days with her voice ringing through my head, and listening to the CD the accompanies the book, I feel that I know her well enough now.  As an autobiographer, Kym manages to walk that tight-rope between story telling and truth that this genre relies upon.
Indeed there were times that I felt that Kym too easily ran from responsibility, blaming all life's problems on her parents for making her too submissive, which resulted in her Stradivarius violin being stolen, her resulting depression and anorexia. But in a way, I think that this was part of the book's charm; her imperfections as a protagonist made her seem more human.  When you read between the pages, you can see that Min was a very determined little girl, every such 'master' musician  has to be selfish with their time, and egotistical to a point.  The young Min was well able to challenge her Korean teacher who lacked the skill to teach her.  Determination and confidence were inherent in the young progeny.  What was so tragic was how an opportunistic crime sent her into a tail-spin and that confident little girl got lost. The hard truth was that it wasn't just a violin that was stolen in the café that day.  
The reader can empathise with Min's loss because in the chapters leading up to the theft, she explains simplistically and poetically what a violin means to a player.  She describes it as her child, a female baby, another limb, her teacher, but is not content with any of these similes.  What is clear, is her utter anguish at the violin's loss and the tragic thing is that this book is a tragedy.  Though the violin was found, the instrument was never returned to her to keep, insurance companies put pay to that, and to this day, it remains locked away in a bank vault, suffering the silent fate of so many of the world's most valuable instruments.  And this is something that the book forces you to consider: how is it that musicians can no longer afford to own and play these very old and treasured instruments?  Surely they do not belong in the dark?
It is because Kym repeated personifies the Strad that we are horrified by its ultimate fate.  She compares her suffering to it, saying how they are both imprisoned now.  This was the most moving part of the book for me.  Her beautiful instrument, which 'glowed' for her, now never sees the light of day. Surely it should be where the public can enjoy it, someplace where it is not just be a musical equivalent of stocks and bonds.  
Yet, experts argue that these hugely expensive violins are not as special as we imagine them to be.  In a recent study, listeners prefered the sound of modern violins, when comparing them to old instruments while blindfolded.  This suggests that the myth of the master luthier and his violins is just that, a myth.  That supports what any sensible person already knows, that these old violins are ridiculously over-priced, but it is to the benefit of banks and investors that the myth continues.  And after all, there is an intangible romance about violins, whether be their aesthetic design, or evocative sound, that keeps us spellbound.
For me, every violin is a promise of something truly beautiful, in the hands of the right player that is. And Kym's book publishers have knowingly used the image of the violin on the book's cover to entice readers like me.  The really clever bit is that the image is a void, a cut-out, the violin itself, missing from the image, and as such mirrors perfectly the book's narrative.  
'Isn't it beautiful?' the book shop sales assistant said to me when I presented it to her at the counter.  'I saw it this morning myself', she added, 'and I had to get a copy.  We ought not to judge a book by its cover I know.  Let me wrap that separately,'  And with that she enfolded it in soft paper so as not to tear the jacket, and placed it lovingly into a bag on top of my other purchases, just as if it were a real violin!  So I was not the only one guilty of loving this book cover, of loving violins, of loving a myth. And with this book you get all that and a good story.