book review: Country by Michael Hughes

40378225

 

COUNTRY by Michael Hughes
★★★★☆
John Murray, 2018 (UK)

 

Country is the most literal Iliad retelling I’ve ever read, which came as a surprise given that its premise is worlds away from Ancient Greece. Michael Hughes’s interpretation is set in 1990s Northern Ireland, twenty-five years into the conflict known as the Troubles, and yet despite the wildly different setting it hits all the same beats as Homer’s tale, each scene and character a perfect mirror to the original story, and easy to identify with names like Achill (Achilles), Nellie (Helen), Henry (Hector), and Pat (Patroclus).

This level of faithfulness was a double-edged sword for me: it led to moments of brilliance and moments that were a little too on the nose. Mostly brilliance, so let’s start there: the decision to adapt the Iliad to the Troubles was an inspired one, a pairing linked by the tragedy of lives lost needlessly to a cause whose rhetoric is shrouded in talk of honor, but whose reality is starker and more senseless.

This passage in particular as the Hector figure, a war-weary SAS man, is on the verge of death called to mind a passage from the Iliad that hits home its driving thematic conceit:

“The fucking spooks, the fucking politicians. Moving the pieces on the board, doling out life or death with a flick of the wrist. Not one of them was in harm’s way. Not one of them could ever die this death. He was charged to defend their will, their country’s honour, but all he could ever defend was his own life. It wasn’t their blood on the road. It never would be. They didn’t understand.

No. They understood. They didn’t care.”

– Michael Hughes, Country

“So the immortals spun our lives that we, we wretched men
live on to bear such torments—the gods live free of sorrows.”

– Homer, The Iliad, translated by Robert Fagles

Used as a pawn by gods in one case and government and/or paramilitary leaders in the other, the individual lives affected amidst the brutality are the focus of both texts, and Hughes capitalizes on the opportunity to tell this story with the abject tragedy it deserves.

And overarching themes aside, the level of detail here is just delightful for Homer fans: the SAS base is called Illiam because the W fell off the William Castle sign; the IRA pub is referred to as ‘The Ships’ in reference to the Greeks’ camp outside the walls of Troy.

However, there were some bits that didn’t translate perfectly: Achill’s widely accepted irreplaceability felt shoehorned in – the role of the individual in modern-day warfare just isn’t perfectly equitable with ancient battle. And a few scenes felt like they were only there in the name of keeping the structure as close to the Iliad as possible – I wouldn’t have minded, for example, the omission of a few scenes like the funeral games (which went into a level of detail that was admirably authentic but frankly excessive) in favor of adding a bit more heft to the weightier scenes like Achill’s confrontation with the Priam character.

I was very cognizant as I was reading that this wasn’t going to be an easy book to recommend; it’s not, so to speak, baby’s first Troubles book. You don’t exactly need a PhD in Irish History to be able to follow this, but I do want to be clear that almost none of the dialect (which Hughes renders beautifully) or cultural references are explained or contextualized (read Say Nothing first!). I’d actually stress that an interest in the Iliad is much less essential to get something out of this than knowing a bit about the Troubles. Still, for the right reader this is a sharp and cleverly written retelling whose literality is an asset more often than not. Though it did strike me that I may, ironically, be a bit too familiar with the Iliad to be this book’s ideal reader.


You can pick up a copy of Country here on Book Depository.  It will also be published in the US in the fall.

Advertisements

27 thoughts on “book review: Country by Michael Hughes

    • Definitely, and I felt like I needed to mention it because so many Americans are woefully ignorant of the Troubles. It never came up in my education at all, sadly, and I’ve been kind of piecing everything together from media just due to a personal interest in Ireland and NI. But when I was reading Say Nothing I brought it up to a few people and said it was about the Troubles in NI, and the response was “what’s that?” more often than not.

      Like

  1. Fab review, I’m definitely going to have to check this one out! Really interested to see how it depicts the Troubles as my mum grew up in NI during them and I’ve lived in over there, so a lot of people I know have been affected. Writers can often get it so wrong, but this sounds like it could be helped a bit by its literal Iliad links!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s such a devastating conflict, isn’t it, I’m sorry that people in your personal life have been affected by it. I certainly hope you enjoy this book if you end up picking it up (if enjoy is the right word when reading about war etc).

      If you’re interested in other ‘Troubles lit’ two fab novels I’ve read recently are Milkman by Anna Burns (super basic recommendation I know, but I adored it so much, so I have to mention it) and The Fire Starters by Jan Carson – that one’s a bit different as it kind of images a present-day re-emergence of the Troubles but it really drives home the fact that there’s been no official ‘end’ to this conflict and it was really devastating to read right after Lyra McKee’s death.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It is – and hopefully! Michael Hughes is from NI, so I’m pretty confident he’ll have handled the conflict really well.

        Milkman is on my TBR! So many people have recommended it to me, so I’ll definitely pick it up at some point. And Jan Carson teaches at my old uni, so The Fire Starters is also high on my TBR too, it looks fantastic!

        Eureka Street by Robert McLiam Wilson is also really good if you haven’t already checked it out – set in the Troubles but about so much more than the conflict, quite devastating yet really funny. Would definitely recommend!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oh that’s so exciting that Jan Carson teaches at your old uni! Have you read anything else by her? The Fire Starters was my first but I absolutely adored her writing so I definitely want to look into her backlist.

        I really thought I had my finger on the pulse of Troubles lit but I have not heard of Eureka Street! I just looked it up and it looks absolutely brilliant, thanks for the rec.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Shockingly I haven’t read any of her stuff yet, but I definitely will!
        And I hope you enjoy Eureka Street, it’s a little dated and problematic in some areas but it’s otherwise really great.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I find that problematic is easiest to stomach in older works – not that we shouldn’t still be critical, but I try not to impose an overly contemporary lens on books I read from the 90s (especially because older Irish men are… not the most #woke demographic). So I’m sure I’ll enjoy it anyway!

        Like

  2. Cackling at the “Illiam” thing – that’s genius (especially given the significance of King William’s policies to Irish colonial history). I read Hughes’s first book, though haven’t read this one yet, and found it better in the premise than the execution. Perhaps this is similar? (He’s great on Twitter, though, and has been nice to me, so I can’t be too harsh about him.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • YES isn’t it perfection?! I think I also cackled irl in glee when I read that.

      Until like, two days ago I was under the impression that Country was a debut so I haven’t really looked into his first book – is it worth reading? Country was SEAMLESS in concept and the execution was really hit or miss – but a lot of hits, thankfully! Just a bit too on the nose a bit too often. And yes, I love him on Twitter! I think I follow like, the entire Irish literary scene on there and am attempting to slowly make my way through all of their books. There are so damn many.

      Like

    • I hope you enjoy it Aurora!!! I feel like it’s a bit tonally different from most of the Irish lit I’ve enjoyed in the past, but it was really unique and brilliant.

      Like

  3. This sounds like a fascinating idea. I really need to learn more about Ireland and the Troubles because I always get kind of lost in books that focus on it. (I loved “not baby’s first Troubles book”!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know I keep going on about this book but I cannot recommend Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe highly enough!! On the other end of the spectrum this is a perfect baby’s first Troubles book, lol!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This sounds fascinating! I definitely don’t know enough about the Troubles to read it at the moment, but I adore Iliad re-tellings, so it’s one that I’ll keep in mind for the future. I’ll just need to do some more reading about the Troubles first, I think!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d highly highly recommend Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe as a perfect starting point with the Troubles! It’s so thorough but such an engaging read at the same time. And yes, Iliad retellings are the BEST!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve checked my library catalogue and Say Nothing is there, so I’ve added it to my “to reserve” list! It’s definitely something I have wanted to learn more about, so thank you for the recommendation. Sadly they don’t teach us anything about the Troubles at school (which is a massive failing of the English education system), so I look forward to filling in the massive gaps in my knowledge!

        Liked by 2 people

      • Ooh I’m very happy to hear that! I hope you enjoy it! I read it in February and it’s still my reigning book of the year for 2019 so far.

        We’re not taught anything about the Troubles either which is bad enough over here in America, but I’m a little surprised to hear that it’s similar in England. (I mean, I’m not sure why I’m surprised given the entire history of English/Irish relations, but still.) I wish this conflict could be given the global attention it deserves, given how many people are STILL affected by it in NI.

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply to Elle Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s