book (play script) review: Faith Healer by Brian Friel

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FAITH HEALER by Brian Friel
★★★★★
Faber & Faber, 2016
originally published in 1979

 

When I was reading Faith Healer, this script got two distinctions from me: (1) being one of the most depressing things I have ever read, and (2) probably being the first play I’ve encountered where I actually wondered whether or not it would work on stage as well as it does on the page. I mean, it must work, because it’s seen a number of illustrious and well-reviewed revivals over the years, but it reads comfortably like a novella, and if you are planning on seeing it on stage (in the upcoming Los Angeles production, for example) I would highly recommend familiarizing yourself with the script first, because I imagine a lot could be lost in translation to the unfamiliar viewer.

Written in four monologues, this play tells the story of faith healer Frank Hardy. Frank’s two monologues (each about ten pages long) open and close the play, and in between we also hear from Frank’s wife, or maybe his mistress, Grace, and his stage manager Teddy. Together they chronicle the downfall of Frank’s faith healing act, but less focus is given to the narrative itself than the relationship between these three characters and the way it has disintegrated over time.

This play’s magic is all in the details. If you’re reading or watching this just trying to glean the overall gist, so much is going to be lost. Friel expertly navigates three conflicting accounts of the same events; each character tells essentially the same stories, with at times heartbreaking variations. The biggest punch to the gut was after hearing Grace’s account of her newborn baby dying, and hearing how Frank fashioned a makeshift cross for the grave, we then get Teddy’s account that Frank was nowhere to be found when Grace went into labor, and how Teddy was the one to build the cross and say a prayer over the grave. The fallibility of memory is probably one of my favorite themes in literature and when it’s rendered with the same kind of subtlety as it is here, it’s hard not to be deeply affected and unsettled. The other salient theme running through this play is Frank’s unreliable gift for faith healing – with noticeable parallels to artists’ creativity, the whole play reads as an allegory. Can truth exist in a vacuum or is it always shaped by the stories we tell?

If you aren’t someone who ordinarily enjoys reading play scripts, I’d still recommend checking this out if it interests you, as again, it reads very much like a novella. Friel’s writing is sharp and lyrical and this leaves no question as to why he’s one of the most influential playwrights to come out of Northern Ireland.


You can pick up a copy of Faith Healer here on Book Depository.

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book review: Young Skins by Colin Barrett

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YOUNG SKINS by Colin Barrett
★★★★☆
Grove, 2015

 

In the vein of authors like Donal Ryan and Lisa McInerney, Colin Barrett has a gift for conjuring quiet scenes from small-town Irish life that bristle with a kind of dormant tension. Young Skins is a collection of seven short stories that all take place in the same town, and often the same pub, with a few overlapping characters, but which mostly stand on their own. Each story focuses on a male protagonist, usually young, all in some way navigating working class life, post-Ireland’s financial collapse.

It’s very rare that I give a short story collection 5 stars; it’s to be expected that in a collection like this, certain stories are going to shine and certain others are going to fade into the background. Though I loved Barrett’s prose throughout, this collection really wasn’t an exception to the rule – there are stories I loved and stories I found to be rather forgettable (though thankfully none I outright disliked).

The Clancy Kid was a strong opening, introducing us to the gritty, bleak backdrop of young love turned to heartbreak that characterizes so many of these stories, as well as the kind of violence that permeates male youth culture. Bait is a tricky one; I’d been loving it, up until the very end where it takes an… incongruously supernatural(?) turn that I still haven’t fully made sense of. (If you’ve read this story, please tell me your thoughts on the ending.)

The Moon didn’t leave much of an impression on me, though this is where Barrett states a lot of the collection’s thematic conceits rather plainly, which makes it a solid addition (a young, flighty woman says to our protagonist at one point “Galway’s not that far[,] but it might as well be the moon for people like you.”) And I thought Stand Your Skin was maybe too thematically similar to The Moon, though Stand Your Skin is the one I preferred.

Calm With Horses, the collection’s magnum opus, is more of a novella than a short story, nearing 100 pages. In my opinion this story stands head and shoulders above the rest, and it’s not just because of its length. I think this is where Barrett is able to really stretch his legs and show us what he’s capable of. Various characters and subplots weave in an out of this one and all dovetail in a satisfying, heart-rending conclusion. I really hope Barrett has a novel in the works.

Diamonds I think is solidly the weakest story that doesn’t offer much that we can’t already find elsewhere. And Kindly Forget My Existence is a fitting ending, where Barrett eschews his young protagonists in favor of two middle aged men who sit down at a pub and discuss their own youth.

So, as with most short story collections, a mixed bag, but it’s worth the price of admission for the stunningly tragic Calm With Horses alone, and the rest of the stories mostly hold their own as well. Dismal and hopeless as this collection is on the whole, there’s an assured beauty to Barrett’s prose that I found very striking, especially for a debut, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

You can pick up a copy of Young Skins here on Book Depository.

book review: Troubles by JG Farrell

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TROUBLES by JG Farrell

NYRB Classics, 2002
originally published in 1970

Troubles is the first novel in the Anglo-Irish writer JG Farrell’s Empire Trilogy: three tangentially connected works that highlight different facets of British colonialism. Farrell died young, as he drowned at the age of 44, but this 1970 book got some semi-recent attention when it won the Lost Man Booker Prize in 2010, which was established to retroactively honor a book that missed out on being eligible for the Booker due to a rule change that year. So when you pick up Troubles with all that in mind, as I did, it certainly has a big legacy to live up to, especially when you don’t even know what the book itself is about.

It turns out that it’s about an English man called Brendan, who’s referred to in the third person narration as ‘the Major,’ who, after the end of the war in 1919, journeys to Ireland to figure out whether or not he’s actually engaged to a woman who he’s been exchanging romantic letters with, Angela Spencer. Her home is a crumbling mansion of a hotel called the Majestic, where she lives with her Protestant family as well as several eccentric guests. Upon arrival the Major expects to be greeted by Angela herself, but instead he finds himself swept up instantly into her strange family dynamic, with her aggressively Unionist father’s pervasive fear of Sinn Féin (the political party advocating for an Irish republic) hovering in the background throughout the novel.

Troubles is essentially a sardonic odyssey of the mundane – a reverse Nostos of sorts in which our protagonist journeys away from home and navigates a culture that’s plagued with a completely different social climate than his own. It’s also a kind of Gothic subversion, Farrell giving us a Manderley-like setting that’s meant to symbolize the British Empire, the characters willfully in denial about its crumbling roof as well as the rising insurgency that’s taking place in their country.

It drags and overstays its welcome at times (much like the guests in the hotel), but for the most part Troubles is a riotously funny (and occasionally tragic) satire. While there isn’t much of a plot, Farrell leads the reader with measured prose through a dizzyingly bizarre series of encounters that highlight the absurdity of the Spencers’ myopic view of Irish society. It’s a bit of a project to get through, but it’s worth it for the sharp, incisive writing and commentary on colonialism that still feels relevant half a century later.

You can pick up a copy of Troubles here on Book Depository.

 

short story reviews: Mr Salary & Color and Light by Sally Rooney

MR SALARY by Sally Rooney              |    COLOR AND LIGHT by Sally Rooney
★★★★★ |    ★★★★★
Faber & Faber, 2019    |    The New Yorker, 2019

I want to first say that if you don’t quite ‘get’ the Sally Rooney craze, I don’t blame you – is she really achieving something that other authors are failing to do, or does her writing offer a comfortable familiarity; does her work hold universal appeal or is it uniquely resonant with young people; no one seems to have a very clear answer on any of this – but that said, I think her writing is magic. Normal People took me entirely by surprise, Conversations With Friends is one of the best contemporary novels I’ve read in years, and now these two short stories have solidified her place as one of my absolute favorite authors.

The thing about Sally Rooney is that while her storytelling is incisive and forthright, she always leaves me wanting more – not in the sense that what she offers is lacking, but in the sense that you can instinctively discern that Rooney understands her characters inside and out, backwards and forwards; they feel like living, breathing entities who continue to exist once you’ve ceased reading.  Rooney writes about people I want to know – not in real life, necessarily, although realism is arguably the great strength of her character work – but all of her characters come to life under her perceptive gaze and she excels both at chronicling the internal and the interpersonal.

While both of her novels beautifully showcase her prowess at character development, these two short stories prove that she still has a lot to offer in just a few short pages.   Color and Light follows a young hotel receptionist Aidan who meets an enigmatic screenwriter named Pauline that he becomes drawn to.  Mr Salary is told from the perspective of a 24-year-old woman named Sukie, who’s in love with a 30-something man named Nathan, a family friend that she’s lived with for years.  Both stories are brief snapshot pieces – we get a bit of background, but we don’t learn these characters’ life stories, nor do we need to.  Each story crackles with sexual tension, although it would be dismissive to reduce them to this one element – Mr Salary is noteworthy for its macabre undertones, as Sukie’s obsession with death mirrors her sexual obsession with Nathan, and Color and Light probably has less of a straightforward romantic trajectory than anything else Rooney has written.  The inevitable romance between Aidan and Pauline isn’t really inevitable at all, as it develops – Aidan’s interest in Pauline isn’t sexual as much as driven by a desire to understand and be understood, a theme that underpins all of Rooney’s work.

If you like stories about flawed, lonely, emotionally distant people, told with honesty and lively, absorbing prose, I’d implore you to give into the Rooney hype.  Everything she writes somehow moves me, saddens me, and delights me all at once.  I will say, I’ve noticed a sort of divide between people who loved Conversations With Friends and found Normal People underwhelming and vice versa (personally, I just love it all), but if you do fall into this dichotomy, I’d recommend Mr Salary to those who preferred Conversations With Friends and Color and Light to those who preferred Normal People.

Read Color and Light on the New Yorker website here, and pick up a copy of Mr Salary from Book Depository here.

book review: When All Is Said by Anne Griffin

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WHEN ALL IS SAID by Anne Griffin
★★☆☆☆
Thomas Dunne Books, March 5, 2019

 

Oh man, this is a tough one. It is not often the case that I look at glowing reviews and think ‘did we read the same book?!’ but here we are… I was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was going to love this, too! When All Is Said is a contemporary Irish novel about an old man named Maurice who’s looking back at his life and giving a toast to the five people who had the greatest influence on him, most of whom are already dead. So it’s a premise that promises nostalgia and regret and heartache, but I never really felt any of it.

My main issue with this book was Maurice’s first-person narration – I just wasn’t convinced by his voice. Forgive me, but you know how sometimes you read a female character and think ‘yep, a man wrote this book’ – I felt the opposite here. (Which is more of a gut feeling and probably a baseless one that’s impossible to quantify, so I’m just going to move on.) It’s established early on in this book that Maurice has dyslexia which led him to quit schooling at a very early age and develop a lifelong antipathy for literature; instead he fills his days with farming and various other business ventures. So while Maurice is clearly an intelligent man, and I have no qualms with that intelligence being on display, I’m not sure why Anne Griffin wanted us to believe he was a poetic one? Lines like this:

But her story is like the wind under the front door, whistling its way through the crevices, getting through the cracks in my skin.

and this:

There was a love but of the Irish kind, reserved and embarrassed by its own humanity.

pulled me out of the story again and again, because why would this 84 year old farmer use that simile, why would he have that sophisticated emotional vocabulary? I guess this goes hand in hand, but what also grated on me was the fact that we were essentially spoon-fed the ways in which the love and loss of these five characters shaped Maurice. Take this passage from the first chapter, where Maurice describes the death of his older brother Tony:

It’s so hard to lose your best friend at any time, but to do so at such a young age was pure cruel. At sixteen I was heading into my life. Having travelled those precious years with Tony by my side, I now had to venture forth into the most significant of them alone. Without his guidance, his cajoling, his slagging. It didn’t feel possible.

It’s too articulate, it’s too on the nose. Funny that this is called ‘When All Is Said,’ because that was exactly my problem: nothing is left unsaid. There is no room for the reader to think or feel anything organically, because we are told exactly how we should think and feel about Maurice’s story. This was missing tension, nuance, thematic complexity. I’ll concede that Maurice is a well-constructed character, and that Anne Griffin makes a real effort to weave together moments of joy with moments of sorrow to paint a three-dimensional picture of this character’s life, I just felt utterly empty while reading this.

Thanks to Netgalley and Thomas Dunne Books for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review. Quotes are from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.

You can pick up a copy of When All Is Said here on Book Depository.

Reading Ireland Month TBR & Recommendations

Reading Ireland Month 2019 is being hosted by the lovely Cathy over at 746 Books, along with Raging Fluff.  It’s a month-long readathon where you’re encouraged to read Irish lit during the month of March, but I’d highly recommend you check out Cathy’s post for more information.  Cathy’s breaking her reading down into a schedule which you’ll see below, which I’m also roughly going to attempt to follow, but if you read even one Irish book in March you can participate.

March is going to be a busy reading month for me, because I’m also eagerly awaiting the Women’s Prize longlist announcement and knowing how obsessed I can get by literary prizes, I’m sure I’m going to want to dive straight into that.  But, given my love of Irish lit this is a readathon that I’m very excited to participate in.  So without further ado:

TBR:

25th February – 3rd March: Contemporary Irish Novels

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When All Is Said by Anne Griffin.  I have an ARC of this and it’s being published on March 5 in the US, so that’s perfect timing.

4th – 10th March: Classic Irish Novels

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, audiobook narrated by Colin Farrell.  People are often surprised to learn that despite my love of Irish lit I’ve never actually read any James Joyce, and I wasn’t even in a huge rush to change that.  …but then this happened and if you follow me on Twitter you will know that I am a pretty big Colin Farrell fan, to say the least, and having watched 40+ of his films I figured an 8 hour audiobook should be nothing.

Alternately: Troubles by JG Farrell.  This is the only book off my 2019 backlist TBR that fits this category and I’m trying to read one of those per month.  (Technically this Farrell is Anglo-Irish but I’m counting it.)  (Technically it’s a very modern classic but I’m counting it.)

11th – 17th March: Irish Short Story Collections

Young Skins by Colin Barrett OR The Long Gaze Back: An Anthology of Irish Women Writers by Sinead Gleeson.  I got both of these for Christmas and they’re both high up on my TBR, so I’m very very torn.  Which should I read in March?!

18th – 24th March: Irish Non-Fiction
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Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe.  I may cheat and read this one before March, because I have an ARC and it comes out in late February.  Then again, I’m so far behind on my reading that I may miss the publication date altogether… we’ll see!  At any rate, this is my nonfiction pick.

25th – 31st March: Irish Miscellany (Poetry, Plays, Film Reviews)

It’s gotta be plays, for me.  I have three main options that I’m considering: Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett OR Faith Healer by Brian Friel OR The Mai by Marina Carr.  I’ve never read Beckett (I know, that’s embarrassing), but I’ve really enjoyed Friel and Carr in the past.  Which shall I choose?!

Recommendations:

So, I read more than a fair share of contemporary Irish lit, so rather than going through these titles one by one and giving a summary, I’m going to just list a bunch that jump out at me.

Contemporary novels:

John Boyne: The Heart’s Invisible Furies, The Absolutist, A Ladder to the Sky, This House is HauntedLisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies, The Blood MiraclesLouise O’Neill: Asking For It, Almost LoveSally Rooney: Conversations With Friends, Normal PeopleDonal Ryan: All We Shall Know, From a Low and Quiet SeaColm Toibin: House of Names, BrooklynOther: Milkman by Anna Burns, Himself by Jess Kidd, The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride, Too Close to Breathe by Olivia Kiernan, The Wonder by Emma Donoghue, Tender by Belinda McKeon.

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Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt.  Possibly the only Irish nonfiction I’ve read, but well worth the mention and it’s one of my all-time favorite memoirs.

Plays:

Martin McDonagh (also Anglo-Irish): The Pillowman, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Lonesome West, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Cripple of Inishmaan, A Skull in ConnemaraOther: Translations by Brian Friel, The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, By the Bog of Cats by Marina Carr.

Are you planning on participating in Reading Ireland Month, and if so, which books are you planning on reading?  Let me know!

short story reviews: Edna O’Brien and Julia O’Faolain

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PARADISE by Edna O’Brien
★★★★☆
Faber & Faber, 2019
originally published in 2013

 

Originally published in 2013, Paradise is a short, feverish story about an unnamed woman on holiday with her rich partner, who hires an instructor to teach her how to swim. What I took away from this story was an allegory about the self-congratulation of the rich when they take someone poor under their tutelage; performing in a proscribed manner is expected, developing your own ideas and aspirations is dangerous – and the metaphor is executed with searing prose and beautiful imagery. This was a great introduction to Edna O’Brien and I’m really looking forward to reading more of her work.


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DAUGHTERS OF PASSION by Julia O’Faolain
★★★☆☆
Faber & Faber, 2019
originally published in 1982

 

I really wanted to love this but I think I just ultimately wanted more from it. The premise is genius: an Irish woman in prison half-delusional from a hunger strike looks back on a friendship that led to her involvement with the IRA. It’s just very bare-bones and doesn’t dig as deep as it needs to into the relationship between Maggy and Dizzy, the relationship that propels the main conflict in this story but which reads like a quick sketch that hasn’t been colored in yet. That said, I did enjoy Julia O’Faolain’s writing and would happily read more from her… but I’d be lying if I said I weren’t a little disappointed, as this was the short story from Faber’s 90th anniversary collection that was I was the most looking forward to.