book review: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

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A GIRL IS A HALF-FORMED THING by Eimear McBride
★★★★★
Coffee House Press, 2014

Having already read Eimear McBride’s sophomore novel, The Lesser Bohemians, I thought I was prepared for A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing. And indeed, I was prepared for McBride’s signature and singular prose style, a terse, choppy sort of stream of consciousness that mimics the incompleteness of thought. It’s a difficult style to warm up to: I’ve heard that listening to this book on audio can help, but personally I tried that and as I’m not an auditory learner at all, I found it much more comprehensible in print. So I think it does depend on your personal preferences, but once you settle into the rhythm of her words, it’s not as daunting as you might expect.

“Him anxious. Not at all like. But I am happy. Satisfied that I’ve done wrong and now and now. What now? Calm sliding down into my boat and pushing out to sin. He’s on the shoreline getting small.”

What I was not prepared for was how utterly gutting this book ended up being. This has to be one of the most intense, visceral, excruciating things I have read in my life – second only to A Little Life, perhaps? Just, don’t pick this up lightly. Trigger warnings for everything. Seriously, everything.

But it’s not just brutal; it’s good. Form, style, and content all dovetail here for one of the most perceptive examinations of the psychological toll of sexual assault that I have ever read. But more than that, this book is a raw and unfiltered look at sex, isolation, terminal illness, and sibling bonds, and though it’s relentlessly internal in its construction, a commentary on growing up as a young woman in Ireland beautifully underscores the entire thing. The protagonist remains nameless, something that I often find gimmicky and unnecessary, but here it works perfectly as a constant reminder of the narrator’s fractured sense of identity as she finds herself defined by the horrifying things that happen to her and around her as a young girl. This is a hard book to recommend as it’s so impenetrable at a glance, and so harrowing once you do get into it, but I think this is a book that is going to stay with me for a long time.


You can pick up a copy of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing here on Book Depository.

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book review: Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson

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CONSTELLATIONS by Sinéad Gleeson
★★★★★
Picador Books, April 2019 (UK)

 

Constellations is the debut memoirist essay collection by noted Irish arts critic Sinéad Gleeson, and it’s a collection that appears to have been years in the making. It’s unsurprising then that the result is as masterful as it is – I inhaled this utterly marvelous book in one day and could not stop thinking about it after I finished.

Gleeson puts her own body at the front and center of these essays; she writes of hip replacements, leukemia, arthritis, and childbirth, deftly tying in her own stories with broader observations about the politicization of women’s bodies. These essays are at their best when they’re the most personal, I think, because Gleeson has the remarkable ability to express vulnerability without self-pity, but there isn’t a single essay in this collection that isn’t in its own way thought-provoking and memorable.

This is perfect for fans of Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death, though I consider Constellations to be (perhaps ironically) more thematically coherent. ‘Blue Hills and Chalk Bones’ opens the collection with a story about a school trip to France and coming to terms with her body’s limitations, a moving opening that segues into the more widely accessible ‘Hair,’ which interrogates the relationship between hair and identity. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that captures the utter senselessness and cruelty of death better than ‘Our Mutual Friend,’ far and away the collection’s standout, but even though that emotional crescendo comes early, the essays that follow continue to hold their own and deliver the occasional gut-punch while meditating on themes of illness, death, motherhood, and the interplay between art and health.

All said, this collection is essentially a reminder of the importance of bodily autonomy (which Gleeson fights for most ardently in her essay in which she reflects on Ireland’s notoriously harsh abortion policies). But despite the relentlessly heavy subject matter, this is the kind of book that you feel lighter having read, because it isn’t weighed down by the kind of hopelessness and despair that Gleeson has been fighting through ever since her first health diagnosis. As a self-proclaimed lover of all things macabre I tend to shudder at the word ‘uplifting’ so I’m trying to avoid using it, but suffice to say that this is a beautiful book that works through a number of difficult subjects to a consequential and impactful end. Read it.


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

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.

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.