book review: Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen




BIG GIRL, SMALL TOWN by Michelle Gallen
★★★☆☆
Algonquin Books, 2020

This was a fine and forgettable read. Big Girl, Small Town follows Majella, a fast food worker on the autism spectrum in the fictional town of Aghybogey, Northern Ireland. Like most post-Troubles lit this deals with lingering tensions between Protestants and Catholics, the unresolved and unstable social climate narratively underscored by the disappearance of Majella’s father, who went missing during the Troubles. 

I can’t quite put my finger on what didn’t work for me, beyond feeling sort of vaguely unconvinced by Majella who felt to me very much like a character in a novel and not an actual person. This felt like it was desperately trying to be quirky but didn’t quite have the finesse needed to pull it off; it comes off as rather prosaic and muted. I didn’t mind reading this–it’s a short book–but I also found it so unnoteworthy that I can’t come up with anything else to say about it. Read it if you feel like it but if you’re new to Northern Irish lit, there are better places to start.

book review: Travelling in a Strange Land by David Park

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TRAVELLING IN A STRANGE LAND by David Park
★★★★☆
Bloomsbury, 2018 (UK)

 

This was a lovely, devastating little book.  It’s a simple story which follows Tom, a Northern Irish man making a road trip from Belfast to Sunderland to pick up his son Luke from uni for the Christmas holidays.  This reverse-Odyssey is being undertaken as weather has made road conditions terrible and all public transport has been shut down, and Luke is too sick to drive himself.

On a very surface level, David Park captures the fortitude required to drive in unsafe weather conditions in a way that hooked and compelled me instantly, but obviously this book is so much more than that.  I don’t want to give away too much as it has such a short page count, but this book delves so deep into grief and guilt that it’s a wonder Park could do it all in under 200 pages.

The only issue that cropped up for me on occasion was something that frequently bothers me with books written in the first-person; when the narrator becomes overly articulate in such a way that you can feel the author using them as a mouthpiece.  I found the writing mostly lovely and authentic, and this was only an occasional criticism, but it was enough to knock it back from 5 stars.

Still, it’s a tremendously affecting book that I’d recommend highly, especially on a snowy day.


You can pick up a copy of Travelling in a Strange Land here on Book Depository.

book review: Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe

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SAY NOTHING: A TRUE STORY OF MURDER AND MEMORY IN NORTHERN IRELAND by Patrick Radden Keefe
★★★★★
Doubleday, February 26, 2019

 

I wish it weren’t only February because the statement ‘this is the best book I’ve read all year’ does not carry very much weight when we still have 10 months to go. But, nonetheless, this is my reigning book of 2019. And it ended up being one of those rare cases when the book turned out so differently from what I expected, but I ended up liking it all the more for that. From the blurb I got the impression that this was going to focus on the disappearance of a woman called Jean McConville, with details about the Troubles setting the background context, but instead it’s primarily a narrative account of the Troubles which occasionally, haltingly zeroes in on McConville’s story. So it’s less true crime than it is historical nonfiction, but the final product is focused and compelling.

Say Nothing, whose title comes from a line from a Seamus Heaney poem which examines the treacherous precedent of speaking plainly about the Troubles, paints a comprehensive picture of twentieth century Belfast and introduces us to a few of the main players responsible for much of the devastation caused by the IRA – Brendan Hughes, Gerry Adams, Dolours and Marian Price, et al. Radden Keefe explores the lives and family histories and philosophies and interpersonal dynamics of these individuals and I found it refreshing that he didn’t have an interest in moralizing in his approach to this story; while I think true objectivity is probably impossible, this is about as multifaceted as it gets. Driven primarily by an interest in the human cost of the conflict, Radden Keefe turns four years of research into a richly detailed account of Northern Ireland’s fraught history, particularly examining how difficult it is to cultivate a historical record when different accounts contain conflicting information, and when everyone is afraid to speak openly about a conflict that’s officially been resolved, but is a strong force in cumulative living memory. (If you loved Milkman, or if you didn’t understand Milkman, this is such a valuable nonfiction supplement.)

Certain anecdotes and images in this book were just arresting, and I think it’s telling that the two stories that affected me the most had victims on opposite sides of the conflict. The first was about an IRA man who ordered a hit on another IRA man, whose wife he was having an affair with; the first man was sentenced to death, and Dolours Price, driving him to his execution, was struck with the thought that she could let him go, or that he could attack her and escape, but neither of those possibilities was going to happen because they both wholly accepted their devotion to the cause. The chapter ends with the flat and haunting lines “‘I’ll be seeing you Joe,’ Price said. But she knew that she wouldn’t be, and she cried the whole way home.” The second story that got under my skin was about two young British soldiers who had accidentally found themselves in the middle of an IRA funeral; because of a recent attack by loyalists, their presence was met with suspicion and they were dragged from their car and beaten, and eventually taken across the road and shot. A Catholic priest ran over and when he noticed that one of the men was still breathing, asked if anyone knew CPR, but he was met with silence from the crowd, and a photograph was captured of him kneeling over this soldier’s body and staring into the camera, his lips bloody from trying to resuscitate him.

As for the significance of Jean McConville, the mother of ten who went missing in 1972, and whose body wasn’t recovered until her bones were found on a beach in 2003: at first I did worry that this element was being shoehorned as a bizarre piece of human interest (I say ‘bizarre’ due to the little attention that’s paid to McConville and her children throughout). However, I needn’t have worried, as everything does eventually dovetail in a way that fully justifies this book’s premise. Running alongside the historical account of the Troubles, Radden Keefe introduces the reader to something called the Boston College Tapes, an aborted project in which heads of the college’s Irish History department endeavored to curate an oral history of the Troubles, to be accessed by the college’s students in future generations. Due to the fact that discussing past paramilitary activity is an incriminating act, participants in the project were granted a sort of amnesty and promised that the tapes would not be released until after the participant’s death. This promise was violated in the form of a lengthy legal battle between BC and the UK government, and ended up playing a key role in getting to the bottom of McConville’s disappearance.

While I’d first and foremost recommend Say Nothing to those with an interest in Irish history and wouldn’t dream of selling this as a true crime book, I don’t want to downplay how enthralling this was. Granted, its focus is something I already had an interest in, but what Radden Keefe brought to this narrative was a fiercely human angle, and I found this as deeply moving as it was informative.

Thank you to Netgalley and Doubleday for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

You can pick up a copy of Say Nothing here on Book Depository.