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: 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.

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!