The Erl King by Michel Tournier.

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The Erl King Having previously discussed Stoner, in this post I am continuing with the theme of reviewing reissued literature. This time I am looking at Michel Tournier’s second novel The Erl King, which was first published in 1970.

The novel intrigued me from the off by opening in a diary format. I am a big fan of stories featuring aggrieved outsiders raging against the world via a diary, such as Gogol’s Diary Of A Madman and, of course, Dostoyevsky’s Notes From The Underground. This particular diary is recorded by a middle aged French mechanic in 1939, an ominous year…

The protagonist, Aubrey Tiffauges, begins by reminiscing about his miserable childhood spent as a submissive student at St. Christopher’s, a boarding school for orphans. Over the course of his recollections he introduces us to his obsession with his former classmate the ‘baby ogre’ Nestor.

Nestor is the deformed son of the school care taker. His age is undetermined and hard to judge due to his unconventional physical appearance, he appears to be a boy albeit with an oversized head, but his worldliness suggests that he is much older than the children who surround him.

Due to these factors he enjoys an uncommon prestige amongst his classmates and possesses a certain immunity from being disciplined by faculty members. When Nestor decides to take the young Tiffauges under his wing, he sow’s the seeds of his future fascination.

The aforementioned diary entries issue from the left hand of Aubrey Tiffauges. He finds that using his left hand to write has unexpected consequences. Long forgotten or repressed memories are revealed to him along with new philosophies and realisations. He collectively terms these revelations as his ‘sinister writings’.

The author uses these sinister writings to establish a set of symbols and tropes which are repeatedly reconfigured, recombined and inverted throughout the novel. The text recurrently cannibalises itself and then regenerates its narrative through this consumption, much as the main character Tiffauges consumes the imagery he fixates on and so becomes it.

The first example of this is found in Tiffauges’ belief that he is an avatar of the tragically departed Nestor who we discover died in a fire some years previously. Fitting with the author’s approach and main characters obsession with inversion, the adult Tiffauges stands as a physical and mental counterpoint to Nestor. He is a giant of a man possessed with an if not entirely infantile, certainly pubescent, understanding of his surroundings.

His impairment is hard to explain as he possesses an extensive vocabulary and expresses complex thoughts, yet he seems to be alienated from his surroundings by what could best be described as a sort of adolescent innocence. He is at once vulnerable and megalomaniacal.

Tiffauges reveals that he has taken to eating raw meat and believes himself to be an ogre or monster. That is a monster in the Latin sense of monstrum, a portent or divine warning which reveals a truth, as well as in the modern vernacular sense of large or deformed. Tiffauges is certainly large and most definitely socially deformed.

A diary entry of Tiffauges’ states: ‘if you don’t want to be a monster, you’ve got to be like your fellow creatures, in conformity with the species, the image of your relations. Or else have a progeny that makes you the first link in the chain of a new species. For monsters do not reproduce… And here I link up with my eternity again, for with me eternity takes the place of both relatives and progeny. Old as the world, and as immortal, I can have none but putative parents and adopted children.

Children play a central role in Tiffauges’ symbolic universe as is indicated by the books title The Erl-King which references the child stealing Faery King of Goethe’s poem, itself inspired by the Old Danish ballad Elveskud. The alternative title to the English translation of this novel is The Ogre one which also invokes images of children being forcibly removed from their parents by monstrous beings.

Over the course of the novel we witness Tiffauges obsession with at first children, then specifically male ones. We follow Tiffauges around Paris as he photographs children and obsesses over these images, lurking outside schools to capture his quarry on film which he later develops to pore over. Again we see the themes of inversion present in the development of photographs from negatives film to positive photographs, as well as themes of hunting which will recur.

Over the course of these outings he befriends a young girl. What happens next is open to interpretation depending on how reliable a narrator we believe Tiffauges to be. All we know is that Tiffauges’ is accused of raping the child, although there is much room in the text to believe that he is some way set up or framed.

This incident results in Tiffauges revulsion with female children a view he justifies with misogynistic argument that female children do not exist as they are all flirtatious coquettes from the get go. Could this be a paedophilic justification? Or misguided as it is does it suggest a rather more complex obsession and affinity with pre-sexual innocence? The character does not yield to easy analysis.

Tiffauges’ fascination with children is certainly sensual, he is obsessed with their scent, their sound and bizarrely their weight or phoric quality, but whether it is sexual is certainly debatable. He is for want of a better term, ‘Michael Jacksonesque’.

Tiffauges’ escapes sentencing for the rape due to the outbreak of World War Two and is sent to serve in the French army in lieu of prison time. This set a chain of events into motion where Tiffauges ends up a prisoner of war and is transferred to a prison camp in East Prussia. At this point the novel switches from a first person to a third person narrator.

Tiffauges finds his fortune changes under the chaotic circumstances of war. His skills as a mechanic enable him to begin a social ascent amidst the chaos of war, soon he is employed in Goering’s hunting lodge and then on to a National Political Academy or Napola where he becomes a eugenicist’s assistant.

Each change in circumstance moves him closer and closer to actualising his potential as an ogre superseding other ogres along the way. His employment at the Napola involves him scouring the Prussian country side looking for Aryan specimens to recruit and study; he literally steals children away from their parents. Yet there is always a larger ogre than the one he supersedes be Goering, Hitler or even Nazism itself.

Towards the end of the novel Tiffauges find a sort of redemption in the Christian trope of St. Christopher, the legendary Christ carrier. In the figure of St. Christopher Tiffauges’ finds an ogre role model of sorts and achieves quasi-atonement.

Like many French writers the author has a fascination with the ludic elements of linguistics and semiotics. And like many French writers, particularly those active in the 1970’s, Tournier relishes giving these elements free reign , sometimes to the frustration of the reader who at times may find the ludic veering perilously close to the ludicrous.

Tournier seems to want to say something about obsession, sexuality, myth, semiotics and the nature of fascism yet never quite gets around to it, opting instead for the effect of juxtaposing these elements rather than an analysing them.

The Erl King is also an uneven and often frustrating novel in terms of pace. I found the parts of the novel narrated in the first person to be much more successful than those narrated in the third person and regretted when the action moved outside of Tiffauges diary.

Yet for all these flaws it is hard to dismiss The Erl King entirely. It’s singular and odd parts add up to a distinctive and strangely haunting whole. The protagonist is one of the more distinctive and unsettling characters I have come across in a while.

I have spent much time puzzling over and pursuing the novels various thematic strands.I plan to reread it at some stage in the future to see if a second reading yields any more clarification. If one has the patience for such a book or merely enjoys the weird in life I recommend reading The Erl King.

Stoner by John Williams

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ISBN:978-0-099-56154-5

ISBN:978-0-099-56154-5

I have finally gotten around to reading Stoner, the famously forgotten novel by John Williams, and find myself grateful for the set of circumstances which led to its rediscovery.Beginning in 1910 it tells the story of William Stoner a 19 year old farmer’s son.

Little does Stoner suspect the experiences which await him as a result of his father uttering, “County agent come by last week… says they have a new school at the university in Colombia. They call it a College of Agriculture. Says he thinks you ought to go”.  From such a seemingly meagre premise our story is spun.

Stoner is the story of a modest man and his modest acheivements. As readers we are accustomed to our protagonists being notable and extraordinary, we watch and cheer as their epic and dramatic destinies unfold.

In fact the vast majority of contemporary fictional protagonists vary only in most superficial aesthetic detail from the heroes of myth. This emphasis is not confined to fiction. If we look at how history has been written we can note its similarity to myth, with its focus on kings, presidents and other exceptional individuals at the expense of the masses.

This focus on extraordinary characters is understandable from a technical narrative point of view, the extraordinary are compelling to read about. But it does beg the question, are the exceptional the only people worth writing about?

The hero figure and the remarkable individual are somewhat problematic in the sense that they are ultimately elitist. Chosen ones are just that, ones, singular. Some writers such as Joyce in Ulysses or Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus decide to approach this problem by accentuating the heroic in the everyday and elevating it to the level of epic.

Williams follow a different route with Stoner. His story contains no echoes of epics. He is neither hero nor anti-hero. In fact he is utterly aheroic; his circumstances are specific to him, but not extraordinary.

The novel tells us as much on the first page: “William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910…eight years later… he received his Doctorate of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his course.”

This is a very unusual opening for a novel. How many authors begins by indicating how forgettable their protagonist is? Yet if we continue with the novel we discover that this in no way makes William Stoner unworthy of our attention. Stoner’s concerns are trivial in comparison to the trials of Hercules or indeed Bilbo Baggins, but they do matter.

Upon attending an obligatory Arts class in University Stoner has an experience with poetry which sparks an interest in literature. This diverts him from his previously preordained role as a man of agriculture and propels him towards a career in university teaching.

While two world wars rage in the background Stoner experiences an unhappy marriage, the birth of a daughter, the intrigues of faculty life and the death of his parents. The chronicle of his life catalogues his small victories, defeats and all the things which fall in between.

The character brought to mind a certain Mr Prufock, who memorably states:”No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; Am an attendant lord, one that will do, To swell a progress, start a scene or two”.

The difference being that Stoner is presented to us by Williams without the wry air of mockery in which Eliot cloaks his character, and one doubts that he would desire to “swell a progress” or even “start a scene or two”.

Stoner is no master of his own destiny. He largely responds to what life gives him and tries to make the best of it with varying results. This seems an accurate description of most people’s lives. We are for the most part not Nietzschean supermen.

By the end of the novel I was fully invested in William Stoner’s seemingly unremarkable life and marvelled at the skill with which brought this fictional wallflower was brought to life. William’s novel is achingly beautiful and bittersweet, resigned yet not cynical, reserved yet not stuffy. If you like your fiction to be reflective, meditative, and heart-felt then Stoner is for you.

 

 

 

 

Home by Rebekah Lattin Rawstrone

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Home published by Red Button Press

Home published by Red Button Press

Home by Rebekah Lattin Rawstrone is an unnerving novel which stays with you long after you have finished reading it. Don’t be fooled by the seemingly reassuring title. This book isn’t about home in the cosy, stay in, have a pizza and watch a box set sense. The home in the title is referring to the euphemistic antiseptic institutional variety, as in care “home”.

Retired Steve has recently started working in one of the above mentioned homes for the elderly at the behest of his dying wife Fran. Knowing the kind of man Steve is, she realises that he will need something to keep him going when she is gone.

Initially things start well. The work load is manageable and being relieved of the responsibility of being a carer for a few hours a day unburdens Steve, and no doubt eases his wife’s concerns about him being occupied when she has passed. Although they have a son he is living in America and him and Steve are somewhat estranged.

Steve’s new colleagues are bearable if not entirely likable. The homes two nurses are Milos an immigrant and aspiring artist with a wife and child back home and  Sarah. Sarah is a rather bitter and hard done by figure who labours under an unreciprocated crush on Milos.  Steve’s boss is Miss Tacey, whose penchant for aggressive high heels and tightly fitted outfits provide a source of amusement for him and his wife.

Despite Steve’s UKIP like views on immigration it is with Milos that he strikes up a friendship both of them bonding over hot beverages and cigarettes, Turkish coffee for Milos and of course tea for Steve.

Things tick along well enough for Steve and a new routine is developed. Then the inevitable happens and Fran dies. Initially devastated, as time passes and Steve emerges gradually from the fog of immediate mourning, he starts notice some things don’t add up.

Why after working for months in the home has he never set eyes on a resident? Why is the home in possession of an industrial strength incinerator for cremation? And why did the care home employ Steve, an elderly man with a dying wife as caretaker? It’s almost as if they were looking to hire someone distracted who wouldn’t pay attention to their surroundings…

Steve decides some investigation is in order and uses his position as care taker to give him the access he requires in order to get the answers he needs.  But as Steve soon discovers, some questions are dangerous to ask.

Home is a challenging book which offers the reader no easy resolutions. It unflinchingly looks at the way western society treats it elderly and how they are marginalised and commodified for the sake of convenience.

The home itself is anything but that, its bleached neutrality rendering everything interchangeable and impersonal. Here individuals lose their specific histories and become part of the interchangeable mass termed the ‘elderly’ which society consigns those deemed to be past usefulness.

Ghastly families flit in and out of the home to pay perfunctory visits to their alleged loved ones, primarily concerned about easing their own guilt rather than the wellbeing of their relatives.

This novel is not easy to read, especially if you have a friend or relative currently residing in an institution, but things worth reading usually aren’t. While some people will no doubt be defensive in the face of its critique I feel that it is both necessary and compelling.

To say I enjoyed “Home” seems a little perverse given its subject matter. instead I’ll just say it left me unnerved and a little sad, which I mean as a compliment as sometimes one requires something a little more substantial than the sweet lies of happy ever afters.

Where I Left My Soul by Jérôme Ferrari

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ISBN:978-0-85705-130-1

ISBN:978-0-85705-130-1

Where I Left My Soul by Jérôme Ferrari tells the story of French military man Captain Degorce. Having survived torture at the hands of the Gestapo and internment In Indochina, Degorce’s military career has landed him in Algeria amongst the events which pre-figured the fall of the French Fourth Republic.

There is unrest as disenfranchised Algerians agitate against French rule, recently radicalised by the Sétif massacre. Degorce and his unit are responsible for the capture and interrogation of members of the Algerian resistance the FLN.

Inevitably this results in Degorce becoming a torturer himself. Degorce sees himself as a Christian man of conscience, a position he had the luxury of occupying when he was the subject rather the executor of torture. Now in the role of Roman centurion rather than Christ his actions weigh heavily on him.

As a result of his situation Degorce finds himself becoming increasingly isolated, unable to communicate with his colleagues in Algeria, and family back home. His wife persists in sending him letters to which he is unable to respond, given his inability to explain the horror he has witnessed in Algeria, and the shame he feels at his complicity in its production.

Degorce finds a counterpoint in his subordinate Captain Andreani, a man who is at ease in the grimy world of ‘information gathering’.  Lacking Degorce’s compunctions in regards to torture, Andreani spouts the usual defences about necessary evils whilst revelling in the cruelty he inflicts.

Andreani and Degorce’s relationship is defined by mutual loathing. Having once idolised Degorce Andreani is disgusted by his qualms against violence and what he perceives to be Degorce’s hypocrisy.  Degorce finds Andreani’s easy cruelty abhorable.

When Degorce’s unit captures Tahar, the head of the resistance, things become even more morally murky. In Tahar Degorce finds a man at ease with violent actions due to his belief in his cause, something Degorce now lacks.

Degorce becomes preoccupied with Tahar and the peace which his impending martyrdom brings him. Eager to play the noble warrior Degorce affords Tahar full military honours .This doesn’t sit well with Degorce’s colleagues and superiors.

Where I Left My Soul features some beautiful prose and in its pages Ferrari illustrates how the logic of torture dehumanises both its instigator and subject. In one passage, reminiscent of Kafka’s torture device from InThe Penal Colony, Degorce feels that he is the caretaker of an inexorable engine of torture which must be fed “organic fuel”, torture becoming both the means and ends in a hellish cycle.

Such a topic is extremely relevant in today’s society where, due to military double speak and political wordplay, the hellish spectacle of torture is downplayed as somehow necessary for the greater good. Ferrari should be applauded for writing a serious and thoughtful novel which unflinchingly deals with the subject.

The Thing About December by Donal Ryan.

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ISBN:  978-1-781-620 10-6

ISBN: 978-1-781-620 10-6

The thing about December is Donal Ryan’s second published novel but was actually written before his startlingly good debut The Spinning Heart. This fact made me a little hesitant when approaching it as I feared this could have been a case of a publisher digging out an inferior earlier work and foisting it off on the public on the back of the hype. Happily my fears proved to be unfounded as the thing about December is a delight to read.

It tells the story of Johnsey Cunliffe, a character whose fate is referred to in passing in The Spinning Heart. The Novel , set just before the ‘CelticTiger’ economic boom, is divided into twelve chapters each showing us a month in the life of the hapless Johnsey.

Johnsey is, what might be termed by those using the Irish vernacular, a bit ‘soft.’ He is a gentle natured man who works stacking shelves in the local co-op, and lives alone with his mother in rural Ireland, having never cut the apron strings.

The spectre of Johnsey’s deceased father, a hardworking small time farmer who was renowned locally for being both generous natured and someone to be reckoned with if crossed, comforts and torments him. He is comforted by the happy memories he has of the time he spent with his father who obviously adored him, but is tormented by a sense of not living up to his father’s legend.

Johnsey’s recollections of his early life detail the various traumas he experienced growing up and never quite fitting in. Humiliation is a routine part of his experience, usually instigated by the town ‘hard-man’ Eugene Penrose.

Penrose has bullied Johnsey since their schooldays and continues his campaign into adulthood, given ample time to pursue this project due to unemployment. Every day on his way to work Johnsey must run the gauntlet past Penrose and his cronies who are perched drinking cans of cheap booze at their favourite hangout spot.

Despite these trials Johnsey perseveres uncomplainingly, finding security in his simple routine of work then dinner and TV in the evening with his mother. Unfortunately February brings his mother’s unexpected death and Johnsey is left bereft and isolated, struggling to negotiate the world alone. Johnsey becomes increasingly marginalised relying on the indulgence of sympathetic neighbours for the occasional glimmer of compassion and company.

While at first the motivations of the neighbours seem pure we gradually realise that as a consequence of his mother’s death Johnsey has inherited some land which has recently been rezoned for housing by the local council. This renders it extremely valuable. In this light the apparent kindness of Johnsey’s neighbour’s looks a little jaundiced, a detail which Johnsey in his innocence fails to notice at first.

Johnsey’s new found wealth also causes jealousy to rear its ugly head. Eugene Penrose finds Johnsey’s good fortune unbearable which results in him and his lackey’s subjecting Johnsey to a brutal beating. Knocked unconscious and almost blinded Johnsey awakes in a hospital ward.

Such is Johnsey’s loneliness, he finds being in hospital to be quite agreeable, he is fed and there is a constant flow of people around to keep him company. On top of this he becomes rather taken with a young nurse called Siobhán  who attends to him. His days are spent in anticipation of her visits.

Unfortunately competition for her attention arrives in the form of a new ward mate, ‘mumbly’ Dave, who has the gift of the gab which Johnsey sorely lacks. Although Johnsey is initially hostile to what he perceives to be Dave’s intrusion, they soon become friends of a sort.

On leaving the hospital a tug of war ensues between Dave and Siobhán for control of Johnsey and perhaps his purse strings.The stage is soon set for a tragic denouement which echoes the infamous Abbeylara incident: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_John_Carthy

My only criticism of the novel lies in occasional discrepancies in how Johnsey is portrayed. We are never told if Johnsey is actually mentally disabled in some way or if he has just lived a very sheltered life. Either way some of his observations seem overly astute and incisive for a character who is purported to be so simple-minded. In fact at times he can sound like an author with a fine ear for language rather than a simple man with little interest in literature.

This is a recurring problem with ‘holy fool’ type characters in fiction and is inevitable given the exigencies of plot and literary style. Fortunately it is infrequent enough to be forgivable and one is seduced into indulging the author given his facility with dialogue and description.

On the strength of his first two novels Donal Ryan is shaping up to be a major figure in contemporary Irish fiction. His portrayal of modern life and the consequences of the global economy on small time Ireland are spot on, albeit perhaps a little uncharitable. I would recommend the thing about December  to anyone who enjoyed The Spinning Heart and declare myself a convinced Donal Ryan fan who eagerly awaits his next novel.

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

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ISBN: 978-1-781-62007-6

ISBN: 978-1-781-62007-6

Donal Ryan burst onto the Irish literary scene last year helped in no small part by his novel The Spinning Heart being nominated for the 2013 Booker prize. The Spinning Heart paints a picture of post boom time Ireland and features some of the most bewitching prose I’ve come across in a while.

The backbone of the story centres on the fall of local hero Bobby Mahon. Bobby is a former football star who worked as a building site foreman during the times of economic prosperity. Despite being adored by his fellow towns people Bobby is a self-effacing, hardworking man who does not like too much of a fuss being made about him.

Things begin to unravel for Bobby when his boss, the quintessential Irish boom time property developer, ‘Pokey Burke’ skips town to avoid paying debts.  Pokey leaves a half-finished housing development or “ghost estate” and a crew of disgruntled builders in his wake.

On top of all this Bobby also has to shoulder the burden of his spiteful father, an undying man who seems to be sustained by hate. His father, jealous of Bobby’s relationship with his now deceased mother, was a man who; “sat silently swallowing her claim to a life…drunk he was leering and silent and mostly asleep. Sober, he was watcher, a horror of a man who missed nothing and commented on everything. Nothing was ever done right or cooked right or said right or bought right or handed to him properly or ironed straight or finished off fully with him. We couldn’t breathe right in a room with him.

Matters go from bad to worse when it transpires that the greasy Mr.Burke has neglected to pay social security on behalf of his employees meaning they are not entitled to redundancy payments or unemployment assistance. Bobby, decent man that he is, feels responsible for this situation despite being unaware of Burke’s machinations.

Amid the aftermath of Pokey’s flight a murder happens in which Bobby is implicated and the consequences reverberate throughout the town. The story is related to us from the vantage point of the various townspeople, twenty-one in total, their fragments revealing the broader story to the reader.

Ryan successfully finds distinctive voices for each member of his literary symphony, each possessing their own idiosyncrasies, and back stories which could stand alone as short stories. The only shortcoming in the novel lies in one of these characters narrative trajectories which features an ill-conceived child kidnap sub plot which fails to convince.

This lapse is forgivable in light of Ryan’s prose and highly memorable turn of phrase. The local gossips are referred to as “The Teapot Taliban,” whose aged veins run with “pill thinned blood”. I will restrain myself from quoting any more as once one begins quoting a writer of Ryan’s quality it’s hard to know when to stop.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with a love of literary fiction or an interest in seeing a snapshot of modern rural Ireland. The Spinning Heart was one of the most enjoyable pieces of fiction I read in 2013.I hope to have a review of Ryan’s second published novel The Thing About December posted by early next week.

A Girl Is A Half formed Thing by Eimear Mc Bride

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isbn: 978-0-9571853-2-6

isbn: 978-0-9571853-2-6

Being an Irish writer is no easy thing. Who would envy a young novelist sitting down, squint-eyed and daunted, trying to write in the half-light created by the shadows of literary giants on an island where they seem to be particularly prevalent?

While the anxiety of influence can affect writers of any nationality, there is something especially onerous about inhabiting a national literary scene where the apex influence is a certain Mr.James Joyce. Both a cause for the illogical phenomena of national literary pride and an ogre who must be slain in order to proceed as a writer, what does one do with a problem like Joyce?

Well if you’re Eimear Mc Bride you write your debut novel in the stream of consciousness style made famous in Ulysess, acquit yourself with panache, and become a potential literary sensation. Problem solved.

A Girl Is A Half formed Thing by Eimear Mc Bride is as ballsy as it is brilliant. It tells the story of a marginalised unnamed protagonist who lives in an equally anonymous small Irish town; or rather it puts us behind her eyeballs and in her head. We get to experience her life from the age of two years old to the age of twenty.

As her lifetime unfolds we witness her relationships and the pressures they exude on her. Abandoned by a feckless father and raised by her overly pious and religiose mother, the protagonist struggles to find her place in the world.

Respite comes in the form of an older brother who she adores, a young man much affected by a childhood brain tumour and the procedures it necessitated. We soon discover her brother has not been left untouched by his childhood trauma, and is in the colloquialism of the town a little “slow”.

The hero-worship she felt for him as a child soon subsides giving way to teenage self-consciousness as she realises that he is never going to be able to be the “normal” brother she needs.  Torn between embarrassment and love, this relationship is at the core of the novel.

While her childhood is not exactly a bed of roses, things take a darker when she hits her teens and a visiting uncle takes an unhealthy interest in her. After she is abused by him she makes the mistake of confusing victimhood with control and acts out accordingly acquiring a “reputation” in the process.

Although she eventually escapes the confines of small town life and moves to the city to study, she cannot leave her experiences behind. She continues to enact her destructive sexuality, both with strangers and the uncle who originally abused her.

Her rejection of religion and small town life is not presented naively as a clean solution to all of her problems, as is the common scenario in the “small town girl moves to the big city” genre. Instead we get a convincing and sympathetic portrait of a damaged individual unanchored and alone. Seeking respite in sex and alcohol she finds herself trapped in an escalating spiral of self-loathing.

The most striking feature of A Girl Is A Half formed Thing is the virtuosic use of language employed by the author to tell the tale. Mc Bride is like a potter moulding malleable language into the form she requires to express what is necessary at that moment.

Her stream of consciousness style so convincingly approximates the fluidity of thought at times I forgot I was a reader and felt I actually inhabited the head of the character that Mc Bride had constructed. Initially some readers may find the style off-putting but if you stick with it the result is worth it.  A Girl Is A Half formed Thing is a promisingly powerful debut and I look forward to more from Mc Bride.

Hello and Goodbye by Patrick Mc Cabe

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isbn-978-1-78206-014-7

isbn-978-1-78206-014-7

Hello Mr.Bones and Goodbye Mr.Rat are a pair of spine tingling tales which constitute Patrick Mc Cabe’s latest release Hello and Goodbye. Both tales feature dead protagonists recounting their last days and beyond. As is befitting characters created by a writer who revels in unreliable narrators we are unsure whether the stories told are confessional revelations, self-serving lies or perhaps a bit of both.

Hello Mr.Bones tells the story of Mr.Valentine Shannon a former, somewhat disgraced, Irish Christian brother now living in England with his partner Chris and her disabled son Faisal.  Having found happiness in his new relationship and teaching job it seems that Mr.Shannon is about to find some measure of peace in his new life.

Or at least it would were his story not related to us by deceased and demonic Anglo-Irish Dandy, Balthazar Bohan. Balthazar, having to his mind taken the young Valentine under his wing, is filled with indignation about the aftermath of their ‘friendship’. When certain allegations about Mr.Bohan’s imprurient interest in young Valentine and what occurs during his screenings of Betty Boop cartoons in his projector room emerge, the stage is set for Mr.Bohan’s downfall. Swearing revenge with his last breath, Mr.Bohan proves to be a man of his word.

Mr.Bohan’s machinations against Valentine culminate on the sixteenth of October 1987, the day when a Hurricane struck England despite the assurances of Micheal Fish, the famous British weatherman. Mc Cabe is an expert at weaving pop cultural tropes into his narratives in unsettling ways using them to create an atmosphere of uncanny horror. Betty Boop, Micheal Fish and a jingle from an old toothpaste advert to name just a few pop cultural touchstones referenced in this story, are used to chilling effect. A demonic clown called Mr.Bonio who has designs on Faisal adds to the creepiness especially for all those coulrophobics out there.

In Goodbye Mr.Rat, IRA man Gabriel King recounts his story for us from the confines of the urn where he currently resides. Gabriel is escorted by his friend, talented playwright Beni Banikin, back to his homeland from America to fulfil his dying wish of having his ashes spread there. Beni, a woman who has known trouble herself, believes Gabriel is a hero, a hunger striker who defected from the IRA in disgust at a particular incident in the village Altnavogue, where a bomb was placed in a baby’s cot.

Is Gabriel the principled freedom fighter he claims to be or could he be an eloquent thug duping an impressionable American with his stories of unsullied heroism and his sentimental self-justifying nationalism? When Beni arrives in Gabriel’s home town and meets the locals, including former IRA man turned Mayor, Mr.‘Dog’ White , her hero’s stories begin to unravel and tragedy becomes inevitable.

Both stories feature little in the way of the explicit anatomically detailed violence found in much modern horror. The horror instead is psychological and resides in gradual revelation and atmosphere. These gothic style stories create a genuine unease and offer no tidy reassuring resolutions. In fact the ending of Hello Mr.Bones foreshadows further horrific acts rather than cathartic overcoming of opposition.

These stories get under your skin to make you shiver. The horror resides just below the surface. Horrific acts of abuse are cloaked in colloquialisms and evasions by the self-serving narrators.  For me this is the most effective way of creating dread in a reader. When things are seen in the plain light of day they become banal and ineffective, too determined, whereas real horror resides in uncertain anticipation.  I found both stories to be excellent examples of modern Irish Gothic and would recommend Hello and Goodbye, to anyone who is looking to spend an evening or two breaking out in goosebumps.

The Anchoress by Paul Blaney

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The Anchoress published by Red Button

The Anchoress published by Red Button

One of the many strengths of the novel form, when successfully executed, lies in the ease with which it can transport us to exotic, unfamiliar locations and scenarios without the need for big budgets and special effects, but rather through the simple interplay of the written word and our own mind. Whether from the comfort of our favourite armchair or aboard public transport we can open a book at any moment and be transported to  the midst of a medieval market place, walk the streets of Victorian London or even witness intergalactic warfare in distant solar systems.

Or as is the case with The Anchoress by Paul Blaney, we can find ourselves outside a walk in wardrobe wondering why a grown woman has decided to sequester herself there. While this scenario may not seem as obviously dramatic as the previous examples it is important to remember drama has as much do with the interior lives of characters as much as exterior events.

The Anchoress opens with our protagonist, Maggie, already cloistered within the closet; we know nothing about how she ended up in there. As the story unfolds we learn a little of her predicament through her interior dialogue and her interaction between the various individuals who come into her life as a result of the unorthodox action she has taken. The first of these is a pizza delivery man of a philosophical bent who mistakenly enters her unlocked apartment and ends up in conversation with her. Through their initial interaction he soon becomes a confidante who provides food for both sustenance and thought.

Then there is the mysterious neighbour whom Maggie communicates with via the thin partition wall which separates them. This mysterious voice initially sounds like a child or young adult’s, but the probing questions it unrelentingly asks soon suggest otherwise.

The other characters come in the form of Norman, an ostensibly concerned but perhaps self-serving work colleague, an unexpectedly religious policewoman, and as news of Maggie’s retreat from the world spreads, an inevitable journalist. Each of these characters tries to make sense of Maggie’s actions through the lens of their respective positions. The colleague discusses work, property values and material things and represents these concerns, the policewoman represents the state and our responsibilities to it which sometimes come at a cost to us, and the journalist represents society and its determination to categorise our actions.

Blaney presents these characters sympathetically and does not condemn them; they are all shown to have an inner life and unexpected dimensions. This shows real subtlety on behalf of the author who doesn’t condemn these semi-allegorical characters or what they represent. Blaney is possessed of enough perspicacity to realise that things such as the material and social do matter, but it is the order in which we prioritise them which is essential.

It’s clear from reading the Anchoress that Paul Blaney is well-informed about religion, philosophy, mythology, fairy-tales and ritual, as he blends ideas from these areas and intersperses ideas from all these sources throughout the novel. This is most apparent in the form of the conversations between the characters, especially Maggie and the pizza man, which follow the tradition of, and reference, Socratic dialogues.

The fairy-tale themes come in the form of the princess in the castle trope. Over the course of her various dialogues we learn that Maggie’s childhood was quite isolated, growing up as she did in a renovated Martello tower. Although she has since left her childhood home she continues to dwell there psychologically, a prisoner of the consolatory fables she had constructed to aid herself in her time of need which she has now outgrown. Instead of being rescued by a handsome prince as is the convention, Maggie must figure out how to liberate herself from her past. Her seclusion in the closet is the beginning of this process.

The walk in closet is a sacred space which offers a place for self-examination and reconstruction. It is a confession box at first where she must confront herself and the truth of the narrative of her life. Later it functions as many other things, a reference to the famous wardrobe of the Narnia chronicles, a chrysalis for growth, and an echo of the Buddha’s spot under the Bodhi where he resisted the temptations of the outside world in order to attain enlightenment, to name but a few.

The Anchoress is a generous spirited novella which approaches spiritual, philosophical and psychological topics in a refreshingly down to earth way. The character Maggie is an ordinary middle class woman who is quite unexceptional, an everywoman, rather than a wild-eyed mystic or messianic chosen one. This serves to bring topics which can appear forbidding down to earth.

While sometimes philosophy, religion and literature can seem to occupy a rarefied space reserved for the exceptionally intelligent, spiritual etc… here we see they are in essence tools for helping us to make sense of the world around us.  I think most people could identify with Maggie’s need to “work out what kind of relationship I should have with the world”.

The message of The Anchoress is a simple one which is frequently ignored in our chaotic capitalist society. Sometimes we need space from the chaos of the world, our jobs, families, phones and facebook, all the things which distract us from examining ourselves and asking hard questions. I would recommend this book to anyone who’s looking for something a little bit different from the crowd. Accessible, engaging, full of ideas and humanity, The Anchoress won’t disappoint.