Reading Ireland Month: All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan

I engineered these passions, these trials, to convince myself I was living a life.  Even misery was better than boredom.  

When we meet Melody Shee she is in her thirties, living in Limerick, Ireland, and twelve weeks pregnant.  The father is not her husband but the seventeen year-old Traveller boy whom she tutors in reading.  Her husband has left her, and she’s contemplating suicide.  We learn that she carries the blame for a childhood friend’s death inside her, and has for years.  We learn that she and her husband have suffered through two miscarriages, and he decided to get a vasectomy to spare them both any more pain.  We learn that her father and her mother didn’t really have a happy marriage, but that her father is the one person who loves and supports her perfectly.  He’s the one person whom she doesn’t want to disappoint, but she can’t quite ever feel worthy of his love.29752909

True confession time:  I almost abandoned All We Shall Know somewhere between pages 50 and 77.  Frankly, three things kept me going.  1.  It was a gift from a blogger friend, 2. it was short (186 pages,) and 3. I realized that, while it began bleakly, it was most certainly NOT dull.

I have the marvelous blogger Fiction Fan to thank for helping me to realize the last bit, in a comment exchange on my previous post.  She said she doesn’t really abandon books for being too sad, but rather for being dull.  It made me reconsider All We Shall Know in a totally knew light.  I realized that while I was saddened by the events in the novel, I was also invested.  I wanted to know what was going to happen to Melody Shee and her baby.  I alternately sympathized with and cringed at Melody’s passions and anger, but I couldn’t stop reading about her.

This is a lyrical, beautifully written book, full of sadness, full of intense emotions, and full of life.  There is a compelling, propulsive quality to the writing, and Ryan is masterful at making the reader care about a heroine that is troubled, to say the least.  Some may find her unlikable. I did myself at times.  But she is a fully realized character, someone who has suffered, made profound mistakes, and carries their weight with her always.  I also marveled at Ryan’s skill in depicting pregnancy.  It made me recall my own experience, the bodily sensations that change and surprise, and even made me have a dream about being pregnant.  The chapters begin at Week Twelve and end at Week Forty, so as the novel progresses the impending birth comes closer and closer.

Melody’s life takes a turn after meeting another Traveller, a young woman named Mary Crothery, a distant relative of the baby’s father.  She also turns to Melody for help learning how to read, and they strike up an unusual and fascinating friendship.  I found that her introduction into the narrative was a real turning point for me in that her character lightened the story up considerably, and softened Melody’s abrasiveness.  Her story line is fraught with peril as well, as she’s left her husband from another Traveler clan, and his family doesn’t like it one bit.  Yet even Melody’s sweet father is enchanted by her.

And the sky and the earth and the cut grass and the chirruping of birds and the low drone of insects and the slant light across my father’s happy face and the gleam of wonder in Mary Crothery’s eyes and the smell of the morning air and the weight of life inside me all seemed even, and easy, and messless, and perfect, and right, and every deficit seemed closed in that moment.

I have a Goodreads shelf labelled “Sad But Worth It” and this resides firmly on that shelf.  It’s a beautiful, raw book about impossible messy relationships and the hope for redemption.  I know I won’t soon forget fierce, flawed Melody, and I will definitely read Ryan again.

Have you ever had this kind of reading experience before, when a book you almost abandoned turned around for you?  Do you have a recommendation for an Irish writer or novel you love? Let me know in the comments.

reading-ireland-month_2017Cathy at 746 Books once again hosts Reading Ireland Month, a month dedicated to exploring all that’s good in Irish books and culture.  Check out all the fun here.

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Reading Ireland Month: The Visitor by Maeve Brennan

The Visitor, a novella, was written sometime in the 1940’s but just published in 2000, after being discovered in papers acquired by Notre Dame University. I learned about Maeve Brennan only last year, from a review of The Rose Garden on Cathy’s blog 746 Books.   Brennan was the daughter of an Easter Rising rebellion leader, and moved as a teen with her family to the U.S. in 1934, when her father was appointed as Ireland’s first ambassador to the United States.  Apparently she became part of the New York City literati and was rumored to be inspiration for Truman Capote’s character Holly Golightly. She worked for The New Yorker, writing pieces for “The Talk of the Town” and her own short stories. After a brief marriage to the editor of the magazine, St. Clare McKelway, she drifted into mental problems and homelessness, dying in obscurity in 1993.

41oRlBr3jeL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Visitor is a dark, atmospheric volume about a supremely dysfunctional family. Anastasia, a twenty-two year-old young woman, is coming to stay with her grandmother, Mrs. King, after being away for six years.  We learn that she was in Paris with her mother, a woman with whom her grandmother did not get along, and that her mother has recently died.  Her father, who stayed in Dublin, has recently passed away as well.  Anastasia is adrift, returning to her childhood home, even though it becomes clear that it was not a place of happiness for her or her family.

She kissed her grandmother hastily, avoiding her eyes.  The grandmother did not move from the door of the sitting room.  She stood in the doorway, having just got up from the fireside and her reading, and contemplated Anastasia and Anastasia’s luggage crowding the hall.  She was still the same, with her delicate and ruminative and ladylike face, and her hands clasped formally in front of her.  Anastasia thought, She is waiting for me to make some mistake.

Anastasia’s parents marriage was not a happy one.  A large age difference and a difference in temperament, possibly mental problems, are alluded to in flashbacks.  Her grandmother blames Anastasia for her father’s death, or at the very least harbors resentment towards her for following her mother to Paris and not coming back to Ireland. When Anastasia  expresses a desire to remain with her grandmother, she shuts her down resolutely, coldly.

“I’m afraid that you’ve been counting too much on me.  You mustn’t do that.  I have no home to offer you.  This is a changed house here now.  I see no one whatsoever.”

She smiled with anger.

“I stopped seeing them after she ran off, when I found them asking questions of Katherine in the hall outside.  I go out to mass, that’s all.  When I got your telegram, I hadn’t the heart to stop you.  You need a change.  It’s natural that you should want to pay a visit here.  But more than that, no.  It might have been different, maybe, if you’d been with me when he died.   But you weren’t here.”

This is pretty much what Anastasia confronts as soon as she arrives to the house.  She drifts aimlessly through her days, taking walks, shopping for Christmas gifts, and visiting an elderly friend of her grandmother’s, Miss Kilbride, the only person her Mrs. King has over to tea.  Miss Kilbride tells her some of her own secrets, and makes an unusual request of Anastasia in the event of her passing on.  Will Anastasia honor Miss Kilbride’s request?  Will she somehow persuade her grandmother to let her stay, or will she return to Paris?  Is Anastasia even a trustworthy narrator?

reading-ireland-month_2017I was very much impressed by this little gem, I have to say.  Not a word is wasted.  The writing is assured, elegant, evocative.  I was left with questions, but was mesmerized by the steady hand with which Brennan portrayed what was left of this supremely dysfunctional family.  I felt sorry for everyone in it, from Katherine, the determinedly kind housekeeper, to the thwarted Miss Kilbride, who had disappointments of her own she never recovered from.  I even felt sympathy for Mrs. King, who lived a sad and circumscribed life.  It seems such a shame to live a life with so little room for joy, and so little capacity for forgiveness.  I somehow hope that Anastasia is able to break the cycle of sadness that her family has bequeathed to her, but we are not privy to that outcome, if it is to pass.

I’m so glad to have learned of Maeve Brennan, and intend to read everything of hers  and about her that I can find.  What a fascinating life!  What a powerful writer!  This was a terrific choice for Reading Ireland Month.  To read more blog posts about Irish novels, films, and culture, click here.

 

Reading Ireland Month: House of Splendid Isolation by Edna O’Brien

(This post is part of Reading Ireland Month, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Niall at The Fluff is Raging.   )

picmonkey-collageJosie O’Meara is old and lonely in her crumbling big manor house in the Irish countryside.  She’s come home from the hospital to die in her own home.  She is haunted by her past, her abusive husband and a tragic love affair with an unavailable man.  She is utterly alone in the world, a nurse occasionally coming to check on her and a grocery delivery coming once a week.  The last thing she expected is to be caught up in the manhunt for a dangerous escaped IRA soldier, McGreevy, nicknamed The Beast.  Informed of the owner’s invalid status, once he escapes from jail he travels south and uses her house for cover in an operation to kill a vacationing English lord.  The last thing Josie expects is to feel something for a man described who is a killer.

House of Splendid Isolation is a complicated novel, a mix of suspense, social commentary, and exploration of the choices one makes and has to live with.  I don’t pretend to know very much about Ireland’s Troubles, just the bare bones, but O’Brien makes McGreevy just sympathetic enough to have probably gotten some flack for her portrayal.  My sympathies were engaged by many characters in this short novel – Josie, McGreevy, a young policeman who kills a man for the first time (one of McGreevy’s comrades,) a young woman who sympathizes with the IRA and seems to be waiting for her life to really begin.  They are all caught in their roles, it seems, playing parts almost predestined for them.  The action of the story shifts back and forth from the present to Josie’s sad past.  McGreevy is not the only one who may have something to atone for.373131

Reading House of Splendid Isolation, I bemoaned the fact that I had never read anything by Edna O’Brien before.  I was thoroughly engrossed in the compelling story and propulsive writing style.  O’Brien has crafted a moving story with some thrilling scenes – I was reading the scene where McGreevy breaks into Josie’s house while my husband was working at night, and my son was asleep, and I was convinced I heard a noise outside. (I was totally creeped out!)  I appreciated the way O’Brien makes the reader work a bit – we’re not always sure who is talking or thinking when a scene shifts perspective.  She keeps us on our toes.  It is a sad novel, but the fast pace and the sensitive characterization make it worthwhile.  This may have been my first O’Brien novel, but it will not be my last.

Reading Challenge Fail?

Happy March!  This is the final month of the TBR Triple Dog Dare hosted by James at James Reads Books.  With my stated exceptions (a book on hold  at the library since October, and my book group books) I’ve only read books that I physically owned as of December 31.  But I feel like I may not make it through the month of March.  Okay, I know that I won’t – because I’ve signed up to participate in Reading Ireland Month over at 746 Books!

I don’t know what I was thinking – except, oooh, Ireland, I love Ireland!  (I’ve been there, once, almost ten years ago when my then-boyfriend/now-husband went with me to visit my aunt and uncle, who live there in County Kerry.  They moved back to the US – long story – for a period of years, and now they’re living in Ireland once again.)  Anyway, I don’t know when I’m going to read the book I’ve chosen – Edna O’Brien’s House of Splendid Isolation.  I’m reading the hefty Middlemarch right now and I’ve got to read Super Sad True Love Story for my book group by March 20.  I suspect that Middlemarch will get put on the back burner and I’ll split my energy between the O’Brien and the Shteyngart.  Oh, a reader’s life!  Juggling all the books!

So I’m wondering what you all think about reading challenges and failure.  I have enjoyed reading some things that have been sitting neglected on my shelves at home.  I’ve finished six of my own books and am currently reading two more.  It’s made me think about how and why I purchase books, and made me re-think purchasing any more until I read more of the ones I already own.  So this Dare has been a win for me already, regardless of whether I stick it out until the end of the month.

Have you “failed” a reading challenge before?  Do you think that there is such a thing as reading challenge failure?  Or is any attempt at broadening our reading horizons automatically a win?  Yoda would say, “Do, or do not.  There is no try,” but I’m cutting myself some slack here.  No one is giving me a medal or a cookie for completing any reading challenges.  Eight books have gotten some well-deserved attention that they probably wouldn’t have otherwise gotten if I hadn’t accepted the Dare.  And I’ve learned some things about my reading preferences.  I just might buy myself that cookie after all.