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As it is Reading Ireland Month, I decided to choose Irish novels in this month’s chain, with the exception of the opener, which is Phosphorescence by Julia Baird.
Phosphorescence by Julia Baird is subtitled On awe, wonder and the things which sustain you when the world goes dark. In the book, Baird reflects on her encounters with phosphorescence, a luminescent phenomenon found in the natural world, and how she was able to cultivate her own ‘inner light’ in the face of suffering and illness.
Another writer who has turned to nature as a way of coping with the world is young Northern Ireland writer Dara McAnulty whose book Diary of a Young Naturalist has been a massive critical hit. Winner of the 2020 Wainwright Prize, Diary of a Young Naturalist chronicles the turning of Dara McAnulty’s world, from spring to summer, autumn to winter, on his home patch, at school, in the wild and in his head. Evocative, raw and beautifully written, this very special book vividly explores the natural world from the perspective of an autistic teenager juggling homework, exams and friendships alongside his life as a conservationist and environmental activist.
Dara’s debut shares part of a title with another debut – Death of a Naturalist by Seamus Heaney. Heaney’s debut collection marked the arrival of a major poetic talent and contains one of his best-loved poems Mid-Term Break. Mid-Term Break is a response to the death of the poet’s brother Christopher, who was knocked down and killed while Heaney was at boarding school.
The death of a sibling is also at the heart of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear MacBride. This award-winning debut novel tells the story of a young woman’s relationship with her brother, and the long shadow cast by his childhood brain tumour. It is a shocking and intimate insight into the thoughts, feelings and chaotic sexuality of a vulnerable and isolated protagonist. To read A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is to plunge inside its narrator’s head, experiencing her world at first hand, as it is written as a stream of consciousness.
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack is not only also written as a stream of consciousness, it is also written as one entire sentence and is set over just one hour. Marcus Conway has come a long way to stand in the kitchen of his home and remember the rhythms and routines of his life. Considering with his engineer’s mind how things are constructed – bridges, banking systems, marriages – and how they may come apart. As an engineer, Marcus has been involved in the design and development of what has become known as Ireland’s ‘ghost estates’ – houses built during the economic boom, into which no one ever moved.
These ‘ghost estates’ feature in The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan, which is set in the aftermath of Ireland’s financial collapse, where dangerous tensions surface in an Irish town. As violence flares, the characters face a battle between public persona and inner desires. Through a chorus of unique voices, each struggling to tell their own kind of truth, a single authentic tale unfolds.
Another book which deals with the aftermath of the Celtic Tiger is The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes. It’s 2008, and the Celtic Tiger has left devastation in its wake. Brothers Hart and Cormac Black are waking up to a very different Ireland – one that widens the chasm between them and brings their beloved father to his knees. Facing a devastating choice that risks their livelihood, if not their lives, their biggest danger comes when there is nothing to lose. Funny, sharp and poignant, I am very much hoping that The Wild Laughter will show up on the Women’s Prize longlist when it is announced on 10 March.
So there you have it! My chain for this month – have you read any of my choices?
Next month (April 3, 2021), we’ll start with the 2020 Booker Prize winner, Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!