No 593 The Butterfly Cabinet by Bernie McGill

 

The Butterfly Cabinet was one of my books for Reading Ireland Month and I am delighted to have Bernie on the blog today answering questions about this beautiful book and her writing in general.

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The Butterfly Cabinet is based on a true story set in Portstewart, Northern  Ireland and it tells the story of the death of 4 year old Charlotte in 1892 from the point of view of the child’s wealthy, aristocratic mother Harriet, who has been jailed for the child’s death and from the point of view of Maddie, a housemaid working for Harriet, who carries her own guilt about what happened that fateful day.

Harriet Ormonde is a cold, cruel mother. As a punishment for wetting herself, she locks her daughter in a wardrobe with her hands tied. Several hours later, Charlotte is dead. The story moves forward in time as Harriet’s grand-daughter Annie is visiting Maddie, one of the servants in a nursing home. Maddie is near death and decides it is time for the family to know the truth. She gives Annie a prison diary belonging to Harriet and tells her the secrets that she has been carrying all these years. Secrets that change the family beyond what anyone thought it was.

The Butterfly Cabinet is a beautiful novel charting the lives of women in Northern Ireland against a backdrop of history and changing socio-economic times. It is also a fascinating exploration of the nature of motherhood, the yearning for personal freedom and the decisions that can have consequences for any number of lives.

Life is fluid. We are the ghosts of all the people we might become, peering forward to catch a glimpse of what could be, our future selves staring back at us, at who we might have been, never were.

The Butterfly Cabinet is a hauntingly beautiful book and I am delighted to welcome Bernie to 746 Books!

 

Bernie McGill author pic

The Butterfly Cabinet is based on a true story. How did you discover the story of the Montagu family and what was it that drew you to it?

I came across the story in a local parish magazine and was immediately intrigued by it. Cromore House, where the young Montagu child died, is only a mile or so from where I was living at the time. I didn’t know anything about the family or the circumstances of the child’s death, so I started to do some newspaper research with a view to writing a short story. The details of the mother, Annie Montagu’s, arrest and trial were very well documented in the Coleraine Chronicle of 1892. The more I read about those events, the more drawn in I became. Not much was written about Annie Montagu herself. She came across as an enigmatic figure, rather cold, somewhat severe, so of course I wanted to explore her story through fiction.

The book spans over 70 years and a lot of Northern Irish history. Do you approach the process of writing differently when historical research is involved?

For both of the novels I’ve written, I’ve done a lot of research. It’s partly to do with equipping myself to write with confidence, I think, but for me it’s an opening into the fiction as well. I tend to make reams of handwritten notes, in the margins and on the reverse of copies of primary sources. There’s something about defacing the printed page that I find very satisfactory. It must be the hidden vandal in me. To anyone trying to decipher it, it would probably look like a tangled mess. To me, it looks and feels like potential beginnings.

Short stories require a degree of research but with mine the settings are all contemporary or near-contemporary and, crucially, they’re short. If you’re half way through writing a two thousand word story and you think it’s not working, it doesn’t feel like such a dreadful waste of time to leave it and start over with something else. But because I write slowly, and rewrite a lot, to give up on an historical novel when you’ve done so much reading around the period and the events, feels like a massive potential failure. It’s a big investment of time. I’m quite fearful about doing it, but then I do it anyway.

The key themes of the book appear to be motherhood and freedom and how these two concepts are inextricably linked. Did the themes arise from the story, or did you particularly want to explore the changing nature of motherhood over time?

 The themes arose from the story but I wouldn’t have been interested in writing that story if I hadn’t been interested in those themes. I found out that at the time of the child’s death at Cromore House, her mother Annie Montagu had given birth to eight children and was pregnant with her ninth. The child who died was the only girl in the family. I’m the youngest of ten children myself. I didn’t really think about that at the time, but looking back on it, that must have had a part to play in my interest. I have a certain degree of empathy for Annie Montagu. Although she was financially well-off and in a privileged position in society, I wonder if she felt that her choices were restricted? The limited amount of information I had about her seemed to point to a woman who was unconventional among her peers: she was a renowned horsewoman; she ‘broke’ her own horses; she bartered over prices in the market place; she rode to the hunt while pregnant. There was a sense of unfiltered disapproval regarding her activities which, if it had been expressed, would have amounted to this: she didn’t behave as a woman ought to; she strayed into the realms of the men.

What part does Ireland play in your writing? Do you consider yourself an ‘Irish’ writer or part of an Irish tradition?

I do consider myself an Irish writer by identity, but I’m not sure that I see myself as part of any writing tradition. It wasn’t something I thought about when I started writing. I studied English and Italian at Queen’s and afterwards completed my Masters in Irish Writing. By the time I’d graduated, I’d read a lot of work by dead white men. Afterwards, I discovered writers like Margaret Atwood, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Flannery O’Connor and I was blown away by their work, by my personal response to what they were writing, so I stayed away from Irish writing for a while because I didn’t feel that emotional connection. I’ve come back, of course. I read lots of contemporary Irish writing now. I name the women writers below but among my favourite male writers are Donal Ryan, Niall Williams, Colum McCann, Sebastian Barry and Eoin McNamee.

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You write short stories and novels. Is there a form that you prefer, or do stories fit more with one genre than the other?

 I think there are some stories that demand the scope of a novel. When I began to write about Annie Montagu, I thought that would be a short story, but it soon became clear that the short form wouldn’t contain her story. I do prefer to write short stories for the simple fact of finishing something sooner: the length is so much more manageable. But there is a sense of achievement with finishing the marathon run of the novel too. I wish there was a stronger market for the short story. There’s always talk of how healthy the form is, how we’re on the cusp of a revival, but ask any publisher what they want from a writer and not one of them will answer: ‘A short story collection.’ They’re a hard sell.

Your short stories have been included in the recent anthologies The Long Gaze Back and The Glass Shore. Do you feel that those collections are helping to shine a spotlight on women writers from Ireland? Who are your favourite women writers from Ireland?

 I think they absolutely shine a light on women writers from Ireland, past and present. Those are wonderful collections, but I have to confess to a bias towards The Glass Shore which contains stories by women writers from the North of Ireland. Of those stories I loved Margaret Barrington’s ‘Village Without Men’ and Caroline Blackwood’s ‘Taft’s Wife’. Despite having been written some time ago, they both had a very contemporary feel to me. Of the women who are writing today, I love the work of Claire Keegan and Lisa McInerney, also Anne Enright, Christine Dwyer Hickey, Sara Baume. And I’m reading Jan Carson’s Children’s Children at the moment and loving the stories. They’re little jewels, every one.

You are working on a new book. Is there anything you can tell us about it?

Yes, it’s called The Watch House and I’m on the final proof read. It will be published by Tinder Press in August 2017. It’s set on Rathlin Island in 1898 at the time of the Marconi experiments. It centres around a fictional island woman called Nuala Byrne who becomes an assistant wireless operator. I love Rathlin. I went there first on a Writers’ Weekend organised by Ballycastle Writers years ago and I’ve always wanted to write something about the place. I wanted to write a story about the impact the visit of Marconi’s engineers might have made on the islanders at the time. My interest was in exploring the phenomenon that radio was in the late nineteenth century: the extraordinary idea that your words could travel beyond you, specifically in the context of a community that knew all too well what it was to be cut off from the rest of the world. The story’s about the power of words as well as the dangers of suspicion. That’s all I can tell you for now.

My thanks to Bernie for taking the time to share her thoughts with me. If you’d like to find out more about her work (and I urge you to!) check out her website or follow her on Twitter @berniemcgill

Bernie’s first collection of short stories, was published in May 2013 by Whittrick Press and shortlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize 2014. The title story was first prizewinner in the Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Contest (US) and the collection includes ‘Home’, a supplementary prizewinner in the 2010 Bridport Short Story Prize and ‘No Angel’, Second Prizewinner in the Seán Ó Faoláin and the Michael McLaverty Short Story Prizes. Her work has been anthologised in The Long Gaze Back and in the forthcoming The Glass Shore. She is the recipient of a number of Arts Council Awards including an ACES Award in association with the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University, Belfast and an award from the Society of Authors.

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Number Read: 154

Number Remaining: 592

The Rise of Irish Young Adult Fiction

To round off Reading Ireland Month, I have the brilliant Rachel from Confessions of a Book Geek to discuss Irish YA fiction. Led by Louise O’Neill, Irish authors are excelling in this genre. Not having read enough to comment, I asked Rachel along to share her expertise in the books to look out for!

 

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that our wee island has some pretty talented people. From Joyce, Wilde, Yeats, and Heaney, to Doyle, Binchy, Keyes, and Donoghue. As an avid reader, I’m always a little disappointed in myself that I don’t indulge in enough Irish literature, and it’s a promise I keep making that this year, I will.

2017 rolled around, and with it came another Reading Ireland Month, an event I was finally going to participate in. When looking around at the (many) unread books on my shelves, I realised I had a couple of Young Adult books by Irish authors, and decided to do a little more research to see what Irish writers are creating for the younger target market.

YA, or Young Adult literature, has seen an unprecedented boom in recent years – becoming one of the fastest growing and most lucrative genres in publishing. Therefore, I thought it was pretty reasonable to assume that there would be a plethora of YA literature by Irish authors… apparently not.

Not to worry, I did manage to come across a few corkers… and the odd dud. On to the books!

Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill

This 2015 debut won the Irish Bookseller’s Book of the Year award, and with good reason. O’Neill’s debut novel is a dystopian, with feminist undertones, that is sure to strike a chord with readers, both young and old(er). Many have compared this to Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, which is surely praise indeed. Check out my full review of Only Ever Yours.

Asking For It by Louise O’Neill

O’Neill’s follow-up was even better than her debut, in my humble opinion. This book is complex, and sometimes dark, but so very, very important. Sexual assault, rape culture, and victim blaming, are all covered in this YA novel that has also been rereleased with a different cover for the adult fiction market. So strong were my feelings about this book, that I was prompted to write #NotAskingForIt. A must read for all ages and genders. Check out my full review of Asking For It.

Through the Barricades by Denise Deegan

I was pleasantly surprised by, and thoroughly enjoyed, this historical novel set in Dublin during the Easter Rising in 1916. I’m not entirely sure the author intended this work for a YA audience, but the two protagonists are teenagers for much of the novel, and though a great read for us grown ups, it would work equally well for a YA audience. She was willing to sacrifice everything for her country. He was willing to sacrifice everything for her. Check out my full review of Through the Barricades, and my Author Spotlight Interview with Denise Deegan.

Rockadoon Shore by Rory Gleeson

I was so excited when I saw this book. It looked modern and fresh, and the blurb was so enticing, but the execution was very disappointing, the plot practically non-existent, and the characters flat. If this is a realistic portrayal of Ireland’s youth, I’m concerned for the future of this country. I’m on the lookout for some really great Irish YA to make me forget that I trudged through what should really have been a DNF. Check out my full review of Rockadoon Shore.

Honourable Mentions

I read these books when I actually was a young adult, which was a few years ago now (cough), but I remember loving them, so thought I’d give them a little extra love.

The Switchers Trilogy by Kate Thompson

The Artemis Fowl Series by Eoin Colfer

Children of the Famine Series by Marita Conlon-McKenna

Do you have any great recommendations for Irish authors, particularly Irish YA? Let me know in the comments, I’d love to add more to my to-read list!

Many thanks to Rachel for this great YA round-up. Do check out her great blog!

No 594 The Miracle Shed by Philip MacCann

Whatever happened to Philip MacCann?’ is a phrase that crops up if you do even a cursory internet search of this elusive author. I’m not even sure if I am right to include MacCann in Reading Ireland Month as he is possibly not Irish.

Some sites say he was born in Belfast, more that he was born in Manchester. That he studied at Trinity College Dublin is fact though, along with the indisputable evidence that he was hailed as a new literary talent when his short story collection The Miracle Shed was published in 1995. Time Out called him ‘a totally original, new literary writer of intellectual power’ while the Observer mused ‘if I had to choose just one voice it would be Philip MacCann’s’. He won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, and MacCann was named in The Observer newspaper’s list of ’21 Writers for the Twenty-First Century’ in 1999.

Despite this high praise, MacCann has never published another book. Some of his literary reviews can be found online, along with an article deriding much contemporary Irish fiction at the time and his thoughts on a writing class he took with Malcolm Bradbury, but aside from that, The Miracle Shed is all that we have.

Last year I wrote a piece on The Lonely Voice, Frank O’Connor’s seminal work on the nature of the short story. While discussing the differences between the novel and the short story, O’Connor notes that the e best short stories focus on ‘submerged groups’ – marginalised people who live at the fringes of society and have no effective voice.

That submerged population changes from writer to writer, from generation to generation … it does not mean mere material squalor, though this is often a characteristic of the submerged population groups. Ultimately it seems to mean defeat inflicted by a society that has no sign posts, a society that offers no goals and no answers

O’Connor could have written this specifically about The Miracle Shed which is filled with protagonists who are powerless and dispossessed, living on the fringes of society. The glue sniffers and drug addicts, the poor and the perverted. These are people who have internalised their pain, or who have numbed themselves from it. They are almost abstract characters who are presented with no external context, no back story. It is as if MacCann is opening doors just a chink for the reader to peer through, creating a strange voyeuristic experience when reading.

Each new tale drops the reader straight into the characters heads, which means all the narrators are unreliable most are also unlikeable as MacCann explores human degradation in all its forms, but he always maintain a sympathy for even the worst of the characters found here.

Although set principally in Dublin and Belfast, the geography of these stories is not the important thing. In Stories at El Hajibands, the action moves to Africa, while Love Marks in set in London. No matter what the location, the skies are heavy, the clouds ominous and the problems are the same. Although set in and around the Troubles, they don’t feature in these stories – for MacCann, the poor and the dispossessed could be living anywhere and doing anything to distract from the poverty and boredom of their lives.

Even something like love was a pigment on the world’s canvas like everything else, not at all transcendental or anything. It looked nice – like those hackneyed heavens – but it was basically grubby, and simply mass-produced. Some love was grubbier than others of course.

In Tender a man and boy sniff glue on the outskirts of Belfast, while in Street Magic, a young couple try to find work and get by in Dublin. At Freeform Joe’s, a group of young people try to find answers through a Ouija Board, while in the title story The Miracle Shed some fairground workers live in a hut and pass the time aimlessly working on a car and planning pipe dreams for a future that even they seem to know will never come. In the dreamlike , almost Beckettian Harvestman, we are inside the head of an old man as he takes out his rubbish from his flat. His stream of consciousness belies his own mental illness mingled with his fantasies about a young girl.

There is a strong sexual element to these stories, sometimes discomfiting, particularly in Dark Hour where a young boy is pimped out by his older brother for cash. The propriety of relationships is blurred, particularly in Naturally Strange, a wonderfully odd story where a teenage boy has to share a bed in a squalid flat with his pregnant mother. MacCann seems drawn to relationships that are taboo and if there is one way in which the book feels slightly dated is in it’s depiction of homosexuality, attitudes to which have changed drastically in the last 20 years.

Take beings. Beings need happiness. True? Take me. I am a being. I want salt. I want air. I want happiness. These are essentials for each and every day. Picture life without them. Life would be not as it should.

The bleakness of this collection, featuring so many lives being ‘not as they should’, is punctuated with some dry humour. In Grey Area, school boys enter into an ill-conceived plan to have their Latin teacher shot by paramilitaries in revenge for his teaching them a subject they hate. Their plot is merely a way to fill their time and alleviate their boredom and the lack of insight for the consequences of their actions belies the improbability of what they have tried to do.

A momentum developed , we goaded each other on, producing ever finer points, choosing the best day to strike; we even dreamed about the scheme and came in the next morning with divinely ministered details. And finally, and at last, when we held under our gaze a strategy, perfect and monstrous and unwanted, a baffled and ugly thing independent now, with its own life and unlovable demands, there was one moment of embarrassment when we each agreed silently, without saying a word more, to ignore it.

The writing in this collection is also incredibly beautiful, in comparison to the subject matter. The prose is vibrant, unexpected and lyrical and the style is elusive. A part of town is ‘freckled with oil stains and smelled of closing time‘ while a bad smell ‘was getting in the flat from the street, like the brightness gone bad‘. These stories are hard to pin down, there is always a subtext, an underlying atmosphere that is suggestive of impressionism rather than realism. The stories are meandering and dreamlike and ultimately hard to pin down.

His work reminds me of that of Carson McCullers or Denis Johnston, in so far as he, like them is giving voice to outsiders. The Miracle Shed is also reminiscent of Pat McCabe’s The Butcher Boy. Not that MacCann, I feel, would appreciate any comparisons.

Philip MacCann Irish Literature The Miracle Shed

Philip MacCann…possibly

These stories will not be to everyone’s taste. Tonally, all veer towards pessimism and deviance which can be draining if the collection is read as a single piece of work. However, the writing and the use of language is dazzling and totally unlike anything I have ever read and it is that ambition and uniqueness that is to be admired, even if it is hard to love.

A silent author is always a fascinating one – Harper Lee being a prime example, and it is interesting to note the theories that surround MacCann’s subsequent publishing silence. On one online message board, a contributor theorises that,

MacCann was a young member of a secret society related to the Knights Templar. He was ordered to desist from writing by his Grand Master.

Whatever the reasons for his retreat from publishing life, it now seems like a new work from Philip MacCann is as vague a dream as those of the characters in The Miracle Shed. He may prove me wrong. I would love  it if he did.

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Number Read: 153

Number Remaining: 593

No 595 The Reckoning by Jane Casey

Things weren’t great for Maeve Kerrigan at the end of The Burning, the first in the series of crime novels by Jane Casey. Attacked by a serial killer; dealing with the machismo and misogyny of her fellow police officers and starting a perilous relationship with her colleague Rob Langton had left Kerrigan in a fragile position.

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When we meet Maeve again at the start of The Reckoning, things aren’t much better. She has moved into a new flat with strange neighbours; she can’t reconcile working with and sleeping with Rob and her beloved boss Godley has paired her up with the obnoxious, chauvinistic Josh Derwent.

Kerrigan and Derwent are working on a series of murders of registered paedophiles – all horrifically killed, but in very different ways. Given the nature of the victims, there is little impetus for the police to solve the crimes, but Maeve sees past the unsavoury nature of the victims’ characters and believes that murder is murder no matter who the victim is. Derwent, does not agree – either with Maeve’s determination to solve the crimes, or with her usefulness as a police officer.

Derwent was still talking, oblivious. “According to the boss, this is an important case and needs sensitive handling. That’s why he assigned you to work on it with me, which makes some sort of sense. The last thing I need is one of those hairy-arsed DCs from the team clumping around offending the families by saying the wrong thing.”
“I’ll do my best to avoid that,” I said stiffly.
“That’s the thing. You don’t have to do anything at all. Just stand back, look pretty, and let me do all the work.” Derwent squinted out through the windscreen and I was glad he didn’t look in my direction, because the expression on my face was nothing short of murderous.

Thankfully Maeve ignores Derwent’s advice to rest on her looks and the more they investigate, the more complex the situation they are in becomes. John Skinner, a well-known gangster with a grudge against Godley is involved. His daughter Cheyenne has gone missing and there are links to another woman’s disappearance 18 months before. Meanwhile, it seems as if someone within the police force is leaking information and someone is stalking Maeve, taking pictures of her without her knowledge.

If the plot sounds complex, it is. At the half way mark there is a U-turn, a change of focus which is cleverly handled without leaving the reader to feel the rug has been pulled from under them.

There is a lot packed into The Reckoning, and it is to Casey’s credit that nothing feels like filler and subplots are made to feel like part of the bigger picture. The reckoning of the title refers to a lot of happenings in the book and the result is a well-paced, sharply plotted thriller.

Jane-Casey

When I reviewed Jane Casey’s previous novel, The Burning, I said that the strength of the book was the characterisation of Maeve Kerrigan and that continues to be the case. Crime novels can be as complex and plot-driven as they like, but if the lead character isn’t memorable, then there is the risk of the book becoming forgettable. However, with Kerrigan, Casey has created a dynamic, sharp-witted protagonist to match classic detectives such as Jane Tennison, or John Rebus. Maeve drives the plot as much as the crimes do and I find myself reading as much to find out about what it going to happen to Maeve.

Casey also explores the male-female working dynamic very well, particularly as it stands in the police force and the introduction of a lesbian character in this book widens out that discussion.

Casey is also careful not to turn Derwent into an all-out chauvinist pig and has created a character with room to grow. The relationship between Derwent and Maeve is an interesting one. They are probably more similar than Maeve would like to admit, both with a fiery temper and the ability to say the things that no one else will say. Despite being as maddened by him as Maeve is, there is also an interesting undercurrent developing in their relationship that I’m sure will carry through in future books.

Jane Casey has just published her latest book Let the Dead Speak to great critical acclaim. For me, she has created a great protagonist in Maeve Kerrigan and her crime novels are the most interesting I have come across in a long time. Meticulously plotted, realistic in the depiction of the slog of police work and with a strong, smart female lead, this series is one I can’t wait to read more of.

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Number Read: 152

Number Remaining: 594

Illuminate by Kerrie O’Brien – A Review and Giveaway for World Poetry Day

Kerrie O’Brien is being hailed as a key new voice in Irish Poetry. Her collection Illuminate is earning rave reviews from writers such as Sebastian Barry (who compared her to Keats) and Joseph O’Connor and it is easy to see why.

Imagine the sun pouring in through a stained glass window – Illuminate captures that warmth, vibrancy and sense of transcendance, all the while being accessible and moving. It is a stunning collection and deserves to be widely read.

O’Brien has a background in visual art and it shows. This collection, which explores ideas of love, beauty and belief is steeped in colours and in light. Rose-golds, reds and yellows create a mosaic of colours. Poems and words glimmer like jewels, each perfectly capturing a feeling or a moment. The imagery is of fire, sunlight, blossoming. Speaking to the Irish Times earlier this year, Kerrie said

I had the title in mind before the majority of it was written. I wanted to visualise a collection that was filled with light, like a rose unfolding

The collection is steeped in the visual, with poems dedicated to Rothko, Diane Arbus, Matisse and Turner. Through these, she exlores the role of the artist and the role that art plays in our lives.

Fire, heart

Bloodsweat

Spilling out

So close and strange

People weep

Sacred –

What we do to each other

And give

Without knowing.

Like art, her work is precise and controlled and yet within that structure it is brimming with emotion. There is a lightness that belies the deep feelings being unearthed, the personal moments shared. There is also a sense of pilgrimage as the poet spends time in Paris, trying finding herself and her way in life. She visits the famous Shakespeare & Co bookshop and looks to Hemmingway for advice.

In one poem, Beckett, she goes to visit that great writers grave;

But get no sense of him –

Because really

On warm evenings

He is at home

Near Cooldrinagh

Still roaming the hills

With his father.

It is this ability to take big ideas, grand works of art and bring them back to the realm of the personal that make this collection such as success. These poems are at heart, about love. Love of art, love for family, love for a partner, and ultimately, love of the self.

I want to thank the well-loved

Bark of my body

For all it has done.

I wantmy spirit to go out

Like a laughing child

Running through the fields

And all along the white

Sands of the sea

Ready for anything.

While reading these poems, I was reminded of a line of Heaney’s from Postscript;

And catch the heart off guard and blow it open

That is what Kerrie O’Brien does in these beautifully crafted, deceptively slight works. She illuminates human existence, which is what great poetry should do.

We are all red inside

Brimming with love

All fluid and quiet and fire

Illuminate is published by Salmon Poetry and you can find out more information about Kerrie and her work here. Kerrie has also edited Looking At The Stars, a limited edition anthology of Irish writing aiming to raise €15,000 for the homeless through the Dublin Simon Community. Find out more at www.lookingatthestars.ie

To celebrate World Poetry Day, I have a copy of Illuminate to give away, along with a little goody bag of items from Seamus Heaney HomePlace, including a notebook, pen and bookmark.

To enter, simply comment below and tell me your favourite poem, Irish or otherwise and I will draw a winner by Random Picker on Saturday. I will also ship worldwide.

Good luck!

 

The Re-publication of The Female Line

Women’s writing in Ireland and Northern Ireland has been put firmly back on the agenda lately, not least with the publications and success of The Long Gaze Back and The Glass Shore, both edited by the inimitable Sinead Gleeson.

These anthologies have won awards, brought new readers to women’s literature and shone a spotlight on forgotten writers, however, they had a predecessor.

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The Female Line was launched on 28 November 1985 at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and was the first anthology of women’s writing from Northern Ireland ever published. The anthology included women who were already professionally writing and those who had never been published before and it featured extracts from novelws, short stories, poetry and drama. Spearheaded by Ruth Hooley (now Carr) and published by the Northern Ireland Women’s Rights Movement, the book sold out in a month and immediately went into reprint.

The Northern Ireland Women’s Rights Movement was established in 1975 to act as an ‘umbrella’ for a wide range of female-led organisations from both Nationalist and Unionist areas of Northern Ireland and to support and help women to co-operate over common problems and societal needs.

Inspired by Virago and the Attic Press in Dublin, The Female Line attempted to address the massive under-representation of women writers in Northern Ireland, in both publishing and in inclusion in academic courses. The anthology also aimed to encourage more women writers towards publication. At the time, Ruth Carr asked,

This silence is ambiguous. Does it mean an absence – there are hardly any women writing? Is it due to suppression – women lack confidence and opportunities to develop their writing? Is it a result of oppression – women are discriminated against in terms of what is taken seriously and which material matters? Or is it a passive resistance by those who find the language so steeped in gender-biased values as to be alien and inadequate to express their meaning?

What the collection did was bring the voices and imagination of women front and centre and provide them with a platform for their shared experiences that had previously not existed.

The themes of female entrapment, identity, abuse, power, motherhood and self-awareness and self-actualisation found in these works are also found in the recent anthologies published which suggests that the voices of women still need to be heard to provide a full and deep knowledge of a culture and place. The Troubles also featured heavily as a theme in The Female Line and gave a different perspective on the much talked about and written about conflict.

Some of the writers included in the original anthology have gone on to great successes, writers like Marie Jones, Medbh McGuckian and Jennifer Johnston. Some were revived by their inclusion, like Janet McNeill, whose books had largely been out of print until the 1980s. Some no longer write.

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Others deserve to be read more and with this in mind, The Female Line, long out of print and hard to get second hand, has been republished as an ebook by Herself Press. It is available to download from all major online booksellers and is well worth checking out.

At the recent launch for the republication of the collection, it was announced that a new book, Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland will be published by New Island in autumn 2017, bringing the focus to a new generation of women writers from Northern Ireland.

Contributers to The Female Line are:

Fiona Barr, Mary Beckett, Evelyn Berman, Shirley Bork, Geraldine Bradley, Francine Cunningham, Anne Devlin, Polly Devlin, Dorothy Gharbaoui, Ann W. Cleave, Christine Hammond, Ruth Hooley, Anne Jago, Maura Johnston, Jennifer Johnston, Marie Jones, Eileen Kelly, Jan Kennedy, Kate Madden, Stella Mahon, Patricia Mallon, Sandra Marshall, Frances McEnaney, Mary McGowan, Medbh, McGuckian, Jill McKenna, Blanaid McKinney, Janet McNeill, Elizabeth Miller, Frances Molloy, Sheila Mulvenna, Brenda Murphy, Anne Noble, Christina Reid, Geraldine Reid, Anne-Marie Reilly, Delia Rimington, Bernadette Ross, Carol Scanlon, Janet Shepperson, Laura Shier, Anne Strain, Anne Tannahill, Mary Twomey, Una Woods

 

The Moon Mother | Medbh McGuckian

Twice-lost colonial, making inroads

On my sleep, till I go round with the

Machinery, however can I trust

Your jagged growing, the gender you assume

On a given day? Unmothered by

This extra weight, and jealous of

Your wiriness, I polish the same

Place on the table over and over,

Not regretful of the huts where

The bloodless, blanched gardenia

Stains around the edge when it’s touched,

But forming messages to wrap

The braided moon in her dwindling,

Deflowered self-possessed, aware

Exactly when the floor would act that way

 

 

‘Where does everyone go?’ Nothing on Earth by Conor O’Callaghan

Nothing on Earth by Conor O’Callaghan is a heat haze of a novel – shimmering and elusive, impossible to pin down with an allure that is as beautiful as it is disturbing.

It is also a difficult book to review. For a novel in which little is revealed, it is hard to talk about without spoiling the experience for a new reader. It also defies categorization. It is a poetic horror story. A gothic tale set in the blazing sunshine of a summer on an Irish ghost estate. It is a confession, but may also be a defense. It does not give easy answers so will not be to everyone’s taste, but I found it to be a beguiling, poetic and atmospheric book, unlike anything I have read in recent years.

The book opens with an Irish priest, living along. In the middle of the afternoon, in the middle of a summer heat wave, there is a banging at his door, and there he finds a 12 year old girl – thin, sunburned and mute – with words scrawled all over her body in pen. The priest knows how this could look so he calls his cleaner and the police to keep himself right.

If I am honest, I would even say that I already felt guilty. Why? I had done nothing. I had done nothing apart from let the girl in, call the law and wait. I hadn’t laid a finger on her.

The priest knows how blame can stick and how in particular it can stick to a man of his profession and what follows is the story of how the girl came to his door to that day, covered in writing and saying that her  father had gone. Do we, the reader trust him? As the girl’s story unfolds in first and third person narrative, the unreliability of who is telling the story becomes subsumed in the unreliability of reality itself.

A young couple and their daughter move into a vacant show house on what appears to be an abandoned housing estate somewhere in Ireland. Flood, the developer collects their rent while his nephew Marcus stays on site at night in a caravan. The mother, Helen, has a twin sister Martina, who lives with them also and she and the girl’s father Paul work together although their relationship appears stained. The sister’s are from the area. Something happened to their parents that caused them to move away, but now they have returned. The heat wave is freakish, creating an atmosphere of heavy menace, the rising dust and empty houses inhabiting a sense of apocalyptic dread.

All of which is clear enough. Up to this point, the story can be mapped and followed with some certainty. From there, however, its path tapers into long grass. Reason, with all its explanations, takes is this far and no farther.

What follows is a series of disappearances, vanishings and strange misunderstandings. The family hears noises in the night. Words appear written in the dust on their patio windows. First the water runs out, then the electricity.

A group of Polish men move into a nearby house, but when the girl’s father goes to complain about the noise from one of their parties, he finds the house empty. Reality becomes a reflection of something else and it is impossible to pin down what is real and what is not.

There are moments when the empty space of a room takes on the shape of one who must have stood there and who perhaps should still be there. In those moments, that space is like a cavity, an entrance even. It hangs heavy with absence. Its translucence collects, magnifies. Everything the other side of it appears minutely out of proportion with everything else outside its frame. It acquires a quality. There is no other word for it. The quality the empty space acquires is that of a lake’s surface or of some lead-based mirror glass.

Everything appears to be in between something else, including the young girl, whose first language is German and is now unable to fully understand the language she must speak. Nothing is permanent, not even reality which appears to shift and realign as the novel goes on. Things start to disappear and people become confused with one another in a way that is reminiscent of the work of JG Ballard. As the family’s situation becomes all the more bewildering and terrifying, so too does the wasteland in which they exist.

The shops were desolate. Even the minimart, usually stocked with tat for passing traffic, felt empty. Paul bought a net of satsumas and a Sharpie of royal washable blue for the girl, but there was no one to pay….There was footpath for half a mile of road from the edge of town and none for the second half-mile after the supermarket. They stepped into long grass and briars whenever they heard a car coming. Twice they made way, and twice nothing came.

Reading this story becomes not unlike the experience of watching an eclipse of the sun. It is both blinding and dark at the same time and it is impossible to look at directly. O’Callaghan creates the perfect balancing act between mystery and revelation. It would be easy for the reader to become frustrated with such an elliptical narrative, but it is that very bewildering lack of knowledge that drives the story.

Where does everybody go?

Conor O’Callaghan is also a poet and it shows here. The writing may be plain, at times dead-pan, but every word is chosen perfectly to create an atmosphere of both dread and also unbearable sadness. The writing is simple, yet sophisticated and the elusiveness of the narrative becomes its key strength. O’Callaghan has created a traditional gothic horror story in a modern, new Ireland and by doing so, presents our modern day fears in the relentless, blinding sunshine. It is a wonderful feat and an extraordinary book, haunting, ambiguous and unforgettable.

I received a copy of Nothing on Earth by Conor O’Callaghan from the publisher in return for an honest review.