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.

Read on: iBook

Number Read: 152

Number Remaining: 594

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

 

 

No 596 All Names Have Been Changed by Claire Kilroy

Claire Kilroy’s third novel, All Names Have Been Changed is my first introduction to her work. Although her writing is well respected and her books highly regarded, it has been suggested that All Names Have Been Changed is not the best place to start. I may have to agree. This book didn’t put me off reading more of Kilroy’s work, but it didn’t fully work for me.

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From the very title, there is a suggestion that the book may be slightly autobiographical. Set in the 1980s in a Creative Writing Course at Trinity, it mirrors Kilroy’s own experience of attending the same school. Naming each chapter after a great work of Irish literature, plats and songs is a playful nodto Kilroy’s place in that canon and the book is certainly peppered with plenty of references to Irish writing.
This is a campus novel through and through. Structured in three parts to reflect the academic year, the book is narrated by Declan, the only male in a group of five mature students who have signed up to take a writing class with their literary hero, the infamous and celebrated PJ Glynn. To say that this group of wishful writers are in awe of Glynn would be an understatement.

We came because he called us. Glynn set down his words knowing they would mean nothing ton most, but everything to a few. We, those few, heard his siren song and followed it, having litte alternatice under theinhospitable circumstances. He wanted his art to be a dangerous force, alive. Well then, you might say he got what he asked for.

The esteem in which they hold this notoriously difficult writer is quasi-religious and can not be maintained and as the year passes, Glynn slips slowly but surely from the pedestal on which he as been placed by his students. Their slow discovery of the man behind the myth and the claustrophobic setting of the creative writing class allows the intense group dynamics to flourish, bloom and eventually wither as the year wears on.

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The Arts Block at Trinity College Dublin

Glynn is a great character. Like Brendan Behan crossed with Shane MacGowan, he embodies that myth of drunken Irish writer, indulged and celebrated despite his behaviour which veers from patronising to charming to grotesque.

He was forever picking at himself, sniffing himself, tasting himself . . . in a perpetual swoon of fascination with his own detritus. ‘Glynn’s great subject was the self,’ wrote the New York Review of Books. Little did they know.

Unlike his adoring students, the reader sees a man who is never less than human despite his flaws. Kilroy creates and entire ouevre for her central character featuring novels, essays and interviews and what emerges is a fascinating, interesting man who becomes even more relatable as his ego deflates in the eyes iof his adoring students.

It’s a shame then that the other characters in the novel aren’t so well rounded. Declan and his four companions – troubled Aisling, snooty Antonia, worrier Faye and the beautiful Guinevere spend most of the year fighting for Glynn’s approval, forging friendships then testing them and of course, falling in love, but none of them come across as real people.

It also doesn’t help that very little happens here. This is not a plot driven book, but when your characters aren’t particularly strong then there is little for the reader to get their teeth into. They drink Guinness, start and scrap novels, sleep with each other and inevitably mess things up and it rains a lot. There is a pervading sense of tension and doom that never leads where you expect.

This is a book about emotions and mainly about looking back on those key moments in your youth that didn’t merit their own significance at the time.

I was young then and had no comprehension of the significance of proceedings, no grasp yet that such encounters were unique and unrepeatable, instead regarding all that occured as preludes to te main event. Life was an entity due to commence at some point in the future. That’s what I used to think.

Some of the best scenes in All Names Have Been Changed take place outside of the rareified halls of Trinity and the cosseted world of literature, as Declan strikes up an odd friendship with Gaz, a drug addict who lives in his block of flats. I found myself yearning for scenes between the two as they count among the best writing in the book and providing an interesting counterpoint between the two worlds co-existing in Dublin in the 80s.

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Kilroy does have some great inights into the nature of artisitc endeavour and the toll that the pressure of writing can take but the book at times feels over-written. During a romantic moment with Guinevere, Declan reflects on,

The force of her emotions. A shaft shot out of her into the heavens, another to the molten cosre of the Earth. I felt the true magnititude of her, caught a glimpse of her dimensions. All I can compare it to is how certain places, certain historical sites, connect you to the events that unfolded three centuries earlier.

Possibly Kilroy is lampooning Declan’s writerly aspirations here, but the descriptive passages can be tiring. Declan is a character who, when musing on a break up, thinks, ‘I was pleased with my pathetic fallacy if nothing else’, and it can make him a hard character to like. The level to which he is in thrall to Glynn is overwhelming, leaving a vacuum at the centre of his own character that serves to distance the reader.

That the moon was serene was yet another delusion. Had I thought that or read it in Glynn?

All Names Have Been Changed is a very literary novel. Kilroy clearly relishes language and the book is dense with literary allusions andself-concious references. The comparisons with The Secret History (campus setting, intellectual student and charismatic teacher) are inevitable but add nothing to understanding either book. Admittedly, it was my love of a campus novel that lead me to read this Claire Kilroy first. Despite being underwhelmed, I do plan to read more of her work. This one just fell flat for me.

 

Read on: Book

Number Read: 151

Number Remaining: 595

 

No 597 Good Behaviour by Molly Keane and a Giveaway!

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Good Behaviour was Molly Keane’s first book written under her own name despite having published many of her novels as MJ Farrell. She was almost 80 years old when she published the book in 1981 and it’s interesting to wonder why she waited so long to write as herself. Her friend, and editor, Diana Athill speaking to The Guardian had a clear idea.

 With Good Behaviour it was instantly clear to me that she ought to step forth as herself, and her own hesitation about it was very slight. Molly was essentially modest, but like all good writers she knew deep down that she was good. I think the shape her modesty took was simply not feeling that being a very good writer was all that important.

To say that Molly Keane is a good writer is an understatement and to say that Good Behaviour is a good book does it a great disservice. Good Behaviour is a great book, at turns funny and heartbreaking, with a searing dark humour, a keen satirical eye and a warm beating heart.

The novel is one long cri de coeur of Aroon St Charles, daughter and resident of the ‘big house’ Temple Alice, where she lives with her distant parents, beloved brother and assorted servants and where the only thing frowned upon is not adhering to the rules of good behaviour. Discretion is valued above all else in Aroon’s world, it is always necessary to do the right thing.

The book opens with what could be seen as a murder. Or a hastened death as Aroon’s mother passes away following an unfortunate encounter with a rabbit mousse. Aroon’s response to her mother’s death is what her response to all the tragedy in her life has been. She reverts to good behaviour.

I had time to consider how the punctual observance of the usual importances is the only way to behave at such times as these. And I do know how to behave –believe me, because I know. I have always known. All my life so far have done everything for the best reasons and the most unselfish motives. I have lived for the people dearest to me, and I am at a loss to know what their lives have been at times so perplexingly unhappy.

As Aroon, now 57, looks back on her life, her relationships and what has brought her to this point, Keane does something incredibly clever. Not only is Aroon an unreliable narrator, that is without doubt, but Keane allows her to tell the reader her story without Aroon ever understanding it herself. She is not trying to mislead us, it is she herself who is misled. Keane creates a scenario whereby reader and author are complicit and Aroon remains entirely in the dark.

Aroon adores her brother Hubert and falls in love with his friend Richard. It is clear to all that Hubert and Richard are the ones who are in love and they use Aroon to hide their secret. Aroon remains oblivious to the painful end, and following an unsatisfactory moment in bed with Richard, she falls back on what she knows best.

My anger and anxiety at the appalling noise he made getting back to his room suffocated and choked down a different sense in me; one of absolute loss. But we had both known how to behave. We had behaved beautifully. No pain lasts.

Aroon’s mother behaves in much the same way, steadfastly ignoring the fact that her husband is sleeping with the help and interacting with her children only when it is called for by society.

Mummie escaped us all. The tides of her painting and her gardening and the spring-tides of her whole life with Papa were as the sea between is – no step we took left a print in the sands.

Her neglect borders on the cruel and yet Keane uses a light touch, mining the dark laconic humour of the relationship between the two women.

“Dr Coffey never sends in his bill”

“That’s all you know. He charged ten pounds when you were born. It was quite a ridiculous price” She looked through me and back in to the past. “Nothing’s worth it”, she said.

It is easy to empathise with Keane’s anti-heroine. Aroon is too tall, too buxomy and too awkward for the society she lives in. Her mother’s neglect and her father’s easy charm have left her yearning for love and acceptance in a world that relies on surface appearance only. The need to behave at all times cripples her into not having any authentic feelings at all – not love, grief or loss. Throughout the book, everything from financial disaster to thwarted love to the sudden death is briefly acknowledged, then never spoken of again.

Our good behaviour went on and on, endless as the days. No one spoke pf the pain we were sharing. Our discretion was almost complete.

And yet Keane does not allow Aroon to be entirely sympathetic. She may have more of her mother in her than she realises, as is evident when despite the family’s failing financial situation, she turns down a proposal from a mere solicitor. Her lack of understanding does not stop at social situations and relationships, she has no understanding of herself either.

The reason I enjoy other people’s disasters is because they involve my understanding and sympathy in a way their successes never can. I like feeling genuine pity

This utter lack of awareness makes Aroon an appealing figure, but as the book progresses and her situation changes, the similarities with her mother become all the more evident and her good behaviour becomes a way of managing others and managing her own ever decreasing expectations.

by John Swannell, Iris print, 1983

Good Behaviour is beautifully written book and perfectly balances moments of bleak shock and sadness with sharp, dark humour. It is, at times, incredibly funny.

Mrs Brock went straight to the schoolroom lavatory, where she was overtaken by a violent diarrhoea. When she got off the mahogany seat to lift the D-shaped hand-fitting which swirled out the blue-flowered basin she sat down again at once “in case”, that tiny euphemism that covered so much so usefully

It is this balance that makes Good Behaviour such a wonderful novel. The ending is a tense as any thriller when the roles between mother and daughter spin on an axis and the final lines drive you right back to the beginning again, to re-read and seek out gems you may have missed.

Read on: Books

Number Read: 150

Number Remaining: 596

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My first giveaway for Reading Ireland Month will be a copy of Good Behaviour and the recently published biography of Molly Keane by Sally Phipps.

Molly Keane had a fascinating life – like Aroon she was born into Anglo-Irish wealth and rode horses. Her early writing career as MJ Farrell saw her have great success on stage, as her plays were produced by John Gielgud. However, the untimely death of her husband led her to give up writing for over thirty years. Good Behaviour was her return and she was Booker-nominated for it – losing out to Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie.

If you would like to win these books, simply comment below, or share this post on Twitter. I will post internationally and the competition will close on Monday 13 March when the winner will be chosen by Random Picker.

Good luck!