#EU27Project: Ireland – The Glorious Heresies

gloriousheresiesA fizzy little corker of a debut novel set in Cork (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun!) and my first entry in the #EU27Project. Lisa McInerney takes us into the lives of those who have seen little of the Celtic Tiger benefits: misfits, rebels, people who have just given up.

The plot is quite complex and takes place over a number of years, but let’s see if I can briefly whet your appetite. First, there’s Ryan Cusak, 15 years old at the start of the novel, who can’t wait to grow up and get his revenge against his drunkard of a father, who often beats him. Although he is quite bright at school and keen to impress his girlfriend, the seemingly unattainable Karine D’Arcy, he is also a drug dealer and just can’t stop getting into trouble.

Tony is Ryan’s Dad, a widower with six children who is overwhelmed by life. When an old mate of his, Jimmy, a notorious Cork gangster, asks him to help with a little ‘cleaning’ work (i.e. getting rid of a body), he just can’t turn down that opportunity. But, of course, he is not quite up to the standard expected of a criminal.

Jimmy has a reputation, Tony more of a stench.

It’s Jimmy’s mother, Maureen, who mistook the man for an intruder and killed him with a Holy Stone, so her son is sorting out the mess. Maureen has been dragged back to Cork from London by her son’s misplaced sense of loyalty and guilt and housed in an abandoned quayside building which Jimmy had previously used as a brothel. Maureen had Jimmy out of wedlock, and was forced to flee her hometown when her parents took the baby away from her and raised him as their own. So she is remarkably clear-eyed about Jimmy’s shortcomings and completely at odds with the Catholic church, resentful of her ‘years of penitence with no sin to show for it.’

The victim was a skinny junkie called Robbie and initially no one knows or cares about his disappearance except for his girlfriend, ex-hooker Georgie. But then Tony and Ryan’s interfering neighbour Tara, described as ‘a vulture feeding off carcasses’, mentions something about Tony and Robbie knowing each other, so Georgie begins to investigate. Along the way, she finds refuge with a group of missionaries, even though she doesn’t believe at all in God, and meets Maureen during her door-to-door distribution of flyers duty. I’ll quote a bit more extensively selections from this scene, because it gives a good feel for the author’s brilliant use of humour.

‘I’m here…’ Georgie said, and faltered, and the woman raised her eyebrows.

‘Have I been expecting you?’ Her voice was a tart growl.

‘I’m here,’ Georgie began again. ‘To spread the word of… of Jesus Christ.’

‘You’d think He’d send someone less scatty,’ said the woman. ‘But fine. What has He got to say for Himself?’

Georgie thrust one of the leaflets at the woman.

‘Oh, He’s written it down for you,’ said the woman. ‘Handy.’

‘He says… He says: Go unto … go into the world and proclaim the gospel to… creation. Whoever believes and is baptised will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.’

‘Harsh fecker, isn’t He?’

George wilted and Clover beckoned her away, but the woman said, ‘What are you doing out preaching on a day like this, anyway? And in your condition?… You want to convert me, you better do it now, because this missive is going in the bin as soon as I close the door… Are you coming in or not?

‘There’s so much in the leaflet,’ Georgie said.

‘Are you going to deny an old lady her consultation, little preacher? Who goes door-to-door and declines the first invitation they get to pontificate?’

lisamcinerneyOf course, the digs at organised religion are very Irish, clearly showing the love-hate relationship every Irish person seems to have with Catholicism. But, as the title of the book indicates, this book is about more than that, it’s about all kinds of ‘heresies’, subverting the established ‘way of seeing things’, providing an alternative to mainstream narrative. The author gives us an insight into the life of the least regarded elements of Irish society and, although these individuals might annoy us with their stupid and self-destructive decisions, they are also acting within the confines of a bleak, depressing town with few if any future prospects. The damage they inflict on themselves are to a certain extent predetermined.

Yes, this is not cheery subject matter, but the author tackles this dingy world of prostitutes, addicts and criminals with verve and vigour. This is fierce tragicomedy at its best, and I found myself laughing and crying on the same page. This book is all about the unforgettable, pitch-perfect voice, raucous storytelling and the moving, pitiful, infuriating characters, with all their flaws.

Friday Fun: Hygge or Cosy

It appears that the Danish were not even aware that their concept of ‘hygge’ (comfort) is such a big idea until the British started marketing it. And yet the English have a perfectly good word for it as well ‘cosy’. Whatever we choose to call it, the appeal of curling up with candles, fireplaces, blankets and fleeces, books, a view and perhaps a pet or two… well, it’s undeniable. We need this comfort even more in these uncertain times.

Books, views and a stove appear to be indispensable items, from dezeen.com
Books, views and a stove appear to be indispensable items, from dezeen.com
It doesn't always have to be winter - here is a cosy conservatory in spring/summer. From workdon.com
Wood is a key ingredient. It doesn’t always have to be winter – here is a cosy conservatory in spring/summer. From workdon.com
Bedcovers and pets are the perfect combination, from Pinterest.
Stones and bricks also add to the appeal, while bedcovers and pets perfect the look, from Pinterest.
It didn't originate in Denmark and it's not a recent phenomenon, as Vita Sackville-West's study shows. From National Trust website.
It didn’t originate in Denmark and it’s not a recent phenomenon, as Vita Sackville-West’s study shows. From National Trust website.
Lots of seating for the many friends that you'll have visiting you, from Country Living.
Lots of seating for the many friends that you’ll have visiting you, from Country Living.
Cushions and cakes are always a good idea, from Pinterest.
Cushions, coffee and cakes – the three Cs –  are always a good idea, from Pinterest.
The problem is, with such a cosy home, you might never want to get up until spring has well and truly sprung... From Huffington Post.
The problem is, with such a cosy home, you might never want to get up until spring has well and truly sprung… From Huffington Post.

 

WWW Wednesday, 1st February

It’s the middle of an awful week: world news and personal news are conspiring to keep me down, while the weather brings additional mopey-ness. So let’s run away from reality and cheer ourselves up with reading! So I’m joining in once more with the WWW Wednesday meme hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.

wwwednesday

What are you currently reading?

Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories

This is the Library of America edition which contains her two great novels The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, as well as short stories both published and unpublished. This is going to be a reading theme throughout 2017, I think, as I can only bear to read a few of her stories at a time, because she so accurately conveys the demons lurking beneath the facade of noonday respectability and polite small-talk.

clearairMechtild Bormann: To Clear the Air – for #EU27Project – Germany

Blurb: Life comes to an end, but memory is forever. A moving epitaph for a lost loved one, or the menacing taunt of a vengeful killer? When a man is found brutally murdered in the woods, those words come to haunt the small German village of Merklen. And homicide inspector Peter Böhm faces the daunting task of unraveling a mystery with deep and twisted roots—in a town where doors stay closed, people stay silent, and death may have the final word.

What did you recently finish reading?

Lisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies

Tragi-comedy at its finest, as we see five characters trying to battle their way out of the hopelessness of their situation in down-and-out Cork post-Celtic Tiger boom. Like Trainspotting set in Ireland, you watch with horror (and occasional glee) as they make wrong choice after wrong choice. Tough, candid, occasionally shocking, yet ultimately tender.

outlineRachel Cusk: Outline

Blurb: A woman writer goes to Athens in the height of summer to teach a writing course. Though her own circumstances remain indistinct, she becomes the audience to a chain of narratives, as the people she meets tell her one after another the stories of their lives.

My verdict: Based on reviews of this, I’d been expecting something challenging, hard to read, but it was enjoyable and easy. A collection of voices, people’s stories, a bit like an anthropologist’s field notes, it was fascinating and thought-provoking. Plus, a Greek setting is always a bonus!

What do you think you’ll read next?

Kate Hamer: The Doll Funeral

Blurb: My name is Ruby. I live with Barbara and Mick. They’re not my real parents, but they tell me what to do, and what to say. I’m supposed to say that the bruises on my arms and the black eye came from falling down the stairs.
But there are things I won’t say. I won’t tell them I’m going to hunt for my real parents. I don’t say a word about Shadow, who sits on the stairs, or the Wasp Lady I saw on the way to bed.

Hamer did such an excellent job of rendering a child’s voice in The Girl in the Red Coat, that I am curious to see what she can do here.

lastsummerRicharda Huch: The Last Summer (transl. Jamie Bulloch)

Blurb: Russia at the beginning of the 20th century. To counter student unrest, the governor of St Petersburg closes the state university. Soon afterwards he arrives at his summer residence with his family and receives a death threat. His worried wife employs a young bodyguard, Lju, to protect her husband. Little does she know that Lju sides with the students – and the students are plotting an assassination.

So, although this is a German author, I am not sure this qualifies entirely for the #EU27Project in my mind, as it takes place in Russia. Still, it looks like an intriguing read as usual from Peirene Press.

So a bouquet of women writers this time round! Have you read or are you planning to read any of these? Or other books by these authors?

 

Monthly Wrap-Up: January 2017

breachJanuary felt like a slow reading month, as too much of my time was caught up with news. However, now that I’m counting, I did not fare too badly. 12 books read, of which 4 translations and 5 by women. I am far, far behind on reviews, however, so for the time being you will have to make do with a single word or phrase.

For review on Crime Fiction Lover:

BA Paris: The Breakdown – predictable

Marc Elsberg: Blackout – disaster movie type

Federico Axat: Kill the Next One – surreal

David Young: Stasi Wolf – surreal in a different way

For #EU27Project:

This is where I stumbled a little, as I have written zero reviews of any of these. I am also having second thoughts about using Arango and Hiekkapelto for Germany and Finland respectively, as there is little local ‘flavour’ in their work (they take place elsewhere). I have been sadly neglectful of adding any links to the #EU27Project page myself, but thank you to all the other book bloggers who have diligently read and reviewed and linked up. So much better than me! I will do better in February, I promise.

gloriousheresiesOlumide Popoola & Annie Holmes: Breach (Peirene Now!) – the refugee camps of Europe – more necessary reading than ever

Sascha Arango: The Truth and Other Lies (Germany) – macabre fun

Kati Hiekkapelto: The Exiled (Finland) – cross-cultural misunderstandings

Lisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies (Ireland) – inventive delight

For fun (and to reduce TBR pile, especially on Netgalley):

outline1Ian Rankin: Rather Be the Devil – reliably entertaining

Stav Sherez: The Intrusions – slightly panic-inducing

Brian Conaghan: The Bombs that Brought Us Together – timely and fresh

Rachel Cusk: Outline – anthropological storytelling at its best

My favourite crime reads this month were The Intrusions and Rather Be the Devil, while my favourite non-crime were Outline and The Glorious Heresies.

 

Rock Me Amadeus!

When I was growing up in the mid 1980s , Mozart was all the rage. Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus had been made into a film by Milos Forman, Vienna was getting ready to mourn the passing of 200 years since his death (1791) and Falco was the first Austrian singer/rapper to go global with his ‘Rock Me Amadeus’ (apologies for the poor image quality – pre-HD music videos have not aged well).

Meanwhile, I was labouring with Mozart minuets and sonatas, having my knuckles rapped by my fearsome (but much loved and missed) piano teacher. It didn’t put me off him, however. He has remained, to this day, my favourite composer.

So the National Theatre’s production of Amadeus last week was a wonderful way to reconnect with my childhood. (And also an excellent form of self-medication for uncertain times.) Lucian Msamati gave a mesmerizing virtuoso performance as Salieri (his Italian was most convincing), while Adam Gillen was suitably foppish and vulnerable as Mozart (in Shaffer’s vision). All in all, Msamati is only off-stage for 13 seconds, while changing into a shinier outfit, so it’s a real tour de force.

Scene from Amadeus, National Theatre.
Scene from Amadeus, National Theatre.

Of course you have to allow for dramatic licence: no one seriously thinks that Salieri poisoned Mozart, or that Mozart was as childish and foolish as he appears in the play. Although he did live beyond his means and left his wife and children in debt after his death, he was not as unsuccessful and ‘tormented’ as he appears to be in the play. He certainly enjoyed scatological humour, loved his wife dearly, but he did not write his musical compositions effortlessly, from divine dictation. (He worked very hard, and if his manuscripts appear remarkably clean,  it’s because his wife destroyed many of the earlier drafts.) Schikaneder did not cheat Mozart out of the money for The Magic Flute (in fact, he put on a special charity performance for Mozart’s widow). Constanze was not a naive little girl, but quite a shrewd businesswoman who managed to turn her fortunes around after Mozart’s death. Salieri was highly respected as a composer and teacher, but it is true that he felt fashions had moved on, so he stopped writing operas for the last 20 years of his life.  Salieri’s music fell into oblivion – and do you know what boost led to its modest revival in recent years? The success of the film ‘Amadeus’!

But it’s drama, not historical accuracy we’re after, and boy, does it deliver it in spades! The conversation between Salieri and Mozart prior to the death scene was particularly moving, while the final salute to mediocrities is one of the most memorable speeches about jealousy and resignation ever:

Salieri : I will speak for you, I speak for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint. Mediocrities everywhere… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you all!

The South Bank Sinfonia were both actors and players in this version, and there were some very good singers among the actors. This whetted my appetite for Mozart’s music and I listened all day Friday (Mozart’s birthday) to his Masses. On Saturday evening I also attended a local semi-staged performance of The Magic Flute, performed by St John’s Opera and Chamber Orchestra, and Renaissance Voices choir. It was a contemporary adaptation, with Sarastro being the CEO of a foundation and giving Tamino a gruelling job interview. Meanwhile, Papageno worked as a ‘model scout’ for the Queen of the Night (hunting for birds, right) and also ran her social media, doing occasional Tweets for her. Great fun, the music of course sublime and I’d never heard Mozart sung in English before. Clever translation at times!

the_magic_flute

 

Inviting the World In or Self-Care?

I’ve stupidly invited the outside world in.

From phys.org
From phys.org

I needed the distraction, I thought. I needed to being so self-centred and fascinated by my own navel, my petty little worries, my anxiety about the next few months.

People who refuse to engage with the reality around them, who retreat to their ivory towers, are despicable. Or so we thought back in the days just after the fall of Communism, when we were ashamed that there were so few dissident Romanian writers compared to those in Russia or Poland or Czechoslovakia.

So I opened up the doors and, instead of switching off the internet at night, I now check it during those long nights when I cannot sleep. I let the world in, with its mad melee of cacophonous sounds and barking, lies and ridicule, entrenched positions, animosity, rabid language and ugliness. I cannot unsee it now. And I am frightened. I feel like a small boat buffeted by shrieking winds and roaring waves, skin sliced open by hailstorms, head ready to rip open, a driftwood swollen to unnatural proportions.

I still function perfectly well on the outside: no one who has ever worked with me would believe I suffer from constant, if low-level, anxiety and depression. However, the toll of this ‘ability to muddle through’ is quite high at times and I wonder how much more of this constant assault on the senses (including common-sense) one can take. When you wake up daily to heated debates about crowd sizes, border walls, banning Muslims, the efficacy of torture, making Britain global again while keeping those nasty cockroaches like myself out… how long before you start accepting it as the inevitable status quo? How long before your health and mind starts to give up?

There is no doubting the impact it has had on my writing already. I struggle with prose, while the poetry I produce feels uncouth, full of sludge and invectives. My lack of productivity may not be a great loss to the world, but I wonder how many other artists and writers (far above my level) are struggling too.

For those who say that great literature was produced by dissidents, there is some truth in that. However, that usually happened during the periods of relative stability following the mass shifts, when the despair of ‘nothing will ever change for the better’ started to kick in. We will never quite know how many more fell into silence. As Akhmatova says:

And how many poems I have not written
Whose secret chorus swirls around my head
And possibly one day
Will stifle me…

I realised only recently that I gave up any form of creative writing during the other period of my life (from 1991-94 onwards), when I felt the same level of rootlessness, anxiety and despair at humanity. I blamed it on academic work, moving abroad, then joining the corporate huddled masses and the magic roundabout of marriage and children, but it all started before that, when I became distressed by the collapse of hope in a democracy that wouldn’t be equated with wild, rampant, cruel capitalism. My ‘escape’ back then was Cambridge and the friends I made there, and Brecht’s Dreigroschenoper.

But at the time, it was only one portion of the world that seemed to be going mad. Now the lunacy is engulfing the whole world. I stopped writing for 20 years then. I just hope it won’t be that long again now.

nocive

P. S. The examples of animal friendship and compassion in the current BBC documentary series ‘Spy in the Wild’ help a little, while simultaneously making me wonder if animals are not superior to humans.

Friday Fun: More Writers at Work

Writers in the past clearly had enough money for huge rooms of their own (especially the men). What about more modern writers from around the world?

Amelie Nothomb doesn't seem to mind the chaos: she reliably produces one book per year. From Lalibre.be
Amelie Nothomb doesn’t seem to mind the chaos: she reliably produces one book per year. From Lalibre.be
Anais Nin seems to have prefered a tidier style. From Silver Birch Press.
Anais Nin seems to have prefered a tidier style. From Silver Birch Press.
Julian Barnes musing at his desk, from New York Times.
Julian Barnes musing at his desk, from New York Times.
Haruki Murakami has Japanese minimalism down pat. From harukimurakami.com
Haruki Murakami has Japanese minimalism down pat. From harukimurakami.com
Jane Smiley is so overwhelmed by books, I am not sure where she can write. From NY Times.
Jane Smiley is so overwhelmed by books, I am not sure where she can write. From NY Times.
Roald Dahl's famous writing hut, from Dahl Museum and Storycentre.
Roald Dahl’s famous writing hut, from Dahl Museum and Storycentre.
The dining table for Marguerite Duras, from Clube de leitores.
The dining table for Marguerite Duras, from Clube de leitores.
Jung Chang likes to surround herself with treasured mementoes, from Pinterest.
Jung Chang likes to surround herself with treasured mementoes, from Pinterest.
An airy delight: Jeanette Winterson in her rustic study, from NY Times.
An airy delight: Jeanette Winterson in her rustic study, from NY Times.