Library Books

I reserved these books over the last few months and, wouldn’t you know it, they all arrived practically together!

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A Darker Domain by Val McDermid. This is the second Karen Pirie book. I’ve borrowed it because I loved the first one, The Distant Echo. In 1984, in Fife, heiress Catriona Maclennan Grant & her baby son are kidnapped. The ransom payoff goes horribly wrong. She is killed while her son disappears without trace. 2008, Tuscany. A jogger stumbles upon dramatic new evidence that re-opens the cold case. For Detective Sergeant Karen Pirie, it’s an opportunity to make her mark.

Conclave by Robert Harris – I’ve thoroughly enjoyed other books by Robert Harris, so I’m keen to read this one about how a new Pope is chosen as the cardinals meet in the Sistine chapel to cast their votes. This is a novel and Harris depicts the cardinals as holy men – but ambitious and rivals to become the most powerful spiritual figure on earth.

The Hidden Life of Trees:What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben. I read Katrina’s review of this book and immediately thought it sounded an amazing book as I love trees. Wohlleben is a German forester and his book is about his love of trees and why they matter on a global scale. He makes the case that the forest is a social network – I like the idea that they communicate with each other – even if they don’t actually walk and talk like Tolkien’s ents.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry – I loved his book, The Secret Scripture and am hoping I’ll like this one too. Thomas McNulty and John Coles signed up for the US army in the 1850s and fought in the Indian Wars and then in the American Civil War. The book was awarded the Costa Book Award 2016 and won the 2017 Walter Scott Prize. It was also longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017 – not that winning these awards automatically means that I’ll like it and I’m often not keen on books about war.

The Gathering by Anne Enright

The Gathering by Anne Enright is her fourth book. It won the Man Booker Prize in 2007.

The Gathering

Blurb:

The nine surviving children of the Hegarty clan gather in Dublin for the wake of their wayward brother Liam. It wasn’t the drink that killed him ‘“ although that certainly helped ‘“ it was what happened to him as a boy in his grandmother’s house, in the winter of 1968.

The Gathering is a novel about love and disappointment, about thwarted lust and limitless desire, and how our fate is written in the body, not in the stars.

I’m sorry to say that I think The Gathering is one of the most dreary books I’ve read. It’s a dark and disturbing novel about a dysfunctional family. I didn’t enjoy it, which is a shame as it’s a book that’s been on my shelves since 2008 and one I chose to read this month as part of Reading Ireland Month, an event to ‘˜to celebrate the wealth and breadth and general awesomeness of Irish cultural life.’ 

It begins:

I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen. I need to bear witness to an uncertain event. I feel it roaring inside me – this thing that may not have taken place. I don’t even know what name to put on it. I think you might call it a crime of the flesh, but the flesh is long fallen away and I am not sure what hurt may linger in the bones.

The narrator is Veronica Hegarty and it is through her eyes that the Hegarty family story is told as they gather at her brother’s wake in Dublin. Liam, an alcoholic, had committed suicide by putting rocks into his pockets and walking into the sea at Brighton. The characterisation is fantastic and I had no difficulty seeing the people in my mind’s eye; the descriptions of their appearance and personalities are strong and detailed.

But how reliable is Veronica’s memory? She mixes up memories of herself and her sister for example and there is quite a lot that you have to read between the lines. There aren’t many certain facts, for example how much truth is there in Veronica’s account of the early years of her grandparents’ married life and of their friend Lambert Nugent? She relates episodes that I’m sure they wouldn’t have told their granddaughter. At one point Veronica does say:

It is time to put an end to the shifting stories and the waking dreams. It is time to call an end to romance and just say what happened in Ada’s house, the year that I was eight and Liam was barely nine.

It takes a long time before Veronica finally gets to say what happened and even then there is ambiguity. Veronica cannot stick to a chronology and describes events haphazardly just as they come to her mind. A stream of thoughts just pour out of her – which is all very well because that is how the mind works.  But I found it made the text disjointed as it moved swiftly backwards and forwards.

As the blurb says it is about ‘thwarted lust and limitless desire‘ and the focus is on the body, on death, on sex and sexual abuse, on alcoholism, on insanity and on secrets and betrayal, but not much about love. At times I found it depressing or boring.

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (20 Mar. 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099501635
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099501633

When I finished The Gathering I wondered about the other books that were listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2007 – were the other books equally as depressing? This is what the judges thought about The Gathering:

Judges applauded The Gathering for its controlled prose, sentence by sentence. They were impressed by its figurative language. They wondered at how unflinching Enright was in the face of what was pretty grim, unappealing material. Would the subject matter deter readers? asked one judge. Was that a literary question? asked another.

So, it was the language they liked and I can see what they found to applaud there.  But I also thought that I had found the unappealing material a deterrent.

They concluded:

Enright’s novel had the support in depth and range other titles were not able to muster. It is, perhaps, a book people admire rather than immediately warm to, and this admiration won the day for her. Admiration for the unflinching ferocity of her vision and her skill with figurative language, admiration for the way in which she conveys feeling in carefully modulated prose which, sentence for sentence, matches anything being written in English today. Together we were happy to award her the prize on that basis. It was a collegiate decision. That is how it should be for the Man Booker.

Again I can see where they are coming from, but I prefer books that I can warm to as well as admire and I’m sorry but I just couldn’t warm to The Gathering, although I can admire its skill.

The other books on the shortlist were:

  • Darkmans by Nicola Barker – a book about love and jealousy and also about invasion, obsession, displacement and possession, about comedy, art, prescription drugs and chiropody.
  • The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Moshin Hamid – it traces the life and love of Changez, an idealistic young Muslim man who leaves Pakistan to pursue his education in the US.
  • Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones – a tale of survival by story set in Bougainville in 1991, a small village on a lush tropical island in the South Pacific where the horror of civil war lurked. Mr Watts introduces the children to Mr Dickens’ Great Expectations.
  • Animal’s People by Indra Sinah – ever since he can remember, Animal has gone on all fours, the catastrophic result of what happened on That Night when, thanks to an American chemical company, the Apocalypse visited his slum.
  • On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan – It is June 1962. In a hotel on the Dorset coast, overlooking Chesil Beach, Edward and Florence, who got married that morning, are sitting down to dinner in their room. Neither is entirely able to suppress their anxieties about the wedding night to come.

They sound mainly a depressing bunch of books. I read On Chesil Beach,  in 2007 and didn’t blog about it in detail. As I remember it, it is a sad book too, but I loved it. I have Mister Pip waiting to be read.

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

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I knew very little about The Secret Scripture when I started reading it, apart from the fact that it was on the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize and it was about an old woman in a mental hospital in Ireland, secretly writing her life story. I’d not long finished  The Gravedigger’s Daughter by Joyce Carol Oates and was surprised to find that I was reading yet another tragic tale about a gravedigger’s daughter. The opening sentences set the tone:

The world begins anew with every birth, my father used to say. He forgot to say, with every death it ends. Or he did not think he needed to. Because for a goodly part of his life he worked in a graveyard.

However, Roseanne, now about 100 years old, is the daughter of a very different gravedigger, one who was happy in his work and apparently well-liked. But his happiness didn’t last as many disasters assailed him which inevitably also affected Roseanne. As she later recalls her father

was let go from the cemetery, a living man exiled from the dead.

That was a little murder, also.

… Working in the graveyard, under the patronage as it were of Fr Gaunt, was in some manner to him his life perfected, made good. In some manner, made as a prayer back to his own father. It was the way he had learned to live, in Ireland, the accidental place he loved.

And to lose the job was to lose in some extraordinary fashion himself.

At the beginning of the book the hospital is due to close and at the same time as she is writing her own account of her life, Dr Grene is assessing whether she could cope with living on her own. He delves into her past trying to find the reason she was admitted and as the “facts” of her life emerge there are obvious discrepancies between her own account and the hospital records. It’s a story of Roseanne’s struggle to survive set against the background of religious conflict and political unrest in Ireland.

I was thoroughly gripped and moved by this novel; by the plot, the characters and the writing. Dr Grene, whose wife dies during the course of the book, is haunted by the failure of his marriage and overcome with grief:

I had woken in the night with an appalling sense of shame and disquiet. If I could itemise the attributes of my grief, and print them in a journal, I might do the world a general service. I suspect it is hard to remember grief, and it is certainly invisible. But is is a wailing of the soul nonetheless and I must never underestimate its acidic force in others.

One aspect of this novel particularly appealed to me – the nature of memory and its function in our lives. Roseanne looking back over her life begins to wonder just what was real and what was fantasy, comparing memory to a box or lumber room where

the contents have become jumbled about, maybe not only from neglect but also from too much haphazard searching in them, and things to boot thrown in that don’t belong there.

As she sees it,

… time passing is just a trick, a convenience. Everything is always there, still unfolding, still happening. The past, present, and the future, in the noggin eternally, like brushes, combs and ribbons in a handbag.

I’ve read some criticism that the ending is disappointing and contrived and although I could see how events were going to unfold I have no complaints. It was satisfying and it worked for me.