Irish Books and Writers

St. Patrick’s Day will soon be upon us, and for many that’s an occasion to wear green and drink a Guinness. But I’m using the occasion to recommend books by Irish writers.

Not that there’s anything wrong with green clothes. Or Guinness.

Given Ireland’s history, imperialism is a compelling subject to many Irish writers. Booker-winner J. G. Farrell wrote extraordinary novels that explore the human costs of colonialism:  The Troubles, The Singapore Grip and The Siege of Krishnapur. The last is my favorite.  Set during the Mutiny of 1857, when Indian soldiers killed their British commanders and tried to drive all foreigners out of the subcontinent, Siege focuses on a small group of British men and women in a town under attack.  As they  retreat into an ever-dwindling group of buildings for safety, they try to maintain some semblance of normalcy in the face of disappearing supplies and near-certain death: formal dinners with less and less food; tea parties when there’s no more tea. All the while the sounds of battle cries and gunfire get closer and closer…Siege is punctuated with moments of satire, but the overall atmosphere is one of unrelenting menace.

Adultery is a recurring theme of the modern novel: Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, The End of the Affair, The Postman Always Rings Twice—stories of doomed passion, and often doomed lives. With the Irish knack for subverting literary conventions, Anne Enright translates tragedy into satire with The Forgotten Waltz, where the price of infidelity isn’t shame or suicide, but having to sell your house at a loss. Enright’s Other Woman (and narrator) Gina Moynihan sidesteps guilt with humor and callousness, as when, after her husband discovers her affair and leaves, she muses, “I just don’t believe it…. [You] get caught and you never have to see your in-laws again. Ever. It’s the closest thing to magic I’ve found.”  But Enright takes this novel beyond brittle farce when Gina is devastated by the unexpected death of a parent, and then marries her lover and experiences the cringe-inducing awkwardness of becoming a stepmother to his daughter—the only character in this book, it turns out, with a moral center.

The 1916 Easter Rising came as a shock to most of Ireland and all of Britain. During the immediately preceding decades Ireland had been more peaceful than it had been in centuries: Catholics had been granted full civil rights; long-overdue reforms had changed tenant farmers into landowners; the first Irish parliament in over a century was scheduled to convene in Dublin at the end of the war.  In Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890-1923, historian Roy Foster examines the intellectual and political ferment of the years leading up to 1916.  At the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries people throughout the West were questioning the status quo and Ireland was no exception. Using letters and diaries of Irish men and women of the time, Foster explores Marxist clubs, LGBT subcultures, feminist societies, Gaelic language schools and the staff and readers of radical newspapers.  Foster also introduces us to fascinating characters such as Mary Spring-Rice, who smuggled weapons for Irish rebels from the Continent to Ireland in her family’s yacht; the Countess Markiewicz, who was elected to Parliament while in prison for treason (and in case you’re wondering why she has a Polish name: when she was studying art in Paris she married a Polish count, as one does); and Sir Roger Casement, who, before becoming an Irish nationalist, worked for the British Foreign Office as one of the world’s first human rights investigators.  Vivid Faces gives much-needed context to a turning point in modern Irish history.

The modern mystery novel is partly Irish in origin: although born in England, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was of Irish descent, and some neighbors of the Doyles in County Wicklow had the unusual last name Sherlock.

A good murder mystery is a delight. A good murder mystery with the depth of serious fiction is a treasure, which is why I recommend Dublin author Tana French's In the Woods, the first of her Dublin Murder Squad mysteries.  A twelve-year-old girl is found murdered in the woods of Knocknarea. Such a crime is disturbing enough, but for one of the detectives assigned to the case, Rob Ryan, the location calls forth all his demons: 22 years earlier 3 boys went missing in the woods of Knocknarea. Rob Ryan was the only who was found. He had slash marks on his back and his shoes were filled with blood. He has never remembered what happened. 

As Ryan and his partner, Detective Cassie Maddox, investigate we get the intellectual thrill of seeing a mystery being solved and the morbid fascination of watching the facade of small town Ireland being peeled away to reveal layers of corruption. But the driving force of the novel is Ryan and Maddox's friendship and Ryan's buried traumas. Ryan's intense relationship with Maddox is in part some unconscious effort to recover the innocence he lost the day he and his friends wandered into the woods: he calls her "the summertime cousin out of storybooks, the one you taught to swim at some midge-humming lake and pestered with tadpoles down her swimsuit."  As they close in on the girl's murderer, they come close to finding out what happened to Rob and his friends over twenty years ago. And we know Rob won't be able to deal with it. In the Woods won the 2008  Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

Happy reading.

 — Kevin, Reference Department.

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