Death in Summer – William Trevor (1998)

A second Trevor read for me (see review of Felicia’s Journey here), this was another tightly-wound narrative with wounded characters interacting with each other. (I wonder if this is a pattern with Trevor novels/short stories? I’ll have to investigate further.)

The plot revolves around the Davenant family and their big old house in which they have lived for several generations. Current inhabitants Thaddeus and wife Letitia (along with infant Georgina) have put a lot of money into renovations, funded chiefly by Letitia’s family money. 

In fact, this financial resource was really what pushed Thaddeus into marrying Letitia, as he doesn’t really love her. In contrast, his emotional attachment to his daughter is a surprise to him since his difficult childhood did not prepare him for loving anyone and so Thaddeus is faced with new feelings to handle.

At the same time as the fairly recent birth of his daughter, wife Letitia is killed while riding in country lanes on her bicycle, and so Thaddeus not only has to handle his almost-overwhelming and surprising (to him) adoration of Georgina but also face his wife’s death (and his lack of feelings with regard to that). 

Into the middle of this whirlpool of emotion arrives Letitia’s mother (Georgina’s grandma) who volun-forcesThaddeus into letting her live with him and Georgina in the house to “help” him parent the child. Prior to this arrangement, the family had been looking into hiring a nanny to help with childcare and so both Letitia’s mother and Thaddeus go ahead initially to interview three not-really-qualified young women.

It’s one of these three interviewees who really throws the spanner in the works for the small family. Both Thaddeus and Pettie, the young woman in question, have the same need to love little Georgina, but it’s expressed in very different ways and when Pettie commits a serious crime, things come to a head for both of these damaged adults. 

It’s a tightly-wrapped narrative, like a noose that is slowly strangling you, and when another death occurs in the Davenant orbit, is it a chance for redemption? And if so, for whom?

Another good read from William Trevor. I wonder how his short stories are?… [Toddles off to the library – if it’s open due to coronavirus.]

(Read as part of Cathy746’s Reading Ireland Month.)

Loving and Giving – Molly Keane (1988)

This was my second foray into the literature of Molly Keane (also published under the name of M.J. Farrell during the 1930s) and this was another read from her that was a good experience whilst also being slightly prickly. (See review of Devoted Ladies [1934] here.)

This novel, as implied by the title, is about the push-and-pull of tricky family relationships and how the central protagonist, at the start a young girl, tries her best to understand and adapt to the people who surround her. However, despite her efforts to be “loving and giving” (cue: title), the recipients of her intentions aren’t always responsive in predictable ways, and this was a little heartbreaking for me, as a reader, as I could see how this was slowly breaking this young girl’s heart (although the adults involved had no idea about this).

Nicandra, the lead character, is only eight years old and living in the isolated and rural world of a rather grand Irish estate called Deer Forest in 1914. Her life is organized and satisfactory. Her mother is beautiful and loved; her father distant and involved in running the estate; her Aunt Tossie walks about grandly in her widow’s weeds. But one day, her mother runs away and things change overnight for Nicandra.

Thrown into confusion and sadness (as of course no one has a conversation with her about her mother’s absence – them’s the times and place), Nicandra vows to make up for her missing mother by providing everyone left with lots of love and kindness. But things go rather awry.

The author was in her 80s when this was finished. decades after Keane’s other novels were published, but it’s clear that life has not softened the edges of her mind and how she handles her characters. This novel follows the sharpening of young Nicandra as her efforts to be kind are rebuffed and misinterpreted over the years and how these reactions shape her life in terms of loving and being loved.

It’s a sad novel in many ways and reflects how life doesn’t always turn out as glamorous as you would like to be. As the house falls into disrepair, so does the family break down, and then the ending of this novel was just fantastic. (Shan’t say anything about it, but believe me. It’s good.)

So, a prickly but enjoyable read. You don’t need to love the characters in a book to care about them, and this is ably demonstrated in this novel by Molly Keane. Another off the TBR pile (been there for years!) and read as part of Cathy 746’s Reading Ireland Month project. Thank you for the nudge to read this title!

Reading Ireland Month 2020 with Cathy746

I’ve decided to join in with Cathy (at Cathy746 blog) to read some books by (or about) Irish people or the country itself, and as a start (although it’s actually in its second week), I pondered to myself exactly how much Irish literature I’d read over the past few years.

(BTW, if you haven’t met Cathy yet, her blog is really interesting and all about Irish lit. She is one of its biggest cheerleaders in bookish circles, it seems.)

So, I went trawling through my blog posts and found quite a few. Most of these I have loved so I think you may as well. Have a nosie if you’d like:

  • Pygmalion – George Bernard Shaw (1912) play

Brooklyn – Colm Toibin (2009)

book377

Sometimes I happen to pick up the perfect book to read for one reason or another, and Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn just ended up being one of those incredible experiences. I’d been having just an OK reading life lately – nothing too exciting (although the African-Am titles in Feb were great) – and was strolling around looking for a domestic novel of sorts: nothing that dramatic and with a good story about everyday lives with easily relatable characters. Brooklyn was a perfect storm of great reading for me, and, as you can probably surmise, I loved every minute of reading it.

It’s an Irish novel set in fairly recent times (mid-20th century?) with a young woman growing up in a small town with not much to offer her. Her family’s priest knows another Irish priest in Brooklyn who is willing to set her up with a new life out there in the already well-established Irish neighborhood and her parents feel that it’s an opportunity that she could not turn down. This novel follows that journey and protagonist Eilis Lacey as she travels forth into the great unknown and a new life.

Toibin is a well known Irish author (see review of his 2005 The Blackwater Lightship here), and after thoroughly enjoying my read of the Irish writer Edna O’Brien Country Girls trilogy of novels, thought this would be a good pick for now. Additionally, I’d just seen the really good film adaptation of Brooklyn the other day and after having really enjoyed that, thought I would do a brief compare-and-contrast (as you do).

So it’s a narrative arc that’s not really that thrilling when you look at it from a distance, but when you are immersed in Eilis’ life throughout the story, it was such a strong pull for me to continue reading to find out how things worked out for the characters. In fact, it was so strong that I ended up staying really late a couple of nights as I just had to find out what Eilis chose in the end. (And I’m a dormouse usually, sleeping-wise.)

I’m not sure what exactly was so perfect about this book. The writing was great, the narrative arc was strong (without being predictable), but I think it was the actual characters (especially Eilis and her friend Tony) who really pulled me back into the pages each time. I became so immersed in their story that whenever I did end up putting the book down (for sleep and life etc.), it was a struggle to not pick up the story at every chance that I could get.

It’s a great feeling to have such a connection with a book’s story and characters, so all praise must surely go to Toibin for inventing such characters and then writing about them in such a way that I was really pretty riveted for the whole read.

I know. This sounds a bit gushy, but if you’re looking for a REALLY good read, a read that sucks you in and then keeps you there (even when you’re doing something else), you may want to try Brooklyn. It will definitely end up on my list of favorite books for the year, and I’m jazzed to try more of his work now. It was longlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize and other big booky prizes, all of which it deserves if you ask me.

Highly recommended. (The film is good too, btw.)

Some Experiences of an Irish R.M. – E. O. Somerville and Martin Ross (1899)

book204A light-hearted humorous novel about an ex-British Army officer who becomes appointed to a rural country in Ireland as the Resident Magistrate*, this was quite a fun read. Published at the turn of the century, it’s a very horsey-centered book with tales of the inexperienced young outsider facing the events of an insular small rural community as the person in charge.

This is more a series of short stories all interlinked by a core group of common characters more than a straight novel, and reminded me in some ways of James Herriot in regard to “big-city outsider comes to unwelcoming but heart of gold village in the country” situation. It is packed with long descriptions of fox hunts, horse races and village happenings, some of which were rather exciting to read (despite my opposition to fox hunting and animal maltreatment). It was quite hard to read about the rather frequent whippings that the horses and donkeys endured and were obviously par for the course back then. It was true to its time though, even though that doesn’t make it any more acceptable. (Cue: Black Beauty review here.)

The authors were really two women, one called Edith Somerville (the E. O. Somerville person) from England, and the other her cousin Violet Florence Martin (who wrote under Martin Ross) who was from Ireland.  The two were second cousins and shared a great-grandfather between them. The name “Martin Ross” that Violet chose came from her surname and the name of the land that her family owned in West Ireland and both published under male names, presumably to give them more credibility at the time.  Edith and Violet became close partners, and had critical and popular success with their early works which were a variation of the Victorian sensation novels. However, the commercial success of their lighter comical novels (starting with the Irish RM series) led their agent to convince them to leave serious novel writing and to focus more on what the popular market wanted.  (Rather Wodehousian humor in many ways, I thought.)

This book series was also made into a TV series which ran between 1983-1985 on TV in the UK. (I didn’t catch it so can’t vouch for its quality.)

Violet died quite early in 1915 of a brain tumor, and although Edith vowed that she would and could never write again after Violet’s death, she was persuaded to do so by believing (as were the times) that Violet could communicate with her through spiritualism séances (a la Arthur Conan Doyle et al.) and continued to publish under both her own name and Violet’s and under Violet’s “direction.”

There are continuations of this book, but not sure I liked it that much…

  • A Resident Magistrate (RM) was a title for magistrates in locations that were/are governed by the British. Personnel were usually well versed in law and well connected (as they were rather cushy jobs) and were brought into an area from outside to guide the more local lay magistrates.  The “Resident” referred to the requirement that the magistrate had to live in the actual area to which he (always he) was assigned.