Saturday, November 2, 2013

Colin Barrett; Justin Quinn: Michele Forbes

Reviews. Colin Barrett; Justin Quinn: Michele Forbes

Published in Books Ireland, November 2013

By Sue Leonard. 

2013 has been a great year for debuts.  Whether this is because, with the continuing recession, cash strapped publishers are forced to become more discerning, I don’t know, but the variation of style, the originality, and sheer standard of first books seems to be rising all the time.  

Some of this year’s debuts focus on that very recession, and with great effect. Last year, newcomer Donal Ryan won the Irish Book of the Year award, along with a Man Booker long-listing, for The Spinning Heart - his look at post boom Ireland in the back of beyond - and in his debut collection of short stories, the young Colin Barrett has taken a similar backdrop. But whereas Ryan’s characters had, for the most part, once been relatively prosperous, the protagonists of Barrett’s stories, have been rubbing along on the bottom rung of society.  

The stories are all set in the same fictional town. Barrett sets the scene with the first story, The Clancy Kid.

 ‘My town is nowhere you have been, but you know its ilk. A roundabout off a national road, an industrial estate, a five-screen Cineplex, a century of pubs packed inside the square mile of the town’s limits. ....Summer evenings, and in the manure-scented pastures of the satellite parishes the Zen bovines lift their heads to contemplate the V8 howls of the boy racers tearing through the back lanes.’

These stories, exploring male friendship and, often, unrequited love, convey the atmosphere of post-boom Ireland quite wonderfully. With little lucrative employment, the protagonists struggle on as best they can, seeing no way out. The action takes place in pubs; in clubs, cars fields and woods.

The stories are both violent, and tender. Although the protagonists are male; and often feature two friends, it’s the women who dominate. They are shown as the strong ones, with the tough males in thrall of them.

In The Clancy Kid the narrator is upset when his part-time girlfriend becomes engaged to a rival. His friend Tug, a damaged softie, shows his support by upending the happy couple’s car. Fearing Tug’s unpredictable mood, his friend realises he’s off his meds. But as the two amble beside the river, Tug’s mood lifts. When they meet a gang of young children, his humour and compassion shine through.

Stand Your Skin features Bat, who has stinking clothes and waist long hair. He works in a garage and is thought of as a tough guy; the signs are clear from his battle scarred face. Why then, is he a near recluse, who is reluctant to socialise? This is skilfully revealed.  

Some of the stories are shocking. Bait, for example, shows that violence doesn’t always come from the hand of men. Others are more ruminative. I loved the closing story, Kindly forget my existence which featured two middle-aged men in a pub. They are skulking there, in the morning, because they can’t bring themselves to go to the funeral of a woman they both loved.

In the centre of this collection, lies, Calm With Horses, a story so long, that it could qualify as a novella. When Dympna, the town’s drug dealer, hears that the middle-aged Fannigan has molested his fourteen year old sister, he calls in his ‘heavy,’ named Arm – an ex boxer to deal with him.

Arm is good at his job, and can dispense violence without, it appear, any qualms. But he shows great sensitivity with his strange young son. Women like him, and he shows amazing loyalty to his friends.

Towards the end of this dramatic story, an old woman he is threatening says, ‘This isn’t you. It’s a path that you’ve ended up on, but it isn’t you.’ This sentence sums up not just Arm, but many of the characters in the book. All are victims of circumstance. 

I loved these stories, and empathised with every one of the protagonists. I liked the way they challenge the reader’s prejudices, and leave them wanting more. The writing is superlative. Every sentence counts.  We’ll be hearing a lot more from Colin Barrett.

If you were brought up on leafy Mount Merrion Avenue in the forties and fifties; if you had every advantage, in life, and were lucky enough to fall in love with a beautiful convent girl from Foxrock, you would assume the future was golden. And so it seemed for Declan Boyle, the hero of the Prague based Irish poet Justin Quinn’s first novel.

 Mount Merrion opens in 1959, when Declan has been admitted to a new County Hospital on the West Coast, suffering from a lung problem, and closes in 2002, when he finds himself in the same hospital having suffered a heart attack.

In between those hospital stays he joins the Civil Service, rather than follow his father into the law, because he hopes, that way, he can make a difference. And when disillusionment sets in, he starts up a tractor manufacturing business in Connemara, so bringing employment to the area.  This goes well; until, much later, when he is called as a witness to a tribunal leaving his business, and his reputation in tatters.

The beautiful Sinead doesn’t fare any better. She finds herself out of synch with her role as wife and mother. Feeling frustrated and lonely, she wants to work, but is thwarted. She and Declan don’t seem able to communicate on any meaningful level. Depression follows, then she turns to drink, before quitting, and, finally, being taken seriously, she starts working in her husband’s business.

All this is shown through episodic vignettes, as we follow the couple through their successes and challenges. There’s a tragedy too, to contend with.  It’s not easy to sweep through forty two years in just 260 pages, especially when the writing covers societal and personal changes, but to the main Quinn manages this well.

The changes in women’s lives is starkly shown, when the couples’ daughter Issie takes up the story. She’s determined to avoid the stifled life of her mother. The two were never close, so  she hot foots it to Berlin to pursue journalism. She becomes a successful feature writer, but  when she bed hops and becomes pregnant, it’s back to Dublin as a lone parent. And, although Ireland is booming,  the Irish papers offer her little more than the occasional property feature.

Declan’s heart attack brings the family together, and shows that, at least, they can console each other. Mount Merrion is a thought provoking novel for our time which cleverly tells the story of Ireland alongside the mundane tale of a long marriage.  At times, the brevity felt disconcerting, but there are moments when Quinn’s writing positively shines. It will be interesting to see what he comes up with next.

Michele Forbes is not the first Irish actor to pick up her pen; there have been several in recent years, and the transition seems to work well; if nothing else an actor has a feel for words, and a sense of what makes a scene work. Michele, though, brings even more to her craft. Her wonderful Belfast based debut is both beautifully paced and poetic. She has an unerring sense of story, and catches the nuances of relationships, whether between men and women, mothers and children or between friends exceptionally well.

Ghost Moth opens in August 1969.  Katherine, a wife and mum of four is swimming far out at sea when she comes face to face with a seal. The creature with his all-knowing eyes scares her; she panics and comes close to drowning. Safe once more, she can’t shift her mood of doom, and this throws her into memories of her courtship with her husband George back in September 1949.

Back then Katherine was an accounts clerk whose spare time was spent singing; rehearsing  the part of Carmen for an amateur production. This section opens when she meets Tom, a tailor, on the very night that George proposes. From then on the novel flits between the two timelines as Katherine tries to make sense of the past and reconcile the present.

A fascinating heroine, the young Katherine seems to drift through life in a dream; falling head over heels for the enigma that is Tom, yet never quite managing to tell him she is engaged to someone else, or, indeed, to end it with George. It doesn’t help that she’s not at all sure that Tom is all he seems. His receptionist hints that he has gambling debts, whereas George can be relied upon to love and protect her forever.  I adored these scenes for their originality and sheer drama.

The latter part is well handled too. Belfast is on the cusp of the troubles. There are an increasing number of incident, and George, a part-time fireman is getting called out more and more often. Meanwhile the children, whilst occasionally taunted by protestant neighbours, are more concerned with their friends, and in the teenage Maureen’s case, with burgeoning love.

When Maureen asks her mother how you know when you’re in love, Katherine surprises herself by saying, ‘you feel yourself floating and burning at the same time… and you’re different from before.’ Those words, she realises, are a description of the frenetic love she had for Tom – and do not apply to the steadier marital love.

There are many twists and turns before this novel reaches its sad conclusion. It’s a literary page turner; poetically written, and with complex characters that stay in your mind. What more could you ask for?

© Sue Leonard 2013


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