Monday, May 24, 2010

'The Heart of the Matter' by Graham Greene

When I first took notions that I might like to be a writer some day, around the age of eighteen when I still had less than no idea of where my life was heading, I reckoned that I'd like to write at least one book that was absolutely gut-wrenchingly, heartbreakingly, stamp-all-over-your-soul-and-then-piss-on-it tragic. A book that would leave the reader crushed. David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars may have been one of the reasons for this rather morbid desire, but an even greater one was The Heart of the Matter, the only Graham Greene I have read so far.

The precise details of the story of Scobie, a long-serving police-inspector in an unnamed British colonial town in West Africa (with Greene drawing heavily on his own experiences of living in Freetown, Sierra Leone) have long escaped me, as the details of most books I read tend to. What remains with me is the clarity with which Greene evokes the sadness and fear of a man torn asunder by pride, failure and good old-fashioned Catholic guilt. A man who fails everyone by working so very hard to fail no-one.

Friday, May 14, 2010

'Tenderwire' by Claire Kilroy

When the list of the 50 books nominated for best Irish book of the decade was published a few weeks ago I was mildly ashamed to realise that I'd only read three of them. Perhaps I shouldn't have been, the list is a fairly broad one taking in several categories and including things I would rather eat than have to read, like PS I love You and Bill Cullen's autobiography. Still, there are plenty of good authors on the list, and several of those books have been sitting on my shelves for months now, awaiting my perusal.
One such book was Claire Kilroy's Tenderwire. I appear to be reading Kilroy's stuff backwards, having read her third and most most recent one, All Names Have Been Changed (a review of that will no doubt be along soon enough), before Tenderwire - her second.

Tenderwire tells the story of Eva Tyne, a young Irish violinist living in New York who is offered the chance to buy a supposedly rare and valuable violin by a gangster she meets in a bar whilst in the middle of a self-pitying, self-destructive bender. Her life subsequently takes a number of twists and turns as the violin brings triumph and danger to her life in equal measure.
A thriller about a violin? You're probably not gripped yet. But such is Kilroy's skill at characterisation and dialogue that the reader quickly becomes engrossed in the story and comes to understand the redemptive symbolism that the violin holds for the passionate, mentally unstable Eva - a character whom the reader may not necessarily like, but whom they will find themselves caring about. Such are her travails and such is her emotionally fragile believability that there was more than one point during the story where I wanted to wrap Eva up in a blanket, make her a hot chocolate and tell her to cop on to herself.
On this evidence Kilroy deserves her place among the best new Irish writers. I'll let you know for definite when I've read her first.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

'Not Untrue and Not Unkind' by Ed O'Loughlin

Not Untrue and Not Unkind came to most people's attention when it managed to make the Man Booker prize longlist last year. Before reading it I saw the author speaking authoritatively and engagingly on foreign news correspondence during a debate in the literary tent at the Electric Picnic. O'Loughlin worked for various newspapers, Irish and otherwise, in reporting on various conflicts in Africa over the past couple of decades. It's therefore easy to suspect that this tale of jaded foreign correspondent Owen Simmons and the various professional and romantic relationships he becomes snarled up in is more than a little autobiographical.

Reading the book would appear to confirm this. Journalist in-jokes abound, some of which hit the spot very nicely and some of which do not (constant lampooning of real-life journalist and author Jon Simpson in the bloated and laughable figure of Timothy Drysdale is hilarious, whilst references to UNICEF as 'Think of the Children' seem a little silly - though that may well be the point). Such details add colour and plausibility to the book, though they can seem a little too anecdotal. More difficult for the reader to contend with is the assumption that O'Loughlin seems to make that his readers will be familiar with the conflicts, politics and geography of central Africa. In reality, even the more informed of his readers are likely to be a little unsure as to where certain cities are in relation to each other and even less sure as to which action the Zairean government took when, and why. Perhaps this is a deliberate tactic on O'Loughlin's part in order to illustrate the confused trekking from pillar to post that war reporters must do, as dictated by those back in western newsrooms who seem to know much  more of what's going on. It's hard to tell.
Where O'Loughlin really earns his advance, and presumably that Booker nod, is in some beautifully written passages - particularly those describing Dublin, and the breakdown of a relationship. The man has a way with words, both visceral and poetic, that save this novel from drowning in its muddy context and would seem to bode well for his future as a novelist.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

'Animal Farm' by George Orwell

I read Animal Farm a good few years back. It came in a boxset of Penguin classics that my folks gave me and was the slimmest book in there. I'll get around to reading One Hundred Years of Solitude and On The Road one of these days, probably.

It also happened to be one of the options for prescribed fiction for the English Leaving Cert course, which I was doing at the time, but our teacher preferred for us to read Lord of the Flies. Turned out Orwell's little piece of satire was far more useful for the purposes of my history exam, as it helped me to grasp the intricacies of Stalin's Seven Year Plan and the full betrayal of the Marxist dream in a way that a bare history book never could. And that, I suppose, is chief among the reasons why we'll always need good fiction.