herald

Sunday 21 September 2014

Irish reads still have soul

THE GUTS by Roddy Doyle Jonathan Cape, (2013) €14.99 HHHHH

With The Commitments still figuring largely in the national, and indeed global, psyche – even after all these years – when the news came down that there was to be a class of a sequel, the initial reaction was one of: ah sure, now. Why would you be messing with something that was pure zeitgeist, that had translated into such a spectacular film, that embodied Dublin, not only of its time, but its general essence? What good could come of it?

Loads. From the opening lines of The Guts, Doyle has us back again, back in the palm of his hand and back in the mad world of Jimmy Rabbitte. It's like meeting a whole crowd of folks you haven't seen in ages, and settling down for a good, long session.

It's priceless enough to hear Jimmy going on about Facebook – but you wouldn't expect anything less, really. The man's always had his finger if not directly on the pulse, at least within an inch or two of it. He's 47 now, and his health isn't the best. Liver cancer, probably terminal. Hence the title, but it's one that works, as usual, on so many levels. Not only the pain in his guts, but the guts it takes to keep going, the guts it takes to keep gigging, the guts it takes to tell the truth about his condition – hmmm.

He's far from 'grand', but he will insist on telling folks he is. He manages his treatments with the kind of black humour that we all recognise as pure Dub, and also with a healthy dose of fear that he's turning out just like his dad.

The biggest joy is Doyle's deftness with dialogue: we aren't told what anyone is feeling, or what's going on in their lives in tedious, expository third person, we are informed by their conversations, by their reactions to one another – and, more importantly, by what they don't say, by their evasions and outright lies. This is true craft, this ability to create drama and character through dialogue. And while we're on the subject of Irish authors, here are a few more I sampled.

The Things We Now Know by Catherine Dunne Macmillan, (2013) €15.99 HHHHI

Winner of the Giovanni Boccaccio International Prize for Fiction, Dunne presents a heartbreaking and sensitive subject with grace. It's not an easy emotional read, but it is a good one: Patrick's second marriage to Ella has produced Daniel, a seemingly golden boy who meets a tragic end. The aftermath reveals all fissures in the family foundation, and pushes everyone to their limits. Dunne tells the story from individual viewpoints; several of them 'sound' quite similar, which takes away somewhat from the narrative. Still, a well-deserved prize.

Screwed by Eoin Colfer Headline, (2013) €11.45 HIIII

The lauded children's book writer (of Artemis Fowl fame) has delved into the world of noir before, with 2012's Plugged. This continues the story of Dan McEvoy, an Irishman who has landed up in New Jersey and into all manner of trouble with the local Mafioso. He's still in trouble, and riotous slapsticky comedy ensues. Is comic crime a thing now, like a genre? If Colfer is constructing it himself, it is still very much a work-in-progress, as neither the comedy nor the crime satisfies.

The Herbalist by Niamh Boyce Penguin Ireland, (2013) €14.99 HHHII

This debut novel tells the tale of small-town Ireland held in thrall by a mysterious seller of cures, of an old-fashioned Ireland in which 'magic' is great if it works, but when it doesn't, well, the townfolk will sort things out. Boyce spins out several storylines that take some time working themselves out of the tangle, making for a confusing read. Once she gets them all spinning, the tale winds up to its powerful conclusion.

The Captain's Table by Muriel Bolger Hachette Books Ireland, (2013) €18.75 HHIII

Bolger has written extensively about travel, and therefore has all the details about traveling by cruise ship – so this often feels like more of a guidebook than a work of fiction. The fictional aspects are handled in a dry sort of way, with stilted conversation telling us all we need to know about the characters because they tell us so, straight out.

Coco's Secret by Niamh Greene Penguin Ireland, (2013) €7.99 HHHII

Fans of Greene's wholesome charm will know what to expect from this tale of a provincial antiques dealer whose life is turned upside down when she finds an intriguing letter in an antique Chanel handbag. Coco, so named for the famous French fashion designer, feels unequal to the name her long-dead mum bequeathed her – due to the fact that everyone is unkind about her looks. When she unearths a classic Chanel handbag in an auction lot, she embarks on a quest to return it to its owner. Yes, you've sensed a happy-ever-after ending, which isn't surprising given Greene's reputation for elegantly written escapism.

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