herald

Tuesday 22 August 2017

Make it a family affair

SIMON'S FEL By PR Page Matador €11.50 HHH

I heart Monica McInerney, and her big, sweeping family epics. Born in Australia, now living in Ireland, she marries her background with her current ground, geographically at least, as we go from a station in the outback to all around our island in her latest… well, big, sweeping family epic.

Every year, Angela Gillespie sends out one of those Christmassy family digest letters - the ones we used to bin when they came in the post, and now most likely delete from our in-boxes straight away.

Angela herself is aware of this, particularly as the life of the Gillespie clan is going pear-shaped all round her: her eldest twins are making respective hames of their lives; her third daughter has moved home and seems even needier than ever; her youngest, Ig, has escaped from boarding school for the third time and at 10, still has an imaginary friend; and her husband Nick, intent on researching his Irish roots, seems to be Skyping some bird called Carol at all hours.

Angela can't seem to get inspiration to gild the Gillespie lily this holiday season, so vents into an email, telling the unvarnished truth about their circumstances. Due to a family emergency, she neglects to send it. Nick, aware that she knows that he knows that she knows all is not well does her a favour and sends it.

It is, of course, a good thing that her shockingly honest - brutally honest - email gets sent round. It shakes the whole family down to their bedrock, which is happily a sturdy foundation. The climax of the woolshed holiday party sees some lovely moments from the clan - except it's not a climax. There's more - much, much more - to the point that an entirely new storyline that involves Angela's mental health is introduced very late in the proceedings.

It's a testament to McInerney's storytelling that one hangs in, wanting to know what happens, especially with Angela and Nick. The number of reversals, developments and breakthroughs feels excessive, even for a big, sweeping family epic, and the novel ended at least three times, but it was worth waiting for that much-desired denouement between the lead couple.

Despite this quibble, this is a terrific plant-yourself-in-front-of-the-fire book for a cosy weekend's reading. Also: a lovely arm-chair journey to the outback!

This family saga is set over 50 years, during the Spanish Civil War and beyond. Perched on a hilltop in Granada, Luisa and Eduardo have produced a big family, and they all live content behind the well-appointed walls of their villa. Luisa goes for wanders, thanks to her new-found freedom as a married woman, and becomes friendly with the local gypsies. Her husband, the poet of the title, is shockingly wet, always trembling and crying, but finds his courage in the midst of Spain's troubled times - with tragic results. The narrative switches between Luisa and her daughter Isabel's first-person recounting; very late in the game, Isabel's own daughter Paloma adds her voice, too. There's not much discernible difference between their voices and the whole conceit doesn't work terribly well. There is some beautiful writing, though, and a woman's perspective on that troubled time.

Politics is a wolf in sheep's clothing in this novel, which initially presents as nostalgic, Seventies, Irwin Shaw-esque epic about rich men and poor men, the haves and have-nots, about an exotic part of the world that was coming forward, finally, from its backward, tradition-bound heritage.

Set in Cyprus in 1972, the city of Famagusta was being built up along the lines of Nice and Monaco, and The Sunrise was set as the jewel in the crown of the beach resort.

In 1974, a Greek military coup inspires an invasion by the Turkish army, who were keen to protect the Turkish Cypriot minority.

All hell breaks loose, and The Sunrise is the only building left standing; everyone in Farmagusta fled, except for two families who stayed behind in the hotel - one Greek family and one Turkish.

This division of cultures is, of course, the point of the narrative, but it becomes such a workmanlike device that the fiction falters.

The division between the exposition of the history and the creative fiction is almost as abrupt as the division between the two cultures on the one island, making for a dry read.

Nothing like a post-traumatic, get-your-life-together novel, that also features a charming derelict cottage in Devon! Felicity's abusive husband is dead and she does the thing where she shakes off all the trappings of her previous life and heads out into the unknown. Independently wealthy, the purchase of said charming derelict cottage goes off without a hitch - except insofar as she is challenged by Simon, whose antagonistic behaviour soon turns into something else quite entirely. You won' t find many narrative shocks along the way, and it takes some getting into, but otherwise, this was thoroughly enjoyable.

India as a concept is a little bit overwhelming for me, although it appeals on many levels, not least the spiritual aspects of visiting some of the sacred places. Much writing about India tends to be overwhelming as well, so this short eBook was an absolute pleasure. Tisdale accompanied a gay pal (there are all sorts of families these days, happily) on part of his pilgrimage of the four most revered places of the Buddha Shakyamuni, a chaotic and invigorating undertaking. Her voice calmly recounts the chaos, and the beauty, too, and it's a satisfying comprehensive read, despite its compact length.

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