CHRISTMAS READING: BOOK REVIEWS by JOHN HAGAN
Written by John Hagan
Tuesday, 13 September 2016 00:00
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THE SHARDY SHAMROCK
by EAMON MURRAY

As a student, one of my favourite authors was Richard Amour who was responsible for such literary gems as ‘Hamlet’, and ‘Macbeth’. And here’s you thinking that William Shakespeare wrote them! Well, of course he did, it’s just that Amour somewhat altered, embellished and satirized the historical constructs of the Bard’s handiwork. I was again reminded of Amour’s humorous approach while reading Eamon Murray’s, The Shardy Shamrock.

 

In this, Murray’s first novel, we follow the exploits of hero, Coup Halloran, as he, and his followers, attempt to rescue the parts of the magic silver shamrock which have been dispersed far and wide by the evil, tyrannical, Oliver Crummywell. If only Halloran can restore the three leafs and the stem of the shamrock, good may again prevail over evil. It is a quest which not only involves Halloran in some serious time travel, but also leads him on an intricate, and fantastical journey to search for the shamrock shards in Ireland, Scotland, America and Australia. Halloran is a veritable Doctor Who without the Tardis. Embodied in this humorous and zany novel are struggles between good and evil, freedom and tyranny, the oppressed and the oppressor. I especially liked Halloran’s sojourn on Craggy Island, where he locked horns with the scheming Father Ted, and his over attentive, masterchef, Mrs. Doyle. This is a novel full of comedic and engrossing characters and situations, not to mention a plethora of ‘feel-good’ outcomes. For someone who enjoys history, whimsy and a good belly laugh, this could be an appropriate stocking filler.

Author, Eamon Murray, who was born in the Andersonstown district of Belfast but now lives in Perth, was inspired to write The Shardy Shamrock thanks to the rescue of the Fenians from Fremantle by the legendary ship ‘Catalpa’.

The Shardy Shamrock, published by Austin Macauley, is available from Internet  $23.95

 

THE GOOD PEOPLE
by HANNAH KENT

It’s Ireland in 1825. Norah Leahy lives in the remote River Flesk valley in Killarney and has just lost her husband and daughter during the previous twelve months. She is now caring for her four year old grandson, Micheal, who cannot walk or speak, and Norah, sensitive to the gossips in the valley, has tried to keep the child hidden. Despite her efforts, rumour is that Michael is ‘a changeling’ – born of fairy stock – and is deemed responsible for the ill-luck which increasingly affects the valley. Norah hires fourteen year old Mary to help her cope with Micheal, and work on her smallholding. Living nearby, is old Nance Roche who is said to possess the knowledge of ‘the Good People’, enabling her to use the plants and berries of the woodland to heal community ills. But is Nance a bean feasta (wise woman) or a cailleach (witch)? The new local priest, Father Healy, believes her to be the latter, denounces her from the pulpit and condemns her folkloric influences and superstitious practices.  His opinion, however, does not deter Norah seeking Nance’s help to find a cure for Micheal. With an increasingly reluctant  Mary in tow, Norah embarks on a final desperate venture to ‘drive the fairy’ out of Micheal, and be reunited with her ‘true’ grandson.

The Good People is a wonderfully detailed and descriptive book, full of evocative, rich, eloquent prose which faithfully captures the privations and beliefs of life in early nineteenth century Ireland. Not only has Australian author, Hannah Kent, extensively researched and presented a profound literary novel in crisp, emotive, language, she has also faithfully captured the cadences, idioms, expressions and lilt of the Irish language. I was deeply affected by her thoughtful, expressive prose and sensitive observations, as she launched me into an intense, emotional, roller-coaster ride. While Kent’s tale is a work of fiction, it is based on true events, with characters presented in seemingly effortless detail as engaging, complex and complete. There is no room for disbelief as their lives are insightfully described and their fates sealed. I am now, thanks to Kent’s research, more aware, and appreciative, of the part plants and herbal cures played in rural Irish life, together with the beliefs abroad in early nineteenth century Ireland. I can’t help feeling that in many instances the ‘cure’ seemed worse than the affliction. Terrifying, thrilling and moving, The Good People is an absorbing, highly recommended read, and a seminal follow up to Kent’s previous international best seller, Burial Rites.

The Good People, published by Picador Australia. $ 32.99

NINE FOLDS MAKE A PAPER SWAN

by RUTH GILLIGAN

One of the most captivating, and perhaps least heralded, of Ireland’s many fine museums must be the Irish Jewish Museum. Situated in an unassuming red-brick terrace on Dublin’s Walworth Road, I first visited this ‘little Jerusalem’ in 1990, and was immediately intrigued to learn of the contribution Jews made to Irish history and culture. In our rich literary tradition, the most famous Jew was undoubtly Leopold Bloom, whose day long meanderings continue to bask in international acclaim. In this, her fourth book, Irish author, Ruth Gilligan, also focuses on Jews in Ireland, but does so over a much longer time span than that of our redoubtable Ulyssean hero.

Gilligan deftly, and elegantly, weaves together three narratives which span the twentieth century. The first focuses on the Goldberg family who, fleeing from Lithuania in 1901, accidently leave their ship in Cork, believing they have arrived in New York. We follow the fortunes of Ruth, the second of Moshe Goldberg’s two daughters, as she and the family attempt to settle down in their new environment. Ruth enthusiastically tries to adapt to Irish life and customs, but despite her best efforts she is never quite allowed to feel ‘at home’, either in the Irish community or amongst her fellow Cork Jews.

The second storyline, set in the 1950s, features 18 year old Shem, who has been speechless since he was 12, following his disastrous bar mitzvah. Committed to an Irish asylum by his father because of his silence, Shem is called upon to surreptitiously record the memoirs of the elderly, Alf, another Jew, who lost his legs during the war. Shem’s narrative is perhaps the most absorbing of the three as he rails against the outrageous visiting psychologist, the institution, and the nuns who run it, in an attempt to again be reunited with his beloved mother, who is about to abandon him.

The third cadenza introduces Aisling, a present day Irish immigrant to London. Here she works as an obituary writer for a newspaper, and faces the dilemma of whether or not to convert from Catholicism to Judaism in order to marry her partner, banker and amateur magician, Noah. Just how great a part, if any, does religion play in her life, and how much is Aisling willing to change? Despite being fascinated by the Jewish religion and traditions, Aisling remains somewhat satisfied, and comforted, by her own Catholic rituals.

This is an ambitious and enjoyable (I laughed out loud at Shem’s observations of the Irish) novel with several themes linking the voices of the three characters. All are struggling to find their place in the world, and each of them is searching for their own identity, fulfillment and cultural belonging. Gilligan demonstrates a fine grasp of Jewish tradition and beliefs and assuredly addresses the difficulties of migrants adapting to a new sense of place. Gilligan is a fresh, new, inventive voice in Irish literature and I look forward to her next novel.

Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan is published by Atlantic Books. $29.99

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 13 September 2016 02:28 )