Debut Round-up, September and October, 2016

Posted by Sue Leonard on Wednesday 7th September 2016

Red Dirt. E.M. Reapy. Head Zeus.

Whenever I think I’ve found my debut of the year, another, even better novel comes along. And it’s happened again. Such was the originality, scope, and sheer skill evoked between the pages of this Australian based debut from Mayo born E.M, (Elizabeth,) Reapy, that I was left breathless with admiration.

Written in three linked  parts, the novel centres on Murph, Fiona and Hopper; émigrés from the Irish recession, who, determined to make a fresh start, are, nonetheless blowing all their money on drink and drugs until job hunting becomes an imperative.

They are all running for their problems. Murph wants to dissociate himself from his father, a successful Celtic Tiger builder, who crashed in massive debt and disgrace. Fiona has left behind a controlling, abusive boyfriend, and as for Hopper; he never really had a hope – with his deprived, dysfunctional background.

During a road-trip across the outback, Hopper jumps out of the car, high on acid. Murph, and his companions, two more Irishmen, fail to find him, and leave him to his fate. They rationalise their decision, but can Murph live with the guilt?

Fiona fares even worse. Stuck in a spiral of debt, she leaves herself open to danger, and her low self-esteem prevents her from seeking the justice she deserves. Will the three learn the need to face their problems, thereby gaining a sense of self-belief?

In this addictive novel, the author gets into the heads of her protagonists with such skill, that the reader can empathise with all three, and well understand even their most extreme actions. There is an energy about the writing reminiscent of The Glorious Heresies, Lisa McInerney’s multi prize winning debut from 2015. We’ll be hearing a lot more from E.M. Reapy.

Nothing On Earth. Conor O’Callaghan. Doubleday Ireland.

Conor O’Callaghan is a poet with four collections to his name. He has written a football memoir. He teaches creative writing at various universities, so it’s not surprising that his first novel is so utterly accomplished.

A young girl knocks on an elderly man’s door. She’s terrified, and says her family have disappeared. She lived in the show house of a Ghost Estate with her parents Paul and Helen, and with Helen’s sister, Martina, but she’s been abandoned; one by one, the adults have vanished.

In this strange, haunting tale, we are never sure what is real, what imagined. We never know if the girl is telling the truth. The rural post boom shenanigans feel authentic enough. And the rivalry between sisters Martina and Helen is beautifully realised. But the meshing of weird events, and the odd lifestyle of the family makes for a vivid, atmospheric read.

And what of the old man, who narrates the story the girl tells him? His voice gradually emerges as the novel progresses, but what was his role in all of this? The mystery adds to the sense of quiet terror. This disturbing novel will keep you reading, and will leave questions in your mind for days afterwards.

Wild Quiet. Roisín O’Donnell. New Island.

Contemporary Ireland has been vividly described in several short story collections in recent years. Many of the stories in Wild Quiet, the debut collection from Roisín  O’Donnell are based here, and the picture she portrays is altogether more colourful and vibrant than others I have read.

A daughter of a mixed marriage from Northern Ireland who was brought up in Sheffield, Roisín brings an outsiders view of this country. The opening story, set in Derry in the mid nineties, clearly draws on her childhood experience. Evoking that time, this story is spiked with magical realism as the child communicates with a memory-eating beast.

How to Learn Irish in Seventeen Steps is a hilarious look at a Brazilian woman, and her endeavours to learn Irish in order to teach here, and stay with her Irish husband. This premise allows the author to examine the oddities of Irish society, as seen by an outsider.

O’Donnell pushes the boundaries with stories like Titanium Heart, a hypothesis of the consequences were the steel in Sheffield to melt, and Death and the Architect, an inventive  imagining of Gaudi, and his attempts to complete La Sagrada Família.

The author is, perhaps at her best when she enters the mind of a child. How to be a Billionaire, and its ultimately tragic companion story Crushed, feature brothers Ezekial and Kingsley Obinwanye – who, although eleven months apart ended up in fourth class together, and are rivals for the same girl. The author has captured the voices of these Irish born boys brilliantly. They show such spirit. When challenged on their nationality,  they chant, ‘We’re not from Africa, we’re from the Navan Road.’

The title story, Wild Quiet, is another gem. This features a girl whose family fled the violence in Somalia. This diverse, highly enjoyable collection comes from one of Ireland’s strongest new voices.

The Difference. Justine Delaney Wilson. Hachette Ireland.

Beth and Steve live in an exclusive gated estate in North Dublin. Being Australian, Steve is an outsider, but it’s the locally born Beth who struggles to fit into the confines of suburban life.

When Ismae is born – a much wanted sister for teenage Al, the couple are delighted. Mae is beautiful. When it becomes clear that she is ‘different,’ they are confused, and struggle to cope with their new reality. Love grows, but the reactions of others accentuate the couple’s growing rift. Then Beth makes a discovery that threatens to break the family apart.

It’s not easy to write well about the issues surrounding Down Syndrome; it’s too easy to lapse into sentimentality. The author never does that. The narrative provides a perfect balance between the fears and tribulation the family encounter, and the emotions of love and pride that the child engenders.

In portraying the extended family – a nervous self obsessed mother who lives in thrall to her domineering husband, and adding the perspective of teenage Al, who so adores his little sister, Delaney Wilson has given us a convincing domestic tale with subtle realistic characterisation.

And if I felt that Beth overacted over a domestic misdemeanour, acting in a way that didn’t feel true to her character, that’s only a quibble.

I enjoyed this ultimately redemptive debut for its insights; for showing how a damaged child can push a couple apart, but also bring them together, and I enjoyed it for its sometimes lyrical writing. Above all, I liked reading a book that didn’t seem set to fit into any predetermined genre.

The Best Medicine.

Philip Wright wants to be a comedian. But things keep going wrong for him. School life is ruined by the Yeti – a hairy bully who persists in stealing his lunch money. He keeps being held back for detentions, but the worst thing of all is that Lucy, the girl he loves, appears to hate him. Can things get worse?

Life at home isn’t a whole lot better. His Mum is acting all weird. Is she going mad? When it turns out that she has breast cancer, Philip keeps it a secret. Cutting himself off from circle of friends, he broods. Looking for support, he writes letters to his hero, the comedienne Harry Hill.

This is a wonderful look at the effects of illness on a  child, and it is brimming with authenticity. The author, single parent to a son, has gone through cancer – and she wrote this novel in order to help others who share her experience, as well as to entertain.

Smart, sweet and funny – The Best Medicine will appeal to adults just as much as to the teenage market it was written for. I loved it and read it in one sitting.

Felicity Hayes – McCoy The Library at the end of the World.

Middle aged Hanna Casey had left her cheating barrister husband in London, and is living with her mother on the fictitious Finfarran Peninsular in the West of Ireland. A librarian, driving around the area in a mobile van, she’s anxious to assert a little independence now that her daughter, Jazz, is travelling the world. So she decides to restore a cottage left to her in a will.

She hires a builder, the eccentric Fury, who although he proves sound, is unconventional, to say the least.  She’s starting to settle into rural life, when the library is threatened with closure. Appalled, she heads a campaign to prevent this. This brings the small community together, but is there any way that they can beat the capitalists at their own game?

This tale is slow moving at times, but Felicity writes with a great deal of compassion and humour. She evokes the goings on and gossip in the town well, conveying the prickly relationship between Hanna and her mother Mary, and the life of Hanna’s assistant, Conor, who supplements the income he can accrue from the family farm with his library work.

The author casts a canny eye into the way the past and the future can combine for the best. The first of a planned trilogy, this story will appeal to fans of the books of Maeve Binchy and  Roisin Meaney.

Published in Books Ireland, September/October,  2016. 

© Sue Leonard. 2016. 

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