Debut Roundup for Books Ireland. March and April 2019.

Posted by Sue Leonard on Wednesday 26th June 2019

The Failing Heart by Eoghan Smith. Dedalus. 

This strangely mesmeric tale opens in the aftermath of a death. A graduate student has secreted himself away from his friends and family, intent on completing his overdue dissertation. He’s stripped his life to the basics, and lives in fear of his landlord, who keeps appearing, asking for his dues. He rarely ventures out, because he sees danger around every corner.

The novel then dips back to the death. The narrator, his sister and his father sit around the kitchen table, waiting to be served breakfast. When it finally occurs to the siblings that their mother is not going to appear, that she has, in fact, died in the night, this wonderful debut dissolves into an utterly original form of dark humour.

Grief takes the trio in different directions. The narrator turns to poetry, whilst his father’s anger turns violent. And his sister? She uses indiscriminate sex to dull the pain, her speciality being fellatio.

The narrator has been urged to isolate himself, in order to ponder the all-important question, and this suits him because he’s fallen out with his father. His pregnant girlfriend, Traudal, has left him for another, and his only friend, a depressive, has turned to bird-watching to find solace.

Back in the basement flat, all is decay. He’s clearly depressed, and his mood falls further when Virginia, the goldfish he brought with him for company, leaps out of her bowl in a clear act of suicide. And what is the provenance of that mysterious, deadly smell?

I was subsumed into this novel, living rather uncomfortably in the student’s melancholic mind. Failing to identify the question, let alone come up with an answer for his dissertation, he shambles around town, fearing the very air. At his lowest point, he spends a night or two on an island in the middle of a parkland pond. Then a tragedy brings him up short, Will he manage to turn his life around?

A professor at Carlow College, the author has penned a book on the works of John Banville, and like his hero, Eoghan Smith is a stylist, and the lyricism of this narrative lifts the general air of gloom. I loved it!


Marina by Aoibheann McCann. Words on the Street 

Life hasn’t been easy for Marina. Orphaned as a young child; brought up by an uncle and the schoolteacher he married, she’s never felt that she belonged in life. As the novel opens, Marina is seeing a psychiatrist. As he analyses her, trying to decide what condition brought her to her current state, she takes us back through her life.

Friendless, except for her uncle’s boy, Jamie, Marina’s only solace comes from playing music. And when, having pushed Jamie away, she excels at music college in London, it seems that her problems are over. She befriends her roommate, and falls under fellow student Jules’s spell – can she now live happily?

The following section, when Jules destroys his girlfriend’s equilibrium, with what seems like a campaign of insidious abuse is wonderfully handled. Jules is a monster! He shows his worst side when he attends Marina’s sister’s wedding, in a scene that plays out with humourous predictability.

This haunting, meditative tale explores the concept of past and future lives. Convinced that she was once a seahorse, Marina yearns to be ‘back’ at the bottom of the sea. Is Marina mentally disturbed as her doctor’s believe? Or is her condition the natural consequence of a life spent with an utter lack of power?


When All is Said by Anne Griffin. Sceptre.

Maurice Hannigan sits in a bar ruminating. A native of county Meath, from humble beginnings, the old man came up in the world, and became a businessman to reckon with. But now, thinking back, he’s aware that he’s not always been good to those he’s dealt with, or to those he’s loved. He raises five toasts to the people who have most touched him, and the memories come flooding back.

This debut has come with a ranch of advance praise, and its easy to see why. Beautifully written, structured into a series of closely linked short stories, it fits, loosely, into the popular new genre known as Up lit. It’s a slow read, and is contemplative rather than page turning. And in its morality, there are obvious comparisons to be made with the work of Mitch Albom.

Maurice’s childhood was a sad one. He hated school, because he failed to read or write, and he’s forced to leave early to work for a family he despises. Then the brother he hero-worships dies of TB. His business acumen saves him, but he’s driven by revenge. How can he redeem himself and put his mistakes of the past to rights?

We know, early, how the debut will end, but this doesn’t stop it from being a twisty tale. As the book progresses, the recalcitrant Maurice seems to soften with self-knowledge. The chapter dedicated to his wife, Sadie, is particularly resonant. A man of his time, he’s denied her in so many small ways.

In his final toast, to his son Kevin, an eminent journalist who he’s felt unable to understand, let alone praise, he says, ‘Feck it, son, you really pulled the short straw with me. A cranky- arsed father who can’t read for shite.’


A River in the Trees. Jacqueline O’Mahony. Riverrun.

It’s 2019 in London, and Ellen is a ghost of herself. Lost, feeling adrift, she wonders how she can take control of her life now that she’s gained weight, and can no longer fit into size eight skinny jeans. After several miscarriages, she’s recently given birth to a stillborn child. This, and the fact she carried the child, known to have fatal foetal abnormality has put a nail into the coffin of her marriage to Simon.

The novel opens as she travels to Ireland, to view a house that once belonged in her family. She’s fascinated by her ancestors who, in 1919, sheltered the rebels in the civil war, and particularly in Hannah, who fled to America with a baby fathered by the rebel leader, O’Riada.

It’s not hard to see why Ellen feels such empathy with Hannah. She, too, fled her family, and her country at 18, and, like Hannah, she’s alienated from her family. She left her great love, James, and daren’t regret it, because that would mean admitting that marrying Simon, and every decision she’s made since has been a mistake.

This debut switches between the centuries; we learn of Hannah’s bravery; of how, unlike her passive mother and self-obsessed sister, she has brains, energy and unlimited courage. These chapters are packed with action, suspense, and history.

The pace slows for Ellen. Her very awkwardness makes her unsympathetic at times, but the author injects humour into the scenes showing her apathy; and her tussles with the odious estate agent sink into rather delicious farce. But what will she learn about Hannah, and will the knowledge be of benefit to her?

This is a beautifully written debut, with some dazzling sentences. And although the structure feels clunky at times, to the main it successfully spans the generations.

© Sue Leonard. 2019.

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